7/29/13

Battle of Khalkhin Gol: Japanese-Soviet Border War of 1939

The Battle of Khalkhin Gol, known to the Japanese as the Nomonhan Incident, is one of the most important conflicts of World War II that is often completely ignored or relegated to only a minor footnote in even the most comprehensive popular history and academic studies of World War II. A border conflict fought on the frontier between China and Mongolia, the Battle of Khalkhin was predated by border clashes which began during Russian Civil War in the early 1920's. In the spring of 1939, Japanese aggression and the Soviet's protectorate policy in the region, developed a regional border encounter into a "small" war with a contained front that became a major theater of war by the time the Red Army claimed victory in September 1939-just as World War II had begun with the invasion of Poland.


Japanese Officers observing the Nomonhan Front, 1939

Critical to the later events of World War II itself, Khalkhin Gol was one of the most decisive and important conflicts fought during the last months of the prelude to World War. The actual military engagements of the battle fought from 11 May to September 1939, on the banks of the river, in the prairie-like fields and skies all around the Khalkhin River, effectively checked Imperial Japanese aggression and imperialist ambitions in Siberia and Mongolia for the duration of the war. This series of battles and skirmishes had combined casualties of perhaps as many as 50,000 soldiers and civilians, and ended as a decisive victory for the Red Army and their Mongolian allies. At the start of the conflict, the Soviets were planning invasions of Poland and Finland, and the Baltic States, while the Japanese were still trying to suppress guerrilla insurgency in occupied China and defeat the Revolutionary Nationalist Army of Chiang Kai-shek.

The IJA’s invasion of Northern China in 1931 following the Mukden Incident, and the later occupation of Manchuria, leads to the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in July 1937 which followed the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. A Red Army victory seemed impossible in the minds of the Japanese command. However the Soviets ultimately achieved a totally decisive victory in this "Small War" by the sharp tactical and logistical strategies and decisions made by General Georgy Zhukov, the great hero of World War 2 and later Marshall of the Soviet Union, following his leadership and record of sucess (and survival) on the Eastern Front 1942-1945. Regardless the Khalkhin Gol-Nomonhan conflict remains important not just in acknowledging the importance of logistics, strategy, and tactics in relation to battlefield command (and strength of force), but in also understanding the shifting balance of power, both militarily and politically in Asia and the Far East in 1939.

On 5 June 1939, General Georgy Zhukov, later to become one of the greatest generals of all theatres in World War II, arrived in Mongolia to take command at the Khalkhin Gol (Nomonhan) Front. Already an experienced and respected officer who had amazingly thus survived Stalin’s purges of the mid to late 1930's, Zhukov had arrived during a dire time for the Soviets and their Mongolian allies. The Japanese maintained air superiority and Russian lines of supply were rapidly diminishing under bombardments and close aerial support.

The Battle Begins

None of the commanding Russian officers had been to banks of the river where artillery and air duals persisted day and night and intelligence suggested a large-scale Japanese assault. General Zhukov assessed the situation and was able to secure the orders for the transfer of the necessary materials of war; mainly trucks, planes, fuel, and ammunition, to be rushed rapidly to this expanding theatre of operation on the border with occupied China.

One can imagine General Zhukov being somewhat vexed by the difficult task up ahead, crossing this bleak, barren, and seemingly endless landscape under skies controlled by an enemy that was fanatic, hardened and well trained by disciplined officers. Zhukov had to send his infantry and mechanized units some 400 miles past supply rail-heads into Chinese territory, across the river north towards the small village of Nomonhan, Manchukuo (occupied China). Engineers and workers were put to the task of creating bunkers and storage pits, digging and building thousands of them in the area of the battlefield. The Soviets also dug massive holes to hide artillery emplacements from Japanese scouts which proved to be valuable in the battle to come.

Mongolian People's Revolutionary Army Cavalry, 1939

The one advantage that harsh landscape did hold was the fresh water of the Khalkhin (Halha) river itself, which meant the Red Army and its allies were supplied with a continual amount of fresh drinking water throughout the conlict. Regardless of the material shortages which effected both sides, the Imperial Japanese air forces notably exploited a very high ratio of victories per pilot in the struggle to gain air superiority. On the ground, Imperial Japanese Army forces numbered between 30-45,000 soldiers at their peak during the Nomonhan Incident.

These soldiers who fought almost to the last man were unable to overcome their immense logistical and supply handicap defending against a much larger and well supplied Soviet opponent who fielded an immense motorized force. Early bombing sorties ensured that the Soviets meanwhile would struggle to put operational planes in the field in June and early July. One example of this dominance fighter to fighter were the actions of 22 June, when 20 year old commander Kira Katsuaki and his 2nd Air squadron scored 19 kills against I-15’s and I-16’s in a little less than eight minutes during a daytime raid over Russian positions above the river.

On both sides throughout mid July 1939 artillery bombardments and aerial raids increased along the right, center, and left sides of the river banks as did skirmishing and night assaults/infiltration. Coupled with the above mentioned weather conditions which bred disease and sickness, namely dysentery and yellow fever, the infantry of the MPRA, Red Army, and IJA struggled to deal a knockout blow to one another into the last days of July in a war that was very much like the static trench warfare of 1915-1916. The continued desperation of the Japanese hunkered in their defensive positions eventually aids in the successful Soviet bid to crush the remaining pockets of resistance despite shoddy command of the situation in the earliest weeks of the battle, which allowed for many Japanese infantry, engineering platoons, and armored brigades to move to the front.

Red Army Soldiers advance behind a tank 1939

Soviet-Mongolian armies at Khalkhin Gol were a coalition force led by the Red Army high command, their army consisting of Soviet infantry, artillery, shock[i], mechanized, and aerial divisions, and Mongolian infantry, tank brigades, and cavalry scout divisions. The typical Soviet or Mongolian infantry unit consisted of riflemen carrying the standard Mosin-Nagant service rifle, always accurate and dependable, with fire support from teams using the Degtyarev DP 7.62 light machinegun and the old and bulky but still effective 1910 Maxim heavy machine gun. The Mongolian cavalry divisions, namely the 6th, served with distinction throughout the conflict as scouts, shock troops, and rearguard communications runners.

Each infantry brigade and most armored brigades had supporting platoons of motorized rifleman, anti-tank companies, medical companies, field kitchens and field bakeries, and NKVD platoons. Always under the threat of a night assault or being overrun in an ambush, Soviet infantrymen and even officers often needed the draconian discipline and the authoritarian fear instilled in them by the NKVD commissars to deter any thought of retreating when they were attacked. Through the new found confidence given to the Russian-Mongolian infantrymen by the support of tanks and planes the reversal of the Red Army’s position in the battle had begun. When combined infantry-cavalry counter-offensives were launched after the early Red Army successes from 23-28 July the Kwantung was totally stunned.

General Zhukov through the use of large scale simultaneous combined flanking operations shows the earliest example of the encirclement counter-offensive strategies that will destroy Nazi armies in 1943-1945. By early August the Soviets had increased armor usage on the front and tank brigades began rolling over IJA positions using their armor in succinct actions of advance, attack, and destroy.

Soviet artillery at Lake Khasan in 1938

Japanese Infantry at Nomonhan

Weapons systems and unit level strategy of the IJA during Nomonhan Incident were centered around the aggressive tactics of the riflemen’s platoon supported by mortar fire and anti-tank artillery pieces. Japanese doctrine of this period held that tanks were to be used in small piecemeal numbers as shock or support units. This same doctrine stressed that the tank commanders cover the advance of infantrymen from a distance of around three miles using advance and fire techniques. The Kwantung Army's high command held firmly that the infantry and the air squadrons alone could defeat the Soviet army of conscripts who the IJA had a low opinion of, dating back to the Russo-Japanese War and the intervention in Siberia during the Russian Civil War.

IJA soldiers celebrate the capture Hankow, 1938

During Nomonhan incident and in the later Pacific conflict, Japanese infantryman were issued the Arisaka rifle, a family of long barreled bolt action rifles dating back to the Meiji era in chambered in 6.5 and 7.7 mm. These firearms were generally considered outdated for their time and were, arguably, one of the least effective service rifles issued by any of the major nations who participated in the Second World War. Officers, tank crewmen, and pilots carried an example of another poorly designed modern weapon in the Nambu pistol, an under powered 8×22 mm handgun prone to jamming which was also apparently difficult to fire whilst wearing gloved hands. This was an obvious problem for the IJA soldiers attempting to protect themselves from the swarms of mosquitoes on the riverbanks of the Khalkhin Gol. Many surviving photographs of Japanese troops during the Nomonhan incident depict soldiers wearing cold weather gear and homemade masks.

The Samurai sword was a weapon of great cultural importance to the IJA, used ceremoniously by officers as well as in combat. It was still feared by Japan’s adversaries during this time and revered as a trophy of war as well. Typically, swords were issued or carried by all officers and some NCO’s who still tried to retain the trappings of Bushido and the code of honor which made surrender a non-possibility for most, and death in the service to the Emperor preferable to a dishonorable surrender.

Japanese Army in 1937 with Type 38 Arisaka Rifles

These swords were still deadly in actual combat even in 1939 as many Japanese officers proved, they wielded not just relics or family heirlooms but also mass produced military issue Type 94 and Type 95 swords, not known for their quality or durability. Accounts from both sides note the fear that the Samurai sword inspired in some young and inexperienced Red Army soldiers. Conversely many of the younger Japanese officers rejoiced in seeing combat for the first time during the ever increasing night raids of June and July. Accounts from both sides note routs turned massacres of frightened Russians soldiers by aggressive IJA bayonet and sword charges especially when they went on the offensive early in the conflict.

IJA soldiers posing with captured Soviet weapons at Khalkhin Gol

Overall, the edge in fighting prowess between the two opposing infantries must be given to the IJA because of not just individual bravery but because of their tactical mastery of assault, recon, and ambush and counter attack strategies, as evident in many of their operations during Battle of Khalkhin Gol. It was the Red Army and their Mongolian allies, using superior manpower and logistical support with overwhelming armor as well, who were able to score an absolutely decisive victory against a better opponent soldier to soldier.

Battle for Khalkhin Gol, August 1939 

Mass infantry assaults with the full integration of motorized forces, coupled with heavy artillery cover and mortar support at the rifle unit level was the key to advancing against the stubborn IJA defense. Zhukov’s final push from August 20 to September 1st 1939 was most certainly a strategic and tactical masterpiece in every sense because he grasped the use of his forces as being a single entity designed for one single purpose in the given theatre of operations. Later showing the strategic command and bold initiative that would make him more successful than the American Civil War General, George B. McClellan (b.1826-1885), who Stalin famously compared Zhukov to in 1942 within the context of the campaign on the Eastern Front. [ii]

Japanese tank crew on a break near the Mongolian border, 1939

More impressively Zhukov designed a winning strategy that destroyed a heavily defended opponent better trained than even his crack units like the border guards or airborne brigade, by a decisive encirclement and destroy action designed to achieve total victory, decisively at any cost, in man or material. This massive combined arms assault would prove a highly effective but difficult tactic to implement on the terrain of Finland during the Winter War of 1939-1940 [iii]. It was however successfully used by Gen. Zhukov and other top Soviet generals on the Eastern Front against the Nazi’s and their allies from 1942-1945.

As August approached, Gen. Zhukov was pooling his resources and armor brigades for a large combined assault across all fronts covering the remaining Japanese positions in the center and south, particularly the heights overlooking the river in Manchurian territory which was now claimed as a part of Mongolia. No material expense was spared and Zhukov was given free reign by his superiors and the commissars at the front to consolidate all materials at the rear positions for a final mass-offensive. The date for this assault was set for 20 August, timed perfectly with the political happenings in Europe which would bring war in September following the invasion and partition of Poland by the Germans and then the Soviets from the east. By the time peace was made in Mongolia in September of 1939, the Soviets had concerns elsewhere diplomatically and militarily with the political developments in Central Europe and the Baltic and the planned invasion of Karelia.

Soviet T-26 light tanks of the 36th Motorized Rifle Division

The final Soviet-Mongolian offensive which began in the early morning hours of 20 August and continued brutally until the end of the month used simultaneous forward thrusts of rifle brigades, cavalry divisions, mechanized (motorized) divisions, and airborne brigades to overrun the heights near the river controlled by the Japanese. Supported by early morning bombing runs and sorties by ground-attack planes, Zhukov’s final assault opened officially after an almost hour long period of heavy artillery shelling after which the Red Army and MPRA forces of between 60-75,000 men and more than 500 armored vehicles and their support units moved to engage IJA troops at positions in the north, center, and south of the river. By this period in August the Soviets had begun to exploit their air superiority, making infantry and mechanized movement much safer for their own troops throughout the flat landscapes of the river valley. Pushing up methodically through the dry grass plateaus and sand dune, T-26, T-28, and BT-5’s armed with flamethrowers and aided by Red Army grenadiers, made contact with and destroyed the forward command posts and defensive emplacements that the IJA had constructed in the weeks before. This a seek and destroy mentality slowly cut off and enveloped the 23rd’s positions and must have devastated their remaining moral.

By the end of August the decisive battle that Zhukov had planned for more than month was nearly won. In the last week from 23-26 August, major efforts were launched to reinforce and break-out the IJA forces trapped but all failed. In the final dramatic action the 23rd infantry division was almost entirely destroyed along with the more than half of 72nd regiment and most of their supporting armored divisions by the Red Armies 6th armored brigade. No accurate number can be established for the total number of Japanese or Soviet, and Mongolian and Chinese casualties for that matter, though it is possible that these numbers were higher than claimed by most sources. Most likely somewhere between 45,000-60,000 were killed or wounded in total for all sides. Official reports from immediately after put both nations’ total casualties (killed or wounded) at under 20,000 each excluding Mongolian and Chinese deaths related or caused by the conflict. The air war continued past the infantry wars' conclusion with IJA and Red Army air squadrons fighting it out after the ground war had ended in early September. 

Negotiations had begun weeks before and a ceasefire was implemented on the 16th of September 1939. This officially ending the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, the little known or cited “small war” fought in borderlands of Mongolia and China immediately before the buildup to World War II. The influence of this far flung secondary front and its corresponding conflicts in Siberia, on the steppes of Mongolia, and in the prairies of northern China, greatly altered the diplomatic and military history of Eastern Europe and Asia, 1940-1945.

Addendum Notes


[i] Shock battalions dated back to the Czar's army in the Great War-the Soviets used a combination of infantry, motorized, artillery, and Mongolian cavalry divisions to create fast striking, mobile assault units.

[ii] Stalin was quoted by the American Press remarking to an American general that “Zhukov is like [Gen. McCllelan]-he always wants more men, more cannon, more guns, also more planes. He never has enough.”

[iii] The Finns used the Soviet dependence on armor and trucks to destroy Red Army forces deployed from 1939 to 1940 during the Winter War. See William Trotter’s A Frozen Hell (Algonquin, 2000) or the PBS documentary, Fire and Ice: Winter War of Finland and Russia.


Suggested Further Reading:
Coox, Alvin D. The Anatomy of a Small War: The Soviet-Japanese Struggle for Changkufeng/Khasan 1938. (Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut 1997).

Goldman, Stuart Nomonhan, 1939: The Victory that Shaped World War II

Kolomiet, M. Order of Battle of the Khalkhin-Gol Battle 1939 RKKA order of battle, strength, and losses of Soviet-Mongolian Troops.

Neeno, Timothy Nomonhan: The Second Russo-Japanese War M.A
(University of Wisconsin 1990, 2005).

Rottman, Gordon L. (U.S. Army, Special Forces, Ret.) & Takizawa, Akira World War II Japanese Tank Tactics. (Osprey Publishing, 2006).

Warner, Philip ed. The Japanese Army of World War II, 1931-1939
(Osprey Publishing, London 1973).

6 comments:

  1. There is a great chapter on this in Ralph Zumbro's The Iron Cavalry, well worth checking out if you haven't yet. In reference to the McClellan quote from Stalin, among the first requests from Zhukov was for record players.

    According to Zumbro's sources, he played construction sounds as if preparing for a determined defense. In reality he was upgrading the road to the nearest railhead, Chita I believe.

    Another thing mentioned by Zumbro was the use of piano wire by the Soviets against Japanese armor. It seems the wire was drawn in by the sprockets and cut the seals immobilizing the tank. Highly recommend the book overall. Thanks for a well researched post and for broadening my knowledge of the battle.

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  2. Thanks. I will definitely check out Zumbros book, sounds fascinating.

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  3. You need to do your research on the Arisaka rifle. The opinions on the weapon are in the minority and dated. It was, and is, and exceptional rifle of its era.

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    1. I would wholly disagree-when compared to the Mosin-Nagant (which i have personal experience with) and to the Allied rifles-it was and is an inferior weapon in my opinion.

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    2. This is a good overview of the combat at Khalkhin Gol/Nomonhan. More important than differences between Russian and Japanese rifles and pistols was the huge quantitative and qualitative advantage the Soviets enjoyed in armor. Soviet BT-5 & BT-7 tanks greatly out-gunned and out-performed the thin-skinned, poorly armed Japanese tanks, which took a severe beating in the early going and were completely withdrawn from the combat zone later in July, so that Soviet armor owned the battlefield during the final showdown in August.
      Even more important is the relationship between this conflict and the conclusion of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and the outbreak of WW II in Europe. This connection is at the heart of my book, NOMONHAN, 1939, cited in the bibliography above http://www.usni.org/store/books/catalog-spring-2012/nomonhan-1939
      I also show in this book how Khalkhin Gol influenced Japan's decision to attack Pearl Harbor.

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