John Colvin: Nomonhan

In late 1939 the eyes of the world were fixed on Finland where the Soviet Army stumbled into a series of disastrous encounters with a much smaller defence that inflicted heavy losses on them. By contrast an earlier encounter by the Red Army thousands of miles away with a completely different foe had gone virtually unnoticed, at least in the West. John Colvin's book redresses the balance and shows how in fact Nomonhan (aka Khalkin-Gol) was one of history's decisive battles, mainly in terms of its consequences.

The brief but bitter encounter encounter on the Halha River was a culmination of over thirty years of Russo-Japanese rivalry in the Far East, perhaps even further back if one counts Japan's move into Korea at the end of the nineteenth century. The Russo-Japanese War of 1905, which ended in humiliation for Russia following the destruction of her fleet in Port Arthur and at Tsushima, was followed in the Russian Civil War by Japanese intervention in Siberia, ostensibly as part of the Allied force but according to Colvin mainly with an eye to securing the resources of the area for Japan. The area seems to have been a cauldron of lawlessness, with Red and White warlords and terrorists followed by Japanese seizure of Manchukuo (Manchuria) and the incursions into China, culminating in the "China Incident" which was in fact full scale invasion. Thus both the Soviets and Japanese found themselves facing each other on the border of Inner and Outer Mongolia.

From painting the broad background Colvin, a former British diplomat who served among other posts at Ulan Bator in Mongolia, describes the minutiae of the military encounter itself that lasted over a period of weeks, beginning with clashes between proxy armies (the Mongolians, especially their cavalry, and the Manchukuoans) and culminating in a devastating full-scale Soviet counter-offensive. Freely acknowledging his debt to Alvin Coox's book on the subject (Coox is cited in several places), Colvin seems also to have drawn on his time in Mongolia at a time when presumably many of the observers and participants in the battle were still alive. What comes across, and may surprise many readers, is how efficiently the Russians, especially under Zhukov, reacted to the Japanese incursion and how badly led, organised and supplied the Japanese (later to acquire a superhuman reputation against Western soldiers) really were. Thus, while the Soviets are dispatching tanks and artillery to the front line, we find Japanese infantrymen being forced to walk fifteen miles to the front in the baking heat of the Mongolian desert, and units often running low on water at crucial points in the battle. The Japanese officer corps, particularly in the Kwantung Army, seems to have been a law unto itself, deciding which orders to obey despite the Emperor's wish not to get involved in a war with Russia. Given such chaos and such a determined and well-organised foe as Stalin's army, the "blind gallantry" of the ordinary Japanese soldier could not prevail. Having been swept back to its starting point with heavy casualties, the Imperial Japanese Army was forced to concede a truce.

The consequences of the debacle at Nomonhan were far-reaching, in some ways out of proportion to the short battle itself. There had always been two schools of thought in the Japanese military establishment: "Strike North" (mainly Army) who favoured the seizure of Siberia and land as far west as Lake Baikal, and "Strike South" who favoured peace, or at least neutrality, from the Soviets so that the resources of south-east Asia could be seized, including the oil of the Netherland East Indies and British assets in Malaya, Singapore and Hong-Kong. After the Army became conscious of their technical inferiority to the Red Army at Nomonhan, Strike North went into decline and Strike South into the ascendant. Colvin follows the story of the battle with the fallout in both Tokyo and Moscow, detailing particularly how the Japanese decided to turn south. The fruitless negotiations with the USA over the trade embargo and China are described in some detail, together with the machinations of the various factions in Tokyo who often seemed to have followed completely contradictory strategies. There is an interesting account of Japanese military moves just before the outbreak of war, especially in French Indochina, where the French who had already lost their homeland to the Germans had little real choice but to accede to Japanese demands, and who at one point found themselves fighting Thailand which had been encouraged to indulge in its own nationalistic fantasies by the Japanese. From the Russian side, Stalin was kept in touch with Japanese strategy by his masterspy Richard Sorge, and thus at a critical point in late 1941 was able to move divisions from the Far East safe in the knowledge that the Mongolian border was not going to be violated. Ironically, however, Zhukov's correct conclusions about mechanised warfare following Nomonhan were largely undone by Stalin's crony Voroshilov, who actually broke up the mechanised corps that had been so instrumental in achieving victory. Ineptitude at this level was to be punished during the Finnish campaign and the opening months of Barbarossa.

The momentous importance to history of this apparently obscure battle was that instead of Japan falling on the USSR's rear after Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, she staked everything, including war with the USA, on the gamble of a rapid strike southwards. Although from a military point of view the victories were impressive, strategically Strike South ultimately doomed the Axis alliance since it brought the USA into the war without improving German chances of victory over the other great industrial superpower, the USSR. A side-effect of this, moreover, was to spell the end of all the colonial empires in the region, yellow and white, since despite beating the Japanese decisively the Western powers had lost such face among their subjects that they withdrew sooner or later. Even the Philippines, by no means anti-American, became independent soon after liberation. Finally, as Colvin notes dryly, even the USSR was ultimately to lay in the dust, while growing as a world power is now the country that was once victim to all imperial ambitions, China.

In terms of style this is an easy but never dull book to read. The chapters are often short and succinct, and occasionally the prose reads as if it has been quickly cobbled up from notes. Some readers may also find Colvin's use of old English anachronisms such as "Johnny-come-latelys" and "prodnoses" a bit unusual, but the English school style is a deception: the author has carefully researched this work, as a check on the bibliography will show. This book is recommended to anyone with an interest in Soviet history or the conflicts in Asia this century.

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