Japanese troops march on Nomonhan

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Nomonhan (near 118.757E 47.773N) was the name of both a hill and a nearby village on the border between Mongolia and Manchuria. The surrounding area is flat and boggy, and it is crossed by the Khalkin-Gol, a sluggish river about 140 yards (130m) wide and six feet (two meters) deep.  The area is remote, with the nearest Japanese base 200 miles (320 km) away at Hailar, the nearest railhead on the Manchurian side 50 miles (80 km) away at Handagai, and the nearest railhead on the Mongolian side a full 400 miles (640 km) away at Borzya. However, the 1939 Japanese contingency plan for war with Russia, Plan 8B, called for an advance from Hailar towards Cita to cut the Trans-Siberian Railway. Such an offensive was theoretically vulnerable to a counterattack from the Nomonhan area.

In 1939, Japan claimed that the border lay along the Khalkin-Gol, while Russia claimed that the border was several miles to the east. Incidents between Mongolian and Manchurian border guards became increasingly common, and on 4 May 1939 a body of about 50 Mongolian horsemen crossed the Khalkin-Gol and approached Nomonhan. These exchanged fire with Manchurian troops of 8 Border Guard Unit for about ten hours before withdrawing. There was a more serious incident on 10-11 May, when a 40-man Manchurian cavalry force drove a 20-man Mongol patrol near Nomonhan village back to the Kalkin-Gol.

The nearest Japanese divisional headquarters to the disputed area was 23 Division at Hailar. 23 Division was relatively green and poorly equipped, particularly in antitank weapons. However, the division commander, Komatsubara Michitaro, who had just received a copy of Tsuji Masanobu's new border policy, felt obligated to act. He dispatched a force consisting of a reconnaissance regiment and two companies of infantry, with about 56 aircraft in support and whatever the local Manchurian forces could provide. On 15 May this force bombed a Mongolian troop concentration west of the Khalkin-Gol, drove the Mongolians back across the river, then returned to base.

Preliminary Skirmishes and Japanese Response. On 17 May 1939, Soviet troops crossed the river in force, accompanied by tanks, artillery, and their own air support. Engineering units constructed several bridges across the river. The Japanese counterattacked on 28 May with infantry, Manchurian cavalry, light motorized forces, and some 40 aircraft. At this point about 2000 Japanese-controlled troops faced about 2250 Soviet and puppet troops, and the Japanese had achieved local air superiority, limiting Russian aerial reconnaissance and allowing the Japanese to achieve initial tactical surprise. The Japanese planned to attack from the northeast with one column to pin down the Russians, while a second column (Azuma Unit) flanked the Russians from the north to cut off the river crossings. However, the main column encountered fierce resistance from Russian armored cars and artillery, and Azuma Unit was trapped and annihilated when it lost contact with its headquarters. The Soviets in turn took heavy casualties when their disorganized forces blundered piecemeal into Japanese positions. After several days of desultory fighting, the Japanese withdrew, leaving the Soviets firmly established across the Khalkin-Gol.

The Soviets meanwhile had brought in a new corps commander, Georgy Zhukhov, the future "savior of Moscow", who had escaped the Stalinist purges because he was a protege of Stalin's favorite military commander, Marshal Timoshenko. Zhukov concluded that the Japanese were likely to escalate the conflict, and soon sizable reinforcements were committed to the area: a tank brigade, three mechanized brigades, a motor rifle division, and a cavalry division, supported by over 100 aircraft and a regiment of heavy artillery. These were designated 1 Army Group and placed under Zhukov's command. The air contingent included a number of veteran pilots who had fought in Spain. The Soviets conducted an air offensive against Japanese targets at the edges of the battle zone from 14-17 June.

The local Kwantung Army commanders responded by committing the whole of 23 Division, a regiment from the veteran 7 Division, a motorized artillery regiment, 2 Air Group with 180 aircraft, and the entire tank strength of Kwantung Army (38 medium and 35 light tanks), a force of about 15,000 men. Kwantung Army refused to believe its own intelligence that this was more than an ordinary border skirmish, and  Japanese overconfidence was so great that the Japanese curtailed their reconnaissance lest they give away surprise. As a result, the Japanese had little idea that the Russians already had deployed 12,500 men in the area.

Second Japanese Offensive. The Japanese plan called for the main body of 23 Division and Yasuoka Force (built around the Japanese armor) to advance to the Fui Heights, a group of low hills eleven miles (18 km) north of the confluence of the Kalkin-Gol and the smaller Holsten-Gol rivers. 23 Division would then secretly construct a bridge across the Kalkin-Gol and strike south for the Russian river crossings, while Yasuoka Force advanced west of the Kalkin-Gol on a broad front to engage and destroy the trapped Russian forces. The plan also called for a preemptive air counteroffensive deep into Mongolian airspace, which alarmed Army General Staff sufficiently that they "suggested" that the counteroffensive be canceled. Kwantung Army ignored the "suggestion", launching the first raids on 27 June 1939. The raids were quite successful, achieving surprise and claiming 98 Soviet aircraft destroyed. However, this escalation so angered the Emperor that he intervened to order the commander of Kwantung Army disciplined, and the remainder of the air counteroffensive was called off. The Russians in turn found a pair of scapegoats for the debacle: the deputy commander of the Mongol Army, who was shot, and the local corps commander, who was imprisoned until 1943, then rehabilitated to become a Hero of the Soviet Union in the fighting in Europe.

The plan would have been risky even if the Russian forces in the area were not much stronger than the Japanese realized. The Russians had seven bridges across the Kalkin-Gol, while the Japanese had barely sufficient pontoon bridging equipment for a single bridge incapable of supporting the weight of a tank. Thus the Japanese risked having 23 Division hopelessly trapped behind the Kalkin-Gol if the Russians succeeded in destroying the bridge. Trucks were in such short supply that most of the Japanese infantry marched 120 miles (190 km) with heavy packs to reach the battle area. However, the Russians were in disarray following the Japanese air strikes, and the Japanese assembled on Fui Heights on the night of July 1 against little opposition and without raising the alarm in Zhukov's headquarters. On 3 July the bridge across the Kalkin-Gol was complete and 23 Division crossed the river. Early that same morning Yasuoka Force launched a night attack that routed 149 Regiment.

Zhukov, awakening to the danger, threw elements of 11 Tank Brigade against 23 Division as rapidly as they could be brought up. Lacking infantry support, tank casualties were very heavy, particularly from the Japanese 37mm antitank guns. However the Russian tanks succeeded in keeping 23 Division from reaching the Russian river crossings. Meanwhile, with the arrival of daylight, Yasuoka Force found itself facing increasingly stiff resistance as 149 Regiment and 9 Mechanized Brigade recovered from their initial surprise.The Japanese soldiers fought with courage and skill, particularly in night actions, and they were able to knock out most of the older Russian tanks with improvised incendiaries. However, the newer Russian tanks were equipped with diesel engines that caught fire much less readily, and the Russian artillery proved deadly accurate. The Japanese made the uncomfortable discovery that their Type 89 tanks were completely outclassed by the Russian BT-7s, and the Russians had laid coils of piano wire that caught in the Japanese tank treads and immobilized the tanks. Soon both prongs of the Japanese offensive had bogged down, and Yasuoka had lost half his tanks.

That night, 23 Division began to pull back across its pontoon bridge. The Russians discovered the movement the next day, and 26 Regiment was lucky to make it across in a hard-fought rearguard action. A few stragglers could not make it across before the Japanese demolished the bridge.

Kwantung Army could not accept that Russian firepower had proven superior to Japanese fighting spirit. The Russians, by contrast, were able to learn from their experience. In particularly, Zhukov learned the value of concentrating armor rather than spreading it out in an infantry support role. This lessons would eventually be put to use before Moscow. Zhukov had also shown a willingness to sustain heavy casualties if it brought military success; this lesson, too, would be put to use in the war against Germany. The Russian logistics required committing almost every vehicle in eastern Russia to carrying supplies from the railhead at Borzya to Nomonhan, prefiguring the important role American Lend-Lease trucks would later have in the Russian counteroffensive in Europe.

Night Attacks. Stung by the failure of their offensive, the Japanese attempted a night infantry attack preceded by a 30-minute artillery barrage on 7-8 July. This succeeded in taking some ground at heavy cost to both sides. Further night attacks continued until 12 July. Each night the Japanese took some ground; the next day Russian counterattacks by motorized infantry supported by artillery took most of the captured ground back. By the end of this phase of the battle, at the cost of 4500 casualties, the Japanese had driven the Soviets back to the river, but they were unable to push the Soviets off the east bank and were forced to go over to the defensive. 

Artillery Duel. The Japanese now committed almost the entire artillery strength of Kwantung Army to the attack. An additional heavy artillery brigade was dispatched from Japan as well. The Japanese guns would be under the command of Uchiyama Eitaro, who planned to fire 15,000 rounds per day for several days. To the Japanese, who had not experienced the massive artillery barrages of the First World War in Europe, this seemed an unprecedented volume of fire. However, when the guns opened up on 23 July, the Japanese discovered to their chagrin that the Russians were able to fire three shells for every Japanese shell fired. The heaviest Russian guns far outranged the heaviest Japanese guns, and after three days the Japanese conceded defeat in the artillery duel.

Final Russian Counteroffensive. In early August, Stalin ordered 1 Army Group to launch a major offensive to clear the Nomonhan area. Zhukov was further reinforced with two more infantry divisions, a tank brigade, a paratroop brigade, two puppet cavalry divisions, and other elements. Total Soviet tank strength now amounted to 498 armored vehicles supported by 581 aircraft. The Japanese could not miss the signs of so massive a buildup but could commit only a second regiment from 7 Division while a detachment of Unit 731 attempted to contaminate the Khalkin-Gol with cholera, but to no effect. The Russians concealed the exact time of their attack by playing recordings of tanks and heavy equipment moving each night, which soon came to be ignored by the Japanese. When the real assault force moved up, on the night of 19-20 August, the Japanese assumed this was simply the usual nightly recorded serenade and took no particular alarm.

The attack the next morning was a pincers movement, with powerful Russian columns attacking both flanks of the Japanese positions, which were weakly held mostly by puppet forces. However, the Japanese had fortified the Fui Heights and the defenders here fought fanatically, bringing the Russian advance to a halt. The southern column had more success, penetrating eight miles in the first day of the offensive. By August 23 the southern Japanese line had disintegrated into isolated strong points that were systematically reduced. The battle reached its climax on August 23-24, when the Japanese counterattacked in the south with their tank brigades. The advance was initially concealed by fog, but when this lifted the Japanese tankers found themselves in the midst of a far more powerful Russian force. "The Charge of Two Light Brigades" (Coox 1985) resulted in 50 percent casualties for the Japanese, and both brigade commanders became casualties. 

The stiff Japanese resistance at Fui Heights was finally overcome on 25 August, and 23 Division was broken into three isolated pockets. An attempt by 7 Division to break the encirclement on 27 August was a failure, and on August 28 most of the remaining headquarters burned their regimental colors, some of the officers committing suicide and others leading equally doomed banzai charges. Komatsubara also prepared to commit suicide, but was ordered by radio to break out instead. Some four hundred survivors, including Komatsubara and Tsuji, managed to slip out of the encirclement in the early hours of 31 August.

Aftermath. The Russians declared victory on 31 August but chose not to exploit their triumph: War was about to break out in Europe and, notwithstanding the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, Stalin was anxious to pacify his eastern borders. Meanwhile Kwantung Army, in the words of a Japanese military historian, "completely lost its head" (quoted by Goldman 2012) but was prevented from launching yet another attack by Tokyo, which finally "cleaned house" by forcing the commander of Kwantung Army, Ueda Kenkichi, into retirement and transferring out the most bellicose staff officers. On September 9 the Japanese Government opened diplomatic negotiations to settle the incident, which amounted to accepting the Russian territorial claims. The Molotov-Togo agreement of 15 September 1939 formally ended the dispute; two days later, Stalin ordered his forces into Poland.

A number of Japanese officers were pressured to commit suicide over the debacle. These included pilots shot down over Russian-controlled territory who were taken prison and later repatriated. The most controversial was Ioki Eiichiro, the lieutenant colonel who had led the stubborn defense of the Fui Heights against overwhelming odds but had finally felt compelled to retreat without orders to do so.

In spite of the large numbers of troops, tanks, and aircraft involved, the battle is almost unknown in the West. Both sides were content to avoid calling attention to the campaign, Japan because of the lackluster performance of its forces, and Russia because so many of its forces had been drawn off to the Far East at a critical time in European affairs. Komatsubara was relieved of command of 23 Division and committed suicide in 1940. Zhukhov, on the other hand, went on to become Stalin's favorite military troubleshooter and the best Russian operational commander of the Second World War. Total casualties were between 18,000 and 23,000 Japanese, half killed in action, and about 26,000 Soviets.

Inada Masazumi, who headed the Army General Staff Operations Section at the time of the battle, summed up its importance (Goldman 2012):

... the Nomonhan incident destroyed our guiding principle of preparing for global conflict by consolidating our position in the North, which would have been achieved by settling the China War and building up our strength against the Soviet Union. Instead, after the Nomonhan incident Japan unexpectedly drifted towards the decision to move south, the invasion of French Indo-china, and finally the Pacific War. It was this change of policy which I regretted most after being expelled from the Army General Staff. The Nomonhan incident was a turning point which had a great influence on the history of Japan. Even now, when I look back, I think so from the bottom of my heart.


Combined Arms Research Library (accessed 2009-12-4)

Coox (1985)

Drea (2009)

Goldman (2012)

Millman (2013)

Watt (1989)

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