The Battle of Khalkhin Gol

On the 73rd anniversary of the defeat of Japanese fascism by the Red Army in this battle on the Mongolian border.

Bourgeois, social-democratic and Trotskyist writers (fabricators would be a more descriptive word) of history always portray the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union as a deal that was built on a ‘betrayal’ of the ‘free’ world by Stalin. Nothing is further from the truth! To understand something of the diplomatic and military genius that was played out at that time by the Soviet leadership in general and Stalin in particular we recommend that the reader take time to study 60th Anniversary of the Victory over Fascism a CPGB-ML booklet published in 2006.

When Britain and France refused a collective security pact with the Soviet Union and pursued a policy of appeasement with fascist Germany, they were in effect trying to steer Hitler towards a war with the USSR which they could watch and enter victoriously when both Germany and the Soviets had depleted enough of each other’s forces. It must be remembered that Britain had signed the Munich agreement with the Third Reich long before the Soviet/German non-aggression pact which effectively turned the tables on the plans of the imperialists of Britain and France. The non-aggression pact gave the Soviet Union a much needed ‘extra’ two years to prepare for a war it knew it could not escape indefinitely, and it ensured, as much as could be ensured, that the Hitler forces would be facing Britain and France first. This would mean that the Soviet Union, when it was drawn into the war, would not be alone in fighting German fascism.

This policy was following the line set down by Lenin in November1920 when he said; ” As long as we have not conquered the whole world, as long as, from the economic and military standpoint, we are weaker than the capitalist world, we must adhere to the rule that we must know how to take advantage of the antagonisms and contradictions existing among the imperialists. Had we not adhered to this rule, every one of us would have long ago been hanging from an Aspen tree, to the satisfaction of the capitalists”… (‘Speech delivered at a meeting of activists of the Moscow organisation of the RCP(B), 6 December 1920, Selected Works, Vol.8, p. 279-288).

“Can strong capitalists be left by the side of weak capitalists and be expected not to seize what they can? What would they be good for in that case? But in such a state of affairs, can we, as communists, remain indifferent and merely say: ‘we shall carry on propaganda for communism in these countries’. That is true, but that is not all. The practical task of communist policy is to take advantage of this hostility and to incite one against the other.”

“Of course, to support one country against another would be a crime against communism. But we communists must use one country against another. Are we not committing a crime against communism? No, because we are doing so as a socialist state, which is carrying on communist propaganda and is obliged to take advantage of every hour granted it by circumstances in order to gain strength.”

“If we are obliged to tolerate such scoundrels as the capitalist thieves, each of whom is preparing to plunge a knife into us, it is our direct duty to make them turn their knives against each other.

To understand this much is to understand the very real danger that the Soviet Union was in and the brilliant foresight and strategy being displayed by the Soviet leadership. Let us now show a further dimension to that strategy that is often overlooked , i.e., the policy towards the Japanese imperialists who were also following the same expansionist goals as fascist Germany.

Japan had seized Manchuria in 1931, renaming it Manchukuo. The border between Manchuria and Mongolia had always been ill-defined and there had been several border clashes and regular skirmishes between Japanese and Soviet troops over the years. The battle of Khalkhin Gol, or the ‘Nomonhan incident’ as it was known to the Japanese, started out as just such another border clash.

The scene was set really by a new set of ‘principles’ given to the Japanese ‘Kwantung’ army in April 1939to apply to border clashes. These ‘principles’ were designed to force border clashes rather than solve them and reflected the aggression and ‘need’ to expand that the Japanese ruling class were expressing openly at that time. The ‘principles’ declared that “where boundaries are not clearly defined, area commanders will establish boundaries on their own” and that in the event of a clash the army will “fight until victory is won regardless of the location of the boundaries” and that ” it is permissible to enter Soviet territory, or to trap or lure Soviet troops into Manchukuoan territory.”

Thus it can be seen that not only did the Japanese want a border clash they also wanted to expand it into something bigger. They were testing the water in preparation for a serious incursion into the Soviet Union and their chance came on 11 May 1939 when a Mongolian cavalry unit of some 70-90 men entered a disputed area (the Japanese claimed that the border ran along the Khalkha river while the Soviets believed it to be some ten miles east of the river near the hamlet of Nomonhan) in search of grazing for their horses. On that day, Japanese cavalry attacked the Mongolians and drove them back across the Khalkhin Gol. On 13 May, the Mongolian force returned in greater numbers and the Japanese were unable to dislodge them.

The conflict slowly but gradually escalated until Soviet and Japanese forces were drawn into direct conflict. On 28 May Soviet forces surrounded and destroyed a Japanese reconnaissance unit. The Japanese unit, led by Lt Colonel Yaozo Azuma suffered 63% casualties in total, losing 8 officers and 97 men, plus suffering 34 wounded.

A month of relative quiet followed this battle. But on 27 June a Japanese air-raid was launched on the Soviet air base at Tamsak-Bulak in Mongolia. The Soviets lost many planes on the ground, although once they got airborne they gave a good account of themselves.

Lt. Gen. Michitaro Komatsubara, commander of the 23rd Division of the Japanese Manchukuoan army, planned the next attack – a two-pronged assault intended to encircle and destroy the Soviet armies and bring him a glorious victory. His Northern task force launched its first assault on 1st July. After easily crossing the Khalkhin Gol river, Japanese soldiers took Baintsagan Hill and quickly began to advance southwards. The following day his Southern task force followed them with another massive assault.

However, poor logistical planning meant that their supply line across the river consisted of just one pontoon bridge. In addition, a lack of intelligence information meant that the Japanese commander had no idea just what forces he would be facing. The Mongolian cavalry, now bolstered by Soviet armour and artillery and under the command of a certain General Georgi Zhukov, quickly rallied 450 tanks for a daring counter-attack. Despite being entirely without infantry support, they attacked the Japanese task force on three sides, and very nearly encircled them. By 5 July, the battered Japanese Northern Taskforce had been forced back across the river.

Zhukov, whose army was 748 km (465 miles) away from its base of supply, assembled a fleet of 2,600 trucks to supply his troops, while the Japanese suffered severe supply problems due to a lack of similar motor transport. On 23 July, the Japanese launched another large-scale assault, sending the 64th and 72nd Infantry Regiments against Soviet forces defending the Kawatama Bridge. Japanese artillery supported the attack with a massive barrage that consumed more than half of their ammunition stores over a period of two days. The attack made little progress and failed to break through Soviet lines and reach the bridge. The Japanese disengaged from the attack on 25 July owing to mounting casualties and depleted artillery stores.

The Japanese would not accept such a defeat and planned a third major offensive against the Soviets for 24 August. However, Zhukov was given the green light to launch his counter-attack on 20 August. The Soviets counter-attacked that day to clear the Japanese from the Khalkhin Gol region and end the fighting. Zhukov had assembled a powerful armoured force of three tank brigades (the 4th, 6th and 11th), and two mechanized brigades (the 7th and 8th, which were armoured car units with attached infantry support). This force was allocated to the Soviet left and right wings. The entire Soviet force consisted of three rifle divisions, two tank divisions and two more tank brigades (in all, some 498 BT-5 and BT-7 tanks), two motorized infantry divisions, two Mongolian cavalry divisions and over 550 fighter planes and bombers. By contrast, at the point of attack the Japanese Kwantung Army had only Lieutenant General Komatsubara’s 23rd Infantry Division, which with attached forces was equivalent to two light infantry divisions. Its headquarters had been at Hailar, over 150 km from the site of the fighting. Japanese intelligence had also failed to detect the scale of the Soviet build up or the scope of the imminent offensive. By August 31st, the encircled Japanese force had been surrounded and decimated. A few Japanese units managed to break out of the encirclement and escape, while some others surrendered, but those who remained and refused to surrender were wiped out with air and artillery attacks.

Just three days after the decisive Soviet counter-attack was launched, Molotov signed the non-aggression pact with Germany which meant that no immediate threat of a second front from the German fascists could assist Japan. Tokyo seeing now the futility of escalating the situation against a Soviet army that it could not defeat had to look elsewhere for its expansion dreams.

The result of the battle significantly influenced the future direction of Japanese expansion. Owing to the inability to move into Mongolia, the Japanese Army lost prestige in Tokyo. The Navy stepped in to fill the void that the Army had once occupied, and gained support for its plan to invade the lightly defended Southern Pacific in pursuit of its natural resources.

The battle of Khalkhin-Gol decisively showed the expansionist Japanese military that it was no match for the Soviets – particularly while Japanese forces were still bogged down throughout China. The Soviets combined their forces to stunning effect, while Japanese tactics remained stuck in a pre-modern mindset that valued honour and personal bravery more highly on the battlefield than massed forces and armour.

When Hitler finally invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 the Japanese, although tempted to join the attack, remembered the lessons of Khalkhin Gol and decided to remain on the sidelines (this was also in no small measure due to a Soviet agent convincing Tokyo that the Soviets still had plenty of troops on or near the Mongolian border), ensuring that the Soviet military could focus its forces on just one front. This, in turn, meant that Nazi Germany was forced to fight a four-year war on two fronts – against the Soviets in the East, and, eventually, the British and Americans in the West.

The Japanese defeat at Khalkhin Gol can also be seen as a major factor in the Japanese decision to expand into the Pacific where ill defended and scattered colonial territories made far easier targets. Even the United States was deemed a less formidable adversary than the Soviet Union and, if the Japanese had not lost at Khalkhin-Gol, they may not have attacked Pearl Harbour bringing the USA into the war against Germany long before it intended.

Whichever way you look at this the Soviet leadership under the command of comrade Stalin was aware of what was happening in every corner of the world. Every piece of information was analysed and weighed against all other known facts enabling policies and tactics to be developed that guaranteed the survival of the Soviet Union and the defeat of German and Japanese fascism.


The idea for this article and the initial research came from comrade Tony Kelly on the Isle of Wight and we are extremely grateful to him for that .