On the first and second of May 1994, Danish newspapers could publish a quite unusual story. Several Danish tanks stationed in Bosnia as part of the international UN-force had been engaged in fierce fighting against Bosnian Serbs. This episode received national as well as international attention since it was the first time the UN forces in the Balkans (and generally) had used such massive firepower as a response to attacks on its forces. Simultaneously, it was the first time in modern history that the Danish military had participated in something which could only be accurately described as wartime fighting.
Since then, the episode is well known as "Operation Bøllebank" ("Bøllebank" is Danish for "hooligan bashing"), and often figures as a symbol of the new international oriented Danish military that has lately been engaged in more warlike operations around the world. Therefore, it makes good reason to study this piece of modern military history more closely. The following article is a new attempt to give a relatively short account of the episode itself and its aftermath, mostly based on newspaper articles from the past 10-11 years.
Danish Soldiers In Bosnia
The Danish military involvement in Bosnia was part of a larger UN-led international force called UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force). Since 1991 in Croatia, it tried to limit the humanitarian consequences of the civil wars that followed in the slipstream of the disintegration of the Yugoslav Federal Republic and to prevent them from spreading even further.
In the fall of 1993, the Danish national assembly The Folketing decided – in the light of the increasingly more alarming stories from Bosnia about assault on civilians and the lack of respect for UN and humanitarian organizations – to strengthen its already considerable contribution with a whole tank squadron and its supply units.
The character of this contribution raised some criticism inside the UN system and from some of the warring parties, but after a fairly long and bureaucratic journey to the mission area, the Danish tanks entered the Nordic brigade NORDBAT´s activities in the area around Tuzla north of Sarajevo in war torn Bosnia from February 1994.
Men And Machines - a Profile
In April 1994, the Danish tank squadron in Bosnia was manned by soldiers from Jydske Dragonregiment in Holstebro, Jutland. Many of the soldiers knew each other intimately from the crews they used to work in back in Denmark. A squadron consists of 10 tanks, divided into 3 platoons of 3 tanks each plus a "chief tank" reserved for the squadron commander. By spring 1994, this commander was Major Carsten Rasmussen – described as "a little steady man with a neat mustache".
The 3 other platoons were commanded by Claus Andresen (1st platoon), Erik Kirk (2nd platoon) and H.L. Christensen (3rd platoon). Naturally, the deployment of the tanks was accompanied by technical and administrative support units (totally about 125 soldiers). The tank squadron was named DANSQN (Danish Tank Squadron) and, as mentioned, it joined NORDBAT 2. At the beginning of 1994 the Danish Colonel Lars R. Møller was appointed deputy commander.
The class of tanks assigned was the German Leopard 1A5, at that time a recently upgraded version of the machines that had been in Danish service since the late 70´s.
The four man crew (driver, assistant, gunner and commander) could among other things benefit from the modernization of the tank’s ability to fight at night by the use of thermal systems which made precise location of targets at great distances possible even in total darkness. Further, practically the entire interior of the tower had been removed in order to integrate a computer controlled and laser guided fire control system that could assist the crew in calculating far distances into their shots.
Furthermore, the Leopard’s stabilization system was improved, which made accurate shooting while moving a lot easier. Altogether, these improvements resulted in greater accuracy of fire over long distances and would later prove very important when tested in real battle.
NATO air attacks and UN-soldiers taken as hostages at the beginning of April 1994 had resulted in an increasingly tense atmosphere between UNPROFOR and the Bosnian-Serb forces. On April 4th, DANSQN had already been engaged in some fighting with Bosnian Serbs that resulted in loss on the local side.
Up to this point, however, the general military perception of the Danish tanks and their work had been one of full satisfaction and perhaps also a modest hope that they could contribute to limiting the warring parties and their offensive ambitions against each other and the international forces deployed in the area.
As a matter of fact, shelling was an almost daily event for the forces of NORDBAT 2 around Tuzla and its observation posts in the area. The UN-secured airport in Tuzla was attacked several times in a very short time, and in order to counter them in an effective way, NORDBAT 2 fabricated an operative plan, which included DANSQN in defending the airport. This plan was called "Bøllebank", and was activated several times the following days but without the dramatic consequences it was later to bring about.
April 29th 1994
April 29th was full of everyday assignments and routines. This lasted precisely until "Tango 2" – a Swedish manned observation post with 7 solders near the city of Kalesija northeast of Sarajevo on the border to Serbia – radioed at around 10 pm for immediate assistance; they were being shelled (for the 28th time! ).
Squadron commander reports: "We were asked to assist a Swedish observation post outside Tuzla, which was being shelled by artillery and anti-tank weapons. The Danish tank squadron moved out with 7 Leopard tanks and one armoured personnel carrier (APC)". Together with 1st and 2nd platoon (a total of 7 tanks including the "chief tank"), he met with Møller’s track driven armoured personnel carrier in the vicinity of the village of Saraci about 10 kilometers from "Tango 2" to coordinate the mission.
Møller remembers: "Actually, we intended to move up with the tanks because they tend to stop the shooting".
But shortly after all the units had arrived in Saraci with lights on and flags flapping, a grenade hit the ground close to them. The time was 11.15 pm. More grenades followed, and Møller immediately issued orders that the "chief tank" and the 1st platoon of Claus Andresen together with his own carrier should move quickly towards "Tango 2".
After 15-20 minutes under constant fire by the Bosnian-Serb Sekovici-brigade, they reached the village of Kalesija closer to the observation post. A sharp turn forced everybody to reduce speed when 2nd platoon (which was still in position back in Saraci) suddenly reported incoming anti-tank missiles against Møller, the "chief tank" and 1st platoon.
Møller experiences it as an "ugly ambush" when Bosnian-Serbs from camouflaged positions started to shoot at the tanks with anti-tank weapons, and it surprised the Danish soldiers that their attackers were equipped with modern night fighting systems. Møller recalls: "The first missile hit between the two rearmost tanks in 1st platoon, whereas missile number 2 hit the blue factory which I was sheltered by , and exploded so bricks and other stuff rained down on the APC".
The third missile had its course directly towards the rearmost tank in 1st platoon, but the driver managed to stop so the missile hit the road and exploded just ahead of the vehicle. Thoughts that it was all over and that they had to return fire run through the head of driver Little-Andres. He sees that the path behind him is blocked, and it is difficult to orient himself in the darkness.
All that is clearly visible are the many lights from enemy machine cannons and antitank weapons firing heavily against the Danish tanks. At this time he requests air support, but it is rejected. Meanwhile, 1st platoon had continued up the sharp turn towards "Tango 2", so it was solely third tank in 1st platoon (Little-Andres), the "chief tank" and Møller’s vehicle that were now stopped on a very exposed piece of ground. Quickly the third vehicles took partial cover behind buildings while heavy mortar- and artillery fire shelled the area non-stop.
Squadron commander Carsten Rasmussen was in no doubt that the Danish tanks had to return fire if they were to survive the night. He tells: "When we were attacked by anti-tank missiles I thought: ´Enough is enough´, and ordered the tanks to return fire at the missile position". Apparently, at the very same time Møller analyzes the situation and reaches the same conclusion.
He gives the order to Carsten and 2nd platoon in Saraci: "Neutralize the anti-tank positions".
Therefore, it is not entirely clear whether Carsten - in clear and legitimate self-defence – was ahead of Møller to open fire, or Carsten just followed the Colonel’s order and simply implemented it. Either way, concentrated fire was now unleashed towards the enemy, and at a great distance Erik Kirk’s 2nd platoon in Saraci neutralized those bunkers that had fired the anti-tank weapons. But firing immediately continued from other positions.
While under fire, Møller and co. in Kalesija opened fire against the positions around the mountain Vis (called "Sugar Top"), and the two vehicles from 1st platoon that made the turn earlier managed to fight their way to the Swedish observation post. Platoon commander Claus Andresen was under fire from the Zvornik-brigade, but returned it, and the two tanks eventually take position at "Tango 2" in case of renewed shelling.
Down in Kalesija, the shelling and firing abates. Møller remembers: "We managed to get two tanks through to the observation post, and then they stopped shooting". Rasmussen and Møller agree to wait a short while before starting to pull out of the city and heading back to Saraci and 2nd platoon. They were barely out of the city before all the positions on Vis opened fire at them with renewed intensity.
Møller thought: "This is too much!"
2nd platoon was ordered to return fire and cover the pullout, an order the tanks accomplished by constantly firing a huge amount of grenades against enemy positions for about 15 minutes.
Møller’s group reached Saraci unharmed as Jacob, the gunner in 2nd platoons 2nd vehicle, fired a final grenade that seemed to cause a major explosion on impact. At about 1.00 am, the last Danish tank was pulled out from Saraci, and everybody – except the two vehicles at "Tango 2" that actually remained there for several days - made it safely back. Carsten Rasmussen sums up the relief of coming back to Camp Gønge unharmed: "The happiness that we came back alive was far greater than the worry about having killed somebody".
"The Mouse Ate the
Cat": After Action
And the Danish tank had caused casualties. During the 2 hours of fighting, they fired a total of 72 105 mm rounds, of which 44 were brisant, 9 phosphor and 19 armour piercing. It was later clear that the previously mentioned last grenade had hit an unprotected ammunition supply that caused huge explosions – and probably a large number of casualties.
Shortly after the clash, the Bosnian Serbs reported the loss of 9 men. But other sources estimate it to around 150 soldiers having been killed and a similar number wounded. The Danes themselves suffered no casualties, although Møller got himself a "long-distance-shave " by a fragment, and one of the vehicles was actually hit. Right after the incident, there was wide concern that it would escalate attacks on the UN-forces in Croatia and Bosnia, especially from the Bosnian Serbs.
"By responding to the Serbs' fire, we destroyed the relationship of trust we the previous months patiently had built ", said Møller to American reporters shortly after the episode.
And in the following months, the UN placed some restrictions on Damson’s activity in order to avoid further escalation of the situation. But on April 29th it was – as Møller phrased it – "the mouse that ate the cat".
History and meaning
"Operation Bøllebank" has been viewed as important for several reasons. On one hand, there exists an understanding that "it was the real beginning of a new Danish defence policy where Danish military was to be sent on international missions with heavy military equipment and orders to strike back resolutely if attacked". Whether this is the case is open for discussion.
But here, almost 11 years on, it is clear that "Bøllebank" indeed was the first time in many years that Danish soldiers had seen battle. As it turned out, it was by no means the last time. In "Operation Amanda" on October 26th 1994 – also in Bosnia – 3 Danish tanks fired 21 grenades against Bosnian Serbs’ near Gradacac north of Tuzla in order to retake a UN- observation post. A more recent example could be the Danish F16s in Afghanistan that in late 2003 were believed to have killed as many as 200 members of Taleban and al-Qaeda.
Still, it seems clear that something unusual happened on April 29th 1994, and as mentioned at the beginning it was quickly noted in the Danish newspapers and editorials. A sense of pride and satisfaction over the Danish soldiers’ resolute and effective response in a situation where many Danish lives could have been lost was quite widespread.
Political scientist Ole Wæver observed: "The jingoistic tone of the reporting as well as statements by the Minister of Defence and other politicians indicated pride in the Danes' finally exhibiting a bit of macho behaviour after months of humiliation by the Serbs. Danes seemed little concerned by the fact that our soldiers were using armed force; on the contrary, they were rather proud of it".
The historical perspective played an important role here. In "Bøllebank", the Danish military won the biggest battle since the Second World War, and the incident is therefore a milestone in Danish military history. At the same time, it was noticed around the world and rekindled in a way respect for the little country’s defence forces.
One example says that "´Operation Bøllebank´ gave us credit; after that there were pictures of our tanks hanging in the Pentagon". Nationally, the battle resulted in a similar popularizing effect, and in the defence-system itself it has taken on an almost mythological meaning.
Perceptions like "the Danish soldiers in Bøllebank saved thousands of lives in Tuzla, they raised the nations’ esteem and created new norms for military engagement under the UN" , have played a vital part in creating a more positive attitude towards the military and its missions and personnel among the Danish population. In spite of all this praise , the involved soldiers haven´t received military decorations or medals of bravery.
Back in 1997, the Danish Defence investigated the case, but concluded that the "effort was not evaluated to such a high degree of bravery that it should entitle those present to decoration". The following year, Møller and Kirk were honoured with "Ebbe Muncks Prize of Honour" and praise from the Queen for having that kind of "responsibility, judgement and will of action the Danish soldiers showed in a very critical situation".
In many people’s memory of "Bøllebank", lieutenantcolonel Lars. R. Møller stands in the centre. Through his role under the battle and his later involvement in public relations he is probably the closest thing to a war hero that Denmark has spawned since the Second World War where Major Anders Lassen fought as a British commando.
Nevertheless, this article hopes to have showed some other
faces of the group of approx. 30 Danish soldiers that was
directly involved in "Operation Bøllebank".
In perspective, the dramatic events of april 29th 1994 gave
Danish society real war veterans for the first time in generations
and was a clear sign of a future where the military’s
battles will take placefar away from old fortresses such as
Dannevirke and Dybbøl.