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Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939
Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939
by Alvin D. Coox
Edition: Paperback
Price: 46.66

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive and Authoritative, 22 April 2011
This is undoubtedly the most comprehensive and authoritative account of the little known conflict between Japan and the Soviet Union at Khalkhin Gol (Nomonhan) in 1939. In contrast with the other currently available work on this subject, Alvin Coox (1926-1999) provides an objective and dispassionate account of the conflict with human portrayals without recourse to tired clichés and stock stereotypes that so frequently populate the works dealing with the Japanese military.

More significantly his narrative of the events provides a valuable insight into the mindset of the Japanese military at all levels on the eve of World War II. Coox contends that the Japanese defeat at Khalkhin Gol was the decisive factor in the subsequent Japanese decision to strike south and that Soviet Invasion of Manchukuo at the close of World War II was a direct consequence and a continuation of the battles of 1939. When this view is considered in conjunction with the details of US economic strategy against Japan as detailed recently in Edward Miller's "Bankrupting the Enemy" (2007), they provide a comprehensive economic and military insight into the reasons for Japanese entry into World War II.

If a criticism may be made of his efforts, it is in the fact that his primary sources are largely from the Japanese side with a few official histories referenced from Soviet sources. Given the fact that the book was published during the Cold War however, this could not have been avoided. The key contentions that are still raised in Russian and Japanese media relating to the conflict are those relating to causus belli, the impact on Japanese tactical doctrine and casualty figures.

According to Russian and Outer Mongolian sources, mostly recently reiterated during the visit by President Medvedev to the Mongolia in 2009, the conflict is described as a part of overall Japanese strategy to invade Outer Mongolia and establish domination over the Soviet Far East. Given the fact that the Soviet Union has always been the primary opponent in IJA strategic thinking and with a history of territorial expansion through border disputes in China, this interpretation would appear plausible. Coox on the other hand details how the border between the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo and Outer Mongolia, a Soviet satellite was never clearly marked on any contemporary maps. While the Japanese considered the course of Halha River to mark the border, the Soviets believed that it was located some miles to the East. Throughout the conflict, the Japanese lacked detailed maps of the area and higher command never diverted significant number of units away form other theatres to reinforce the steadily worsening front at Nomonhan. He gives a day by day account of how minor skirmishes slowly escalated with retaliatory raids, punitive incursions and finally into a full-fledged battle with despite having little intelligence of the enemy dispositions nor a clear strategy based on assessment of reality on the ground. In the level of unit-by-unit detail provided, Coox's account remains unparalleled. As for the matter of culpability of Kwantang Army staff officers, especially that of Masanobu Tsuji and chief of operations Takushiro Hattori however, a more recent work, "Nomonhan no Natsu" by Kazutoshi Hando (2001) gives us better insights into their psychopathic personalities and their simultaneously incompetent and insubordinate conduct.

Infantry charges with fixed bayonets against trenches and defended positions were sta
ndard Japanese practice during the Russo-Japanese War. Despite the horrific casualty rate in the face of artillery and automatic weapons, it allowed the Japanese to achieve their strategic objectives against poorly led Tsarist forces in 1905. Unlike Russia or indeed the participants in the trench warfare of the Western Front, Japan had never experienced a war of attrition without decisive outcome that this very tactic engendered barely a decade later during the Great War. Likewise, they failed to appreciate the fact that even General Nogi Marenosuke, the Japanese commander at Port Arthur believed that the repeated infantry charges against Russian fortifications resulted in unforgivable loss of life and constituted the main reason for his symbolic act of atonement in taking his own life following the death of Emperor Meiji.

Throughout their campaigns in China against poorly trained, badly equipped and incompetently led armies, it achieved consistent successes in defeating larger enemy forces. Against the Soviet forces at Khalkin Gol however, the outcome was disastrous. Unlike the Tsarist armies of a generation before, the Soviet army was a modern outfit, keenly aware of the lessons learned in the trenches of the Great War, equipped with modern weapons, highly mechanised and with doctrine tested during the recent Spanish Civil War. Their morale was high, they were effectively led and above all benefited from due attention paid to the importance of supply and logistics. All this meant that they enjoyed massive superiority in fire-power from automatic weapons and coordinated artillery. As for the Japanese, even when artillery pieces were available poor logistics meant that shells were always in short supply and rarely effective. IJA reliance on frontal assaults by infantry, paucity of artillery support, almost total lack of mechanisation and poor logistics combined with endemic underestimation of enemy strengths all foreshadow almost identical shortcomings evident throughout the subsequent conflict in the Pacific and South East Asia.

Lacking effective weapons, the Japanese anti-tank teams were little more than small fire-teams carrying soda bottles filled with petrol. Despite heavy losses, these "anti-tank" units were successful in destroying a significant number of tanks. This was largely due to the fact that the main Soviet tanks of the period, such as BT-5 and BT-7 were equipped with petrol engines that made them susceptible to incendiary devices. This success was to be repeated a few months later in Finland where the petrol bombs came to be known as Molotov Cocktails. All Soviet tanks that came into service after Khalkhin Gol, starting with the most famous T-34, were equipped with diesel engines as a result. No such lessons were learned by the Japanese side however.

With the recent publication of de-classified records from the Soviet era (G.F. Krivosheev, "Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century"), some Japanese writers have claimed that the outcome of Nomonhan "Incident" ought to be reassessed as a stalemate. Such statements are obviously nonsensical since the Japanese forces failed to achieve any of the objectives of the conflict stated or otherwise and withdrew from the banks of Halha to the lines dictated by the Soviets. Another consequence of the new figures from Soviet archives published after Coox has been the claims that the Japanese casualty figures are too low. It is not inconceivable that the figures released by the Kwantang Army authorities at the time could have been falsified to minimise reaction from the government or for propaganda purposes. What is often not appreciated however is the fact that since the end of the Second World War, there have been little evidence of, or for that matter motive for any attempt by the Japanese authorities to continue to cover up their losses. In lieu of any new sources being uncovered in the relevant archives, the study by Coox represents one of the most reliable figures for Japanese losses to date.

In the light of subsequent Japanese decision to strike south while avoiding conflict with Soviet Union at all costs, Nomonhan must be considered as a watershed. Standard history books tell us that the first shots of the Second World War were fired in Poland in September 1939 and that the war came to a close following the dropping of the two Atomic bombs in August 1945. Such accounts of history fail to take into account the fact that a few months before the outbreak of hostilities in Poland, two of the major participants were already fighting a series of major engagements. What is more, on the day the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Soviet Union launched an invasion of Manchukuo with 89 divisions made up of 1.5 million men. This was the last major offensive of the war and lasted well into September.

The conflict between Soviet Union and Japan was neither the main cause nor the main deciding factor in the course of the larger conflict. On the other hand, Coox makes it clear that the territorial disputes over the control of a small border area between the Soviet and Japanese spheres of influence proved to be the decisive factor in determining the course of subsequent events and was in fact, an integral part of the larger conflict. As most of the territorial disputes and ideological differences that fuelled the last world war fade into insignificance, the announcement by Russia (March 2011) that they will be strengthening their garrison and coastal defences on Southern Kuril Islands (Northern Territories) remind us that Japan and Russia have yet to resolve their differences.


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