BOCCONI DI STORIA: Il valoroso orso soldato

🇮🇹 Per la versione italiana clicca qui.

In June 1941, Hitler broke the non-aggression pact with Stalin and attacked the USSR in the so-called “Operation Barbarossa”. After Barbarossa, the Allies took advantage of the situation to bring the Soviet Union over to their side. The exiled Polish government then demanded the release of the Polish citizens and soldiers imprisoned by the Soviet forces in the combined attack with the Germans in 1939. Thus, 40,000 soldiers and 26,000 civilians were freed but found themselves in the vast steppes of Central Asia.

The Polish troops, not to fight alongside the hated Soviets, decided to join the British army in Palestine and face a long march through the Zagros mountains (a mountain range separating Iraq and Iran). Here an unusual encounter took place: the Polish soldiers came across a Kurdish boy carrying a bear cub, whose mother had probably been killed by hunters. The cub was in poor condition, which prompted great sympathy from the soldiers who had spent the previous two years as prisoners. They decided to adopt it, named it Wojtek and fed it with fruit, honey, syrup and milk from a vodka bottle.

Wojciech Narebski, the commanding officer of the Polish forces, understood how important Wojtek was to the troops’ morale and agreed to let him stay with the soldiers when they arrived in Palestine. The bear integrated perfectly into the camp, learning to march on two legs and salute. The soldiers fought with him, fed him and sometimes gave him beer and cigarettes, which he promptly swallowed.

In 1944 troops from the 22nd Transport Company of the Polish 2nd Army Corps were summoned to Italy. Unfortunately, the British Navy did not allow animals on board military ships. Therefore, the Polish soldiers officially enlisted Wojtek the bear with proper documentation, rank (private), pay, uniform and tent, and secretly put him on a ship to Italy. During the battles that took place at Cassino, in the fourth offensive that broke out in the night between the 11th and the 12th of May 1944, the Poles were in the front line.

Wojtek proved to be an unbeatable help, carrying crates of artillery ammunition from the trucks to the batteries. This job would have required at least 4 or 5 men. As a reward for his services, Wojtek was promoted to the rank of corporal, and the 22nd Company adopted a bear carrying an artillery charge as its new coat of arms.

In 1947 the Edinburgh Zoo offered to take Wojtek in, and, at the age of five, he retired with the honorary rank of lieutenant. His comrades-in-arms continued to visit him over the years, bringing him cigarettes and beer and sneaking into the enclosure to play with him until he died in 1963.

For us Italians, Wojtek’s adventures have a special significance. They were among the wartime exploits that created a strong bond between our nation and Poland. A statue of the brave bear soldier has been erected in Imola, which was liberated by the Second Polish Army Corps.


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