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Nomanhan: Fighting for Nothing
By David H. Lippman
April 2008

Nomanhan, 1939. Since 1937, the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria has been engaging in a semi-private border war with the Soviet Union's forces in neighboring Outer Mongolia. The Kwantung Army, which on its own has spearheaded Japan's drive into Manchuria and China, now seeks to take over Mongolia.

The Kwantung Army's regulations from Tokyo concerning the Mongolian border say, "never to invade and never to be invaded." Soviet invaders will be annihilated. But the Kwantung Army says is that the borders are not precisely defined. So they will probe into Mongolian territory under the Kwantung Army's "Principles for the Settlement of Soviet-Manchurian Border Disputes." It's a neat policy. If an attack fails, it is just a local incident. If an attack succeeds, the Japanese can gain ground.

At the same time, the leaders of the Kwantung Army also fear that unless the Soviets are brought to heel, they will continue to deliver rivers of supplies to Mao Tse-Tung's Communist armies and guerrillas, who are effectively fighting Japan's invasion of China. The Soviets have already sent supplies, planes and tanks to Chiang Kai-Shek. Now they have sent three squadrons of "volunteers" from their air force, who become China's best air defense team. The Polikarpov I-16 "Rata" proved itself in the Spanish Civil War as the first modern monoplane fighter, downing German Condor Legion He 51 biplanes. Since then, the Germans have produced a new monoplane fighter, the Me 109. But the I-16 continues to fare well against Japan's Type 95 biplanes over China. And the Japanese are tired of fighting what is ostensibly a neutral nation.

If the Japanese can drive the Soviets back, the Emperor's guns will look down upon the Trans-Siberian Railroad's hundreds of miles of single track, potentially cutting off Vladivostok and the Soviet Far East. The vast province could fall into Japan's lap.


Japanese troops march to Nomonhan.

 

The attraction of the sparse, empty, and remote Mongolian and Asian plains may seem baffling to the armchair American or British observer, but the Soviets and Japanese rightly regard each other's presence in Far East Asia as a threat to the other. Both nations have already fought a massive war for control of Manchuria in the 20th century. Japanese troops occupied Siberia from 1918 to 1922. Stalin has good reason to fear and dislike Japan beyond his usual paranoia. The winner of this bizarre conflict could become the new dominant force in Asia.

Now two great modern powers square off amid dusty plains once dominated by Attila the Hun and Kublai Khan. On August 7 to 9, 1939, the Japanese attack at Lake Khasan, 70 miles southwest of Vladivostok, at the junction of the U.S.S.R., Manchuria, and Korea. 7,000 Japanese troops, backed by tanks, cavalry, planes, and artillery, take on Soviet defenders. The Japanese suffer 500 dead and 900 wounded, while the Soviets lose 400 dead and 2,700 wounded.

The Japanese are astounded by the ferocity of the Soviet defenders, who are members of an army that has just had most of its officers purged for "disloyalty." In fact, shortly after the battle, Marshal Vassily Blucher, the commander of the Soviet military district, is hauled back to Moscow for his own treason show trial.

But the Japanese refuse to back off. Although the Soviet Union is a colossus, its troops in Vladivostok are at the end of a long supply line, most of its troops are facing Germany, and its officer corps is a shambles from purges. Japan's forces are close to their industrial base in Manchuria and bursting with high morale from their training and conquests.

The Japanese decide to hurl their troops at the Mongolian border, at Khalkin-Gol, 450 miles from the nearest Soviet railhead. The Japanese say the border lies along the river. The Soviets say it lies 30 kilometers to the east.

The Japanese could not have picked a more remote site, a mosquito-infested area of land bounded on the east by the border, the west by the Khalkin-Gol River, with high ground to the north and south. This amphitheatre is bisected by the Khailastyn-Gol River, a lazy 12-mile stretch. The other major geographic features are two areas of quicksand.

The endless plain offers little to anyone but grazing animals, not even firewood, which Soviet troops haul in on trucks and panjes — light horses — from Siberia.

The Japanese theorize that an assault on Mongolia and a quick victory will force the Soviets to make political and territorial concessions. The Japanese will later make the same mistaken assumption about America and Britain.

Fighting breaks out in May, when Soviet-led Mongolian camel cavalry crosses the river. Manchukuo border guards mounted on small ponies chase them back. The Mongols build a bridge across the river, which brings the Kwantung Army storming onto the scene. The Soviets send artillery and aircraft to support the Mongolians.

The Japanese attack on May 28, with 40 planes and 2,500 troops. Soviet 76mm guns stop the Japanese, but suffer heavy losses. Soviet-Mongolian coordination and intelligence is poor. Leadership is needed.

Zhukov

Leadership arrives in the form of General Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, who is summoned to Moscow by Defense Minister Klimenti Voroshilov. Zhukov is 43, coarse in tongue, the son of a village shoemaker. His military career began in 1915 when he was conscripted into the Russian Army as a cavalryman. He won two St. George Crosses for capturing a German officer and for combat wounds. Disgusted by the corruption and favoritism in the Tsar's army, he became the squadron representative to the Regimental Soviet in March 1917.

During the Civil War he fought on, earning wounds and high marks for valor against the Whites. By 1930, Zhukov was assistant inspector general of cavalry, and became a supporter of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky's theories of "deep penetration," which include the use of combined arms attacks, encirclements, airpower, and mechanized warfare.

In 1937, Zhukov took over 3rd Cavalry Corps, then the 6th Cossack Corps, and finally was named deputy commander of the Belorussian Military District, the "shining gate" to marshal's rank.

Zhukov has a deserved reputation as a strict disciplinarian, an experienced commander, and an expert on cavalry and armor. Above all, Zhukov is a survivor. He has avoided contact with many of the officers who have died in purges. He has evaded close linkage to Tukhachevsky. And because he is a cavalryman, he was not involved in the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo secret training camps, where German officers experimented with tanks, planes and chemical weapons. Zhukov is a line officer with a long background in cavalry — one of Josef Stalin's favorite arms.

In the Soviet Defense Ministry, Voroshilov, one of two marshals to survive Stalin's bloody purges, tells Zhukov, "I think the Japanese have started a major military adventure. At any rate it is only the beginning." Zhukov is to go to Khalkin-Gol, assess the situation, and if necessary, take command.

Zhukov is sent to Siberia on the most important military mission the Soviet Army has faced since the Civil War, and does not get a send-off from Stalin. He does reach his headquarters on June 5, and finds that General Feklenko, the commander of the local force, 57th Special Corps, has his Tactical HQ 75 miles from the front.

Feklenko and his top aides have not visited the front, nor set up telephone lines or landing strips. Feklenko is out of touch. Very quickly, Feklenko is out of a job, as Zhukov fires him with a ruthlessness he will continue to display for the next seven years. Then Zhukov calls for reinforcements. On June 22, he gets 150 aircraft.

But the Japanese are reinforcing as well, infuriated by the defeat. By July 1, Japan's Maj. Gen. Michitaro Komasubara commands 20,000 infantrymen, 4,700 cavalry, 130 tanks, six armored cars, and 268 artillery pieces. Zhukov disposes 11,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry 186 tanks, 266 armored cars, and 109 artillery pieces. Komasubara orders an attack.


Japan's 4th Transport Regiment on the trail to Nomonhan.

On July 2 the Japanese go in, trying to smash a Soviet-Mongolian salient on the east bank of the Khalkhin-Gol River. Another group of Japanese attacks the Bain-Tsagan heights, aiming to encircle the Soviets as they retreat. With the usual gusto, the Japanese grab the hill and set up strongpoints. Japanese officers lead their men, brandishing samurai swords.

But down in the valley, the Soviet tankers of 11th Brigade maneuver their creaky BT tanks and pin down the Japanese with artillery fire. Soviet tanks have better armor than Japanese machines. Soviet machine-guns make quick work of Japanese infantry. The Japanese send in suicide squads with satchel charges to blow up tanks.

"Our men were having a hard time getting even a trickle of water," writes a Japanese artillery officer, "I, myself had to spend three days without any supply of water. And when the night comes, the thermometer plummets. Our men sleep on the grass and sand, trembling with cold."

For three days the stalemate continues. Finally the Japanese get the point and retreat from the Bain-Tsagan Heights, and five miles back into Manchuria, knowing the Soviets are under orders not to follow. The Japanese casualties are 15,500, 45 planes, all their tanks, and much of their artillery.

At Stake

Tokyo is furious. The emperor issues a personal reprimand to the Kwantung Army. The army is enraged at the lack of support from Imperial General Headquarters. It is not the first time the army will defy the emperor, nor the last. The Kwantung Army asks Tokyo for more aircraft, but IGHQ points out that the Kwantung Army is on the Soviet side of the border.

In the burning Mongolian heat, 130 degrees Fahrenheit, Japanese and Soviet troops swat mosquitoes and clean their weapons. Despite the victory, Zhukov isn't happy. He snarls at his junior commanders. The Japanese attack failed, he says, but it was a close call. The Soviets didn't know the Japanese were attacking and did not deploy their troops well. He tells his junior officers that the battle isn't over.

Zhukov is right. The Kwantung Army is embarrassed by the poor show and determined to display its excellence. Both sides recognize that their standing in the Far East is riding on this "campaign." If the Japanese win victories, it could firm up their alliance with Germany and threaten the secret Soviet negotiations with Hitler as well as the more public negotiations with the British and French. The Soviet Army's prestige and prowess on the line. A defeat would weaken the Soviet standing as a major military power.

If Stalin can make a deal with Hitler, that would put pressure on the Japanese to desist in harassing the Soviets. But Stalin cannot make a deal if his army is defeated or embarrassed. He orders Zhukov to crush the Japanese. However, the Japanese are fighting without knowledge of the secret negotiations. Zhukov knows that not only is Soviet prestige riding on the battle, and so is his own survival. Failure will mean a bullet in Zhukov's head at the NKVD's Lefortovo Prison.

On July 15, the Soviets reorganize 57th Special Corps as 1st Army Group with Zhukov in command. He sets up his Tac HQ a few miles from the front, has his signalers lay new lines, and his engineers dig anti-tank defenses along the front line.

Then he puts his officers to work on a deception operation that will presage his later triumphs at Stalingrad and Berlin. Soviet troops lay down massive and effective smoke screens to blind Japanese reconnaissance efforts. Engineers build highly visible winter quarters to make it appear the Soviets are digging in defensively for the long haul. Supply officers issue winter uniforms despite the burning heat. Soldiers are issued a handbook, "What the Soviet Soldier Must Know About Defense." Soviet radiomen broadcast fake messages in an easily-broken code, on channels on which the Japanese are listening. Soviet truck drivers pull off their vehicles' mufflers and zoom around by day and night, getting the Japanese used to the endless noise.

Meanwhile, tanks and artillery for the big offensive are made late at night. Officers near the front on reconnaissance wear other ranks' (enlisted men's) uniforms.

Zhukov keeps his plans highly secret. He gives his officers the word on August 17 that they will attack in three days. He passes that word to the NCOs only three hours before the attack, which is made amid heavy fog.

Zhukov has 57,000 men, 24,000 tons of ammunition, 515 planes, 542 heavy guns and mortars, 498 tanks, 385 armored cars, and 2,255 machine guns. Zhukov splits his team into three groups. The big punch is the Southern Force. Zhukov holds the bulk of his guns and vehicles in his reserve striking force, giving him flexibility of command — but not to his subordinates. He will thus be able to quickly reinforce success. His plans accept the fact of heavy casualties. Zhukov intends to encircle the Japanese and crush them between the river and the frontier.

The Japanese field 75,000 men, 303 planes, 182 tanks, and 500 large guns. The Japanese know nothing of the Soviet plans, and are readying their own attack on August 24. Japanese intelligence picks up indications the Russians will attack. The Japanese high command, disdainful of its enemies, ignores the reports, and continues to prepare its own attack.

On August 20, the Soviets beat the Japanese to the punch, when 150 bombers and 100 fighters swoop over the Japanese front lines at 5:45 a.m., bombing and strafing Japanese positions. The Japanese continue preparing their attack. A three-hour artillery barrage, followed by a massive combined-arms assault of infantry, cavalry, and tanks, surprises the Japanese. It takes them hours to organize resistance.

It is the first real armored offensive of the 20th century.

The Japanese 23rd Infantry Division is torn apart. Two of the regimental commanders burn their flags, then one commits seppuku with his samurai sword while the other charges headlong into Soviet machine guns.

Zhukov's Northern Group bursts through the Japanese instead of the Southern Group, so Zhukov changes the axis of attack. Tanks are told to drive into the Japanese as far as possible, avoid strongpoints, and leave them for the follow-up forces. It’s a move straight out of blitzkrieg warfare.

Japanese T97 tanks clank into action and are chopped up by Soviet bombers, being used as flying artillery.

Amazingly, the Japanese infantry defends the Sypuchiye Peski (the quicksand) with determination. A Japanese private named Fukuta writes in his diary, "The enemy infantry began an offensive. Their machine guns opened heavy fire. We were in great danger and frightened. Our morale sank. When all the officers were killed I was made commander of the company. This greatly excited me and I did not sleep throughout the night." Later in the battle, Fukuta is killed as well.

During the night, Zhukov's reserve Mobile Group hooks up with the Northern Group and breaks through the Japanese defenses. The Soviets slam the trap shut on August 24.

However, as they will later in the war, the Japanese refuse to give up. For three days, the encircled Japanese try to fight their way out. The Japanese troops are pinned down. On the 27th, they launch one massive breakout in best samurai fashion, but Soviet artillery on the hills blasts apart the Japanese. Zhukov orders his men to attack the Japanese head-on to crush them. When a Soviet brigade commander fails to break through, Zhukov fires the brigade commander. Then his deputy. Then the third in command. Finally a junior officer leads the brigade into the cauldron.

The Comintern Betrayed

On the 29th and 30th, the First Army Group cuts up the Japanese pocket into smaller sections, and mops it up. The Kwantung Army regroups to counterattack, but Tokyo orders the Kwantung Army point-blank to end the fighting.


A Japanese light machine gun pit.

 

On the 31st, the Soviets announce that the Mongolian People's Republic has been cleared of Japanese forces. Zhukov orders his men to take up defensive positions on the border, claiming 61,000 Japanese killed and taken prisoner. Amazingly, many Japanese troops, despite samurai spirit, surrender to the ferocious Soviets. Zhukov has suffered 18,500 casualties.

Another set of casualties is the Kwantung Army leadership. General Kenkichi Ueda, commander of the Kwantung Army, is recalled to Japan and retired. So is General Rensuke Isogai. He will emerge in 1941 to become governor of Hong Kong. General Yoshijiru Umezu takes over the Kwantung Army, with orders from Tokyo: no attacks or counterattacks without the specific order of the commanding general of the army. Disobedience will lead to court-martial.

The Japanese defeat is followed by another shocker for Tokyo: announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. The Soviets have just delivered a two-fisted punch to end Japanese ambitions in Siberia. The Japanese press is furious, with the Asahi Shimbun shouting, "The spirit of the Anti-Comintern Pact has been trampled underfoot! It is reduced to a scrap of paper and Germany has betrayed an ally." The Hiranuma government resigns, forcing Yamamoto back to the fleet.

Now the Japanese cannot expect to dominate the Soviets through force of their own arms or through German political pressure. The Japanese begin negotiations with the Soviets for an exchange of prisoners, followed by an armistice. Ultimately they will create a four-member commission to resolve the border demarcation issues.

The impact of this odd battle is manifold. The biggest winner is General Zhukov, whose victory catapults him to the forefront of Soviet military leadership. The Japanese must re-assess their plans for the Far East. In 1941, instead of joining Hitler's attack on Russia, they will put all their energies into conquering Southeast Asia. Had they attacked Russia alongside Hitler in 1941, the Soviet Union might have collapsed.

The Soviet victory also impresses one other group of Asians: the Communist Chinese, who see that the Japanese can be defeated. The Soviets send in more supplies.

Military technology and tactics also get a testing in Manchuria's plains. The colorful Mongolian camel brigade and the Manchukuo ponies have been overshadowed and overwhelmed, respectively, by Soviet BT-5 and BT-7 tanks. Combined arms, mechanized warfare, airpower as flying artillery, have all proven their value. The Soviets also learn that their ABC-36 automatic rifle and Maxim water-cooled heavy machine gun keep misfiring. And, despite successes, the BT-5 and BT-7 tanks catch fire easily. More successful are the 45mm anti-tank gun and the 122mm artillery pieces.

Zhukov has a sober assessment to the battle, writing, "As for the armaments of the Japanese Army, my opinion is that they are obsolete. They are slow, poorly armed and have very limited action radius. I must also say that at the beginning of the campaign the Japanese Air Force beat ours. Their planes were superior to our machines until we received an improved version of the "Chaika" and the I-16. . . . The tank brigades did a very good job.

"However, the BT-5 and BT-7 tanks are too fire-hazardous. If I had not under my command two tank and three motorized armored brigades, we should not have been able so quickly to surround and defeat the Japanese 6th Army. . . . Our artillery is greatly superior to the Japanese, especially in fire precision. In general, our troops are greatly superior to the Japanese." Another shocker is that the battle yielded up hundreds of Japanese troops as POWs, who surrendered, despite the samurai tradition.

The tactics and operational art Zhukov has tested at Khalkin-Gol will become the standards by which the Soviet Army will conduct its war against the Germans from Moscow to Berlin. With the Manchurian border now quiet, the Soviets will be able to strip it nearly bare of troops for the great counterattacks at Moscow and Stalingrad.

And the Japanese will show a complete refusal, despite German pleas, to attack the Soviet Union again. The Japanese discard their plans for a 45-division offensive into Siberia, to drive the Russians back to the Urals.

It is one of the decisive battles of history. Yet because of its distance from Europe and America, because of the secretive nature of its combatants and the obscurity of its issues, Khalkin-Gol disappears into the shadows of history, remembered only by those who fought in it and those who study it.

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