Nomonhan 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II by Stuart D. Goldman. Published by Naval Institute Press, April 2012. 288 pages, $31.95.
It is always a delight to read a book that is a long-term labor of love, Stuart Goldman has spent over three decades attempting to write this book, his first. The author, a scholar at the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research, started this work as a doctoral student, and would throughout his career leave and return to his manuscript. Goldman even spent a year in Japan learning the language and thereby producing one of the most definitive volumes on the Battle of Nomonhan, also called by the Russians the Battle of Khalkin-Gol.
In military history one sees a little known battle in an obscure part of the globe that would have global repercussions. Examples include George Washington’s expedition in 1754 that led to the death of a French officer who had surrendered, leading to the French and Indian War, also called the Seven Years War between England and France. There is the single pull of a cannon in 1861 that began the Battle for Fort Sumter and four years of the American Civil War. Often the results of a single battle and its repercussions are not known until decades after the fact. Such is the case with Goldman’s new book, the 1939 Battle of Nomonhan. This battle along the border between Manchuria and Mongolia pitted the Imperial Japanese Army against the Soviet Red Army and would lead to 50,000 deaths.
Readers will immediately be grabbed by the linkages between the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact between Stalin and Hitler, and Stalin’s desire to be free in the west to have a free hand in Asia. The Soviet Union and Imperial Japan competed for dominance in Asia, and chapters reveal how the Soviets supported various Chinese warlords to undermine pro-Japanese factions and the Japanese Army of Occupation in Korea, known as the Kwangtung Army.
The boom offers lessons into how Japan’s Kwangtung Army deployed in Korea, Manchuria, and China dictated policy to Tokyo and not the other way around. It is a battle-hardened army who felt they needed no guidance from politicians and even military officials in the Japanese capital.
What began as a festering border dispute between Japan and the Soviets exploded into a full scale war involving tens of thousands of troops. It is here General Georgi Zhukov is put to the test and implements his ideas on using mass armored warfare in the open plains of Mongolia. He earns a reputation in this battle for ruthlessness not just against the enemy but even among his own officers who did not perform.
The book contains such details as Zhukov’s deception techniques. Needing to move armor under the noses of the Japanese, he set up audio recordings of rumbling armor during the night, which the Japanese discovered. The Japanese became so used to this nightly serenade they mistook real movement of Soviet armor for the daily deception, one evening.
Chapters cover the Japanese and the Soviet strategy. Zhukov as the winner of the battle will be discussed in this review. Zhukov used mass frontal armored assaults against defended Japanese positions; this was a holding action for two mass pincers coming from the north and south to envelope the Japanese. He would perfect these techniques only years later against the Germans in Stalingrad (1943) and the Battle of Kursk (1943).
Goldman also introduces Japanese officers like Major Tsuji Masanobu who decided to relieve himself in front of Soviet defensive position, hiding a Japanese encirclement maneuver. August 20 to 30, 1939 would be pivotal to Zhukov as he commenced the successful entrapment of the Japanese 23rd Army. The Battle of Nomohan, led the Japanese to cease their military adventures against Soviet spheres and military leaders concentrated on means of expanding southward and eastward as well as seeing the rise of a naval strategy versus the land-based army strategy. The only other power standing in their way of becoming the dominant Pacific power, the United States; enter plans for Pearl Harbor.
Goldman’s book is for those with an interest in armor tactics, and World War II campaigns tactically and geo-strategically. A refreshing read.
Editor’s Note: Commander Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. He maintains a regular book review column in the NDW Waterline. Commander Aboul-Enein wishes to thank the Blackwell Library at Salisbury University for providing a place to read and write this review column