Tokyo, Japan May 11, 1939

Europe, the United States, and Japan, profiting from the techno­logi­cal, eco­no­mic, social, and mili­tary advan­tages con­ferred on their coun­tries by the Indus­trial Revo­lu­tion, began placing weaker nations else­where in the world under their “pro­tec­tion.” The United States did that in 1898 when the Philip­pines became an Amer­i­can terri­tory. Japan declared Korea, lying across the Sea of Japan, a protec­tor­ate in 1905 and five years later annexed the country (see map below).

Japanese militarism and aggressive trade poli­cies on the Chin­ese main­land in the early twen­tieth century led Japan to gar­ri­son “advisors” there in the 1920s. Japa­nese troops based at Muk­den (today’s Shen­yang) in North­ern China staged a bomb attack (allegedly by Chinese dissi­dents) on a Japanese-owned rail­road, and the “Muk­den Inci­dent” of Sep­tem­ber 18, 1931, was the ruse for seizing the pro­vince of Man­chu­ria, which bordered Korea on the east and, on the west, Outer Mon­go­lia, a de facto pup­pet state of the Soviet Union. The Japa­nese crea­tion of Man­chu­kuo became the launch pad for more Japa­nese land grabs in the 1930s.

On this date, May 11, 1939, a fierce undeclared war on the Mon­go­lian plains broke out between Japa­nese forces from Man­chu­kuo and Red Army forces sta­tioned in Outer Mon­go­lia. Although the Battle of Khal­khyn Gol (May 11 to Sep­tem­ber 16, 1939) is little-known in the West, it had pro­found impli­ca­tions on the con­duct of World War II in Asia and Europe. Khal­khyn Gol may be said to be the first deci­sive battle of the Second World War: it deter­mined that Japan and Germany, the two prin­ciple Axis powers bound together in a full-blooded mili­tary alli­ance (the Tri­par­tite Treaty signed in Berlin on Sep­tem­ber 22, 1940), would never geo­graph­ically link up their areas of control through the Soviet Union.

Japan’s defeat at the Battle of Khalkhyn Gol con­vinced the Impe­ri­al Gene­ral Staff, which held a strangle­hold over suc­ces­sive Japa­nese civil­ian govern­ments, that seizing Soviet resources in North­east Asia was not ten­able. Instead, the rich resources of South­east Asia, espe­cially the petro­leum- and mine­ral-rich Dutch East Indies (present-day Indo­ne­sia), looked more and more appealing, leading directly to the attack on the Philip­pines, the Dutch East Indies, British Malaya, and the American possession of Hawaii on December 7 and 8, 1941.

The Battle of Khalkhyn Gol: Japan versus the Soviet Union, 1939

Asia Pacific, 1939

Map of the Asia Pacific region, 1939

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

Left: The four-month conflict was named after the 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 Manchukuo (Manchuria). The pre­pon­der­ance of strength in the con­flict lay with the armed forces of the Soviet Union and Mon­go­lian Peoples Republic: As many as 74,000 soldiers versus half that number for the Japa­nese. In tanks, the com­bined Soviet-Mon­go­lian forces held over a 7-to-1 advan­tage, in artil­lery pieces over a 3-to-1 advantage, and in air­craft over a 2-to-1 advan­tage. Man­power and equipment losses favored the Japanese.

Right: Japanese soldiers pose with captured Soviet equip­ment during the Battle of Khal­khyn Gol. After the occu­pa­tion of Korea (1905) and Man­chu­ria (1931), Japan’s mili­tary leaders in China focused expan­sionist aims on Soviet terri­tories in North­east Asia, and con­flicts occurred fre­quently on the Man­chu­rian border, in fact as early as mid-1929. The army’s aggres­sive plans somet­imes caught the civil­ian govern­ment in Tokyo by sur­prise, as the 1931 “Mu­den Incident” (also known as the “Manchurian Incident”) showed.

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

Left: Mongolian People’s Army soldiers 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 Outer Mongolia.

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 and set up a com­mis­sion to define the Mongolian-Manchurian border later in the year.

Captured Japanese light tank, Khalkhyn Gol, 1939 Captured Japanese soldiers, Khalkhyn Gol, 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 Man­chu­kuo. The rapid defeat of Japan’s Kwan­tung Army, as its army in Man­chu­kuo was called, was a signi­fi­cant factor in Japan’s sur­ren­der. Japa­nese leaders ima­gined the Red Army as poised to invade the Home Islands with boots on the ground, while the Amer­i­cans were viewed as per­fectly con­tent to incinerate the Home Islands using their fleet of heavy bombers.

Right: Captured Japanese soldiers, Khal­khyn Gol, August 1939. Khal­khyn Gol resulted in total defeat for the Japa­nese Sixth Army, a garri­son force based in Manchukuo under the overall command of the Kwantung (Japanese) Army.

Contemporary Soviet Newsreel Footage Concludes with Khalkhin Gol Armistice (in Russian)

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