*** war and social upheaval: World War II Japanese-Soviet Manchurian-Mongolian border war

Japanese-Soviet Manchurian-Mongolian Border War: Khalkhin Gol (May-September 1939)

Khalkhin Gol
Figure 1.-- Here Japanese soldiers pose with a broken Maxim machine gun seized from the Soviets in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. The Japanese Army achieving victory after victory in China convinced themselves that they were invincible. The Kwantung Army decided to take on the Soviet Red Army at Khalkhin Gol. The resulting Red Army victory helped concinced the IJA commanders that when they decided on war they had better be more careful in picking their target. After exhaustive study and discussion, they picked the United states. This was perhaps the greatest historical blunder in the history of warfare.

The Japanese beginning in 1938 fought a series of engagements with the Soviets along the Manchurain-Mongolian border. A minor border incident (Battle of Lake Khasan) occurred at Primorye (1938). Much more significant engagements ocuured the following year. Large scale clashes occurred beginning May 1939 between Japanese and Soviet forces on the Mongolian plains along the border with Japanese-held Manchuria (Manchukuo). Neither side declared war. The Japanese released photographs of captured Soviet soldiers (July 1939). The conflict was little reported in the West. An offensive planned and executed by Marshall Zukov ended in a decisive voctory for the Soviets. The Japanese were forced to seek an armistace (September 1939). The clash was, however, of imense strategic significance, significantly affecting the strategic conduct of World War II. It was undoubtedly a factor encouraging Stalin to respond favorably to NAZI initiatives for a Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939) to ensure that the Soviet Union would not face a two-front war. Hitler ignored the Soviet performance and instread saw the inept Red Army offensive in Finland as evidence that the Soviets could be easily defeated. The Japanese Army concluded that further attacks on the Soviets were unwise. This was an important factor in attacking south in 1941 at America rather than north at the Soviet Union. It was also a major factor in refusing entrities from Hitler in 1942 to attack the Soviet Union, freeing the Red Army from what may have been a disastrous two-front war.

Kwantung Army

The Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) had one of the most rigid command structures of any World war II military. An anomaly here was the Kwantung Army (KA). This it of enormous importance because it was largely the actions of the KA that led Japan into first Manchuria (1931) and then China (1937). Many of these actions were initiated by the KA without even consulting the Japanse Government or evem the IJA. Both would, however, support the KA's unauthorized actions. They would even supportthe KA when they took on the soviet Red Army. And the the war with China which of course morphed into the Pacific war with the United States. The Liáodōng Peninsula, once referred to as Southeast Manchuria in the West, is one of the most importnt strategic prominances in the Yellow sea, situated at the conjunction of China, Manchuria, and Korea. It has been fought over since ancient times, including the war States Period. The Japanese began to move into the Liáodōng Peninsula during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). The desire to control the Peninsula and Port Arthur (Lüshun) resulted in the Russo-Japnse War (1904-05). The Japanese victory opened up further intoads into Manchuria. The Japanese established a garison at Kwantung to guard the Southern Manchurian Railway from bandits, Chinese war lords, and rival countries. Kwantung was a coastal territory on the Liaodong Peninsula including the ports of Dalian and Lüshun. After World War I the Japanese had significant territorial ambitions in East Asia, including Mnchuria and Siberia. As part of this expanonist desires, the Japanese formed the KA from their alreasy existing Kwantung Garrison and it became an official IJA formation. The KA became doiminated by young, highly nationalistic young officers who essentially privatized the command structure. They became the most prestigious IJA formation in the inter-War era. The autonomy of the KA appaled to young officers seeking to make their names. It was the only IJA formation involved in acual, if low-level, fighting. The region became very important ecomically and became a boom area where Manchurian food harvests and raw materials were tansported for shipment to the expanding industries on the Jome Islnds. The KA soldiers were often aggressive and entirely disdainful of both Japanese and Chinese civilian authority. The KA operated as border police and railway guards. The control of the railway provided opportunities for illegal, but lucratibe gains such as involvemnt in opium trading. The young officers were contemptuous of the Japanese Government's perceived diplomatic concessions on military matters, such as the Washingon Naval Conference as well as implementation of the Twenty-One Fifteen Demands on China. KA soldiers were aggressive and commonly just ignored both Chinese and Japanese civilian authorities. They began to use the phrase, 'loyal insubordination'. And througout the 1920s the KA became increasingly violent. Not only did the KA often operate indepdedently of the IJA High Command, but often groups of officetrs in the KA made decisions on their own. One such group assassinated a Manchurian warlord that stood up to them (1928). They placed a bomb on his personal railcar. and it was not just the Chinese they targeted. There were confrontations along the Soviet border (mid-1920s). And it was the KA that staged an incident on the railline that led to the Japanese seizure of Manchuria (1931). This is often cited as the first aggrssion leading to World War II. KA units were also involved in the Marco Polo Brudge incident launching the Japanese invasion of China proper (1937). The history of the KA is murky because the officers involved commonly operated secretly in small groups. And as the actions they took were often illegal, not to mention oranized crime like opium traficking, no one was overly enthusiastic to write memoirs after the disaterous war in which they played a major role in laubching. In addition with the Red Army invasion of Manchuria (April 1945) many of the individuals involved disappeared into the Soviet Gulag.

Strike North Faction

The Strike North Faction became the dominant orientation of the Japanese Army, strongly influencing the Japanese High Command. The Strike North Faction grew out of Kōdōha (the Imoerial Way). This was a political/social outlook enunciated by Sadao Araki and his protégé Jinzaburō Masaki. Araki was a respected political philosopher within the Army. His central thesis was linking the ancient samurai bushido code with modern nationalism. Kōdōha had many ideas similar to European Fascism which also embraced militarism and rejected liberal democracy. Araki fuseddevotion to the Emperor, the people, the land, and morality into a unified nationalist spirit. Despite the fact that it was Japan's industrial development that had enabled Japan to emerge as an important power, Kōdōha saw a need to return to a nostalgic notion of an idealized pre-industrialized Japan, uncorupted by the West. Araki saw the need to purge the strate of corrupt bureaucrats, opportunistic politicians, and greedy zaibatsu capitalists. The corrupt, greedy, and oportunistic were often simply those who had question the ideas held by impressionable young officers. He saw aurified state as being led by the the Emperor n a "Showa Restoration" backed by the military. tion of the military in terms of For Araki and his followers, central to military preparation was ideologicalm or spiritual training, something akin to French élan. important. Prime Minister Inukai appointed Araki Minister of War (1931). Mazaki was appointed Vice Chief of the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff. From those positions, both proceeded to purge followers of their chief rival General Kazushige Ugaki from key posts in both the Ministry and the General Staff. Ugaki in contrast to philosophy saw the need to modernizae weaponry as more important. Kōdōha emerged as a major component of the Strike North Faction, in part because of its strident anti-Communist orintation. This orientation was especially strong in the Kwantung Army stationed in Manchukuo. There strategic concept was simple--sever the Soviet Trans-Siberian lifeline. The Railway was vulnerable because for over a thousand miles in ran close to the Manchukuo border. And if Japan could seize Mongolia there were even more places to cut the Railline. The Strike North Fsction srgued that if Japan could cut the Transiberian, the Soviets would have no way to supply military forces in the Far East. The Imperial Japanese Navy could prevent supply by sea. The potential gains were emense: Mongolia, the Soviet maritime provinces, and large parts of Siberia. These buffer territories woild shield the Japanese Empire in the north and provide the Japanese the enormous natural resources of Siberia. Striking north would also cut the Chinese Nationslists off from Soviet assistance. And advocates within the Army believed that this was the most achievable as it required war only with the Soviet Union.

Outer Mongolia/Mongolian People's Republic

The connection between European Russia and the Soviet Far East was tenous--the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It is the longest railway in the world. The Trans-Siberian was opened bt Tsar Nicholas II (1891). It was one of the engineering marvels of the day. It connected Moscow with the Russian Far East and the Sea of Japan terminating in the Pacific port of Vladisvostock. It was not a direct line because it had to be routed around Chinese Manchuria. The Trans Siberian was the Russian/Soviet lifeline of the Soviet position in the Far East and Siberia. Outer Mongolia was critical to the security of the Trans-Siberian. A extended portion of the line was close to Outer-Mongolia (modern Mongolia). This is one reason the Soviets established the puppet Mongolian People's Republic (MPR) in Outer Mongolia. A treaty of mutual assistance between the Soviet Union and the MPR was signed (1936).

Ill-defined Border

Japanese Manchukuo had an incredible 3,000 mile border with the Soviet Union proper and the Mongolian People's Republic, much of it ill-defined. After the Japanese invaded Manchuria and set up Manchukuo (1931), border incidents began to occur. By the time the crisis occurred in 1938, there had been hundreds of incidents of varying importance. Some of the clashed may have been due to the pootly delimited border. We suspect that others resulted from the hostility of local commanddrs. We do not know to what extent higher level commanders were responsible. We know that the Japanese Army Strike North Faction had designs on the Soviet Far East. A major clash brole out at Lake Khasan, 70 miles southwest of Vladivostok at the intersection of the Manchukuoan, Korean and Soviet borders. The Battle of Lake Khasan occurred at Primorye (Summer 1938). A clash so close to Vladisvostock made this especially threatening to the Soviets. After the fire fight, the Soviets were left in in possession of the disputed ground.

Major Clash (May-Setember 1939)

Much more significant engagements beyween the Japanese and Soviets occurred the following year. The engagements in 1939 reached very significant levels. The second series of engagements involved Zukov commanding the Red Army forces. The Japanese were badly defeated (July 1939). The fighting is known as the Battle of Halhin Gol or Nomonhan (a nearby village) Incident. It was not widely reported at the time, in part because it occurred in such an isolated location where the international press did not have access. In addition, the world's attentin was focused on Europe where Hitler and Stalin were preparing to launch Word War II.

Poorly defined border

The border incidents occurred because the Japanese and Soviets disagreeded about the border between Manchukuo (Japanese controlled Manchuria) and Mongolia. The Japanese insisted the border was the Halha River (Halhin or Khalkhin Gol). The Mongolians and their Soviet allies insisted the border was 16 kilometres east of the river near Nomonhan village.

Mongolian-Manchukoan incident (May 1939)

The incident began when some Mongolian calvalry troops grazed their horses in the disputed area (May 11, 1939). The Manchukoans had difficulty expelling them and the Japanese Guangdong Army eventually intervened with a small force (May 14).

Georgy Zukov

Stalin wanted these border incidents ended and ordered the Red Army High Command (STAVKA) to take the necessary action. A young Georgy Zhukov was selected to command the action. Zukov was at the time a young officer of promise.

Limited Soviet Action

The Red Army proceeded to destroy the small Japanese force which had occupied the desputed area (May 28-29). This involved the loss of about 100 men. The Guangdong Army at this time apparently decided that the area was not worth an expanded conflict. Continued incidents ensued.

Japanese offensive (July 1939)

Eventually Lt. Gen. Michitaro Komatsubara, was ordered to conduct a major offensive to restabish the border at the Halha River. The Japanese commenced operations (July 1) and crossed the Halha River. The Red Army stopped the Japanese (July 3) and forced them back across the border. Hostilites ended at this point except for minor scrimishes.

Massive Soviet offensive (August 20, 1939)

Zukov planned a major offensive to cross the River and seize the disputed area. A force of Russian and Mongolian troops (57th Special Corps) defend the east bank of the Halha River. With an even larger force, Zukov crossed the River (August 20). He used three infantry divisions and characteristaclly massed artillery. He also used tanks and planes in a coordinated offense. One author describes the fighting,"That night, reinforced by the 212rh Airborne Regiment,more heavy artillery, and a detschment of flame-throwing tanks, the northern force renewed its assaults on Fui Heights. The battered Japanese defenders by then were completely overmatched. Soviet artillery fire came pouring in at the rate of two rounds per second. When the last of the Japanese artllery was knocked out, they no longer had effective defense aginst the flame-throwing tanks. From several mile away, Colonel Somi could seethe heights envelopedin clods of black smoke,penetrated by spurts of red flane. 'spitting like the tongues of snakes'." [Goldman] The Soviets enveloped two entire Japanese divisions. The Japanese attempted to break out, but were unsuccessful (August 27). When the surrounded Japanese refused to surender, they were obliterated with artillery and aerial bombardment. The battle was over (August 31). Red Army ground assaults drove remaining Japanese forces back into Manchukuo.

NAZI-Soviet Non Agression Pact (August 23, 1939)

Hitler and Stalin suprised the world by announcing an alliance--the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 23, 1939). The Britis and French had assumed that the two were too ideologically separated to ever sign an alliance. They were wrong. The Non-Aggression Pact stunned the world,including the Japanese. Japanese foreign polict had been premised on a war in Europe that woukld fully occupy the Soviets in addition tonmoving closer to the Germnans. Hitler's move under cut this foreign policy and the influence of the dominnt Strike North Faction. Hitler had conducted the negotiations with bthe Siviets in great secrecy. And there was not a word to the Japanese or his Italian allies. As a result, the Japanese were diplomatically isolated at the same time that they were bogged diwn in China and now being pummeled by the Red Army as a result of a military conflict vthat they had instigated. And as a result of the Pact, the Soviets no longer needed to worry about thir western front abd were free to deal with the Japanese in force. .

Ceasfire (September 1939)

The Japanese subsequently asked for a ceasfire (September 16). The Soviets won the battle, but at considerable cost, the full extent of the losses were not reported until after the disolution of the Soviet Uniom (1991).

Reforms of the Kwantung Army

The Kwantung Army found dealing with a modern well armed force more of a challenge than the poorly equipped Chinese Nationlists. They sustained heavy casualties and found their weapons and equipment inferior to the soviets. After the Nomonhan incident, the Japanese High Commamd purged the Kwantung Army was purged of its openly insubordinate elements. Also purged after the NAZI-Soviet Non-Ahression Pact (August 1939) were the Hokushin-ron (Strike North) proponents who urged that Japan focus its expansionist drive north on Soviet Siberia rather southward into the Dutch East Indies and British/French Southeast Asia--the Southern Resource Zone (SRZ).


The extent of the fighting was not widely reported at the time, but many historins believe that it had a major impact on the conduct of World War II. The Japanese Imperial General Staff appears to have concluded that the "strike north" option promoted by the Army to seize Siberia was impossible to achieve or would be terribly costly. Rather the "strike south" with more Navy support to seize the resources of Southeast Asia gained backing. The result was the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941). The fighting is also believed to be a major reason that the Japanese declined to attack the Soviets when they were reeling from the NAZI invasion (June 1941). This allowed Stalin to move Siberian troops from the Manchurian border that played a critical role in stopping the NAZIs before Moscow (December 1941).

Victory of the Strike South Faction

While the Strike North Faction was initially the preminent Japanese Army faction, a series of shocking events after Japan's invasion of China led to the victory of the Strike South Faction within the Imperial Army. The Japanese were shocked at the very vocal American reaction to their war in China. This was of some consequence, not because of the moral outrage, but the fact that Japan was very dependant on America for raw materials, especially oil. The American Moral Embargo (July 1938) was thus a very real threat. Next came an offensive at Khalkhin Gol on the Mongolian border (July 1939). Theor initil enthusiasim was followed by perhaps the greatest shock of War for the Japanese, the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (August 1939). NAZI Germany was Japan's principal ally against the Soviet Union which the Strike North Faction wanted to attack. NAZI diplomats had not consulted with the Japanese before signing the pact. Japanese military and civilian officials had no idea it was coming. This led to the Japanese questioning the value of the Anti-Comintern Pact and the reliability of their German ally. And then came the most important development was an undeclared and poorly reported border war with the Soviet Union, a massive Red Army counter attack led by Marshal Georgy Zukov (August 1939). The Red Army routed the Japanese along the Khalka River. The Japanese Army chiefs were shocked to see how ill-prepared they were to fight a modern, well equipped army with modern weapons. This seems to have significantly reduced the Imperial Army's enthusism for invading the Soviet Union. The result was the Strike South Faction emerging as the dominat group in the Imperial Army.


Goldman, Stuart D. Nomonhan: The Red Army's Victory that Shaped World War II (2012).


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Created: 5:12 AM 9/4/2008
Last updated: 11:35 PM 5/16/2016