The Western narrative of WWII often forgets much of what happened in the far East. Although the Pacific Campaign gets a considerable amount of American attention, many readers and researchers focus largely on the North African and European theatres. Most sources agree that WWII began on September 1st of 1939, as Nazi troops rolled into Poland.
But a little-known battle on the border between Mongolia and China may have helped decide the fate of the war well before September of 1939. The Battle of Khalkhin Gol, a small-scale (by WWII standards) engagement between Soviet Red Army troops and Imperial Japanese soldiers – or the Nomonhan Incident (ノモンハン事件), as the Japanese call it – completely altered Japanese strategy and led to the new geopolitical climate as it existed in 1940.
ASAP: Overconfident Japanese troops learned the age-old lesson that the only one who kicks Russia’s ass is Russia. Japanese strategy was altered radically by this stunning revelation.Read on for details!
Lead-up to Battle
Prior to the battle, Japanese forces had followed the Northern Expansion Doctrine. Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) generals in Emperor Hirohito’s government dominated tactical discussion and sidelined their Navy counterparts, who (less forcibly) advocated a Southern Expansion through the Pacific islands. At the time, Japan’s imperial ambitions demanded new land and resources, and the IJA insisted that the best plan of attack was to seize territory in China and Siberia – which was a part of the USSR. The plan was, apparently, to coordinate with Nazi Germany (who planned to attack the USSR after destroying England in an aerial campaign) and pincer the Soviets from both sides, forcing the new communist country to its knees and dividing the spoils equally.
In 1931, the IJA had captured Manchuria (now a region in Northeast China, Russia and Mongolia) and renamed it Manchukuo, threatening the neighbouring Soviets. Both sides disputed where the border actually ran, and tensions ran high for most of the decade. IJA troops stationed on the border at the Khalkhin River were a part of the Kwantung Army, which operated essentially as it pleased, independently from the Emperor; they faced off against units of the Mongolian Army and the Red Army 57th Special Corps. In May of 1939, both sides were nervous: the IJA men, fresh off a string of victories in China and the Pacific, were cocky and (rightfully) confident of their chances against the relatively untested Red Army.
The “incident” began on May 11th as Mongolian cavalrymen entered what the IJA considered to be a part of Manchukuo. The 60 men were attacked by an IJA patrol as their horses grazed by the river; they returned soon after with many more troops and a series of small “skirmishes” began on the Khalkhin River. In June, Soviet KomKor (corps commander) Georgy Zhukov arrived, bringing tanks and many more men. Soon after, Japanese fighter aircraft attacked Tamsak-Bulak – a Soviet air base – in Mongolia; the strike was successful, but occurred without permission from headquarters in Japan. As a result, the Kwantung Army’s air assets (light bombers and fighter planes) were grounded and forbidden from attacking Soviet military targets.
Near the end of June, IJA Lieutenant-General Michitarō Komatsubara was given the go-ahead to push the Soviets back across the river. In early July, the IJA began their attack with the intention of assaulting Soviet positions across the river on Baintsagan Hill. A large force of small tanks and “tankettes” – also known as “special tractors” – surged forward, supported by artillery strikes. The offensive troops killed many Soviet defenders, but failed to cross the river in most places; the Kwantung army began to run low on manpower as the two armies continued to battle it out on a 4 km (2.5 mile) frontage for the rest of the month. The Red Army and Mongolians (unlike their Japanese counterparts) were well-equipped to support their heavy losses with a steady stream of reinforcements from the heartland of Russia.
By August, Zhukov was facing significant pressure to wipe out the Japanese force and allow the Soviets to face threats from Europe. Huge quantities of men and trucks arrived at Khalkhin Gol, as well as two Mongolian cavalry divisions. The Kwantung Army was totally unprepared as it had received next to no reinforcements, partly as a result of its insistence on disobeying the Emperor’s commands. Zhukov began a series of aggressive patrols designed to test IJA defenses; by August 20th, he was satisfied with the information he had acquired, and launched an attack in the early morning. Soviet artillery and aircraft hammered the Kwantung Army whilst 50,000 Soviets screaming “Ura!” surged across the river on assault boats and pontoon bridges. The Red Army also had hundreds of light BT-7 tanks which overpowered the miniature IJA vehicles. The Japanese fought hard but were encircled and gradually worn down; Komatsubara planned a suicidal counter-offensive, but was ordered to stand down after a ceasefire was signed by both sides on September 15th. The Soviets had lost nearly 30,000 men killed, and the Japanese “only” 16,000; but for the comparatively huge USSR, this was but a drop in the bucket of what Stalin was prepared to sacrifice.
The IJA had been decisively beaten. Army officials in Hirohito’s government were humiliated and sidelined; their Northern Expansion Doctrine quickly fell out of favour, and the Japanese strategy turned to one of Southern Expansion, as advocated by the Navy and Air Force. The IJA would now be used as a landing force throughout the Pacific. This aggressive seizure of islands and shipping routes ramped up tensions with the United States and came to a head in December of 1941 with the attacks on Pearl Harbour, which resulted in the immediate entry of America into WWII on the side of the Allies. Perhaps, if the Northern Expansion Doctrine had won out, the United States would not have been attacked in the Pacific, and its entry into the war would have been delayed.
The ceasefire of September 15th enabled Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to invade Poland from the East after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany. Although the battle of Khalkhin Gol was not especially large – especially by the standards of later battles in the Soviet Union, such as Stalingrad – it signalled that the USSR was a force to be reckoned with, and gave Stalin clout on the diplomatic stage. Had the IJA beaten the Soviets in Mongolia and pursued its Northern Expansion Doctrine, the Nazis may have decided to invade a weakened USSR earlier – and, with the full force of the IJA supporting them, it’s possible they may have succeeded in significantly diminishing the Soviet threat. An alternate history in which the Soviet Union is sidelined or defeated, and the United States delays (or limits) its entry into WWII, is almost too troubling to contemplate. Although it’s not commonly recognized as a part of WWII, the Battle of Khalkhin Gol certainly had an outsized impact on Axis strategy – and the outcome of the war in every theatre.
In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.
- Who? The Kwantung Army of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) led by Lieutenant-General Michitarō Komatsubara with roughly 35,000 men and significant numbers of light tanks; they faced off against Mongolians and the Soviet Red Army under KomKor Georgy Zhukov and roughly 70,000 men with many more tanks and aircraft.
- Where? On the Khalkhin River – the border between Manchukuo (a Japanese puppet state) and Mongolia (a Soviet puppet state).
- When? From May 11th to September 15th, 1939 – just over 4 months.
- What? A series of border skirmishes between the Soviet/Mongolian defenders and aggressive IJA troops developed into all-out war after Mongolian cavalrymen brought their horses to graze on contested land by the river. A Japanese offensive failed in July; the following month, a massive tank offensive supported by crushing artillery and aerial bombardment forced the Japanese back. The IJA surrendered on September 15th, 1939.
- Why? The Japanese, and particularly the IJA, sought aggressive expansion to the North. Cocky after a decade of victories, they underestimated the Soviets who, as usual, had many more men to feed into the carnage than their opponents did. Zhukov had the full support of Stalin behind him; Komatsubara lacked support from the Emperor.
- Result: Decisive Soviet victory. The Japanese abandoned their Northern Expansion Doctrine and turned their attention to the Pacific, which eventually resulted in war with the Americans (and ended up protecting the USSR from an Eastern invasion, enabling them to focus on repelling the Nazis in the West).
Food for Thought
Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.
- What were the main reasons for the IJA’s confidence?
- Did Emperor Hirohito ever fully support the Northern Expansion Doctrine? Why or why not?
- Compare and contrast the Battle of Khalkhin Gol with other Soviet engagements throughout the war. To what extent did Red Army doctrine rely on overwhelming force?
- What impact did the battle have on perceptions of the Japanese? Did the Americans underestimate them as a result?
- What impact did the battle have on perceptions of the Soviets? Did the Germans alter their tactics at all during Operation Barbarossa?
Further Reading & Citations
Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!
- Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Back Bay Books, 2013.
- Kotelʹnikov, V. R. 2010. Air war over Khalkhin Gol: the Nomonhan incident.
- Ogata, Sadako N. 1964. Defiance in Manchuria: the making of Japanese foreign policy, 1931-1932. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Garthoff, R. (1970). Marshal Zhukov’s Greatest Battles. By Georgi K. Zhukov. Edited with an Introduction and Explanatory Comments by Harrison E. Salisbury. Translated from the Russian by Theodore Shabad. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1969.
- Yamamuro, Shin’ichi, and Joshua A. Fogel. 2006. Manchuria under Japanese domination. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.