Friday, May 22, 2015

Day 2: The Most Important Battle of World War Two (that you've probably never heard of): The Battle of Khalkhin Gol

World War II was truly a massive affair. While students in the American Classroom are usually only ever exposed to the American Campaign in Western Europe and the Pacific Island Hopping Campaign, World War II was so much larger: From the picturesque fjords of Norway to the steaming Burman Jungle, from hot deserts of Italian Somalia to the barren tundra of the American Aleutian Islands, from the Frozen waters of North sea to the Muddy Planes of Kursk, and everywhere in between, all of these places saw intense fighting. The prolific amount of fans and amateur historians that World War II has gained on the internet are quick to pinpoint the key battles: El Alamein in Egypt, where the tide was turned against the Axis Forces in North Africa, Stalingrad in the Soviet Union, where the German Push into the east was finally beaten back, Midway in the Pacific, which broke the back of Japanese Naval Power, and a dozen more besides: Normandy, The Bulge, Kursk, Guadalcanal, Monte Cassino, et al. Yet, there is one battle of this great war that gets constantly overlooked, one which is constantly forgotten in the lists of the biggest and most important. With this post, I hope to rectify that. Today, we'll be discussing the battle that kept Japan out of the Soviet Union for good. This is the story of the Battle of Khalkhin Gol: The most important battle of World War II that you've never heard of.

Part 1: Prelude to War.

Japanese Troops enter Shenyang during the Mudken Incident, 1932

The Khalkhin Gol is a 145 mile-long river that runs near the village of Nomonhan, on the Sino-Mongolian Border. It was here, in 1939, that Russo-Mongolian and Japanese forces met to decide the fate of Northern China, Mongolia, and The Soviet Union itself.

The root of the conflict can be found in the history of Sino-Japanese Relations in the region. In the aftermath of the Mukden Incident in 1931 (a Japanese False flag attack, with the intent of giving Japan an excuse to declare war on China), Japan had invaded Manchuria (shown here) in 1932, setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo, under the nominal rule of the deposed former emperor of China, Puyi (Japan would later go on to invade all of China in 1937, sparking the Second Sino-Japanese War.)  After their conquest of Manchuria, the Japanese began to turn their attentions north, towards the Newly Proclaimed Mongolian People's Republic, and its powerful ally, the Soviet Union. Tensions in this region between the Japanese and the Russians (and later, the Soviet Union) had always been high, as both nations competed with each other for both political and economic influence over Northern China. Sometimes, these tensions flared up into open warfare (such as the famous Russo-Japanese war, which established temporary Japanese dominance in Manchuria), but things had been, at the very least, peaceful between the Soviets and the Japanese. With the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, however, tensions increased tenfold. Japan feared that the USSR would sweep into majority-Mongolian sections of China that they occupied, as well as intervene on the side of the Communists and their (temporary) Nationalist allies to drive the Japanese out of China. Likewise, the Soviets were afraid that the Japanese would invade the Soviet Union through Mongolia. These fears were well founded. Several members of the Japanese High Command were already planning for an eventual invasion of the soviet union. This faction of Officers, known as the "Strike North" faction, planned for an invasion of the soviet union, aiming for the Trans-Siberian railroad: the lifeline of soviet forces in the east. Once the Trans-Siberian had been severed, the Strike North officers argued, the Japanese empire could then be expanded to include all of Mongolia, the Soviet maritime provinces and parts of Siberia. Shielded by those buffer territories, the natural resources and heavy industries of Manchukuo could then be fully developed by the Japanese. Bereft of outside support, Chinese resistance would collapse.

In this already tense environment, relations were worsened due to a border dispute between Mongolia and Manchukuo. Japanes-backed Manchukuo claimed that the border ran along the Khalkhin-Gol river, whereas Soviet-backed Mongolia argued that the border actually ran just east of Nomonhan village, some 10 miles east of the river. At Halhamiao, in 1935, things came to a head when a force of Mongolian Cavalry assaulted a combined Japanese-Manchurian Patrol on the banks on the Khalkhin River. Although the so-called "Halhamiao incident" was a small affair, and there were few casualties, it sparked increased skirmishing across the border. Between 1935-1939, the amount of border clashes between Soviet-aligned and Japanese-aligned forces grew by almost 400%, as well as beginning to involve more and more troops and material (tanks, planes, artillery, etc.) The amount of troops in the region increased as well. By the start of 1939, The Soviets had Nearly 80,000 men in the region, while the Japanese had nearly 100,000 Both sides were supported by an unknown, but large amount of Chinese and Mongolian Auxiliaries. However, while the frequency and size of the skirmishes was increasing (The Battle of Lake Khasan in 1938 involved nearly 30,000 men, as well as tanks and artillery), a large-scale decisive battle had yet to occur. Knowing that the current state of affairs could not last, both sides massed their forces for the eventual, decisive battle that was sure to come.

Part 2: The Battle.

Mongolian Soldiers defend against a Japanese attack on the Khalkhin river, 1939.
The Battle that would decide the fate of the Far East began on May 11th, 1939. when a 90 man Mongolian Cavalry detachment crossed the Khalkhin in search of pasture for their horses to graze on. A Manchurian Cavalry detachment was alerted to their presence and attacked, driving the Mongols back across the river. Within two days (May 13th), the Mongolians returned, this time with greater numbers, and drove the Manchurians back to their original positions. The next day (May 14th), two regiments of the Japanese 23rd Infantry Division, under the command of Lt. Col. Yaozo Azuma, arrived to restore the old border. The Mongolians, fearing encirclement, retreaded back across the river. On May 28th, however, they returned, and Azuma's forces moved to intercept them. It was a disaster: Azuma's forces were completely encircled and, in a few hours, were driven back, suffering 105 dead and 33 wounded, a 64% casualty rate. After this debacle, both sides settled into an uneasy period of inactivity, as they treated their wounded and build up their forces. The Soviets brought Corps Commander General Georgy Zhukov (yes, THAT Georgy Zhukov) in to take command of their forces, while the Japanese placed their forces under the command of veteran General Michitarō Komatsubara: A Veteran of  both the Russo-Japanese war and World War I, who was well-acquainted with the Russians (he had previously served as a military attaché to the Russian empire, and was fluent in Russian.) By the time fighting resumed, both sides had amassed thousands of men, backed up by Tanks, aircraft, and artillery.

The Mongolian steppe exploded once again when, on June 27, after a month of quiet, the Japanese launched a surprise air raid on the Soviet Airbase at Tamsak-Bulak, several miles behind the front lines. The Soviets were caught completely off guard: Many of their aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and destroyed twice as many Soviet planes as they had lost themselves. The Soviets responed to this attack swiftly, and in force: 6 squadrons of Polikarpov I-152 biplanes and three squadrons of Polikarpov I-16 Type 10 monoplanes, totaling more than 100 fighters, were deployed to the Khalkhin front, commanded and staffed by veteran fliers of the Soviet Air force, many of whom had seen service flying for the Second Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. The Japanese response, however, was the exact opposite: when High Command back in Tokyo got news of the attack, they were enraged, as they had not been informed of the plans for attack beforehand. Furious, the High Command ordered that there would be no further airstrikes against soviet airbases - A rash mistake that the Japanese Infantry would soon pay for in blood.
Japanese Troops Crossing the Khalkhyn, 1939

However, despite pulling air support out of the theater, the Japanese High Command authorized Komatsubara to launch a land attack to expel the "Invaders." Komatsubara planed out a two-pronged assault on the Soviet Lines: On the Left Flank, Japanese Forces, spearheaded by mechanized brigades, would drive the Soviets back to the Halha river several miles back. Meanwhile, on the right flank, Japanese forces would cross the river to the north and then sweep south, cutting off the subsequent Soviet retreat. This would result, Komarsubara hoped, in a total encirclement and destruction of Soviet forces.

On July 1st, the Japanese began to put their plan into action. 8 brigades of the Japanese right flank crossed the Khalkhyn river via pontoon bridge and advanced on the Soviet-held Baintsagan heights. After a brief firefight they managed to dislodge the small group of Soviet defenders and take them. In response to this, Zhukov threw the Soviet 11th Tank and 7th Armored Brigades, a total of 450 tanks,  at the heights in a hastily-organized counter attack. Despite the lack of proper infantry support that usually would have doomed an assault like this, the Japanese were unable to effectively counter the Soviet armor, largely because the Japanese Lacked proper anti-tank guns, mines, and other equipment, forcing the Japanese to resort to Molotov Cocktails and other crude anti-tank devices hurled at the Soviet armor. After 2 days of fierce fighting, involving suicidal assaults by the Japanese on Soviet armor groups, the Japanese defenders were dislodged from their positions, and forced to retreat back across the pontoon bridge. For the next 6 days, the Japanese hurled themselves at the Soviet forces on the other side of the river. Al these assaults ended in failure: the Japanese failed to properly use their armored units in conjuncture with their infantry, and the Soviet Armor and defensive positions were simply too strong. The Japanese lost 45 tanks, nearly 1/3rd of their armor, while Soviet tank losses were negligible, and easily replaced. By June 10th, the assaults were called off, and the pontoon bridge was withdrawn.

During this period, Zhukov was constantly building up his forces: with a fleet of over 3,500 trucks, Zhukov was able to consistently bring in fresh troops, fuel, and supplies over dirt roads from the major Soviet rail depot along the Trans-Siberian Railway, some 460 miles away. The Japanese, on the other hand, were plagued with supply problems. While the Japanese supply base of Hailaerh was only 200 miles away (nearly 260 miles closer than the Soviet's), the lack of decent roads and motorized transportation made resupplying the Japanese forces a nightmare. All of these problems were exacerbated by the inhospitable nature of the Khalkhin battlefield. Broiling hot days, and freezing, damp nights wore away at the strength and morale of the Japanese infantry. Bad sanitation and lack of water bred dysentery and typhus, and shortages of supplies in the Japanese lines only made these problems worse: Japanese troops sometimes went for days without water in the scorching 104 degree heat. While the Soviets also suffered some of these problems, they were, for the most part, combated effectively due to their better management of supplies.
Soviet Soldiers Inspect Captured Japanese Artillery, 1939

Undaunted by these setbacks, Komatsubara withdrew his soldiers into defensive positions along the Khalkhin River, and began planning his next move. The new Japanese plan consisted of a massive preliminary artillery barrage to knock out the Soviet heavy artillery, followed by a night assault on Soviet positions (which, at this point, had been established on both sides of the Khalkhin river). TO accomplish this, Komatsubara brought up six 150mm Type 89 Guns and sixteen 105mm Type 92 Guns. On July 23rd, the bombardment of Soviet positions along the Khalkhin began. But the Japanese found themselves outgunned by the Soviet batteries. The twelve Soviet 152mm M1937 Howitzers and sixteen 122mm M1931 Corps Guns simply outnumbered, outranged, and outshot their Japanese counterparts. This put the 2 Japanese divisions assaulting the Soviet positions at a distinct disadvantage, as the Soviets were able to cover their positions with artillery fire. At the Kawatama bridge, 2 days of fierce fighting resulted in a stalemate, with no major gains on either side. By July 25th, after 2 days of savage fighting, with constant attack and counter-attack, capturing and re-capturing on both sides, the Japanese forces, exhausted, were forced to pull back to their original lines and construct defensive positions. At this point, the fighting ha spread out along a 30km (about 18mi) front. The Japanese had suffered nearly 5,000 casualties. The soviets had suffered a similar amount. But, unlike the Japanese, the Soviet casualties could be replaced.

Soviet Troops Advance Behind a BT-5 Tank, 1939.

By the end of July, the Japanese forces along the Khalkhin front were exhausted. The failed assaults had drained the energy of the Japanese infantry, and their supplies were becoming stretched thin. Komatsubara, realizing that discretion was the better part of valor, reluctantly began directing his energies towards constructing defensive positions, building a system of field fortifications and bunkers along the front. On August 10th, Komatsubara's forces were organized into the 6th Army. His forces now numbered 75,000 men, 318 guns, 135 tanks and 250 warplanes. Soviet forces under Zhukov now consisted of the entire First Army Group, numbering 57,000 men, 542 guns, 498 tanks and 515 aircraft. Both sides expected this lull in the fighting to be temporary, and both were planning new assaults to resume the offensive. But, by this point, the advantage had swung decisively over to the Soviets. Back in Moscow, Stalin, anxious to shore up his eastern flan in preparation for the Russo-German invasion of Poland, sent Zhukov additional 1,625 trucks from European Russia. This gave Zhukov the logistical base he needed for a decisive assault.  
All through early and mid August Zhukov quietly moved up reinforcements. The troops moved only at night, masking the sound of tanks massing with late night bombing raids and small arms fire on Japanese positions. Zhukov deliberately ordered his men to continue constructing defensive positions to convince the Japanese that they were digging in for the winter, while sending out patrols to scout and probe enemy positions by night. Zhukov, absorbing the tactical lessons of the Spanish Civil War, insisted on careful cooperation between the air and ground forces. Air reconnaissance was used to pinpoint Japanese defense positions, and pilots were made to participate in ground briefings with the Red Army. By mid August, Zhukov's forces had swelled to over 100,000 men. Using information gleaned from the Japanese attacks in July,  Zhukov realized there were several major flaws in his enemy's defensive formation. The Japanese flanks were covered by unreliable Manchukuoan cavalry and were vulnerable to encirclement. The Japanese also did not possess a tactical mobile reserve. To cope with flank attacks, they would be compelled to focus on one flank at a time, and disengage forces from action in the center or the other flank. Armed with this knowledge, Zhukov now began to plan his assault. His plan was to split the Japanese lines in  two, and then proceed to surround and envelop the pockets of Japanese resistance. To do this, Zhukov divided the Soviet battle line into three sections: the Southern force (consisting of the 6th Mongolian Cavalry Division, the 7th Armored Brigade, the 601st Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Rifle Division and two battalions of the 11th Tank Brigade), the Central force (consisting of the 36th Motorized Rifle Division, the 5th Machine Gun Brigade and the 82nd Rifle Division), and the Northern Force (consisting of the 57th Rifle Division, two battalions of the 11th Tank Brigade, three battalions of the 6th Brigade and the 8th Mongolian Cavalry Division). The 9th Armored Brigade, one battalion of the 6th Tank Brigade and the 212th Airborne Brigade were kept as a strategic mobile reserve. While the Central force would pin the Japanese in place, the Northern and Southern forces would wheel around the Japanese flank and force them to collapse in on each other, resulting in the splitting of the Japanese lines into two encircled "pockets" of resistance that could be quickly destroyed.

Victorious Soviet Soldiers Greet Each Other After Encircling Japanese Forces, 1939 

On August 20th, 1939, Zhukov put his plan into action. At 5:45 A.M, a fleet of Soviet bombers unleashed a flurry of bombs on Japanese positions. For the next 3 hours, Soviet artillery blasted the Japanese lines. Then, at 9:00, Soviet Forces began to advance on the Japanese lines. The climactic battle of Khalkhin Gol was underway. The Japanese were caught completely off guard, yet, they quickly responded with tenacious resistance. The Southern force, with the shortest distance to reach the Japanese rear, and supported with the largest tank strength, made the most progress in the initial onslaught, but the Central and Northern forces became ensnared in ferocious fighting. Komatsubara found himself caught in a tough situation: keenly aware of the Soviet threat to his southern flank, Komatsubara wished to shift elements of his 23rd Division south to meet the threat, but Soviet pressure on his beleaguered soldiers in the north compelled the Japanese commander to reinforce that endangered flank instead. To keep pressure on the Japanese northern flank, Zhukov committed the 9th Armored Brigade and the paratroopers of the 212th Brigade to his northern force. As a result, Japanese attention was forced to remain focused on their northern flank. This left the Southern flank of the Japanese line undermanned. By August 23rd, the Southern force of the Soviet Line had reached the border with Manchuria, cutting off any Japanese retreat from the area below the Holsten River. On August 24th, the Soviet 9th Armored Brigade linked up with the 8th Armored Brigade, and encirclement of the Japanese was complete. Attempts by Japanese Reinforcements to relieve the encircled 23rd Infantry Division between August 24th-26th were repulsed by heavy Air and Armor assaults. By August 31st, all Japanese resistance in the pocket had been crushed. The Japanese reported 8,717 killed and 10,997 wounded; The Soviets reported 8,931 killed, and 15,952 wounded, for a total loss of 17,648 dead and 26,949 wounded. In reality, the losses were almost certainly much higher (some scholars put Japanese Losses as high as 60,000 killed and wounded, with a total loss of over 100,000). Although sporadic air fighting continued until September 16, for all intents and purposes, the Battle of Khalkhin Gol was over. The Soviet Victory was complete.

Part 3: Reasons For Victory.

Soviet Generals Grigori Shtern (left) and Georgy Zhukov (right) confer with Mongolian Premier Khorloogiin Choibalsan (Center)

The Soviets managed to pull this impressive victory due to several factors that put them at a distinctive advantage. If you've been paying attention, you'll known that we've already discussed the advantage the Soviet's had in resupplying their troops (and if you haven't, I can't say I blame you), but even in spite of these deficiencies, the Japanese could still have achieved victory: they outnumbered the Soviets throughout most of the Conflict, with most of their forces made up of veterans of the Japanese Army's campaigns in Manchuria and China. With proper planning and tactics, the Japanese could have easily steamrolled the Soviet defenders. So why did they loose? There are several other reasons.

Firstly, when it came to equipment, the Soviets simply had the advantage. While the Japanese Nakajima Ki.27 fighters were newer and more maneuverable, the older Soviet Polikarpov I-153 biplanes and Polikarpov I-16 monoplanes were still able to dominate the air. This was for several reasons. Firstly, the Soviet fighters were better armed than their Japanese counterparts: The I-153's and I-16's were armed with four 7.62mm ShKAS Machine Guns, while their Japanese counterparts were only armed with two 7.7mm Type 89 machine guns. Secondly, while the Japanese fighters were more maneuverable than the Soviet fighters, this came at a cost: the Ki.27 fighters were left lightly armored to improve manuverablility, which resulted in them getting shot to pieces when facing Soviet Pilots, many of whom were veterans of the fighting 'round Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. On the ground, it was a similar situation: The Japanese Type 89 I-Go, Type 95 Ha-Go, and Type 97 Chi-Ha tanks and tankettes were out-armored, out-gunned, out-classed, and out-numbered by Soviet T-26's and BT-5's. Concerning artillery, it was the same situation: Japanese guns were out-numbered and of smaller caliber than their Soviet counterparts (as was already mentioned earlier). Even the small arms in the hands of Soviet Infantry were (arguably) better: Soviet Mosin-Nagant M91-30's were of a higher caliber than the Japanese Type 38's and Type 99's, The Type 38's and Type 99's were fine rifles, but their comparatively low caliber meant that they had less stopping power than the Soviet Mosin Nagants. Soviet PPD Sub-Machineguns outclassed and outnumbered older Japanese MP-18's, and Soviet DP-28 light squad Machineguns outclassed their Japanese Type 11 counterparts. All and all, Soviet equipment simply outclassed their Japanese Competitors.

Secondly, Soviet Tactics were simply better suited and tailored to the fighting at hand. The Japanese failed to properly coordinate their armored vehicle attacks in tandem with infantry support, and, because of inter-military political squabbles, greatly limited the amount of offensive air support Japanese Commanders at the front were allowed to use. The Soviets, on the other hand, closely coordinated their armored vehicles with their infantry units, combing tanks, planes, trucks, and infantry support in a strategy that has been described by some as a "Proto-Blitzkrieg," This close coordination of different units, combined with the general technological superiority of Soviet Equipment, allowed for the Soviets to mount a successful defense and launch successful attacks, even though the spent the majority of the battle outnumbered my allied Manchurian-Japanese forces.

Part 4: Aftermath

Signing of the Soviet-Japanese Non-Aggression Pact, 1941
Despite the size and scope  of the Khalkhin-Gol campaign, it was little known outside of Japan and the Soviet Union. Mortified by defeat in battle, the Japanese sought to conceal their disgrace. For its part, the Soviet Union was preoccupied with setting up defensive positions to thwart predicted German invasion in the newly acquired territories of eastern Poland and the Baltic States, and did little to trumpet its victories in the Far East. Nevertheless, despite how unknown the battle was, both during the time it took place and today, the effects of the Battle were immense, so much so that they may have fundamentally changed the outcome of the war. Firstly, the Battle served as one of the first major defeats of Japanese forces in the Far East, second only after the Chinese victory at Taierzhuang the previous year. However, while Taierzhuang had been a successful defensive operation, Khalkhin Gol was the first major offensive blow that had been dealt to the Japanese. This cause an increase in morale among both Soviet and Chinese forces fighting the Japanese in China, and humiliated Japanese troops both in the home islands and in China/Manchuria. 

Secondly, this battle launched the careers of several important officers, who would later go on to serve with distinction (or disgrace, as the case may be) in the later stages of World War 2. On the Soviet Side, the most famous of these officers was the overall Soviet Commander, General Georgy Zhukov, a brilliant tactical who much of the victory was credited to. Zhukov won his spurs at Khalkhin Gol, and thereby won Stalin’s confidence to entrust him with the high command in late 1941, just in time to turn back the German's from the Gates of Moscow in December, and start him and the Red Army on a path of victory that would culminate in the capture of Berlin and defeat of the Germans in May 1945. His fellow commanders, however, were not so lucky: The overall commander of the operation, General Grigori Shtern, and the Commander of Soviet Air Forces in the region, General Yakov Vladimirovich Smushkevich, were arrested for charges of being a part of a Trotskyist conspiracy by KGB agents on the orders of notorious KGB commander Lavrentiy Beria, and were both shot on October 28th, 1941. Both Generals were extremely capable and talented commanders who had served with distinction in both the Spanish Civil War and the Winter War, and their purging dealt a blow to the Soviet Union during the early months of Operation Barbarossa, where talented commanders were few and far-between.

On the other side of the Conflict, the Japanese command fared far worse. Disgraced by his defeat, Michitarō Komatsubara resigned his commission as an officer and retired from the armed services. He died of Stomach Cancer in October of 1940, less than 8 months after his retirement. His second-in-command, General Masaomi Yasuoka, was relieved of command and transfered to the 3rd Depot division, after which he promptly retired in disgrace. In 1942, he was appointed military governor of the city of Surabaya in Indonesia, a position he served until he was captured in 1945. Convicted of War crimes, he was executed in 1948.  The only successful Japanese officer to come out of this great defeat was Masanobu Tsuji: A Japanese Staff officer who, at the time, was notorious for his aggressive nature and Anti-Soviet sentiment. Tsuji was a leading member of the "Strike North" faction of the Japanese Military, and it is suspected that he may have directly ordered the Manchukuoan attack on Mongolian forces that started the battle. After the defeat, Tsuji was able to escape major disgrace due to his (relatively) lowly position in the high command, and was transferred to the staff of General Tomoyuki Yamashita. It was here that Tsuji's incredible talent for planning and organization were shown: nicknamed "The God of Operations," he was the mastermind behind such operations as the Japanese invasions of Malaya, Burma, the Philippines, and Singapore. He also was responsible for several massacres of Chinese civilians in Singapore, and was the mastermind behind the Bataan death march. Hew was never charged with anything ,and returned to Japan after the war to become a successful politician He disappeared in Laos in 1961.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the defeat of the Japanese at Khalkhin resulted the abandonment of the so-called "strike north" strategy by the Japanese armed services. As you may recall, before Khalkhin Gol, the Japanese armed services, in particular the high command, were split into factions over where Japan should expand into first. The so-called "Strike North" strategy, supported by the army, called for focusing on invading Northern China, Mongolia, and the Eastern Portion of the Soviet Union, in order to both secure resources in the Soviet far east (in particular, oil and steel), while at the same time "Striking a blow at Communism." The "Strike South" strategy, supported by the Navy, instead called for Japanese forces to strike, you guessed it, southwards, towards the western colonies/territories of Indonesia, New Guinea, Burma, Indochina, India, Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii, in order to secure vital resources, such as metals and petrol, for the Japanese war machine. This strategy. they hoped, would bring them in conflict with these territories colonial masters: France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States. Before the defeat, the northern strategy seemed to be gaining both the Emperor and high command's favor: Assault on the Soviet Union would bring them into conflict with fewer world powers, could potentially be coordinated with their German allies, and was seen as "finishing the job" that was started with the Russo-Japanese War some 40 years earlier. After the defeat, however, everything changed: High Command realized that they had severely underestimated both Soviet Technological and Tactical strength in the region, and the "Strike North" faction's influence began to dwindle. The final nail in the coffin of the "Strike North" faction was the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in August of 1939, which guaranteed neutrality both between the 2 parties and their allies. With any hope, so it seemed, of German help for an invasion of the Soviet Union gone, the "Strike North" faction died away, and the Soviets and Japanese signed their own Neutrality Pact in April of 1941. High command now fully embraced the "Strike South" strategy, and turned it's attention to the Pacific colonies of the old western empires.

The effects of this change would shape the war in the pacific, and possibly, the outcome of World War 2 itself. First of all, the shift of strategy forced Japan into conflict with the Imperial Powers of the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain, all of whom still had colonies or allied territories (Australia and New Zealand) in the Pacific. Because of this aggression, the United States declared an embargo off oil exports to Japan in July of 1941: a particularly damaging move since 80% of Japan's oil at the time came from the United States. This embargo prompted Japan to, in an attempt to intimidate the United States into rescinding the embargo, launch a surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl harbor on December 7th, 1941, as well as launching attacks on British Colonies such as Burma and Singapore. As any schoolchild knows, the attack had the opposite effect, and the bombing brought the full military productive forces of the United States into the War. As a result of this, the Japanese now had to fight on 3 separate fronts (Burma, China, and the Pacific Islands): against 3 respective enemies: China: the most populous nation in the world, Great Britain and the commonwealth nations: the largest Land empire on earth, and the United States: the largest productive force on earth. While Japan was a "little Giant" on the East Asian scene, taking on one of these enemies would have been daunting: taking on all 3 at once was suicidal. The victories Japan won in early 42-43 were stopped at Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and Midway, and the Japanese suffered losses there that they could never replace.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this Japanese focus on the south might have saved the Soviet Union from destruction and, thereby, perhaps even the west from Nazi rule. When Germany invaded the USSR with Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, they asked Japan to in turn strike the Soviet Union in the East in an attempt to split soviet forces and force them to fight on two fronts. After much internal debate, the Japanese, remembering the lesson of Khalkhin Gol, declined, and instead maintained neutral relations with the Soviets until the Soviet Invasion of Manchuria in 1945. This allowed for the Soviets to move thousands of troops and equipment from the Far East to the West to stop the Nazi's, and are most likely what saved the Soviets from total defeat in the west during the Summers of 1941-43. Picture, if you will, a scenario in which the Japanese had focused their attention on the Soviet far east and China instead of the Pacific. If the Japanese HAD invaded at the same time as the Germans, as Hitler Planned, then Soviet forces, forced to fight on two fronts, would have given up much more territory, or, in a worst case scenario, be defeated entirely. Victory in the east would also have given the Axis powers access to Russian oil fields, allowing them to operate their chronically under-fuelled forces at full potential. And, without the soviets to pin down the Majority of German troops in the west, the Nazi's would have had the necessary forces to launch offensive operations to knock out both Allied north Africa and the United Kingdom itself. The outcome of the war would have been quite different.


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj standing in front of a statue of Zhukov at a ceremony in Ulaanbaatar in August 2009, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the battle

World War II was a truly massive affair. From the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto to the Bocage around Normandy, from the deserts of Iraq to the picturesque tiny nation of San Marino, and everywhere in-between, the whole world was touched by war. Several Hundred Million men, women, and children fought in it, and Up to 100 million people, 5% of the population, died in it. And yet, while Khalkhin was tiny compared to some of the other, much larger battles that happened during the war, and while, outside of Mongolia and Eastern Russia, it is practically unknown, the ramifications it had can be felt far and wide. What began as a dispute over where a border lay ended deciding the fate of human history: The Allied victory in World War 2, the cold war, the Communist Revolution in China, all of these can be traced back to the Summer of 1939, when the peaceful Mongolian Steppe erupted in fire to decide the fate of Mongolia, China, Japan, the USSR, and the World itself.
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