manchuria-map

Khalkhin-Gol: The forgotten battle that shaped WW2

In August 1939, just weeks before Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland, the Soviet Union and Japan fought a massive tank battle on the Mongolian border – the largest the world had ever seen.

Under the then unknown Georgy Zhukov, the Soviets won a crushing victory at the batte of Khalkhin-Gol (known in Japan as the Nomonhan Incident). Defeat persuaded the Japanese to expand into the Pacific, where they saw the United States as a weaker opponent than the Soviet Union. If the Japanese had not lost at Khalkhin Gol, they may never have attacked Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese decision to expand southwards also meant that the Soviet Eastern flank was secured for the duration of the war. Instead of having to fight on two fronts, the Soviets could mass their troops – under the newly promoted General Zhukov – against the threat of Nazi Germany in the West.

In terms of its strategic impact, the battle of Khalkhin Gol was one of the most decisive battles of the Second World War, but no-one has ever heard of it. Why?

Rising Tensions
It was perhaps not all that surprising that the Soviet Union and Japan, two expansionist powers who just happened to be close neighbours, butted heads in the Mongolian borderlands.

Tensions between the two had been high for decades, and had erupted into open conflict on a number of occasions. Japan had clearly had an edge over Russia during the early part of the 20th century – it had decisively defeated Tsarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 (a conflict most memorable, perhaps, for the Russian Navy’s folly of sailing its entire Baltic fleet around the globe only to be promptly sunk by the Japanese Navy within days of its arrival), and had occupied Vladivostock for several years during the Russian civil war.

But, by the 1930s, the Soviet Union under Stalin was a resurgent power, and had become a major regional rival to the Japanese. The Japanese High Command were particularly concerned about the threat Soviet submarines posed to Japanese shipping, and the ease with which Soviet bombers, operating out of Vladivostok, would be able to reach Tokyo.

Flashpoint

By the late 1930s, both Mongolia and bordering Manchuria (Manchukuo) were Soviet and Japanese puppet states.

The border between the two was hotly disputed. Japanese backed Manchuria claimed that the border ran along the Khalkhin-Gol river, whereas the Mongolians argued that the border actually ran just east of Nomonhan village, some 10 miles east of the river.

Although the two countries had previously fought some minor skirmishes (most notably at Changkufeng/Lake Khasan in 1938, a battle which resulted in more than 2,500 casualties on both sides), the battle of Khalkin Gol was sparked when, on 11 May 1938, a small Mongolian cavalry united entered the disputed area in search of grazing for their horses. They were quickly given a bloody nose and expelled by a larger Manchurian unit but, within days, the Mongolians returned with greater support and forced the Manchurian forces to retreat.

The conflict slowly but gradually escalated until Soviet and Japanese forces were drawn into direct conflict. On 28 May Soviet forces surrounded and destroyed a Japanese reconnaisance unit. The Japanese unit, led by Lt Colonel Yaozo Azuma suffered 63% casualties in total, losing 8 officers and 97 men, plus suffering 34 wounded.

A month of relative quiet followed this battle. But, instead of using the time to consider a peace deal, both sides redoubled their efforts to build up their forces in the region.

Daring Japanese Air Raid

The quiet was shattered on 27 June by a daring Japanese air-raid on the Soviet air base at Tamsak-Bulak in Mongolia. The unprepared Soviets lost many planes on the ground although, once they got airborne they gave a good account of themselves. Their skill, however, could not prevent the Japanese pilots returning gloriously home, having destroyed twice as many Soviet planes as they had lost themselves.

However, their glory was short-lived. The Imperial Japanese Army Headquarters, based in Tokyo, had not been told of the attack in advance, and was not amused at the local commander’s initiative. When news of the raid reached Tokyo, furious Generals immediately ordered that no further air strikes would be launched – a decision for which Japanese foot-soldiers later paid a high price.

The Japanese ground attack

Despite their decision to withdraw air cover, Tokyo was happy to authorise a land-based operation to “expell the invaders.”

Lt. Gen. Michitaro Komatsubara, well schooled officer, planned a devastating two-pronged assault that would encircle and destroy the Soviet armies and bring him a glorious victory.

His Northern task force launched its first assalt on 1st July. After easily crossing the Khalkhin Gol river, Japanse soldiers drove the Soviet forces from Baintsagan Hill and quickly began to advance southwards. The following day his Southern task force followed them with another massive assault.

However, Komatsubara soldiers were ill-prepared, and not able to take advantage of their early success. Poor logistical planning meant that their supply line across the river consisted of just one pontoon bridge.

Seizing their opportunity, the Soviets under Zhukov quickly rallied 450 tanks for a daring counter-attack. Despite being entirely without infrantry support, they attacked the Japanese task force on three sides, and very nearly encircled them.

By 5 July, the battered Japanese Northern Taskforce had been forced back across the river.

The second Japanese attack

Following the failure of their first attack, the Japanese withdrew and planned their next move. Defeat was not an option for Komatsubara. After giving his soldiers a fortnight to recover, and restock their supplies, he conceived another assault plan – this one relying on brute force.

On 23 July, backed by a massive artillery bombardment, the Japanese threw two divisions of troops at the Soviet forces that had, by now, crossed the river and were defending the Kawatama bridge. wo days of fierce fighting resulted in some minor Japanse advances, but they were unable to break Soviet lines and reach the bridge. Despite thousands of casualties, the battle was effectively a stalemate.

Unable to progress further, and rapidly running out of artillery supplies, the Japanese decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and disengaged to plan a third assault.

The Soviet Counter-attack

Planning for a third Japanse assault went well, but the Soviets under Zhukov beat Lt Gen Komatsubara to the punch.

By August 20th, Zhukov had amassed a force of more than 50,000 men, 498 tanks and 250 planes. Matched against him was a similarly sized, but not well armoured Japanese force, that had no idea the Soviet counter-attack was coming.

A classic combined arms assault followed, as thousands of Soviet infantry attacked the Japanese centre, Soviet armour encircled the Japanese flanks, and the Soviet air-force and artillery pounded the Japanese from long-range.

By August 31st, the encircled Japanese force had been decimated and surrounded. A few Japanese units managed to break out of the encirclement, but those who remained followed Japanse martial tradition and refused to surrender.

Zhukov wiped them out with air and artillery attacks.

The conflict ends

Just one day later, half way across the world Hitler and Stalin invaded and carved up Poland.

Despite technically being an ally of Nazi Germany, it became prudent for Stalin to ensure that he Eastern flank was also secure. Rather than advancing to push home their tactical advantage and escalate the conflict, Zhukov’s armies were ordered not to press home their advantage. Instead, they were ordered to dig in and hold their position at Khalkhin Gol – the border they had previously claimed as theirs.

The total number of casualties suffered by each side is far from clear, particularly as neither Imperial Japan nor the Soviet Union were particularly ‘open’ societies.

Official statistics report just over 17,000 Japanese total casualties, compared with around 9,000 on the Soviet side. Some historians claim that Japan lost more than 45,000 men, while the victorious Soviet armies lost a ‘mere’ 17,000 men.

Most likely, as always, the true figure lies somewhere in the middle.

How Khalkhin-Gol changed the course of history

The battle of Khalkhin-Gol decisively showed the expansionist Japanese military that it was not a match for the Soviets – particularly while Japanese forces were still bogged down throughout China. The Soviets under combined their forces to stunning effect, while Japanese tactics remained stuck in a pre-modern mindset that valued honour and personal bravery more highly on the battlefield than massed forces and armour.

When Hitler finally invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 the Japanese, although tempted to join the attack, remembered the lessons of Khalkhin Gol and decided to remain on the sidelines, ensuring that the stretched Soviet military could focus its forces on just one front. This, in turn, meant that Nazi Germany was forced to fight a four year war on two fronts – against the Soviets in the East, and the British and Americans in the West.

Defeat at Khalkhin-Gol can also be seen as a major factor in the Japanese decision to expand into the Pacific. As expansion to the North-West was no longer an option, ill defended and scattered colonial territories made far easier targets. Even the United States was deemed a less formidable adversary than the Soviet Union and, if the Japanse had not lost at Khalkhin-Gol, they would surely have never attacked Pearl Harbour.

However, although the Japanese probably took the sensible strategic course after Khalkhin Gol of targetting a ‘weaker’ opponent, they didn’t learn the combat lessons dealt out by the Soviet army. Honour and bravery remained central to the Japanese military mentality and, once they had recovered from the initial onslaught, the United States and Britain were able to mass their forces and push the Japanese out of the Pacific and back to the Home Islands in one brutal battle after another.

Update: Russia Today have released a video report of the 70th anniversary of the battle of Khalkhin Gol.

And what did they call it? Why, ‘the forgotten battle that shaped WW2′. Wonder where they got the inspiration for that headline from?

Comments

    1. Josh K

      The article begins with ” before Hitler attacked Poland”. The statement should read before Stalin and Hitler attacked Poland”.
      In 1939 Ribentropp Molotov pact ensured Soviets and Germans attacked Poland.

        1. Dmitry

          To be even more precise, the first warfare of WW2 did not start in Poland. The first one, was when UK and France had sold Czechoslovakia to Hitler in Munich agreements. It was half year before the attack on Poland. They now prefer to “forget” the inconvenient part of the history, and in the western history books the WW2 had started from the attack on Poland.

  1. Reznor

    Wow, didn’t know that, always wondered why the axis-powers didn’t start a war on two fronts against Russia, so they actually did and failed. Thanks for the info.

  2. JOHN

    Very interesting. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor forced the U.S. to enter the war. If the US had not entered the war, world history might have changed dramatically. Had japan instead waited two years until the USSR was fighting the Nazi forces, they could have re-attacked, and fought a weakened enemy.

  3. PK

    My grandfather fought @ Khalhin Gol being 20 y.o. artillery captain in soviet army.

    However this battle was tiny compares to Stalingrad battle there losses were like 1.2-1.7 millions soldiers for each side and average “life expectancy” was 17 minutes for soldiers in Soviet army.

  4. Richard Kendall

    That is one of the most interesting historical facts I’ve heard in a long time, probably since school!

  5. RicoP

    Almost unbelieveable, or, “incredible!”! I mean really…who ever heard of this? I need a second opinion…Victor Brooks, where are you?

  6. Andrew

    Only reason I knew about this prior to reading this post was from Haruki Murakami’s “Wind-up Bird Chronicles”

  7. Kull

    Being a military history buff I knew about this clash but I have to compliment you for the sleek and pleasant style with which you managed to narrate it, surely captivating and entertaining…

    :-D

    Kull.

  8. Aleks

    Despite Operation Barbarossa, Stalin kept the armor in the East until the situation in the West became desperate (and had solid intelligence on Japanese plans). The fresh units from the East stunned the Nazis who thought that the Russians had nothing left.

    Stalin had a brilliant spy deeply connected to Japanese military circles called Richard Sorge who was in Japan as a journalist. He befriended the Japanese military brass and was often invited along to their drinking sessions where the generals would get blasted. Sorge would milk this and pass the information back to Moscow which is how Moscow knew that Japan would attack south towards the colonies.

    Unfortunately, Stalin didn’t believe the information provided by Sorge…who was executed by the Japanese: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Sorge

  9. Robert Sullivan

    Nice article. Now, one thing that might be of interest, that I saw on a PBS (http://www.pbs.org) documentary I believe, was that, based on newly released documents, from Japan and Russia, was that the Japanese surrendered to the Americans, not as is widely believed, because of the nuclear bombs being dropped on their cities, but because the emperor feared the return of the Russian bear, poised, now that the West had settled down, to invade Hokkaido, for starters.

    Now if the English did not surrender from the bombing of London (granted, nothing compared to the pummeling the Germans were to receive), and nor did the Germans did surrender, after the bombing of Dresden, which, using incendiary bombs, killed more than Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined. And the bombing continued, both RAF and US – Kiel, Dortmund, Essen, but the Germans fought on, a recent book “On To Berlin” describes the Russians fighting street by street in Berlin.

    Anyway, to this day Russia and Japan tussle over disputed territory: Sakhalin and the Kurils.

    I’ll end with a quote from Losyukov:
    “Japan finds itself very much like before World War II. It needs resources and markets, and those two things can combine to lead to a very dangerous situation. ”
    Alexander Losyukov, Russia’s ambassador to Japan, expressing displeasure at Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s sea visit to view the northern isles last week. (New York Times)

  10. P

    Lets see the proof!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Bullshit! Give me three examples that you have checked! Anyone????? Pure Shite!

  11. David Bryant

    The circle is complete! I had a neighbor in Okinawa who told me he fought the Soviets in Mongolia in 1939. He was in a two-man tank and was shot thru & thru the butt. He, being Okinawan, was a conscript and hated the Japs but *really* hated Russians. Now I know the whole story.

  12. Larry

    Wxtremely interesting! As an adult, I love history! When I was a kid, I hated history. Go figure….Nice work, very worthwhile!

  13. Jive Turkey

    Well, I have heard of this battle and agree its significance is rarely acknowledged, but I’m not sure this analysis is entirely accurate. The first 6 months of Operation Barbarossa (e.g. the German invasion of Russia in June 1941) were vastly successful for the Nazis. If ever there were a time for the Japanese to join forces w the Nazis and fight the Russians, this was it. But Japan had changed their priorities, focusing on Pacific expansion. They still joined forces with the Nazis, but attacked the Americans instead (Dec 1941).

  14. Larry in N.H.

    These skirmishes convinced the Japs that the Soviets would defend Siberia and it’s resources. However, Roosevelt’s decision to deny oil to Japan due to it’s war in China made the situation critical. Japan would have to go where the oil was–Dutch Borneo. British Singapore and the American Philipines stood menacingly close to the invasion route. No matter–the Combined Fleet would take them all on. For six months it worked. Then–Midway. And the rest you know. Except, Germany also spent the war searching for oil. It collasped before getting enough. That left the Russians free to revenge the 1905 war. Per the Yalta Agreement, Russia charged into Manchuria. Truman dropped the Bomb before Russia had a chance to invade Japan proper. Otherwise, they would still be in a divided Tokyo. Just as they are still in the Kuriles and Salkalin islands…

  15. Enkhee

    Hey, I am a Mongolian from Mongolia. This is very well known story (well, the fact!) in Mongolia since it had happened in Mongolia. I’d been in New Zealand for years, I found it very surprising that westerners taught all others only their own perspective on history. Thanks God that we, post-communists have not been blinded by them, at least.

  16. Randwulf

    I have known about this for a long time, and one thing the article missed is the fact that Hitler at the time was allied with both the Japs and Russians. It was German pressure that halted the conflict due to the planned combined German Russian invasion of Poland!!!! and the German alliance with Japan. Don’t belive me? take a good look at the time line for this battle. And it was mostly ignored by the west when a good study of it would have enlightened a lot of people on the coming age of Armored warfare. It is still one of those tidbits of history that only the hard core history nuts know about… and it was fought in the mongol desert!!!!

    Hard to imagine Japs in the desert…

    good article all the same, thanks.

  17. Larry in N.H.

    A note about the Bomb. Germany and Japan had investigated the possibility of an atomic explosive device. Hilter had hoped to get just one so he could drop it on London (via V-2 rocket?) and effectively end Britain’s involvement. Japan found that refining enough ore for one bomb would take years and years. They did not know the magnitude of the Manhattan Project. Still, the Trinity test plus the Hiroshima uranium and Nagasaki plutonium bombs emptied the cupboard. We threatened more. But they were empty threats. Still, they were amazed we did not bomb Tokyo. They decided being vaporized by bomb was less glorious than dieing in human wave attacks on invading armies…

    1. Robert in Denver

      Larry in N.H.; The U.S. had a third atomic bomb ready to go if the two devices used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not convince the Japanese to surrender. After that there were no more assembled nuclear weapons, but there was sufficient weapons-grade material for two additional weapons. It would have taken some time to create and assemble those weapons, but that time would have been measured in weeks or months, not years. This information is covered in a couple of the better history books on the Manhattan Project, plus my father-in-law was associated with that third unused weapon at the end of the war. All that being said, there can be little doubt that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria was a major contributing factor to the Emperor’s decision to surrender unconditionally. It is also symptomatic of Stalin’s agenda that he continued offensive operations against the Japanese in Manchuria for about 7 to 10 days after the Japanese surrendered to the American, Australian, and British forces in the Pacific and in the China-Burma-India theater. The soviet attacks in Manchuria did not end until Stalin had achieved his military goals.

  18. Larry in N.H.

    A defunct magazine entitled “Command” used to highlight these little known battles of history. Since this battle did not result in some fundamental change in the combatants’ status. The so-called “history” texts don’t cover it. Textbooks can over fit in so much. And a mexican standoff battle halfway ’round the world is just not flashy enough…

  19. Wanderer

    JiveTurkey, that’s the author’s point. By the time the USSR was potentially vulnerable, and busy with Germany, Japan had already committed to the Pacific war and didn’t want a second front. If Khalkin-Gol had gone differently, and the Japanese had not felt it better to turn their attention to the Pacific islands and the US, they could have backdoored the USSR during Barbarossa and the outcome of WW2 would most likely have been very different. Even if Japan had waited, post-Khalkin-Gol, for the Soviets to be tied up elsewhere, and had not attacked Pearl Harbor, the US might not have entered the war soon enough to do any good. Or, if they’d taken another poke at the USSR, Stalin would not have had the Siberian divisions free to throw into the European theatre at a critical moment. In any version of the scenario other than what actually transpired, either the USSR would have been weaker or the US would not have become involved as soon, and either one could easily have tipped the balance of the war.

  20. Karnasaur

    The only museum dedicated to Marshall Zhukov in the world is in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. His uniform is on display. He was short.

  21. Markus

    Old news! The Russians were their traditional Enemy No.1 since the turn of the century and according to conventional wisdom this battle convinced them it was a bad idea to go after them.

  22. Jom

    Well written article….not a history buff, but like miltary tales. This one was captivating and interesting

  23. Randall

    This was an excellent article, nicely done. I myself was well aware of this short-lived “second” Russo-Japanese war, but it was interesting to hear more of the details.

    I must take issue with your assertion, however, that Japan’s defeat in this instance spurred the Japanese on to expand southwards and thus eventually attack Pearl Harbor. The Japanese *always* planned on expanding into Southeast Asia; it was part of their very old scheme for the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” which essentially meant Japanese hegemony over the Western Pacific and all island territories and East Asia, as well as Australia. This was the Japanese plan going back perhaps as far as the turn of the century.

    The Japanese did not attack the United States, finally, because they perceived the US as “weaker” than the Soviet Union. This is patently ridiculous. Intelligent minds in the Japanese military knew that the US was the most dangerous enemy they would ever face—this is why many of them were opposed to going up against the US, but also, oddly enough, why many of them supported the idea of attacking Pearl Harbor specifically–because it was thought that if they could wipe out the American fleet at the outset, it would force the US to submit or at least delay the US so long that Japan could fully consolidate its hold over Asia and perhaps even invade Australia. As I said–this was always the Japanese plan.

  24. david

    I teach this battle when my classes cover WWII – it is always a great surprise to my students to find out that the US was not the only player in the war, let alone the significance of Khalkhin-Gol itself. It makes for a fun class.

    To Larry in NH: the threat to use more atomic bombs was not empty, and the cupboard was not bare in anything more than a temporary sense. The US had concrete plans to drop a third bomb before the end of August, and had the production capacity to drop one or two a month thereafter (increasing over time as well) until the war was over. Truman personally ordered the bombings halted to see if the Japanese would surrender because he “couldn’t stand killing all those kids.” An odd sentiment, in context, but the quote is his (approximately – I’m doing this from memory).

  25. Todd Fjellman

    It was not just the atom bombs that forced the Japanese to surrender. It was Russia attacking with land/armored forces to gain land before the US gained a foothold in mainland Asia. Japan thought that they could broker peace with the US’ “ally” Russia. When Russia attacked, the Japanese realized that their “getting out” of the war with brokered peace, they surrendered.

  26. JFM

    There is an overlooked but very important consequence of Khalkhin Gol, it propelled Zhukov to the top. Without it, the man who stopped the Germanbs at the gates of Moscow would have been commanding an Army (in the inflated Soviet designation, a Corps in western terms), with luck a Front (an Army in Western terms) and perhaps he would have still been sitting in Mongolia. Instead he was in Mosocow and commanding the equivalent of a Group of Armies. Without Khalhin Gol, the defence of Moscow would have been led by one of such mediocriries like Boudienny, Voroshilov or Timoshenko and God knows what would have happenned.

  27. Staplehawk

    Good find. This was only part of what turned the war against the US and Pearl Harbor invasion. There is also an even more unknown factor that is read almost Nowhere except the Nanjing, China museum and a few books. I have personally been to these places and seen the killing fields and photos and heard stories from actual victims. Japanese armed forces had invaded and raped about every woman and child in Nanjing, China. Also killed most of the men in the city. Hundreds of thousands of people! Still something most Japanese soldiers deny to this day. During all this, Eisenhower went to the Japanese with a plea to stop what they were doing in Nanjing or else… That was the first week of that December.. The days before Pearl Harbor.

  28. Michael Averko

    Excerpted from JFM:

    “There is an overlooked but very important consequence of Khalkhin Gol, it propelled Zhukov to the top.”

    ****

    When compared to the Soviet-Finnish war (which occurred at roughly the same time), the Red Army did much better against a stronger Japanese foe.

    Being farther away from Moscow probably spared the Red Army’s far eastern flank the brunt of the Stalin’s purge of the officer corps. There’s also the view that at the time, the USSR’s best ground personnel were located in the far east, as a pre-planned defense against a possible Japanese attack. The 1905 Russo-Japanese War wasn’t that long ago and during the Russian Civil war, the Japanese showed signs of desiring Russian territory. Simple common sense acknowledged a sparsely Soviet populated far east, thereby requiring a strong military presence to counter a hypothetical Japanese attack. Another factor in the performance differential was perhaps Stalin taking the Finns for granted unlike the militarily stronger Japanese.

    Good to see this subject covered Andy. On the characerization of Russia being “decisively defeated” in 1905, keep in mind that it was the Japanese who were seeking a settlement. This is because they knew that their war chest was running out. The Japanese complaint of being robbed “the fruits oif victory” overlooks this point. Tokyo benefitted from surprise attack, geography and world symnpathy on their side. At the time of the Japanese attack, the major powers took glee at seeing Russian influence in Asia challenged. At the time of the surprise 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many Russians remembered the American reply to the surprise 1904 Japanese attack on Port Arthur.

  29. Chris

    Here is a good site on this battle:
    http://www-cgsc.army.mil/carl/resources/csi/drea2/drea2.asp
    and information about Japanese armored units:
    http://www3.plala.or.jp/takihome/history.htm
    http://www3.plala.or.jp/takihome/develop.html

    I would like to point out one factual error you made. You stated that “Zhukov had amassed a force of more than 50,000 men, 498 tanks and 250 planes. Matched against him was a similarly sized, but not well armoured Japanese force.” Actually, the Japanese force was around 30,000 men, with only 73 tanks, far fewer than the Soviet’s forces.

    Also, the Japanese tanks were primarily medium and light tanks, with 57mm short barrel guns intended on infantry support and taking out MG positions. While most (80%) of the Soviet tanks were light tanks, their main weapon was a log barrel 45mm cannon which had a longer range than the Japanese tanks, and could penetrate the Japanese Type 89 medium tank’s armor.

    It would not be until late 1941 that the Japanese Type 97 medium tank would be equipped with a 47mm high velocity cannon, designed for anti-tank use. However, the Japanese would still rely on medium and light tanks for most of the war. They didn’t build a heavy tank until late 1944, and it would never see significant combat duty.

    More than anything, this battle showed that the Japanese armored forces were not up to the same level of military might that their naval and air forces were. This would be a reoccurring theme throughout WWII. The Japanese did not capitalize on the German attacks on the Soviets not because of any lessons about the Soviet military, but because of the lessons of the weaknesses of their own armored units.

  30. demophilus

    There’s a pretty good account of USSR-Japanese air combat before and during this period in THE RAGGED, RUGGED WARRIORS by Martin Caidin. IIRC, Caidin was of the opinion that Japanese aerial losses to the USSR accelerated the development of the Zero.

  31. Alex TM

    A couple more facts that are not well known about the Russo-Japanese stand off.
    1. It is believed prior to the battle Japanese tried, for the first time in modern history, to use biological warfare. They set up labs to develop strains of plague, with tests on animals and captured monoglian/chinese/russian prisoners. Yes, I know, middle ages, black plague infected cows, etc. This was different in the way that industrial methods were used to test, produce and refine/concentrate the desease agent and released into, of all places, Khalkhin-Gol river.
    2. During the Japanese invasion of Chnina Soviet “volunteer” pilots on Soviet produced hardware were fiting the Japanese army. Officially they were not a part of Soviet militarry, but then again neither were American pilots over in UK.

  32. hayate

    Nice job. My one complaint was about the numbers of the Japanese forces, but “Chris” already covered it.

    There is another reason this battle was very important. While exact details of the battle were not known in the west, the general story that the Japanese were defeated by the Soviets was known. And this was probably studied by the military commands in the western countries because the USSR and Germany had a pack and Germany had just embarked upon WW2. The USSR would have been considered a foe at that time. They did study the USSR-Finland war, and a study of that war would have shown the Soviets to be rather deficeint.

    Now lets jump ahead 2 years. Germany invades the USSR and causes staggering loses. Well, Germany was already known to be a deadly opponent, but the Soviet failures showed that the USSR was very much inferior militarily to Germany on the field in 1941. Add in the Finland war and the poor Soviet showing there, considering, and then think back to Khalkhin Gol where the Soviets defeated the Japanese.

    Which brings me to that other reason this battle had such influence. The western nations would have looked at Japan in 1941 as the country beaten by the Soviets, who themselves were thought to be on the verge of losing to Germany. The west would of not considered the Soviet military as very competent at that point, so a Japanese military that was defeated by the Soviets would have been thought of as a rather impotent threat. In histories about the first 6 months of the Pacific war, much has been made about how completely the west underestimated the ability of the Japanese. It is my belief that the Japanese defeat at Khalkhin Gol convinced the western powers that they did not need to reinforce their eastern colonies to a much greater extent or make this region an urgent matter. They probably thought the Japanese would not be up to conquering their forces. At least not before reinforcements could be deployed. So the Japanese defeat at Khalkhin Gol lulled the west into thinking Japan would not be much of a threat and neglected reinforcing their colonial forces because of this impression of Japanese incompetence.

  33. blowback

    For the story of how the Red Army crushed the Japanese armies in Manchuria read August Storm: The Soviet Strategic Offensive in Manchuria by Donald M. Glantz.

    The Red Army not only took Manchuria which they passed on to Mao Zedong, they also took Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands which Japan is still asking for the return of. Stalin also planned to land troops on Hokkaid? two months before the scheduled American landings in Kyushu.

    If Japan had not surrendered, all of Korea would have been Communist and half of Japan would have been occupied probably for the same length of time as Germany.

    It is probably fair to say that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined with the Soviet declaration of war and August Storm made it clear to the Japanese that further resistance was futile.

  34. renko

    great post!

    an additional aside concerning the sovs and imp. japan:
    the military historian, bruce lee, wrote a book titled “marching orders”, dealing with declassified (as of 1995) info about the u.s. codebreaking of japan’s ciphers.
    iirc, a major point was that after kholkhin-gol there was a detente until 41. stalin originally was seeking a non-aggression pact with japan, particularly after barbarossa began. the japanese never signed a pact with the sovs, even after barbarossa began.
    this mutual detente allowed the sovs to ship their siberian troops to moscow for the 41 winter counterattack, since by then the japanese were wrapped up in the pacific campaign.
    sometime after midway and guadalcanal, it was the JAPANESE who were pressing the sovs for a formal non-aggression treaty. the sovs stalled and delayed, never agreeing until they eventually attacked japan.
    strongly recommend the book; it’s a fascinating new viewpoint.

  35. Jacobite and the Minty Teas

    A very interesting Article Andy. It is interesting also that a man named George Sorge, a German “Nazi” who was a communist double agent reporting to the Comintern from Tokyo, had set up an extensive spy ring from China to Toko. Almost single handedly, he influenced the Soviet decision to concentrate forces on their western front, with the information he collected and those the collaborating Japanese communists imparted to him. Otherwise Soviet forces would have been unnecessarily concentrated on the eastern front to the benefit of Germany. General Charles Willoughby wrote an informative book on the subject in 1952 after Sorges execution in Tokyo. It was fortunate for the historical record that the role of British secret services and global financial power were not elaborated upon, but how and ever it is a good example of how even the British Military can postulate on the “scourge” of communism. Welcome to wallyworld. I heard rumour that the Russians in fact invaded Poland in 1939, prior to the Nazis. Would there be any truth in this?

  36. Hideboh

    Actually, Japan’s Kwantung Army was ready for a full scale war against the USSR as Nomohan Incident got totally out of control. But when Germany betrayed Japan by signing a nonaggression pact with the soviet union, Japan had no choice but to quit the battle.

  37. Genco Abbandando

    Excellent article. Now that was completely unknown to me. thank you for this insight. Keep posting more.

  38. Rocky

    Excellent article. Only a few minor quibbles, already covered by others. Thanks for bringing this back to the forefront for a while. Important battle for so many reasons, almost completely unknown here in the States (at least as far as my experience goes). Good job.

  39. peter paul perez

    I THOUGTH I WAS FAIRLY WELL INFORMED ON MAJOR BATTLES OF WW2,I HAVE TO TELL YOU THANK YOU FOR ONE OF MOST DETAILED PEICES OF HISTORY,OF WHICH I NEVER KNEW OFF, EVIDENTLY YOUR ARE AN EXCELLENT HISTORIAN.

  40. wblakesx

    Great article, great discussion. I still no nothing but know it “better” now. Thanks all.

  41. Luc

    There’s a very good, fairly detailed book in english about the air war during the Khalkhin Gol / Nomon Han incident, as it is sometimes called : “Air War Over Khalkhin Gol – The Nomon Han Incident” by Vladimir R. Kotelnikov. SAM Publications, ISBN 978-1-906959-23-4.

  42. ab

    Great article. I wonder why the German generals didn’t take note of the battle of Khalkin Gol. A couple of years later the Germans were very impressed by Russia’s poor performance in its war against Finland, which was not a Great Power. The Germans concluded that Russia would be an easy target for them. For some reason they overlooked that Russia had inflicted a great defeat at Khalkin Gol over Japan, which was a Great Power at the time. Maybe the Germans saw only what they wanted to see. Otherwise, maybe someone has an answer to this question.

  43. Gantulga Ganhuyag

    I am Mongolian, and i am from eastern Mongolia. The fact that Japanese army was lost in a manuever warfare is quite visible to me as i know my country’s landscape. and i have been to the battle site where the trenches and armored cars that were abandoned or destroyed are still at the sites where they were shot, tells me that whoever commanded the operations in Japanese side, had little or no experience in dry and woodless terrain!
    Mongol and Soviet trenches are positioned very well along the small hills overlooking the other side and all the ammunition dumps are located on the other side. and tacticle placement of screening forces were very well trained to engage on open woodless terrain where fast moving trucks and tanks ruled.
    While i have never been to japanese side of trenches (due to being outside of current mongolian border) but it is clear the japanese trenches where on the eastern side of the river where there is thick woodland, that’s one of the reason why two sides actually chose thier troop placments.
    Japanese had little luck pushing into flat steppe and Soviets were bogged down on the east side of khalkhiin gol (khalkha river)
    so it seems to me that the battle was already drawn out on the first day when both sides took position.
    the trucks and tanks littering the landscape also tells that on open ground, it’s more vulnarable to aerial attacks but very effiecent way to conduct manouver warfare as i stumbled across one of very few japanese light tank on the southwestern flank of one of the mongol soviet trenches.
    alot of Soviet tank litter the landscape as well, they, i believe fell victim of poor tactics Soviets utalized during the conflict, tanks were all hit from the stern and almost in line when what seemed to me during a hill top capture.
    the fact that the lack of fast moving infantry screening for Soviet tanks resulted in alot of tanks being lost to the enemy essentially being flanked by the attacking force.
    Mongolians regard this battle as war as troops involved in this conflict exceeded 1/6th of all mongolian population (japanese, Soviet, and Mongol)
    also the sheer distance and remoteness of the battleground partially played a role in both parties dicision to halt further engagment where possible.

    Regards Gantulga

  44. Czerniakow

    It is worth mentioning that the Axis Powers (Italy, Germany, Japan) did NOT coordinate their military actions in the same way as the Allies (USA, UK, USSR).

    The victory of Khalkin Gol is not an achievement to be credited to Soviets generally, it was actually a personal victory of Zhukov.