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[30 YEARS OF INDEPENDENT SLOVENIA] Analysis of the war for Slovenia: WE GOT UP AND SURVIVED

By: Janez Janša

Europe, and the European Union in particular, is today largely a place of peace and at least relative progress, but some nations living in the core of the EU without their own state are nevertheless striving to become a nation and an independent entity in the international community. 

he Catalans would like to decide in a referendum whether to secede from democratic Spain, and the Scots on whether to remain part of the UK or not. Even more widely on the planet Earth today, there are many nations that are much larger than Slovenia, but do not have their own country, although with a few exceptions, as a rule, everyone wants it. Slovenians have recently won the right to their own country. 

The value centre of the nation 

In the history of every nation-building nation, there is a definite time that enabled the nation to become sovereign, that is, its own master. Such a time, usually tied to events that enabled independence, placement on the world map and international recognition, is worshiped by nations as something “sacred”, so national holidays are dedicated to it, cities, squares, streets or decorations are named after it and there are events organised to celebrate it. Such a time evokes a positive attitude from the majority of citizens or members of the nation. Such a time represents the centre of values of the nation. For us Slovenians, this is the time of independence. Within this time, which stretches over history from 1987 to 1992, the days of the war for Slovenia stand out. These were the weeks, days, and hours in June and July 1991, when everything was at stake. An independent and European future for Slovenians, a democratic system, our religion and constitution, prosperity and our lives. These were the days when the nation − which was disarmed in May 1990 − once again stood up for its rights, declared Slovenia independent and resisted the aggression of the Yugoslav People’s Army. 

In those days, a small percent of Slovenians, who, with the mass support of the nation, took up all available weapons and together with the civil defence opposed what was technically the fifth strongest army in Europe, achieved the impossible with their courage and wrote the final act of the Slovenian nation’s transition to the independent nation. The courage of the Slovenians was admired by the whole world at that time. Representatives of the most powerful countries in the world, who claimed a few days before the war that they would never recognize us, changed their position due to our courage. In a few days, the world press changed its attitude towards Slovenia and switched to our side. The American high-circulation magazine People published an article on the war for Slovenia titled “The Mouse That Roared”. Slovenians around the world, as one, took to the streets of the metropolis, flooded governments with letters and appeals, and supported the struggle of their homeland against Goliath. Despite the opposition to independence in part of left-wing politics, the nation was united. Unified like never before, and very brave. These were “the finest hours”, the holy hours, a high note of the Slovenian nation. We rose and survived. 

The numbers also say a lot 

This indisputable historical fact cannot be changed or distorted. Nor can it  be forgotten or overshadowed, although this has been constantly attempted since 1991. “Did we have a war in Slovenia at all?” some asked mockingly, but of course only once the last aggressor soldier had departed Slovenia in October 1991. While the voices of opponents of Slovenian independence, claiming that there was no real war in Slovenia at all, became increasingly louder and media-supported over the years since the YPA aggression against Slovenia, paradoxically, historians in Serbia have no doubt about it. The book by two Serbian historians (Kosta Nikolić, Vladimir Petrović: War in Slovenia / June–July 1991, Documents of the Presidency of the SFRY, Institute of Contemporary History, Belgrade 2012) has an unambiguous title: War in Slovenia. 

The YPA generals and the politicians of the SFRY, who sent tanks and troops over us, claim to have defended Yugoslavia and its internationally recognized borders, but they do not deny the war. They do not even deny that they were defeated in Slovenia. 

In their memoirs, YPA officers from the 5th Military District, who operationally led the aggression against Slovenia, describe in detail how they experienced those June and July days in 1991 and how “the bitterness of defeat in Slovenia fell hard on them”. Due to the defeat of the first wave of aggression, the commander of the 5th Military District, General Konrad Kolšek, was replaced by the then commander of the 3rd Military District, General Žiko Avramović. However, two days after his arrival, Avramović repeated Kolšek’s fate and suffered an even more severe defeat. 

The numbers also have their say. On 26 June 1991, the YPA launched an aggression against Slovenia with units totalling 22,000 soldiers, officers and non-commissioned officers. Analyses published in the book War for Slovenia show that the YPA had 48 dead and 116 wounded in the war for Slovenia, the TO units captured 2,663 of its members in the fighting, while 3,090 voluntarily fled to the Slovenian side. 

Of the 22,000 members, the YPA lost at least 5,917, or more than a quarter, in just over 7 days of fighting, among them a disproportionately large proportion − at least 534 − of active-duty officers and non-commissioned officers. 

For the first comparison: TO RS (taking into account losses due to accidents) had 9 dead and 44 wounded, and the Slovenian police 4 dead. The YPA captured only one TO officer. No one transferred from the TO to the YPA. 

For a second comparison (because the derogatory and scathing words about non-war in 1991 come mainly from ZZB members): Between 6 April 1941 and 9 May 1945, Slovenian partisan units, with their own heavy losses, neutralized significantly fewer members of the occupying Italian and German forces than the TO and the police managed in the ten days of the war for Slovenia, despite the fact that during WW2 the two mentioned occupiers sent mainly second-class military formations to Slovenia with exactly the same armament. 

As the reinforcements sent by Generals Kolšek and Avramović to Slovenia were mostly stopped upon entry, the remaining YPA units in Slovenia in the period before the Brioni Agreement were strategically in a completely subordinate position in all respects. On 26 June, the YPA started the war not only technically, but also disproportionately stronger in numbers. Slovenia was not able to call to arms even as many members of the TO as the YPA had directly on our territory. The reason, of course, was the lack of armaments. Less than 10 days later, the situation completely changed in Slovenia’s favour. Not only was Slovenia able to arm 35,300 of its soldiers (excluding members of the police) as early as 5 July due to confiscated weapons and equipment, but with the help of acquired heavy weapons, especially anti-armour and anti-aircraft weapons, it was able to count on the successful resistance to any force that the YPA would be able to send against the young Slovenian state. 

This fact had a decisive influence on the change of Milošević’s strategy. His original plan, Plan A − with the help of the YPA and the SFRY administration to form a centralized Yugoslavia within its former borders and under direct Serbian domination − failed with the defeat of the YPA in Slovenia. Around 10 July 1991, the Serbian leadership finally decided to move to Plan B, to the formation of a greater Serbia. 

Documents of the war for Slovenia 

The documents published in the almanac War for Slovenia follow, as a rule, chronologically as they were created. 

The presentation begins with an order setting up a permanent task force of the coordinating body, issued on 7 May 1991. Due to the timely establishment of a coordination group (hereinafter also the Slovenian Defence Headquarters, coordination or headquarters) on 18 March 1991 and the introduction of permanent duty in early May, we were prepared enough to cope with the first serious measurement of power against the YPA with the incident in Pekre. 

The presentation ends with an analysis of the combat operations of the TO RS from 26 June to 17 July 1991, which was discussed on 18 July 1991 at a conference of the Slovenian Defence Staff or the coordination group. 

The documents published in the anthology “War for Slovenia”, which follow each other in time, clearly show how the YPA aggression against Slovenia took place, how we defended and saved ourselves and defeated the Yugoslav federal Army. (Photo: Archives of Democracy) militarily

A special appendix at the end of the book is a presentation of the introductory part of the YPA plan Okop (Bedem), which the aggressor used in part as a basis for the attack on Slovenia and which most clearly illustrates the mentality of the YPA military leadership and the SFRY political leadership. They were convinced that their power was practically unlimited and that they were capable of defeating even NATO, let alone poor Slovenia. Unfortunately, many influential domestic opponents of Slovenian independence were also convinced of the power of the YPA, its communist-partisan ideology and its weapons. Therefore, throughout, and especially since the disarmament of the TO RS in May 1990 and the plebiscite in December of the same year, they played on the card of “operetta independence”, which counted on the declaration of independent Slovenia (the day when dreams are allowed), which, due to the power of the YPA, could not be realized and they would, therefore, immediately offer other nations unification into a new Yugoslavia. This was the official, publicly presented doctrine of the Social Democrats (then still ZKS-SDP). Documents and testimonies on this are published in the White Book of Slovenian Independence (Nova obzorja, June 2013). 

The first chapter “Final preparations for the defence of Slovenia” contains many hitherto mostly unpublished or lesser-known documents relating to the work of the coordination group, the Ministry of Defence, the TO and the police in May and June 1991. This was a period when, on the one hand, there was a growing awareness of the great D day, which would, more than any other day in our history, decide on the future of the Slovenian nation; on the other hand, this time was concentrated in frantic preparations for defence against the apparent threat of this future. During this time, the following stand out: the events in Pekre, the abduction of the commander of the 7th PŠTO and the first victim of aggression against Slovenia, supplementing plans for the successful obstruction and blockade of YPA units and efforts to at least provide emergency TO with infantry weapons. 

The second chapter “The Baptism of Fire Immediately at Birth” covers the period from 25 June to 10 July 1991, the time in which the war for Slovenia was won. The period begins with the proclamation of independent Slovenia in the Assembly and the effective takeover of border crossings, customs, air traffic control, foreign exchange inspection and other federal competencies until then, and the establishment of border checkpoints on the new state border with Croatia. Due to the issuance of the correct date for the takeover of effective power by Ciril Zlobec, a member of the Presidency of the Republic of Slovenia, the period begins with a partially premature intervention by units of the Rijeka YPA Corps in Primorska and Goriška and with a strategic dilemma of whether to use weapons for defence before or only after the declaration of independence. The chapter ends with documents created on 10 July 1991. This was the day when the Slovenian Defence Staff successfully neutralized the strongest attempts of the YPA to justify and turn the strongly ambiguous conclusions of the Brioni negotiations to its advantage, thus regaining all that it had lost in the struggle. 

One of the central documents of this chapter is the Staff Order of 28 June 1991: the “offensive” order. Just a few sentences of this document attest to several things. First, the document is a reflection of the accurate and timely recognition of the border situation. This is, in most great battles or wars, the time when it depends on the accurate and timely understanding of the moment and consequently on the accurate decisions of the commanders as to where the scales will be tilted. 28 June 1991 was the day when, after the successful blockades of many armoured columns and the first taste of defeat, the YPA used aviation en masse to attack civilian facilities. The purpose was obvious: to demonstrate superiority in the air and to sow fear among the defenders and the population. We knew that this decision would be followed by armoured reinforcements from the Varaždin and Zagreb corps and that the emergency balance, established on 27 June, hung in the balance. 

We needed heavy weapons and successful actions to raise morale. Best of both at the same time, so it was high time to attack YPA warehouses and implement pre-prepared plans codenamed “Purchasing”. On the same day, the reconnaissance platoon of the Krkovič Special Brigade seized a large warehouse of weapons, mines and military equipment near Borovnica in a flash operation without casualties. All participants deserve the highest independence decoration, a sign of freedom, for this operation. Maybe an independent Slovenia will one day have a president of the republic who, like them, had a heart for independence and will award them this decoration. 

There were many very important events in the war for Slovenia, which decisively weaved the fabric of victory. The first analysis of the RŠTO, published in the third chapter, justifiably emphasizes the stopping of armoured columns on Medvedjek and the bridge near Ormož at the beginning of the fighting. The mortar attack on the runway of the military airport in Cerklje, which drove away the JVL air squadron to Bihač, can be placed in the same category. In addition, the conquest of border crossings in Rožna dolina, Šentilj and Holmec, the blockade of YPA armoured columns in many places across the country, the downing of enemy helicopters, the capture of the remaining YPA warehouses, and so forth. 

Nevertheless, after a more detailed study of all combat operations of the TO and the Slovenian police and their placement in time and the wider picture, the most important combat operation of the TO to win the war for Slovenia can easily be singled out. This was undoubtedly the occupation of the YPA warehouse near Borovnica. In this operation, a handful of members of the special brigade confiscated a larger amount of weapons, mines and military equipment than had all Slovenian partisan units in all combat operations during WWII combined (seizures during the capitulation of Italy and Germany after defeat on world battlefields are excluded). The success was also complete because the warehouse was occupied in sight of the large concentration of YPA units in the Vrhnika barracks, from where the warehouse could be destroyed with cannon and rocket weapons, if they had found out about the operation in time. But the unit that took over the warehouse convinced the radio operator, who had to report to Vrhnika every 30 minutes, about the situation in the warehouse, to continue to report to the command how everything was in order in the warehouse. 

To paraphrase the famous statement of Winston Churchill after the air battle for England, it can be said that never before in the history of the Slovenian nation have so many people owed so much gratitude to a handful of their compatriots. 

The third chapter, “Assessments and Findings”, presents documents from 10 to 17 July 1991. The central part of this chapter is the analysis of the combat operation of the TO RS, which was actually done on an ongoing basis or immediately after the combat activities. This close proximity in time has its pros and cons. The downside is the lack of time, which did not allow the Republican and Provincial TO Headquarters to seriously examine the assessments and additional verifications with all subordinate commands. The positive side, however, is that the written estimates, which were actually made “on the spot”, are without subsequent rationalizations and embellishments. Everything that formed a multitude of different tactical decisions at various levels within the framework of a unified defence strategy, the result of which was − with all the pros and cons − a military victory or victory in the war for Slovenia, was recorded and evaluated. 

Valuable experiences of decisive days 

Snapshots from the operating room of the coordination group that led the defence of the Republic of Slovenia at the beginning of July 1991. (Photo: The book War for Slovenia)

The documents published in this collection are a reflection of the time in which they were created and the people who created them. Some reports and orders are written professionally and say everything that was needed without unnecessary words. Others are inferior and without some necessary elements. Some are even handwritten, depending on the specific circumstances of the war. The present documents, together with numerical data and general knowledge about the war in Slovenia, of course also enable an assessment of the performance of individual provincial commands, coordination subgroups and, last but not least, an assessment of the headquarters that led Slovenia’s defence. All this shows the training and motivation of individuals and entire commands, and in some places also the influence of that part of Slovenian politics that only counted on an operetta independence and, in some places, even in the midst of the war treated the YPA more favourably than the TO. 

To a lesser extent, the documents refer to the role of the Slovenian police, which was strategically important for Slovenia’s defence, as they had already been collected and published in various other publications. Of course, the picture was not the same everywhere . While its units in some places (e.g. the South Primorska region) were more active than the units and commands of the TO, in others (e.g. the Dolenjska region) they practically did not fire a single shot. Later, paradoxically, especially the staff from Dolenjska experienced promotion within the police and the Ministry of the Interior. 

When reading the documents, the reader will directly or indirectly come across some information and points of interest that have been forgotten in 23 years, or have never been generally known. In 1991, the author of this text was directly involved in the creation or reading of many of the present orders, directives, reports and analyses. Nevertheless, while editing the anthology and re-reading it, he came across many details that are interesting today, but at that time, in the middle of the war and the concentration of time, they were not even noticed. Also, today, due to the sufficient time span, when reading the analyses, we become even more aware of some of the mistakes we had made. 

One of my mistakes from the period of preparations for the defence of Slovenia was my consent to continue the reorganization of the territorial defence, which reduced the number of provincial headquarters from 13 to 7, and merging the municipal headquarters into regional ones. From the point of view of the serious danger that threatened us, we should have stopped the reorganization, as the new structure, especially of the regional headquarters, has caused us many headaches. In addition to complicating natural ties to local communities, the reorganization brought a lot of bureaucracy and not enough elaborate ways of leading and commanding. 

Another similar mistake was our underestimation of the importance of new symbols and uniforms. In other words, in a severe financial drought, the assessment of priorities was insufficient. Although we were threatened by war, the Minister of Finance, Marko Kranjec, with the strong support of the opposition and the majority of the government, allocated very meagre funds to the TO, which we had to devote almost entirely to the purchase of weapons. Due to the non-support and sometimes open resistance of the majority of members of the Supreme Command and the Presidency of the Republic of Slovenia to the strengthening of defence (4 members of the Presidency signed a declaration in February 1991 stating that Slovenia did not need an army), and due to the enormous procrastination and the resistance of the opposition to the adoption of a defence budget, we received the already meagre funds for defence only in the spring, which seriously jeopardized the purchase of at least modest quantities of anti-tank weapons and infantry weapons. We were able to start training the regular army too late, which was only in May 1991, and only for two smaller units. 

The war left behind devastation, as well as joy over the successful defence of the young country and the
homeland of Slovenia.

There was nothing left for the uniforms, and the new state symbols could not be determined by the parliament until 25 June 1991, due to the opposition. Nevertheless, we should have somehow improvised and equipped at least the most important units with new uniforms before the war. Above all, there is no excuse for not providing enough cockades for military hats until independence. Therefore, criticisms of the lack of insignia and new uniforms appearing in the combat reports of many staffs are entirely in place. 

Reports and analyses show that we had difficulties in mobilizing units. Until then, it had remained hidden from the public that the Presidency of the Republic of Slovenia did not declare mobilization even on 27 June 1991, when it established the aggression and issued an order for the use of weapons. The units were collected together with calls for an  “experimental” mobilization, which was the responsibility of the RŠTO, as if it were a military exercise. Somehow it succeeded that way, too. There were several reasons for such an approach, but we will probably never find out about them all. If everyone acted as they should have, on 25 June 1991, PRAMOS, the famous act of the SFRY on mobilization, would no longer have been valid in Slovenia. 

The response of the called-up TO members was on average high, but not everywhere. The greatest problems and unresponsiveness were found in Ljubljana and partly in Maribor, where we had to issue 30 to 50 percent more calls for individual units in order to achieve at least 90 percent completeness of the units. The first period after the aggression in Ljubljana was especially critical, as the response did not reach a satisfactory percentage until 10 hours after the mobilization. After the end of the war, the competent authorities somehow forgot to take action against those who evaded the call, which justifiably caused a bad mood among all those who immediately responded to the call to defend the homeland. Overall, the response was much better in rural and smaller cities than in national and regional centres. 

In addition to the mentioned administrative and general shortcomings and errors at the state level, the published documents also provide a relatively good understanding of events at the provincial and municipal level. Many events in the combat reports are not described in sufficient detail, but it is still possible to understand where the problems and mistakes occurred. Sometimes, simply from the fact that the event that took place was known and significant is not mentioned in the reports at all. For example, some border crossings were occupied by the YPA without resistance, although they could be defended at the accesses. Many barricades were neither mined nor defended, so they did not pose major obstacles to YPA tanks. Already on the first day of the war, it was clear in many places where the commanders were capable and where they were not up to the test. Replacements were needed in some key locations, including the largest province with the most TO units. There was no time to learn and adapt. The lost day could not be recovered. The YPA unit, which too easily crossed the undefended barricade in the gorge, then had to be stopped in the open, at much greater risk. The tanks, which, despite explicit orders to stop them at the beginning, drove away from the Vrhnika barracks without resistance and sowed death in Brnik, where, deployed in a combat position, we could not simply neutralize them without heavy weapons. 

Despite all the shortcomings, inconsistencies in policy and mistakes, Slovenia strategically dominated the SFRY and the YPA. The most important reasons for winning the war for Slovenia were: 

  1. A clear political goal, supported by the unity of the nation and the plebiscite result.
  2. We did not underestimate the opponent, but they did us.
  3. Our units were homogeneous and motivated, and the enemy’s mostly not.
  4. We made the most of the necessary and possible preparations for the defence in a timely manner.
  5. We had good information about the opponent.
  6. We neutralized the superiority of the enemy in arms and numbers by limiting their manoeuvres.
  7. A humane approach by avoiding casualties on both sides, non-discriminatory treatment of the wounded, and successful propaganda activity motivated the opponent’s units to surrender.
  8. Numerous individual successes of the TO and police units from the first day of the war onwards strengthened the strength of the TO and raised the morale of the military and civilian population.. 
  9. Good civil defence organization replaced the lack of heavy weapons with obstruction.
  10. Despite the war, the supply of the population functioned almost uninterrupted, all branches of government, except the judiciary, functioned efficiently, and the new state functioned satisfactorily.

The unity of the nation, the courage of its armed force, the strong political will of the Demos government coalition led by Dr. Jože Pučnik and the self-initiative of a multitude of individual commanders of tactical units of the TO and the police forged a victory in the war for Slovenia. A victory elevated in its finality to the Slovenian Olympus, a victory more important than all the battles that our ancestors often fought for at the expense of others through the whirlpools of the ungrateful history of past centuries. 

Every day, the war for Slovenia discovered thousands of heroes in the Slovenian nation. Boys and men overcame fear out of love for their homeland. They took up arms to defend their home, their religion and constitution, Slovenia. They did a great job. After the victory, they returned to their homes. The state has forgotten them, but the homeland will never forget them. Because these were holy hours, a high note of the Slovenian nation. We rose up and survived.

Janez Janša was the Vice-President of the Slovenian Democratic Union, a member of the first democratically elected Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia in 1990 and the Minister of Defence at the time of the independence of the Republic of Slovenia in 1990−1992. Today, he is the President of the Slovenian Democratic Party and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Slovenia for the third time. 

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