Sunday, 13 September 2015

World of Tanks History Section: Soviet Blitzkrieg in Manchuria

In May of 1945, the USSR invalidated the neutrality agreement with Japan. On August 9th of that year, the Red Army and Mongolian forces attacked Japanese forces in Manchuria. This was the fulfilment of a promise given at the Yalta conference to the Western Allies, a promise to declare war on Japan within three months of the defeat of Germany.

The enemy of the Soviet forces was the Kwantung Army, once one of the most prestigious land units of Japan. By 1945 it was heavily weakened and its technical situation left much to be desired. Nevertheless, the Japanese forces in Manchuria numbered 600-700 thousand men. The Transbaikal Front delivered a strike to the north-western part of the Manchurian state (Manchukuo).  The 6th Guards Tank Army was a part of the main offensive.

March Across the Gobi

The main component of the armoured forces were T-34s and American Shermans. Additionally, the army was reinforced with obsolete T-26 and BT tanks that were used by individual units whose main opponents were border guards.

Soviet commanders rightfully assumed that Soviet tanks will dominate the Manchurian battlefield, both in number and in quality. One of the most important demands from all forces, including tanks, was speed: a swift offensive, defeat of Japanese forces, and capture of territory. The commanders specified that "the treatment of the Chinese population must be as benevolent as possible... Retain local governments on occupied territories with the addition of a military commandant for keeping order."

During the first stage of the offensive, the 6th Guards Tank Army encountered almost no resistance. Its greatest enemy was nature. The borders of Manchuria greeted them with 150 kilometers of dry steppe with sandy terrain, impassable for wheeled vehicles, and occasional swamps and hills that gave even tanks trouble. Once in a while, engineers had to get involved, strengthening the loose sandy ground with fascines.

Every tank carried water for two days of travel. The weather was hot, and soldiers had to be constantly reminded that water must be preserved. According to documents, this order was often ignored, but it's hard to judge people walking under the scorching sun, shaking in trucks, or sitting in red-hot tanks. During the march through the desert, several soldiers died of heatstroke.

Greater Khingan Up Ahead

The army was advancing rapidly. Infantry was moving at up to 50 kilometers per day, more mobile units covered 150. By the evening of August 10th, the 6th army reached Greater Khingan.

The Japanese had a good reason for retreating into Central Manchuria. They thought that Greater Khingan was going to stall the Red Army, and for a good reason. In the region of the offensive, the mountains of the Khingan reached 1500 meters in height, covered in forests and gorges, mountain passes even had swamps.

The assumption was incorrect. It took the 6th GTA about a day to cross the Greater Khingan. This was not an easy task. The terrain was not only difficult, but unexplored. There were no precise maps. Reconnaissance had to be done on the go. Engineers performed marvelous work, making paths through impassable terrain. A whole kilometer of hillside was removed in the path of the 5th Guards Tank Corps. Engineers spent hours waist-deep in freezing water of Khoren-Gol, laying rocks down to make sure the tanks don't get stuck.

At the Kondolmo mountain pass, Soviet units encountered a Japanese military school that was preparing saboteurs. A quick battle ensued, as a result of which the Japanese lost 20 men, and the rest dispersed through the mountains.

The descent was not any easier. Rain fell, and the ground became slippery. Tanks had to be lowered on cables in certain places. Vehicles in the rear acted as anchors for the ones in the front. Most of the army's trucks were stuck, and caught up only at Lubei, where the army stopped on August 11th.

Lubei's garrison was not large and did not put up a serious fight. The Japanese were shaken, not by the strength of Soviet weapons, but the speed at which they crossed the mountains which they considered impassable. A Japanese general that was captured a week and a half later recalled "When you reached Khingan, we were calm. We expected that you will tier yourself out, and, in the best case for you, turn back. No military force since Tamerlane was brave enough to enter those mountains. And suddenly, your tanks, artillery, infantry are at Lubei..."

In Central Manchuria

Lubei was a target for the fifth day of the operation, but the 6th Guards Tank Army was ahead of schedule by 3 days. It was over 300 kilometers ahead of other units of the Transbaikal Front. Such a powerful formation with operational freedom was a critical problem for the Kwantung Army, not giving it any time to establish defences. Kravchenko's forces now had to prevent the enemy from retreating into northern China and to the Liaodong Peninsula. Units set out on the march as soon as fuel was available. Mukden and Changchun were the targets of this offensive.

The army's progress was still quick, and resistance still weak. A good demonstration of this was the capture of Tongliao by a motorcycle battalion acting as the 5th Guards Tank Corps' advance guard.

The weather went bad again, covering Central Manchuria in rain. Soviet armoured columns stretched out for kilometers, engineers worked without rest. Only their efforts could ensure that the army moves forward. Terrain was so bad that in come places Soviet tanks and cars had to move by railroad embankments and ford rivers when the railroad hit a bridge. This was a serious trial for cars, especially heavy trucks, and many vehicles broke down. The average speed of the column dropped to 12 kph.

On August 18th, while marching across the railroad, Soviet tankers were thrice attacked by kamikaze planes. Six aircraft rammed the column, burned up one tank and one car, three men died. Near Aersan station, another plane managed to light up a tank. Another two crashed into the ground dealing no damage.

Paratroops and the Captured Emperor

Since Soviet forces had to reach the Pacific shores of China and the situation with fuel was bad, Transbaikal Front command decided to drop paratroops in strategic locations: Mukden, Changchun, Dailan, and Port Arthur. Since the Front had no paratroopers, the units were formed from the 6th Guards Tank Army's infantry. The paratrooper groups numbered 150-200 men.

Compared to Changchun's 40,000 garrison, this was nothing, but it was enough to capture key locations in the city: the telegraph, bank, train station, etc, as well as disarm the garrison. Guards Lieutenant Colonel M. Melnichenko's group succeeded within three hours. Japanese generals were among the prisoners.

Of course, a captured general is a big deal, but Guards Major P. Chelyshev, the commander of the Mukden group, performed even better. As with Changchun, the paratroopers quickly captured key locations in the city. A group of civilians was discovered on the second floor of the airport. This turned out to be Puyi, emperor of Manchukuo, and his entourage.

The Dailan and Port Arthur drops were also successful. Several days later, the cities were completely occupied by forces of the 6th Guards Tank Army, ending its 1400 km march through Manchuria. On September 2nd, 1945, Japan announced its unconditional surrender.

Original article available here.

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