The Most Decisive Battle of World War II?

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World War II was a messy affair. In spite of its perception as “the good war,” for some prospective combatants picking a side before all hell broke loose required intense political calculation. Alliances just before, during, and immediately after the war were fluidly tenuous.

The decade before the war’s outbreak presaged the muddle. The Spanish Civil War pitted — by proxy — the recently established Italo-German coalition against Russia in a classic ideological struggle. Italy’s incursions into Africa, on the other hand, were purely hegemonic grabs for colonial territory. In the Far East the situation was more complicated. In 1931, Japan grabbed Manchuria for its natural resources. In 1937, when Japan invaded the rest of China, both Germany and Russia squared off against it by supplying arms and essentials to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government. The United States, which supplied 80% of Japan’s oil imports and most of its steel, continued to do so.

Hitler considered Britain a natural ally, while Britain despised the Bolsheviks. Stalin despised the western democracies and the fascists equally, negotiating for an alliance with both camps right up to the day of the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression Pact on August 23, 1939 — which was only three days before Hitler’s planned invasion of Poland (delayed for six days by the signing of the Anglo-Polish mutual defense pact).

The muddle continued even after Hitler invaded Poland. Two weeks later, when Russia invaded Poland,Edward Raczyński, Polish ambassador to Britain — citing their mutual defense pact — appealed to Britain to declare war on the Soviet Union. Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax responded with hostility, stating that it was Britain's decision whether to declare war (a moot point, as a secret protocol of the pact identified only Germany as a prospective aggressor). Six weeks later, when Russia invaded Finland and the latter — out of necessity — allied itself with Germany, being unable to muster aid from the western democracies, Britain debated declaring war on Finland. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

As to Japan and Germany, their alliance was more a marriage of convenience than a pairing of soulmates. For one, Germany resented having to cede its New Guinea colony to Japan after World War I and besides Berlin’s aid to China, the Japanese rejected Hitler’s racial policies, going so far as to declare publicly that Jews were not a problem. The Führer, in an uncharacteristic backtrack, announced, “I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves. They belong to ancient civilizations, and I admit freely that their past history is superior to our own. They have the right to be proud of their past, just as we have the right to be proud of the civilization to which we belong. Indeed, I believe the more steadfast the Chinese and the Japanese remain in their pride of race, the easier I shall find it to get on with them.”It wasn’t until November of 1939 — three months after Hitler’s invasion of Poland — that the two signed a cooperation pact, and nearly a year later before Japan joined the Italo-German Axis in the Tripartite Pact.

Britain debated declaring war on Finland. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

Russo-Japanese relations were awful and getting worse. Immediately following the Russian Revolution, Japan had unsuccessfully contributed 70,000 troops to the Anglo-American effort to overthrow the Bolsheviks. Then, in 1905, the Japanese decisively defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. By 1937, Japan was eyeing Siberia as a natural extension of its Manchurian and Chinese incursions. Stalin treated the island kingdom gingerly.

With Europe on the brink of war, his worst nightmare was the prospect of a two-front conflict. Japan did not reciprocate: it hated the Bolsheviks. Much of its contempt was caused by Stalin’s purges, which had castrated the Red Army. On June 12, 1937, Marshal Mikhail Tukachevsky, the guiding spirit behind the modernized Soviet army, together with seven other high-ranking generals, was shot. Stuart Goldman, author of Nomonhan, 1939, elaborates,

Of the five marshals of the Red Army, three were shot, as were all eleven deputy commissars for defense. Seventy-eight of the eighty members of the Military Collegium perished. Every military district commander was liquidated, as were the heads of the Army Political Administration and the Frunze Military Academy. Of the fifteen army commanders, only two survived. Fifty-seven out of eighty-five corps commanders were shot, as were 110 of the 195 division commanders. At the brigade level, only 220 of the 406 colonels survived. In the Soviet Far Eastern forces the attrition rate was even higher, with 80% of the staff being removed in one way or another. According to some sources, between one-fourth and one-third of the entire officer corps was executed, or discharged within a period of eighteen months.

To the Japanese government, by now controlled by the military, the annihilation of the Soviet professional officer corps was heretical — and an open invitation to invade Siberia.

* * *

While the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin are well known and understood, Japan’s descent into military dictatorship and war was an enigma wrapped in a snowball set rolling by circumstance, without any one charismatic character leading the way.

During the last half of the 19th century, Japan had developed a parliamentary democracy under an emperor — revered to the point of veneration — as head of state. The Great Depression, which hit Japan early, in 1927, strained operations of government, already in disrepute because of widespread corruption, nearly to the breaking point. Frustrated by the Diet’s ineffectiveness, the military’s officer class dove into politics and pushed for decisive action — despite both an imperial prohibition and traditional samuraicustom. They held a trump card. As Goldman recounts, “An Imperial Ordinance dating back to 1900 stipulated that the army and navy ministers must be active-duty generals and admirals. Either service could thus cause the government to fall simply by withdrawing its service minister and refusing to put forward a replacement. By the late 1930’s, this expedient effectively brought civilian government under military control. Before long, generals and admirals themselves headed the government.”

For Japan, many factors, including both gekokujo — literally, “rule from below” — and bushido — “the way of the warrior” — produced a perfect storm. The government’s inability to deal effectively with the deteriorating economic situation was aggravated by Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi’s ratification of the London Naval Treaty of 1930. By this treaty, Japan accepted a ratio of 10:10:6 for American, British and Japanese heavy cruisers respectively — in spite of vehement opposition by the Navy General Staff, the Supreme War Council, the major opposition party, the Privy Council, countless nationalist societies, and much of the popular press. Six weeks afterward, Hamaguchi was assassinated. This was the first of a series of murderous assaults and coup attempts that prompted an American journalist to characterize the situation as “government by assassination.”

The Führer, in an uncharacteristic backtrack, announced, “I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves.”

Gekokujo is a Japanese concept that encourages action, initiative, and even principled disobedience in the application of moral ideals — especially if those ideals derive from bushido, Shinto, or Buddhism. It became the driving motivation for the political upheavals of 1930’s Japan. Coupled with another Japanese custom, that of considering direct orders an impropriety — a practice to which even commanding officers adhered — it became a justification for subordinates to ignore superiors’ “orders” (which, grammatically, were structured as “suggestions”), and act as they saw fit. While the top brass controlled the government, gekokujo controlled the lower ranks in a negative feedback loop that aggravated every contingency beyond anyone’s control.

* * *

The battle of Khalkhin Gol (Khalkhin River) — known in Japanese as the Nomonhan Incident — was a direct consequence of gekokujo. It wasone of the largest battles of World War II, and perhaps the most decisive one — except that it technically did not take place during World War II, or between declared combatants. It is the subject of Stuart D. Goldman’s Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II. Though based on a PhD. dissertation, it is a splendid book, gripping and well researched. It anticipates every question a reader might have, and answers it with context — a quality not uniformly present in historical narration.

Goldman sets the stage with an analysis of the global geopolitical calculus before the war, explores each country’s constantly adjusting foreign policy, then zeroes in on why Soviet-Japanese relations led to the conflict at Khalkhin River. The undeclared war — a series of confrontations spread over two years, involving nearly 150,000 personnel, and culminating in a massive battle near the village of Nomonhan — is brilliantly laid out, from the diplomatic to-and-fros, to battlefield minutiae, to individual soldier’s anecdotes, to follow-ups of the principal and minor characters during WWII and afterward (with Georgy Zhukov, later to become Marshal of the Soviet Union, Chief of the General Staff and Supreme Commander of Soviet forces, to the fore).

By 1937, Japan’s Kwantung Army, which in 1932 had conquered and occupied Manchuria (renamed Manchukuo), was bored and feeling its oats. In the interim, Japan’s Army General Staff (AGS) had been contemplating whether to extend the Manchukuo salient into Siberia, conquer the rest of China, or move south into Indochina. In June 1937, Kwantung took the initiative. Without notifying the AGS, it undertook a series of provocations along the Soviet-Manchukuoan border in an attempt to settle by force previously unsettled minor border alignment issues, with an eye to testing Soviet military resolve and gaining honor. The AGS had decided on a full-scale invasion of China proper, which it duly launched the following month. Faced with Kwantung’s provocation, the AGS was of two minds, and temporized. The result was a two-front war. Japan didn’t want that war, but still thought it could contain it if it played its diplomatic cards with the USSR adroitly.

Japan’s descent into military dictatorship and war was an enigma wrapped in a snowball set rolling by circumstance.

But Kwantung Army thought it knew better. Instead of heeding the AGS’s orders for restraint — phrased as suggestions — it escalated its thrusts into Soviet-dominated Mongolia. The deck was stacked against Stalin. Though the Soviet Far Eastern forces numbered half a million men, they were spread over a remote area two-thirds the size of the continental US, and hobbled by poor support and transport, including more than 400 miles of trackless terrain between Nomonhan and the nearest railhead (at Borzya in Siberia). Worst of all, the purges had demoralized the Soviet army. Kwantung Army, on the other hand, though numbering only 220,000 men, was bursting with pride and martial spirit from its recent victories, and was concentrated nearby, well-supplied by the South Manchurian Railway’s salient, which reached almost all the way to Nomonhan, yet was close enough to Japan to be reinforced quickly.

On June 1, 1939, Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, a young deputy commander in Minsk, received an urgent phone call summoning him to a meeting with Kliment Voroshilov, Commissar for Defense. Zhukov betrayed no sign of apprehension at the possibility of joining the ranks of the disappeared. He was a bull: stout, blunt, crude, and short-tempered; given to drink, accordion playing, and convivial singing; overbearing but exceptionally brave. He was one of the few to survive multiple disagreements with Stalin, and he had a reputation as a man who could get things done. He was also — before the German blitzkrieg — an early proponent of tank warfare, a technique first used during the Spanish Civil War but discontinued because of its ineffectiveness in that conflict’s urban and guerrilla theaters. Khalkin Gol, on the open plains of Mongolia, was a better laboratory. Voroshilov ordered Zhukov to take command of the First Soviet Mongolian Army Group and contain the Japanese incursions.

Zhukov amassed a fleet of 4,200 vehicles to ferry troops and materiel from the railhead at Borzya to Tamsag Bulak, a small village within striking distance of the battlefield. The trucks moved only at night, with their lights blacked out. Meanwhile, to ensure tactical surprise for the Soviet attack, Zhukov concocted an elaborate ruse, setting up a sophisticated sound system between Tamsag Bulak and the battlefield to simulate the noises of tank and aircraft engines and of heavy construction. This long, loud nightly performance was meant to give credence to the false messages (in easily decipherable code, and meant to be intercepted) referring to the construction of defensive positions in preparation for a prolonged autumn and winter ground-holding campaign.

At first, the Japanese were fooled, and fired in the general direction of the loudspeakers. After a few nights, however, they realized it was only sound effects, became accustomed to the nightly “serenade,” and tried to ignore it. On the eve of the Soviet offensive, the sounds of actual pre-attack staging — which included bridges across the Halha River (Khalkhin Gol), deceptively built about 10 inches underwater, so they couldn’t be seen — went largely unnoticed by the Japanese.

Zhukov’s attack was preceded by an artillery and bombing barrage that no one, anywhere, at any time, had ever experienced. At one point — for three solid hours — an average of two heavy artillery rounds per second rained continuously on the Japanese positions. By the third day of this saturating fire, Japanese soldiers, who already had a reputation for superhuman endurance and never surrendering, were going insane. On August 20, Zhukov’s cavalry — tanks and infantry — charged. By August 31, Zhukov had declared the disputed territory cleared of enemy troops.

Zhukov was one of the few to survive multiple disagreements with Stalin, and he had a reputation as a man who could get things done.

The Soviet victory was absolute. Japanese casualties totaled 48,000; Soviet casualties, 26,000 — a very reasonable ratio. Nevertheless, the Red Army was gaining a reputation for troop attrition. Zhukov did not flinch from incurring heavy casualties to achieve his objectives. After the war, he told General Eisenhower, “If we come to a minefield, our infantry attack exactly as if it were not there. The losses we get from personnel mines we consider only equal to those we would have gotten . . . if the (enemy) had chosen to defend the area with strong bodies of troops instead of mine fields.” In the Winter War against Finland — a scant three months later — Russian techniques for crossing mined territory had been refined. Lacking, or eschewing, conventional sappers, Soviet commanders would deploy a single line of infantrymen, elbows interlocked, backed by NKVD snipers, across the mined field — singing patriotic songs to steel their courage.

* * *

Goldman argues that the consequences of the Soviet victory at Nomonhan reached far beyond Mongolia: from Tokyo to the Battle of Moscow and to Pearl Harbor. The timing of the Khalkhin Gol defeat coincided with the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The Japanese felt betrayed and diplomatically isolated. Defeated by the Red Army and deserted by Hitler, the government of Premier Hiranuma Kiichiro abruptly resigned.

In spite of Zhukov’s decisive victory, Stalin didn’t trust the Japanese — and with good reason. Like the Black Night in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Kwantung Army was dismembered but foamingly rabid, raring to mount a full invasion of Siberia to regain lost face and honor. It went so far as to notify AGS to “kindly be prepared to mobilize the entire Japanese Army to engage in the decisive struggle against the USSR in the spring.” So Stalin reinforced Soviet Far Eastern Forces with 1.6 million men.

But the top brass at AGS had learned their lesson. They not only decapitated Kwantung’s command; they decided to phrase orders as “orders,” instructing Kwantung to assume a strictly defensive posture. And they reassessed imperial objectives. The thrust north into Siberia was shelved; instead, they set their sights on Indochina as a possible venue for breaking the increasingly stalemated China war by opening up a southern front against Chiang Kai-shek. This decision, logical in the short term, proved the Axis’ ultimate undoing.

It took nearly a year for all the contributing factors to fall into place. For one, Japan hadn’t yet joined the Axis (and wouldn’t for another year). Additionally, it took some time to convince Stalin that Japan was no longer a threat — in spite of his having a spy, Richard Sorge, in the highest levels of the Japanese government. How a Caucasian infiltrated the extremely ethnocentric Japanese high command is another story; but he did, and his intelligence was of the highest caliber. Very slowly, Stalin came to realize that Japan would not be a threat to his eastern flank.

His first move came two weeks after Zhukov’s victory, with the signing of the Molotov-Togo truce, terminating hostilities at Nomonhan. The reason Stalin didn’t invade Poland in conjunction with German forces was that he was waiting for a resolution at Khalkhin Gol. It wasn’t until the day after the cease-fire went into effect at that location that he gave the Red Army the go-ahead to grab eastern Poland. Finally, a year and eight months later, in April of 1941, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a neutrality pact.

Two months later, in June 1941, Hitler invaded the USSR, a move that took Stalin completely by surprise — but which Zhukov had predicted. By late summer, the German army was threatening Moscow. Stalin took a do-or-die stance: he entrenched himself in the capital, declaring that he was “going to hold Moscow at all costs”. As Averell Harriman, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, later stated, recalling a conversation with Stalin, if Moscow — the nerve center of the USSR — fell, the Soviet Union would likely have capitulated.

“By early autumn, some Western military experts were predicting the collapse of Soviet military resistance within a matter of weeks,” Goldman states. Then, in September, Sorge reported that Japan would “absolutely” not attack Siberia. Only then did the Soviet High Command transfer the bulk of the 1.6 million men stationed in Siberia from east to west for the defense of Moscow. By December 1, German forces were only 12 miles away. It was then that “the Siberians” came to the rescue.

On December 5, Zhukov, who had been put in charge of the Odessa Military District after Khalkhin Gol and was now in charge of the defense of Moscow, launched a massive counteroffensive, spearheaded by the Far Eastern reinforcements. He threw the Germans back about 100 miles and held them there through the winter. It was the first Soviet success since the German invasion.

One day later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

For Goldman, these two events — direct consequences of the Battle of Khalkhin Gol — were the turning point of the war, rather than the Battle of Stalingrad (February 1943). He connects the dots between Khalkhin Gol and Pearl Harbor in this way: in July 1941, while the Germans were blitzing toward Moscow, Japan invaded Indochina — as per the AGS’s post-Khalkhin Gol plan. In response, the US and Britain cut all oil sales to Japan, over 80% of which came from the Anglo-Americans and their allies. The embargo was meant to stop the Japanese war machine; and it would have gone further, throttling the entire Japanese economy. To the Japanese, this was intolerable. The closest oil source was in the Dutch East Indies, modern day Indonesia. But they believed that if they attacked Indonesia, the US would enter the war. So, against the judgment of many of their senior commanders — based on the estimate that US industrial strength dwarfed Japan’s by a factor of 10:1 — AGS decided on a preemptive strike against the US fleet. It was a decision that one Japanese general presciently termed suicidal. The rest, as they say, is history.

* * *

Josef Stalin was the only major WWII combatant to avoid a two-front war. Throughout the first years of the war he’d badgered his allies to invade Europe, and at the February 1945 Yalta conference he, in turn, was pressured to declare war on Japan. He agreed to do so, but only three months after Germany's capitulation. This would allow him several months to transfer sufficient Red Army forces from Europe to the Far East.

At midnight August 8, exactly three months after VE day, and two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Stalin delivered: the Red Army launched a massive invasion of Manchukuo — against Kwantung Army.

Many perceived Stalin’s move as a cynical grab for spoils. But at Yalta, Stalin had been unaware of the Los Alamos efforts; the war against Japan was nowhere near concluded; and his commitment to open up a Siberian front was a substantial undertaking, made in good faith. After Hiroshima, however, he did take advantage of the situation, trying to reclaim territory lost to Japan in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War — principally, Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands. Though Emperor Hirohito, on August 15, “ordered” (again, phrased in an oblique manner) Japan’s surrender, the Soviet advance continued down Manchuria, into Korea, and across to the off-lying islands. Some 600,000 Japanese troops surrendered and were marched north into the Gulag.

On September 2 Japan formally surrendered. Japan later concluded separate peace treaties with all the victors except the Soviet Union. There has been no formal peace treaty between Japan and the USSR or its successor, the Russian Federation. Russia’s occupation of the Southern Kuriles continues to poison relations between the two countries.

* * *

The Japanese Army General Staff’s decapitation of Kwantung Army did not dampen gekokujo or bushido. These qualities merely spread and entrenched themselves further. Kwantung’s high command had been punished with only slaps on the wrist: transfers and early retirement — no court martials. Mid-level commanders stayed put or were transferred.

Throughout the war Japanese soldiers gained a reputation for fanaticism, for never surrendering, and for suicide attacks. Even after Hirohito’s “order” of capitulation, a radio announcer tried to clarify: the emperor’s message actually meant that Japan was surrendering. But Imperial General Headquarters did not immediately transmit a cease-fire order. When it did, some thought it was a call for further sacrifice; others did not understand it or ignored it.

Japan concluded separate peace treaties with all the victors except the Soviet Union. There has been no formal peace treaty between Japan and the USSR or its successor, the Russian Federation.

Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda exemplified Japanese moral values. (On Onoda, see his No Surrender: My Thirty-year War, Kodansha International Ltd, 1974 — another good book.) He was stationed on Lubang Island in the Philippines in 1944. Onoda's orders stated that under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life. So he held out, and held out, and held out. Thirty years later, on February of 1974, Norio Suzuki, a Japanese adventurer on a quest for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order, discovered him, befriended him, and urged him to come home. Onoda refused, citing his orders.

When Suzuki returned to Japan, he contacted Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, Onoda's commanding officer — by then a bookseller. When Taniguchi finally found Onoda, he couldn’t convince him to give up his position until he phrased his mission as an order following strict military protocol. Onoda came in from the heat on March 9, 1974. As of 2012, Hiroo Onoda is still alive and living in Brazil.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nomonhan, 1939," by Stuart D. Goldman. Naval Institute Press, 2012, 226 pages.



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