The Iranian soldier-bear of Monte Cassino
August 8, 2005
After the Battle of Monte Cassino, one of the fiercest and bloodiest
conflicts of the Second World War, many accounts emerged of the
bravery and heroism of the soldiers. But perhaps the strangest
story of all was of an Iranian brown bear who served alongside
the allied soldiers in the worst heat of the battle. Despite the
incessant bombardment and constant gunfire, the bear carried vital
supplies of ammunition and food to his fellow-soldiers fighting
on the mountainside. Many observers who witnessed his remarkable
actions doubted the reality of what they were seeing. But the story
was no legend.
At the time of his death in 1964, he was the most famous bear
in the world, visited by countless celebrities and adored by the
international press. Books and articles were written about him,
statues and plaques commemorated his actions. To the men of the
22nd Transport Company (Artillery Supply) however, he was merely “Voytek” a
remarkable fellow soldier, and their beloved comrade.
He was born in the mountains of Hamadan, in one of the many caves
to be found in that dusty mountainous area. At the age of eight
weeks his mother was killed by a group of hunters, but he was rescued
by a young Iranian boy who thrust him into a hempen sack and set
off with him homeward along a narrow dusty path.
Iran at that time was going through one of the unhappier periods
of her history. Occupied by the Russians and the British, her relations
with the soldiers of those two countries were understandably tense
and strained. In April 1942, however, Iran opened its arms to receive
hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens (men, women and children)
who had been released from the Soviet labour camps of Siberia and
Kazakhstan. Having arrived at the port of Pahlavi (now Bandar-e
Anzali), they were suffering from various diseases, including malnutrition,
and had to be rested in the vast tented city hastily built for
them on the shores of the Caspian. When they were well enough to
travel, however, they were taken to more substantial military and
civilian resettlement camps all over Iran.
Most of the civilians (women and children) were destined to remain
as guests of Iran for up to three years. But the able-bodied men
were almost immediately sent westwards to join the Polish forces
in Lebanon. A long stream of covered trucks left Anzali daily carrying
the future soldiers along the narrow twisted roads via Qazvin,
Hamadan and Kermanshah to the borders of Iraq and beyond.
It was on one of the narrow mountain roads somewhere between
Hamadan and Kangavar, that the trucks were brought to an abrupt
halt by the sight of a small Iranian boy carrying a bulky sack.
He looked tired and hungry, so the men offered him a billy-can
of meat. And as he ate, they gasped in astonishment as the sack
beside him began to move and the head of a honey-coloured bear
cub emerged sleepily into the sunlight.
Although none of the men could understand Farsi, the boy was
able to indicate by his actions that he had found the bear cub
whimpering outside one of the caves, its mother having been shot
by a hunter. The orphaned cub was in poor condition and it was
almost certain he would not survive the day. One of the men, therefore,
offered to buy the orphaned cub for a few toumans. Someone else
fumbled for a bar of chocolate and a tin of corned beef to give
him. Another took from his pocket an army penknife that opened
up like a flower. The boy smiled, pocketed the offerings and disappeared
forever from their lives.
A feeding bottle had to be hastily improvised from an empty bottle
of vodka into which a handkerchief had been stuffed to serve as
a teat. They filled it with condensed milk, diluted it with a little
water, and gave it to the little bear to drink. When he had finished
it, he crept up close to one of the soldiers for warmth and fell
asleep on his chest. The soldier’s name was Piotr (Peter)
and he became forever afterward, the bear’s closest and most
The cub clung desperately to his substitute mother all through
the tortured journey across Persia, Iraq and Jordan, along vast
distances that seemed to loose heart and succumb to the despair
of barrenness. Sometimes the man would lock the bear in the warmth
of his greatcoat so that it became part of him. In the evenings,
as he sat with the other men around the fire telling tales late
into the night, the bear cub would be rocked to sleep in the sound
of his immense laughter. In time, the orphan lost himself in the
lives of these strangers and entangled himself completely in the
rhythms and cadences of their speech. From that time onwards he
became wholly theirs: body, will and soul.
In this way, Voytek the Iranian brown bear from Hamadan entered
the lives of the soldiers of the Second Polish Army Corps, transforming
all their destinies.
In the months that followed, he won over the hearts of all who
met him. The soldiers, who had all endured the horrors and hardships
of Siberia, needed something in their lives to love, and the presence
of Voytek was a wonderful tonic for their morale. Despite his brute
strength, which grew day by day, he was always an amiable and a
gentle giant. The soldiers treated him from the start as one of
their own company and never as a pet. They shared their food with
him, allowed him to sleep in their tents at night and included
him in all their activities.
If the unit was ordered to march out,
he would march with them on two legs like a soldier. When they
were being transported to some distant location, he would ride
in the front seat of the jeeps (or transport wagons) to the great
amazement of passers-by. More than anything, however, he loved
to wrestle with the soldiers, taking on three or four of them
at a time. Sometimes he was even gracious enough to allow them
courtesy of winning. Over the next few years, he shared all their
fortunes, and went with them wherever they were posted throughout
the Middle East. He grew to be almost six feet tall and weighed
In early 1944, the men of Voytek’s unit were ordered embark
for Italy to join the Allied advance on Rome. The British authorities
gave strict instructions that no animals were to accompany them.
The Poles therefore enrolled Voytek into the army as a rank-and-file
member of their company and duly waved the relevant papers in front
of the British officers on the dockside at Alexandria. Faced with
such impeccable credentials, the British shrugged their shoulders
and waved the bear aboard. In this way, Voytek the Iranian bear
became an enlisted soldier in the 22nd Transport Division (Artillery
Supply) of the Polish 2nd Army Corps.
Monte Cassino was the strategic key to the allied advance on
Rome. Three bloody attempts by the British, Americans, Indians,
French and New Zealanders to dislodge the enemy from the famous
hill-top monastery had failed. In April 1944, the Polish forces
were sent in. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Much
of the fighting was at close quarters. The shelling, which continued
night and day without interval, scarred and cratered the landscape
until it resembled the pock-marked surface of the moon.
During the most crucial phase of the battle, when pockets of
men were cut off on the mountainside desperately in need of supplies,
Voytek, who all this time had been watching his comrades frantically
loading heavy boxes of ammunition, came over to the trucks, stood
on his hind legs in front of the supervising officer and stretched
out his paws toward him. It was as if he was saying: “I can
do this. Let me help you”. The officer handed the animal
the heavy box and watched in wonder as Voytek loaded it effortlessly
onto the truck.
Backwards and forwards he continued, time and time
again, carrying heavy shells, artillery boxes and food sacks from
truck to truck, from one waiting man to another, effortlessly.
The deafening noise of the explosions and gunfire did not seem
to worry him. Each artillery box held four 23 lbs live shells;
some even weighed more than a hundred. He never dropped a single
one. And still he went on repeatedly, all day and every day until
the monastery was finally taken.
One of the soldiers happened to
sketch a picture of Voytek carrying a large artillery shell in
his arms, and this image became the symbol of the 22nd artillery
transport, worn proudly on the sleeves of their uniforms ever afterwards
and emblazoned on all the unit’s vehicles.
Now famous, he completed his tour of duty in Italy and when the
war was over, he sailed the Polish Army to exile in Scotland. Here,
once again, he found himself a celebrity. In Glasgow, people lined
the streets in their thousands to catch sight of the famous soldier-bear
marching upright in step with his comrades.
Voytek’s last days, however, were steeped in sadness. In
1947, the Polish army in Scotland was demobilized and a home had
to be found for him to live out his retirement.
Although he was world-famous, the bear of Monte Cassino was forced
to spent his last years behind bars in Edinburgh’s Zoological
gardens. Artists came to sketch him and sculptors to make statues
of him. Sometimes his old army friends arrived to visit him, leaping
over the barriers to wrestle and play with him in the bear enclosure
(to the utter horror of all the visitors and zoo officials). But
he did not take well to captivity, and as the years passed, he
increasingly preferred to stay indoors, refusing to meet anyone.
I was lucky enough to see him just before his death in 1963.
He was sitting at the back of his large enclosure, silent and immobile.
It was said that he was sulking, angry at being abandoned by those
he had loved. Others said he was merely showing the symptoms of
old age. None of the shouts from his assembled visitors seemed
to catch his attention. But when I called out to him in Polish,
something seemed to stir in him at last, and he turned his head
towards me as if in recognition.
He died in Edinburgh at the age of 22 on 15th November 1963.
A plaque was erected in his memory by the zoo authorities. Statues
of him were placed in the Imperial War Museum in London and in
the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. But although he had entered
the pages of military history, the Iranian soldier-bear of Monte
Cassino would have preferred to remain in the company of the soldiers
with whom he had shared five years of war and countless memories
of devoted companionship.