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Khalkhin Gol: The Soviet Victory Over Japan That Changed the Course of World War II in Asia

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.



The seeds of a series of battles between the imperial army and the Soviet army in 1938-39 lay in the defeat of the Russian forces in 1904-05. This was the first time that a European power had been defeated by an eastern power in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Japanese were able to annihilate the Russian fleet and also in battles on the mainland captured Port Arthur. This is known as the Russo--Japanese war and gave the Japanese a false sense of superiority over the Russian forces. The imperial army was now confident that they could overrun Siberia.

The Geo-political situation now began to change and Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown, and a communist regime under Vladimir Lenin appeared. The Japanese also flexed their muscles and occupied Manchuria and created the puppet state of Munchakao under emperor Pu Yi.

Having occupied Manchuria, Japan's aggressive Kwantung Army—on its own initiative, creating a disputed 3,000-mile frontier between Japan and Russia.

The leadership of the Soviet state had now passed into the hands of Joseph Stalin and he began to militarize Russia. There was no love lost between the two nations and the Japanese were still eyeing the vast natural resources of Siberia.

If Japan wanted to become a great military power it needed natural resources like iron ore and minerals, which it did not have. It was imperative for the imperial regime to lay its hands on these resources. This was their reason for occupying Manchuria and the imperial leadership and the Kwantung wanted to occupy Siberia. This was the genesis of the 1938-39 border war between the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan that had far-reaching consequences for the Japanese.

This led to a series of clashes along the border between Japanese-occupied Manchuria, Russian-controlled Mongolia, and the Siberian frontier near Russia's vital Pacific port of Vladivostok.


The beginning of battles

History records that initially the Japanese did not have an intention to occupy Southeast Asia and face the Americans. The Kwantung had already occupied Manchuria and it was confident that it would occupy Siberia and have access to all the natural resources of that massive land.

The first major Soviet-Japanese border incident happened in 1938. This is the Battle of Lake Khasan Clashes between Japanese and Soviet forces frequently occurred on the border of Manchuria. Both the adversaries were trying to understand each other and in the end, it was a stalemate. At that time both of the countries did not want to go to war and so a ceasefire was agreed to.

The imperial army was however convinced that though the Soviets had a greater number of tanks and guns the superior professionalism of the Japanese soldier would carry the day.

Another clash was bound to take place because at that time the Japanese were looking at Siberia as a source for raw material. The Soviets were hampered from the demographic point of view as Siberia was very sparsely populated and this gave impetus to the Japanese desire to colonize the entire area.

The principal commander of the Japanese army was General Michitaro Komatsubra and his force included several Manchukuoan armies and border guard units. The Russians did not have any worthwhile commander as Stalin had executed many commanders in his famous purges of 1936-37. But wisdom dawned on him and he sent general Gregory Zukhov, the famous World War II commander to Siberia. He took over command of the 57 special corps.


The battles

The incident began on 11 May 1939. A Mongolian cavalry unit of some 70–90 men had entered the disputed area for their horses. On that day, Manchukuoan cavalry attacked the Mongolians and drove them back across the Khalkhin Gol. On 13 May, the Mongolian force returned in greater numbers and the Manchukoans were unable to dislodge them.

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The imperial army however was getting ready for a bigger offensive. In the meantime, the command had been handed over to general Zukov by Stalin. The arrival of Zukov was a game-changer and he made plans to destroy the Kwantum. Zhukov unleashed a mechanized blitzkrieg of infantry, armor, and artillery that encircled and destroyed the 23rd Division before a ceasefire was declared. The Japanese suffered 17,000 casualties while the Soviets lost 10,000.

The Japanese imperial army wanted to retaliate but at that time Stalin was not interested in continuing the contest as he was busy with the signing of the peace pact with Hitler and Ribbentrop was in Moscow. A peace deal negotiated between Japan and Russia and was signed in Moscow on 17 September and the Japanese army was forbidden to launch any offensive.

A major outcome of this battle was that the Japanese realized that they may not be able to beat the Soviet army and conquer Siberia and hence the war cabinet decided that Japan must look for resources in Southeast Asia and to do that they would have to destroy the US naval power.



This battle is generally been overlooked by historians but the fact is this is a very important battle because it shaped the way Japan was to fight the war. The defeated Japanese army was greatly chastised and did not want to fight the Soviets and capture Siberia. The war cabinet therefore with general Tojo as the Prime Minister decided to attack Pearl Harbor to decimate the American fleet so that Japan could have a free hand and conquer Southeast Asia.

The net result of not attacking in Siberia allowed Stalin to transfer his elite troops to face the Germans. Throughout the war, the Japanese abided by the pact signed in Moscow and made no attempt to create any infringement on the 3200 km border with Russia. But towards the end of the war, the Red Army moved into Manchuria and smashed the Kwantum to smithereens. The atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the Imperial army and the government's goose were cooked. The curtain came down in the Far East with the destruction of the Kwantum by the Soviet army and paved the way for the victory of the communist party in the Civil War in China.

It is an interesting thought that in case the Japanese had beaten the Russians there was every possibility that they may have moved into Siberia and in that case, they would not have fought the United States.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on March 17, 2021:

Peggy, it's so rejuvenating to read your comments.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on March 17, 2021:

Thank you, Bill, I didn't know you taught history. That's a feather.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on March 17, 2021:

Liz, sweet of you to comment

Liz Westwood from UK on March 17, 2021:

This article gives interesting background to World War2 protagonists. It's interesting to trace conflicts back in history.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 17, 2021:

This is like a gift from the gods for this old history teacher. Thank you for a compelling read.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on March 17, 2021:

Thanks, Ravi, for sparing time and commenting

Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on March 17, 2021:

Very interesting.I had never heard about this battle and the fact that the Soviets fought the Japanese are quite interesting.THanks, MG

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 17, 2021:

You bring these past conflicts to life with your writings. One thing generally leads to another, and you have a way of untangling them for us to understand how and why some wars take place.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on March 17, 2021:

Pamela, so nice of you to have commented. Certainly, food for thought that in case the Japanese had beaten the Russians and occupied Siberia they may not have attacked America.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 17, 2021:

This is an interesting part of hisotory that I didn't know. This is a well-written article, MG. Stalin changed the course of history for Russia and the Japanese.

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