101: July Attacks


With both sides deciding to bring in more resources to defend their definition of the border, the Japanese decide to launch an attack in early July, 1939.


  • Anti-Russian and Anti-Soviet Subversion: The Caucasian-Japanese Nexus, 1904-1945 by Hiroaki Kuromiya and Georges Mamoulia
  • Japanese Geopolitics and the Mongol Lands, 1915-1945 by Li Narangoa
  • Khalkin-Gol: The Forgotten War by Amnon Sella
  • The Lake Khasan Affair of 1938: Overview and Lessons by Alvin D. Coox (1973)
  • Soviet-Japanese Confrontation in Outer Mongolia: The Battle of Nomonhan-Khalkin Gol by Larry W. Moses (1967)
  • Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939 by Alvin D. Coox
  • Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory That Shaped World War II by Stuart D. Goldman


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 101 - Nomonhan Part 3 - July Attacks. When the fighting had started around Nomonhan in May 1939, there would be a slow escalation of fighting over the following few weeks. More Japanese units were brought in and committed to the attack, and more Soviet units would be brought in to meet them. This would continue in June, but both sides would decide to make massive commitments to the fighting, with the Japanese preparing to launch a large attack with the 23rd Division along with large numbers of reinforcements, including a commitment of over 2/3 of all of the armored assets available to the Kwantung army. Throughout all of the June planning and preparations would be done, while at the same time air operations were launched by both sides to try and gain some level of control of the air over the battlefield. Then on July 1st the attack would begin. During this episode we will be covering the preparations for the attack and then the course of that attack throughout July. For the Japanese it would be a familiar story, with early successes that quickly turned into a failure as the Soviet forces were able to regain their composure and mount a defense.

During the first few days of June probably the most famous participate in the fighting around Nomonhan would begin to be involved when General Georgy Zhukov . Zhukov would meet with Voroshilov on June 2nd, where he would receive information about the fighting that had already occurred, and he would be given the orders to go to Mongolia, and to quote the Deputy Chief of the General Staff “the moment you arrive, see what’s going on out there and report to us, without pulling any punches.”. During this initial stage Zhukov was simply being sent to the area to provide first hand information to the Red Army General Staff about what was happening. There was however always the possibility that after he arrived he would take some kind of command position in the theater, which is exactly what would happen. Zhukov and his staff would be on a flight to Mongolia in a matter of hours. When he arrived, the report he gave made it clear that he believed that the fighting would continue and would most likely escalate, and that it was not another of the many incidents that had come and gone in the area over the previous 6 months. Under this assumption, he believed that the Soviet troops in the area would not be enough to meet further Japanese aggression and therefore more troops needed to be sent as soon as possible. He would request 3 additional infantry divisions, a take brigade, and additional air and artillery unit. This request was quickly accepted in Moscow, and the reinforcements would be dispatched, mostly in the form of mechanized infantry units. In the air, 100 fighter aircraft and tactical air squadrons would both be sent, along with some of the most experienced Soviet air units, many of which had been involved in the fighting in Spain. These were pretty much the best air units that the Soviet military had, which was an important commitment. Zhukov was also not a fan of how the local commanders had handled the situation, especially around the lack of reconnaissance that he felt was being done to try and determine Japanese strength and intentions. Because of these concerns, Zhukov would suggest that the local commander be dismissed and replaced, and wouldn’t you know it, he thought he was just the man for the job. Funny how that works. Importantly, as the Red Army moved more and more units into the area, most of this was generally unknown to the Japanese. Throughout the early weeks of June the general belief among the Kwantung Army leadership was that there were maybe around 1,000 soldiers in the area, with a few batteries of artillery. The actual strength at the same time that this estimate was made was about 12,000 men, 109 artillery and anti-tank guns, 266 armored vehicles of a variety of types, and 100 aircraft. Quite the difference.

On the Japanese side, they were also looking at how they could move more forces into the area and then what they should do with them. At Kwantung Army headquarters they wanted a greater commitment of resources, and requested more united from Tokyo. But there would always be resistance from Tokyo to send any additional resources into Mongolia when fighting in China was continuing, and was constantly expanding in scope and was constantly requiring more units to reinforce what was already in China. With the request for more units denied, a plan was developed that would only require units that were already in the theatre, which would be the genesis of the plan prepared on June 19th entitled “Operational Plan Against Outer Mongolia”. The plan was drawn up with the desire to launch a decisive attack, especially as it appeared that more Soviet air units were being brought in and Soviet air units were becoming bolder with their attacks, including attacks against Japanese units in what was considered to be the Japanese side of the border, which would be reported from the 23rd division to Kwantung headquarters on June 19th. This involved the commitment of one brigade from the 7th Division, which was considered to be an elite Japanese formation, with that brigade being sent on a flanking maneuver across the Halha river, which they would cross to the North of the Soviet position. Once across the river they would advance south to take the Soviets in the flank with the objective of dislodging their artillery positions which were on the west side of the river. They would then hold their position before advancing to the east to meet troops of the 23rd divisions which would launch an attack to trap the Soviet forces between the two Japanese units. To support these attacks the 2nd Air Group made up of 180 planes would be dispatched to provide air support, and two regiments of tanks, an artillery regiment, and other supporting units would also be sent to the 23rd division. It would be no small undertaking, and more than enough to deal with the expected numbers of Soviet units. When details of this plan would evaluated and considered there would be some changes, specifically the elite units of the 7th division would not be used for the flanking maneuver. Instead the 23rd division would use most of its strength to attack the Fui Heights which were on the east bank of the river, they would then build some pontoon bridges to cross the river, at which point they would attack south to reach the Soviet positions. This shift of putting the units from the 23rd division in the decisive position was down to not wanting to insult the leadership of the 23rd division, this was their area of the front, and they had been involved in the start of the fighting. At the same time most of the reinforcements that were being sent into the area would take the place of the 23rd division in the previous plan, would attack on the eastern side of the river. The goal would be the same, to trap Soviet forces between the two groups of Japanese units. There were a few possible problems with this plan if things did not go well, first of all, if the full attack was not successful it was possible that the troops that moved onto the west side of the river would be in a position to be surrounded and destroyed, just as the attackers on May 28th had been. The Kwantung army also only had a limited number of pontoon bridge building material, which meant that if the bridge was destroyed after it was built it could not be replaced. And those materials that were available were also not sturdy enough to allow for the transit of armored vehicles would be limited to operations on the eastern side. These challenges were fully recognized by Kwantung army headquarters but the belief was that the attack would be a quick success, which would end with the more permanent bridge, currently under Soviet control, being in Japanese hands, which would prevent the pontoon bridge from becoming the exposed bottleneck that it would be in an extended battle. While the plans were being finalized for what was a very bold and risky attack, the information transmitted to Tokyo for sign off from Imperial headquarters was a bit more vague and generally shied away from some of the riskier details.

In the days before the attack was launched Japanese reconnaissance flights would be flown, and they would see activity behind the Soviet front. However, they completely misinterpreted the meaning of what they found. What was seen were that there were some tanks that were seen, and then there were large numbers of trucks leaving the front on multiple different days, all driving to the west and away from the front. This was interpreted as evidence that the soviets were abandoning their positions, and therefore were ripe for a Japanese attack. What was actually happening is that the trucks were evidence of a massive Soviet supply effort, with convoys of trucks being sent to the front every single night to bring up more and more men and supplies from the distant Soviet rail depots. They would then unload in the early morning hours before turning around and heading back to the west to prepare for the next night to do it all over again. While the Soviet forces were becoming more and more prepared, the preparations among the units of the 23rd division were not proceeding quite as smoothly. There were two major problems, the first was that the specific orders for the attack did not arrive until just a few days before the attack was scheduled to be launched, leaving several units up to 250 kilometers from their jump off point. To make it to the front in time they had to march up to 15 hours a day, just to arrive just in time to go into an attack, leaving them exhausted. The other problem was that the level of supply for the units at the front and preparing for the attack was not great. Weapons, ammunition, and other supplies were coming up short, to the point where the Chief of the Ordnance Bureau for the 23rd division shot himself out of shame for the state that the troops found themselves in. None of this prevented the start of the attack at 4AM on July 1st, which 15,000 Japanese troops, included 70 tanks, began to move to their jumping off points. The most important area of the attack in these early hours was the attack on the Fui Heights, from which further attacks would develop. I like this description of the heights by a Japanese Colonel who participated in the attack, because the heights were not actually some kind of stunning geographic feature, but instead, and this is a quote a “raised pancake” which was really only 30 or 40 feet higher than the areas around it. But it would be this pancake that would be occupied without much resistance by the Japanese attack. With Fui under Japanese control focus shifted to the river. The plan was a reasonable one, infantry would move across the river on boats, and would create a bridgehead from which to protect the creation of the pontoon bridge. Very reasonable, but there was just one problem, at the point where they were to put the boats in to move across, there were massive cliffs close to the river, which meant they had to bring the boats down 20 meter drops. This of course slowed things down a bit, but luckily the crossings were mostly unopposed. This meant that even though they did not get started until early in the morning on July 3rd, the crossing was still made by a battalion of the 71st Infantry Regiment. The bridge was then thrown across the river and completed by 6:30AM, which allowed the rest of the troops of the 71st, along with two other regiments to move across. It only took about 3 hours for the three regiments to transit the bridge, at which point the bridge started to allow the masses of artillery and support vehicles and supplies to begin making their own way to the western wide of the river. As with every bridge crossing, there were traffic problems on the eastern side of the bridge, problems that were expected.


During the first three days of the attack, there was not an organized Soviet response. This was because, as blind as the Japanese were to the strength of the Japanese, the Soviets were equally as blind to Japanese intentions. This allowed the crossing to happen unmolested and it would not be until the Japanese units attacked early on July 3rd that a Soviet response would be made. After crossing the river Japanese infantry units began to move south in their objective to reach the Kawamata Bridge. While they were doing so they would run directly into the 11th Tank Brigade, which had been sent north after news of the Japanese crossing at reached Zhukov. Neither the Soviets or the Japanese actually expected to encounter the enemy in these positions, and neither were really prepared. What developed was a bit of a melee as Japanese units brought up any available anti-tank weaponry while the Russian Armor attacked to push them north. There were so many Soviet vehicles that anti-tank ammunition began to run short. What saved the Japanese positions was the general disorganization present among the Soviet armored units. They have been moving north to assembly positions, believing that there was little danger that they would be in combat, this meant that when they quickly moved over to the attack they did so haphazardly . As each small unit of Soviet armor moved into the area, they would go into the attack directly, instead of waiting for a larger concentration, which allowed the Japanese defenders to use their limited anti-tank weaponry to good effect. These piecemeal attacks may have worked if the Japanese had been a weaker force, but given the sheer numbers of those that had crossed the river such disorganization resulted in failure. With the real scale of the crossing becoming known, more Soviet troops were dispatched to hold the Japanese units in place, with the full 11th Tank Brigade, the 7th Mechanized Brigade, the 24th Mechanized Infantry Regiment, and some Mongolian cavalry all given the task of containing and pushing back against the Japanese incursion. These would push hard against the Japanese units that they faced, who had been marching or fighting for several days by this point.

On the eastern side of the river, the other part of the Japanese attack would begin with another solid success. This would be the attack utilizing all of the Japanese armor assets with the goal of pushing the Soviet forces back against the river, while the other forces advanced south on the west side of the river. The eastern attack was commanded by General Yasuoka, and the initial advances would go well. The soviet forces of the 149th Infantry regiment and 9th mechanized brigade were caught off guard and the Japanese units quickly pushed through their lines, even to the point of overrunning some Soviet artillery positions. But as the day wore on the Soviet units would quickly recover their composure and begin to mount a serious resistance. The largest issue that the Japanese armor units would encounter throughout the rest of the fighting, was simply that the units they were facing were far more capable of anti-tank warfare than anything they had faced before. Most of the Japanese experience with armored warfare had been gained in China, where the general level of preparation for anti-tank operations from the Chinese was quite low. The soviets were far more prepared, with both anti-tank guns as well as armored piercing shells loaded in their tanks and armored cars which could penetrate the thin frontal armor of the primary Japanese tank the Type 89. The Japanese armor had a difficult time matching up with the Soviet BT-5 and BT-7 tanks, which were generally far more capable against the Japanese tanks, which had been primarily designed as infantry support vehicles. This design might have been okay, but the Japanese armor and its supporting infantry quickly became disconnected, leaving the tanks to deal with the Soviet defenses by themselves, which they were not really capable of doing. Another interesting feature of the Soviet defense was the use of piano wire in an anti-tank capacity. This piano wire, which was very difficult for the Japanese to see from their tanks, was strung out in front of Soviet defensive positions, and when it was hit by a tank that was driving it would snap and try and spool back up, often getting stuck in the drive mechanics of the Japanese tanks, putting them out of action. All of these problems meant that the attrition rate on Japanese armor was very high, with 20 Type 89s being put out of action in just one small and short engagement. This level of destruction was completely unsustainable given the relatively limited availability of armor reinforcements. In fact, in just one day of fighting, about half of all Japanese armor had been lost, and the units had been forced to retreat back to their starting points. With this failure, which was already evident on the afternoon of July 3rd, Komatsubara and the Japanese leaders had a decision to make. On the west side of the river their units were still holding, and still destroying Soviet tanks but they were running out of ammunition and supplies, and it seemed clear that even if they could continue to hold, their original purpose of advancing down the western side of the river was impossible to achieve. Even though they did ot know precisely what forces the Soviets had put in the area, all that they really knew is that they were quite strong. This known fact along with the increasing artillery fire from unmolested Soviet artillery positions and the supply issues experienced by the Japanese forces would result in the order being given to retreat back across the river during the afternoon of July 4th. The two most heavily engaged regiments retreated across the river on July 4th, while the third provided a rearguard. The Soviets would learn of this and immediately launch into an attack, while the third Japanese regiment collapsed back toward the river, finally making it across in the early hours of July 5th. During the 2 days that the Japanese had spent on the western side of the river the units had suffered about 800 casualties. On the eastern side the casualties had also been heavily, including over half of the Japanese tanks being either disabled or destroyed.

In the aftermath of the failed attack, the Kwantung Army leaders would reconsider the role of the Japanese armored units in the attacks near Nomonhan. The attack had been a failure, and it had cost such a large number of tanks, that the armored units were pulled back from the fighting, and they would not be used in any further attack. While the Japanese were reducing the resources they were putting into the battle, on the Soviet side it was only increasing. Zhukov requested more forces of every kind, and he would get it, with train after train bringing men and equipment into the area from western Russia. Every truck that could be commandeered in eastern Russia would be used to move this equipment from the railheads to the front in preparation for continuing fighting, in the hopes of a Soviet offensive in the near future. While these reinforcements were brought in, fighting would continue in the areas around Nomonhan. Japanese attacks would continue, focusing on night attacks by smaller infantry units to try and reduced the effectiveness of the Soviet advantages in armor and artillery. The largest of these actions would take place at night on July 7th, which two regiments of infantry would attack after a short artillery bombardment. They would catch the defending Soviet and mongolian forces by surprise, but when the sun rose the next day the Soviet artillery hit them incredibly hard, which were followed by Soviet counter attacks that pushed the Japanese units off of most of their gains. This was the general structure of the fighting during the week after the retreat across the river, just a grind where the Japanese would attack, maybe gain a bit of ground, be hit with Soviet artillery, and then try to defend against a Soviet counterattack.

Another similar Japanese action would be launched on the night of July 11th when 2 regiments of infantry launched into an attack, with advances made during the night hours. The goal was to reach the river, but they never came within a kilometer from the river before begin hit by Soviet counter attacks, which grew stronger as the day wore on. The issue was that there was simply nothing that the Japanese could do against the massive advantage that the Soviets had in armor and artillery. To try and resolve some of this problem, Kwantung Army headquarters brought in more heavy artillery from other areas. This new artillery would spend the next 10 days arriving and stockpiling ammunition so that it could support another renewed offensive effort. On July 23rd the firing would start, and would continue for three days, firing over 10,000 artillery rounds. But here was the problem, even in the middle of this effort, as the Japanese were putting forward all of their artillery strength, the Soviets were firing more. The more the Japanese fired the more it appeared that the Soviets were just getting stronger. One Japanese artillery officer estimated that the Soviet artillery was able to fire three times as many shells as the Japanese were on the first day of firing. The second day of the artillery duel was even more lopsided, with Zhukov having brought in his own artillery reserves during the hours of darkness. These events were a really good example of the Japanese not really understanding the kind of war that they were fighting with the Soviets around Nomonhan. They did not have a good comprehension of just the size and scale of the material requirements that they would have to commit if they wanted to win against determined Soviet efforts. And even if they had known, they wouldn’t have had the raw material to make it happen, because this artillery duel, which had only left the Soviets in a stronger position, would consume over 2/3rds of the Japanese artillery ammunition stockpiles. With the total failure of the attempted artillery offensive, the Japanese went over to the defensive. They did not want to abandon their positions on the eastern side of the river, and so construction of defensive positions began, and they would have plenty of time to prepare for the large Soviet attack that would be launched in the last half of August, but it would not really matter. As we will discuss next episode.