The Rise and Fall of an Infamous Marxist Icon
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first nine episodes of this series we looked at Hitler’s conversion to Marxism; his rise to leadership of first the KPD and then Germany itself; his transformation of Germany into a Communist state, his aggressive expansion of the German armed forces and intervention in the Spanish Civil War; his involvement in the German-Austrian invasion of Italy and decision to invade northern France after the Spanish naval defeat at Sardinia; his authorization of the air raid on Calais that destroyed much of the combined Anglo-French naval fleet; the Franco-Italian assault on Volksarmee occupation forces in the Po Valley and the subsequent German counterattack; the Soviet victory over Finland in the 1938-39 Winter War; the Red Army’s invasion and conquest of Poland; and the start of the Second Russo-Japanese War. In this chapter we’ll discuss the Soviet campaigns in Manchuria and northern Korea, the Japanese counterattack against the Red Army invasion forces, and the collapse of the Allied front in northern France.
The news of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and northern Korea hit the Japanese public like a kick to the solar plexus. The Japanese had been victorious in battle so often and so long that the idea their armies could be taken by surprise, let alone driven into retreat, was unthinkable. Despite the best efforts of the state-controlled press to put the best possible face on things, bits and pieces of news about the truth about the Imperial Army’s situation on the Manchurian and Korean fronts were starting to filter back to the home islands-- and the people of Japan were fearful of what might come next.
They had good reason to be worried; the Soviet invasion forces, aided by Communist partisans under the leadership of men like Chinese Communist Party boss Mao Zedong and Korean Communist leader Kim Il Sung, were wreaking havoc on the Japanese occupation forces. One of the first and most severe defeats the Imperial Japanese Army suffered in the early days of the Soviet-Japanese war happened at the seacoast village of Chongjin on August 10, 1939 when Korean Commmunist guerrillas ambushed an Imperial Army infantry convoy and not only killed most of the men in that convoy but savaged a relief battalion sent to get the survivors out.
Post-World War II historians have largely tended to blame the Japanese defeat at Chongjin on failures of leadership within the ranks Of the Japanese units taking part in the convoy. On close inspection of the facts, however, it soon becomes apparent that nothing could be further from the truth-- Japanese military leadership during the war with the Soviet Union was for the most part of high caliber. Indeed, as the war went on the Imperial Army’s officer corps would engineer some breathtaking victories against the numerically superior Red Army. So why was the Chongjin convoy so badly mauled? Part of it was the simple fact that guerrilla warfare succeeds in large part due to the element of surprise, and Kim Il Sung’s insurgent forces had kept the Japanese from knowing anything about the impending ambush until the guerrillas were practically on top of them.
Also factoring into the Japanese defeat at Chongjin was the savagery with which the Korean Communist rebels fought as a matter of course. Like the man he idolized, Vladimir Lenin, Kim Il Sung believed that enemies should be crushed in the most ruthless manner possible; the partisans under his directions were told to strike at the Japanese without mercy, and they did so every chance they got. A combination of Marxist fanaticism and Korean nationalist pride motivated Kim’s ragtag army to harass the occupiers, and they only got bolder in their attacks as the Soviets advanced further and further down the Korean Peninsula.
Finally, the insurgent forces got some tactical support from Red Air Force fighters operating from bases in Soviet-occupied Manchuria. Prior to setting the ambush, Kim had told an NKVD advisor working with his guerrilla forces about his plans to hit the convoy; the NKVD man had in turn relayed those plans to the Vladivostok headquarters of the Red Army’s expeditionary forces in Korea and Manchuria. Georgi Zhukov, now back in overall command of Soviet military operations in the Far East, quickly gave the green light for Soviet fighter groups to bomb the Japanese convoy at Chongjin in aid of the Korean guerrilla strike. With most of the Imperial Army’s fighters occupied elsewhere, the convoy had little protection against air attack and thus for the most part was a sitting duck for the Soviet air strikes.
General Tomoyuki Yamashiita, who’d been appointed the previous day to take charge of the beleaguered Imperial Army forces in Korea, was beside himself with rage when he learned of the Chongjin fiasco. His first official act as commander-in-chief of the Korean theater was to sack the battalion commander who’d been responsible for organizing the convoy; his second was to demand an apology from the relief force’s highest-ranked surviving officer for the failure of the relief force to do its assigned job of extracting the men in the convoy. His third, and most important in the short term, was to order battle plans to be drawn up for an all-out counteroffensive against the Red Army and their Korean Communist allies.
Mixed with Yamashiita’s rage over the defeat at Chongjin was a measure of barely controlled worry over the fate of his armies if the Soviet tide couldn’t be stemmed; the Red Army invasion force had so far been, if not unstoppable, certainly very hard to slow down. Even as Yamashiita was taking up his new command Zhukov’s tanks had won a major victory against the Japanese near the village of Kaechon, and on the same day that the Chongjin convoy was ambushed an artillery battery was wiped out by Soviet troops in the mountains near Hamhung.
At his first staff briefing after taking charge of the Korean theater, Yamashiita got some disturbing news from his intelligence advisors: the Soviets were planning to mount an amphibious assault at Tongjoson Bay to seize the port of Wonsan. Even if the assault failed, it would still tie up Japanese divisions that could otherwise be used to wage counterattacks against the advancing Soviet expeditionary crops; if it succeeded, the Red Army would have control of one of Korea’s most important coastal cities and a staging area from which to mount a drive for the biggest prize on the Korean Peninsula: Seoul, the former capital of the old Korean kingdom and the headquarters of the Japanese colonial administration for Korea.
Determined to deny the Red Army these conquests, General Yamashiita wrote up plans for an amphibious attack of his own, to be staged near the seaside village of Sinpo. Yamashiita’s goal was to disrupt the Soviets’ southward advance long enough for the Imperial Army’s own troops to come north and begin pushing Zhukov’s divisions back toward the Manchurian border. Once the Red Army had been ejected from northern Korea Yamashiita planned to have his troops pause briefly to consolidate their gains, then launch a new offensive against Soviet positions in Manchuria.
Imperial Army headquarters in Tokyo approved General Yamashiita’s amphibious assault plan on August 13th, 1939; four days later, his men staged a three-pronged predawn landing on the beaches north of Sinpo. Casualties on both sides were heavy in the initial assault, but thanks to thunderous bombardment by Imperial Navy warships providing fire support offshore the Soviets came out of the landings much the worse. Like a lumberjack chopping a giant tree Yamashiita’s landing forces steadily hammered away at the Red Army battle lines and opened a gap in them; by August 22nd, Yamashiita’s advance battalions had reached the outskirts of Yonghung.
The Sinpo offensive was a rude shock for the Soviets, who’d been expecting the Japanese counterassault to come from an overland direction; very little of their intelligence data had even vaguely suggested that the Imperial Army might try an amphibious attack against General Zhukov’s expeditionary force. Hopes for a drive on Seoul were shelved as the Red Army was forced to shift to the defensive in the face of a relentless Japanese ground campaign.
Moscow didn’t fare much better in the skies, either; by August 30th the Red Air Force was losing fighters to the Japanese at a rate of 4 to 1 and bombers at a margin of 5 to 1. An enraged Stalin had three squadron commanders shot and issued scathing reprimands to five others. He did not tolerate failure on the part of his military officers, particularly when those officers were assigned the task of crushing the Soviet Union’s chief Asiatic rival. Nor was he pleased with the fact that his Korean campaign, which had begun with high hopes, was turning into a disaster on the order of the Tsarist defeat at Port Arthur in 1904. By contrast, the Imperial Army general staff in Tokyo was impressed with the way General Yamashiita was driving back the Soviet forces.
Yet even though the Communist bloc’s fortunes were souring in the Far East, they were on the upswing in northern France. In early September of 1939, Volksarmee armored units broke through a gap in the Anglo-French lines and started pushing Western forces into retreat; this development sparked alarm in London and Paris, particularly among the British and French general staffs, who were rightly concerned that if Communist bloc troops reached the English Channel it opened up the dangerous possibility of a Communist invasion of Great Britain at some point in the future.
There was also genuine fear that if the Volksarmee and its auxiliary forces pushed hard enough and long enough against the Anglo-French armies they might eventually succeed in reaching Paris. And indeed, Hitler had made it clear to the Volksarmee general staff that he considered France’s capital a prize well worth winning whatever the cost; Paris had long been a stronghold of socialist and Marxist beliefs in western Europe, and the city contained a vast pool of fifth columnists Hitler believed he could use to disrupt the Anglo-French war effort elsewhere. Furthermore, the capture of Paris would deprive the Anglo-French coalition of one of its most important military and diplomatic nerve centers.
On September 8th Hitler approved plans by the Volksarmee high command to mount a three-pronged offensive aimed at encircling, and ultimately taking, metropolitan Paris in 45 days or less. Simultaneously he directed the Stasi to infiltrate covert operatives into the Paris area to incite French Communist saboteurs to interfere with the Allied war effort and to spread pro-DDVR propaganda. Last but not least, he had the Volksluftkorps bomber fleet re-deploy some of its squadrons to airbases in Communist- occupied sectors of northern France to make it easier for them to strike targets in metropolitan Paris and thus soften up Allied ground defenses.
The next day the Volksarmee launched Fall Engels("Case Engels"), its most ambitious campaign in western Europe since the war between the Communist bloc and the Anglo-French alliance began. Across the English Channel the British military and political leadership watched anxiously as the attack unfolded; in Paris the French government, hoping for the best but prepared for the worst, started making precautionary plans for an evacuation...
To Be Continued