History’s Untold Stories

Welcome to New History Revealed, the site that reveals untold historical stories of major events which have influenced and changed the course of history but until now have remained forgotten or obscured.

Our first feature tells the story of the 1939 Battle Nomonhan/Khalkin Gol which shaped the course of World War 2.

The Battle of Nomonhan, July-September, 1939

At 05:45 on 20th August 1939 the Red Army began the greatest offensive since World War 1. Eleven days before Germany captured the World’s attention with the invasion of Poland the desolate sands of Outer Mongolia erupted into petrifying carnage as 100,000 Russians and Mongolians struck the battered remnants of the Japanese Army’s 23rd Division. The men of the 23rd were spent having already endured 50 days of continuous, bloody combat. All efforts to defeat their more numerous and better armed foe had been fruitless and costly. Now they could only crouch in their packing crate lined foxholes as the Russian heavy artillery pounded them from higher ground. More than 100 Soviet medium bombers escorted by hundreds more fighters delivered yet more devastation upon the collapsing Japanese trenches. The barrage was followed by hundreds of tanks and armoured cars perhaps as many as 800.  The Japanese met them largely with cold steel, hand grenades and Bushido spirit. The result was inevitable, the effects…

The Halha River
The Halha River, disputed border between Mongolia and Manchukuo

No Mere Border Dispute

Nomonhan (to the Russians Khalkin Gol) was a border dispute among old enemies. Japan, with a scarcity of internal resources and a densely packed population, sought to control her Asian mainland sources of vital food and raw materials. With the ‘acquisition’ of Manchuria in 1931 (renamed Manchukuo, now Heilungkiang Province in China) Japan had gained land right up to its traditional enemy’s closely guarded Siberian border. Soviet border policy had always been quite clear, their territory was inviolate. The unstoppable force had met the immovable object!

The battle was the focus of nearly 40 years of hostility between the two nations and the intensity with which it was fought represented the depth of feeling on both sides.  Ostensibly it was fought to ‘iron out’ 100square miles of ill defined borderlands between Mongolia (a Soviet client state) and Manchukuo (a Japanese one). The land itself is still an inhospitable, deserted steppe, used mainly by Mongolian nomads for winter pasturing. The outcome of the battle and its importance to history outweighs the intrinsic value of the land many times over. Defeated at Nomonhan the Japanese Army discarded their long nurtured Siberian dream, shifting their attention southwards. The ramifications of their switch for the European colonial empires and the Asia-Pacific peoples not to mention the USA are history.

The Mongol Hordes

The fuse was lit on 13th May when local Japanese commander Lt General Michitaro Komatsubara received a report that a sizeable force of Mongolian cavalry had been seen deep inside territory claimed by Manchukuo. Komatsubara and his green 23rd Division were responsible for the security of Manchukuo’s western districts and were part of the Kwantung Army (the Japanese Army in Manchukuo) which, due largely to the concurrent Japanese war in China, was desperately short of much of the means by which one waged modern offensive war. It had very few tanks, large calibre artillery, motor transport, planes and above all trained, experienced infantry. Soviet Far Eastern Command’s forces outnumbered them in all departments by 5:1.  Most Japanese soldiers were encouraged to believe that, following Stalin’s officer purges, the Red Army was a leaderless rabble which would offer no serious opposition. Komatsubara was a product of his military system and believed in his own men’s invincibility and that their Bushido spirit would always prevail.

His initial response was to despatch to the area an armoured reconnaissance column under Colonel Yaozo Azuma and an infantry regiment commanded by the respected Colonel Takemitsu Yamagata. On May 28th they were ordered to wipe out all Soviet forces inside the area from Nomonhan village to the Halha River, the Japanese claimed border. At the same time Kwantung Army command increased local air strength with the addition of two fighter and three medium bomber squadrons. These were becoming involved in daily combat with the also rapidly increasing number of Soviet planes. In the air the Japanese Ki 37 single wing fighters soon outclassed the Soviet I-15’s biplane (hero for the Nationalist air force in Spain).

On the ground it was a different story. The Soviets were indeed occupying the disputed land and built several ingenious underwater bridges in order to move reinforcements forward into well constructed defences. The Japanese suspected the bridges existence but had been unable to locate them. Geography favoured the Soviets. Both Azuma’s and Yamagata’s proposed lines of advance were over ground covered by several batteries of Soviet heavy artillery entrenched on Hara Heights, the undisputed Mongolian bank of the river.

MPRA cavalry
Mongolian People’s Republic Army Cavalry

An Enthusiastic Start

Azuma’s column departed Nomonhan around midnight on May 28th. Consisting of a sedan, a tankette, a detachment of Manchukuoan cavalry and several platoons of lorried infantry their aim was to find and destroy the bridges. They had a breezy start quickly advancing 10 miles. Two miles from the river they were ambushed by at least 30 Soviet tanks and armoured cars accompanying a rifle regiment. Azuma’s units became separated and scattered. Alerted by the noise Soviet artillery opened up and rained destruction. Although he clung on for several days, without resupply or communication with HQ, by the 30th Azuma was overrun. Few of his men were ever seen alive again.

In his effort to advance down the river to meet Azuma, Yamagata’s regiment had its own problems. The terrain hadn’t been properly scouted and features easily misidentified in the dark. The Japanese had no clear idea where or in what strength the Soviet defences lay. Like Azuma Yamagata soon began to lose touch with many of his units who were encountering unexpectedly fierce Soviet resistance. By dawn on the 29th he knew his advance was stalled well short of his objective and the best he could accomplish was taking the main Soviet position opposing him. Despite desperately heroic attacks even this was beyond his capability and recognising this Komatsubara pulled Yamagata out on May 31st.

However the Japanese general would not let the matter lie, nor would his Kwantung Army superiors. Despite the explicit wishes of Imperial Army HQ in Tokyo not to enflame the situation Kwantung Army brought up heavier artillery, committed their few tanks (30 medium Type 89’s and 35 light Type95’s) and Komatsubara began planning an assault across the Halha with his entire division aimed at clearing Soviet artillery off the dominating Hara Heights. With mixed success Japanese bombers bombed Soviet airfields deep within Mongolia and the nimble Ki37’s fought numerous dogfights with ever increasing swarms of I 15’s.

However one factor highlights the discrepancy between the two sides ability to wage a war of movement far from logistical bases. Komatsubara, having failed to capture a Soviet bridge needed to bridge the river in order to cross it. There were no fords and it was too deep and fast flowing for men to cross without one. Bridging was probably the Kwantung Army’s lowest priority equipment and certainly amongst its most antiquated. The bridge could only span 80 metres and was 2 metres wide. The only place this was possible was well within the range of the Soviet artillery. Nevertheless planning began.

Zhukov Shines

On the Soviet side men and materials were allocated to the conflict in huge quantities. On June 2nd the deputy military commissioner of Byelorussia was surprised (and probably not a little alarmed) by a summons to Moscow. General Georgi Zhukov was ordered to Mongolia to assess the situation and three days later took command.  Zhukov’s abilities as a strategist, planner and leader ensured that the huge investment of Soviet men and equipment was used to achieve maximum combined arms potential against the Japanese.

Komatsubara’s bridge was ready by July 2nd.  He planned to have infantry and artillery cross the bridge, encircle the Soviet positions on Hara Heights and prevent any attempt at reinforcement. Simultaneously a Japanese tank attack over the ground Yamagata failed to secure in May aimed at clearing the Manchukuoan side of the river.

Both failed, although perhaps only narrowly in the case of the armoured thrust. The night of the 2nd saw possibly the first night attack ever made by tanks but like so many Japanese attacks before and since the initial impact of the ferocious attack dissipated as individual units became separated and disjointed. A complete lack of radio equipment coupled with the age old problems of night fighting in unfamiliar and unremarkable terrain caused cohesion to break down.

To Soviet defenders Japanese tanks suddenly appeared, Rommel like out of the dark, causing considerable casualties and the Japanese came much closer to success than they realised. However, in many places, carpets of unbreakable piano wire began fouling tank tracks. Immobilised tanks became easy prey to the plentiful Soviet anti tank guns. They were also restricted by lack of fuel which prevented exploiting local successes. After 4 days intensive fighting the armour was withdrawn having lost nearly half its tanks and sent to recover and rebuild.

Across the river 23rd Division infantry fared worse. Initially successful in establishing a bridgehead they ultimately suffered from bad intelligence, bad planning and logistics and the scarcity of heavy artillery. The crossing was a shambles with no effective management for the 10,000 men who were lined up to cross. Trucks could not go over loaded, guns had to be dismantled and carried over and horses led across. Cooperation with air units was nonexistent as was air cover. Japanese pilots were not trained in ground support roles. Worst of all Japanese intelligence had seriously underestimated the Soviet determination to defend the border and their capability to rapidly assemble a huge mechanised force.

By midday on the 3rd, when Zhukov chose to counter attack, only 2 Japanese regiments and a battalion had crossed the river with a several light field guns in support. In an effort to smash them before they could establish a permanent bridgehead the Russian committed his entire tank force, more than 800 BT 7 medium tanks and BA10 armoured cars, without effective infantry support. For two days the Soviet armour attacked relentlessly and the Japanese infantry resisted resolutely. The Soviets paid a fearful price. Over half their vehicles were put out of action, most in close quarter action. However having nothing better than Molotov cocktails the Japanese infantry was poorly equipped in the way of anti tank defence.

By July 5th the preponderance of Soviet armour, the dash of its commander, the dominance and effectiveness of their artillery combined with Japanese deficiencies in supply and counter battery capability led Komatsubara to pull the battered remnants of his Division back across the river having lost nearly a third of his men and exhausted the rest.

Now the Japanese tendency to be unrealistic about an enemy’s intentions and capabilities manifested itself most damagingly. Kwantung Army staff as well as those at 23rd Division convinced themselves that the Soviets were nearly beaten. In order to finish the job the elite 7th infantry division was brought to the region and the army stripped of all its heavy artillery for an offensive planned for August 24th. More and more squadrons were allotted to the widening air battle. Offers were made of veteran Japanese units otherwise occupied in China.

Zhukov surveys Russian positions
Zhukov surveys Russian positions

Shutting the Door for Ever

As we have seen on August 20th Zhukov struck first with overwhelming force. Komatsubara persisted with a feeble last charge on the 27th but by the 29th his division numbered 400 effectives. Kwantung Army, bearing in mind Imperial displeasure refused to commit the 7th Division and the affair was effectively over. The Japanese Army had been comprehensively beaten, physically and psychologically and they knew it.

This knowledge had profound effects upon their future foreign policy. Never again did they initiate conflict with the Soviets, even when Hitler implored them to at the height of German penetration into the Soviet Union during 1941-42. To the Japanese the North door was firmly locked. The South door opened war with Britain, the Netherlands and the USA.

One is left wondering what might have happened had the Japanese either not fought at Nomonhan or prevailed. Would they have joined Hitler’s war participating in history’s greatest pincer movement? Could they have? Might that have knocked Russia out of the war? Was the Second World War lost by the Japanese 48 hours before Hitler invaded Poland?

Captured Japanese soldiers
Japanese soldiers captured by the Russians. Most never returned from their captivity.

 

 

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