In August 1939, the Red Army would unleash an offensive that the Japanese did not expect, and would be incapable of defending against.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 102 - Nomonhan Pt. 4 - Disaster on the Holsten. This week a big thank you goes out to Dale for choosing to support the podcast by becoming a member, gaining access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special member only episodes roughly every months. You can head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. After the Japanese failures of July, in which they had attempted to launch an attack over the river to dislodge the Soviets on its western side, the fighting around Nomonhan settled down to a series of small Japanese efforts, each of which were answered by a Soviet response. At the same time that they were defending against these Japanese efforts the Red Army was also preparing for its own offensive, and it would be the largest one yet.
When planning for the offensive, Zhukov wanted to go big, during July most of the Japanese attacks and the Soviet counterattacks had been small affairs. Maybe a regiment or two in the attack, a regiment or two in a counter attack, but that was mostly all that had been happening. Zhukov wanted to launch attacks with divisions when he kicked off his offensive in late August. To do this he requested yet another fresh batch of units to expand those under his command. During July, 2 more infantry divisions, two Mongolian cavalry divisions, another tank brigade, and an airborne brigade would be sent to expand the Soviet First Army Group. These formations were also accompanied by a wide range of support units, including artillery and additional air power. When all of the units were moved into place the Red Army would have over 200 artillery pieces, almost 500 armored vehicles, and almost 600 aircraft in the area. They were also supported by a constant shuttle of over 4,200 trucks which were used to bring all of the new forces into the combat area, and then keep them supplied as they prepared for the upcoming offensive. This massive logistical effort was required but they would still be able to catch the Japanese by surprise. The Japanese knew that some additional Soviet reinforcements had arrived, both from information about traffic on the Trans-Siberian Railway, as well as based on aerial reconnaissance of units near the front. But they would greatly underestimate the scale of the Soviet build up. . Additional reinforcements would arrive for the 23rd Division, both in the form of individual replacements, over 1,100 of them, but all of these replacements basically just brought the 23rd up to its original strength. A few additional infantry regiments would also be dispatched to assist, bringing the total Japanese forces up to about one and a half divisions. There could have been more Japanese forces moved into the area, but in general it was not felt that it was necessary, due to estimates of how many troops that Japanese believed the Soviets had, and how many they could support with such a lengthy supply line. Zhukov would also make an effort to support this underestimation. One of the easy ways that this was done was that at any given time there were not that many Soviet units on the eastern side of the river until just a few days before the attack. On August 18th, there would only be 4 infantry regiments across the river to maintain the illusion that there had not been a massive build up of Soviet forces. Operational security was also maintained, and many lower level officers would only be informed of the forthcoming attack 4 days before it began. Zhukov would divide his forces into three different groups for the attack, the central group would just launch a frontal assault to tie down Japanese resources. On the left and the right the goal was to push through Japanese positions and to surround them with armor to allow for the annihilation of the Japanese units. However, unlike when the Japanese had divided their forces, for the Soviet forces when they did so they would still have a set of much larger forces than those that they would be facing.
In the 48 hours before the attack began Soviet forces were moved into position, including moving across the river to be ready for the attack to begin early in the morning of August 20th. The moves were made during the hours of darkness on August 19th and 20th to hide them as much as possible from the Japanese. The first stage was an almost 3 hour artillery bombardment while Soviet attack aircraft did their best to hit Japanese artillery positions and troops concentrations. This included almost 200 Soviet bombers, mostly light bombers with some heavy bombers as well, who would hit their targets around 6AM. The bombers then returned to base to rearm for another sortie before the attack began. At 8:15AM the artillery fire increased in intensity until 9:00 when the infantry and armor units began their movement forward as the artillery continued its bombardment. There was also some luck involved with the attack, because there was fog covering most of the areas around the river on the morning of the 20th, which provided good concealment for the Soviet troops as they began their great adventure. When the attack initially began, the Japanese officers were not completely sure what they were facing, because the attack was seeming to be on such a wide front the point of greatest Soviet effort was unclear. There was the problem of the Soviet attack in the center, and also the armor and cavalry attacks on the left and right flanks. On many areas of the front the Soviet attack would experience general success. In the south forces commanded by Colonel Potapov would attack the Japanese line on its left, and southern, flank. The goal of the attack was to push forward until the Soviet infantry reached the Holsten river, which ran east to west, cutting the battle area roughly in half. The Japanese line was fully penetrated in several different areas along the front, and this enabled the Soviet forces to surround and destroy various Japanese units through the use of point blank artillery and flamethrowers. While these units were destroyed, mostly by the end of the August 23, there was a more concerning development for Japanese leaders as the Soviet 8th Armored Brigade on the far left of the Japanese line and began to advance north and towards Nomonhan. In the north the Soviet attacks were even more successful, with two different armored brigades pushing through the Japanese lines and then advancing south, with the goal of meeting the 8th and cutting off all Japanese troops to their west. The only area where the Soviet attack was not a complete success was in the center, where instead of the successes experienced by those units on the flanks, the Soviet attack the advance stagnated quite quickly. While the Japanese defenders were initially caught off guard by the Soviet attack, over the course of the day the Japanese defenders would recover and begin to offer some stout resistance in the center sectors of the front.
During all of this action the Red Army Air Force was very active, dropping over 86,000 kilograms of bombs over the course of three days of fighting. This represented an important turn around from the situation over the front in July, during which the Japanese had largely been able to control the air over the battlefield. During July the Japanese had claimed that they had a 12 to 1 kill ratio for aircraft over the front, a number that was almost certainly very exaggerated. But in August these estimates shrank to a roughly 5 to 1 ratio, again probably overestimated because these are Japanese numbers. Even if we assume that the Soviets were losing more aircraft, they were certainly winning the war of attrition, mostly due to the lack of resources on the Japanese side. Both aircraft and quality pilots were in a short supply for the Japanese, as so many of both were committed to the fighting in China. The greatest impact was on the Japanese pilots, who were called to higher and higher sortie rates as numbers of total Japanese squadrons dwindled. By the time of the attacks in August the Soviet had a roughly 2 to 1 advantage. Of equal concern for the Japanese pilots was the growing presence of newer Soviet aircraft along the front, including and upgraded version of the I-16 fighter, with increased armor which made it challenging for the Japanese Type 97 fighter, armed only with relatively light 7.7mm machine guns to cause any damage. This challenge was recognized and adaptations were made, with heaver machine guns being fitted in the Type 97, but the lull between the appearance of the upgraded I-16 and the up-gunned Type 97s was a challenging time for Japanese pilots. One thing to keep in mind about the air combat during this time, and this will be equally true for the rest of the Second World War, the accounts given by the two air forces should be taken with a serious grain of salt. Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory That Shaped World War II by Stuart D. Goldman “Soviet and Japanese accounts give wildly different, and equally unbelievable, tallies of victories and losses in the air combat”.
After they had recovered from the initial shock of the Soviet attack, Japanese leaders both on the scene at 23rd Division headquarters, and higher up at the 6th Army began to plan for their counterstroke. The plan that was initially put in place was a bold one, involving the 23rd division moving most of its available forces to the south side of the Holsten river to launch at a counter attack against the Soviet forces that had done so much damage to Japanese positions in the area. The orders for this attack would be dispatched in the late afternoon of the 22nd, which was quite a bit before the actual kickoff, which was scheduled for early in the morning of the 24th. Just because the orders were dispatched from headquarters did not mean that they were instantly received by the units that would take part in the attack, and instead some important officers would not receive details of the upcoming action until late in the evening of the 23rd, just hours before the attack was support to happen. Once that information was received, whenever it was, units had to start moving into position for the attack but there was a problem, the Soviets were still attacking, and to get the units that were slated to attack ready to attack, in many cases they had to be pulled out of the line, then moved elsewhere. This task was incredibly challenging in some areas of the front because of the Soviet pressure, which often meant that some units that would start their movement got tangled up in fighting again. Extracting all of these units was difficult enough, but it also meant that the attack would not be launched by fresh reinforcements, or units that had a good chunk of time off the line, but instead units that had been fighting a brutal defense for multiple days, having suffered casualties and the resulting lack of cohesion. You may be wondering, if all of these units were being pulled out of the line to participate in the attack, who would still be defending, and that is a great question that many Japanese officers near the front also had to contend with. What ended up happening is that decisions were made that weakened the forthcoming attack. For example, the plan was for the entirety of the 71st Regiment, under the command of Colonel Morita, to participate in the attack. But he was one of the officers that did not receive his orders until late in the evening of the 23rd, and he was very concerned about the continued Soviet pressure that was being put on his sector of the front. Therefore, instead of moving the entire regiment into the attack, Morita only dispatched an understrength battalion. Morita’s decision was replicated by other officers as well, faced with orders that did not conform to the state of the front when they received them, what had been written back in 6th army Headquarters several days before was simply impossible to fully execute on by August 24th. This meant that even when the attack did begin, many hours late, and in broad daylight instead of in the early morning hours, it was also understrength. The only good news is that when the attack did begin, the battlefield was covered in a heavy fog, always a benefit to troops making an assault against an enemy. For the Japanese troops this was even more valuable due to the Soviet advantages in artillery. But then the fog cleared, and the realities of the differences in strength between the two armies made itself apparent. Japanese artillery capabilities were drastically outclassed by those of the Soviets, and the troops on the ground heavily outnumbered the Japanese forces that had been assembled. This included large Soviet tank forces, with the 72nd Regiment getting first hand experience with early models of the T-34 tank which would go on to have so much success during the Second World War. Needless to say, the first day of the attack was completely unsuccessful. But orders arrived late in the evening that the Japanese units should continue to attempt their attack the next day. The next day, when those attacks were launched, they were done with fewer troops, less artillery preparations, and little reduction in the Soviet strength that they were facing, and were even less successful. By the end of the second day’s attacks some of the units that had been initially put into the attack were down to 50 percent their original strength, and had made absolutely zero actual progress. Instead they were mostly stopped hundreds of meters from the Soviet positions, forced to try and just hang on against artillery bombardments until it grew dark and they could withdraw.
While the Red Army was dealing with the problems caused by the Japanese counter attacks in the south, in the north there was still the problem of the Japanese units that continued to defend their initial positions on Fui Heights. During the initial attacks on the 20th the defense, led by Lieutenant Colonel Ioki Eiichiro, had held their positions quite strongly, and then over the next several days that defense had continued. However, as so many other Japanese units were pushed back supplying the troops on Fui became more and more difficult, until late on the 22nd the last supply routes were cut. Then on the 23rd the last remaining working radio was destroyed, which meant that there were no communications between the defenders and nearby Japanese forces. By the next day the continued defense of the positions was clearly hopeless, and his subordinate officers were able to convince Ioki that he should order what was left of his forces, 200 out of the original 800, to try and breakout of the Soviet encirclement and make their way to friendly units to the east. Ioki was initially resistant to this idea, having been ordered to defend the hills to the last man. After a moment in which Ioki was forcefully prevented from committing suicide, he ordered his remaining men to abandon their positions on the night of August 24th. Over the course of the night hours, what remained of the Japanese units slipped through the Soviet forces surrounding them until they encountered a Manchukoan cavalry patrol the next morning. With Fui Heights now until Soviet control, there was nothing preventing the northern and southern pincers of the Soviet attack from closing around all of the Japanese forces west of Nomonhan. This would happen on August 25th when the 11th Tank Brigade, coming from the north, met the 8th Armored brigade on their way from the south near Nomonhan. Over the 24 hours after these units met their positions were reinforced to make the Soviet ring around what was left of the Japanese Sixth Army. Then began the process of squeezing those that were left. By August 26th there were really only three main pockets of Japanese resistance, and the situation was generally very bleak as supplies and ammunition began to run out. When the Soviet attack was renewed on the 27th, with an emphasis on tank attacks, they were advancing against Japanese units that in many cases had no anti-tank guns left, and those that they did have were using their last rounds. The Japanese artillery guns that were trapped in the pockets also had to adapt to their new situation, as one battery commander would explain “Battalion guns could not destroy hostile armor. In fact, we tried not to hit the targets directly with them! Our purpose was to convince the enemy that the Japanese were ‘still in business.’ It was a kind of ‘camouflage’ effort to conceal our actual weakness in firepower”. There were some initial conversations on the Japanese side that the answer had to be committing more troops, but by the time that more troops could arrive on August 27th, in the form of the 7th Division, they were already going to be heavily outnumbered by the resources being committed by the Soviets. They would still try to launch an attack to breakthrough to the encircled Japanese positions, but after one day of hard fighting they had made basically no progress. Within the pockets, things were more bleak by the hour, under constant attack from Soviet aircraft, artillery, armor, and infantry, slowly squeezed into smaller and smaller perimeters. Over the next few days they were slowly destroyed, with the final Japanese positions south of the Holsten river destroyed on August 27th. On the afternoon of the 28th the 64th Regiment, under the command of Colonel Yamagata was finally overrun, with Yamagata burning the regimental colors and then committing suicide, with the events reported by 2 men who managed to escape the Soviet attack and make their way back to Japanese lines. On the 29th what remained of the 71st Regiment would join their commander in a suicide charge, to be cut down by Soviet machine guns.
Even with the entire Japanese position collapsing around them, General Komatsubara resolved to launch another hopeless attack, with the goal of defending positions around the Holsten river until the last made. On the 27th he would issue orders that “The division has been ordered to secure the positions on both shores of the Holsten River. […] The division is going to establish a defensive system by making contact with those front-line units [that are still in position]. The mission, which is important and difficult, can only be accomplished with a do-or-die spirit, and if the entire unit is imbued with one heard. I am prepared to die. All of you should share my resolve and carry out this mission with a sublime spirit of sacrifice.” The attack would begin at 11PM on the 27th, with all that remained of the 23rd division, 1,500 troops at best, with some other estimates putting it as low as 500. It is very likely that Komatsubara himself did not know exactly how many men were remaining given the disorganization of the previous days. They would make it to the Holsten, and they would setup defensive positions around the Old Engineer Bridge, but they would advance no further. On the 28th three officers were dispatched to make their way to 6th army headquarters to report on what was happening, and then the next night 3 more officers were sent, carrying the last wills of Komatsubara and other officers. But then on the 30th something interesting happened, radio communication, which had not worked for several days was restored, and the orders from the 6th army was clear, Komatsubara was ordered to retreat as quickly as possible to preserve whatever was left of his command. The retreat would be somewhat successful, with around 400 men making it out of the final attack alive. Komatsubara would also survive, although on the march back to 6th Army headquarters one of his staff officers had relieved him of his sidearm, fearing that at any moment he might choose to commit suicide. By the 31st, with all Japanese units having been pushed out of the disputed territory, Soviet forces began to dig in along what they claimed was the new frontier. There were some initial plans formulated by the 6th Army to launch a large counter attack, but direct orders were given by the Emperor and Army High Command that no attacks should be launched. And with that, the fighting around Nomonhan was over, and in early September an agreement would be reached in Moscow to officially end the fighting.
The cost of the actions around Nomonhan, in terms of the number of men killed or wounded, is very very fuzzy. Both sides report different numbers for themselves and for their enemies, and there were also some understatements of their own casualties, at least based on information that has been uncovered after the Second world War was over. The best guess is that the Japanese casualties were somewhere around 20,000, with it possibly being several thousand more or less. This represented a huge casualty percentage for the 23rd division somewhere around 76%, with other units involved suffering even heavily casualties. Along with the men that were killed or wounded, large numbers of Japanese tanks, artillery pieces, and about 150 aircraft would also be lost, which would drastically reduce overall Japanese strength in Manchuria. On the Soviet side the casualties are if anything more confusing. The Soviets would claim that they only suffered a little over 9,000 casualties, a number that is almost certainly far too low. New research in the early 2000s instead put the number a bit higher than 25,000, based on the documentary evidence present in unit histories. That number seems much more reasonable to me, although as with all of these numbers it is hard to know with any certainty. For the two commanders, Komatsubara would retire in early 1940, and then die before the end of the year of stomach cancer. Zhukov, well Zhukov would go on to be one of, if not the, most influential Soviet military officer of the Second World War. He would move from the Far East to take over the command of the Kiev Military district, and then his actions during the Second World War will be well covered in future episodes. For both armies the experiences at Nomonhan would be important, for the Soviets it would be a great set of experiences from which they could draw upon for future actions. For the Japanese the conclusions that could be drawn were far more worrying. It was clear that the Japanese had underestimated the Red Army, and that they were simply unprepared for wage the war of firepower on the scale of what the Red ARmy could do. And while some official reports would draw this conclusion, not all of the Japanese military leaders agreed with it, and instead of properly and honestly accounting for the deficiencies that the Imperial Japanese Army, they instead fell back on simply needing to improve the morale and fighting spirit of the Japanese soldier. Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939 by Alvin D. Coox “Again and again, the IJA analysts fell back on easy, comfortable frames of reference: spiritual elan, close-quarter antitank assaults, aerial dogfighting, night attacks, raiding, and infantry charges.” In effect, they just believed that the Japanese had to get better at what they were already doing, instead of taking the step of fully reconsidering how they planned to fight a war.