Shortly after 12:30 PM on 21 December 1991, a group of Yugoslav Air Force fighter jets attacked Crljenka Airport near Vrsar in Istria. As there was a dense fog at the time, the number of aircraft involved is unknown although it is estimated that between 4 to 8 MIG-21 aircraft participated in the attack.
It is believed that the attack was most likely carried out by the 124th Fighter Aviation Squadron of the 117th Fighter Aviation Regiment stationed at Željava Airport near Bihać. The planes flew in from the Lim Channel and dropped deadly cargo believed to be two to four 250 kg bombs, two to four cluster bombs, eight to twelve 127 mm Lightning rockets, ninety to one hundred 23 mm cannon shells and twenty-five to thirty 57 mm missiles. It is possible that a napalm bomb used as well but did not activate.
The reason for the attack is assumed to be that pilots who had deserted the Yugoslav Air Force to work on An-2 transport aircraft were being trained at that particular airport. In addition to its use as a training facility, the airport also had significant logistical value. However, as it was accepted that the enemy would not attack the “Crljenka”, the airport possessed little air defences and the surveillance and reporting service did not respond in time. The alarm was sounded ten minutes after the attack began.
Debate as to why the facility in Vrsar was attacked as opposed to the strategically more important airport in Pula, and why weapons unsuitable for destruction of the airport (ie. Runways) continues to this day. It is also unknown who in Bihać gave the order for this senseless attack that resulted in the deaths of Drago Gavran of the Vrsar Aviation Group and an employee of the Vrsar Air Club and Dragutin Barić of the Croatian Air Force. A memorial cross was erected at the place where they were killed and Nikola Matanovac, envoy of the Croatian Air Force honoured the men during the unveiling of the monument:
Someone had to carry the weight of the open sky and it was difficult. From these first brave and self-sacrificing individuals grew today’s Croatian Air Force. In a very short period of time, a respectable force was created and continues to develop. Such deeds we can pass on to the younger generation and will serve as a pledge for a happier and better future.
Cover photo – ilustration (author Ivan Selak)
Dukovski, Darko; Dukovski, Vedran; Matika, Dario. Istra u Domovinskom ratu 1991. – 1995. : Model društvene i vojne povijesti. Pula: Istarski ogranak Društva hrvatskih književnika, 2018
Graduated with a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Zagreb. He has worked at the Croatian History Museum and as a researcher for the popular TV Calendar program for Croatian Radio and Television. He has authored several books and documentaries about Croatia’s Homeland War and is the creator/producer of the immensely popular “It Happened on this Day – Homeland War” Facebook page as well as the online portal Domovinskirat.hr. Borna also edits the Braniteljski.hr portal and is the host and editor of the daily segment “Patriotic Minutes” on Croatian Catholic Radio. He created CroHis to promote the values of the Homeland War and ensure that the sacrifices of those who defended Croatia’s independence would not be forgotten.