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Croatian National Guard
Logo of Croatian National Guard.svg
Active 15 May 1991–3 November 1991
Disbanded Renamed as the Croatian Army
Country Croatia
Branch Army
Size 8,000 active, 40,000 reserve troops (July 1991)
Part of Ministry of the Interior
Ministry of Defence (from 20 September)
Anniversaries 28 May
Engagements Croatian War of Independence
Martin Špegelj
Anton Tus

The Croatian National Guard (Croatian language: Zbor narodne garde

– ZNG) was an armed force established by Croatia in April and May 1991, during the Croatian War of Independence. Due to legal reasons, the ZNG was established within the framework of the Ministry of the Interior. Despite this, the ZNG was under direct command of the Ministry of Defence. It was tasked with protection of Croatia's borders and territory in addition to tasks normally associated with police forces. In practice, the ZNG was formed through the transfer of special police units to the ZNG, establishing four all-professional brigades in May 1991. The ZNG was publicly presented in a military parade held in Zagreb on 28 May 1991. The ZNG was commanded by Defence Minister General Martin Špegelj before his resignation in early August. He was replaced by General Anton Tus, who also became the first head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Croatia established on 21 September.

During its development, the ZNG suffered from various problems, including shortages of weapons and ammunition, lack of uniforms, inadequate training and an overall deficiency in trained officers, as well as poor staff work and command structures which prevented effective coordination of multiple units. Nonetheless, the problems were offset by high morale, a clear sense of objectives and high levels of mobilisation. Following the Battle of the Barracks, the ZNG was able to expand significantly using arms captured from the Yugoslav People's Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija). By the end of October, 60 new brigades and independent battalions were established. On 3 November, the ZNG was renamed the Croatian Army (Hrvatska vojska).


In 1990, following the electoral defeat of the government of the Socialist Republic of Croatia, ethnic tensions between Croats and Croatian Serbs worsened.[1] The Yugoslav People's Army (Jugoslavenska narodna armija – JNA) believed Croatia would use the Croatian Territorial Defence Force's (Teritorijalna obrana – TO) equipment to build its own army and confront the JNA itself.[2] In order to minimize the expected resistance, the JNA confiscated the TO weapons.[3] On 17 August, the tensions escalated into an open revolt of the Croatian Serbs,[1] centred on the predominantly Serb-populated areas of the Dalmatian hinterland around Knin,[4] parts of the Lika, Kordun, Banovina regions and eastern Croatia.[5] They established a Serbian National Council in July 1990 to coordinate opposition to Croatian President Franjo Tuđman's policy of pursuing independence for Croatia. Milan Babić, a dentist from the southern town of Knin, was elected president. Knin's police chief, Milan Martić, established paramilitary militias. The two men eventually became the political and military leaders of the SAO Krajina, a self-declared state incorporating the Serb-inhabited areas of Croatia.[6]

The JNA learned of Croatia's intent to develop its own military force through JNA Captain Vladimir Jager, a double agent employed by both Croatia and the JNA Counterintelligence Service (KOS). The JNA devised Operation Shield (Štit) in response—aimed at disarming Croatian forces, as well as the arrest and trial of the Croatian leadership. Even though the operation was prepared by December 1990, federal Defence Minister General Veljko Kadijević, never sought authorisation to carry it out from the Yugoslav Presidency. Instead, he ordered the KOS to stand down on the morning the operation was scheduled to take place.[2]

In the beginning of 1991, Croatia had no regular army. In an effort to bolster its defence, Croatia doubled the size of its police force to about 20,000. The most effective part of the force was the 3,000-strong special police that were deployed in 12 battalions, adopting military organisation. In addition there were 9,000–10,000 regionally organised reserve police. The reserve police were set up in 16 battalions and 10 companies, but they lacked weapons needed to arm many of the troops.[7]



General Martin Špegelj commanded the Croatian National Guard after its inception

Preparations to set up the Croatian National Guard (Zbor narodne garde – ZNG) began on 12 April 1991. Establishment of the ZNG as a police force with military capabilities was thought necessary by the Croatian authorities following armed clashes in Pakrac and at Plitvice Lakes in March and due to the possibility of further confrontation with the JNA. Since it was not legal to establish a separate military within a constituent republic of Yugoslavia, the ZNG was planned as a part of the police force, subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior. The parliament amended the Internal Affairs Act on 18 April accordingly and the ZNG was formally established five days later, on 23 April. It was tasked with protection of the constitutional order, maintenance of public order, anti-terrorist operations, protection of Croatia's borders, territory, coast and territorial waters, as well as the protection of high-value structures and high-profile persons. Even though the ZNG was formally subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior, the legislation establishing it directed that the ZNG would be commanded by the Ministry of Defence.[8]

On 5 May, the number of ZNG troops was planned and their composition determined, followed by operational guidelines regarding the transfer of the police personnel to the ZNG which were issued by the Defence and Interior Ministers General Martin Špegelj and Josip Boljkovac on 10 May. By 15 May, several special police units (SPUs) transferred to the ZNG, forming four brigades.[9] By July, the ZNG had approximately 8,000 troops. Unlike other Croatian forces, the ZNG troops were fully equipped with small arms.[7] The reserve police force, numbering about 39,000 in April, was also transferred to reserve ZNG brigades and independent battalions.[9] On 18 May, the Zrinski Battalion was established as a special forces unit of the ZNG. The core of the unit consisted of 27 volunteers drawn from the Kumrovec SPU. Initially, it relied on former French Foreign Legion troops.[10] By July, the reserve force of 40,000 ZNG troops was assigned to 19 brigades and 14 independent battalions. The reserve units did not possess sufficient heavy or small arms to arm all of their personnel. The Croatian police had approximately 15,000 small arms, while less than another 30,000 had been obtained from abroad by August.[7]

On 28 May, the ZNG was presented to the public in a military parade at the Stadion Kranjčevićeva|Kranjčevićeva Street Stadium in order to boost morale. The parade featured approximately 800 soldiers, a dozen anti-aircraft systems, several armoured personnel carriers and armoured cars. In addition, the Presidential Guards and Alkars were part of the parade.[11]

Initial Croatian National Guard order of battle[9]
Unit Nickname Foundation Commander
1st Guards Brigade Tigers (Tigrovi) 5 November 1990 Josip Lucić
2nd Guards Brigade Thunders (Gromovi) 15 May 1991 Božo Budimir
3rd Guards Brigade Martens (Kune) 29 April 1991 Eduard Bakarec
4th Guards Brigade Spiders (Pauci) 28 April 1991 Ivo Jelić

Development problems

In order to achieve more direct command over individual units, regional commands of the ZNG were established in eastern Slavonia, the Banovina–Kordun area, Lika, central and northern Dalmatia, southern Dalmatia, and Zagreb in late July and August. A crisis headquarters was set up in all administrative levels down to the municipalities, which also had command authority over ZNG units.[12] The command structure was particularly poor, preventing effective coordination between units.[13] The numerous crisis headquarters were entrusted with a high degree of authority, but they consisted of politicians who had little if any military training besides military service in the JNA. Multiple units deployed to a single area often had no authority coordinating their activities. TO command systems were reactivated in some places, such as Zagreb, improving the situation in part.[14]

Further problems faced by the ZNG included a shortage of trained officers, inadequate troop training, a shortage of weapons and especially a shortage of ammunition. The troops were in ready supply though, as mobilisation proved particularly successful. In Zagreb, approximately 80 percent of those called up in September–October actually turned up for service. Still, the ZNG was short even in uniforms. Only 20 percent of those drafted in Zagreb in this period were provided with uniforms, while the rest fought in civilian clothes. The ZNG successfully relied on civilian infrastructure for the supply of food, fuel and medical care.[15]

Špegelj was replaced by Šime Đodan as the Defence Minister in July, but Špegelj remained in command of the ZNG until 3 August, when he resigned over Tuđman's refusal to authorise attacks against JNA barracks.[16] After his resignation, command of the ZNG was entrusted to General Anton Tus.[17]

Transition to the Croatian Army

General Anton Tus, the first head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Croatia

In mid-September, the regional commands were reformed and six operational zones were established to replace them. The operational zones were headquartered in Osijek, Bjelovar, Zagreb, Karlovac, Rijeka and Split.[12] The zones were of uneven strength. Zones in Slavonia and Dalmatia were heavily equipped, while the zone headquartered in Zagreb was twice the average strength.[18] Following the capture of substantial stocks of weapons during the Battle of the Barracks, the ZNG expanded to 60 reserve brigades and independent battalions by the end of October, in addition to the four all-professional guards brigades.[12] Each brigade was planned to have 1,800 troops, but in reality their size varied between 500 and 2,500.[19] Three named battalions of special forces were also established within the ZNG in addition to the Zrinski Battalion—Frankopan, Kralj Tomislav, and Matija Vlačić battalions.[20]

Croatian National Guard operational zones[21]
Operational Zone Headquarters Commander
1st Osijek Osijek Brigadier Karl Gorinšek
2nd Bjelovar Bjelovar Brigadier Miroslav Jezerčić
3rd Zagreb Zagreb Brigadier Stjepan Mateša
4th Karlovac Bjelovar Brigadier Izidor Češnjaj
5th Rijeka Rijeka Brigadier Anton Rački
6th Split Split Brigadier Mate Viduka

On 20 September, the parliament enacted the Defence Act, specifying that the ZNG and the Croatian Army (Hrvatska vojska – HV) comprised the Armed Forces of the Republic of Croatia. At the same time, the Armed Forces were formally subordinated to the Ministry of Defence rather than the Ministry of the Interior. The legislation also designated the TO reserve units as a constituent part of the ZNG reserve force.[22] The next day, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Croatia was established, headed by Tus.[15] On 8 October, the day that Croatia declared its independence, the Defence Act was amended. This time, the ZNG was redefined as a part of the HV. The ZNG reserve units were redefined as the HV reserve which was named the Home Guard (Domobranstvo), leaving the ZNG an all-professional force.[23] The ZNG was renamed the HV on 3 November 1991.[24]


The HV continued to grow, reaching the size of approximately 200,000 troops by the end of 1991.[25] Even though the force successfully countered the conflict with the JNA that year, the HV was still deficient in terms of organisation, training and heavy weapons support.[26] By the end of 1991, the HV still lacked sufficient resources to push back the JNA and continued to suffer from inadequate staff work. Nonetheless, the HV, like the ZNG, benefitted from the high morale of its troops and the well defined purpose of its mission.[27] The growth and systematic improvement of HV capabilities was accelerated in 1992 and continued throughout the Croatian War of Independence.[28] The anniversary of the ZNG parade at the Kranjčevićeva Street Stadium is celebrated annually in Croatia as Armed Forces Day and as Croatian Army Day.[29]



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