Key point: The Soviets’ Manchurian Campaign, August Storm, destroyed the last vestige of Japanese military power outside Japan, and put the final nail in the coffin of those Japanese militarists who, even after suffering two atomic attacks, intended to continue the war to the death.
To the Soviet military, it is known as the Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation. Although it had no official name to the Japanese, it has become known in the West as Operation August Storm. It was the greatest defeat in Japanese military history, yet few outside the circles of Japanese and Soviet history are even aware that it occurred. It ensured the end of World War II as much as the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did, yet it is often ignored in Western studies of the war.
More than one million Japanese soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were killed or captured in a month’s bitter fighting in a far-off land that even today remains somewhat mysterious.
The seeds of the annihilation of four Japanese armies, each equal to an American field army, were planted in 1931. Japanese militarists saw the civil war in China between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Tse-tung’s Communists as an opportunity for a place at the imperialist table and a slice of the Chinese pie, and thus decided to invade China, Manchuria, and Korea.
The Imperial Japanese Army was particularly interested in showcasing its skills. They began by courting the Chinese warlord then in control of Manchuria. As the situation in China deteriorated, the Japanese Army used a series of staged provocations to eventually invade and seize Manchuria. This move, in the spring of 1931, set the stage for the Sino-Japanese War, which would last until Japan’s defeat and surrender in August 1945.
Although a giant in terms of land mass and population, China was viewed by most Japanese leaders in the 1930s and 1940s as a weak and largely defenseless area ripe for colonization and exploitation. Increasingly the Japanese militarists—primarily the Army but to a lesser extent along the coast, the Imperial Japanese Navy as well—increased their appetite for additional Chinese territory.
But these increasing violations of Chinese sovereignty brought a new player into the scenario: the Soviet Union. Premier Joseph Stalin became increasingly concerned that the Japanese were getting much too close to his own far eastern borders, and the already suspicious Russian leader began to fear their ultimate goals. This brought on the first armed clash between Russian and Japanese forces in late July 1938.
Known as the Changkufeng Incident by the Japanese and the Battle of Lake Khasan by the Russians, it would set the stage for all future conflicts between the two nations.
Essentially, a strong Russian force of about 20 infantry divisions massed on the border of Japan’s puppet state, Manchukuo—formerly Manchuria—to prevent any Japanese incursions. The Japanese, by now fully involved in the so-called “China Incident,” ignored the threat.
The Japanese had a low opinion of Russian military prowess, anyway. The Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, and the more recent Stalinist purges of his own military hierarchy, simply reinforced an already established prejudice.
When in 1938 there arose a dispute over the exact border between Manchuria, Korea, and the Soviet Union, a high-ranking Soviet defector brought much intelligence to the Japanese Kwantung Army. This defection prompted a local Soviet commander to occupy part of the disputed border line.
Even as diplomatic messages were being exchanged, the ever aggressive Kwantung Army began preparations to eject the Russian “trespassers,” and a Japanese infantry division was rushed to the area. The Russians countered, sending more troops as well. The Japanese were ready to attack and needed only the usually pro forma approval of their Emperor. But that approval did not come, infuriating the Kwantung Army leaders.
Repeated requests to begin the battle were denied, only to be followed by more urgent demands. Finally, the local Japanese division commander launched an attack on his own, claiming that the Russians were digging defensive positions within Japanese territory.
It was not the first, nor would it be the last time that the Kwantung Army started a war all on its own. Indeed, during this crisis the leaders of the Kwantung Army seriously discussed prospects of bringing down the current Japanese government should it interfere with their operations.
The Changkufeng battle was comparatively small. Fewer than 2,000 Japanese soldiers attacked in darkness and with surprise, overwhelming the Soviet defenders. The Japanese believed the issue settled. Not so the Russians.
General Grigori Shtern brought up his 49th Corps of the Red Banner Far Eastern Army, and repeated Soviet counterattacks drove the Japanese back, with heavy casualties on both sides. Diplomacy eventually settled the dispute, but the Japanese were unpleasantly surprised by the force and volume of the Russian military response. The result was a change of plans by the Kwantung Army regarding a possible invasion of eastern Russia. To prevent further Russian action, the Japanese ordered a more aggressive border security policy for all their units.
This policy resulted in the next incident, commonly known as the Nomonhan Incident. Repeated clashes between border-guard units finally erupted into open warfare on May 11, 1939. The Nomonhan Incident was much more like a full-scale war than Changkufeng.
Stalin decided that he had had enough of Japanese provocations. He ordered a heavy response and sent a new up-and-coming military leader, Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov (who would later distinguish himself at the Battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, and Berlin), to take command.
The resulting battles, which lasted into August 1939, cost the Japanese between 18,000 and 23,000 casualties and achieved nothing in terms of additional territory. Once again diplomacy resolved the issue but left the pot simmering. In April 1941, to cool the pot, a nonaggression pact was signed between the Soviet Union and Japan.
Within a year of the Nomonhan Incident, Japan’s leaders were trying to decide how to finally knock out China and end a war that seemed interminable. One choice was to attack the Soviet Union, thereby eliminating the northern threat and freeing up forces for the war in China.
Others argued for a strike to cut off all avenues of resources to China, starving her into submission. This, other voices said, might touch off a war with the United States, Great Britain, and Holland.
Already in the spring of 1940, German forces had overrun much of Western Europe and had pushed the British Expeditionary Force out of Dunkirk and back to Britain. In September 1940, Japan allied herself with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany by signing the Tripartite Pact.
These seemingly easy successes in Europe whetted the Japanese leaders’ appetite for an aggressive strike against their perceived Western foes. The results, of course, were the 1941 attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Wake Island, and other American, British, French, and Dutch territories in the Pacific.
Between 1940 and 1945, the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria, which also had responsibility for Korea, remained relatively static. There were no significant incidents and no struggles with the Russians. But the Army itself was being bled by the needs of the Imperial Japanese Army rampaging across the Pacific. Several of the best combat divisions within the Army were called up to do battle in New Guinea, the Philippines, and the Central Pacific. This left the Kwantung Army with inadequately trained and equipped forces should any enemy suddenly appear.
That enemy indeed appeared as a result of the several Allied political leaders’ meetings during the course of the war. As the war rolled on, both the Americans and British were fully engaged in battle in North Africa, Italy, northwestern Europe, and the Pacific. (The British, after their early losses, had, relatively speaking, only token forces left in the Pacific.) The Western Allies, therefore, were anxious for some assistance in defeating Japan once Germany surrendered. Plans had to be made.
The joint U.S.-British effort to develop an atomic bomb was a well-kept secret, and there was no proof that it would work. Even if it did, it might not force Japan’s surrender without a full-scale invasion of the Home Islands. Many requests—at Tehran, Yalta, and most recently at Potsdam—had been made for Russia to enter the war against Japan.
Stalin had agreed in principle but had put off releasing any details. But, as the war continued and his spies in the British and American intelligence communities reported progress on the atomic bombs, Stalin became more interested in acquiring territory in the Far East before the war ended.
As a result, he agreed to declare war on Japan within three months after Germany surrendered. Originally planned for August 15, 1945, the Russian declaration was moved up when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
In mid-1945, the Kwantung Army contained 24 infantry divisions, two tank divisions, five air squadrons, and totaled 780,000 officers and men. In addition, seven more infantry divisions with 260,000 personnel were in Korea and subject to joint operations.