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Osprey Campaign 234

Osprey Campaign 234: Nomonhan 1939

Osprey Campaign is a series of books that covers the history, politics, and tactics of various military campaigns from ancient times to the present day. Each book features detailed maps, illustrations, photographs, and analysis of the forces, leaders, and outcomes of the battles. One of the books in this series is Osprey Campaign 234: Nomonhan 1939, which focuses on the bloody Soviet-Japanese border war that took place in Mongolia in 1939.


The Background of the Conflict

The conflict between the Soviet Union and Japan in 1939 was a result of their competing interests and ambitions in Asia. Japan had invaded China in 1937 and was seeking to expand its influence and resources in the region. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was wary of Japan's aggression and wanted to protect its borders and allies, especially Mongolia, which was a Soviet satellite state. The two powers had clashed several times before in minor skirmishes along their border, but the situation escalated in May 1939 when a Japanese reconnaissance unit crossed into Mongolian territory near the Khalkhin Gol river. The Soviets responded by sending troops to reinforce the Mongolians, and soon a full-scale war erupted between the two sides.

The Course of the War

The war lasted for four months, from May to September 1939, and involved over 100,000 soldiers, tanks, planes, and artillery pieces. The terrain was harsh and unforgiving, with vast steppes, hills, forests, and rivers. The weather was also extreme, with scorching heat, dust storms, rain, and cold. The war was divided into three phases: the initial clashes in May-June, the Japanese offensive in July-August, and the Soviet counteroffensive in August-September.

  • The initial clashes in May-June were mostly inconclusive, as both sides probed each other's defenses and tested their strength. The Soviets had an advantage in numbers and firepower, but the Japanese had better mobility and coordination. The most notable battle of this phase was the Battle of Bain Tsagan on June 12-14, when a Japanese force of about 8,000 men attacked a Soviet-Mongolian position defended by about 5,000 men. The Japanese managed to break through the Soviet lines and capture a hilltop, but were unable to exploit their success due to Soviet reinforcements and air support. The battle ended with heavy casualties on both sides and no clear victor.

  • The Japanese offensive in July-August was an attempt by Japan to end the war quickly and decisively by launching a massive attack on the Soviet flank. The Japanese commander, General Michitaro Komatsubara, gathered about 75,000 men and 135 tanks for this operation. He planned to encircle and destroy the Soviet forces near the Khalkhin Gol river by using his superior mobility and surprise. However, his plan was flawed by several factors: he underestimated the Soviet strength and resistance; he overestimated his own supply and communication capabilities; he ignored the intelligence reports of Soviet reinforcements; and he failed to coordinate his attack with his air force. The result was a disaster for Japan. The Soviets, led by General Georgy Zhukov (who would later become famous for his role in World War II), detected the Japanese movements and prepared a strong defense. They also received substantial reinforcements from Siberia, including tanks, planes, and artillery. The Soviets launched a series of counterattacks that inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese and prevented them from achieving their objectives. The most decisive battle of this phase was the Battle of Khalkhin Gol on August 20-31, when Zhukov unleashed his final blow on the Japanese forces. He concentrated about 50,000 men and 500 tanks against Komatsubara's weakened army of about 25,000 men and 70 tanks. The Soviets broke through the Japanese lines from multiple directions and encircled them in a pocket near the river. The Japanese fought desperately to break out or hold out until reinforcements arrived, but they were overwhelmed by the Soviet firepower and air superiority. The battle ended with about 18,000 Japanese killed or wounded and another 20,000 captured. The Soviets lost about 9,000 men.

  • The Soviet counteroffensive in August-September was a follow-up operation by Zhukov to consolidate his victory and drive out the remaining Japanese forces from Mongolia. He pursued the retreating Japanese across the border into Manchuria (a puppet state of Japan) and captured several towns and villages. He also threatened to cut off the Japanese supply lines and isolate their main base at Hailar. The Japanese, however, managed to regroup and stabilize their front with the help of their air force and reinforcements from Korea. They also received orders from Tokyo to cease hostilities and negotiate a peace treaty with the Soviets. The war ended on September 16, 1939, with the signing of a ceasefire agreement that restored the status quo ante bellum.

The Aftermath and Significance of the War

The war was a major defeat for Japan and a significant victory for the Soviet Union. Japan lost about 45,000 men and 135 tanks, while the Soviet Union lost about 17,000 men and 253 tanks. Japan also lost its prestige and confidence in its military prowess, and realized that it could not defeat the Soviet Union in a conventional war. The war also convinced Japan to abandon its plans to invade Siberia and instead focus on its southward expansion in China and Southeast Asia. This decision would eventually lead Japan to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941 and enter World War II against the United States and its allies.

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, gained valuable experience and lessons from the war, which would help it prepare for its future conflicts with Nazi Germany and its allies. The war also demonstrated the Soviet Union's strength and resolve to defend its interests and allies in Asia, and deterred Japan from attacking the Soviet Union during World War II. The war also strengthened the Soviet-Mongolian alliance, which would last until the end of the Cold War.

The Sources and Further Reading

The main source for this article is Osprey Campaign 234: Nomonhan 1939 by Henry Sakaida. This book provides a detailed account of the war, with maps, illustrations, photographs, and analysis of the battles, forces, leaders, and outcomes. It also includes a bibliography of other sources on the topic.

Other sources that can be consulted for further reading are:

  • Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939 by Alvin D. Coox. This is a comprehensive and authoritative two-volume study of the war, based on extensive research of Japanese, Soviet, Mongolian, Chinese, and Western sources.

  • Khalkhin-Gol: The Forgotten War by Jonathan M. House. This is a concise and accessible overview of the war, with an emphasis on the operational and tactical aspects of the battles.

  • Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow. This is a classic account of the Chinese Communist revolution, which includes a chapter on the war from the perspective of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.

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