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  • With the advancement in military technology, the wars became more and more global.

  • Often a skirmish in one seemingly unimportant area would have long term strategic consequences.

  • 30 years after the Russo-Japanese War, the USSR and Japan were struggling over the borders

  • in Mongolia and that led to the Battles of Khalkhin Gol in 1937.

  • This minor conflict proved to be among the most crucial fought in the pre-war period.

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  • In the 19th century, the Russian Empire was expanding its influence in the Far East, but

  • the victory in the Russo-Japanese War, allowed Imperial Japan to check that and eventually

  • it gained control over Korea, Manchuria and South Sakhalin.

  • The Soviet Union tried to recover its control over the region, successfully aiding Revolutions

  • in Mongolia and China.

  • The 1930s saw Japan's increasing interest in Mongolia and the region more generally

  • as they invaded Manchuria, establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932 and advancing

  • into Inner Mongolia one year later.

  • The Japanese had suddenly and violently acquired a three-thousand-mile border with the USSR

  • and Mongolia, and this border was very ambiguous and subject to dispute.

  • Soon the Japanese Army stepped up its presence in the region, creating a quasi-independent

  • military force and government known as the Kwantung Army.

  • At the same time, the Soviet Union began bolstering its defenses and signed a mutual assistance

  • pact with their Mongolian satellite state in 1936.

  • In 1937 Stalin purged the army, wiping off eighty percent of the staff in the Far East

  • and Japan saw this debilitation of their rival and decided to exercise some pressure on the

  • Manchurian frontier.

  • In the Amur River, the Japanese managed to occupy Kanchatzu Island as a result of one

  • of the many border skirmishes.

  • On July 7 the Marco Polo Bridge Incident ignited a full-scale Sino-Japanese War that would

  • weaken Japan in their possible war against the USSR.

  • Soviet aid to China and the Japanese divisions being tied down in Manchuria helped prevent

  • a swift Japanese victory, which emboldened the Soviets to take a tougher stance m.

  • In 1938, this culminated in the Battle of Lake Khasan, called Changkufeng Incident in

  • Japan, where Japanese forces occupied the disputed area but withdrew after heavy fighting.

  • Although they managed to repel their foes thanks to the actions of Commander Grigori

  • Shtern, the Soviets suffered more losses than the Japanese because of the incompetence of

  • Marshal Vasily Blyukher.

  • However, this battle shows the shift in the balance of power in the region, as the Soviet

  • Union had now more forces stationed in the Manchurian frontier than the Japanese.

  • In mid-1938, the Japanese 23rd Division was created within the Kwantung Armyassigned to

  • Hailar, responsible for frontier security in Northwestern Manchukuo.

  • Subordinated to the infantry division was the 8th Border Garrison Unit, composed of

  • some 7000 Manchukuoan troops.

  • The 23rd Division was composed of three inexperienced and ill-equipped infantry regiments and was

  • commanded by the inexperienced General Komatsubara Michitaro.

  • The Soviet High Command countered by relocating the 57th Special Rifle Corps, consisting of

  • the 36th Motorized Rifle Division, 11th Tank Brigade and 7th, 8th and 9th Armored Car brigades

  • to Mongolia to defend its border with Manchuria.

  • The Corps was led by Commander Nikolai Feklenko and the Mongolian forces were commanded by

  • Marshal Khorloogiin Choibalsan.

  • Shtern replaced Blyukher and was given command of the Far Eastern front.

  • Since 1935 border conflicts happened around the Mongolian-Manchurian frontiers across

  • the Halha River, known as the Khalkhin Gol to the Mongolians.

  • The Soviets claimed that the border shouldn't be across the river, but some ten to twenty

  • miles east and through the tiny hamlet of Nomonhan.

  • To establish that on May 11, 1939, a twenty-man Mongolian border patrol crossed the Halha

  • River moving eastward to Nomonhan.

  • The patrol was discovered by the Japanese and a Manchukuoan cavalry force of about forty

  • men was sent to drive back the Mongolians across the river.

  • Some casualties were sustained by both sides, but the Manchukuoans had drawn first blood.

  • The next day, a bigger border force, commanded by Major Chogdan, pushed the Manchukuoan cavalry

  • out of the disputed area.

  • This spurred both sides to appeal to their protectors.

  • General Komatsubara dispatched Colonel Azuma Yaozo on 14 May to lead the reconnaissance

  • into the disputed territory and expel the intruders.

  • This force consisted of an armored car reconnaissance company, two infantry companies and some cavalry.

  • Azuma discovered that the Mongolians had retreated, leaving small elements on the banks of the

  • River.

  • An airstrike was ordered on these forces by Komatsubara.

  • The Soviets were furious at this strike and decided to support the Mongolians.

  • Feklenko was away from headquarters at the time, so he hurried back to the Mongol capital

  • of Ulaanbaatar to dispatch a mixed force of infantry and motorized artillery, commanded

  • by Major Bykov, to support the Mongolian 6th Cavalry Division in securing the border.

  • Bykov had around 1,000 infantry and 1,250 Mongolian cavalry.

  • Several skirmishes happened in the disputed area and gradually grew in intensity, while

  • the Soviets started building a bridge near the junction between the Halha and Holsten

  • rivers.

  • On May 20, Japanese reconnaissance discovered Bykov's forces and Komatsubara decided to

  • send a strike force under Colonel Takemitsu, composed of the 64th Infantry Regiment and

  • Azuma's reconnaissance force.

  • Having around 2,000 men, Yamagata was ordered to destroy all enemy forces east of the Halha

  • River.

  • The attack was set to be launched on May 28 with Yamagata planning to trap the enemy forces

  • in the eastern bank of the river as Azuma's force went south directly towards the bridge,

  • cutting off the enemy's escape route.

  • Bykov had placed his infantry regiments in the flanks and the Mongolian cavalry in the

  • center, with one infantry regiment and his artillery in reserve near the bridge, while

  • Yamagata concentrated his forces at the town of Kanchuerhmiao, north of Nomonhan.

  • In the morning, the battle began with Yamagata's infantry attacking Bykov's force near Nomonhan.

  • The lightly armed Mongolian cavalry was routed and driven back, forcing the Soviet infantry

  • to retreat as well towards the river.

  • Moving closer to the river, the Soviet artillery and armored cars came into action slowing

  • the Japanese offensive.

  • Bykov was able to regroup his forces near the bridge and started counterattacks, forcing

  • Yamagata's men to dig in.

  • Meanwhile, Azuma went south and soon found himself encircled by the Soviet reserves in

  • the bridge and the forces under Bykov.

  • Refusing to and under heavy artillery fire, Azuma's forces were annihilated on May 29

  • and Azuma himself died, while Yamagata was unable to regroup his forces and come to his

  • rescue.

  • Later that day, Yamagata retreated back to Kanchuerhmiao.

  • The first battle of Khalkhin Gol ended with almost 500 Japanese casualties and the Soviets

  • occupying the disputed territory with less than 100 casualties.

  • In the aftermath, the Kwantung Army misinformed the Japanese General Staff, assuring that

  • everything was in order, while the Soviet 57th Corps headquartered in Tamsag Bulak,

  • an airbase in Mongolia.

  • On 5th June, Soviet High Command decided to replace Feklenko with a young-but-capable

  • commander named Georgy Zhukov.

  • Reinforcements were allocated to strengthen Zhukov's new command and an aviation unit

  • under Commander Yakov Smushkevich was assigned to Tamsag Bulak.

  • The Soviets now had around 12,500 men, 109 artillery, 186 tanks, 266 armored cars and

  • more than 100 aircraft in the region, with more tanks arriving daily, bolstering the

  • number to 500.

  • On June 19, two Soviet airstrikes near Kanchuerhmiao caused the Kwantung Army's Major Masanobu

  • Tsuji to draw up plans for a large-scale attack across the Halha River and to reinforce the

  • 23rd Division with additional forces, including the 2nd Air Group under the command of General

  • Gigi Tetsuji and the excellent 26th Infantry Regiment with an armored tank detachment under

  • General Yasuoka Masaomi.

  • The Japanese now had 15,000 men, 120 artillery, 70 tanks, and 180 aircraft.

  • Tsuji's plan was to approach the Halha River and seize a group of hills called the Fui

  • Heights, some eleven miles of the Soviet bridge.

  • They would secretly build their bridge nearby and, after crossing the river, they would

  • strike southwards to the Soviet bridge while Yasuoka's detachment would push south from

  • the Fui Heights in a pincer movement, leaving the Soviet forces trapped near their own bridge.

  • To secure Japanese air superiority, needed for the success of the plan, on May 28 Tsuji

  • sent the 2nd Air Group in an airstrike against Tamsag Bulak.

  • The raid was highly successful and around 100 Soviet planes destroyed, but the strike

  • was against General Staff orders and this soured relations between them and the Kwantung

  • Army.

  • In the Far East, General Shtern had organized trucks with supplies and reinforcements eastwards

  • to Zhukov's position.

  • The Japanese misinterpreted this as a Soviet retreat, and decided to rush the offensive's

  • preparations to the start of July.

  • Sensing a forthcoming attack, Zhukov moved his 11th Tank Brigade, 7th Mechanized Brigade

  • and 24th Mechanized Infantry Regiment to the west of the Halha River.

  • The offensive started on July 1 at 4:00 a.m. with the Japanese forces marching undetected

  • 20 miles towards the Fui Heights.

  • The following night, a battalion of the 71st Infantry Regiment silently crossed the Halha

  • River and built a pontoon bridge between the two banks of the river.

  • When the bridge was completed, the main body of Komatsubara's 23rd Division, along with

  • the 26th Regiment, began a slow and arduous crossing.

  • They had to proceed without tank support but could carry their old artillery and antitank

  • guns.

  • The Japanese achieved a complete tactical surprise and found the Soviet forces in a

  • vulnerable position.

  • The battle began on July 3 when General Yasuoka's tanks attacked the 149th Mechanized Infantry

  • Regiment in the eastern bank of the river, while Komatsubara occupied the Bain Tsagan

  • hill on the western bank and continued southward.

  • Unaware of Komatsubara's position, Zhukov ordered his 11th Tank Brigade, 7th Mechanized

  • Brigade, 24th Mechanized Infantry Regiment and the Mongolian 6th Cavalry Division to

  • advance northeastward to Bain Tsagan.