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Article by Laurie Barber


Checkmate at the Russian Border: Russia-Japanese Conflict before Pearl Harbour


Over the north country whose seas are frozen

Spring wind blows across

It is time to beat Russia

Rampant for three hundred years.

Mora Orgai, 1904.

Japan and Russia's mutual enmity was long and bitter. Since the turn of the twentieth century power vacuums in central Asia focused Japan's attention to the north, to mineral rich lands often riven by warlordism and ineffectively governed. The Czarist Russian empire's authority over its far eastern domain was often loose, and local factions were advantaged by St. Petersburg's 10,000 miles distance. In early 1904 Russia's repressive Minister of the Interior, V.K. Plehve, remarked: 'In order to hold back the revolution, we need a small victorious war'.

Manchuria was the likely cockpit, given Russia's and Japan's rivalry for this territory's vast untapped mineral resources. Japan's defeat of China in the war of 1895 and her increased dominance over Korea gave her a sense of Asian destiny. Russia had bullied weakened China into agreeing to the building of the Trans-Siberian railway and had acquired the ice-free Port Arthur, Peking's port, and saw its eastern provinces as a new frontier.

The occasion for the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 was Russia's refusal to withdraw its troops from Manchuria following the suppression of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China, a withdrawal required by the treaty protocol. Negotiations brought no Czarist back-down, and on 9 February 1904 Japan launched an attack, and mauled the Russian Far Eastern Fleet anchored at Port Arthur. Japan, in this fight, possessed the advantage of a modernized and German trained army of 300,000 field troops, with a reserve of 400,000 trained reservists. Czarist Russia's conscript army in the Far East, ill trained and low in morale, was 80,000 at the beginning of 1904, and was reinforced slowly, to a low maximum of 250,000 in December 1904. The Japanese fleet was superior both in size and in quality. In short, a surprise naval attack, the blockade and siege of Port Arthur, a land victory at Mukden, and the destruction of Russia's Baltic fleet, brought success to Japan and the acquisition of Port Arthur, renamed Vladivostok.

In the west, statesmen and military leaders gasped. The impossible had taken place. For the first time in modern history an Asian military force had soundly whipped the army and navy of a major western imperial power. For the Japanese their 1904 victories over the Russians, particularly the naval Battle of Tsushima, made the year an annus mirabilis. The victor of Tsushima victoriously, and deliberately, returned to Tokyo on the anniversary of the British victory at Trafalgar. Admiral Togo's Nelsonian signal at the outset of the battle was remembered, and flown again from the flagship Akagi on 7 December 1941: "The rise and fall of the Empire depends upon this battle. Every man is expected to do his utmost."

But in 1938 and 1939 Japan faced a vastly different challenge from the Red Army successor to the Czarist armies neo-feudal levies, this time from a USSR, resilient in its Communist motherland defiance of a capitalist world. Japan's military leaders failed to register the Red Army's military competence, forged in the Russian civil war, honed by mutually advantageous assistance from German military experts in the 1920s, and given teeth through the mass production of superior armour, capable bombers and fighters, and up-to-date artillery. Japanese intelligence reported that Stalin's purges of the officer corps and the social dislocation and misery occasioned by the first Five Year Plan, and collectivization of agriculture, had weakened the USSR's capacity to respond to military challenge. They were wrong.

The Kwantung Army determination to test the outer frontier of the USSR in 1938 through to 1940, was a continuation of two decades of probing. The revolutions that brought an end to the Chinese empire in 1911 and to the Russian empire in 1917 had created a strategic vacuum in the Far East that Japan wished to fill. Soon after Lenin's revolution Japanese agents began a "Great Game" in Central Asia, working on Moslem loyalties and pan-Asian opportunities to win support for Japanese hegemony. Philip Snow tells the tale:

By 1919 the Japanese were developing plans to prize the frontier territories away from the grip of both Russia and China. They would set themselves up as the champions of Pan-Turanianism, the doctrine which proclaimed the ethnic solidarity of all the peoples of Turkic or Mongol origin, between Hungary and the Pacific. The effect would be to create for Japan a vast central Asian sphere of influence on the southern fringe of the newly established Soviet Russian state.

In Mongolia, the prize of prizes, Japan subsidised and advised White Russian warlords, until they were neutralised by the Red Army in 1921, the year the Mongolian Peoples' Republic, a client state of the USSR, was formed. The USSR was reactive rather than aggressive in its response to expanding Japan. Russia sold the Chinese Eastern Railway to Manchukuo, but made clear that it would brook no interference with its vital Trans-Siberian railroad, the artery that joined the continent and the China Sea. Japan's transformation of Manchuria into its puppet empire of Manchukuo, and Japan's "China Adventure" from 1937, made the USSR wary; a wariness increased by Japan's signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany in 1936. Reinforcements began the long 10,000 mile haul to the Far Eastern Borders of the USSR, and into the Mongolian Peoples' Republic, since 1936 a defence partner of the USSR the Red Army was bound to protect.

The Japanese Kwantung Army drew wrong conclusions from the easy successes of its first probes of 1937. Communist troops were easily swept from two small islands on the River Amur, on the border of Manchukuo. Assessment of this easy "victory" concluded that the Red Army must have serious logistical problems, related to the long distance between its eastern and western blocs. Amnon Sella confirms that this was so, despite the USSR's efforts to expand both its rail and road links in the region:

Despite the great efforts made to remedy the situation and the marked progress that was achieved, the Soviet Far East still depended on European Russia for such stable commodities as grain, oil, iron ore and steel.

A Japanese intelligence report to the Imperial General Headquarters placed a finger on additional weaknesses:

Operations vary according to the state of locomotives, the degree of skill of the railway engineers, the availability, in these vast expanses, of coal and water, and other factors.

Imperial headquarters' mistake, and the Kwantung Army command's mistake, was to judge Stalin's caution and forbearance to be weakness. After the signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact, Stalin was alarmed at the possibility of the USSR being involved in a two-front war. He was shuffling his cards. When in July 1938, the Kwantung Army struck again, attacking troops of the Red Russian Independent Eastern Army in a hilly area, Zhanggufeng, on the eastern border of Manchukuo, close to Korea, they were stopped in their tracks. Instead of pondering their failure, the Kwantung Army commanders "dismissed the reverse as 'forty percent of a victory' won in a difficult sector".


In April 1939 the 23rd Division of the Kwantung Army moved to a new target, Outer Mongolia; with orders to cross into Nomonhan, a deserted and disputed sector on the Manchukuo-Korean-Mongolian border. Japanese tanks, infantry and cavalry directed fierce attacks into this zone from May to July 1939, but were repulsed at all times by the defenders. Operations, on the Khalkan-Gol river, intensified rapidly. From May, Soviet bombers attacked into Manchukuo and Japanese bombers retaliated. The greatest air battles yet seen were taking place, with formations of 150-200 war planes deployed. Soviet anti-aircraft fire was highly effective and the Japanese airforce barely held its own.

Concerned at a possible threat to the Trans-Siberian Railway occasioned by these expanded hostilities, the Soviet Defence Ministry dispatched to the sector its ablest commander, Lieutenant-General Georgi Zhukov, later a Marshal of the USSR and Stalin's most renowned commander in the German war. Zhukov arrived in June 1939. He arrived to find that the Kwantung Army had secured some vital high ground and quickly concluded his need for reinforcements. Before August 1939 he had acquired 550 front line aircraft, 500 state-of-the-art T34 tanks, twenty cavalry squadrons and thirty-five infantry battalions. He outnumbered the Kwantung Army three to two in infantry, by three squadrons in cavalry, and possessed a qualitative edge in armour. But above all, his army was to show a marked superiority in intelligence analysis, command, control and communication.

One of the first commanders to use radio signals intelligence to advantage, Zhukov sowed misinformation with the Japanese by broadcasting fictitious command orders, ciphered in codes he knew the Japanese could break. He led the Kwantung Army to believe that he intended only defensive measures. Richard Sorge, a Soviet agent of German-Russian parentage, the press attaché to the German embassy in Tokyo, also assisted, by providing Zhukov with the Japanese order of battle.

The commanders of the Red Army and the Mongolian forces were well trained and as blooded in battle as were the Japanese. The Mongolian General Choibalson, and Zhukov's Chief of Staff, General Shtern, were superior field officers. Zuhkov's control of preparations for the critical battle was copybook. His battalion and squadron commanders were not made aware that an offensive action was planned until three hours before the units moved out. The Kwantung Army had been misled, and many Japanese officers were away from their units at the time of the attack. A German style communications network assured tight control throughout the battle.


The Red Army's surprise assault began on 20 August 1939, with a thrust across the border into western Manchukuo. Zhukov's blitzkreig combination of armour, artillery, air support, and infantry, broke new ground. A Red Army lightning assault pre-dated the German blitzkreig into Poland by thirty-three days. Captain D.W. Phillis' description of the attack properly identifies the ingredients of a momentous, but largely forgotten, battle:

He launched concentrated air, artillery and armour assaults along the enemy's whole front with the main armoured thrust going to the flank. As a result he was able to encircle the whole army, and settle down to a battle of annihilation, grinding the enemy by continuous assault.

At the battle of Khalkin-Gol (sometimes called the Battle of the River Halka, or by the Japanese the Nomonhan incident), Zhukov's force wiped out the Japanese 23rd Division, killing 18,000 Japanese troops. The Red Army and its Mongolian ally then demonstrated its absolute command of the battle by penetrating thirty kilometres further and stopping at the Manchurian frontier.

Russia's air fleet was equally successful. Soviet airforce tactics were superior to the Japanese, with tighter and better controlled air formations, that refused to be tempted into individual dogfights. The Russians employed aerial rockets in this battle, for the first time in air warfare.

The Japanese Kwantung Army commander was now more than ready for a cease-fire, and in Tokyo Japanís political leaders hoped that the Soviet government would be content with a re-drawing of the disputed borders. The war had embarrassed Japan in many ways. Beside a military defeat, where 18,000 of Japan's 60,000 battle force were killed, and probably another 20,000 wounded, the imperial family was mortified by the desertion of Lieutenant Higashikuni, the twenty-three-year-old son of Prince Higashikuni, during the fight, a matter suppressed by Japanís censors.13 Stalin was also happy to call it a day. Zhukov withdrew his force to the Manchurian border on 31 August 1939 and received orders to immediately move his heavy armour to the railhead, for rail transport to Poland. The USSR's slowness in biting off its slice of defeated Poland, a delay of fourteen days, can be explained by Stalin's concern to close hostilities in the east before moving militarily in the west.

Hitler's Nazi-Soviet Pact of 23 August 1939, seen by the Japanese government as a betrayal of the anti-Comintern Pact, reinforced Japan's decision to use Hitler but never to trust him. The Nazi-Soviet pact was announced during a Japanese military disaster. This combination required a revision by Japan of its policy to the USSR. Hostilities ended officially on 16 September 1939 with handshaking and photographs of the commanders. A commission was set in place to re-draw the vexed boundaries. Japan decided that it was not yet ready for an all-out war with the Soviet Union and on 13 April 1941 the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact was signed, with Japan unaware that Hitler would reverse his arrangement with the USSR and launch the Wehrmacht on Operation Barbarossa in June 1941.

The Nomonhan incident and the preceding borderland fights on the contested Mongolian-Manchurian borders, confirmed that in 1938 and 1939 the "Go North" strategy was highly favoured by elements of the Japanese army. Why then, with Germany invaded by the USSR in June 1941, did Japan not then seize the day and mount an invasion of the Soviet eastern republics? On 28 March 1941 the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, persuaded Count Oshima, the Japanese ambassador in Berlin, of the merit of joint action to deliver "a crushing blow" on the USSR. Germany sought a Japanese attack on Vladivostok, and into the USSR's central Asiatic republic. Tokyo was not interested.

While the Japanese foreign minister, Matsuoka Yosuke favoured a "Go North" thrust, most civil and military leaders in Tokyo advocated caution. With the Soviet Union now within the Anglo-American camp, albeit with the United States in non-belligerent status, Japan risked attack by the Russians in Manchuria and by the United States at sea. A two front war was undesirable, and likely to be calamitous. The Soviets were well deployed on Manchuria's border, and had shown their determination to fight. In mid-1941 the "Go South" strategy won preference with Japan to secure its needed resources in the south, diplomatically if possible. The Kwantung Army's pride was salved by a reminder that once Japan had secured its goal in the south the contest with the USSR could then be resumed. In any case, it was better to wait until Germany had broken the Red Army and taken Moscow.

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