The world in mid-1939 was an increasingly dangerous place. Two decades earlier, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles had ended World War I and created the League of Nations, yet the hope that the treaty would ensure a lasting peace proved futile. (See Special Feature, November 2013 ACG.)
In Europe, Nazi or fascist dictatorships ruled Germany, Italy and Spain, while the democracies – principally Britain and France – continued to favor appeasement over confrontation, which did nothing to dissuade the dictators from launching further aggression.
In Asia, Imperial Japan, under the sway of its army and navy militarists, was zealously expanding its empire. In 1931, it had seized and occupied Manchuria, establishing a Japanese puppet state and renaming it Manchukuo. Japan then began a war with China in 1937.
Although in 1939 Japan’s major military effort remained the escalating war with China, the occupation of Manchukuo led to frequent border clashes between the Japanese Kwantung Army and the military units of Mongolia as well as those of the world’s largest totalitarian nation, Josef Stalin’s communist Soviet Union.
Animosity and competition in the Far East between Japan and Russia dated back to the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, when Japan’s rapidly modernizing army and navy thrashed and humiliated the land and naval forces of czarist Russia. Additionally, Russia’s Soviet regime still bitterly resented Japan’s enthusiastic participation in the 1918-22 allied anti-Bolshevik intervention in Siberia during the Russian Civil War. Seventy thousand Japanese troops occupied Russian cities in eastern Siberia and on the Pacific Coast, only reluctantly withdrawing in 1922 after the Bolsheviks won the conflict.
The long border that Manchukuo shared with the USSR and its communist client state Mongolia included stretches where the exact location of the dividing line was disputed. Despite the fact that the vast region was mainly a barren, windswept wasteland, both sides aggressively asserted competing claims about the border’s specific location. Indeed, in July-August 1938, 30,000 Japanese and Soviet troops had fought a pitched battle near Lake Khasan, on Manchukuo’s northeastern border with the USSR, that produced 2,500 casualties before the two sides finally halted the fighting.
The Kwantung Army, which often acted as if it were independent of Tokyo’s control, aggressively provoked yet another border clash in May 1939 near the western Manchukuo village of Nomonhan, about 10 miles east of the Khalkhin Gol River. Japan claimed that the border ran along the river, while Mongolia, backed by the USSR, asserted that the border was farther east, at the very edge of Nomonhan.
The fighting, which began as skirmishes between opposing cavalry units, soon escalated. By July, substantial Japanese, Soviet and Mongolian infantry and mechanized forces had been moved into the disputed area and were conducting major combat operations. The fighting ebbed and flowed, with each side achieving gains but also suffering losses. “Victory” in this undeclared war depended on the skill, competence and tactical ability of commanders at all levels – particularly leaders of the companies, battalions and regiments that bore the burden of front-line combat.
Armchair General® takes you back to July 7, 1939, near the Khalkhin Gol River, west of Nomonhan on the Mongolia-Manchukuo border, where you will play the role of Japanese Major Tomiji Kajikawa, commander of 2d Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, in the Kwantung Army’s 7th Infantry Division. Your mission is to defend against an attack just launched from multiple directions by a strong Soviet infantry and tank force aiming to destroy your battalion and then move on to capture Nomonhan.
Although 2d Battalion and the attacking Soviet force have three infantry companies each, your units are significantly understrength in riflemen. More troubling, the Soviet force includes a dozen tanks while your battalion has none. To win against these odds, you must rely on effective combat tactics and especially your Japanese soldiers’ superb élan, which you are convinced makes them the best light infantrymen in the world. (See Great Warriors, November 2013 ACG.)
RISING SUN VS. RED STAR
Your career began when you graduated from the Imperial Army Military Academy. You then progressed through platoon and company command, including combat experience in China. Following that, you received your current battalion command in the Kwantung Army.
Your battalion is considered one of the army’s best combat units, a reputation reflecting its high morale and exceptional cohesion. Your men are all drawn from the same military recruitment district (Hokkaido, in northernmost Japan), and their comradeship has been further strengthened by two years serving together in Manchukuo. Your subordinate officers are a mix of academy and officer training school graduates and some reserve officers called to active duty. Your noncommissioned officers are career soldiers whom you can rely on completely.
Your battalion is composed of three 175- man rifle companies – designated Company 5, Company 6, and Company 7 – each divided into three platoons. The principal weapons the infantrymen carry are Type 38 6.5 mm bolt-action Arisaka rifles with 20-inch bayonets. The companies also have Type 11 6.5 mm Nambu light machine guns (a total of 20 in the battalion) and Type 10 50 mm grenade launchers (20 total) that fire fragmentation, smoke, and illumination flare grenades to a range of 200 yards.
The battalion’s heavy weapons assets are composed of a 120-man heavy machine-gun company with eight Type 92 7.7 mm machine guns, an artillery-gun platoon with two Type 92 70 mm howitzers (maximum range 1,300 yards), and an attached anti-tank gun company with four Type 97 37 mm guns. Additionally, the unit has a 70-man headquarters company that includes communication and supply troops and a security platoon.
Although your battalion’s authorized strength is 1,000 soldiers, only 882 are present for duty. When on the move, your infantrymen travel by foot, but the unit has a few trucks to transport supplies and tow the artillery and anti-tank guns.
The Soviet forces in the Far East are at the end of a long supply line that extends thousands of miles to European Russia. However, they are well armed and generously equipped, particularly in support weapons (artillery, mortars and anti-tank guns), transport trucks and mechanized vehicles. The three companies of Red Army infantrymen your battalion faces are armed with weapons comparable to those your men carry, principally M91/30 7.62 mm Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifles. Yet each Soviet infantry company boasts 50 more soldiers than a full-strength Japanese infantry company – and your units on average are 20 percent understrength, significantly increasing the enemy’s numerical advantage. Moreover, each Red Army infantry company fields greater numbers of light and heavy machine guns and has four 82 mm mortars.
When attacking, the Soviet infantry companies can draw additional fire support from battalion and regimental assets, to include up to eight 45 mm anti-tank guns, six 76 mm artillery guns and four 120 mm mortars. The opposing force is also supported by two tank platoons with a total of 12 Soviet BT-5 and BT-7 tanks mounting 45 mm main guns and 7.62 mm machine guns. While your battalion has no tanks, the attached 37 mm anti-tank guns can penetrate the Soviet vehicles’ armor.
ALONG THE KHALKHIN GOL RIVER
Along both banks of the Khalkhin Gol River is a grassy floodplain dotted with swampy patches. Moving east and west from the riverside, this comparatively lush vegetation gives way to ever-rising, rolling hills that reach heights in excess of 2,000 feet. This open, treeless, undulating terrain is covered in tussocks of knee-high steppe grass or soft sand dunes 60-120 feet high. Although the area poses no problem for infantrymen, trucks and tanks have difficulty negotiating the steeper slopes and churning through the patches of deep, soft sand.
Also affecting combat operations is the fact that the summertime sun does not set until 10:30 p.m., and it rises again only six and a half hours later at 5 a.m. This leaves limited hours of darkness for the types of night attacks at which your troops excel.
Moments ago, your early warning lookouts reported a two-company Soviet infantry force supported by a dozen tanks approaching from the south. Another outpost then sent word that a third enemy infantry company with an artillery section of two 76 mm guns was crossing the Khalkhin Gol River to the northwest. You instantly recognize this attack formation as the Soviet army’s preferred “hammer and anvil” tactic. In this case, the “hammer” force crossing the river will attempt to smash your battalion against the tank-supported “anvil” force advancing from the south. After destroying your battalion, the enemy no doubt intends to move east and capture Nomonhan, re-establishing by force the Soviet-claimed border.
With the enemy attack already under way, you immediately gather the commanders of your companies and heavy weapons units to hear three courses of action you are considering to defeat the Soviet strike.
“Pay close attention, men!” you sharply order. “The enemy approaches and we have little time to discuss our options.”
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: HOLD AND STRIKE
“The first plan I am considering,” you begin, “is to use our three infantry companies supported by the attached anti-tank gun company to defeat the largest enemy force – the two infantry companies and tanks attacking from the south. Meanwhile, our artillery-gun platoon and heavy machine-gun company, along with my headquarters security platoon, will quickly move north, occupy firing positions on the high ground overlooking the river plain, and use concentrated artillery and machine-gun fire to destroy the Soviet force crossing the river.”
Captain Kinichi, Company 6’s commander, speaks first. “Major, this plan, which allows the greatest number of our infantrymen and anti-tank guns to engage the largest enemy force, gives us the best chance to defeat the infantry-tank attack in the south. However, I fear that artillery and machine-gun fire alone cannot take out the enemy force crossing the river to the northwest.”
Lieutenant Nagumo, commander of the two-gun artillery platoon, disagrees. “Captain,” he says, “the Soviet force crossing the river is not only moving into open terrain with no available cover but also attacking uphill. Slowed by the steep slope – much of it soft, sandy soil – the enemy infantrymen will be perfect targets for my artillery guns and the heavy machine guns. Our combined fire will slaughter them.”
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: COMPANY COUNTERATTACK
“The next option,” you continue, “is to beat the enemy at his own game. The Soviet commander intends for his force crossing the river to envelop our battalion from the north and then smash it against his larger force in the south. But under this second plan, we will use two infantry companies, the anti-tank company and half of the heavy machine-gun company to defend in the south, while Captain Kinichi’s Company 6, supported by our artillery platoon and the other half of the heavy machine-gun company, launches an enveloping counterattack to hit the exposed flank of the enemy force crossing the river. Although Kinichi’s infantrymen will be outnumbered, this surprise counterattack combined with our men’s superior élan will make them an irresistible force that will sweep over the enemy.”
“Thank you, Major. I would be grateful to you for the honor of allowing my company to execute this counterattack,” Kinichi responds enthusiastically. “The Soviet commander, overconfident because he has significantly more men, will not be expecting us to attack. Indeed, the element of surprise coupled with our soldiers’ fighting spirit will ensure that we overrun and annihilate his force.”
Captain Yamaguchi, Company 7’s commander, seems concerned. “Major, I have no doubt that Captain Kinichi’s company will deal the Soviets a shattering blow. Yet I am worried that the large enemy infantry-tank force in the south might overwhelm our line that is being held by only two understrength infantry companies with reduced heavy weapons support. Even if the enveloping counterattack succeeds, we will still be at risk of defeat if our southern force cannot prevail.”
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: COMPANY AMBUSH
“My final plan,” you conclude, “is to launch Captain Kinichi’s Company 6 in an ambush against the enemy force to the northwest after the Soviets have finished crossing the river and begin moving up the slopes to the high ground. But to ensure that our two infantry companies and the anti-tank company in the south can hold or defeat the larger enemy infantry-tank force there, our artillery platoon and the heavy machine-gun company will take up a central position from which they can support our defense in the south as well as our ambush in the north.”
Nagumo responds, “Sir, I’m confident that my 70 mm artillery guns can support both actions. In fact, I have in mind a centrally located firing position that will keep each of the enemy forces well within range. My gunners are thoroughly trained and can quickly change the axis of fire from north to south and then back again within a few seconds each time. However, you will need to decide which force is to receive priority should combat action occur in both directions simultaneously.”
Sounding disappointed, Kinichi says, “Major, of course my soldiers will carry out your orders, whatever they might be. Yet I hope you decide to implement the second plan and permit us to attack. Charging the enemy from an unexpected direction is the best way to capitalize on our soldiers’ irrepressible fighting spirit and thereby overcome the enemy’s numerical advantage. I fear that with this ambush plan we may lose that critical edge and the Soviets could defeat us with their superior numbers.”
Having heard your men’s input, you impatiently raise your hand and command, “Enough talking! Now is the time for action. Listen closely and be prepared to execute my plan immediately.”
What is your decision, Major Kajikawa?
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Armchair General.