THE MEDAK POCKET *
Lee A. Windsor - Former Assistant Programme Coordinator-
Conference of Defence Associations Institute
A soldier must have confidence in his own, his section and
platoon and higher=s ability to
apply deadly force and protect itself. Only when they posses that high level
of confidence born from skill at arms will they be able to apply that deadly
force calmly and with absolute precision@
Colonel James Calvin, 1998
For many Canadians, Somalia has become a symbol of their armed forces in
the 1990's. The 1997 Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the
Deployment of the Canadian Forces to Somalia claimed that during
Operation Deliverance Asystems broke
down and organizational discipline crumbled....@
in the Canadian Airborne Battlegroup, and that Aplanning,
training, and overall preparations fell far short of what was required.@
The report passes this assessment on to all the men and women of the Canadian
Forces. AWe can only hope that
Somalia represents the nadir of the fortunes of the Canadian Forces. There
seems to be little room to slide lower.@
Public bombardment with popular media with images of Shidane Arone=s
beaten body and senior officers testifying before the ASomalia
Inquiry@, coupled with official
condemnation from the Commissioners has reshaped the opinion of a generation.
The commissioners arrived at their harsh assessment after examining a
series of specific negative incidents on an otherwise successful mission. The
message conveyed to the public by the Somalia commissioners is clear. The
Canadian Forces of the 1990's are poorly trained, incompetently led, badly
equipped and full of barbarians and racists. It seemed obvious that without
immediate and radical government intervention the institution would decay to
the point of absolute ineffectiveness. This message became embedded in
Canadian popular culture in the 1990's.
The story of the Somalia Asignificant
incident@ and subsequent coverup by
senior officers and bureaucrats is not reflective of the Canadian Forces as a
whole. Indeed, the key to understanding this nation=s
military experience in the 1990's lies in the Former Yugoslavia. Since 1992,
Canadian soldiers, sailors, and aircrew have been working to restore peace to
that region. They have acted as peacekeepers, negotiators, aid workers, and
quite often they were forced to be soldiers. On the whole, the story of Canada
in the Balkans is one of professionalism, skill, and achievement. This paper
will explore a specific example intended as a counter-balance to Somalia.
Events in the Medak Pocket of Croatia took place only short months after the
Airborne Battlegroup returned from Africa.
In mid-September 1993 United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) soldiers
from 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia=s
Canadian Light Infantry advanced into the disputed Medak Pocket with orders to
implement the latest cease-fire between Croatian Army troops and Serb
irregular forces. They were reinforced with two mechanized companies of French
troops. The Canadians, well schooled in the delicate art of Apeacekeeping@,
discovered that their negotiation skills were not immediately required there.
Instead they found themselves back in their primary war-fighting role when
Croatian Army units opened fire with machine-guns, mortars and artillery in an
effort to stop the Canadian advance. To complete their assigned mission the
Patricia=s were required to threaten
the use of, and ultimately use deadly force against the Croatian Army.
However, the true test of military professionalism and discipline came after
the smoke cleared, the Croatians backed down and the Canadians immediately
reverted back to their role as impartial peacekeepers in their dealings with
individuals that minutes before had attempted to kill them.
Resolute Canadian and French action came at a time when the UN reputation
in Croatia was at a low ebb due to repeated failures to successfully secure
the infamous United Nations Protected Areas (UNPA=s).
Colonel George Oehring, commander of UNPROFOR Sector South claims Athis
unit won for the whole mission a credibility and respect that will be long
remebered by the opposing parties and much facilitate our future efforts here.@
For their efforts, 2PPCLI was awarded a United Nations Force Commander=s
Commendation from French General Cot, the first of its kind of one of only
three awarded in UNPROFOR=s history.
This paper will examine events that led to open combat between units of the
Croatian army and a reinforced Canadian battlegroup. Who exactly were the
warring parties in this part of the Balkans? What were their intentions? How
was the United Nations attempting to resolve the dispute? What was the mandate
of UN Peacekeeping Forces, including Canadians, in this region? Why were
Canadian troops selected to move into the most hotly disputed sector in
Croatia and how did they come to find themselves shooting it out with the
Croatian regular army? These questions will be explored here.
Most would agree that knowledge of these matters is essential to
appreciating the significance of Canadian operations in the Medak Pocket.
However, many of us believe we already possess that knowledge based on western
media coverage of the breakup of Yugoslavia. This becomes problematic when we
consider how badly the popular press has and continues to mis-interpret events
in the Balkans. The result is that popular assumptions on the cause and course
of the Yugoslav crisis are either inaccurate or in some cases, complete myth.
Examples of mistaken impressions include the notion that Serbia is the obvious
villain and that Yugoslavia's troubles are the result of violent Serbian
expansionism. Another common myth is that ethnic tensions in the region
simmered for centuries and that the wars and genocide campaigns of the early
1990's were inevitable and unstoppable. These faulty assumptions arise from an
over-simplification of complex problems, flavoured with bias towards one side
or another depending on the location of the field reporters. Also at work is
an attempt to justify the unwillingness in the international community to
intervene effectively until hundreds of thousands were already dead.
Shedding light on western misconceptions of the Yugoslav wars will thus be
a fringe benefit of our study of the Medak Pocket. Indeed one of the
significant Canadian achievements during the operation was to catch Croatian
forces in the act of ethnic cleansing. The Princess Patricia's uncovered the
first substantial evidence that Serbs were not the only party guilty of this
war crime, shattering the image of the Yugoslav wars as a simple struggle of
good versus evil.
A Federation Divided
Until the early 1990's Yugoslavia was a federation of regions not unlike
Canada and the United States. This union consisted of six republics including
Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.
Contrary to the fashionable view, the six republics are quite similar in
language, culture and custom. In spite of the presence of ultra-nationalist
movements in each republic, the Yugoslav federation existed harmoniously
earning international acclaim as well as the privilege of hosting the world at
the 1984 Winter Olympics.
The collapse of centralized communist authority in the late 1980's brought
the nationalists in each republic, out of the fringes and into the mainstream.
To strengthen their support, nationalist leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic in
Serbia and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia, manipulated history to make their
supporters fear fellow Yugoslavs in the other republics. Each rose to power in
their respective republic by destroying the carefully constructed Yugoslav
identity in favour of a new nationhood based on blood and religion.
Serbia, being the most powerful of the six republics, attempted to take
control over the crumbling federation. This did not appeal to the growing
nationalist movements in Croatia and Slovenia resulting in declarations of
independence in 1991, followed closely by a similar move in Bosnia. Croatia
and Bosnia each contain large numbers of ethnic Serbs, hostile to the breakup
of the federation. Croatian and Bosnian Serbs established paramilitary forces
to resist their respective new governments leading to two distinctly separate
During the opening months of these wars, the Yugoslav National Army (JNA),
on orders from Belgrade, openly intervened to prevent the breakup of the
federation. JNA involvement usually meant assisting Serb militias in Croatia
and Bosnia. However, the regular army was a mirror of the old federation and
thus suffering from the same problems of divided loyalties. Non-Serb officers
and senior NCO's left the JNA to join the new national armies of their home
This exodus destroyed the professional cohesion of the JNA, thus
eliminating the only professional force in Yugoslavia capable of conducting
modern military operations. With no army left to implement its goals and an
economy on the verge of collapse, Serbia gradually withdrew from the conflicts
in Croatia and Bosnia, leaving Serb minorities there to fend for themselves
against the newly created Bosnian and Croatian armies. Serb militias acquired
weapons, vehicles, and even volunteers from the JNA as it withdrew, while the
newly created Croatian and Bosnian armies received equipment from outside
sources like Germany and the United States. However, equipment alone does not
build an army. It would take years before the various militias and armed gangs
would coalesce into professional military forces.
This meant for most of the period between 1992-95, the Yugoslav wars were
waged by amateurs. Rival militias fired their weapons in the vicinity of the
opposing side, more often than not, intent on killing civilians. When the JNA
was removed from the equation, they took with them the normal codes of conduct
held by professional military officers. The result was to create a pattern of
combat where military casualties were few. The new armies did not know how to
kill other soldiers properly. Unprotected civilians were a different matter,
however. The Serbs in Bosnia sought to kill all the Muslims and Croats in
their area, or at least drive them into refugee camps somewhere else.
Likewise, the Croatians were looking to kill or otherwise evict all the ethnic
Serbs living in their newly independent nation. The objectives in this war
were not to defeat the opponents combat power but to kill their families so
the soldiers would have no home to return to.
In Go The Blue Berets
Into this storm went the United Nations Protection Force in 1992, first
into Croatia and later into Bosnia. In Croatia, the UN brokered a cease-fire
between the new Croatian government in Zagreb and the Serbs minority which
sought independence from the new state. The peace agreement included the
establishment of a UN patrolled buffer zone in the traditional peacekeeping
pattern under Chapter 6 of the UN charter. Both parties welcomed the cease
fire as an opportunity to build their military capabilities until such time as
victory could be assured.
This brings us to the Medak Pocket in 1993. At this point in the war
weapons are pouring into Croatia from the Germans and Americans who view
Croatia as the underdog in a struggle with Serbia proper. By September, 1993
Croatia is ready for a limited demonstration of its new military muscle.
That demonstration came in the form of an attack on a Serb salient in the
frontline in UN Sector South known as the Medak Pocket. The assault was
delivered by a Croatian infantry brigade supported by armour and a large
concentration of mortars and artillery. The 9 September attack surprised Serb
militiamen, and made good progress, closing off the salient and straightening
the front. After two days though, Serb reinforcements arrived from other parts
of the country bringing the Croatian advance to a halt. After the Serbs fire
several Frog-7 missiles into Zagreb, the Croatian Army is ready for a new
cease fire and to withdraw to their 9 September start line. The withdrawal
would be overseen by UN peacekeeping forces in the form of a Canadian
mechanized infantry battlegroup reinforced by two mechanized companies from
the French Army.
The problem for the Canadians was that neither side had any respect for the
United Nations. Earlier that year, in January, Croatian troops launched a
limited attack to seize a power damn and reservoir. When UN forces in the area
found themselves in the path of the Croatian advance they promptly withdrew,
destroying their credibility among the Serbs whom they were tasked with
protecting. The Croatians learned the lesson that if they did not want the UN
around, a few rounds at a white painted vehicle would send them running.
When Canadian troops first moved into the Medak area to implement the cease
fire, Croatian special police had not finished ethnically cleansing three Serb
villages seized during the initial assault. If they were discovered, Croatia's
image as a victim of Serbian aggression would receive a crippling blow. Their
solution was to engage the Canadians in hope that a few well placed rounds and
a UN casualty or two would scare them off, just as it had the previous
Unknown to the Croatians at Medak was that the new UN Force Commander,
French Lieutenant-General Jean Cot planned to turn up the pressure on the
warring parties to cease hostilities. His decision to insert the well armed
Canadian battlegroup into the Medak Pocket as a formed manoeuvre force,
instead of stringing them out in isolated observation posts, was part of his
overall policy of enforcing international agreements and restoring UN
The Princess Patricia's were the best choice for the job being fully
mechanized in M-113 Armoured Personal Carriers and possessing a platoon of
mobile armoured TOW anti-tank missile systems. In addition to being well
trained and combat ready, the Patricia's had already developed a reputation in
Croatia for taking a tough line against cease fire violators. General Cot was
sure that the Canadians would not back down in the face of any intimidation in
the Medak Pocket. Events later proved him right.So it was that Canadian troops
found themselves engaged in action with units of the Croatian Army and special
Preparations for Deployment
Of the 875 Canadian soldiers who served in the battlegroup sent to Croatia
for Rotation 3 of Operation Harmony, based on 2nd Battalion of
Princess Patricia=s Canadian Light
Infantry, only 375 actually came from that unit. 165 came from other regular
force units and assignments. The remainder of the battlegroup consisted of 385
reserve soldiers who had volunteered from militia units across the Canada.
Due to the requirement for highly skilled regular soldiers in support and
technical trades in the battlegroup and the overall shortage of combat
infantry soldiers in the Canadian Army the majority of those reservists served
in the rifle companies. In fact, reserve soldiers made up 70% of rifle company
strength during the mission. This includes 7 out of the 12 platoon commanders
who came from militia battalions.
This sort of reserve augmentation was not new in the Canadian Army. For
decades, under-strength regular battalions would have their ranks filled out
with reservists before deploying to Cyprus. Indeed, after much debate in the
Canadian defence community, regular unit augmentation with individual soldiers
has become a primary role for reserve regiments. Post-Cold War conflict
proliferation and the resulting spike in the number and intensity of
peacekeeping missions, combined with a shrinking defence budget and regular
army, meant that in the 1990's militia augmentation became vital. This was
especially true in 1993 when the Canadian Army was stretched nearly beyond its
means, providing two battlegroups to the Foremer Yugoslavia (the other in
Bosnia), one to Somalia and a number of other units, detachments and
individual soldiers to a myriad of missions around the world. Nevertheless the
2 PPCLI Battlegroup in Croatia contained the highest concentration of reserve
soldiers on an operational mission to date. Militia performance, especially in
a tense and demanding theatre like Croatia, remained to be seen.
The mixed bag force spent the first three months of 1993 conducting
preparation training first in Winnipeg, and later in Fort Ord, California.
Much of this time was spent working the large reserve compliment up to basic
regular force standards for section and platoon battle-drills. There was no
time to properly exercise the companies, let alone the whole battalion.
Besides, section and platoon skills were generally all that is required of
soldiers manning observation posts on UN peacekeeping duty. Who could know
that the 2 PPCLI platoons would be called upon to gel together and go into
action as a full battalion.
2 PPCLI moved to Croatia at the end of March, replacing their sister unit,
3 PPCLI as First Canadian Battalion UNPROFOR. At that time, CANBAT 1 as it was
known in theatre was responsible for a UN Protected Area in Sector West, in
the north-western corner of Croatia. It was there that Colonel Calvin and his
troops developed a reputation among the warring parties and their fellow UN
contingents for being tough.
Unlike units from other international contingents, the Canadian battalion
operated with its full compliment of war-fighting weaponry and equipment.
Rifle companies travelled in M-113 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC=s)
configured in an American armoured cavalry type fashion with an armoured
cupola to allowing the powerful Browning .50 calibre machine-guns to be
operated under fire. The companies also carried along with them C-6 medium
machine-guns and 84mm Carl Gustav anti-tank rocket launchers to add to platoon
weaponry consisting of C-7 automatic rifles and C-9 light machine-guns.
Rifle company firepower was augmented by the heavy weapons of Support
Company including 81mm mortars and TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked,
Wire-guided) anti-armour guided missiles mounted in armoured turrets aboard
purpose-built APC=s. Canada was
among the first member nations to deploy blue-helmeted soldiers with this kind
of firepower when UNPROFOR first deployed to Croatia in 1992. This sort of
stance was not initially well received in UN Headquarters in New York, where
the traditional notion of lightly armed blue-bereted peacekeepers prevailed.
However, by 1993, the value of well-armed forces in the Former Yugoslavia
where the consent of the warring parties was not always apparent, was well
2 PPCLI=s reputation was earned
not only by their equipment, but by their demonstrated willingness to use it.
Not long after their arrival, the battalion conducted a major defensive
exercise in the sector. The exercise was intended partially to complete the
battlegroup=s collective training
and improve force cohesion, but also to demonstrate to the Croats that an
attack into the UN Protected Area in Sector West would and could be resisted
by the UN.
CANBAT 1 vigorously enforced weapons bans in their area of operations
seizing contra-band arms of all types from both Croats and Serbs. Colonel
Calvin also, on his own initiative, developed a procedure to deter patrolling
and raiding within the UNPA. Previously, belligerent soldiers detained by the
UN after engaging in such activity would be returned to their own authorities
for punishment. Calvin began releasing detainee=s
to the opposing forces with UN civilian police keeping a close eye to ensure
punishment was not >terminal=.
After five months of in-theatre training coupled with hands on practice,
CANBAT 1 became one of the most effective and respected units in all of
UNPROFOR. It was for that reason, that the new Force Commander, General Cot,
selected them to move to Sector South to undertake one of the most difficult
assignments in United Nations peacekeeping history.
Unlike CANBAT 1's relatively tranquil former area of responsibility, Sector
South was still a war zone. It was here that Croatian Serbs most fiercely
resisted the notion of living under Zagreb=s
rule. Croatian and Serb troops routinely exchanged small arms, mortar and
artillery fire all over the area. This steady exhange of fire was punctuated
over 1993 by several major Croatian offensives, including Operation Maslencia
in January. It was during that mission that French troops withdrew when faced
with heavy Croatian fire, leaving Serbs in the UNPA to be ethnically cleansed.
This event destroyed Serb confidence in the force designed to protect them and
taught the Croatians that any time they wished to have UN troops out of the
way prior to an attack, a few well directed bullets and shells would send the
Nonetheless, by summer of 1993, both sides had been pressured by the
international community into a new ceasefire in Sector South known as the
Erdut Agreement. Under the terms of this agreement, Croatian forces would
withdraw from many of the territories gained in the Maslencia offensive. The
Canadian battlegroup task, along with their French reinforcements was to
ensure that Croatia followed through with the agreement.
General Cot anticipated that in practice, Croatian troops would be
reluctant to withdraw from their hard won gains. This is why he chose the well
armed and highly effective CANBAT 1 to implement the agreement and restore a
UN presence in Sector South. Cot expected trouble and he was determined not to
be the one to back down when it came. General Cot=s
assessment was more than born out when the Croatian 9th ALika
Wolves@ Guards Brigade commenced its
assault on the Medak salient on 9 September, just as the lead Canadian platoon
was moving into the village of Medak.
The renewed outburst of heavy fighting meant a significant alteration of
the Canadian plan. The lead platoons immediately commenced construction of
fortifications to protect against the shelling. At every lull in the barrage,
the Patricia=s worked at sandbagging
and revetting their position. Over 500 heavy shells fell in an area the size
of Parliament Hill around Lieutenant Tyrone Green=s
9 Platoon from Charlie Company. It is a tribute to their high-intensity war
fighting skills, which included a thorough education on the effects of
artillery, that only four Canadians were wounded during the shelling.
Serb reinforcements poured into the Medak Pocket from all over Yugoslavia
and in two days managed to stop the Croatian advance cold, but not before the
long salient had been pinched out and the front line straightened just in
front of Medak itself. The fighting raged on in a bitter stalemate for two
more days until Serb artillery opened fire on the Croatian city of Karlovac,
and then launched a FROG long range missile into a Zagreb suburb. This Serb
retaliation coupled with growing pressure from the international community on
President Tudjman, was enough to convince the Croatians to withdraw to their
pre- 9 September startline. This verbal agreement was put to paper and signed
into the AMedak Pocket Agreement@,
which the Canadian battlegroup was responsible for implementing.
At 1630 hrs on 14 September, 1993 Colonel Calvin held an Orders Group (AO@
Group) with his subordinate officers and NCO=s
to review plans for the coming operation. The agreement was to be implemented
in four phases. The first step would be made by 2PPCLI=s
Charlie Company and a French company from FREBAT 1 which would occupy Serbian
frontline positions. On 15 September. Phase 2 would see Charlie Company, under
the watchful eye of the TOW Anti-armour vehicles, establish a crossing point
on the main paved road running the length of the valley floor in the no-man=s
land between the opposing armies. In phase 3, Delta Company and a French
Company would move along the road, through the secure crossing point and on to
occupy the forward Croatian positions. 2PPCLI=s
Reconnaissance Platoon and the battalion tactical headquarters would follow
Delta company into the pocket. The last step would be to oversee the Croatian
withdrawal to their pre 9 September positions thereby completing the
separation of forces and establishing a new demilitarized zone. The Patricia=s
Alpha and Bravo Companies, which had only just arrive in the area from Sector
West, would secure the remainder of the CANBAT 1's area of responsibility
during the operation.
In the hours prior to the operation General Cot personally flew into the
area to speak to Colonel Calvin, essentially taking overall command of the
operation and eliminating the link to Sector South Headquarters in Knin. Too
much was riding on the coming events to have any delay in the reporting chain
or any misunderstanding about what was to happen. The Force commander reminded
Colonel Calvin of how vital it was that his battlegroup succeed in order to
restore UN credibility. Cot also indicated that detailed of the Medak Pocket
Agreement had not likely made it from Zagreb down to the frontline Croatian
soldiers that would be soon encountered. General Cot strongly implied that
force may have to be used to ensure their compliance with the agreement by
reminding Calvin that the UN rules of engagement allowed to blue helmeted
Canadian and French troops to return fire in kind if they or their mandate was
threatened. The mission was clear and the stage set.
Charlie Company Firefight
The M-113 Armoured Personnel Carriers of Charlie Company rolled forward on
15 September to carry out the initial phase of the operation. Not long after
setting off, Lieutenant Green=s 9
Platoon came under small arms and machine gun fire from the Croatian lines. At
first it appeared that General Cot was right that the Croat frontline units
had not been advised that the Canadians were coming. The solution to this
problem seemed obvious. Get the white painted armoured vehicles out in the
open where there would be no mistake that it was UNPROFOR advancing, rather
than a Serb counter-attack..
Large blue UN flags were fixed to radio antenna and the carriers driven out
of a tree line into the open. This brought a storm of return fire, including
heavy machine gun, rocket propelled grenades and 20mm anti-aircraft gunfire.
It was now obvious that the Croatians had no intention of letting the
Canadians advance. All along the Charlie and FREBAT 1 Company front, the blue
helmets halted in whatever defensive positions they could find. For the next
15 hours, the Croatians shot it out with Canadian and French troops.
It was not exactly a battle, at least not by the standards of western
armies where positions are attacked with fire and movement. There were no
infantry assaults or sweeping tank thrusts to seize ground held by the UN.
That is not how war is waged in the Balkans. Ground combat in the Former
Yugoslavia consisted of both sides attempting to make the opponents position
untenable by bring maximum fire to bear. Conversely, as soon as a position
became too dangerous due to accurate and sustained fire, it was abandoned. Any
movement that involved placing troops in the open was avoided. Weapons were
plentiful in the region but soldiers, especially trained infantry, were not.
This way of war may also be a vestige of Tito=s
guerilla military doctrine that formed the basis of the old Yugoslav National
Army in which many of the officers and NCO=s
on both sides had served.
The argument then is by Balkan definition, the Croatian firefight with the
Canadians and French was indeed a battle. It surely seemed that way to
Sergeant Rod Dearing=s section of
2PPCLI=s 7 Platoon on Charlie
Company=s right in the village of
Licki Citluck. It was there that some of the heaviest firing took place, often
at ranges of 150 metres. At one point in the evening Croatian mortar crews
went to work on the Canadian trench line. Regardless of how the action
compares to other larger battles in Canadian military history, for the
riflemen of Charlie Company, it was war.
The firefights lasted all night and earlier into the next morning. Colonel
Maisonneuve, UNPROFOR=s Chief
Operations Officer, arrived from Zagreb in an effort to talk down the
Croatians. Maisonneuve, Colonel Calvin and a senior UN Military Observer drove
down the main road to meet with the local Croatian commander.
General Ademi, Operational Zone Commander, rough equivalent to a NATO corps
commander agreed to the meeting and let the Canadians delegation pass through
the lines to his headquarters in Gospic. After much heated discussion, Ademi
agreed not resist phase 2 and that the Canadians could establish the crossing
point that night without Croatian interference. Phase 3 would commence at 1200
hrs the following day when Delta Company would pass through the crossing point
to move into the Croatian trench line. During the night, Major Dan Drew and
his Delta Company Headquarters moved up the road to the crossing point. The
remainder of the company would join him in the morning for their 1200 hrs
The Patricia=s rose to an
horrifying site on the morning of 16 September. Smoke was rising up from
several villages behind Croatian lines. Explosions and an occasional burst of
automatic rifle fire could also be heard. It suddenly became clear why the
Croatians resisted the Canadian advance. The villages were inhabited
predominantly by Serbs and Croatian Special Police had not yet finished
ethnically cleansing them.
Colonel Calvin clamoured for action and immediately recalled Colonel
Maisonneuve to meet again with General Ademi. Unfortunately, with only four
widely separated companies and no supporting tanks or artillery, Calvin=s
force had no chance in a frontal attack against the entire Croatian 9th
Brigade which did have tanks and heavy guns. There was little the Canadians
could do but sit back wait for the 1200 hrs timing. As they waited they
listened helplessly to the explosions and shooting and imagined what was
happening to the Serb civilians to their front.
Delta Company rolled ahead at noon right on schedule mounted in their
M-113's and accompanied by several TOW anti-armour vehicles. They no sooner
started down the road in column before they ran into a Croatian roadblock.. To
the left of the road sat a very modern and very deadly T-72 main battle tank,
a gift from Germany. On the right side of the road, two towed anti-tank guns
and a bank of Sagger missiles were aimed and the Canadian column. A company of
Croatian infantry protected by a hastily laid mine field completed the
The senior Croatian officer refused Major Drew=s
demand that his company be allowed to pass. Weapons on both sides were made
ready for action. This tense Mexican standoff lasted over an hour. Throughout
the standoff, the well trained and highly disciplined Canadian riflemen
maintained their cool while the Croatians grew increasingly uneasy.
Essentially the resolute and stern-faced Canadians began to stare down the
Croatians manning the roadblock.
During the tension, Colonel Calvin arrived on the scene. He argued heatedly
with the Croatian commander, Brigadier General Mezic. Mezic was General Ademi=s
senior liaison officer. His presence at the road block indicated that the
Operational Zone Commander had no intention of keeping his word. In fact,
Mezic was stalling to give Croatian Special Police the time they needed to
destroy evidence of ethnic cleansing.
Shortly after 1300 hrs, Calvin took a gamble to break the deadlock and
avoid a bloody point-blank shootout in the middle of the road. Some 20
international journalists had accompanied Delta Company, all seeking to cover
the story of the Croatia=s latest
invasion of the Serbian Krajina.
Calvin called to the front of the column and held a press conference,
complete with cameras, in front of the roadblock. He told the reporters of
what Croatian policemen were doing on the other side of the barricade and had
the camera=s film the Croatian=s
obvious interference with the UN=s
effort to make peace.
The cameras broke the Croatian resolve. By 1330 hrs , Delta Company was on
The battlegroup was also held up later in the afternoon by senior UN
officials who insisted they stick to a rigid time table for advancing into the
Pocket. A timetable that did not take into account that every wasted minute,
more evidence was destroyed. It was not until 17 September that UNPROFOR
soldiers occupied the whole area. Calvin=s
imaginative ploy was too late to stop the ethnic cleansing of Serb villages in
the Medak Pocket, but it did allow the blue-helmets to reach most of the
villages before all traces of Croatian atrocities could be erased.
For the soldiers involved in the Medak Pocket operation the next few days
were the most difficult They were tasked, along with civilian police officers,
and UN medical officers, to sweep the area for signs of ethnic cleansing.
There task was enormous. Each and every building in the Medak Pocket had been
levelled to the ground. Truck loads of firewood had been brought to start
intense fires among the wooden buildings. Brick and concrete buildings were
blow apart with explosives and anti-tank mines.
Only 16 Serb bodies were found, all in hidden locations while in the open,
the ground was littered with rubber surgical gloves. Calvin and his men
believe the gloves indicate that most Serb bodies in the open had been
transported elsewhere and only the ones hidden in basements or in the woods
had been left behind in haste. The bodies that were recovered included those
of two young ladies found in a basement. They had apparently been tied up,
shot and then doused with gasoline and burned. When found, the bodies were
still hot enough to melt plastic body bags. At another location, an elderly
Serb woman had been found shot four times in the head, execution style.
The Croatians completed their task by killing most of the livestock in the
area. That was the small-arms firing heard on 16 September. In addition, oil
or dead animals were dumped into wells to make them unusable for Serbs
entertaining any thought of return. These are the objectives of Balkan
warfare. Rather than destroy the opponent=s
military forces in combat, armies in the Former Yugoslavia seek to make the
land of opposing civilians unhabitable.
While the job of gathering evidence may have been the most difficult for
the Canadians, haunting many of the young soldiers to this day, it was of
critical importance. The Medak Pocket provided the world with the first hard
evidence that Serbia was not the sole perpetrator of ethnic cleansing in the
Balkans, deconstructing the myth that the Yugoslav wars could all be neatly
labelled as Serbian wars of aggression and expansion.
The meticulous procedure used to sweep and record evidence in the area was
also standardized in UNPROFOR, perhaps providing some degree of deterrence to
those who may fear being called before a war crimes tribunal.
Canadian action at Medak earned back some of the respect for the United
Nations lost at Maslencia. That same month, a Canadian officer, Colonel George
Oehring, took over as commander of Sector South. Oehring was in a better
position than anyone to feel the effects of Medak.
Medak restored UNPROFOR=s
credibility resulting in renewed dialogue leading to a local informal
cease-fire in November, a more formal and wider one at Christmas, and a Abilateral@,
universal cease-fire signed in Zagreb on 29 March, 1994. Everybody hated
us in September 1993. I was stoned and threatened during my first trip to
Zadar to meet the Croat commander there. Medak changed all this. The
Serbs, right up to my departure a year later, would spontaneously mention
the resolute fairness of the Canadians at Medak, while the Croats,
although grudgingly at first, came to respect the Canadians in Sector
Unfortunately Medak did not go far enough in wiping away the memory of
Maslencia. The Canadians may have documented Croat war crimes, but they could
not stop them, adding to the sense of insecurity among the Serbs. However, Jim
Calvin and his men can take comfort in the knowledge that they did everything
within their means to keep the peace in Croatia. The international
peacekeeping community was not yet ready in 1993 to stop that kind of action.
It would take several more and larger massacres around the world before
international political will could be mustered to intervene and stop ethnic
The joint Franco-Canadian operation at Medak represents a watershed in the
development of international conflict resolution. It will be many years before
scholars will be able to fully explain the ongoing transformation in the
nature of modern military peace support operations. Sources are not yet
available, not enough distance has been established to present a clear,
accurate picture. The transition is also still ongoing. However, it is still
possible to make some generalizations about the changes the world has
witnessed in the way the international community conducts Apeacekeeping@.
During the cold war, peacekeeping forces were lightly armed, offering
little deterrent value, yet they were still effective due to the constant
deterrence provided the east-west nuclear standoff. After the Cold War, the
United States emerged as a world policeman along with NATO. NATO peacekeepers
are equally successful and equally rarely engaged by former belligerents
because they enter a zone with maximum firepower and thus deterrent power.
In between these two sharply defined periods in the history of peacekeeping
was a rough and difficult transition period in which western armies attempted
to use tried and true methods of Pearsonian peacekeping, but without the Cold
War structure to reinforce them. Their authority was questioned and they
increasingly became the targets of hostility rather than just innocent
bystanders. This period lasted until the deployment of NATO=s
Dayton Accord Implementation Force (IFOR) in 1996. This combat ready force
entered the fray with clear political backing and a clear mandate.
The Medak Pocket Operation occurred during this transition period. The
Canadian battlegroup possessed a high degree of combat power and a
demonstrated willingness to use it. However, most other contingents in
UNPROFOR were totally unprepared in regards to equipment, training and
political will to engage in the types of action carried out by the Canadians
Canadian Forces in the 1990's
The activities engaged in by Canadian soldiers at Medak offer some sharp
lessons about how military forces should be trained and equipped in the 1990's
and beyond. Medak demanded the full range of capabilities possessed by
Canadian infanteers, from fortification construction, marksmanship, and
mechanized mobile combat to negotiation and basic investigation. The lesson
from this operation is obvious. To maintain a credible presence between
warring factions, peacekeepers must be soldiers first and foremost, trained
and equipped for war.
Well educated soldiers trained and equipped for war can do everything short
of war including peacekeeping and disaster relief. Combat training skills are
easily transferable to a whole range of tasks Canadian troops may be asked to
perform. The reverse is not necessarily true. A lightly armed force trained
and developed solely for peacekeeping cannot function in war or even in
warlike conditions. How would such a constabulary have performed when faced
with the heavy shelling encountered by Lieutenant Green and his men in Medak?
Would it be able to hold its ground in firefight when outnumbered and
outgunned as were Sergeant Dearing and his section?
Medak also challenges the growing school of thought, led by Alec Morrison
of the Lester B. Pearson Peacekeeping Training Centre, which contends that
Canada can make a much better use of its peacekeeping resources and experience
by focussing on providing command, control, communications and logistic units
to operations. Proponents of this school argue that other nations, eager to
learn from Canada should provide the combat troops. Such an arrangement almost
emerged in Zaire in 1996.
There can be no question that Canada has much to offer to any international
peace force with regards to support functions. However, without a willingness
to assume responsibility for some of the frontline work, such a contribution
is meaningless. Medak demonstrated that a difference that can be made by a
combat ready, yet professional and disciplined mechanized team in a highly
tense environment. The Canadian battlegroup ordered to move south in 1993 was
selected precisely because they were modern, well armed combat troops.
The greatest lesson to be learned from the Medak Pocket operation is that
contrary to the findings of the Somalia Inquiry, the Canadian Army in 1993
consisted of dedicated, highly trained, superbly disciplined soldiers. These
troops were led by competent, well educated, highly capable officers and
senior NCO=s. Medak is also not the
only example of Canadian military effectiveness in recent years. Indeed, a
great deal more research is required to highlight the achievements of the
Canadian Forces in the 1990's. Perhaps when enough examples of courage,
heroism and professionalism reach the public, the damage done by the Somalia
inquiry can be undone and Canadians can once more be proud of their military
* The study on the "Medak
Pocket" was made possible, in part, by a grant from the
Department of National Defence.