JAPANESE-SOVIET CLASH AT KHALKHYN GOL

Moscow, Soviet Union August 20, 1939

The Soviet Union and Japan, two expansionist powers that occupied por­tions of the Asian main­land, had butted heads as early as 1904–1905 (the Russo-Japanese War) over influ­ence in China, Mongo­lia, and Man­churia, the latter country rich in coal, iron, and grains. In Septem­ber 1931 soldiers in the Kwan­tung Army, as Japan’s largest, most presti­gious army on the Chinese mainland was called, used a ruse—the so-called Mukden Inci­dent—to seize Man­churia, which bordered the Japanese colony of Korea on the east and, on the west, Mongo­lia, a de facto puppet state of the Soviet Union. The Kwan­tung Army named their Manchurian conquest Manchukuo and installed a puppet government there.

The Kwantung Army quickly embarked on a program of detaching pro­vinces on Man­chukuo’s border with China and turning them into buffer zones or client states. In July and August 1938 and again from May to August 1939, the Kwan­tung Army pro­voked two border wars, the Zhang­gufeng (Chang-ku-feng) Inci­dent and the Nomon­han (or Khal­khyn Gol) Incident, with the Soviet Union. Both con­flicts were stage-managed by local com­manders with­out the concur­rence of the War Ministry in Tokyo. In the first “incident” insub­or­di­nate units in the Kwan­tung Army and the Japa­nese Army in Korea launched an attack across the Soviet border on July 29, 1938, and chased the Soviets off Zhang­gufeng, a stra­tegic hill in the area where the south­eastern border of Man­chu­kuo inter­sected with the boun­daries of the Soviet Mari­time Pro­vince and Korea. Soviet infantry troops numbering 23,000, with tanks and armored vehicles and supported by heavy artillery and air cover, retook the hill on August 9 at a steep price. Two days later the countries entered into a truce.

The reality of Japan’s defeat made no impres­sion on local com­manders, for next spring they launched several more unsanc­tioned mili­tary actions against Soviet forces in the vicinity of Nomon­han, a village on the border between Man­chu­kuo and Mongolia (see map). On this date, August 20, 1939, days before the German inva­sion of Poland, the two adver­saries began a mas­sive ten-day tank battle near the Mongo­lian Khal­kha River that resulted in a spec­tac­ular Japanese defeat. It was the largest tank battle the world had yet seen and arguably the first decisive battle of the Second World War.

The Japanese defeat at Khal­khyn Gol had the most profound implica­tions on the con­duct of World War II. Since 1937 Japan had been engaged in a pro­tracted, knock­down drag-out fight in China, which lay to the south and east of Man­chu­kuo. The stun­ning Soviet vic­tory, followed by a cease­fire on Septem­ber 15, 1939, and then an agree­ment between the two bel­li­ger­ents to respect the borders of Mon­go­lia and Man­chu­kuo, per­suaded expan­sionist circles in Tokyo (partic­u­larly the Imperial Japa­nese Navy) to look to South­east Asia, where they saw the United States, the Nether­lands, Britain, and France—all of which had resource-rich but ill-defended posses­sions there—as weaker opponents than the Soviets on the Asian mainland.

Japan’s strategic change in course, prompted by its second battlefield loss to the Soviets in as many years, even­tually led to a change in that country’s expan­sionist for­tunes, beginning with its success­ful attacks on the Philip­pines, the Dutch East Indies (Indo­nesia), British Malaya (Malay­sia), Singa­pore, and the Amer­i­can posses­sion of Hawaii on Decem­ber 7 and 8, 1941. Sadly for Japan, the change in course also presaged its tragic downfall.





Battles of Khalkhyn Gol: Japan versus the Soviet Union, May 11 to Septem­ber 15, 1939

Location of Khalkhyn Gol

Above: Location of Khalkhyn Gol on the Asian mainland. The Kwan­tung Army’s take­over of Man­churia in 1931 brought Japanese and Soviet armed forces toe to toe along a 3,000‑mile border. Numerous border skir­mishes and disputes punc­tuated the next several years as both sides rein­forced their respec­tive forces. In 1936 the Soviets signed a mutual assis­tance treaty with Mon­golia (some­times infor­mally called Outer Mon­golia), and in 1938 stationed forces in that country.

Khalkhyn Gol Soviet offensive, 1939 Japanese-captured Soviet equipment, Khalkhyn Gol, 1939

Left: A three-man Soviet BT-7 light cavalry tank on the offen­sive, Khalkhyn Gol, August 1939. The four-month conflict was named after the Khalkha River (Khal­khyn Gol), which flows through the battle­field. In Japan the conflict is known as the Nomon­han Inci­dent, named after a nearby village on the border between Mongolia and Japanese-occupied Manchuria (Manchukuo).

Right: Japanese soldiers pose with captured Soviet equip­ment during one of the Battles of Khal­khyn Gol. After Japan’s occu­pa­tion of Korea (1905) and Man­chu­ria (1931), its mili­tary leaders in China, essen­tially army com­manders, focused expan­sionist aims on the Soviet Mari­time Pro­vince adja­cent to Korea’s north­east, Siberia, and Soviet Mon­go­lia, and con­flicts occurred fre­quently on the Man­chu­rian bor­der from mid-1929 onward. The army’s aggres­sive plans on the Asian main­land some­times caught the civil­ian govern­ment in Tokyo by sur­prise, as the 1931 Muk­den Inci­dent (also known as the Man­chu­rian Inci­dent) and the 1938 Zhanggufeng (Chang-ku-feng) Incident showed.

Mongolian soldiers, Khalkhyn Gol, 1939 Mongolian cavalry, Khalkhyn Gol, 1939

Left: Soldiers of the Mongolian People’s Army fight against Japa­nese sol­diers, Khal­khyn Gol, 1939. The Mon­go­lian Peo­ple’s Repub­lic was pro­claimed in Novem­ber 1924 after Soviet troops expelled White Russian and Chinese forces from Mon­go­lia. Mon­go­lia then became a de facto puppet state of the Soviet Union.

Right: Mongolian cavalry during the Battle of Khal­khyn Gol, 1939. After Soviet and Mon­go­lian armed forces had defeated Japa­nese forces in the sum­mer of 1939, the warring parties entered into a truce, set up a com­mis­sion to define the Mon­go­lian-Man­chu­rian border later in the year, and entered into a neutrality pact that lasted until August 1945.

Captured Captured Japanese soldiers, Khalkhyn Gol, August 1939

Left: A Japanese light tank (Type 95 Ha-Go) captured by Soviet troops after the Battle of Khal­khyn Gol. Six years later, on August 9, 1945, Soviet forces in­vaded Man­chu­ria (Man­chu­kuo). The rapid defeat of Japan’s Kwan­tung Army was a signif­i­cant factor in Japan’s sur­render to the Allies. Japa­nese leaders imag­ined the Red Army in Man­chu­ria as poised to in­vade the Home Islands with boots on the ground, while the Amer­i­cans were viewed as perfectly content to continue incinerating Japan from the air.

Right: Captured Japanese soldiers, Khal­khyn Gol, August 1939. Khal­khyn Gol resulted in a total defeat for the Japa­nese Sixth Army, a gar­ri­son force based in Man­chu­kuo under the over­all command of the Kwan­tung Army. The 23rd Divi­sion, the primary Japa­nese infantry divi­sion involved in the Battle of Khal­khyn Gol, suffered 11,958 men killed, or about 80 per­cent of its combat strength, including most of its regimental commanders.

Khalkhyn Gol: History’s Forgotten Battle


WWII Chronicles book coverHistory buffs, there is good news! The Daily Chronicles of World War II is now avail­able as an ebook for $4.99 on Amazon.com. The ebook contains a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site. Featuring inven­tive naviga­tion aids, the ebook enables readers to instantly move for­ward or back­ward by month and date to different dated entries. Simple and elegant! Click here to purchase the ebook.


WWII Chronicles book coverHistory buffs, there is good news! The Daily Chronicles of World War II is now avail­able as an ebook for $4.99 on Amazon.com. Con­taining a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site, the ebook brings the story of this tumul­tu­ous era to life in a com­pelling, author­i­ta­tive, and suc­cinct man­ner. Fea­turing inven­tive naviga­tion aids, the ebook enables readers to instantly move for­ward or back­ward by month and date to dif­fer­ent dated entries. Simple and elegant! Click here to purchase the ebook.