Firefight In The Pocket

by Norman Brown

PHOTOs: SGT. Mike Bonin, Canadian Forces

PHOTOs: SGT. Mike Bonin, Canadian Forces

From top: Teams of Canadian engineers, doctors and soldiers search for survivors and victims near Medak.

The involvement of Canadian Forces in the former Yugoslavia is winding down, bringing to a close an eventful chapter in our military history that saw more than 40,000 Canadians serve in the theatre of operations. The most dangerous and dramatic episode in that chapter was the 1993 Medak Pocket incident, in which Canadian soldiers, trying to keep warring sides separated, themselves came under attack. The Canadians’ response involved them in the first firefight by our army since Korea, and showed once more how our soldiers can rise to the occasion. The Department of National Defence suppressed information about the incident and it did not garner the public attention it might have. Legion Magazine wanted to mark those 1993 events before they pass into the realm of history.

The best eyewitness account of the Medak Pocket story was given on April 27, 1998, when the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs of the House of Commons met in Ottawa to hear from Colonel Jim Calvin, who had been commander of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, which had served in the Medak Pocket. Calvin was accompanied by several other veterans of the operation. Excerpts from Calvin’s presentation and ensuing questions follow.

Calvin: Today I am here to tell you quite a remarkable story…. In my mind it’s a story of the bravery and determination and considerable valour of the young Canadian men and women who were with me in the former Yugoslavia in 1993. It’s a story about the Medak Pocket operation….

The Medak operation was a peace enforcement operation of 14 days’ duration that was set in the context of a broader traditional peacekeeping operation…we deployed to do one thing and then on very short notice we were required to move into what was an enforcement operation…to enforce the will of the United Nations on one of the warring factions that did not want to comply with the agreed mandate….

…Peacekeeping has evolved considerably from the 1970s and 1980s, when by and large we were into roles where there was a…peace agreement…. Certainly the evolution of peacekeeping has become far more warlike. It’s caused us to have to have far more war skills when we deploy, and that too will become evident when I tell my story….

…In the fall of 1992, when we were first warned for operations in Yugoslavia, the 2nd Battalion was a very under-strength unit. We had just finished deploying some of our own soldiers with the contingent that was going before us and we were warned off to go ourselves. We had a nucleus of PPCLI regulars of only 325, 37 per cent of the overall strength of the battalion. We were augmented by other regular force soldiers like cooks, maintainers, and medical assistants to the tune of 19 per cent….

Calvin added that 44 per cent of the 875-strong contingent were reserve soldiers, with only two and a half months of training. They were not trained vehicle technicians, tow gunners, anti-armour gunners, or signallers, but riflemen. In addition, seven of 12 platoon commanders were from the reserve.

Calvin: …A section commander of 10 would have had himself as a regular force section commander, and may well have had nine reserve soldiers under his command to achieve this mission. It put an extraordinary burden on the non-commissioned officers I took over, and it further attributes to their skill and their professionalism that they could actually do what they did.

The Canadians deployed initially into a stable, traditional peacekeeping area, then moved 550 kilometres to sector south, near the Adriatic. This was a far more volatile and demanding sector. The force commander, French General Jean Cot, ordered the Canadians to move up closer to the front-line action in the area around Medak. The day before shooting began, the last 125-man company of the battalion arrived.

The south of the area was flanked by the Velebit Mountains, a very high, rocky mountain range. To the north, there was another low ridge line of hills. In between was a large flood plain covered with farms. On the western side were the Croatian forces, with their headquarters in Gospic, and on the eastern side were the Serbian forces, with their headquarters in Medak.

Calvin: As a United Nations contingent, we were occupying the area controlled by the Serbs this time. We had no forces to the west, in the area where the Croatian forces were. When we moved forward, we were moving forward from behind the Serb lines….

The Medak operation really began Sept. 9 with an artillery barrage. This was a typical method used by both sides when commencing operations. This one was launched by the Croatian army against the Serb forces….

The artillery barrage happened throughout the length and breadth of our sector, some 60 kilometres north to south, 40 kilometres east to west, but by and large the majority of the artillery rounds were focused on the area where the attack happened, and that was in the town of Medak….

(More than 500) rounds fell on the town of Medak in a 24-hour period. The whole village of Medak would fit into an area smaller than our Parliament Buildings sits on today…. So when you have 500 rounds falling in four this time, five minutes later another three, over a 24-hour period, it tends to wear on one’s ability to withstand the stress….

At the same time, there were tremendous casualties inside the town of Medak…. At one point, a woman came into the house that Lieutenant Green was commanding. She was bleeding from the head. She said her house had just been struck by shellfire. Warrant Officer Trenholm went out and jumped into an armoured personnel carrier, while my RSM (regimental sergeant major) gave her basic first aid in the house. Warrant Trenholm went out to pull her children out of the building and take them to a Serb bunker where they would be safe.

This was a difficult period for us. Canadians had four casualties during the first 24 hours due to artillery fire. None of them were life-threatening injuries, but we still had four casualties before we had a chance to do anything about it.

We were very fortunate that the French battalion, from which we had just taken over this area, had left behind their surgical facility within the area of our battalion headquarters…. We were able to get our four casualties immediately back and have them operated on within a reasonable amount of time.

At the same time as this artillery barrage, the Croats launched their attack to seize the pocket, some 25 to 30 square kilometres of terrain, in a pincer movement, with tanks and infantry coming in from the north and special forces from the south. Over a period of 36 to 48 hours, the Croats and the Serbs waged war for the pocket.

Calvin: After the first 24 hours of conflict, the Serbs reinforced the area…busloads of Serb soldiers started passing by our headquarters, and tanks, artillery pieces and APCs (armoured personnel carriers) were brought into the area. The Serbs reinforced and succeeded, after about 48 hours, in stabilizing a new front line….

After a period of fighting of about three days, things stabilized and the political process started at Zagreb between the UN and the two warring factions. An agreement was reached that the Serbs would stay in their new lines to which they’d been pushed back; the Croats were to withdraw to the line they had had before they attacked Sept. 9; and the UN would take over the area in the pocket and make a buffer zone between the two sides.

Calvin: I received orders on the morning of Sept. 14 that within 24 hours I was to execute this buffer zone between the two sides. During those orders, I was told I would get two companies of the French army under my operational command to bring my total strength up to that which was necessary for the operation. Each of these two French companies was about 250-strong, with their own weapons systems, their own engineers, and their own support systems…. (Their vehicles had) a 20-millimetre cannon…. Being augmented by the French gave us the best long-range direct fire capability that we had within the battalion group. Because the Croats, who eventually fired upon us, had direct-fire cannon larger than this, this was the only resource I had to actually be able to fight back…..

I gave orders at 1600 hours the same day for what was going to be a four-phased operation…the first thing I had to do was insert my companies in between the two sides and make sure I stopped the fighting. That would then serve as the blocking point so that the Serbs would not be able to move forward when the Croatians blocked back….

In the second phase I would have to establish a crossing site from where I was coming, from behind the Serb side across to the Croatian side, and be able to get across to the Croat front lines. I was then going to move two companies across and start monitoring the withdrawal of the Croatians to the Sept. 9 line, and then we would sweep all of the area and record any evidence of warfare that we saw.

We went into the operation using normal Canadian equipment…(including) an armoured personnel carrier, M-113, 1965 vintage, with the shields to protect the crew commander and the people in the rear hatch. We also had the TOW anti-armour weapons system.

On the first morning of the operation, on Sept. 15, after moving all night, by 9 a.m. we had the better part of 1,000 soldiers in and around the area of Medak, ready to commence the operation.

General Cot flew in by helicopter and spoke to Calvin as they walked through Medak, sorting out some rules of engagement. He emphasized that the UN must have a successful operation and succeed in establishing the buffer zone. He said the UN had been unable in the past to do what it had said it would and had lost face, and it was critical to show they could actually enforce their will. He also said he did not believe the Croatian high command had told the soldiers on the front lines that they were required to withdraw to the Sept. 9 line. Calvin now realized that the Canadians were going to be moving forward towards a warring faction that didn’t know that they were being ordered to withdraw and give up the positions they had just earned in a hard-fought fight.

Calvin: At 1200 hours our two companies, Charlie company on the left and one of the French companies on the right, started moving forward past the Serb tanks and infantry and into the zone between the two front lines. This area between the two front lines varied. Sometimes they were 400 metres apart, sometimes 1,200 metres apart…. But you can appreciate that if each side had now taken the point of terrain that was the most tactically sound to defend, the terrain that was in between them was what we normally refer to as a killing zone, and that was the area into which we were moving the Canadians and the French.

When we passed by the Serb front lines, we started being fired on by the Croatians. Initially, it was one round, two rounds…we honestly thought it was a mistake, and we gave direction to put bigger UN flags on our antennas and make sure the white vehicles were prevalent so that they would know who was moving into the no man’s land between the two front lines. When we did that, they started firing machine-guns at us instead of single rounds, and it became evident that this was not an accident but actually a concentrated attempt to fire at the United Nations.

The Canadian and the French soldiers started taking the normal actions when you’re fired on. They started responding in kind, and for the next 15 hours, between roughly 1 p.m. and 8.30 the following morning, the Canadians and the French were in what was basically a combat situation with the Croatian army at ranges of 150 to 800 metres.

In terms of firefights, I’m saying they were fired upon by 20-millimetre cannon, heavy machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and they responded with all of the inventory they had: .50-calibre machine-guns, their own C7s, C9 machine-guns. They fired back everything except our major anti-armour system.

When the Croats fired at them, they would respond until the Croats stopped. Some of these engagements took longer to win the firefight than others, but you have to picture people over a period of time digging in trenches, under fire, while they were actually responding and covering themselves with their own fire.

The same day, a call came that the Croat general wanted to speak to Calvin at 8 p.m. in Gospic to sort out the problem on the front line. This meant Calvin had to find a way to get across in the dark from the Serb side to the Croat side without getting shot. He and three others went on good faith to a very heated meeting in Gospic with the Croat army commander. They finally came to an accord to establish the crossing site that night and that the next day at noon the Canadians would be allowed to move across, take over the Croat front line positions and that the Croatians would begin moving back to their Sept. 9 lines.

Calvin: The next day at 8 a.m. or at first light, whenever that happened, when we arose and we looked out at the situation, we knew that we had made a tragic error in allowing them until noon to prepare to move, because as we looked out over the kilometre that separated us from the Croatians we could see nothing but billowing smoke starting to go up from every one of the villages that we could plot on our maps and we started hearing large explosions and we started hearing small arms fire coming from all over the villages within the pocket itself.

It was clear to us in our own minds, based on our past five months’ experience, that the Croatian army had now started a serious ethnic cleansing session within the pocket, and we were required to sit there and watch for four hours, until noon, before we could actually move to the other side.

It was an extremely frustrating time. You didn’t have anything you could use as proof of what was going on, but you knew in your hearts what was going on because you’d lived in it for the last five months–old ethnic cleansing. But it was very demoralizing at the time.

Sharp at noon I sent Major Drew’s company across to move forward through the Croat front line and assume the front lines of the Croat army in preparation for their withdrawal to the Sept. 9 line. When we got across to the other side, we found that during the night the Croatian army had moved a company defensive position…. they’d moved a T-72 tank into position, and they’d moved two Sagger anti-armour missile systems plus other anti-armour missile systems onto the high ground and they had over 100 soldiers dug in ready to stop our advance. They’d put mines on both sides of the one paved road and they’d put the dragon-teeth barriers across the road and mines surface-laid on the pavement.

When we got to the other side they said we couldn’t pass. This caught us very much unawares. We were basically lined up expecting the agreement we’d reached to be followed to the letter. We were in the killing zone of this particular company so we were very mal-positioned. For a period of about an hour and a half we were in what can only be described as a bit of a Mexican stand-off, as I moved up to argue with the general across this minefield, claiming he had to let us pass. He’d agreed to it the night before and he was saying, no, you cannot pass, you’re not going to cross.

At one point we said we were going to go through by force. They uncovered all their Sagger weapons, they manned all of their weapons, all of my soldiers cocked all of their weapons…. For over an hour we were in perhaps what was just an extraordinarily tense situation.

The Canadians had with them 20 reporters and cameramen from the media who had expected to record the aftermath of the battle.

Calvin asked if they could stage a press conference in front of the minefield to jeopardize the Croatians’ reputation on the international front and try to get them to lift the minefields and to let the PPCLI through.

They readily agreed. Calvin accused the Croat general of doing any number of atrocities, and when he heard what was being said to the international press, he had soldiers out clearing the minefields and he renegotiated the agreement to allow the Canadians to pass by. Then he gave an impromptu press conference to the media to try to regain the moral high ground.

Calvin: By 1.30 p.m. the first company, Major Drew’s company, was moving through this position and into the front lines of the Croatian trench lines and the second French company then moved forward at 14.30 hours.

With my reconnaissance platoon and a company of the French army, I moved further in depth, and started going into the village of Citluk. We arrived at just around 18.00 hours, just as it was twilight and beginning to get dark. At this stage of the game there was smoke hanging in the air; it was a very still evening…. As we slowly drove into the village, there were Croatian soldiers with bags of loot jumping on trucks and buses and laughing as they evacuated themselves out of the pocket. We began to see at first hand our evidence of ethnic cleansing. We also began to see bodies.

That evening, when we moved in just before dark, we did a preliminary sweep of the area that we’d actually secured. (A) woman was lying in a field that we had selected for my tactical command post….

The French company came upon two women the first evening in the dark. They were between the ages of 16 and 25…. They must have been shot and set on fire just before the Croatians moved back, because when we actually found them, the bodies were so hot that before they could be put in the body bags the soldiers had to douse them with water to cool them down so they wouldn’t melt the plastic of the body bags.

All of the livestock in the area had been killed. Every well had been poisoned with oil or animals thrown down into them. In fact, in the broadest sense of ethnic cleansing, they had made sure that the people who had lived there could not return to that area, either by killing them, by destroying their property, or by poisoning their wells. Some of these individuals had been dead for four or five days. You have to understand that it took these men a lengthy period of time to actually get in there, so they were in various states of decomposition at the time.

…We stayed in place that evening, but the next day I have to confess that the soldiers were quite infuriated, not just because they had been fired at by the Croatians but because professional soldiers don’t wage war on helpless civilians. I would say that they pressed on with vigour on the day of the 17th, and by the end of the 17th we had moved the Croatians back to the line of Sept. 9, and we had succeeded in establishing the buffer zone….

In terms of overall casualties in the Medak Pocket, four Canadians were wounded in the initial artillery barrage, and during the next several days seven French soldiers were injured, either when their vehicles hit anti-tank mines or they walked into anti-personnel mines. One Canadian died and two Canadians were severely injured in a collision of a jeep and a Serb truck. The Croatians reported that 27 of their members were killed or wounded during the episode.

Calvin: In terms of ethnic cleansing in the broadest sense, we actually found 16 bodies. We believe that is not the full extent of the killing, however, because when we went through the Medak Pocket, there were surgical gloves everywhere on the ground, and we couldn’t figure out any other reason for the Croats to leave surgical gloves all over the ground other than the fact that they had a systematic method of picking up the bodies that we didn’t find and clearing them out before we actually got in there. And it might have been the reason why they were delaying us at the actual roadblock.

The French general, Cot, was singularly impressed with the performance of the PPCLI and as a result created the Force Commander’s Unit Commendation. Until that time the Force Commander’s Commendation had only been given to individuals, but it was reformed to a unit commendation and the Canadians received the first of these by the force commander in theatre.

With some 160 units from all the countries that served under the UN over the four years, only three such awards were given out.

Calvin: As we make the transition into the future, it is clear in my mind that when we send people over to some of these missions, we have to expect them to be bold, and expect them to make the decisions on the ground that they have to make. We can’t send them over to be hesitant and to think we’re going to second-guess them all the time. I believe we have to make sure they’re well trained before they leave, but once we send them, we have to give them all the support we possibly can here….

We like to describe (the Croats) as thugs with guns. They are not professional soldiers. Professional soldiers don’t wage war on innocent civilians, but over there it was a matter of routine. By and large they were people with very little professional training, if any. They were very courageous when they were facing unarmed civilians, but they certainly weren’t as courageous when they were facing people who knew how to operate their weapons and were willing to take a stand for a good cause.

…There seems to be an idea in vogue that you can have an armed gendarmerie go over into peaceful situations and they’ll do just fine. I believe that’s a fallacy. I believe that for any situation you have to train up the individual soldier and the small units of section and platoon so that they are absolutely confident in the use of their weapons, not just confident that they can use their weapon but confident that the person on their left and their right can bring their weapon into action immediately with good effect….

If you are going to expect someone to remain calm in a situation like the one we were in at the roadblock, where everyone was armed, everyone was cocked, and one errant shot going off would have had a bloodbath going on between the two sides, if you want people to remain calm, they have to know that the guy beside them didn’t get 51 out of 100 when he fired his personal weapons test….

Death within peacekeeping missions is a reality for all of us sitting at this table and the rest of the 873 members who were over there with us. It’s not just a matter of past wars. Remembrance Day holds a very sincere meaning for us today.

When we go, as I think you’ve seen with the two soldiers we lost within the 2nd Battalion, we still feel it’s our role to go. Also, unlimited liability is part of wearing this uniform. We’re prepared to go even if it isn’t a war, and we’ll die for the nation’s interests because you say it’s important enough for us to go there.

Leon E. Benoit (Lakeland, Ref.): Colonel, I would like to…get a bit more information about something you presented. You said that after you’d reached an agreement with the Croat commander to establish a crossing site between the Croat and the Serb lines…that the agreement was reached somewhere near 2 a.m. or something?

Calvin: It was probably reached by 10 o’clock that evening.

Leon Benoit: Ten o’clock at night. And you agreed to hold off until noon the next day to actually cross. Later on you found out…well, you saw the smoke and so on, and you realized there was ethnic cleansing going on. As you got closer, you saw evidence of ethnic cleansing. Was there anything you could have done to try to prevent some of that?

Calvin: In my military judgment at the time, there wasn’t a lot we could actually do. We could not, short of launching an all-out attack, an open assault, using all of the resources that we had…. And make no mistake, we were outgunned by the Croats. They had tanks; we had no tanks. They had artillery; we had no artillery. They had mortars; we had no mortars…. Sir, I’d have to say no, we had to rely on the Croats allowing us to get over there before we could do something. There was very little we could have done in the way of offensive operations.

Leon Benoit: I understand that part of the French force that had been there before left before this incident happened. Was that something that had been planned well ahead of time or is that something that happened for some other reason?

Calvin: The French army battalion had been in there since the start of UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force). In January 1993, the Croats had launched a similar attack. At the time they launched the first attack, the Serbs had their weapons in UN cantonment sites under UN control, so they were basically defenceless. When the Croats attacked in January 1993, the UN did not defend the Serbs, and because they’d disarmed them, the Croats overran the Serbs and the UN watched them go by.

As a result of that action, the French battalion that had been in sector had no credibility with the Serbs. The Serbs would not deal with them, would not speak with them, would not trust them and would not let them forward, even to observe where their forward deployed lines were. That was one of the primary causes of the move that General Cot had to eventually make when he moved that French battalion out of there and moved us in to try to regain credibility….

By and large, from the reports after we left theatre once we finished our operation, the Serbs had a great deal of faith and trust in what the Canadians did because we acted in an impartial way. We weren’t on their side, but we certainly weren’t on the other side, and we acted as true peacekeepers.

Leon Benoit: If you could predict that there was likely to be the same type of military activity, the same situation with a similar level of tension, there are two things: do you think Canada should be sent again into a situation like that as part of the UN force, and secondly, do you feel now that the Canadian Forces would be properly equipped and much better equipped to deal with a situation like that?

Calvin: …this is my opinion, but it’s also the opinion of the rest of the peacekeepers who were there. I believe that Canada still stands within perhaps the top three or four countries in terms of reputation. When there’s a tough job to do, you can still give it to a handful of countries.

So in answer to your first question, absolutely; if there is a dangerous mission to do, I think we have the non-commissioned officers and the soldiers who have the proper level of training. Some of our NCOs are the equivalent of officers in other nations. Let us be very blunt here. We have extremely good sergeants, extremely good warrant officers and extremely good sergeant-majors….

In terms of equipment, there are certainly some things that I would have preferred to have had when I went through Medak. Some of the equipment that is coming on-line over the next several years, particularly (the armed forces) new armoured personnel carriers—provided we get all of them that they’re going to buy—will rectify the direct-fire weapons system that we lack right now….

David Pratt (Nepean–Carleton, Lib.): Based on your experiences there, colonel, if the CDS came to you and said he had an operation for you that was not unlike the Medak Pocket, would you volunteer for it? What would your response be, and what do you think the response of your men would be?

Calvin: …I would say absolutely that I would be prepared to go over and do it again, but I would train slightly differently before I allowed myself to be sent…. I would demand that we had a battalion’s worth of training and that we had the time to do that.

But yes, you’re damn right I’d go over again. And I’d take all these guys with me, too.