Thursday, November 4, 2021

The Nomonhan War 1939

And now for something completely different 😀😀😀.

In 1995, while traveling through the Hulunbuir Grasslands of Inner Mongolia, my friend Hao Te and his son took me to the site of a small war on the border with Mongolia that played a decisive part in a much bigger war. Unless you are Russian or Japanese you will likely have never heard of Nomonhan. I certainly had not but filled that gap with John Colvin’s book by that title. Out of print but available on AbeBooks.

Hao Te and I on the east edge of the battle field

Hao Te's son and I at a border marker between Mongolia and Inner Mongolia

Site of a Buddhist shrine used as a Japanese command post,
 destroyed by Russian fighter bombers

The Nomonhan Incident or Khalkhin Gol War, depending on whether you are Japanese or Russian, was a series of battles fought over a stretch of grassland about 90 km long and 15-25 km wide. The Japanese, having conquered Manchuria in 1931 and set up a puppet state, Manchukuo, came up against the border of the Soviet Union and Mongolia, a Soviet satellite.

The Kwantung Army, which controlled Manchukuo, had some of the best Japanese divisions. The western region of Manchukuo was garrisoned by the relatively newly formed and least experienced 23rd Infantry Division with outdated equipment, HQ’d at Hailar, 150 km away. The Soviet and Mongolian borders were held by the 57th Special Corps, deployed from the Trans-Baikal Military District, 750 km away from their supply base but with good dirt trail roads. Mongolian troops were mainly cavalry (of course) and light artillery.

Dirt trails are remarkable good roads.

In 1939, the Japanese were already at war with China. For more on that read “Forgotten Ally; China’s World War II 1937-1945” by Rana Mitter The Kwantung Army was under orders from Tokyo NOT to do anything that would start a full-scale war with Russia as facing both China and Russia was a non-starter. However, their leaders were loose cannons, and decided that the border between Manchukuo and Mongolia should be the Khalkhin Gol (Khalkha River) a few km to the west of the actual border.

Map showing the location of the disputed area.

While 1400 to 1800 sq. km (600 to 700 sq. miles) of grasslands with a village or two thrown in, would make a nice ranch, one must question the wisdom of losing several 10s of thousands of soldiers and many hundreds of planes, tanks, trucks, aircraft, horse etc. to decide ownership. Even the Lincoln County or Wyoming Cattle Wars never got that big. However, the Kwangtung Army thought it was God’s gift to warfare and the Soviets were still suffering from the humiliation of the severe beating the Japanese navy gave them in 1904-1905. Sooo!

In May 1939, the Japanese started harassing the Soviet troops on the east side of the Khalkhin Gol or Khalkha River. In June, Stalin sent Georgy Zhukov with troops and equipment, including an aviation unit of fighter-bombers, to the area with instructions to put a stop to that nonsense. In late June, the Japanese Army Air Force, without permission from Tokyo, bombed the Soviet airbase, risking escalation. But at the end of June, the Commander of the 23rd Japanese Infantry Division got orders to clear out the “invaders” on the east side of the river.

Shtern, Choibalsaan and Zhukov at Khalkhin Gol

They opened a two-pronged encircling maneuver in early July which Zhukov beat back, nearly encircling the Japanese at one point and driving them well back of the river. The Japanese attacked in force again in late July and were forced to partially withdraw after failing to break Soviet lines. Zhukov decided enough was enough and launched a massive attack on August 20th, destroying the 23rd completely. From May to August, the Soviets lost 10,000 more men and many times more equipment than the Japanese. Since replacements were easy come by, their tactics reflected the Soviet disregard for life. In the meantime, the Soviets and Japanese signed an agreement not to attack each other.

The consequences of this small war with fewer than 50,000 casualties were immense:

  • ·         The Soviet victory encouraged Stalin to sign the 23 August Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.
  • ·         The victory avenged the disaster at the 1905 Battle of Tsushima and restored Soviet prestige
  • ·         Zhukov burnished his credentials and returned to Moscow a hero.
  • ·         Moscow got to practice a coordinated offensive attack by motorized forces and aircraft.
  • ·         Japan saw that the Soviets would not be an easy opponent and turned south, focusing on China and the oil fields of SE Asia which eventually took them into conflict with USA.
  • ·         Stalin felt free to reduce his defensive strength facing Japan to the bare minimum during the darkest early days of World War II in 1941.

A number of references were used in writing this but the best for those who want more detail is Wikipedia

Also a new book on the subject is being released this month. The Nomonhan War 1939: Soviet-Japanese Clash at the Khalkhin Gol



  1. Thank you. And thank you for the links.
    Yet another war that I knew nothing about...

    1. You are welcome. I love digging up stuff that people might be interested in.

  2. Very interesting! So many factors of which we are unaware influence world events.

  3. War is the natural order of the human race. After all, what good is a military if you don't use it?
    the Ol'Buzzard

    1. That is certainly the truth. That and the rich make wars and the poor fight and die in them. Russia wants to use its military to rebuild its empire and use the threat of nuclear bombs to deter interference. China is hellbent on expanding its empire and running into the USA defending its empire. 1984 anyone?

  4. I'm not sure if we're on the same page. Didn't Teddy Roosevelt broker peace between China and Russia. In future I think China will be moving up different ladder in world stage.
    Coffee is on and stay safe

    1. That was the war between Japan and Russia in 1904-1905

  5. wow, didn't have a clue....thanks for that.

  6. "Small war with fewer than 50,000 casualties". Yikes. Maybe it's small compared to most wars, but it still wiped out the equivalent of the population of a good-sized town.

    1. Small in the sense that it lasted from May to August, and was very localized, with a definite beginning and ending. Yes, 50,000 is a lot of casualties in one sense but single battles have taken 10 times that so it is sort of "only".


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