The Khalkhin Gol Campaign (May 11 – September 15, 1939)
I like to share information on important historical persons and events that people should know, but do not. Today is a military campaign that changed the course of modern history. If the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) had any impact on your life, you might wish to learn its origins, along the windy plains of the Mongolian-Chinese border.
The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) brought onto the stage a new player in world politics; The Empire of Japan. Just a few decades before, Japan had been a feudal nation, steeped in tradition and conformity, but hopelessly outclassed by the other imperial powers. The Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) was an almost unprecedented modernization of every aspect of the country. Japan wanted to become a militarily strong, world class industrial power . But, despite the extreme beauty of the mountainous Japanese home islands, they lack natural resources, and the ability to feed an ever-growing population. Japan held islands in the Pacific, Korea, and other mainland enclaves. The war brought Japan additional territory, and with it the need for a garrison. The Kwangtung Army was born.
Starting out as a small garrison, Kwangtung became the largest and most prestigious part of the Japanese military. Its leaders went on to hold a great deal of power in the Imperial government. Several attempts to overthrow civilian control originated in the Kwangtung Army.
With this power came pride and arrogance. Against the wishes of the government, in 1931 the Kwangtung Army invaded China, and succeeded. The government was forced to pretend that they had supported the idea the entire time, and the puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchuria) was created. If you have ever seen the film The Last Emperor, it shows this time period.
The Japanese government suffered from various internal power groups, and the two strongest were the Army and the Navy. While officially under one control, they operated as two separate militaries, with overlapping authority and often contradictory goals and production requests.
While everyone wanted to conquer China, there was a real debate over which direction Japanese imperial ambitions should follow. The Army held the North Group idea, to invade Mongolia and Russian Siberia, while the Navy held the South Group idea of the Pacific Islands down to Australia. The political stalemate continued, while the economic and foreign policy situation worsened.
In 1939, the Japanese government sent orders to the Kwangtung Army to strengthen the border with Mongolia. Interrupting their orders their own way, the Kwangtung Army decided to invade Mongolia. Hey, it worked with Manchuria, right?
There had long been skirmishing along the border, but on May 11 a Mongolian patrol was attacked by a Manchukuoan patrol. The Mongolians moved in more men, so the Japanese sent a regiment to drive them out. It was surrounded by Mongolian and Russian troops, who inflicted 2/3 losses on it before it could escape.
Throughout June, tens of thousands of men were moved in by both sides, and the Japanese government tried to halt further violence. A new Russian commander, Gregory Zhukov, who would become the most famous Russian commander of WWII, was brought in to take command.
In July, the Japanese launched a major offensive, backed up heavily by tanks. Japan treated the tank as an infantry support gun, and not like it is thought of as today. Zhukov counter attacked with a combined arms tank, armored car, artillery, and infantry force that crushed the Japanese and drove them back.
On August 20th, Zhukov launched a massive assault against the Japanese. It was supported by the first massed aircraft attack against a single objective in human history. The Japanese countered with their own forces, including their own air force, and large-scale aerial combat resulted. Russian tactics of combining artillery attacks with armored thrusts, followed by huge encirclements were born at this time.
The Japanese forces were shattered, and fled in full retreat. It was the largest defeat Japan had suffered in modern history, and it sent shock waves through the halls of imperial government. The power of the Kwangtung Army was broken forever, and the North Group idea was dead. Within days, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed, so Japan saw no help from their German allies.
The Japanese government in the meanwhile signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union on April 13, 1941. Even as German armies closed in on Moscow in 1941, and Hitler asked Japan to attack the Soviet Union, they refused to break this pact. This allowed the Russians to transfer troops to the west, massing 56 divisions for a counter offensive that dealt Germany their largest defeat of the war up to that point. The South Group idea was now to become the only hope of the Japanese future. The seeds of Pearl Harbor had been planted.
Other changes also followed. The Japanese Army staff in charge of armored warfare increased from 12 men in a single office to over a hundred, and tank production more than doubled. New ideas regarding field medicine were introduced, as many Japanese soldiers had died needlessly from minor wounds. Zhukov became famous, and would later become the Russian marshal who led the final assault on Berlin, ending the Third Reich.
For the rest of WWII, the Kwangtung Army was mostly used to garrison the region, and fight Chinese partisans. Its best units were sent off to fight in other theaters, replaced by poorly trained units with old, outdated equipment. When the Russians invaded Manchuria in August 1945, they destroyed an army of almost 800,00 men, most of whom had only been in military service less than 10 days. They spent the next few years in labor camps.
We can only speculate what would have happened if Japan had won the Khalkhin Gol campaign. They would have been at war with the Russians if Germany invaded, and perhaps there never would have been a Nazi-Soviet Pact in the first place. How WWII would have played out, would there have even been a full-scale war in Europe, is open to debate. Japan turned its eyes southward, and the rest is history.