Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II by Stuart D. Goldman
This book describes the limited war between Japan and the Soviet Union fought at Nomonhan in 1939 on the borders between Mongolia and Manchuria. (Actually fought on the territories of client states of each participant.) I found it very interesting, authoritative and shedding light and raising interesting questions on a whole range of topics.
Of course, war between Russia and Japan is a serious business. Their 1905 war was a significant event in the end of the Tsarist regime. Of course that war was very much a naval affair, whereas Nomonhan was completely fought on land. Probably this had consequences for the outcome.
It shed light on contemporary Soviet/Japanese political/military society. In the 1930s the purges of Soviet society and of the military in particular were very debilitating. It was very common practice in other countries to dismiss the effectiveness of the Red Army after the purges.
For Japan, I had read how relatively junior officers in the Japanese army carried out acts that lead to war. These include the Mukden and Marco Polo Bridge incidents. But I hadn’t really understood the context in which these took place or appreciated the general lack of discipline and insubordination that bedeviled Japanese policy through these events and into WWII. I was not familiar with the principle of gekokujo. This is a consequence of positions of authority being given to elderly people of high social standing. Something found in other countries such as Britain, but perhaps more pronounced in Japan. Since these people are not necessarily equipped to make or implement decisions the consequence is that more junior and younger people actually lead and implement policies. In 1930s Japan with a severe economic recession and political paralysis this led to a period of political assassination (eg post naval treaty). In particular gekokujo was strongly prevalent in the Kwantung Army (based in Manchuria). This had a profound effect on the events at Nomonhan, the China War and the outbreak of WWII. I would be interested to understand how this contrasts with the Japanese Navy.
For military operations the Japanese Army was poorly equipped to fight a major power, such as the Soviet Red Army. Operations turned out very badly for the Japanese who were soundly defeated. Their logistics were poor, eg only 800 trucks for the whole Kwantung Army. This made it hard for them to appreciate how the Soviets could transfer large amounts of men and material from distant rail heads to the theatre of operations. In particular, the Japanese were weak in artillery which was short ranged and insufficiently supplied with ammunition by contrast with their opponents.
Again, it is very striking how the Kwantung Army led an independent policy, hiding it from Tokyo and ignoring any attempts at control. Also, their general hubris led to the launching of offensive operations that were poorly prepared and ended in disaster. Finally, they did not pay attention to the final offensive in August which pushed them back to the boundaries claimed by the Russians.
It’s not clear that the Japanese learned much. It is possible that the Russians learned more, with Zhukov gaining valuable experience he was to use in the war with the Germans. Since operations were ignored by other powers, the Germans etc… did not learn much either, preferring to take account of the war with Finland (which was not fought by elite troops).
An immediate impact was on the outbreak of WWII, with German threats to Poland. The Soviets were discussing the possibility of an alliance both with Britain/France and the Germans. The Soviets could have gone either way, one sign of the possibility of a German alliance was the replacement of Litvinov (who was Jewish) by Molotov. Stalin obviously decided that his interests were better served by an alliance with the Germans, maybe letting Britain/France fight the Germans while he was free to act as he wanted. Finally, the Soviet invasion of Poland happened the day after a ceasefire between the Japanese and Russians came into effect.
The book’s arguments on the impact of Nomonhan on further global events in WWII were really interesting. After Nomonhan the Japanese decided to orient their advance to the south, rather than seek confrontation with the Soviet Union. After 1940 they became tempted by the offer of easy pickings from defeated or distracted European powers, leading them into Indochina and beyond. But it was this policy that led them directly into conflict with the United States, to the oil embargo and their attack on Pearl Harbour. An alternative policy would have been to encroach on Mongolia/Siberia, and the Germans encouraged the Japanese in this direction after June 1941. Perhaps Japanese distrust of the Germans after their non-aggression pact in 1939 (after Nomonhan) was part of their reasons for moving south rather than north. Of course, a move to the north (as opposed to the south) would not have as difficult for the western democracies to accept given their antipathy to the Soviet Union.
By contrast, the consequences seem much more favourable for the Soviet Union. After the German invasion they were able to transfer forces from the Far East (more than 50%) to Europe where they made a very significant contribution to the Battle of Moscow. The Richard Sorge spy network seems to have helped Stalin decide on this policy. In June 1941 Stalin had ignored Sorge’s warnings about the German attack. However, in July/August Stalin accepted Sorge’s reports that the Japanese were looking to the south, and would not threaten to Mongolia/Siberia. Apparently several of Sorge’s reports are signed by Stalin and Molotov, showing that they actually read them, (and they didn’t put negative comments as I believe they did on other reports about the June attack). The transfers seem to be timed to coincide with Japanese decisions as reported by Sorge (in September).
The book suggests the possibility that without the Russian reinforcements the Battle of Moscow would have been lost and that the war might have turned differently. Of course, Stahel’s books suggest that the Germans were at the end of their logistical/material abilities so the course of the battle or the war might not have been fundamentally different, but it might have been longer. However, if the Soviet Union had also been fighting the Japanese in Mongolia/Siberia things might really have been different.
An interesting contrast is between Soviet Union and Japan in 1939. In the former the military were completely subordinated to the political establishment, an inescapable consequence of the purges of the army. By contrast the Japanese politicians were utterly subordinated to the military and soon were replaced.
I got this as part of a bulk purchase from Amazon, along with the Shanghai and Kiev books.