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Japan v. Russia, 1939 (part 1)

Few in the west knew or cared that Japan and the Soviet Union fought a small war on the Siberia-Manchuria border in the summer of 1939. On the ground, these were the largest tank battles since WWI. In the air, large forces were likewise engaged, with the Japanese taking something of a beating. It is difficult to get a fix on actual losses, both countries being notoriously secretive and notoriously apt to over-claim. The only good book in English about this conflict is Alvin D. Coox, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939 (Stanford Univ Press, 1985). Below are my notes from Coox's book.

(After they were first posted, these notes inspired a lively debate on the Russian side of Nomonhan. For that discussion, click here.)

Nomonhan appears to be a village west of the Holsten river (NS at that point) just before it crossed the Soviet claimed boundary (NW-SE at that point). Holsten rises in Lake Abutara a few miles inside Soviet claimed territory, and flows into the Halha river (Khalkhin Gol).

The cry before destroying the colors and committing suicide: "Tenno Heika Banzai!" three times.

Duty is weightier than a mountain / Death is lighter than a feather. -- Imperial Precepts to Soldiers and Sailors, 1882

Summary of JAAF air

The air force involved was the 2nd Hikoshidan, commanded by General GIGA Tetsuji. At the time of the August offensive it consisted of 4 scout planes attached to air force headquarters, 15 scout planes serving with the ground troops, and two combat wings with 125 aircraft:

12th Hikodan with 88 fighters, commander unidentified. Three fighter groups took part in the offensive, all of which later saw combat against the American Volunteer Group in Burma: 1st Sentai commanded first by Maj HARADA Fumio and later by Maj YOSHIDA Tadashi; 11th Sentai; and 64th Sentai commanded by Cap KATO Tateo. A fourth group, the 24th Sentai, evidently did not take part in the offensive.

9th Hikodan with 24 light bombers and 13 heavies, commanded by Maj Gen SHIMONO Ikkaku. The combat units included one squadron of the 10th Sentai (light bombers plus 2 scouts), three squadrons of the 16th Sentai (light), and one squadron of the 61st Sentai heavy commanded by Col MIKAMI Kiso

Japanese ground commanders tended to discount verbal reports of air recon. Photos were rare because cameras difficult to operate.

The 2nd Hikoshidan was worn down by August. In July, the Japanese had claimed 481 Russian planes while losing 14 of their own. In August they claimed 134 while losing 23. On the Russian side, Soviet AF officer A. B. Vorozheikin says the loss ratio was 4 Russ to 1 Jap in May but improved to 1:3 in June, 1:4 in July, and 1:10 in August.

Nomonhan got most of Nakajima's production of Ki-27 fighters. The crews were exhausted and replacement pilots untrained. Flying up to 6 hrs daily. "An air staff officer remembers the drawn faces, glazed eyes, and hollow cheeks of Japanese aviators. Scout pilots . . . were having difficulty with their respiratory systems."

Prior to the August offensive, 52 airmen were killed and 24 wounded, including Col ABE Katsumi c/o 15th Sentai killed by Russian strafing Aug 2. Lt Col MATSUMURA Korjiro c/o 24th Sentai shot down Aug 4 in fight with Russian veterans of Spanish Civil War, undersides of their wings painted violet. He was pinned by the tail of his own plane, his flight suit set afire, and lost all the fingers on one hand, but was rescued by another pilot who landed, pulled him free, and bundled him into his one-seater fighter. In all 80 percent of squadron commanders killed or wounded since fighting began. 70 percent of JAAF pilots had upwards of 1,000 hrs flight time.

The big push, 21 August 1939

In July, Kwantung Army hq at Hsinking urged Imperial Army High Command for permission to launch an air offensive against Soviet- Mongol strongpoint at Tamsag. This was approved on Aug 7.

"Operation S" set for dawn Aug 21. Estimated Soviet air strength 80-90 fighters, 30-40 larger planes. Says Giga had eight groups with 88 fighters, 24 light bombers, 13 heavy bombers, 21 scouts.

16th Sentai light bmr: 6-plane sq took off at 4:20 a.m. Bmrs in two tiers escorted by 50 ftrs flew across Halha for Tamsag airfield 60 km SW Higashi-watashi crossing. First squadron bombed at 6 a.m., still dark but could see outline of airfield, encountered flak returning. Second squadron (?) saw 16 large planes on field, encountered 20 I-16s (Polikarpov single-wing open cockpit fighter) when returning and took some hits. Third squadron could not find target and instead bombed tank formation. From 10th Sentai lt bmr 6 planes saw 10 Tupelov SB twin-engined bombers on airfield NE Tamsang, bombed them and claimed 2 destroyed. Escorting 12th Fighter Wing met no planes.

Second wave attacked 11 a.m. Squadron from 16th Sentai bombed southern airstrip, claimed five of eight large planes. Another squadron same group intercepted by fighters so turned for home and attacked ground installations; lost one plane and claimed 3 fighters. 61st Sentai heavy bomber with 12 planes met eight fighters at southern airstrip and claimed two; on way home claimed three more. 12th Ftr Wing? met 50-60 enemy planes, claimed 27 ftrs and 1 SB bomber, lost 3 own.

In afternoon, supported Jap ground forces by bombing tanks and vehicles near Fui Heights; met enemy planes. 16th lt bmr claimed 6 of 30 I-16s, losing one man killed and two wounded. Escorting 11th Sentai fighters claimed 11 of 40-50 I-15s (Polikarpov biplane fighter) and I-16s. Evening: 10th Sentai squadron bombed 3 ftrs taking off from concealed aistrip west of Hara Heights. Escorting fighters engaged 50 enemy fighters, claimed 9, lost 1 from 64th Sentai. Still, had failed to neutralize enemy air so scheduled followup for next day.

AUG 22: 61st Sentai heavies attacked by 30 I-16s, claimed 6 but lost 1 with entire crew of 5. Fighters met 30 enemy, claimed 3, lost 1 from 1st Sentai to AA. Scouts attached to 23rd Div reported that Soviet armor was endangering Jap positions, so Giga called off the air offensive to support the ground forces. AA shot down scout from 10th Sentai. Capt MOTOMURA Koji, 11th Sentai sq ldr, shot down while single-handedly battling 30 I-16s strafing ground forces north of 23rd Div hq. Though claimed 109 Russ planes in two days, had actually lost air supremacy. Worst losses since outbreak of Nomonhan fighting, say 8 planes first day, 6 the second. Plus 22-24 killed or wounded. Jap airmen exhausted but ordered to keep flying. Soviets reinforced air.

Climax battle 28-31 Aug. Soviet AF reported four encounters with JAAF, downing 4 bombers and 45 fighters. Major battle 31 Aug, when 126 Soviet fighters bounced 27 Jap bombers and 70 fighters, shooting down 22. Japs claimed 20 Russ planes that day, losing 3 planes and 4 men. Altogether, Japs claimed 108 Soviet a/c shot down while losing 29 (and 20 airmen killed and 32 wounded) from 23 thru 31 Aug.

After 5 Sept, major changes in JAAF. Operational strength down from 160 planes on 29 Aug to 141 planes on 5 Sept. The 31st Sentai and 64th Sentai had come up from China in July and August. More reinforcements began to move on 1 Sep.

Giga's 2nd Hikoshidan absorbed by EBASHIT Eijiro's XXXX, increasing air strength at Nomonhan by 50% with 9 new squadrons -- 6 fighter, 1 recon, 2 light bomber -- to a total of four wings (hikodan?) with 34-37 squadrons and up to 325 planes. [Later: my guess is that only three hikodan were deployed at Nomonhan.]

Russians likewise reinforced air units at the front. On 13 Sep, Ebashi gave go-ahead. 225 planes airworthy; fighters and some light bombers deployed to forward bases. Weather improved on 14 Sep.

Maj YOSHIDA Tadashi's 1st Sentai (Ki-27) bounced about 28 Soviet I-15 and I-16 fighters in afternoon, claiming 3. Weather still fair on 15 Sep, and Ebashi sent all Ki-27s and two light bombers groups plus scouts -- total 200 planes -- to hit enemy airfields. 20 Nates from Lt Col IMAGAWA Issaku's 59th Sentai engaged 50 Russ fighters, claimed 11. But one squadron followed Russ to south, was ambushed, and lost six Nates and their pilots, inc. s/l YAMAMOTO Mitsugu. 24th Sentai under newly arrived Capt SAKAGAWA Toshio claimed 13 Russ fighters; Sakagawa wounded but lost ndot planes. Total Jap claims: 39 in air, 4-5 on ground; lost 9, with 8 pilots killed incl 2 squadron leaders, plus three lt bombers damaged.

Russ say six air battles: 1, 2, 4, 5, 14, and 15 Sept, the last being the biggest, with 102 Jap planes engaging 207 Russ. Russ claimed 20, lost 6. Altogether for Sept, Russ claimed 70, lost 14; Japs claimed 121, lost 24.

The aftermath

JAAF casualties 141 killed, including 17 officers squadron leader or higher, w/ highest ranking being Col ABE Katsumi, c/o 15th Sentai. One-third of losses were over enemy lines. Plus 89 wounded. 10% of casualties in May and June, 26 percent in July, 50 percent in August, 14 percent in September.

Russ returned bodies of 55 JAAF airmen from west side of the Halha. In one PW compound, the Russians held 500-600 Japanese prisoners, including a JAAF colonel.

The released [bodies?] included Maj HARADA Fumio, 1st Sentai c/o shot down 29 July, possibly by Senior Lt V. G. Rakhov, who claimed to have shot down a Jap "ace" that day, who bailed out, tried to commit suicide, but was captured alive. As Rakhov told the story, the Japanese prisoner asked to meet the Russ pilot who defeated him, then bowed "in tribute to the victor" (quoting Georgi Zhukov THE MEMOIRS OF MARSHAL ZHUKOV, New York: Delacorte, 1971, p 164).

Also [the body of?] 1st Lt DAITOKU Naoyuki of 11th Sentai. The Russians sent him to Shintan hospital at Kirin, with MPs guarding the train and toilet doors always kept open, to prevent suicide attempts. Tight security also at hospital, where most of the orderlies were actually MPs.

As the story was told, two coffins were carried into the hospital the day before a six-hour "trial," after which guards were forbidden to go into the officers' rooms. They duly shot themselves, Harada supposedly after being given a loaded pistol and a Japanese publication describing his "heroic death in action" (quoting Japanese sources).

JAAF Master Sgt MIYAJIMA SHIKO, Ki-27 pilot of 24th Sentai, bellied in 22 June, wandered 4 days without food or water, captured by a Mongol patrol and imprisoned under harsh conditions for 10 months, returned to Japanese forces in 1940, tried, and sentenced to two years and 10 months for "desertion under enemy fire." Released 31 Dec 1942. (quotes Hata Ikuhiko, interview and article)

Gen Giga in August 1940 made commander of a bomber basic training school, then retired in Oct 1941 at age of 56 and spent most of WWII as a farmer.

unit citations to Col Noguchi's 11th Sentai for air battles in May, Lt Col Matsumura's 24th Sentai for combat in June. Also to all three wings and to a squadron of 16th Sentai.

Russ I-16 fighters used 82 mm rockets to attack Jap ground positions, and some claim of using air-to-air missiles against Jap planes. I-16 saw service on Western front until 1943, and in Spanish service under 1952. Says it was replaced at Nomonhan by the retractable-gear I-153 Chaika fighter-bomber, much more powerful than the I-15.

JAAF had trained only 1,700 pilots in 30 years; losses at Nomonhan crippled it. By December 1941, army flight schools graduating 750 pilots a year.

Click here for comments by Alexei Stepanov and Sander Kingsepp and here for a Russian list of aircraft losses, giving a total of 249 aircraft lost to all causes.