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An undeclared war: the Japanese-Soviet battle that decided the outcome of WWII

by Jeff Kingston

Nomonhan 1939: The Red Army’s Victory That Shaped World War II, by Stuart D. Goldman. Naval Institute Press, 2012, 288 pp., $31.95 (hardcover)

T he battle of Nomonhan between the Japanese Imperial Army and the Soviet Army is a little known confrontation that had a significant impact on both countries diplomatic maneuvering and war planning on the eve of World War II. This was a bloody, undeclared war in the remote border region of Mongolia and Manchuria, one with immense geopolitical implications. It was also a stunning and costly defeat for Japan, one fought over a minor border issue that spiraled out of control.

Goldman masterfully untangles the complicated diplomatic context and battlefield maneuverings in a tour de force that shows how global diplomacy and WWII were affected by the outcome of hostilities in an obscure backwater of little strategic importance.

In the spring of 1939 the Nomonhan hostilities began and the fighting proceeded in sanguinary spurts until the Red Army launched a devastating offensive in August. At that time, Josef Stalin was adroitly negotiating with both the Nazis and the British and in the end finalized a Non-Aggression Pact with Germany. With victory against Japan at hand, cutting a deal with Germany left Tokyo diplomatically isolated and protected the Soviet Union from a two-front war. It also left Poland ripe for the picking, the spark that ignited a wider war and pitted Germany against the U.K. and France.

General Georgy Zhukov’s brilliant victory at Nomonhan led to his promotion to command of the Red Army in 1941. He later became famous for his rousing defense of Moscow against the Nazis, made possible with seasoned reinforcements from the Soviet Far East. If the Soviets had not sorted out the Japanese threat in the Far East at Nomonhan, these troops might not been available and Moscow could have fallen, dramatically changing the course of WWII.

Zhukov deployed tank brigades using unorthodox tactics that outmaneuvered and overwhelmed the Japanese troops. He also outsmarted them by spreading disinformation and at night playing tapes of the sound of rumbling tanks from speakers aimed at the Japanese frontlines. The soldiers gradually became numb to the sound so were unprepared when the real tanks came. The Soviets created tank traps from piano wire strung at tank tread level, entangling, jamming and disabling many Japanese tanks. They also adjusted to the “human bullet” attacks by Japanese soldiers armed with “primitive gasoline bombs and explosive charges” that knocked out many tanks by jury-rigging protections that limited their efficacy. Japan’s lack of effective anti-tank weapons proved a critical weakness in a terrain suited to tanks where the enemy enjoyed a 6:1 advantage in armor.

The Battle of Nomonhan, involving 30,000 to 50,000 casualties on both sides, foreshadowed Japan’s subsequent defeat in WWII. The main problem was Japan’s reliance on the spiritual superiority of its troops because it lacked the material wherewithal to match its opponents’ military machines. This vulnerability, compounded by poor intelligence gathering and careless overconfidence, translated into horrific casualties while also exposing weaknesses in Japan’s war planning and inadequate logistics. Officers showed an inordinate obsession with honor and dignity while the troops paid a high price for this hubris. They also discovered that Soviet troops were equally brave and motivated, and better equipped. The Soviets enjoyed a huge advantage in long-range artillery and relentlessly pounded Japanese positions. There was nothing in the arsenal to match Soviet firepower and Japanese stockpiles of ammunition were quickly depleted.

Goldman succeeds in bringing the clashes and skirmishes to life in evocative prose drawing on an impressive command of the various Soviet, Japanese and US sources on the confrontation. This is a grim tale told with brio, one that underscores how hotheaded Japanese officers were spoiling for a fight and how the Kwantung Army escalated the campaign, underestimating the resolve and capacity of the Soviets.

As in the 1931 Mukden Incident that preceded Japan’s conquest of Manchuria, officers on the spot near Nomonhan ignored orders from Tokyo headquarters, and even disregarded Emperor Hirohito’s rebuke. These rogue troops did receive support once they provoked hostilities, and subsequent punishments were light for a glaring breach of discipline that ended in such a debacle for Japan.

One of the consequences of Nomonhan is that many of these trigger-happy officers who had not demonstrated either competence or common sense were rotated back to the central command in Tokyo. Presumably they could be closely monitored, but in fact they were ardent advocates of resolving Japan’s disputes by force, ignoring critical lessons they should have learned at Nomonhan. As Japan slid toward war, these middle-ranking officers, including the notorious Tsuji Masanobu, were in a position to advocate the Pacific War. The Soviet spanking forced reconsideration of plans to invade Siberia for its resources and made the lightly defended European colonies in Southeast Asia a much more attractive target, a strategy that required a preemptive strike on Pearl Harbor.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.