Nomonhan: The Second Russo-Japanese War
By Timothy Neeno, M.A.
In the summer of 1939, the Japan and the Soviet Union fought a short, but
bitter conflict over a disputed section of the Manchurian-Mongolian border. It
gave the Japanese military a stinging defeat and led to changes within the
Japanese ruling circles that ultimately led Japan on the road to Pearl Harbor.
The conflict at Nomonhan grew out of the running conflict between Russia and
Japan over influence in China and Mongolia, especially Manchuria, the
northeastern-most part of China. Manchuria was rich in grain, coal and iron,
and was also blessed with warm water ports, eagerly coveted by the Russians for
their Pacific fleet. In the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) the Japanese
humiliated the Russians, driving them from the richest parts of Manchuria.
In the Great Depression, as trade dried up and unemployment grew, an
ultra-nationalist clique within the Japanese military sought to secure the
markets and raw materials Japan so desperately wanted. The Kwantung Army, set
up in Port Arthur in 1919, had long been home to the most vocal and the most
violent advocates of continued Japanese expansion in China. In 1931, a militant
faction within the Kwantung Army deliberately fabricated an attack on the
railway outside of Mukden, in Manchuria. The so-called 'Mukden Incident' gave
the Kwantung Army the excuse it needed to occupy Manchuria completely. In 1932
the Japanese proclaimed the puppet state of 'Manchukuo', and installed Puyi,
the last emperor of the Manchu Dynasty deposed in 1912, as their pliant vassal.
It is worth examining the relationship between the Kwantung Army and the
Imperial Japanese Army's General Staff. Normally in a modern society the
military is subject to a strict chain of command. The Japanese army in the
1930s was different in that important policy decisions were often made at
relatively low levels, by people on the spot. Then the Army General Staff and
the government in Tokyo would have to go along, if only out of fear of angering
nationalist sentiment within the military. In practice the Kwantung Army
operated more like an independent fiefdom as in the days when Japan was a
warring feudal state. The Japanese leadership was cautious enough to not order
aggressive acts itself, but it also was afraid to discipline the
ultra-nationalist militarists within the army. In other words, Japan was not
aggressive in this period due to a strong leader like Hitler or Mussolini, but
rather because it lacked a strong leader.
On July 7, 1937 the militarists struck again, fabricating a new incident at the
Luguo (Marco Polo) Bridge just outside of Beijing. The Japanese quickly overran
Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, and most of the other major cities of China, in
what they termed the 'China Incident'. But the Chinese would not surrender, and
as the Japanese advanced into China, their logistical position worsened.
Throughout the 'China Incident', the Japanese military always saw the Soviet
Union as their primary opponent. Bombers based in Siberia could hit Japanese
cities, while submarines from Vladivostok could harass Japanese shipping. In
1921, at the close of the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks had swept into the
broad desert lands of Mongolia and established a revolutionary government. In
1936 the Soviets proclaimed the Mongolian People's Republic (MPR). The MPR
could conceivably lay claim to what was then known as 'Inner Mongolia', a large
swath of Chinese territory south and east of the MPR inhabited by ethnic
Mongolians. At the same time, Communism had spread into China proper, and
Chinese Communists, led by Mao Zedong, were aggressive in fighting a guerilla
war against the Japanese occupation.
All this was profoundly disturbing to Japan's military leaders. Defense
Minister Itagaki Seishiro [Japanese names are traditionally written family name
first.] wanted to deal with the rising power of the Soviets while Japan held a
position of strength. In 1931 the Soviet Red Army had just six infantry
divisions in the Special Far Eastern Army tasked with watching the Manchurian
border. By 1936 the Far Eastern Army had twenty infantry divisions, supported
by a hundred tanks. In that year alone there were thirty three armed clashes
along the 3,000 mile frontier separating the Soviet Union from Manchukuo.
Worse, in August of 1937 the Soviets began sending Poliparkov I-15 and I-16
fighter planes to aid the Chinese, along with some 200 'volunteer' pilots, and
a staff of supporting technicians. From this point on, Russia and Japan could
be said to be fighting an undeclared war.
In 1935 the Soviets began moving troops into the Mongolian People's Republic to
counter Japanese expansion. After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident the Soviets
began to act more aggressively. In 1938 the Soviets sent the 57th Special Rifle
Corps, which included a motorized infantry division and four armored brigades,
into the MPR. Although they stayed back from the actual border, their presence
there was a clear warning to the Japanese.
On January 1, 1938, German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop spoke with Oshima
Hiroshi, Japan's Ambassador in Berlin, raising the possibility of a
German-Japanese alliance. Hitler had secured his position in Germany and was
eager to take over Austria and the German-speaking lands in the Sudeten region
of Czechoslovakia. It would be a great benefit to Nazi Germany to keep the
Soviets occupied in the Far East while this was going on. The Japanese high
command wanted a German alliance to warn off the Soviets while the Japanese
overran China, and possibly to expand into mineral rich Siberia in the event of
an all-out Russo-German conflict.
The Japanese had also learned, through a high-level NKVD defector, that the
Soviet Army was in disarray. Stalin had instituted a massive purge of the
Soviet military in November of 1937, and thousands of Red army officers had
been arrested and murdered. Soviet military capability was at a low ebb.
Egged on by the military, in July of 1938 the Japanese Foreign Office had
Mamoru Shigemitsu, the ambassador to the Soviet Union, meet with Soviet Foreign
Minister Maxim Litvinov and demand that the Soviets evacuate the disputed
territories along the Manchurian border. The border had never been properly
surveyed and maps were poor and outdated. The areas in dispute were small and
militarily unimportant but neither side was prepared to simply back down. Now
the Japanese raised the temperature in the dispute.
On July 13, 1938, the Soviets occupied Changkufeng Hill in the disputed area
between Siberia and Japanese controlled Korea. Changkufeng was a particularly
sensitive point because it was only 50 miles from Vladivostok. On July 29 the
commander of the IJA's 19th Infantry Division, responsible for the defense of
northern Korea, on his own initiative, ordered an assault on Changkufeng, and
neighboring Shatsaofeng Hill, which had also been occupied by the Soviets. From
Changkufeng, the Japanese could threaten Russian communications with their
naval base at Posyet Bay.
From August 2nd through the 9th the Soviets continually bombarded the Japanese
holding out on Changkufeng Hill, launching a series of sporadic attacks. The
Japanese repulsed the uncoordinated Russian assaults. But it was clear that the
19th Division could not hold out alone. Unwilling to widen the clash, on August
9th, 1938, the Japanese agreed to a cease fire with the Soviets and quietly
withdrew their troops from the disputed hills. In the fighting the Japanese
lost some 500 men, with 900 wounded.
The First Clashes:
Changkufeng should have made the Japanese cautious. But several factors made
the Kwantung Army leadership willing to face the Russians again. 1938 was the
year of the Munich Crisis in Europe, and the Soviets had to keep an eye on
events in the West. Furthermore, due to the brutality of Stalin's purges, the
Red Army would not be weaker than it was then. The 19th Division's defense of
Changkufeng seemed to show that the Soviets, while numerically superior, had
failed to coordinate their attacks properly, or use their armor and air power
well. Drawing on their experiences in the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese
regarded the typical Russian soldier as dull witted and lacking in spirit.
Japanese soldiers, inspired by the spirit of bushido, and trained in
aggressive, small unit actions with the bayonet, could easily stand up to the
Russians superior numbers. All signs seemed to point to an opportune moment for
In the event of a second Russo-Japanese War the IJA high command had envisioned
an offensive strategy, with a push west across the Khingan Mountains into that
portion of Siberia north of the Mongolian border. The Japanese planned to cut
the Trans-Siberian Railway, isolating the whole of the Soviet Far East and
pushing the Russians back beyond Lake Baikal. They increased the capacity of
the Harbin-Tsitsihar-Khaila railway and started a new railroad paralleling the
Mongolian border in order to improve their logistical position. Now, in April
of 1939, Lt. Gen. Ueda Kenkichi, commander of the Kwantung Army, backed by War
Minister Itagaki, ordered a more aggressive policy on the border. Soviet or
Mongolian incursions into disputed territory were to be decisively punished.
Local commanders were to patrol aggressively, and even pursue interlopers
across the border. A detachment of troops was sent into the disputed Nomonhan
region between Manchuria and Mongolia to map the area.
Until then, no accurate maps of the area existed. The Japanese insisted that
the border was the Khalkin Gol, or Khalka River, flowing north and east into
the Buir Nor. The Mongolian People's Republic, backed by the Soviets, claimed
the area some 20 kilometers east of the Khalkin Gol, including the village of
On May 11th, a detachment of 70-80 MPR cavalry crossed the Khalkin Gol in
search of grazing. The came upon the village of Nomohan and drove off a small
detachment of Manchurian troops guarding it. A Manchurian battalion came up and
drove the Mongolians back over the river. But the next day the Mongolians came
back in force, crossing the river and throwing up pontoon bridges to reinforce
their claim to the region.
The Manchurians could not dislodge the Mongolians, and the Japanese began
moving up troops. On May 15th, a reinforced battalion under Lt. Col. Azuma
struck the Mongolians and pushed them back over the river. On May 20th, the
first clashes in the air took place over the disputed area, as both sides
brought up reinforcements. MPR troops, now backed by the Soviets, pushed back
into the disputed territory east of the river. On May 28th Azuma tried to cut
the Soviet's communications line over the river. In two days of sharp fighting
the Soviets drove the Japanese off with some 400 casualties.
At the same time the air battle was heating up. On June 27th the Kwantung Army
sent the 2nd Hikodan (Air Brigade) to attack the main Soviet air base at
Tamsak-Bulak in Mongolia. It is very hard to sort out losses in the air war, as
both sides minimized their losses and exaggerated their victories. However the
Japanese surprised the Russians with their sudden strike. The Nakajima Ki- 27,
the Japanese Army Air Force's new, all-metal monoplane fighter, was clearly
superior to the Poliparkov I-15s, I-16s, and somewhat better I-153s. The
Japanese pilots, were better trained as well. On the whole, the Russians lost
1.5 planes for every Japanese plane they shot down.
Here the fragmented Japanese system of command began to handicap their
operations. IJA headquarters in Tokyo had not authorized the strike on
Tamsag-Bulak, and forbade expanding air operations. Thus the JAAF could not
capitalize on their tactical superiority to get complete command of the air.
The Kwantung Army was still willing to escalate. On July 1, 1939 the IJA 23rd
Infantry Division, under Lt. Gen. Komatsubara Michitaro, backed by two tank
regiments, struck at the Russians dug in east of the river. The pushed to the
Khalka River, and in the night, two regiments crossed the river, seizing the
Baintsagan Heights on the west bank.
But in early June, an aggressive new Soviet commander arrived. He was Lt. Gen.
Georgi K. Zhukov, age 42. On July 1st the 1st Front Army was organized under
his command. As soon as he learned of the Japanese penetration, he launched a
coordinated three-pronged counterattack by the 11th Tank Brigade, plus a
motorized infantry regiment and a brigade of armored cars. The Japanese
themselves launched a counter attack to try to hold onto their gains, but the
Japanese anti-tank weapons were not adequate against Soviet armor. The
Japanese, in desperation, resorted to suicide attacks with squads of men
hurling satchel charges and Molotov cocktails, but they could not stop the
Soviet onslaught. In two days of heavy fighting the Soviets retook the
Baintsagan Heights and threatened the one pontoon bridge the Japanese had
across the Khalkin Gol, forcing the Japanese to withdraw over the river.
The fighting went on. Between late May and July 25th the Japanese suffered some
5,000 casualties along a thirty kilometer front. Russian losses were higher,
but the Red Army could call on greater manpower resources. The real battle was
logistics, and here, Zhukov excelled. His nearest base, on the Trans-Siberian
Railway, was 465 miles away across dirt roads. Zhukov estimated his needs at
18,000 tons of artillery shells alone, plus fuel and lubricants, food, and
everything else needed to sustain modern warfare. Over the months, Zhukov built
up a fleet of 2,600 trucks, including 1,000 fuel trucks.
Meanwhile the Japanese supply system was badly handled. Troops went for days
without water in temperatures that reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit and more in
the daytime. In general the Nomonhan area was inhospitable. With broiling hot
days came cold, damp nights. Dust was everywhere, while swarms of flies and
mosquitoes tormented the men. Bad sanitation and lack of water brought typhus
and dysentery. Most importantly, the nearly 200 mile distance from their base
of supply in Hailaerh and the lack of motorized transport created an
insurmountable logistical bottleneck for the Japanese.
By early August the Japanese had some 75,000 IJA and Manchurian troops
committed, including the 7th and 23rd Infantry Divisions, plus cavalry,
artillery, and anti-tank units, supported by some 300- 500 planes in three Air
Groups. On August 10th the Japanese organized their forces into the 6th Army
under Gen. Ogisu Rippu. Gen. Ogisu planned an offensive, top begin on August
But the Soviets had also opted for a decision. Alarmed at Hitler's threats
against Poland, Stalin wanted to be freed up from distractions in the Far East.
Stalin was prepared to deal with Hitler, but he wanted to do so from as strong
a position as possible. In early August, STAVKA, the Soviet high command, sent
Zhukov an additional 1,625 trucks from European Russia. This gave Zhukov the
logistical base he needed for a decisive stroke.
All through early and mid August Zhukov quietly moved up reinforcements. The
troops moved only at night, masking the sound of tanks massing with late night
bombing raids and small arms fire on Japanese positions. Zhukov deliberately
ordered his men to continue constructing defensive positions to lull Japanese
suspicions, while sending out patrols to scout enemy positions by night.
Zhukov, absorbing the tactical lessons of the Spanish Civil War, insisted on
careful cooperation between the air and ground forces. Air reconnaissance was
used to pinpoint Japanese defense positions, and pilots were made to
participate in ground briefings with the Red Army. By mid August Zhukov had 5
divisions and 4 armored brigades in position in front of just over 2 Japanese
At 6:00 AM, on August 20th, Zhukov struck. 100,000 Russian and Mongolian troops
moved forward along a 48 mile front, supported by 500 tanks and 216 artillery
pieces. Surprise was total. Soviet artillery outgunned the Japanese batteries,
which were short on ammunition. Russian bombardments cut phone lines, isolated
Japanese units, and blasted apart flimsy dugouts. 200 SB-2 bombers, heavily
supported by fighters, struck Japanese defenses and lines of communications.
The Soviet bombers could fly at 20,000 feet, too high for the Japanese fighter
planes. Soviet air losses were high, but they were able to wrest command of the
air over the battlefield from the Japanese.
The decisive factor was that Zhukov coordinated his armor with infantry,
artillery, and air support. The Japanese in the 1930s were hampered by a
limited manufacturing base. They could not build airplanes and tanks in
sufficient quantities at the same time. The Japanese had opted to develop
aircraft production. Now the Japanese paid the price, as Soviet T-26 and T-28
tanks chopped up the weaker Japanese armor. The Russians had learned, and
countered the Japanese use of Molotov cocktails by converting their tanks to
diesel fuel and putting wire mesh netting over vulnerable engine gratings.
In savage fighting the Soviets cut around the Japanese left (southern) flank,
and then the Japanese right, in a double envelopment. Soviet tanks, now behind
the Japanese, linked up at the village of Nomonhan, trapping the Japanese 23rd
Division. The Japanese fought back with desperate courage. One Japanese
regimental commander burnt his colors and committed seppuku, rather than
surrender. Another died in a last, fanatic banzai charge against oncoming
Russian armor. But it was all in vain. Russian tanks, equipped with
flamethrowers, supported by infantry, took one entrenched Japanese strong point
On August 26th a Japanese counter attack to relieve the trapped 23rd Division
was halted by a Russian tank brigade. The next day, the Japanese 23rd Division
made a last bitter effort to break out to the east. They were defeated. By
August 31, 1939 the Japanese had been driven back out of the disputed
territory. Of 60,000 Japanese troops committed, nearly 45,000 were killed. The
IJA 23rd Infantry Division took 73% casualties. The 71st Regiment suffered over
93% losses. In contrast, the IJA took 28% casualties at Mukden, the most hard
fought battle of the Russo-Japanese War.
Results and Lessons:
The Kwantung Army had taken a savage pummeling. The Soviets took some 3,000
Japanese prisoners, many badly wounded. The Soviets were eager to indoctrinate
them to Communism. Some 1,000 stayed on in the Soviet Union rather than face
dishonor at home. Soviet casualties were also high. They admitted to a little
over 9,000 casualties, but the actual total was closer to 17,000 or higher. But
these were losses the Red Army could afford.
At this point the Soviets could have pushed into Manchuria, but instead they
halted at the line the MPR had claimed at the start of the affair and dug in.
All through this period the Soviet KGB had a spy ring operating in Tokyo under
the masterful leadership of Richard Sorge. Sorge's information showed that the
Japanese wanted an end to the fighting as soon as possible. Knowing this, as
early as August 22 the Soviets had offered Japanese Ambassador Togo Shigenori
in Moscow a cease fire.
On August 23, 1939 the Soviets signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany,
agreeing to divide Poland. The last hope of the 'Strike North' faction in the
Japanese high command was dead. On September 15th, as German tanks closed in on
Warsaw, Ambassador Togo signed a cease fire with the Russians, to take affect
on the 16th. Both sides agreed to exchange POWs and establish a joint
commission to resolve disputes along the length of the border. As the Second
World War engulfed Europe, Stalin was free to focus his attention in the West.
In Japan the Kwantung Army, and the IJA in general, suffered a significant loss
of influence. Lt. Gen. Komatsubara Michitaro, commander of the 23rd Infantry
Division, was disgraced. In early September Lt. Gen. Ueda, commander of the
Kwantung Army, was reassigned to Japan, effectively ending his career. The
Kwantung Army ceased to be a law unto itself and was brought back under
centralized control from Tokyo. The Japanese were very careful not to provoke
the Soviets again. Even when they signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and
Italy in March of 1941, the Japanese hastened to sign a non-aggression pact
with the USSR as well.
For his part, Zhukov was promoted to the important Kiev Military District. In
the event of a war with Germany, or a Soviet push into the Balkans, Stalin
would have a top commander in position. When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941
Zhukov rose rapidly in the Red Army, and applied the lessons of mobile war
learned on the plains of Nomonhan.
The Soviets were made acutely aware of the deficiencies of the Red Air Force.
New fighter designers like Mikoyan and Yakolev now had Stalin's ear. The
problems of the T-26 tank, though less important when fighting the Japanese,
influenced the design of the T-34, which went into action against the Germans
The Japanese, on the other hand, did not learn. A major hero of the war on the
Japanese side was Lt. Sadakaji, who attacked a Soviet tank with his sword. The
vital lessons, that modern warfare depends heavily on supply and equipment,
were ignored. The desperate courage and suicidal bravery the Japanese
infantrymen showed in the fighting at Nomonhan was to be seen again at
Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. But so were the Japanese army's deficiencies in heavy
weapons and organization.
In the end, Nomonhan ruined the so-called 'Strike North' faction that had
dominated Japanese strategic thinking until then. Now the 'Strike South'
faction, led by the navy, would be ascendant. The Strike South leaders looked
enviously at the oil rich Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), at strategic
Malaya and Singapore, at Burma and Indochina, as the new war in Europe
paralyzed the British and French. The only thing stopping the Japanese now was
the US Pacific Fleet at its base at Pearl Harbor.
Written by Timothy Neeno. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Timothy Neeno at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author:
Timothy Neeno is originally from Chicago, Illinois. He graduated with a Masters
in US History from the University of Wisconsin in 1990. Since then he has gone
into teaching. He and his wife have worked and taught in Bolivia, Taiwan,
Kuwait, Brazil and the Navajo Reservation and have traveled in Europe, Asia and
the Middle East. Since 2002 they have settled in the Phoenix area. He currently
teaches history at the University of Phoenix.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.