Battle of the Dalmatian Channels
|Battle of the Dalmatian Channels|
|Part of the Croatian War of Independence|
A location map of the central Dalmatia, and location of the area shown on the map of Croatia (inset, red)
|Croatian Navy||Yugoslav Navy and Air Force|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Sveto Letica||Nikola Ercegović
4 missile boats
6 patrol boats
|Casualties and losses|
|2 killed||1 patrol boat captured
2 minesweepers lost
1 minesweeper damaged
2 aircraft lost
|2 civilians killed and 9 wounded
2 civilian ferries damaged
The Battle of the Dalmatian Channels was a three-day confrontation between three tactical groups of the Yugoslav Navy ships and coastal artillery and a detachment of naval commandos of the Croatian Navy, fought on 14–16 November 1991, during the Croatian War of Independence. On the first day the commandos torpedoed the Mirna-class patrol boat PČ-176 Mukos in the Split Channel of the Adriatic Sea, close to the island of Brač prompting a Yugoslav naval bombardment of Brač and Šolta Island the same day. The drifting Mukos was salvaged by Croatian civilian boats and beached at Nečujam bay. The next day, a group of Yugoslav Navy vessels deployed to the Split Channel and organised into the Kaštela tactical group (TG) bombarded the city of Split in retaliation for the loss of Mukos. In return, Croatian coastal artillery engaged the Kaštela TG. In order to draw off some of the artillery fire, the Yugoslav Navy deployed another group of vessels from the island of Vis, organised as the Vis TG, south of Šolta where the TG was engaged by more Croatian artillery. The Kaštela TG retreated east and linked up with the Ploče TG consisting of three minesweepers. On the third day the combined force sailed through the Korčula Channel—a strait separating the islands of Hvar and Korčula— to reach safety at the Yugoslav Navy base at Vis. The warships were then engaged by Croatian coastal artillery deployed on Korčula and Pelješac Peninsula, losing two minesweepers to the artillery fire in the process.
The battle marked the last deployment of the Yugoslav Navy into one of the Dalmatian channels, the loosening of the naval blockade of the Croatian coast imposed in September and the largest Croatian Navy operation in the war. The Croatian Navy later towed the grounded Mukos to Šibenik, repaired the vessel and put her into service as OB-62 Šolta. During the battle, 22 Yugoslav Navy crewmen, two Croatian gunners, and two civilian sailors in Split were killed. Thirty-three Yugoslav officers were charged in relation to the naval bombardment by Croatian authorities.
In 1990, following the electoral defeat of the government of the Socialist Republic of Croatia, ethnic tensions worsened. The Yugoslav People's Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija – JNA) confiscated Croatia's Territorial Defence (Teritorijalna obrana – TO) weapons to minimize resistance. On 17 August, the tensions escalated into an open revolt by Croatian Serbs, centred on the predominantly Serb-populated areas of the Dalmatian hinterland around Knin, parts of the Lika, Kordun, Banovina and eastern Croatia. This was followed by two unsuccessful attempts by Serbia, supported by Montenegro and Serbia's provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo to obtain the Yugoslav Presidency's approval for a JNA operation to disarm Croatian security forces in January 1991.
After a bloodless skirmish between Serb insurgents and Croatian special police in March, the JNA itself, supported by Serbia and its allies, asked the Federal Presidency to give it wartime authorities and declare a state of emergency. The request was denied on 15 March, and the JNA came under the control of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević. Milošević, preferring a campaign to expand Serbia rather than to preserve Yugoslavia, publicly threatened to replace the JNA with a Serbian army and declared that he no longer recognized the authority of the Federal Presidency. By the end of the month, the conflict had escalated into the Croatian War of Independence. The JNA stepped in, increasingly supporting the Croatian Serb insurgents, and preventing Croatian police from intervening. In early April, the leaders of the Croatian Serb revolt declared their intention to integrate the area under their control, known as SAO Krajina, with Serbia. The Government of Croatia viewed this declaration as an attempt to secede.
In May, the Croatian government responded by forming the Croatian National Guard (Zbor narodne garde – ZNG), but its development was hampered by a United Nations (UN) arms embargo and the Yugoslav Navy blockade of the Adriatic coast, both introduced in September. Following the Battle of the Barracks, the ZNG acquired a significant stock of weapons and ammunition, including 34 Yugoslav Navy vessels moored in Šibenik. In addition, the Yugoslav Navy base of Lora in Split was rendered inaccessible by Croatian forces using naval mines deployed in Kaštela Bay. On 8 October, Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, and a month later the Croatian National Guard was renamed the Croatian Army (Hrvatska vojska – HV). Late 1991 saw the fiercest fighting of the war, as the 1991 Yugoslav campaign in Croatia culminated in the Siege of Dubrovnik, and the Battle of Vukovar.
During the first days of November, the Yugoslav Navy stopped the Libertas convoy twice for inspection between the islands of Brač and Korčula as it enforced the blockade. The convoy of 40 small boats led by the Slavija ferryboat was on its way to resupply Dubrovnik and retrieve some of the refugees from the besieged city. On 11 November, the Maltese-flagged coaster Euroriver, manned by a Croatian crew, was sunk by gunfire off Šolta Island.
Order of battle
Despite the capture of the Yugoslav Navy vessels in September, the coastal defences relied on captured coastal artillery on the mainland and the islands. In central Dalmatia, those included three batteries on the mainland between Šibenik and Split: 90-millimetre (3.5 in) guns on Žirje Island, a 100-millimetre (3.9 in) battery near Zečevo, and 88-millimetre (3.5 in) guns on Smokvica Island near Primošten. Four coastal artillery batteries on islands off Split were captured as well: the 88-millimetre Marinča Rat on the island of Šolta, the 85-millimetre (3.3 in) Ražanj battery on the island of Brač, and two artillery bases on the island of Korčula—the 88-millimetre battery Ražnjić and the 85-millimetre battery Privala. A portion of the guns captured on Žirje and Šolta were removed and used to set up two additional coastal artillery batteries—Kašjuni and Duilovo in Split. Additional batteries were set up in Lovište, at the tip of the Pelješac Peninsula, and in Blace and Črna Luka on Korčula, on the coast north of Smokvica and Vela Luka. The battery deployed to Črna Luka contained 76-millimetre (3.0 in) M1942 (ZiS-3) guns. A naval commando detachment from the Croatian Navy was deployed to the western Brač. The coastal artillery was subordinated to the Croatian Navy and command of Admiral Sveto Letica.
The Yugoslav Navy deployed three tactical groups (TGs), named Kaštela, Vis and Ploče, off central Dalmatia from its bases in the islands of Vis and Lastovo. The Kaštela TG was deployed to the sea off Split and north of the islands of Šolta and Brač. It consisted of Koni-class frigate VPBR-31 Split, Končar-class fast attack craft RTOP-401 Rade Končar and RTOP-403 Ramiz Sadiku, Osa-class missile boat RČ-306 Nikola Martinović, Shershen-class torpedo boats TČ-220 Crvena zvezda and TČ-224 Pionir II, and two Mirna-class patrol boats, including PČ-176 Mukos. Kaštela TG may have also included an additional Osa-class missile boat. The Ploče TG, deployed to the sea between the mainland and Brač to the east of the Kaštela TG, consisted of three minesweepers: ML-143 Iž, ML-144 Olib and ML-153 Blitvenica. The Vis TG was deployed off the western tip of the island of Hvar. It consisted of a Kotor-class frigate VPBR-34 Pula, commanded by Captain Ilija Brčić, one Končar-class fast attack craft, two Osa-missile boats, and two Mirna-class patrol craft. The Yugoslav Navy fleet was under overall command of Rear Admiral Nikola Ercegović.
On 14 November, at 5:34 p.m., the Croatian naval commandos attacked Mukos off Brač using a torpedo fired from the island. Her crew reported an explosion in the bow of the ship, and requested assistance from the Kaštela TG because she started to sink. The Kaštela TG dispatched Pionir II, which reached Mukos shortly afterwards and transferred the crew of the damaged vessel by 6:10 p.m. Mukos was left to drift towards Šolta with her bow fully submerged. Three dead crew members were left in her bow. The Kaštela TG directed gunfire against the Milna and Stomorska areas of Šolta nearly the entire night in order to draw fire from Croatian coastal artillery. However, the coastal artillery deployed in the targeted areas did not return fire. Additional Yugoslav vessels sortied from Vis, only to return to their base before the morning, without transiting the Split Entrance—the strait between the islands of Brač and Šolta. By that time, the naval gunfire also died down. The Ploče TG remained in their assigned area of patrol.
On 15 November at 6:42 a.m., the Kaštela TG commenced a naval bombardment of targets in the city of Split, and on the islands of Brač and Šolta. The order was issued aboard VPBR-31 Split and the JNA Maritime Military Sector command and JNA bases in Split were advised of the attack. The JNA based within the city of Split did not join the bombardment though. Letica contacted the JNA Maritime Military Sector commanding officer, Major General Nikola Mladenić, regarding the attack, but Mladenić claimed he could not control the situation because his headquarters as denied a supply of electricity. The European Community Monitor Mission (ECMM) was also notified and the ECMM promised to make efforts to stop the bombardment. Shortly thereafter, Letica ordered the coastal artillery to commence fire against the Kaštela TG. Besides several near-misses, the coastal artillery fire scored one direct hit against VPBR-31 Split, that was attributed to the Marinča Rat-based battery on Šolta. Croatian sources indicate that the bombardment was ordered by Mladenić in retribution for the loss of Mukos.
In response to the difficult position of the Yugoslav Navy vessels north of Šolta and Brač, the Vis TG, led by Pula sailed north from the island of Vis in order to draw a portion of the artillery fire away from the Kaštela TG. As the ships approached the Split Entrance, they made a radar contact sailing away from Split towards open sea at a high speed. Pula attempted to enforce the blockade imposed in September requesting the vessel, by radio, to stop for an inspection. Since the vessel failed to respond, Pula fired several shots in front of it, before Brčić noticed that it was a hydrofoil carrying an ECMM team, flying the flag of Europe. That led him to abandon the pursuit and proceed to Šolta.
The Vis TG came under fire from the coastal artillery when it arrived within 7 to 8 nautical miles (13 to 15 kilometres; 8.1 to 9.2 miles) of Šolta. In response to the incoming fire, Pula fired her 76-millimetre (3.0 in) bow-mounted gun against targets on Brač and Šolta. Croatian sources claim that approximately 800 rounds were fired indiscriminately striking civilian targets, while Brčić claims the TG under his command acted against artillery located outside residential areas only. Pula also fired four salvos of depth charges using her RBU-6000 rocket launcher while the land was outside its range to draw greater attention from the artillery gunners.
The Kaštela TG started to withdraw east at approximately 8:00 a.m., fearing the shortest available route to Vis might be mined in the area of Split Entrance. It reached the eastern tip of Brač by 8:30 a.m. At 9:28 a.m. three Yugoslav Air Force J-21 Jastrebs flew low over Brač and Šolta, and minutes later two were reportedly shot down by anti-aircraft artillery. Overall, six Yugoslav jets were sortied against targets on Brač and Šolta. Following the naval action of the morning, Croatian civilian boats from Šolta took partially submerged Mukos under tow to the Nečujam Bay and ran it aground there. In the afternoon, the Kaštela TG and the Ploče TG linked up east of the island of Hvar.
On 16 November, at 11:00 a.m., the combined force of the Kaštela and Ploče TGs started to form up at the eastern end of the Korčula Channel—the sea separating the islands of Hvar and Korčula, just to the north of the Cape Lovište at the westernmost tip of the Pelješac Peninsula. Relatively slow minesweepers of the Ploče TG, Iž and Olib, took hits in the bow and the engine room respectively, from the 76-millimetre (3.0 in) guns located at Lovište. In order to assist the minesweepers, Split turned around to engage the artillery at Cape Lovište while the minesweepers sailed north closer to the Hvar shore in increasingly thick fog.
At 3:30 p.m., the Kaštela TG turned around once more to attack Cape Lovište again, only to be engaged by nearby coastal artillery located on the island of Korčula. Blitvenica was damaged in the shooting, and the entire naval force moved northwest towards the Šćedro Island. Iž ran aground in the Torac Bay of the island of Hvar after sustaining heavy damage and was abandoned, while Olib sank between Pelješac and Hvar. Her crew was rescued by the remaining vessels in the group. At 7:00 p.m., the fleet sailed south from Šćedro towards the western part of Korčula, seeking shelter as the Sirocco picked up. As they approached Korčula, coastal artillery at Črna Luka and Cape Privala fired on the ships, forcing them west towards Vis. The Vis TG did not engage Croatian positions on 16 November.
The Yugoslav Navy was defeated, and its ships never sailed north of the Split Entrance again. The battle turned out to be the largest engagement of the Croatian Navy throughout the war. Two Croatian anti-aircraft gunners were killed in action on the island of Brač. According to Mladenić, the Yugoslav Navy lost 22 seamen, including three aboard Mukos, two minesweepers and a patrol craft. The Yugoslav Air Force lost two aircraft, but the pilots were rescued by a helicopter that sortied from the island of Vis to pick them up from the sea. Croatian Navy divers later raised Mukos and she was towed to Šibenik by a Brodospas-owned tug. She was repaired and turned over to the Croatian Navy as OB-62 Šolta. Two civilians were killed and nine were wounded in the naval bombardment of Split. The bombardment damaged the Archaeological Museum, Split Municipality Building, Arena Gripe, Public Sanitation Institute, the Technical School, and the ferries Bartol Kašić and Vladimir Nazor moored in the Port of Split. The two civilian fatalities were crew members of Vladimir Nazor.
Croatian authorities charged 33 JNA officers for the bombardment of Split, Šolta and Brač, including Brčić who was tried in absentia and convicted to 15 years in prison. Brčić, who later became a high-ranking officer of the Montenegrin Navy, was arrested in Naples in late 2007 when he travelled to a NATO function. Nonetheless, he was not extradited to Croatia. Like Brčić, most of the charged officers were tried in absentia. As of 2013[update], fifteen officers, including Brčić, were convicted, one was acquitted while seventeen cases were ordered to be tried again by the Supreme Court of Croatia because of irregularities during previous trials.
In Croatia, the events of 14–15 November are referred to as the Battle of Split (Bitka za Split) or the Battle of the Split Channel (Boj u Splitskom kanalu), while the events of 16 November are referred to as the Battle of the Korčula Channel (Bitka u Korčulanskom kanalu). The events spanning all three days of the Battle of the Dalmatian Channels are also referred to as the Battle of the Adriatic (Bitka za Jadran).
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