Russia’s Other Great Victory

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Around the anniversary of the Fall of Berlin, Gary Brecher (The War Nerd), decided to discuss Russia’s Other Great Victory, its invasion of Manchuria three months later:

What most people don’t know is that the Red Army had another huge triumph still to come: a crushing strategic victory on a front 3000 miles long, with 1.6 million Soviets annihilating a force that, on paper at least, totaled more than a million battle-hardened Axis troops. I’m talking about Operation August Storm, the Soviet invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria on August 9, 1945 — exactly three months after the surrender of the Nazis.

That date is no coincidence.

Stalin had made a deal with FDR and Churchill at Yalta in February, 1945:

[I]f the Red Army attacked Japan’s Manchurian colony within three months of the Nazis’ final defeat, the USSR would get permanent occupation of Sakhalin Island, a big long streak of icy forest north of Hokkaido, and the Kuril Islands, a string of fog-bound rocks looping from the North end of Hokkaido to the Southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Not exactly Rodeo Drive in terms of valuable real estate, but those places meant a lot to Stalin: they’d been grabbed from the Russians by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. It was one of those old disgraces that world powers tend to get all obsessive and unhealthy about, like Hitler forcing the French to surrender in the same lousy railroad car where they’d made Germany surrender in 1918. That was what pre-Abba Europe used to be like: never learned anything new, and never, ever forgot a grudge.

There was something kind of poetic-justice about the way the Americans were begging the Soviets to open up a second front against the Japs, because the Russians had been begging the Anglos to open a second front against the Germans for years — two-and-a-half years, actually, counting from Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941) to D-Day (June 6, 1944).For all that time, the Soviet armies had fought alone against the Wehrmacht, the finest land army since the Mongols. And all that time they were screeching, “Hey Allies, buddies, ol’ pals, how about a little help here!

Zhukov had already crushed the Japanese army in Mongolia years earlier — which is why the Japanese navy got its way, and the empire expanded to the south:

What Zhukov did way back in 1939 set the pattern not just for the Red Army’s successes against the Germans but for that final, perfect campaign against Japan in Manchuria in 1945. First, Zhukov dealt with his logistical problems, something the Japanese were too mystical and transcendental to take seriously. Next, he made sure all arms were in total coordination: air force, armor, infantry, artillery. That was another thing the Imperial Japanese were too snotty and quarrelsome to do: from 1919 to 1945, one of the constants in Japanese conduct in Manchuria is that the services hated each other, fought among each other all the time. In 1945 that meant that the Navy refused to lift a hand to help stranded Japanese troops evacuate the Asian mainland; back in 1939, it meant that when the Japanese air force launched a successful attack on Soviet airfields in Mongolia, jealous local commanders ordered their pilots to halt all attacks.

In August 1939 — you Russians must like hot weather, you seem to do a lot of your big attacks in August — Zhukov had all his ducks in a row, and gave the word to attack. Remember, attacking wasn’t something most commanders in 1939 did easily. They’d learned in 1914–1918 that the advantage was with the defenders. Only a few guys like Patton, Rommel, de Gaulle and Zhukov realized that that wasn’t necessarily so any more. Zhukov showed how it was done by encircling and annihilating the Imperial Japanese forces in Eastern Mongolia. And I do mean annihilating, because as usual, Japanese troops just didn’t surrender, so after Zhukov’s pincer attack surrounded them and they’d turned down a trip to the GULAG, Soviet artillery wiped them out.

Another little preview of 1945 during this battle was the way Japanese troops dealt with the inevitable, as in “total denial,” aka: “brave but stupid.” One Japanese officer supposedly led his men on foot in an attack against Soviet tanks, with his Samurai sword on high. That was a pattern you were going to see again and again, in Saipan, Okinawa, the Philippines, everywhere Japanese troops were defeated: they thought way too much of arranging glorious deaths for themselves, and not nearly enough about arranging the same thing for the enemy.

But this time, in a rare moment of reason, the Imperial Armed Forces learned their lesson: after meeting Zhukov and getting slaughtered next to that frozen Mongolian river, they lost all appetite for a land war against the Soviets. Now, the Japanese were all for headin’ south, to the sea and sun, to those balmy Pacific beaches, starting with Pearl Harbor.

That little shift in Japan’s business expansion plan kept them pretty busy. So now we can fast-forward all the way to 1945 without losing much, because while the whole rest of the world was exploding, in the meantime, the USSR-Japanese borders in Manchuria/Siberia didn’t so much as flicker from 1939 to 1945. Nothing, zip, nada going on for all that time. Stalin kept 40 divisions there (remember, a Soviet division was only 11,000 troops), but thanks to Richard Sorge’s Tokyo spy ring, he knew the Japanese weren’t interested in another big fight in Manchuria, which made planning for the German front a lot easier.

So now it’s May 1945: “Hey Comrade Stalin, you’ve just won the Super Bowl! Where are you going?” Well, it wasn’t Disneyland; “I’m goin’ to Manchuria!”

And like I said earlier, he was in no hurry to get there, because every day the Japanese were weaker. The B-29s ran the Tokyo route more often than commuter flights from SFO to LAX. The last of the island fortresses were falling — and instead of reinforcing the Manchurian Front, the Japanese Imperial Command, in its usual psychotic state of total denial about the Soviet threat, was actually sucking every decent infantry and armor unit away from the Kwantung Army in Manchuria and feeding them into the hopeless war against the US advance toward the Home Islands.
This was a campaign between two great empires — both gone now, it occurs to me — but one, the Soviet, was at the absolute top of its game, and the other, Imperial Japan, was dying and insane. There were still about 700,000 Japanese and Korean troops holding the line in Manchuria, but they weren’t exactly Samurai-quality. A full 25% of the Kwantung Army’s strength was guys who’d been drafted in the two weeks preceding the Soviet attack. We’re talking about an army that looked like John Bell Hood at Atlanta, missing an arm and a leg and not top-drawer material to start with. The amazing thing is that the Japanese troops knew it themselves. They were the dregs, dragged out of junior-high classrooms and old-age homes and shelters for the hopelessly useless, and they called themselves names that sound like a Heavy Metal amateur night at your local bar: “human bullets,” “Manchurian orphans,” “Victim Units” and “The Pulverized.” (If you don’t believe me, check out Philip Jowett’s book, The Japanese Army 1931–1945, page 22.) Their official strength was 24 divisions, but that translated to about eight divisions of effectives, with only about 1200 light armored vehicles.

Against that was a force that God would have made excuses to avoid facing in the Octagon: 1,600,000 battle-hardened Soviet troops with 28,000 artillery tubes and 5000 tanks — and more than 3000 of those were T-34s, the best tank in the world at that time. (You tank nuts who disagree with that assessment can send me all the King Tiger sites you want; it was a nice blueprint but they tried it against the T-34s and it lost, and I kinda go by success in battle, not bluebook-style stats.)

The Red Army had learned a lot about logistics since 1941, and some of the moves they made to prepare for the assault on Manchuria were pretty amazing. Instead of trying to transfer thousands of tanks across the whole Eurasian landmass from Eastern Europe to Manchuria, the Russian armored units like the 6th Guards Army, one of Zhukov’s best, left their tanks in Czechoslovakia before the engines even had time to cool down, hopped into troop trains and crossed the continent to meet up with fresh new tanks, shipped from factories east of the Urals, when they arrived on the Manchurian front. By August 1945, the Russian supply lines were running so smoothly that they could ship pretty much anything anywhere it was needed. Like Soviet armies always did, they took logistics and surprise both dead seriously, so they ran up to 30 trains a day across Asia, but I should say “a night,” because to keep tactical surprise they ran all those trains at night. (If you want a great detailed account of the prep the Soviets took, read Col. David Glantz’s book The Soviet Strategic Offensive in Manchuria, 1945.)

The combination of logistical superiority and tactical surprise gave the Red Army commanders a lot of flexibility when they looked at the maps of Japanese-held Manchuria. First, a little geography: Manchuria is sort of like a box, with high mountains and big rivers along the borders, sloping down to flatland in the middle. The middle part of the province was the prize; that’s where the fertile land, the population and the industry was concentrated. Most of the Japanese defensive forces were concentrated on the east side of the box, where they faced off against the Soviets along a north-south line following the Ussuri River from Khabarovsk down to Vladivostok.

The Kwantung Army commanders expected the Russian push to come from the east, so the Russians came from the west — through the Gobi desert and over the Khingan Mountains:

Like all advances that work better than they’re supposed to, this one stalled because it literally ran out of fuel. Those T-34s got so far inside Kwantung Army lines in the first few days that the Soviet Air Force had to use DC-3s to bring in gas. By that time, it was pretty clear that the cannon fodder the Japanese had left to man the trenches had had enough, so the problem wasn’t so much defeating the Axis forces as beating the American naval task forces down to the Korean Peninsula, the one big strategic objective the Red Army hadn’t yet overrun. They made it about halfway down the Peninsula, and then had to stop because a US force had made a landing at Inchon — yup, the same Inchon that MacArthur was going to make famous a few years later.

And that’s how the Korean Peninsula came to be divvied up halfway down.

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