After the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931, Japan turned its military interests to Soviet territories that bordered those areas. The first major Soviet-Japanese border incident, the Battle of Lake Khasan, occurred in 1938 in Primorye. Clashes between Japanese and Soviet forces frequently occurred along the border of Manchuria.
In 1939, Manchuria was a puppet state of Japan known as Manchukuo, and Mongolia was a communist state allied with the Soviet Union, known as the Mongolian People's Republic. The Japanese maintained that the border between Manchukuo and Mongolia was the Khalkhyn Gol (English "Khalkha River") which flows into Lake Buir. In contrast, the Mongolians and their Soviet allies maintained that the border ran some 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) east of the river, just east of Nomonhan village.
The principal occupying army of Manchukuo was the Kwantung Army of Japan, consisting of some of the best Japanese units in 1939. However, the western region of Manchukuo was garrisoned by the relatively newly formed 23rd Infantry Division at Hailar under General Komatsubara and included several Manchukuoan army and border guard units all under the direct command of Sixth Army.
The Soviet forces consisted of the 57th Special Corps, deployed from the Trans-Baikal Military District. They were responsible for defending the border between Siberia and Manchuria. The Mongolian troops mainly consisted of cavalry brigades and light artillery units, and proved to be effective and agile, but lacked armor and manpower in sufficient numbers.
In 1939, the Japanese Cabinet sent instructions to the Kwantung Army to strengthen and fortify Manchukuo's borders with Mongolia and the Soviet Union. Additionally, the Kwantung Army, which had long been stationed in Manchuria far from the Japanese home islands, had become largely autonomous and tended to act without approval from, or even against the direction of, the Japanese government.
The incident began on 11 May 1939. A Mongolian cavalry unit of some 70–90 men had entered the disputed area in search of grazing for their horses. On that day, Manchukuoan cavalry attacked the Mongolians and drove them back across the river Khalkhin Gol. On 13 May, the Mongolian force returned in greater numbers and the Manchukoans were unable to dislodge them.
On 14 May, Lt. Col. Yaozo Azuma led the reconnaissance regiment of 23rd Infantry Division, supported by the 64th Infantry Regiment of the same division, under Colonel Takemitsu Yamagata, into the territory and the Mongolians withdrew. Soviet and Mongolian troops returned to the disputed region, however, and Azuma's force again moved to evict them. This time things turned out differently, as the Soviet-Mongolian forces surrounded Azuma's force on 28 May and destroyed it. The Azuma force suffered eight officers and 97 men killed and one officer and 33 men wounded, for 63% total casualties.
The commander of the Soviet forces and the Far East Front was Comandarm Grigori Shtern from May 1938.
Both sides began building up their forces in the area: soon, Japan had 30,000 men in the theater. The Soviets dispatched a new corps commander, Comcor Georgy Zhukov, who arrived on 5 June and brought more motorized and armored forces (I Army Group) to the combat zone. Accompanying Zhukov was Comcor Yakov Smushkevich with his aviation unit. J. Lkhagvasuren, Corps Commissar of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Army, was appointed Zhukov's deputy.
On 27 June, the Japanese Army Air Force's 2nd Air Brigade struck the Soviet air base at Tamsak-Bulak in Mongolia. The Japanese won this engagement, but the strike had been ordered by the Kwantung Army without getting permission from Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) headquarters in Tokyo. In an effort to prevent the incident from escalating, Tokyo promptly ordered the JAAF not to conduct any more air strikes against Soviet airbases.
Throughout June, there were reports of Soviet and Mongolian activity on both sides of the river near Nomonhan and small-scale attacks on isolated Manchukoan units. At the end of the month, the commander of the 23rd Japanese Infantry Division, Lt. Gen. Komatsubara, was given permission to "expel the invaders".
The Japanese plan was for a two-pronged assault. The first attack would be made by three regiments plus part of a fourth: 71st and the 72nd Infantry Regiment (23rd Division), a battalion of the 64th Infantry Regiment and the 26th Infantry Regiment under Colonel Shinichiro Sumi (7th Infantry Division). This force would advance across the Khalkin Gol, destroy Soviet forces on Baintsagan Hill on the west bank, then make a left turn and advance south to the Kawatama Bridge. The second prong of the attack would be the task of the IJA 1st Tank Corps (1st TC) (Yasuoka Detachment), consisting of the 3rd and 4th Tank Regiments, plus a part of the 64th Infantry Regiment, a battalion from the 28th Infantry Regiment, detached from the 7th Infantry, 24th Engineer Regiment, and a battalion from the 13th Field Artillery Regiment, all under the overall command of Lieutenant General Yasuoka Masaomi. This force would attack Soviet troops on the east bank of the Khalkhyn Gol and north of the Holsten River. The two Japanese thrusts were to join together on the wings.Lt. Gen. Yasuoka Masaomi, IJA, Commanding Officer, 1st Tank Corps3rd Tank RegimentType 89 I-Go medium tanks – 26
Type 97 Chi-Ha medium tanks – 4
Type 94 tankettes – 7
Type 97 Te-Ke tankettes – 4
4th Tank RegimentType 95 Ha-Go light tanks – 35
Type 89 I-Go medium tanks – 8
Type 94 tankettes – 3
The northern task force succeeded in crossing the Khalkhyn Gol, driving the Soviets from Baintsagan Hill, and advancing south along the west bank. However, Zhukov, perceiving the threat, launched a counterattack with 450 tanks and armored cars. The tanks consisted of primarily BTs with a handful of T-26s, while the armored cars were BA-10s and BA-3/6s, which were similar in armor (6-15mm) and armament (main: 45mm gun 20K mod, secondary: x2 7.62 machine guns) to the Soviet light tanks. The Soviet armored force, despite being unsupported by infantry, attacked the Japanese on three sides and nearly encircled them. The Japanese force, further handicapped by having only one pontoon bridge across the river for supplies, was forced to withdraw, recrossing the river on 5 July. Meanwhile, the 1st Tank Corps of the Yasuoka Detachment (the southern task force) attacked on the night of 2 July, moving in the darkness to avoid the Soviet artillery on the high ground of the river's west bank. A pitched battle ensued in which the Yasuoka Detachment lost over half its armor, but still could not break through the Soviet forces on the east bank and reach the Kawatama Bridge. After a Soviet counterattack on 9 July threw the battered, depleted Yasuoka Detachment back, it was dissolved and Yasuoka was relieved. Overall, the Japanese lost 42 tanks in these encounters, primarily to 45mm gunfire, which outranged the Japanese weapons. In return, on July 3rd alone the Soviet-Mongolian side lost a total of 77 tanks and 45 armored cars out of a total of 133 and 59 committed to the fight, respectively.
The two armies continued to spar with each other over the next two weeks along a 4-kilometre (2.5 mi) front running along the east bank of the Khalkhyn Gol to its junction with the Holsten River. Zhukov, whose army was 748 km (465 mi) away from its base of supply, assembled a fleet of 2,600 trucks to supply his troops, while the Japanese suffered severe supply problems due to a lack of similar motor transport. On 23 July, the Japanese launched another large-scale assault, sending the 64th and 72nd Infantry Regiments against Soviet forces defending the Kawatama Bridge. Japanese artillery supported the attack with a massive barrage that consumed more than half of their ammunition stores over a period of two days. The attack made some progress but failed to break through Soviet lines and reach the bridge. The Japanese disengaged from the attack on 25 July due to mounting casualties and depleted artillery stores. By this point they had suffered over 5,000 casualties between late May and July 25, with Soviet losses being much higher but more easily replaced. The battle drifted into a stalemate.
With war apparently imminent in Europe, Zhukov planned a major offensive on 20 August to clear the Japanese from the Khalkhin Gol region and end the fighting. Zhukov, using a fleet of at least 4,000 trucks (IJA officers with hindsight dispute this, saying he instead used 10,000 to 20,000 motor vehicles) transporting supplies from the nearest base in Chita (600 kilometres away) assembled a powerful armored force of three tank brigades (the 4th, 6th and 11th), and two mechanized brigades (the 7th and 8th, which were armored car units with attached infantry support). This force was allocated to the Soviet left and right wings. The entire Soviet force consisted of three rifle divisions, two tank divisions and two more tank brigades (in all, some 498 BT-5 and BT-7 tanks), two motorized infantry divisions, and over 550 fighters and bombers. The Mongolians committed two cavalry divisions.
In comparison, at the point of contact the Kwantung Army had only General Komatsubara's 23rd Infantry Division, which with various attached forces was equivalent to two light infantry divisions. Its headquarters had been at Hailar, over 150 km (93 mi) from the fighting. Japanese intelligence, despite demonstrating an ability to accurately track the build-up of Zhukov's force, failed to precipitate an appropriate response from below. Thus, when the Soviets finally did launch their offensive, Komatsubara was caught off guard. To test the Japanese defences prior to their main assault on the 20th, the Soviets launched three aggressive probing assaults, one on the 3rd and the others on the 7/8th. All three were disastrously thrown back, with around 1,000 combined dead and several tanks knocked out on the Soviet side compared to just 85 Japanese casualties. Moreover, the Japanese counter-attacked and routed elements of the Mongolian 8th Cavalry Division, seizing a hilly sector of the battlefront. Despite the fact that no more major fighting would take place until the 20th, Japanese casualties continued to mount at a rate of 40 wounded per day. Kwantung Army staff officers were becoming increasingly worried over the disorganized state of the 6th Army's headquarters and supply elements. In addition, the growing casualty count meant that the already green 23rd Division would have to take train and assimilate new replacements 'on the job.' By contrast, Tokyo's oft-stated desire that it would not escalate the fighting at Khalkhin-Gol proved immensely relieving to the Soviets, who were free to hand-pick select units from across their entire military to be concentrated for a local offensive without fear of Japanese retaliation elsewhere.
Zhukov decided it was time to break the stalemate. At 05:45 on 20 August 1939, Soviet artillery and 557 aircraft attacked Japanese positions, the first fighter–bomber offensive in Soviet Air Force history. Approximately 50,000 Soviet and Mongolian soldiers of the 57th Special Corps defended the east bank of the Khalkhyn Gol. Three infantry divisions and a tank brigade crossed the river, supported by massed artillery and the Soviet Air Force. Once the Japanese were pinned down by the attack of Soviet center units, Soviet armored units swept around the flanks and attacked the Japanese in the rear, achieving a classic double envelopment. When the Soviet wings linked up at Nomonhan village on 25 August, the Japanese 23rd Infantry Division was trapped. On 26 August, a Japanese counterattack to relieve the 23rd Division failed. On 27 August, the 23rd Division attempted to break out of the encirclement, but also failed. When the surrounded forces refused to surrender, they were again hit with artillery and air attacks. By 31 August, Japanese forces on the Mongolian side of the border were destroyed, leaving remnants of the 23rd Division on the Manchurian side. The Soviets had achieved their objective.
Komatsubara refused to accept the outcome and prepared a counteroffensive. This was canceled when a cease-fire was signed in Moscow. While Zhukov defeated the Japanese forces on Soviet territory, Joseph Stalin had made a deal with Nazi Germany. After the Soviet success at Nomonhan, Stalin decided to proceed with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which was announced on 24 August.
With no further threat of a second front from Japan, Stalin was free to concentrate on war in Europe and the Soviet Union and Japan agreed to a cease-fire on 15 September, which took effect the following day 1:10 pm. Free from a threat in the Far East, Stalin proceeded with the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September.
Japanese records report losses for this battle as 8,440 killed, 8,766 wounded, 162 aircraft lost, and 42 tanks lost (of which 29 were later repaired and redeployed). Roughly 3,000 Manchukuoan and Japanese troops were taken prisoner during the battles. Due to a cultural obsession with never surrendering, the Japanese listed most of these men as killed in action, for the benefit of their families. Some sources put the Japanese casualties at 45,000 or more killed, with Soviet casualties of at least 17,000. However, these estimates for Japanese casualties are considered inaccurate as they exceed the total strength of the Japanese forces involved in the battle (estimated at 28,000–38,000 troops, despite Soviet claims that they were facing 75,000). According to the records of the Bureau 6A hospital, the Japanese casualties amounted to 7,696 killed, 8,647 wounded, 1,021 missing, and 2,350 sick, for a total of 19,714 personnel losses, including 2,895 Manchukuoan casualties. The Kwantung Army headquarters and their records give a slightly different figure of 8,629 killed and 9,087 injured. The Soviets initially claimed to have inflicted 29,085 casualties on the Japanese, but later increased this to 61,000 for the official histories.
The Soviets initially claimed 9,284 total casualties, which was almost certainly reduced for propaganda purposes. In recent years, with the opening of the Soviet archives, a more accurate assessment of Soviet casualties has emerged from the work of Grigoriy Krivosheev, citing 7,974 killed and 15,251 wounded. In the newer, 2001 edition, the Soviet losses are given as 9703 killed and missing (6472 killed and died of wounds during evacuation, 1152 died of wounds in hospitals, 8 died of disease, 2028 missing, 43 non-combat dead), 15,952 wounded and sick, and a further 2225 hospitalizations due to disease, a total of 27,880 casualties. In addition to their personnel losses the Soviets lost a large amount of materiel including 253 tanks, 250 aircraft, 96 artillery pieces, and 133 armored cars. Of the Soviet tank losses, 75-80%% were destroyed by anti-tank guns, 15-20% by field artillery, 5-10% by infantry-thrown incendiary bombs, 2-3% by aircraft, and 2-3% by hand grenades and mines. The large number of Soviet armor casualties are reflected in the manpower losses for Soviet tank crews. A total of 1,559 Soviet "Tank Troops" were killed or wounded during the battles.
Mongolian casualties were 556-990, with at least 11 armored cars destroyed and 1,921 horses/camels lost.
Nomonhan was the first use of airpower on a massive scale in a high intensity battle to obtain a specific military objective. The combatants remained at peace until August 1945, when the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchukuo and other territory after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Combat losses include aircraft shot down during aerial combat, written off due to combat damage or destroyed on the ground.
Non-combat losses include aircraft that were lost due to accidents, as well as write-offs of warplanes due to the end of their service life. Thus Soviet combat losses amount to 163 fighters, 44 bombers and a reconnaissance aircraft, with further 385 fighters and 51 bombers requiring repairs due to combat damage. VVS (Soviet Air Forces) personnel losses were 88 killed in aerial combat, 11 killed by anti-aircraft artillery, 65 missing, six killed in air-strikes and four dead of wounds (174 total) and 113 wounded. The Japanese combat losses were 97 fighters, 25 bombers and 41 other (mostly reconnaissance), while 128 fighters, 54 bombers and 38 other required repairs due to combat damage. The Japanese air-force suffered 152 dead and 66 seriously wounded.
USSR: Bomber sorties 2,015, Fighter sorties 18,509; 7.62mm machine gun rounds fired 1,065,323; 20mm cannon rounds expended 57,979; bombs dropped 78,360 (1200 tons).
Japan: Fighter/bomber sorties 10,000 (estimated); 7.7mm machine gun rounds fired 1,600,000; bombs dropped 970 tons.
While this engagement is little-known in the West, it played an important part in subsequent Japanese conduct in World War II. The battle earned the Kwantung Army the displeasure of officials in Tokyo, not so much due to its defeat, but because it was initiated and escalated without direct authorization from the Japanese government. This defeat, together with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact (which deprived the Army of the basis of its war policy against the USSR), moved the Imperial General Staff in Tokyo away from the policy of the North Strike Group favored by the Army, which wanted to seize Siberia for its resources as far as Lake Baikal.
Instead, support shifted to the South Strike Group, favored by the Navy, which wanted to seize the resources of Southeast Asia, especially the petroleum and mineral-rich Dutch East Indies. Masanobu Tsuji, the Japanese colonel who had helped instigate the Nomonhan incident, was one of the strongest proponents of the attack on Pearl Harbor. General Ryukichi Tanaka, Chief of the Army Ministry’s Military Service Bureau in 1941, testified after the war that, "the most determined single protagonist in favor of war with the United States was Tsuji Masanobu." Tsuji later wrote that his experience of Soviet fire-power at Nomonhan convinced him not to attack the Soviet Union in 1941. On June 24, 1941, two days after the war on the Eastern Front broke out, the Japanese army and navy leaders adopted a resolution "not intervening in German Soviet war for the time being". In August 1941, Japan and the Soviet Union reaffirmed their neutrality pact. The United States and Britain had imposed an oil embargo on Japan, threatening to stop the Japanese war effort, but the European colonial powers were weakening and suffering early defeats in the war with Germany; only the US Pacific Fleet stood in the way of seizing the oil-rich Dutch East Indies. Because of this, Japan's focus was ultimately directed to the south, leading to its decision to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December of that year. Despite plans being carried out for a potential war against the USSR (particularly contingent on German advances towards Moscow), the Japanese would never launch an offensive against the Soviet Union. In 1941, the two countries signed agreements respecting the borders of Mongolia and Manchukuo and pledging neutrality towards each other. In the closing months of World War II, the Soviet Union would annul the Neutrality Pact and invade the Japanese territories in Manchuria, Korea, and the southern part of Sakhalin island.
The battle was the first victory for the soon-to-be-famous Soviet general Georgy Zhukov, earning him the first of his four Hero of the Soviet Union awards. The two other generals, Grigoriy Shtern and Yakov Smushkevich had important roles and were also awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union. They would, however, both be executed in the 1941 Purges. Zhukov himself was promoted and transferred west to the Kiev district. The battle experience gained by Zhukov was put to good use in December 1941 at the Battle of Moscow. Zhukov was able to use this experience to launch the first successful Soviet counteroffensive against the German invasion of 1941. Many units of the Siberian and other trans-Ural armies were part of this attack, and the decision to move these divisions from Siberia was aided by the Soviet spy Richard Sorge in Tokyo, who was able to alert the Soviet government that the Japanese were looking south and were unlikely to launch another attack against Siberia in the immediate future. A year after defending Moscow against the advancing Germans, Zhukov planned and executed the Red Army's offensive at the Battle of Stalingrad, using a technique very similar to Khalkhin Gol, in which the Soviet forces held the enemy fixed in the center, built up an undetected mass force in the immediate rear area, and launched a pincer attack on the wings to trap the enemy army.
Following the battle, the Soviets generally found the results unsatisfactory, despite their victory. Though the Soviet forces in the Far East in 1939 were not plagued by fundamental issues to the same extent as those in Europe during the 1941 campaigns, their generals were still unimpressed by their army's performance. As noted by Pyotr Grigorenko, the Red Army went in with a very large advantage in technology, numbers, and firepower, yet still suffered huge losses, which he blamed on poor leadership.
Although their victory and the subsequent negotiation of the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact secured the Far East for the duration of the Soviet-German War, the Red Army always remained cautious about the possibility of another, larger Japanese incursion as late as early 1944. In December 1943, when the American military mission proposed a logistics base be set up east of Lake Baikal, the Red Army authorities were according to Coox, "shocked by the idea and literally turned white." Due to this caution, the Red Army kept a large force in the Far East even during the bleakest days of the war in Europe. For example, on July 1 1942, Soviet forces in the Far East consisted of 1,446,012 troops, 11,759 artillery pieces, 2,589 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 3,178 combat aircraft. Despite this, the Soviet operations chief of the Far Eastern Front, General A. K. Kazakovtsev, was not confident in his army group's ability to stop an invasion if the Japanese committed to it (at least in 1941-1942), commenting: “If the Japanese enter the war on Hitler’s side… our cause is hopeless.”
The Japanese similarly considered the result not a failing of tactics, but one that simply highlighted a need to address the material disparity between themselves and their neighbours. They made several reforms as a result of this battle: Tank production was increased from 500 annually in 1939 to 1,200 [in what year?], a mechanized headquarters was established in early 1941, and the new Type 1 47 mm Anti-Tank Gun was introduced as a response to the Soviet 45mm. These cannons were mounted on Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks, resulting in the Type 97 ShinHoTo Chi-Ha ("New Turret") variant, which became the IJA's standard medium tank by 1942. IGHQ also dispatched General Tomoyuki Yamashita to Nazi Germany in order to learn more about tank tactics following the crushingly one-sided Battle of France and the signing of the Tripartite Pact. He returned with a report where he stressed the need for mechanization and more medium tanks. Accordingly, plans were put underway for the formation of 10 new armoured divisions in the near future.
Despite all of the above, Japanese industry was not powerful enough to keep up with either the United States or the Soviet Union, and Yamashita warned against going to war with them for this reason. His recommendations were not taken to heart, and Japanese militarists eventually successfully pushed for war with the United States. In spite of their recent experience and military improvements, the Japanese would generally continue to underestimate their adversaries, emphasizing the courage and determination of the individual soldier as a way to make up for their lack of numbers and smaller industrial base. To varying degrees, the basic problems that faced them at Khalkhin Gol would haunt them again when the Americans and British recovered from their defeats of late 1941 and early 1942 and turned to the conquest of the Japanese Empire.
Also, severe problem with lacking emergency blood staunching was detected. The original Japanese indoctrination explicitly forbade first aid to fellow soldiers without order from officer, and first-aid training was lacking. As result, large proportion of Japanese dead was due to hemorrhage from the untreated wounds. Furthermore, up to 30% of the total casualties were due the dysentery which Japanese believed was delivered by Soviet biological-warfare aerial bombs, as confirmed by laboratory testing. To reduce susceptibility to this form of biological warfare and to wage the biological warfare on their own, future Japanese divisions will commonly include a specialized Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Departments. Finally, the Japanese food rations were found to be less than satisfactory, both in packing and nutritional value.
After the war, at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, fourteen Japanese were charged by delegates of the conquering Soviet Union, with having "initiated a war of aggression ... against the Mongolian People's Republic in the area of the Khalkhin-Gol River" and also with having waged a war "in violation of international law" against the USSR. Kenji Doihara, Hiranuma Kiichirō, and Seishirō Itagaki were convicted on these charges.
The Mongolian town of Choibalsan, in the Dornod Province where the battle was fought, is the location of the "G.K. Zhukov Museum", dedicated to Zhukov and the 1939 battle. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia also has a "G.K. Zhukov Museum" with information about the battle.
The Battles of Khalkhin Gol were depicted in the 2011 South Korean war film My Way. The film was inspired by the true tale of a Korean named Yang Kyoungjong who was captured by the Americans on D-Day. Yang Kyoungjong was conscripted in the Japanese Imperial Army, fought in the Battles of Khalkhin Gol against the Red Army, then was enlisted to the Red Army, fought against the Germans and after being taken prisoner he joined the Wehrmacht.
The Nomonhan Incident casts a shadow over the whole of Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although there is little detail about the main battle itself. Two characters who were in the Japanese Army during the war, relate their experiences in the Mongolian border area at a much later date to the hero, which seems to profoundly affect his later adventures.