Nomonhan, 1939, by Stuart Goldman, is a political and military history of the 1939 confrontation between Japan and the Soviet Union over the border between Manchukuo and Mongolia. Goldman opens with a neat discussion of who was actually in the right with respect to the border dispute, something that rarely seems to matter in events such as this. Long story short, the Japanese were right about where the border should have been (along the Khalkin Gol River), and the Russians were right about where the border had historically been drawn (about 10 miles east, around a village called Nomonhan). The short war (which would kill upward of 15000 on both sides) would be about control over that space, although questions of prestige, reputation, and domestic politics would soon become wrapped up in the decision-making of both sides.
The story of how Japan and the Soviet Union became embroiled in a battle over such a small prize is complex, and Goldman tells it well. Elements of the Kwantung Army were itching for a fight, and the Soviets gave them far more than they could handle. Anyone familiar with Japanese interwar politics appreciates the freedom with which the Army, and especially the Kwantung Army, operated. Nevertheless, I still found the extent of KA contempt for the civilian government and the Army General Staff remarkable; the officers in Manchuria felt no compunctions against developing their own national strategic aims, lying to Tokyo about them, and then starting wars with foreign powers. Goldman points out that the Japanese offensive near Khalkin Gol was only the latest of several provocations, not all of which had ended well for the Japanese.
Goldman is very good on one of the crucial parts of the story, the inability of the Soviets and Japanese to communicate with one another. The combatants were consistently unable to successful project intent and commitment to each other, which led to serial miscalculation. It didn’t help that Japanese intelligence was atrocious, leading the government and the Kwantung Army to repeatedly miss obvious Soviet signals, and also didn’t help that the different organs of the Japanese national security complex intentionally and assertively misled one another.
The Japanese were surely experienced, having seized Manchuria in 1931 and having spent the last two years in major combat operations against Nationalist China. But the Kwantung Army was not prepared to fight a modern, mechanized foe. Goldman tells the story of Japanese preparation for what they expect will be an annihilating artillery barrage against the Soviet position, in which a very significant proportion of the entire artillery strength of the Kwantung Army was brought to bear against the Russians. The Japanese expected that the Soviets would either break or be annihilated, but the Japanese had no experience of a genuine, World War I style artillery barrage. Goldman describes the dismay of the officers as the Soviet replies soon begin to outdistance and outweigh the Japanese artillery. In every category the Soviets could outmatch the Japanese, including artillery, aircraft, armor, and support vehicles.
Japanese intelligence was simply terrible, with respect to both Soviet capabilities and Soviet intentions. The disastrous relations between the Kwantung Army and the Tokyo government undoubtedly played a role, as the reluctance of the KA to describe the war it planned to embark on limited its access to strategic intelligence. Even at tactical and operational levels, however, the Kwantung Army was often at a loss with respect to Soviet positions, intentions, and forces.
Nevertheless, there were points at which the Japanese offensive was a near thing. Their initial offensive took the Russians by more surprise than the Japanese had any right to expect. The opening Japanese air attack, for example, destroyed a significant proportion of local Soviet airpower on the runway. The Japanese very nearly managed a complex encirclement that would have cut off the Soviet position on the east side of the river, only failing because of the timely arrival of Soviet reinforcements combined with Zhukov’s willingness to commit forces to the decisive point, regardless of cost. After the failure of the initial Japanese offensive, however, the Soviet response was methodical, using superior logistics to bring overwhelming force to the point of contact, then erasing the Japanese salient.
Zhukov fairs reasonable well in Goldman’s account, although Grigor Shtern also receives a great deal of the credit, especially for the logistical arrangements that made the Soviet victory possible. Zhukov could probably have done a better job with the intelligence he had available, but in his first wartime operational command he demonstrated admirable decision-making, committing force to the decisive points when needed. The success would, of course, bode well for his future, although considerably less so for Shtern, who would be shot in 1941. The experience left the Japanese suitably chastened, although it did not enable the introduction of any lasting reforms into the Kwantung Army of the Imperial General Headquarters.
In any case, this is a very good account of a very interesting confrontation, with sufficient detail of tactical, organizational, and political detail to appeal to a relatively wide audience. It helps that Goldman’s prose is excellent, and that he has a strong sense of the appropriate level of necessary detail. Goldman is somewhat less convincing with respect to the importance of Nomonhan on the course of World War II, although he makes a good case that the disaster had some effect on Japanese decision-making. He also argues that concern over further Japanese aggression in Manchuria inclined Stalin to agreeing to alliance with Germany instead of Britain and France. This is a sensible position, although Stalin obviously had other good reasons for accepting the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Nevertheless, a good book.