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Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939 – Alvin D. Coox

This is partly a book review and partly a discussion of the battle, its consequences, and its potential for Alternate History. 



From May to September 1939 Japan and the Soviet Union fought a fierce, large-scale undeclared war on the Mongolian plains that ended with a decisive Soviet victory with two important results: Japan reoriented its strategic emphasis toward the south, leading to war with the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands; and Russia freed itself from the fear of fighting on two fronts, thus vitally affecting the course of the war with Germany.


Volume I;


Tables, maps and appendixes; Preface; Acknowledgments; A note to the reader; 1. The genesis of the Kwantung Army, 1905–29; 2. To the Kwantung Army’s provocation of September 1931; 3. The Mukden incident; 4. The creation of the empire of Manchukuo; 5. The Manchurian incident in Retrospect; 6. The ‘Marvel’ of Manchukuo, 1932–37; 7. Facing north: the problem and the ‘solution’; 8. Rumblings on the borders; 9. Year of crisis: 1937; 10. A neighboring small war: Changkufeng, 1938; 11. Of cairns and flatlands: the western frontier; 12. The coming of the Nomonhan War: the Mongolian connection; 13. Japanese principals and a green division; 14. Testing the border guidelines, May 1939; 15. The trap on the Halha, May 1939; 16. The two faces of escalation, June 1939; 17. The Kwantung Army’s unauthorized air offensive; 18. On to Mongolia: a bridge too poor; 19. An authorized offensive: the Halha river crossing; 20. Retreat from the river; 21. Trying it with tanks; 22. Tanks dare the night; 23. Foiled by piano wire; 24. The end of the Yasuoka detachment; 25. Trying it with cold steel; 26. Stealth suspended; 27. Trying it with big guns; 28. Komatsubara’s last push toward the river; 29. Digging in; 30. Forging a second Cannae: Zhukov’s masterpiece, August 1939;


Volume II;


31. The road to disaster; 32. Desperate remedies; 33. The charge of two light brigades; 34. The end nears; 35. Debacle; 36. The death of the 23rd division; 37. Winding down a small war; 38. Stilling the guns; 39. The price; 40. The punishment; 41. A border restored and the balance tallied; 42. The lessons and applications of Nomonhan; 43. To the demise of the Kwantung Army; Afterthoughts; Bibliography; Index of names.


nomohanOOB.jpg (481784 bytes)

Click for Map

Course of the Battle:

The conflict started in earnest in late May 1939. A Japanese force, the Yamagata detachment, was being sent by the Kwantung Army to defeat a Soviet unit that had crossed the Halha river, into what the Russians believed was Soviet territory, but the Japanese claimed as their own. It ended in a sudden Japanese disaster, as one regiment in the detachment was encircled and annihilated. The Kwantung Army - much against the will of Tokyo - decided to retaliate in force, and committed a full Infantry Division, the 23rd, and a number of additional units, among others two tank regiments. Japanese Army Air Force Units, which had missed most of the 1937 combat in China, also got to show themselves against the Soviet Union's massive air force. The Soviets also gathered a fairly large force, including veterans back from the Spanish Civil War. (Many of these same experienced leaders were purged between 1939 and 1941, and were not available to face the Luftwaffe during Barbarossa.)  The Japanese attacked in the beginning of July, the 23rd Division crossing the upper reaches of the Halha, while the mechanized elements struck directly at the Soviet forces on the right bank of the river. After some initial gains, large Soviet mechanized forces counter-attacked, and the Japanese were stopped some 3-4km:s from the Halha, their lightly equipped armour regiments shot to pieces by swarms of Soviet BT tanks. The Japanese renewed their offensive in late July, their forces then reinforced by heavy artillery from the homeland. This time the attackers were stopped dead in their tracks by the Soviet defenders. Then the battered Japanese dug in, and waited for the Russians to make the next move.

It came on August 20th. Again the Japanese had underestimated the Red Army and its strength. It was a sort of dress-rehearsal for that masterly type of mass-attack that later would shatter the German Wehrmacht: heavily supported by both artillery and aircraft, numerically superior Soviet forces - spearheaded by mechanized units - penetrated the Japanese front on the Halha. Despite the Japanese reinforcements that were being rushed to the border, it was over in 10 days. The war in Europe came (the German invasion of Poland) before the Russians could exploit their victory. In the middle of September a ceasefire was agreed upon.

Discussion of the Battle:

One thing that appears very often in Alternate Histories is the assertion that Japan and Germany could have brought down the USSR between them by attacking at the same time.  I have my doubts, but this would have been even more true in late '41 when the United States was not yet actively at war with either country. So why didn't Japan attack towards the west in 1941?

One factor, which is rarely mentioned in the history books, is the fact that in the summer of 1939 they tried. In May of that year, Japanese troops crossed the Mongolian-Manchurian border, and had taken up positions. In what was to become a turning point in his career, Zhukov, a Soviet officer who had survived Stalin's devastating purges of the military in 1937-38, masterminded the defence and counter-attack which was to rout the Japanese forces in the summer of 1939, in the battle of Nomonhan.

Few in the west knew or cared that Japan and the Soviet Union fought a small war on the Siberia-Manchuria border in the summer of 1939. On the ground, these were the largest tank battles since WWI. In the air, large forces were likewise engaged, with the Japanese taking heavy losses. It is difficult to get a fix on actual losses, both countries being notoriously secretive and notoriously apt to over-claim. The only good book in English about this conflict is Alvin D. Coox, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939, although John Colvin added a small overview to the literature, with the same name. 

Coox’s work, however, is magnificent.  This splendid book gives not only the history of the conflict but sets it against the background of Japanese, Soviet, and world politics, while providing fascinating information on the internal working of the Japanese army prior to the Pacific War.   Nomonhan (aka Khalkin-Gol) was one of history's decisive battles, mainly in terms of its consequences.

The brief but bitter encounter on the Halha River was a culmination of over thirty years of Russo-Japanese rivalry in the Far East, perhaps even further back if one counts Japan's move into Korea at the end of the nineteenth century. The Russo-Japanese War of 1905, which ended in humiliation for Russia following the destruction of her fleet in Port Arthur and at Tsushima, was followed in the Russian Civil War by Japanese intervention in Siberia, ostensibly as part of the Allied force but according to Colvin mainly with an eye to securing the resources of the area for Japan. The area seems to have been a cauldron of lawlessness, with Red and White warlords and terrorists followed by Japanese seizure of Manchukuo (Manchuria) and the incursions into China, culminating in the "China Incident" which was in fact a full-scale invasion. Thus both the Soviets and Japanese found themselves facing each other on the border of Inner and Outer Mongolia. 


What comes across, and may surprise many readers, is how efficiently the Russians, especially under Zhukov, reacted to the Japanese incursion and how badly led, organised and supplied the Japanese (later to acquire a superhuman reputation against Western soldiers) really were. Thus, while the Soviets are dispatching tanks and artillery to the front line, we find Japanese infantrymen being forced to walk fifteen miles to the front in the baking heat of the Mongolian desert, and units often running low on water at crucial points in the battle. The Japanese officer corps seems to have been a law unto itself, deciding which orders to obey despite the Emperor's wish not to get involved in a war with Russia. Given such chaos and such a determined and well-organised foe as Stalin's army, the gallantry of the ordinary Japanese soldier could not prevail. Having been swept back to its starting point with heavy casualties, the Imperial Japanese Army was forced to concede a truce. A proper cease-fire was arranged in September 1939, after Hitler and the Soviet Union invaded Poland. Neither side wanted to be tied down to a two-front war. The Japanese committed 56,000 soldiers and lost 8400. The Soviets and the Mongolians lost 9,000.  From this incident, the Japanese Army learned that there were serious shortcomings in its armoured units as well as in its tactics. Strenuous efforts were made thereafter to remodel equipment and build up tanks and firepower, however, these remained uncompleted by the outbreak of the pacific war in 1942 and the Japanese never deployed any truly first-rate tanks except in the home islands. 


(Those tanks were probably the Type 3 "Chi-Nu", when the Allies finally reached Japan; they were impressed by the good quality of this vehicle, unknown to them.)


Although it is not clear with what intention the Soviets waged the conflict, it is judged that, as in the case of the Changkufeng Incident and the Changlingtsu Incident (both also described in Coox’s book), the Soviet action was a demonstration of force, in line with the policy of using force to frustrate the least development of Japanese confidence in her strength. It is clear that Japan had no reason to start the incident. She was deeply involved, in the China Incident, and it was to her disadvantage to send any part of her strength to the northern region.  Stalin appears to have believed that a limited application of Soviet power should deter any Japanese pretensions as to the strength of the Soviet Union, as storm clouds gathered on the horizon with the rise of Nazi Germany. 

Why is Nomonhan important?  The answer to that is both in the timing and outcome.  If the Japanese had not lost so badly, the mini-war might well have gone on long enough for the soviets to be delayed in taking their share of Poland.  Its hard to imagine the Poles holding out long enough to be important, but if Stalin is unable to take his share in time (like in my Scorpions in a Bottle TL), Hitler may take all of Poland and then refuse to give Stalin his share.  If the Nomonhan battles go badly enough, Hitler might be tempted to head east without defeating France first, or to seize the Baltic’s, Balkans and even Finland without bothering with what Stalin wants. 

Or, on a different note, what if the battles had been a complete disaster for Japan and Stalin was able to push them completely out of Manchuria.  In those states, it’s hard to imagine Japan attacking the United States, and bringing them into the war.  Without lend-lease, the Soviets and Germans are likely to burn each other out in futile wars over the eastern front. 


Even without such an apoplectic outcome, if Japan had not lost so badly, they might well have been tempted for a rematch in 1941, just in time to join Hitler.  I think that the outcome of the battle in Rising Sun Victorious is unlikely, but they could force Stalin to keep the Siberian units, the best in the red army, in the far east instead of going to the defence of Moscow.  This could lead to Moscow falling, which would mean the near-complete collapse of the USSR. 


Nomonhan was the battle that convinced some of the Japanese that the only way to go was south.  This led to their attack on Pearl Harbour and started the chain of events that led to the collapse of all the empires.  It also convinced Stalin that the Red Army could be used to attack smaller countries at will, such as Finland, and led to everyone being convinced that the Red Army was useless, and therefore Hitler invaded.  Ironically, the victory at Nomonhan led to the greatest disaster ever suffered by Russia and the subject nations. 

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