Fighting for Nothing
By David H. Lippman
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
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.
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
here to order Red