Khalkhin-Gol (1939)


Khalkhyn Gol, August 1939. Offensive of Soviet BT-7 tanks.


Grigori Shtern, Khorloogiin Choibalsan and Georgy Zhukov at Khalkhin Gol.




Lieutenant General M. Komatsubara’s 23rd Infantry Division had been destroyed utterly – scarcely one man in a hundred escaping – on the empty borderlands of the Khalkhin-Gol river between Outer Mongolia and Manchuria. It was late in 1939, while half a world away Poland bled from the new German Drang nach Osten (Drive to the East) and the Western democracies indulged themselves in the “Phoney War” along the new Siegfried Line, a lonely and disgraced officer of Imperial Japan brought his life to a private end. Komatsubara might now find redemption in the agonizing rite of seppuku: only by ripping out his own entrails with his own short sword might he “prove his sincerity” to the Emperor and his ancestors. But the Khalkhin-Gol disaster was too great to be atoned for by a general’s suicide. It was better that it had not happened at all, and the less attention drawn to it the better. Komatsubara, announced Tokyo inscrutably, had died of “an abdominal ailment”.

The empty steppe country around the Khalkhin-Gol river had represented the farthest fringe of Japanese expansion. China, invaded in 1937, was still unsubdued but the Imperial grip on Manchuria, annexed in 1931, was firm. Here, in the wilderness of the Mongolian Republic, might Soviet strength be tested. Thirty-five years before, Japan’s crushing defeat of the old Tsarist armies had astounded the world; now, perhaps, a border pinprick might develop into a deep thrust at the Trans-Siberian Railway, severing Russia’s spinal column and allowing the rich Soviet Far East with its port of Vladivostok to fall into the lap of the Emperor.

For years, Japan’s highest military councils had been divided into factions advocating either a “Strike North”, at Russia, or “Strike South”, at the western colonies. Emperor Hirohito had already decided upon “Strike South”, which would in the next few years lead to Pearl Harbor, the fall of Singapore, and ultimately Hiroshima. But in the Army many officers still hankered after an attack on Russia, and the High Command of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria was no exception.

“Border incidents” spanning July–August 1938 at Lake Khasan, near Vladivostok, had shown real Soviet weakness after Stalin’s terrifying purges of the Red Army. A Russian general, Lyushkov, had defected to the Kwantung Army with details of dispositions and stories of discontent. Acting first without Hirohito’s knowledge, and eventually in direct disobedience, the Kwantung command launched an attack on the Russian forces which met with some success until it ran up against superior Soviet armor and airpower. Enraged, Hirohito refused to allow his air force to fly in support of his own disobedient army, and the situation was eventually settled by a diplomatic return to the status quo. But to save his officers from a catastrophic loss of face, the constant problem of the Japanese Imperial regime, he had to let them try again. After a formal ceasefire had been agreed at Lake Khasan, Hirohito approved a General Staff plan for an organized trial of strength farther west, in Mongolia, during the following summer.

The border area chosen by the Japanese staff was beside the Khalkhin-Gol river, for much of its length a frontier between Japanese-occupied Manchuria or Manchukuo to the east and the Outer Mongolian People’s Republic, closely bound to Russia by a mutual-assistance pact in March 1936, to the west. At one point, however, the border bulges east of the river around the village and hill of Nomonhan. On this shallow salient, 46 miles wide, the Japanese planned to test the Soviet pledge to defend Mongolia. The country was steppe, blue-green in the summer with sturdy grass, and populated only by a few tribal herdsmen. East of the river it was more broken, with gullies, dunes, and even a few quicksands.

On 11 May 1939, a few hundred Inner Mongolian horsemen under Japanese control and accompanied by “advisers” from Komatsubara’s 23rd Division, crossed the frontier and rode as far as Nomonhan itself before the villagers alerted their border guards, based in a log fort five miles away on the west bank of the river. The following day, the invaders were driven back across the border in an action that resembled an ancient tribal feud rather than a clash between two twentieth-century super powers: whooping Tskirik horsemen riding rings around their Japanese-led Bargut enemies.

But on 14 May the Inner Mongolians reappeared in strength, and this time they had 300 Japanese cavalry as stiffening. Within a few hours the Tsiriks had been driven back to their garrison positions, and that night the local Russian adviser, Major Bykov, was called in. When he reached the picturesque border fort next morning, he found that the twentieth century had arrived at last in the shape of a Japanese air raid which terrified his Mongolian charges and left the place a ruin. Taking no chances, Bykov at once called in 6th Mongolian Cavalry Division and the few Red Army detachments available. But as these troops massed on the Mongolian side of the Khalkhin-Gol, the Japanese on the east bank melted away. On the night of 22 May, Bykov made a cautious reconnaissance in force across the river. In the quiet rough pasture of Nomonhan the Japanese were waiting. Only after fierce hand-to-hand fighting was Bykov able to fall back to the Khalkhin-Gol.

The game of cat-and-mouse continued. On 25 May Bykov cautiously moved his full strength forward and over the next two days cleared the east bank and reoccupied the deserted village of Nomonhan. By now, about 10,000 men had been involved on the Mongolian side, mainly “constabulary” troops with a few specialist Russian companies. The border incident was rapidly escalating, and at dawn on 28 May it went a stage further. Five thousand Japanese regulars, with an accompanying tribal horde, fell on Bykov’s troops before daybreak. Only the veteran Russian’s canny dispositions enabled him to fall back once more to the river without complete destruction. But the panic button had already been pressed in Moscow and that same evening troops of the Soviet 149th Motorized Infantry Regiment began to arrive, to be sent straight into the fight from their trucks. All that night the battle continued, and the following morning a Soviet–Mongolian counter-attack pushed the Japanese back, once more, to the border with a loss of 400 men.

By now, Moscow was feeling real alarm. Despite accurate intelligence from his master spy Richard Sorge in Tokyo on long-term Japanese planning, Stalin understandably feared the possibility of a disastrous two-front war with Japan and Germany. Accordingly, no effort was to be spared in crushing this Japanese adventure before it threatened all of the Soviet Trans-Baikal. The first step was to release troops from the interior for the mission, and the second was to appoint a commander, someone new, outstanding, trusted, and with a fighting reputation to make. The man Stalin picked was Corps Commander Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov.

Zhukov in 1939 was a tough, 43-year-old cavalryman turned “tankist” and Deputy Commander of the key Belorussian Military District. Squat, barrel-chested, heavy-browed (his name came from the Russian word zhuk, meaning “beetle”) he had fought his way up from the ranks of the Red Army in the Civil War to distinction in every peacetime command he had held. He had been in China, perhaps in Spain; he had survived the bloodletting of the 1937 purges unscathed and was already well-known in the Red Army for his short-tempered, no-nonsense thoroughness. As “the general who never lost a battle” Zhukov was to direct forces and fighting of unsurpassed dimensions in the Russo-German war: 1941 would see him halt Hitler’s offensive outside Moscow, in 1942 he would mastermind the Stalingrad campaign, and in 1945 he would meet the Western Allies in the wreckage of Berlin as the epitome of the ruthless, crushing might of the Soviet war machine. But in June 1939, as he flew out with a small staff to Mongolia, his future career and quite possibly his life depended on victory at Khalkhin-Gol. And victory alone would not be enough. Only the utter destruction of the Japanese would satisfy Stalin.

On 5 June Zhukov arrived at HQ, Soviet 57th Special Corps, the only major Red Army formation in the area. There he found little cheer. The command was hopelessly out of touch with the front, there was not so much as a kilometer of telegraph wire in the area, co-ordination of troops was poor and reconnaissance, though inadequate, clearly showed a Japanese build-up far greater than any mere border conflict would require. Furthermore the Japanese were making full use of air superiority, both for bombing and reconnaissance. Zhukov, with papers in his pocket appointing him local C-in-C if need be, at once took charge. The Corps commander was relieved and sent home and Zhukov threw all his characteristic energies into organizing a defense.

By early July, the Japanese had about 38,000 men, 135 tanks and 225 aircraft concentrated on the frontier east of the Khalkhin-Gol. Soviet and Mongolian forces together amounted to only 12,500 men, though Zhukov had 186 better tanks and 226 armored cars. He would need them. The Japanese plan involved sending a strong force wide around the Soviet left flank, across the river to seize the dominating high ground of Mount Bain-Tsagan. Then, as the main tank-led force attacked along the general front, this outflanking force would surround and destroy the east bank salient from its rear.

According to the Japanese schedule, offensive operations would be over by mid-July and the campaign wound up before the autumn rains. On 2 July, the first attacks pressed into the weak east bank positions and by the end of the day Japanese tanks and infantry were on the river in the Russian third line at some points. But Zhukov was too shrewd a commander to commit his reserves prematurely. Shortly before dawn on 3 July, the Soviet Colonel I. M. Afonin, Chief Adviser to the Mongolian Army, was inspecting Mongolian 6th Cavalry Division defenses on Bain-Tsagin when he stumbled upon Japanese troops who had made a surprise river-crossing by pontoon bridge. The Mongolians, without the training or equipment of their Red Army mentors, were driven off.

As the sun rose the following morning, Zhukov could not fail to appreciate the danger of the situation. The Japanese only had to roll on to the south for the hard-pressed Soviet forces on the east bank to be completely cut off. At once he ordered his armor – practically his only reserve – into action; 11th Tank Brigade was to attack from the north, 7th Mechanized Brigade from the south, and 24th Motorized Infantry Regiment from the NW through the retreating Mongolians. These forces together deployed over 300 fighting vehicles: the Japanese, on both sides of the river, had less than half that. Zhukov wrote in his 1969 memoirs: “It was impossible to delay a counterblow since the enemy, who saw the advance of our tanks, rapidly began to take defensive measures and started bombing our tank columns. The latter had no shelter whatsoever: for hundreds of kilometres around there was not even a bush in sight.”

The speed of the triple-pronged Soviet thrust first startled, then demoralized the Japanese. From 0700 Zhukov’s entire bomber force had been pounding them, and for the first time they felt the weight of the brilliantly organized Russian heavy artillery. By 0900 the advance detachments of Russian armor were arriving in the combat area and at 1045 the full attack went in. The Japanese had had little time to dig in thoroughly; their anti-tank training had always been a weak spot and now they paid the penalty. As the battle raged all that day, it was no longer the Russians who were in danger of encirclement.

An attempt at counter-attack on 4 July was broken up by Red Army aviation and artillery; worse, the single pontoon bridge they had laid across the Khalkhin-Gol was destroyed by Russian bombs. Hundreds of soldiers drowned trying to escape, and Komatsubara was lucky to get across with his HQ. Most of the 10,000-strong Bain-Tsagan assault force lay dead and wounded on the slopes of the little mountain, and when the heaviest fighting ended, on the night of 4–5 July, the Japanese had little cause to celebrate, having lost half the tanks available in Manchuria. And though Soviet 3 July tank losses had been over a hundred, the Red Army had successfully exploited glaring Japanese deficiencies in field and anti-tank (AT) artillery.

But the Kwantung Army was by no means willing to abandon its Mongolian campaign. During the remainder of July, it doubled the force committed, stripping divisions elsewhere of AT units to strengthen the Khalkhin-Gol positions. On 10 August, two full Japanese infantry divisions (7th and 23rd), a Manchukuoan brigade, three cavalry regiments, 182 tanks, 300 armored cars and three artillery regiments with over 450 aircraft were combined into the 75,000-strong Sixth Japanese Army under General Ogisu Rippo. A final general offensive along a 43-mile front was planned for 24 August, after an attack on 23 July got nowhere under Soviet bombardment.

On the Russian side of the hill final victory was far from certain. Powerful reinforcements had to be brought over poor communications from the Soviet heartland. But Stalin knew that Soviet international prestige was at stake and his new negotiations with Hitler, no respecter of weakness, had reached a critical juncture. Neither blood nor treasure would be spared. “For Stalin,” wrote one former Red officer, “the losses were of no importance whatsoever.”

Throughout July and August three infantry and two cavalry divisions with seven independent brigades, including five armored, as well as artillery and air force units, were assembled. This was in itself no mean feat. The Japanese, in the year before their attack, had built a railway to within a few miles of the Mongolian border. The nearest Russian railhead from which the new First Army Group could be supplied was 403 miles away. For Zhukov’s coming offensive, 55,000 tons of supplies, including 18,000 tons of artillery ammunition, had to be carried along rudimentary Mongolian roads, the overworked trucks and drivers further tormented by late summer heat and the piercing dust storms of Central Asia. Such was the shortage of trucks that gun-towing tractors from the front had to be pressed into service as supply carriers.

So Zhukov laid his plans. The Japanese had attempted a great envelopment; very well, Zhukov would show them how it was done. He organized his new forces into three groups, North, South and Central, with his armored units, ready to move fast and deep, on the wings. He would be ready by 20 August, four days before the enemy. Until then he kept his plans, his troop movements, and thus his future surprise well masked by painstaking and ingenious deceptions. Fake radio signals ordering large quantities of engineering equipment misled the Japanese into thinking the Russians were digging in for the autumn. Sound effects gave the impression of heavy pile-driving work. The night movements of armored and motorized units were covered by air and artillery bombardments. All day a few tanks stripped of their silencers drove up and down until the Japanese got used to the noise. Zhukov even solemnly issued to his troops the official handbook What the Soviet Soldier Must Know In the Defence. By Sunday 20 August, unknown to the Japanese, quietly waiting in the jump-off positions were 35 infantry battalions, 20 cavalry squadrons, 498 tanks, 346 armored cars and 502 guns of all types.

The first the Japanese knew of the coming storm was at 0545 when 150 bombers, escorted by 100 fighters, launched a saturation raid on their forward defenses and artillery positions. Before the stunned Japanese had recovered, Zhukov’s 250 heavy guns and mortars were playing on their close reserves and at 0845 his yelling infantry were surging forward behind the tanks. All along the front, the Russian waves broke through the Japanese front. The defenders were “morally and physically suppressed” by the three-hour Red Army artillery bombardment, delivered by twice the number of defending guns which anyhow lacked the wealth of Russian ammunition.

Not that the Japanese crumbled easily. At one point a divisional attack on Japanese fortifications was bloodily repulsed and the division, probably the raw 82nd Infantry sent from the Urals, pinned down under heavy fire. Its commander begged Zhukov for new orders; Zhukov told him to continue his attack. When the divisional commander doubted the possibility, Zhukov said coldly: “I hereby relieve you of command. Give me your Chief of Staff.” The Chief of Staff agreed to continue the attack, but the attack failed to materialize. Zhukov picked up the telephone once more: “I hereby relieve you of your command. Wait for the arrival of a new commander.” An officer from Zhukov’s own staff was sent over, and with reorganized artillery and air support, the attack succeeded despite appalling losses.

Most successful was Zhukov’s Southern group. Its powerful armored forces, which included a battalion of SP guns and a company of flamethrower tanks, swept clear around the left and by 21 August were solidly established behind the Japanese operating south of the Khalkhin-Gol’s east-west tributary, the Khailastyn-Gol. Two days later the Northern group, as-sisted by Zhukov’s reserve 212th Airborne Brigade (fighting on the ground) cut its way across the Palets Heights round to join them, and the enemy were surrounded. The fighting was bitter and by no means over. Japanese in dug-outs had to be burned out by the flame-throwing tanks, and surrenders were rare. But the Red Army too had a determination which took a heavy toll of 600 dead in the savage hand-to-hand fighting in the dug-outs and gullies of the Palets Heights as the pincers of encirclement closed.

After a Japanese relief attempt had been beaten off by 6th Tank Brigade on 26 August all hope for the trapped troops was gone. The growing Russian air superiority alone was enough to prevent the movement of fresh Japanese troops into the battle zone. In the first week the Soviet Air Force flew 474 sorties and dropped 190 tons of bombs, modest by later standards but some of the most intense air fighting since 1918. In the dogfights of the first day five Polikarpov 116 fighters shot down two Mitsubishi A5M fighters with 82 mm RS82 rockets – the first likely instance of air-to-air rockets being lethal against aircraft.

But neither Zhukov nor his government were content with a passive containment. With bloody impatience, he set about planning the liquidation of Japanese units trapped on various patches of high ground within the perimeter. For a week the savage business of mopping up went on. In this phase too, Zhukov demonstrated his tactical skill and the technical superiority of his army. Japanese troops on the Remizov Heights had relied on the muddy bottom of the shallow Khailastyn-Gol to protect their southern flank from attack. But by night Zhukov’s engineers reinforced the river bed and the tanks with their terrifying flamethrowers drove straight across, as one of the three converging assaults on the last pocket of resistance.

By the morning of 31 August, any Japanese remaining on Mongolian territory were either dead or prisoners. Of 60,000 troops trapped in the cauldron, 50,000 were later listed as killed, wounded and missing. Casualties in the veteran 23rd Division ran as high as 99 per cent. The Russians admitted casualties of 10,000 in killed and wounded throughout the campaign, but it seems likely that this was a considerable underestimate. The outnumbered Japanese Army Air Force claimed to have downed 1,200 Soviet planes (the Russian figure for their “kills” was 660) in the four months of hostilities, but in the days before instant close-support on the battlefield this could not sway the ground-fighting.

Now, on the last day in August, Zhukov’s dog-tired, grimy tank crews stared east from the border they had regained, waiting for the order to go on, while the frantic Kwantung Army HQ scraped the depots of Manchuria to find troops to stem what many feared would be a Red flood.

That order never came. In that autumn of 1939, Moscow and the world had other, more urgent problems. On the day Zhukov’s pincers met behind the Japanese, Stalin and Hitler had published their Non-Aggression Pact: the Soviet dictator now believed, with unusual trustfulness, that he had bought the time he needed to prepare Russia against war. On 1 September the German Panzers rolled into Poland and within a few days the victorious Soviet armor was rattling back across the Trans-Siberian Railway to the new Soviet frontier in Eastern Poland – just in case.

Hirohito had to face up to more than the shock of military disaster. The Non-Aggression Pact surprised no one more than the Japanese, to whom it was a baffling breach of faith. The Prime Minister resigned in shame. Hirohito would have been more than just puzzled and disappointed had he heard Hitler ranting to his generals a few days before. “The Japanese Emperor . . . is weak, cowardly, and irresolute. . . . Let us think of ourselves as masters and consider these people at best as lacquered half-monkeys, who need to feel the knout.” To Hitler, the Japanese defeat was no surprise. But thanks to Khalkhin-Gol, the confidence he had in his invasion of Russia was not shared by the Japanese.

Hirohito was on his own. Yet that was not entirely unsatisfactory. The “Strike North” army faction was discredited at last. The Kwantung Army begged to be allowed one more offensive to save its face, but this time the Emperor was firm. In Moscow once more the diplomats took over, and once more the status quo was resumed. A ceasefire was signed on 15 September. In April 1941, a Russo-Japanese Non-Aggression Pact was signed. The Soviet Far East remained safe from Japanese Imperial ambition, and throughout the coming war with Germany, American ships under Soviet flag would sail unhindered from United States arsenals to Vladivostok. Japan would strike south.

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