Flip the Dice
©Final Sword Productions LLC 2010
The Battle of Lake Kahasan,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Lake_Khasan , is one of those incidents in the run-up to WW2 that most readers skim straight over. It was a forgettable border battle between the Japanese and Soviets on the frontiers of the Japanese puppet Manchurian state. Two trigger happy totalitarian garrison states fought a bloody but essentially meaningless action over near worthless terrain on a poorly demarcated frontier. Over a thousand men died and then both sides essentially lost interest in that sector until the Soviet Manchurian blitzkrieg of 1945.
However there was the potential here for something far grander. The Stalinist purges had not yet decimated the Soviet Far Eastern Army. Blucher, the commander, was a competent professional by Soviet standards. In OTL he fought this engagement poorly, fearing that any mistake would mean his head as the purges spread. However presume he flipped the dice and decided his only safety was radical escalation. The logic would be that even Stalin would not replace a commander in the midst of a major campaign.
The Japanese Army [IJA] was company for company a better force than the Red Army of this period. [The same was not true division for division where superior Soviet firepower could cancel out superior Japanese tactical finesse]. While the best of the IJA had been drained off for the China campaigns, what was in Manchuria was by IJA standards first rate. The Kwantung Army [the IJA Manchurian garrison] was well trained and led light infantry. By European standards it was short of heavy weapons and artillery. It was very short of tanks and trucks. Its tanks and armored cars were obsolete and fairly light even for obsolete weapons.
In reverse the Soviets were somewhat deficient in both training and cadre [too few officers and senior NCO’s and lower quality of both than the Japanese had]. However they were quite well equipped with artillery and heavy weapons. Their tanks were decent for the period and they had a lot of them. They also had major advantages in numbers. Even counting the various auxiliary forces the Japanese fielded [Manchurian, Chinese, Mongol, White Russian] as the equal of Japanese units [not even close to being true whereas the few Soviet Mongol units were as good as any other Red Army formation], the Soviets had an advantage of better than 2-1 in manpower, rising to 4-1 in armor and artillery. The Soviets would also have near complete air superiority until the Japanese could redeploy air units from China.
Neither side had particularly great abilities in logistics or administration. The Soviets were handicapped by the bureaucracy and paranoia of the Stalinist state. The Japanese were handicapped by an officer mentality that simply regarded as Samurai spirit as making mere firepower unimportant. A few exceedingly good Japanese commanders [Yamashita in Malaya 41-42] could get past this. The more normal result was Guadalcanal – extreme administrative muddle mixed with suicidal bravery.
So it would have been fairly easy for Blucher to just keep escalating the initial engagement by throwing more forces in slowly. As long as he didn’t expand the battlefield geographically he could maintain an artillery killing ground on which he could wear down the Japanese. The entire Japanese force in Manchuria was under 20 divisions and more than half of this were local levies suitable for little beyond garrison and constabulary work. So 2-3 weeks of slow escalation would strip the Japanese reserves from northern and northwestern Manchuria [essentially everything north of the Chinese Eastern RR]. This would open the possibility of an advance east up the railroad from Borzya and south along the other railway spur from Aihun. The space between these two columns could be swept up by cavalry and militia as by this time there would be next to no Japanese in this vast area.
In turn the need to switch reserves to fight these two thrusts would open to the Soviets a line of attack west on the Chinese Eastern RR towards Harbin. So over a period of 2-3 months Blucher could collapse the Japanese position onto a semicircular salient screening Harbin. I doubt he could take the city. The abilities of Japanese soldiers on the defensive were a marvel through the war. So presume an armistice in early November of 1938. Manchuria is partitioned with the soviets keeping their conquests [40-50% of the vast province].
A smart Blucher uses the talks to defect to the Japanese. His NKVD chief had already done so in June. Blucher seems to be a sincere Soviet patriot so Stalin would have replaced him after the armistice. As a war hero a show trial would look stupid. So have him die of a ‘medical problem’. What changes?
Japan and the Soviet Union probably never have the battle from OTL at Nomohan. This retards Zhukov’s rise to higher command as that battle was his resume piece. Japan looks weaker. Hitler will be less impressed with them. He will also be more impressed with the Soviets. This may result in his taking Barbarossa more seriously. There is a possibility that it even postpones Barbarossa.
The biggest change is likely to be in terms of the Western responses to Japan. A lot of US policy was dictated by a missionary led China Lobby that painted Japan as evil in their China War. However many of the same US circles were rabidly anti-Communist. Here the Japanese are again as in the early 1920’s a frail bulwark against Bolshevism. There is a high probability that FDR does not push his oil embargo in 1941 quite a hard. He will still be enraged by Japanese moves in Indochina. However he may be more inclined to talk first. Saigon was really not of extreme importance to Japan. US oil and scrap iron were so such importance. Had we talked first there was the possibility of trading a withdrawal from southern Indochina for even limited continuing trade.
The Japanese attack on the West was an intersection of several narrow windows. The Japanese were rushed by the oil embargo. It put them in a ‘use it or lose it’ position whereby if they waited much longer they would lose the capacity to do anything except capitulate. However they also acted because Hitler seemed about to take Moscow and destroy the Soviets. Pearl Harbor takes place in OTL within 24 hours of the German repulse before Moscow. Two weeks later and it is not so obvious that Germany is about to win the war in the East and thus to invade Britain in 1942.
So there is a decent chance that one general’s response to a silly border battle could have avoided the Pacific War.