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Ortona. Vimy Ridge. Juno Beach. Queenston Heights. These four places echo throughout Canadian military history and resonate in the minds of many Canadians. Other important names ring much less forcefully in popular memory. We would like to change that. This series of articles focuses on our country’s lesser-known military engagements during Canada’s wars, as part of United Nations peacekeeping missions (UNPROFOR), and in fulfilling commitments to NATO allies. We begin with the Battle of Medak Pocket.

A region at war

In 1991, war broke out in the former Yugoslavia in Southeastern Europe. Forces from many sides—Croats, Serbs and Bosnians, Christians and Muslims—fought to secure and expand their territorial claims. Croatia and neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina saw particularly bitter violence. Months of fighting killed hundreds of civilians. Troops chased many thousands more from their homes. The international community had moved to curb the fighting and Canadian Armed Forces members were part of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) mission in the region to help restore peace.

A fragile peace

The two sides failed to keep the peace. They sniped, fired shells and carried out small-scale attacks. Much of the shelling by Serb Krajina forces against the Croatian Army originated from high ground near Medak, Croatia. On 9 September 1993, the Croats began an offensive to take that position. After several days of intense fighting, another ceasefire agreement was arranged. It required all warring forces to pull out of the so-called Medak Pocket the Croatian Army had taken during its offensive.

A peace kept by force

On 15 September 1993, UNPROFOR sent hundreds of soldiers from the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, supported by troops from France, to oversee the withdrawal. The Croats had other plans. In an attempt to move the Canadians out of the Medak Pocket, the Croats rained down heavy machine gun and artillery fire on our troops. The Canadians didn’t back down. They built a fortified position to withstand the shelling, return fire, and beat back night assaults by the Croatian infantry. The next day an impromptu news conference by Canadian commander, Lieutenant-Colonel James Calvin, pressured Croatians to relent and the Canadians finally advanced into the Medak Pocket. Sadly they found evidence of ethnic cleansing of Serbian residents by Croatian forces, but their arrival had stopped additional killing.

A duty to remember

Four Canadian soldiers were wounded in what is considered a forgotten chapter in our country’s military history. Despite the public’s lack of knowledge, the Battle of Medak Pocket is considered by many to be the toughest action faced by our troops in the period between the conflicts in Korea and Afghanistan. In 2002, the fog that shrouded the battle began to lift when Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson bestowed the Commander-in-Chief Unit Commendation on the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. "Your actions were nothing less than heroic and yet your country didn't recognize it at the time,” she told them. “Now I hope that the Canadian people will celebrate you for what you did, for what you represent, for how you have contributed to the pride we have in being Canadians."

Date published: 2020-02-10

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