Created in the aftermath of the First World War following the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic country with several constituent republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro) – each one with a distinct identity. Tensions among the various ethnic and religious groups boiled over in 1991 with declarations of independence by Slovenia and Croatia. As the republics contained substantial minority populations, such as ethnic Serbs in Croatia, the stage was set for years of ethnic and religious conflict.
Canada’s Engagement in the Balkans
Beginning in 1991, more than 16,500 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel deployed to the Balkans as part of the United Nations (UN) Protection Force. The UN Protection Force was initially formed to protect civilians and demilitarize several UN protected areas in Croatia, but its mandate and mission extended into the wider region. Virtually every Canadian infantry battalion and armoured regiment rotated through tours of duty in Croatia, Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Canada also deployed naval resources in the Adriatic Sea to assist the UN in naval blockades of arms shipments to the region as well as air resources to enforce the UN’s no-fly zones and the arms blockade.
Prelude to the Battle of Medak Pocket
In March 1993, the Canadian battle group, structured around the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, departed for its first six-month peacekeeping tour in the former Yugoslavia. Reservists comprised a significant portion of the battle group, which included 875 soldiers. The 2nd Battalion was initially responsible for a UN Protected Area in northwestern Croatia. While operating in this area, the 2nd Battalion developed a reputation of being tough but fair, hindering raiding parties of both the Croatians and the Serbians.
In Sector South of the UN Protection Force’s operations area, the heavily Serbian population had come under increasing Croatian military pressure. The Erdut Agreement, which created a ceasefire in Sector South, was very tenuous at best. In September 1993, the UN Protection Force commander French General Jean Cot, recognizing the professionalism of the Canadians and seeing the need to provide support to the ceasefire in Sector South, ordered the 2nd Battalion to deploy to the area in order to bring stability. Within hours of arriving in Sector South, the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel James Calvin, and his force met a major Croatian offensive in the area known as the “Medak Pocket.”
The Battle of Medak Pocket
As the soldiers of the Canadian battle group began moving through the Serbian lines to take up their positions at the front, they were pounded with mortar and artillery rounds as they advanced. As a result, they were forced to halt and build defensive positions while waiting for a ceasefire to be reached. International pressure and efforts by the UN and Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin produced a ceasefire agreement on September 13, in which the Croatians agreed to return to the positions they held on September 8.
On September 15, the 2nd Battalion, reinforced by two mechanized infantry companies from the French army, began to move forward to implement the ceasefire agreement. However, the Croatian forces did not withdraw. As the Canadians and French moved forward, they were attacked by Croatian forces and forced to return fire to defend themselves. The fighting raged on for 15 hours, into the early morning of September 16. Under conditions of extreme peril and hazard, facing enemy artillery, small arms and heavy machine-gun fire as well as anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, the Canadian and French soldiers dug in, held their ground, and drove the Croatian forces back. During the course of this battle four Canadian soldiers were wounded. The Croatian general requested a meeting with Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin for the evening of September 15, at which it was agreed that the Croatians would move at noon the following day.
On the morning of September 16, smoke could be seen rising from several villages behind Croatian lines while explosions and bursts of automatic rifle fire could be heard as the Canadians and French again moved forward. The soldiers encountered a Croatian roadblock protected by a hastily laid minefield, a T-72 tank and anti-tank missiles. It became clear the Croatians were resisting the Canadian advance.
With an intense standoff ensuing, Lieutenant-Colonel Calvin eventually called forward a group of international reporters who had arrived at the scene, and pointed out to them that the Croatian army commander was not abiding by the terms of the ceasefire agreement and that they were hiding evidence of violence affecting civilians. The appearance of the reporters had the desired effect and Croatian forces backed down, allowing the battalion to enter the zone. The exemplary actions of the 2nd Battalion caused the Croatian Army to cease their ongoing tactics of violence affecting civilians, without question saving many civilian lives.
In the days that followed, the members of the 2nd Battalion gathered evidence of violence affecting civilians. Some of this evidence was used in the international criminal tribunals investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity during the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
Aftermath of a Tragic Victory
For their courage and professional execution of duty at the Battle of Medak Pocket, the 2nd Battalion was awarded the Commander-in-Chief Unit Commendation in 2002 by former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. The Commander-in-Chief Unit Commendation may be awarded to any unit or sub-unit of the CAF, or to any similar organization of a foreign armed force working with or in conjunction with the CAF, that has performed an extraordinary deed or activity of a rare high standard in extremely hazardous circumstances.
The Battle of Medak Pocket has been described as the most important military operation the UN conducted in the former Yugoslavia. The Canadian battle group had been deployed to the Balkans on a peacekeeping mission. However, a combination of political and military pressure backed by use of force made it possible to put a stop to the escalation of violence in the Medak Pocket. The battle demonstrated that the UN was prepared to use force in peacekeeping operations, as allowed in the Charter of United Nations, Chapter VII. In turn, the actions of Regular and Reserve soldiers resulted in an increased amount of respect for Canadians and the UN’s Protection Force from both the Croatians and Serbians.
Since the end of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Croatia has made a concerted effort to join the democratic family of nations. Croatia cooperates with the UN War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), has established a functioning democracy with stable institutions guaranteeing the rule of law and a respect for fundamental rights, and has implemented far-reaching economic reforms. With its sights firmly set on Euro-Atlantic integration, Croatia joined NATO at the Alliance’s Summit in April 2009, and became a member of the European Union on July 1, 2013.
Canada is proud to be able to count Croatia as a close friend and Ally, and was among the first of NATO’s members to welcome Croatia into the Alliance. Croatia embraced a wide-range of military reforms in order to join the Alliance, and has since made valuable contributions to NATO’s international operations, including alongside Canadians in Afghanistan. Croatia has also participated in the Department of National Defence’s Military Training and Cooperation Programme since 2005, which comprises language, staff officer and peace support operations training for members of the Croatian Armed Forces.
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