The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have a long and distinguished history of serving in numerous multinational forces in global hot spots. Over the course of seventy years, 120,000 Canadians have served in over 50 United Nations operations. These operations have varied from monitoring the Iraq-Kuwait border to serving recently as peacekeepers in war torn South Sudan. In Afghanistan, Canadians served both with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and in a combat role as part of the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force.
The implosion of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, between competing ethnic and nationalist interests, saw the CAF come face to face with the abrupt new realities of peacekeeping in the post-Cold War world. In Croatia, as later seen in Rwanda and Bosnia, the model of peacekeeping employed in the Cold War based on strict impartiality and compliance between parties in the conflict fell apart. Instead, Canadian personnel quickly became embroiled in the conflict, caught between their strict UN mandates of non-intervention and the moral quandaries of bearing witness to ‘ethnic cleansing’ in post-communist Europe.
The most notable example of that situation occurred in the Medak Pocket, commonly referred to as Canada’s forgotten battle.
On September 15, 1993, the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry (2 PPCLI) serving with the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was ordered by the force commander French Lt. General Jean Cot, into the Medak Pocket of Croatia. This region fell just outside Sector South, one of four regions under UNPROFOR’s supervision, adjacent to the Adriatic Coast. Medak was a contested salient between the Croatian government in Tuzla and the Serbs of the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK), a diplomatically unrecognized entity consisting of territory carved out from Croatia and neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Throughout the summer of 1993, fighting between the Serbs and Croatians in Medak had sparked a humanitarian crisis. Serb irregulars had heavily shelled the towns of Gospic and Bilaj. In response, Croatia launched Operation Maslencia, a counter-offensive into a declared UN Protected Area (UNPA), containing Serb territory and civilians. French-UN peacekeepers withdrew from the area under heavy fire, highlighting to Croatian commanders the pliable nature of the UN presence.
With heavy fighting occurring in full view of international forces, political pressure forced a localised cease-fire termed the Erdut Agreement. The 2 PPCLI battlegroup under Lieutenant-Colonel James Calvin, considered the best equipped of UNPROFOR’s forces in Sector South, were sent to implement the Erdut Agreement. Alongside two French mechanized companies re-tasked from neighbouring Bosnia, their orders were to monitor the Croatian 9th ‘Lika Wolves’ Brigade’s withdrawal from territories gained during the Maslencia offensive, stabilize conditions for Serb civilians and report ceasefire violations.
As 2 PPCLI entered the Medak Pocket on September 15, inserting themselves between the Serbs and Croats, small arms fire from 20mm anti-aircraft weapons and mortars erupted from the Croatian lines, targeting the Serb positions now held by 2 PPCLI and their white UN M-113 vehicles. Over the next several hours, eight hundred Canadian troops were prevented from advancing on Croatian positions. Croat artillery fired in proximity of 2 PPCLI, deliberately intended to force a repeat of the withdrawal by French troops in the summer.
Although authorized under the self-defence clause of their United Nation’s mandate, 2PPCLI did not return fire, opting instead to gather intelligence and reinforce their forward positions.
In the early hours of September 16, the 9th ‘Lika Wolves’ Brigade launched a renewed effort to force a UN withdrawal. Groups of Croats attempted to flank the Canadian battlegroup’s positions. The lightly armed peacekeepers of 2 PPCLI, supported by vehicle mounted 20mm guns of the French resisted and then reversed this Croatian offensive in an intense exchange of rifle and machine gun fire. Individual firefights at platoon level continued throughout the dawn hours of the morning.
On the morning of September 16, as entrance into Croat occupied Medak was negotiated, automatic weapons fire and smoke were visible from Serb villages. As the ‘Lika Wolves’ Brigade withdrew from the Medak Pocket and within hearing distance of 2 PPCLI, Serb villages were razed to the ground in concerted acts of ‘ethnic cleansing’ by detachments of Croatian Special Police.
On September 17, 1993, the troopers of 2PPCLI finally passed through the Croat positions and began implementation of the Erdut mandate. In village after village, every wooden building in the Medak Pocket had been set alight, all concrete edifices flattened by anti-tanks shells, the livestock massacred and oil poured into wells, preventing the immediate return of the Serb population. Those Serbs too elderly or infirm to leave Medak were later identified in mass graves. In what would be a familiar process in the Balkans, 2 PPCLI, UN police and forensic teams documented and recorded the ethnic cleansing, but had arrived too late to prevent it.
The 1993 Battle of Medak Pocket was the fiercest firefight faced by the Canadian Forces in the immediate post-Cold War era. The encounter between 2PPCLI and the ultra-nationalist militias emanating from Franco Tudjman’s Croatia, can best be viewed in context alongside the 1993 shoot down of US Task Force Ranger helicopters in Mogadishu, Somalia the same year.
In both Medak Pocket and the Battle of Mogadishu, NATO-member states provided well equipped forces to sizeable UN ground operations, often forming the key capability of the peacekeeping forces. In both cases, events rapidly overtook the United Nations forces, seeing them transition from non-party actors to actual belligerents within the conflict. Both instances highlight the risks of deploying peacekeeping elements into transient, intra-state conflicts with no peace to keep.
A notable difference is that post-1993, the United States withdrew from undertaking further ground operations alongside the UN post-Somalia owing to casualties suffered. By comparison, 2 PPCLI suffered no casualties at Medak Pocket, a minor miracle considering the array of Yugoslav army heavy weapons employed by Croat militias.
Canada continued to provide forces to peacekeeping operations in Yugoslavia, flag officers in the case of Lt General Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda and also to the INTERFET force in East Timor 1999. However while these contributions are well known and regarded, the battle of Medak Pocket remains a little known but important chapter in the history of the Canadian Armed Forces post-1991.