The eight-plus years of bloody conflict in the Balkans that began with the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991 and (more or less) ended with the Kumanovo Treaty of 1999 displayed for the world the lingering bitter ethnic and religious divides that made the fighting in both world wars so savage earlier in the century. The 1980 death of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito uncapped the regional tensions which led to the successful independence movements in Slovenia and Croatia, and wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Kosovo.
The grim history of these events is replete with the age-old themes of conflict in that area of the world. Atrocities, massacres, rape, savagery. To which was added the feckless and ineffectual UN Protection Forces (UNPROFOR), arms embargoes, belated NATO participation, and a Europe once again largely unconcerned with a conflagration in the Balkans.
What is a curious aspect of these wars is the extent to which tanks and armored vehicles left over from World War II populated the battlefields of those wars. In the post-World War II period and during the Cold War, Tito’s Yugoslavia was an officially “non-aligned” nation, and as a result was the recipient of both US and Soviet military aid. This aid consisted of several hundred of the ubiquitous Soviet T-34 and US M4 Sherman tanks and M18 Hellcat tank destroyers, along with self-propelled guns, AFVs, and other implements. Also, during the time when Yugoslavia seemed threatened by imminent Soviet invasion, nearly 30o 90mm-armed M36 Jackson tank destroyers were supplied by the United States. The T-34 and M4 variants were late-war models, the T-34/85 and M4A3, respectively, the former carrying the 85mm D12 cannon, and the latter armed with the excellent long-barreled 76mm gun.
In the 1970s, Yugoslavia began to produce its own variant of the modern T-72 main battle tank, replacing the older T-54/55 in service. It was thought that while some of the T-34/85s probably still existed in reserve, most of the American equipment was long since withdrawn from the inventory. However, when the Balkan Wars began in 1991, and particularly after the so-called “Battle of the Barracks” that summer which led to the capture of large numbers of Yugoslavia National Army (JNA) tanks and heavy weapons by the Croatian independence forces, many of the old American and Soviet tanks and tank destroyers were employed by both sides. This led to some very interesting images from the battlefields in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia. And it was reported that at least one M36 was destroyed by a US F-16 strike before NATO air power forced dispersal and concealment of heavy weapons in the ample woodlands.
With a supply of replacement parts almost non-existent, many Shermans and Hellcats and Jacksons were cannibalized for spares, and some wildly improvisational local modifications were made. This includes at least one M18 Hellcat with a Molotava truck engine replacing the US-made radial, and an M18 turret fitted to a T-55 hull. (You can see both clearly in the images below.) In addition, a considerable number of the M4s and M36s had their power packs swapped for Soviet T-54/55 engines, for which parts and fuel were relatively plentiful.
As ammunition grew scarce and keeping the ancient vehicles in operating order became nearly impossible, those veteran tanks of another age that were not destroyed (which was a considerable number) were retired from service. The T-34s fared somewhat better. By 2005, it was reported that virtually all of the American equipment was disposed of, and only a few T-34s remained in service. With that, a number of M18 and M36 tank destroyers had been identified for purchase and restoration by museums in the United States, and at least one has made it from the troubled region into American hands (featured in Season 1 of Tank Overhaul).
Here are some of the more interesting pictures from the battlefields of the Balkans, where, despite their age and obsolescence, many of the World War II-vintage tanks served their operators well, and were feared by opponents who did not have modern counter-mech weaponry. (The photos that show tanks appearing to have an armored skirt are actually showing a hard rubber sheet, which was to protect against RPGs by prematurely detonating the warheads and dissipating the molten stream of metal. This is reported to have actually worked to some extent, with some T-34/85s and Shermans surviving multiple strikes from RPG-7s. I could find no corroboration of those reports.)