Appendices - Hirohito's War
O. Japanese – Soviet Conflict in Siberia, Mongolia and Manchuria
The Battle of Lake Khasan and Amur River Clashes: Japan’s exit from Siberia did not mean that their fears of communism and the Soviet Union had receded. The annexation of Manchuria and its absorption into the Japanese empire in 1931, apart from increasing Japan’s economic power and access to natural resources, was in part inspired by the need to thwart the perceived soviet threat. Facing down the threat of communism was one of the common threads in the rival ultranationalist factions in the Japanese Army— though it was the more anti-Soviet imperial Way Faction (Kodoha) which ultimately crushed the control Faction (Toseiha) after the former’s attempted coup d’état in February 1936.
As the Soviet Union consolidated its power and strengthened its armed forces in the Far east, clashes with Japan’s Kwantung Army increased along the disputed borders of the Amur River. Some 152 border incidents between 1932 and 1934 led to Japan being described in 1935 as “fascist enemies” at the Seventh Comintern Congress. Faced by this threat from the east, Stalin increasingly looked toward the nationalist Government in China to help deflect Japan from the Soviet Union’s borders. Thus, in the two years from the autumn of 1937, Chiang Kai-shek’s armies were supplied with 82 tanks, 1,300 artillery pieces, 1,550 trucks, 14,000 machine guns and 50,000 rifles.
In 1935 armed clashes took place at Halhamiao on the border of Mongolia, a Soviet puppet state, in January, at Lake Khanka and Suifenho in eastern Manchuria in June, and at Lake Buir in December. The following year similar border clashes took place in February, March and April. In 1937 Japanese artillery shelled Soviet gunboats when they unloaded troops on the unoccupied island of Kanchazu on the River Amur. crewmen on the sunken gunboats were gunned in the water. Some 37 Soviet troops were killed.
The following year a two-week battle was fought at Lake Khasan when Japanese troops attempted to occupy territory, which they believed had been ceded to them by the Convention of Peking . The commander of the Soviet Far Eastern Armies, General Vasily Blücher, led a force of 23,000 troops against General Kamezo Suetaka’s occupying force of 7,000 troops. In spite of throwing 250 tanks into an attack supported by over 150 bombers, the Soviets were repulsed with heavy losses calculated at over 4,000 casualties. It was a pyrrhic victory. In spite of its success on the battlefield, Japan felt unable to sustain the occupation of Changkufeng and on 10 August, the Japanese ambassador in Moscow requested a peaceful resolution in return for a withdrawal of Japanese troops.
For his losses at the Battle of Lake Khasan, General Blücher was arrested, tortured and killed. His death was part of an extensive purge of ‘enemies of the state’ within the Red Army that saw eight top commanders executed, including the great Marshal Tukhachevsky. In total some 35,000 Soviet officers were purged. Those sent to gulags or executed included 3 of 5 marshals, 13 of 15 generals (of 3 and 4 star rank), 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 corps commanders and all military commissars. The seeming disarray in the Soviet Army misled Japan’s generals into believing that the Red Army had lost its fighting potency. Reflecting this complacency, they were drawn into an extended border war on the Mongolian-Manchurian border in May 1939. The Battles of Nomonhan, sometimes called the Battles of Khalkhin Gol, are described in more detail in Chapter 3: Japan Versus China: From Phoney War to Total War. The most serious of the inter-war border engagements between Japan and the Soviet Union ended in August 1939 with a severe thrashing of Japan by General Zhukov’s Far Eastern Red Army.