Friday 7 June 2013

World of Tanks History Section: Conflict on the Khalkin-Gol River

1. Preamble

In July of 1927, Japan published a “Political program on relations with China”. This document declared that Manchuria and Mongolia are of special interest to the land of the rising sun. Literally days later, General Tanaka handed the Japanese Emperor a memorandum, which announced, without any diplomatic ambiguity: “In order to conquer China, we need to conquer Mongolia and Manchuria. In order to conquer the world, we need to conquer China.”

A necessary and important step of these militaristic aspirations was the military defeat of the USSR. However, during the late 20s, the small country was not ready for such a conflict. Japan decided to limit itself to occupation of Manchuria.

At this time, a young officer class was formed from former rural and urban minor bourgeoisie. These men were militaristically minded, and considered the government's foreign policy insufficiently decisive. They themselves had decisiveness to spare, and a number of coups and political assassinations were attempted by these young officers since 1930. Terror and propaganda grew the military mood in Japan. In September 1931, the invasion of Manchuria began.

By March 1st, 1932, the occupation of Manchuria was complete. It was replaced with the state of Manchukuo, formally led by the Emperor Puyi. Realistically, the Emperor had no power. The country entirely followed the political directions of the Land of the Rising Sun. An ambassador had the power to veto any decision of the marionette Emperor.

Soon after the occupation of Manchuria, Japan presented a claim to the USSR on territories next to lake Hasan and river Tumannaya. From 1934 to 1938, the border was violated 231 times by the Japanese, where 35 of these incursions led to serious battles. The Japanese government demanded twice, on July 9th and 20th, that the USSR leave disputed territories. The demands were rejected, and, on July 29th, Japan attacked Soviet forces. Despite committing a series of regrettable mistakes, the Red Army achieved a decisive victory.

The defeat at lake Hasan damaged the reputation of the Japanese army. The military controlling the country could not allow this to happen. Before the echoes of the last shot fell silent, Tokyo was already preparing a new offensive, even greater in scale.

A victorious campaign was necessary for Japan, and not only to heal its bruised ego. In 1936, the Soviet Union signed a pact of mutual aid with the People's Republic of Mongolia. In accordance with this pact, Mongolia provided a base for the 57th special corps of the RKKA, a large group of Soviet forces, consisting of more than 30 000 soldiers, 265 tanks, 280 armoured cars, 107 airplanes, and a large amount of auxiliary vehicles and artillery. The Japanese were building a railroad close to the border with Mongolia, and this neighbour made them very unhappy. Additionally, the USSR provided military aid to China, which Japan also wanted to conquer.

2. The Conflict Begins

Japan had time to develop two plans of attack, but did not have time to execute either. The war started in May of 1939, and not in the early 1940s as the Japanese commanders had hoped.

In its infancy, the conflict at Halkin-Gol was identical to the conflict at Lake Hasan, but this time Japan's demands were made to Mongolia, and not the USSR. Technically, the demands were made by the government of Manchukuo, but, as stated above, Manchukuo did not have the ability to make their own political decisions. Effectively, Tokyo demanded that the border between Manchukuo and Mongolia be moved to the river of Khalkin-Gol, even though all documents listed the border 20-25 kilometers east of there. Mongolia's objections, and documents placing the border correctly were ignored. Military incursions began, like on Hasan, but on a much larger scale. In 1938, Japanese soldiers crossed the border in small groups, but Mongolia saw crossings of up to a battalion at a time. The conflict practically already started, but war was not declared.

May 11th, 1939, is considered the start of the resistance at Khalkin-Gol. On that day, 300 Japanese soldiers, supported by 7 armoured cars, attacked a Mongolian border patrol near Nomon-Han-Burd-Obo. After killing about 20 patrolling soldiers, the attackers crossed to the eastern bank of Khalkin-Gol.

The Japanese air force began combat operations on May 14th, commanded by the ace Marimoto . Border observation points and airports were attacked from the air. Under the cover of the air force, the Kwantung army swiftly reinforced the attacking forces. Everything was planned perfectly. Barracks and warehouses on Manchuria's territory were built far in advance.

3. The Situation Develops

Upon receiving the news of the location of the enemy forces, the command of the 57th Corps ordered to strengthen the border of the People's Republic of Mongolia. By May 29th, the forward detachments of the 9th motorized brigade reached the region. The tanks traveled 700 km by themselves, which, at the time, was a very impressive feat. The border was also reinforced by the 149th infantry regiment. Despite all this, the Japanese forces had an advantage over the Mongolian and Soviet forces combined: 2.5 times as many soldiers, and 6 times as many armoured cars. The Soviet Union had a tank advantage: 186 tanks versus Japan's 130.

Early morning on May 28th, Japan began a massive offensive. Their goal was the encirclement and destruction of Soviet and Mongolian forces east of the Khalkin-Gol river. The attack was supported by 40 bombers, attacking river crossings and the Soviet-Mongolian troops. Fierce battle raged all day. The Japanese managed to push back a Mongolian cavalry detachment and Senior Lieutenant Bykov's squad, aiding them in the defense. Soviet forces retreated to the delta of Khailastyn-Gol. The Japanese could not complete the encirclement. While trying to cross the river, the Japanese took heavy losses from Lieutenant Bakhtin's artillery battery. The attack stalled. A map was captured, showing the locations of Japanese forces. Additionally, the map marked the disputed territory as Manchurian.

By May 29th, the battle has not calmed. RKKA and Mongolian forces began a counterattack, with the support of two artillery divisions. By the evening, the Japanese were thrown back two kilometers from the river. Japan lost 400 soldiers and officers, and numerous trophies were taken.

The first battles showed that there were not enough forces at Halkin-Gol to push back the attack. Reinforcements were sent: a Soviet tank brigade, 3 motorized brigades, a motorized infantry division, a heavy artillery division, a Mongolian cavalry division and over 100 fighter planes.

June did not see many land battles, but a major air battle broke out. While the Soviets and Japanese fought for the skies, the commander of the 57th Special Corps was replaced. Instead of N. F. Feklenko, whose actions were deemed insufficiently decisive, a future legend, G. K. Zhukov, took command.

4. Final Round

By July, Japanese command developed a plan for further action, titled “Second stage of the nomonhan incident”. This plan consisted of a strong push by the right flank of the Japanese forces to encircle and destroy Soviet-Mongolian forces. Lieutenant-General Kamatsubara, the commander of the Japanese forces, wrote that the morale of the enemy is low, and the time for the crushing blow has come.

The Japanese advance began on June 2nd. After an artillery barrage, infantry and tanks under the command of General Yasuoki went into battle first. The Japanese sent 80 tanks into battle, forcing back Soviet forces on the south-west.

On the night between June 2nd and 3rd, General Kobayasi's second group forded Halkin-Gol and took the Bain-Tsagan mountain. This location allowed the Japanese to deliver a strike to the rear of the Soviet-Mongolian defensive line. Seeing the hazardous situation, Zhukov sent in his mobile reserves. Without scouts or infantry escort, the 11th tank brigade went into battle straight from the march. They were supported by Mongolian armoured cars and aircraft.

The Soviet tanks, accompanies by all available artillery and aircraft, shook the Japanese lines. They did not have enough time to entrench, but defended with all their strength. With their artillery, 15 Soviet tanks were knocked out. Without infantry support, it was very difficult for the tanks to fight. Only towards the middle of the day did the 24th Infantry Regiment join them in battle. Tanks and infantry, despite fierce resistance, moved up. The Japanese were partially encircled and were forced up to the top of the mountain. All Japanese forces that managed to cross the river were trapped. 400 tanks, 800 artillery pieces, and several hundred aircraft were in battle from both sides.

At 1500 hours on July 5th, the Japanese broke their lines and fled across the river. Due to the premature demolition of the bridge by Japanese sappers, many soldiers and officers drowned trying to cross. Only the two meter depth of Halkin-Gol prevented tank forces from pursuing the enemy.

Zhukov's decision to attack was initially met with many complaints and protests, but was later accepted as the only reasonable action in that situation. After their defeat at Bain-Tsagan, the Japanese never attempted to cross Halkin-Gol again.

Zhukov started preparing for an attack. The 57th Corps was expanded into the 1st Army Group under the command of G. M. Shtern. New tank brigades and infantry divisions joined in. At the beginning of the attack, the RKKA possessed 57 000 troops, over 500 artillery guns and mortars, 498 tanks, and 516 airplanes.

The Japanese also gathered forces, planning to attack on August 24th. Simultaneously with collecting forces for an attack, they started construction of defensive emplacements.

On August 20th, Soviet forces started their attack, beating the Japanese by 4 days. The strike was so sudden, that it took an hour for Japanese artillery to open fire. Japanese command could not establish where the Soviets were attacking from. It was considered that the attack was evenly spaced out along the front, where in reality, the southern forces were responsible for the main push. This mistake by Japanese commanders led to a well defended center, but weak flanks. As a result, on August 26th, 1939, Soviet forces entirely encircled the Japanese 6th Army. Attempts to break the encirclement failed.

On August 28th, the assault of the last line of defense at Remizov's Height began. At that time, the Japanese had no artillery left, only machineguns and mortars. Approximately 400 Japanese soldiers were killed trying to break out at night.

By the morning of August 31st, Mongolia had no Japanese forces remaining on its territory. After that, the battle on the land ended, and the battle in the air began. But even here, Japan was not successful, taking out 14 Soviet planes at the cost of 70 of their own. Accepting their defeat, Japan requested a ceasefire, which was signed on September 15th, 1939.

The most important consequence of the victory at Khalkin-Gol was that Japan never attacked the USSR during WWII. Even Hitler's demands did not sway them. This defeat also led to a government crisis in Japan.

It is worth mentioning that the victory of Soviet forces left an optimistic impression of the preparedness of the Red Army for war, for which a great price was paid in 1941. Regardless, the triumph of Soviet forces at Khalkin-Gol deserved the respect and pride of their descendants.

Original article available here.

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