Soviet Far East: Soviets versus Japanese 1938-45

The Soviets and Japanese clashed several times before and during World War II.

Date Location
1938 Lake Khasan / Chengku-fen incident
1939 River Khalhin-Gol / Nomonkhan incident
1945 ??? TODO ??


From 1931 to 1945 Manchuria was a client state of Japan, known as Manchukuo (literally “State of Manchuria”). The Soviets occupied Mongolia in the 1920s. The two nations had been disputing the border between Mongolia and Manchukuo for several years. The Japanese maintained that the border between the two states was the Khalkhin Gol River, while the Mongolians and their Russian allies maintained that it ran some 16 kilometres east of the river, just east of Nomonhan (a small village south of the Chinese city of Manzhouli). The Kwantung Army’s staff was convinced that they enjoyed a decisive logistical advantage in that remote area. Japanese railheads were located 100 miles east of Nomonhan. Two dirt roads had been cleared to the village. In sharp contrast, the nearest Russian railhead was 434 miles away at Borzya.

The Khalkhin Gol, flowed north–south, parallel with the battle front. At the center of the front, the Holsten River bisected the Khalkhin Gol. Terrain was hilly east of the Khalkhin Gol, but west of the river stretched a vast and barren desert plateau. During July and August, temperatures ranged as high as 104 degrees. Available water in the area was brackish, and water purification was a major problem for both armies. Hordes of voracious mosquitoes from the marshes tormented the soldiers of both sides.

The Khalkhin Gol river was also called the Halha or Halhin Gol.

Lake Khasan / Chengku-fen incident, 1938

In the summer of 1938, a major clash erupted at Lake Khasan, 70 miles southwest of Vladivostok at the intersection of the Manchukuoan, Korean and Soviet borders, leaving the Soviets in possession of the ground.

Battle of Khalkhin Gol (Nomonhan Incident), May-Sep 1939

In 1939 the Japanese forced the border issue with the Russians. The resulting Battle of Khalkhin Gol (Nomonhan Incident to the Japanese) was a Soviet victory and dissuaded the Japanese from a war with the Soviet Union. As a result Japanese strategy swung from the “strike north” option to the “strike south” option involving an attack on the Pacific islands and South-East Asia. This decision would have a big impact in the winter of 1941 as it allowed Stalin to transfer 45 divisions from the Far East to the defence of Moscow. 1941 was also the year of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (7 Dec) .

11 May 1939

70-90 men of a Mongolian cavalry unit entered the disputed area east of the river in search of grazing for their horses. Local Manchukuoan cavalry drove out the intruders.

13 May 1939

The Mongolian force returned and the Manchukoans were unable to evict them.

14 May 1939

A reconnaissance unit of the 23rd Division, Guandong Army, commanded by Lt. Col. Azuma Yaozo, engaged the Mongolians, who retreated west of the river with few losses.

Mid May 1939

As a result of this reverse the Red Army began planning a counterstrike. The Mongolians and Soviets forces were built up in the area and Zhukov was chosen to lead them. Zhukov also organised deep defensive lines.

21 May 1939 ???

The Azuma force returned a week later their earlier success. Conditions had changed, however, and superior numbers of Soviet and Mongolian infantry and tanks surrounded the Japanese,

28-29 May 1939

The Azuma force was destroyed, suffering 8 officers and 97 men killed and one officer and 33 men wounded, for a total of 63% casualties. Despite this bloody defeat, the Guandong Army was inclined to treat the engagement as a draw, and the area as not being worth the expenditure of any more Japanese blood.

June 1939

The Soviets conducted small-scale attacks on isolated Manchukoan units on both sides of the river near Nomonhan.

The Japanese were reinforced and organized under the command of Lt. Gen. Michitaro Komatsubara into an army of 20,000 men and 112 field artillery pieces.

27 June 1939

The Japanese launch bombing raids against Tamsag and Bain Tumen air bases, deep in the Soviet rear. Local Japanese commanders were subsequently reprimanded for this action.

1 July 1939

Having received permission to “expel the invaders”, the local Guandong Army commander, Lt. General Komatsubara, launched his men across the Khalkhin Gol river in a two pronged attack. A mechanised brigade spearheaded the southern attack.

2 – 10 July 1939

7.5 Japanese infantry battalions crossed the Khalkhin Gol and seized the Bain Tsagan Heights. Zhukov quickly hurled the Soviet 11th Tank Brigade and 7th Armored Brigade into a counterattack. With few anti-tank guns, the Japanese were dislodged from the ridge and forced to withdraw across the river. Subsequent Japanese counterattacks saw poor coordination between the infantry and armor. 44 Japanese tanks were destroyed or damaged.

3 July 1939

By the evening of 3 July, however, the Japanese attack stalled and the Soviet forces threw the Japanese back over the river. The front then stabilized with only minor actions for the summer.

10 July 1939

The Japanese Mechanised Brigade was withdrawn.

23 – 25 July

They Japanese tried again, but lost out in the preliminary artillery duel. The formidable Russian
defences also stopped the subsequent night attacks by the Japanese infantry. Even when Japanese
units were able to seize positions, when morning came, Soviet artillery, tanks and infantry
recaptured the lost ground.
End of July 1939

The Japanese went on the defensive and devoted themselves to building a system of field fortifications and bunkers.

10 August 1939

Japanese forces fighting along Khalkhin Gol were organized as the Sixth Army. The army included 38,000 soldiers, 318 guns, 130 tanks and 225 warplanes. However, the Japanese flanks were covered by unreliable Manchukuoan cavalry and were vulnerable to encirclement. Nor did the Japanese possess a tactical mobile reserve.

mid-August 1939

Approximately 50,000 Russian and Mongolian troops of the 57th Special Corps were deployed to defend the east bank of the Khalkhin Gol River.

20 – 26 August 1939

The climactic battle of Khalkhin Gol commenced at 0545 hours when Russian aircraft and guns battered the Japanese positions. At 0900 hours Russian troops moved forward. Three Soviet and Mongolian infantry divisions (70,000 men in all) and a tank brigade crossed the river to attack the Kwantung Army. Zhukov’s victory was quick and complete, in large part because the Japanese were unaware of the Zhukov’s tank brigade, not to mention the potency of Russian tanks. The Japanese were stunned by the ferocity of the attack, however, they put up a determined resistance and managed to hold the northern and central sectors. Japanese doctrine at the time was for front-line troops to hold their positions with high rates of fire, and await relief actions from the rear. While very successful against the lightly armed Chinese forces, the Soviet tanks turned the tables on them entirely. The Russian southern force, which had the strongest armoured component cut through the Japanese and into their rear. Although Komatsubara was aware of the Soviet threat to his southern flank, he chose to reinforce the endangered northern flank instead, which, in turn caused Zhukov to commit the 9th Armored Brigade and the paratroopers of the 212th Brigade in the north.

23 August 1939

The southern Soviet force reached the Manchukuoan border and cut off any Japanese retreat from the area below the Holsten River.

24 August 1939

The Soviet 9th Armored Brigade linked up with the 8th Armored Brigade from the south, encircling two complete Japanese divisions.

24 – 26 August 1939

Japanese forces outside Manchukuo tried to break the Soviet encirclement but Soviet air attacks made road movement difficult and a hammer blow by the Soviet 6th Tank Brigade finally forced the Japanese to abandon their efforts.

27 August 1939

The Japanese attempted to break out of the encirclement, but failed. When the surrounded forces refused to surrender, Zhukov wiped them out with artillery and air attacks.

31 August 1939

The battle ended with the complete destruction of the Japanese forces. Following the battle, the Red Army attacked what remained of the Japanese forces and drove them back into Manchukuo.

1 – 15 September 1939

A fierce air war was fought with the Japanese attacking both Soviet ground forces and air bases in Mongolia.

16 September 1939

Cease fire agreed and signed.

Results of the conflict

Later signed a treaty in which they agreed to abide by the existing border.

Of the 30,000 troops on the Japanese side, 8440 were killed and 8766 wounded.

The Red Army committed 57,000 infantry, 498 tanks, and 346 armoured cars to the battle, and claimed total losses (killed and wounded) of 9284 men. After the collapse of Soviet Union documents about the battle changed the numbers considerably, the actual number of losses in the battle was 23,926, of whom 6,831 killed, 1,143 reported missing, 15,952 wounded. While the Red Army did win the battle, it was not a one sided battle as previously believed.


The Japanese Kwantung Army originated in 1906, formed from elements from the Imperial Japanese Army. Initially the 10,000 man force was intended to defend the Kwantung Leased Territory and the areas adjacent to the South Manchurian Railway. In 1919 it was renamed the Guandong Army. In 1931 the Guandong Army occupied Manchuria. By 1941 it comprised 700,000 men. By 1945 – when they faced the final Soviet attack – the army had shrunk back to 600,000 having lost the best units to the pacific theatre.

Lt. Gen. Michitaro Komatsubara’s army on the Khalkhin Gol comprised 20,000 men and 112 field artillery pieces.

Japanese Order of Battle

  • Lt. Gen. Michitaro Komatsubara
  • Japanese 23rd Division
  • Japanese Mechanised Brigade
    • 3rd Medium Tank Regiment (4 Type 97 medium tanks; 26 type 89B medium tanks)
    • 4th Light Tank Regiment (35 Type 95 Light tanks; 8 Type 89A medium tanks
    • 3 x Infantry Battalions assigned from other units.

Soviet Order of Battle

  • Soviet Northern wing
    • 6th Mongolian Cavalry Division
    • 7th Armored Brigade
      • 1 x medium armoured car battalion
      • 1 x reconnaissance battalion (medium and light armoured cars)
      • 1 x machine gun battalion (infantry; given the date these are unlikely to be SMG)
    • 601st Infantry Regiment from 82nd Rifle Division
    • 2 x battalions from 11th Tank Brigade.(BT-5)
  • Soviet center
    • 36th Motorized Rifle Division
    • 5th Machine Gun Brigade
    • 82nd Rifle Division minus the 601st Infantry Regiment.
  • Soviet Southern wing
    • 57th Rifle Division
    • 2 x battalions from 11th Tank Brigade (BT-5)
    • 3 x battalions from 6th Tank Brigade
    • 8th Mongolian Cavalry Division
  • Soviet Reserve
    • 9th Armored Brigade
      • 1 x medium armoured car battalion
      • 1 x reconnaissance battalion (medium and light armoured cars)
      • 1 x machine gun battalion (infantry; given the date these are unlikely to be SMG)
    • 1 x battalion from 6th Tank Brigade
    • 212th Airborne Brigade

The Armchair General

  • 11th Tank brigade
    • 1 x HQ (BT-5)
    • 3 x tank battalion (BT-5)
    • 1 x recon company (BT-5/7)
    • 1 x supply company (HT-26 / OT-26)

Also mentions the 11th losing T-37s and FAI.

6th Tank Brigade was active as well.

Lots of good stuff including maps.

Cordier (2003) mentions Russian self-propelled 76mm howitzers, mounted on turntables in heavy trucks and protected with armoured shields.


The Armchair General

Cordier, S.S. (Jul 2003). Red Star vs Rising Sun. The History Net. [On-line]

Farlex. (n.d.). The Battle of Khalkhin Gol. TheFreeDictionary. [On-line]

Russian Battlefield

3 thoughts on “Soviet Far East: Soviets versus Japanese 1938-45”

  1. This is undoubtedly the best precis I have read of this action.
    2 issues – (1) the paragraph headed 3 July, surely this should come in before that headed 10 July, not 10 August!
    (2) the paragraph headed 10 august suggests the presence of the Japanese 2 Tank Brigade – my own understanding is that this formation had been withdrawn to Kunchuling (out of theatre) by 1 August ( Coox – chapter 24).
    Otherwise, as I say, excellent!

    • Simon, thanks for the positive comment. You are, of course, right abut the dates. Typo. I’ll correct.

      I’m not sure about the 2 Tank Brigade and I can’t check because I’m away from home at the moment. I have a look when I can.

      • No problem – the account remains the most concise and generally accurate that I have read.
        There are some real doozies out there!


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