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The International Writers Magazine: Russia v Japan - A History

Wars Not Appreciated:
'39 to '45 Japan v Socialist Republics
• James Morford
The Russians called them the battles of Khalkin-Gol,  and they inadvertently served as a learning process for fighting the Nazis in World War II. The Japanese labeled the battles under one phrase, ¨Incident at Nomonhan,¨ using ¨incident¨ to trivialize what had been although a short war, a humiliating defeat for their Empire.


Whatever their names, the short wars  between the Soviet Union and the Empire of Japan in l939 and l945, had significant implications in the beginning and end of World War.The pre-World War II fighting between Japan and the USSR, started in the late summer of l939 near the Manchurian-Mongolian border. The rich mineral deposits of the area were desired by Japan, and both nations had long wanted access to sea ports along the eastern coast. The Japanese also wanted freedom to continue their fighting with China, as well as an avenue to eventually invade the USSR. This fact was not lost on Stalin and the USSR as they feared a confrontation with Japan would expose them to eventually a two-front war, Japan on the East and Germany on the West.  

Complicating the situation was that both nations operated through puppet regimes, and in addition,  no objectively agreed-to accurate maps of the contested border areas existed; the Japanese and their Puppet state of Manchuria, insisted the border was the Khalkin Gol, or Khalka River. The USSR and the puppet state of Mongolia, claimed some 20 kilometers east of the river as the delineation point. This area included the village of Nomohan.

For a few years skirmishes occurred, perhaps a slight advantage in aerial fighting going to the Japanese Kwantung Army. But in early June, a new Soviet commander arrived on the scene, Lt. General Georgi K. Zhukov, age 42. Zhukov reorganized his forces, and on July 1, 1939, launched an attack of 50,000 solders led by the 11th Tank Brigade, plus a motorized infantry brigade and a brigade of armored cars.

The qualitative difference between the two forces was not the amount and quality of the weapons or the numbers of troops. Nor was it innate fighting ability or spirit on either side, but logistics. Zhukov possessed an effective fleet of 2,600 trucks that included 1,000 fuel trucks. The Japanese, on the other hand, had slow and inefficient supply lines that created many logistic bottlenecks.  Zhukov, bolstered by another supply of 1,625 trucks from Stalin, made ready, and soon struck.

On August 20, 1939, 100,000 Soviet and Mongolian troops advanced on a 48 mile front. They drove the Japanese back into Manchuria and achieved a total victory. Of the 60,000 Japanese participating in this short war, 45,000 were killed.

Virtually unopposed, the Soviets could have continued deep into Manchuria, but their intelligence reported the Japanese desired a cease fire. This suited Stalin as the USSR and Germany had initiated Word War II by both invading Poland. The Soviets and their surrogates halted the advance.

On September 2, 1939, Japan announced they would not intervene in the war in Europe. The Japanese and Soviets signed a truce in Moscow on September 15, l939.

The first stage of the wars between Japan and the USSR had ended. Their defeat by the Soviets at the Nomonham Incident convinced the Japanese to look South to China, and Southeast with their expansionist plans. To the Soviets, their victory over Japan gave them breathing space to concentrate on the danger from Germany. Stalin, once that danger had been removed, desired a return to Manchuria. This return  was agreed to by Allied leadership when they met at the 1943 Tehran Conference, and in l945 at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. At Potsdam Stalin pledged to declare war on Japan three months following a German defeat.   

The Soviet war with Germany ended in early May of 1945. Months earlier, now knowing they were certain to beat the Germans, Stalin began shipping massive amounts of tanks, guns, and troops back to the Manchurian border.

On August 9, l945, approximately l.5 million soldiers under the command of fifty year old Marshall Aleksander Vasilevsky, commenced what the Soviets called the Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation. An extremely mechanized force, Vasilevsky´s army included 4,704 tanks and 1,852 self- propelled guns, and hardened veterans of the war with Germany. It quickly rolled across the breadth of Manchuria in three pincer movements that enveloped as much land as all of contemporary Western Europe.

Opposing them waited an unsuspecting 300,000 not very well trained and  equipped Japanese auxiliary troops, plus the Kwantung Army of 700,00 men. Once the pride of the Japanese Imperial forces, since the beginning of the Pacific war the Kwantung Army had been systematically stripped of nineteen infantry and two armored divisions. By 1945 it consisted in great measure of raw recruits manning outdated guns and tanks.

Compounding the problem was that Japanese intelligence had not foreseen the strength of the enemy forces, and so were not only outnumbered and out experienced, but naïve as to what they were facing. The Japanese thought the invaders totaled 3 infantry divisions and 2 to 3 tank brigades, when in truth they possessed 15 infantry divisions and 8 tank brigades.  

An example of this naivete was the reaction of Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki when he asked an official just returned from Manchuria if the Kwantung Army could ward off the Soviets.
"The Kwantug Army is hopeless,” came the reply.
 Then the game is up, thought the surprised Prime Minister.

The Japanese were besieged by other problems. On August 6, 1945, the USA had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and American planes daily bombed and strafed cities at will, their pilots only worry the functionality of their planes and the weather. On August 9 Nagasaki was virtually destroyed by another atomic bomb, and this conveyed to the Japanese the Americans were capable of systematically raining atomic bombs throughout their mainland. Also, with the virtual loss of their merchant fleet and air force, Japan was running out of food. Isolated, obviously losing the war, the Japanese had considered surrender before the USSR invasion into Manchuria. Now most of their leaders thought surrender the only alternative. Following the end of the war, Admiral Toyada, chief of staff of the Japanese Navy stated: “the atom bombing was a cause for the surrender, but it was not the only cause. The Russian participation in the war against Japan rather than the Atomic bombs did more to hasten the surrender.”

A Japanese surrender was not something many allied leaders thought possible without first preceded by an invasion of the Japanese homeland. The Allies also thought they needed a means of convincing Japanese leadership that unconditional surrender did not mean  the end of their culture, and that their nation must not split into pluralities. They worried a Japanese surrender might not mean all Japanese forces, just those on the mainland. Here is an example of American policy thinking in 1945 as formulated by an American policy committee:

“The concept of unconditional surrender is foreign to the Japanese nature. Therefore, unconditional surrender should be defined in terms understandable to the Japanese. Unless a definition of unconditional surrender can be given which is acceptable to the Japanese, there is no alternative to annihilation and no prospect that the threat of absolute defeat will bring about capitulation.”

By August 15, when the Russian forces had penetrated deep into Manchuria and after the Americans had dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japanese Emperor Hirohito broadcast to the Japanese nation they were surrendering. Such an announcement bewildered most citizens, their actual situation not something they were prepared to understand or accept. For decades the Japanese had hammered into their heads the Emperor and the Empire were invincible. Also, the poor quality of their emperor´s broadcast had been difficult to understand, the language, archaic and incomprehensible to many.

The Emperor´s message was not even delivered to the Kwantung army, which loyally continued resisting the Soviets.

The Soviets kept up their assaults, making rapid progress in Manchuria. Soon they arrived at the 38th parallel of the Korean Peninsula, and by August l8 had launched amphibious landings on the Kuril Islands. If nothing else, the loss of the home island of Kuril convinced all but the most fanatic of Japanese leaders the war was indeed over. Still, the surrender was not  told to the Kwantung Army, and in Manchuria fighting continued until August 22, a week past Hirohito´s broadcast.

Starting and ending in Manchuria, a kind of predictive  circle had been completed by Japan and Russia, their battles prior to and immediately following the Second World War, battles involving the latest of military equipment and large casualties, had been precursor to future wars and struggles. When these confrontations occurred they were not in the forefront of the then contemporary Western public mind. But they had an undeniable influence on the political and military makeup of a world that followed.
© James Morford June 2012

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