Nomonhan was one of the decisive battles of the twentieth century, argues Claus von Billow
[N THE SUMMER OF 1939, the eyes of the British public were distracted from the cricket scores and focused on the German-Polish border. No ine paid any attention to a major onfrontation between the Empire of apan and the Soviet Union in the wastes if distant Asia.
Yet, in those weeks, immediately iefore the outbreak of the Second World War, a great battle was fought at a place :ailed Nomonhan. It was ignored then rnd it has certainly been forgotten now. ['he Japanese army was clobbered by he Soviet forces. As a direct result the expansionist military regime of Japan ;hanged their targets. They abandoned heir territorial ambitions in Northern Ylanchuria and Siberia and turned south. Ibis brought them into conflict with the French, Dutch and British empires in .he east, which they conquered without much difficulty.
--= It also brought them to attack the United States, and this directly affected the outcome of the Second World War. Furthermore, since the Soviets had so decisively repulsed the Japanese threat to their eastern regions, Stalin was able to transfer his asiatic defence forces to fight the German invaders with equally decisive impact on the outcome of the war against the Axis. The extraordinary consequences of Nomonhan have moti vated John Colvin to write about this fascinating and forgotten event. He claims, with some justification, that Nomonhan should rank with the decisive battles of our century. Certainly in the ultimate defeat of the Axis powers, Nomonhan should rank with El Alamein, Stalingrad and Normandy.
The author is well qualified for his task. As a British diplomat he served in postings to, inter alia, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, and Ulan Bator, some of them places where the humiliating defeats of the Western colonial forces by Japan led to the post-war evacuation of those colonies. John Colvin has written some excellent earlier books directly connected to those events: Volcano Under the Snow, about the Vietnamese General Giap, Not Ordinary Men, about a divisive defensive battle on the Burmese-Indian border, and his latest, Lion of Judah, which indirectly visits events and heroes in the Far East theatre of war.
Colvin, knows, as does every professional historian, that no battle on whatever battlefield stands by itself. It can only be understood in the context of the prior history of the combatants and in the ultimate outcome of the war and the ensuing peace. Since the battle of Nomonhan will be completely unknown to most readers, the author very properly goes back further into the history of Western confrontation with Japan so as to help our understanding.
We follow the Czarist Russian conquests in the 19th century through huge areas of Central Asia to the shores of the Pacific. After Commodore Perry's squadron forced the opening of Japan to western trade and influence, the Shogunate came to an end and the expansionist military clique ruled Japan under the titular Emperor. Their first encounter was with Czarist Russia and in Colvin's description of the defeat of the incompetent Russian leadership we can anticipate the effect this had on the revolution of 1917. The vignette of the Russian General Stackelberg, fighting the war from his salon in a special train, and assisted by his wife and ladies' maid, is very telling.
Colvin's list of first and secondary sources for his book is impressive. The character of Stackelberg reminds this reviewer of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire's rare seminal novel Les Onze Mille Verges, which also reaches its climax during the siege of Port Arthur. Japan, for its own good reasons, was a loyal ally of Britain during the First World War, which gave it the further opportunity of sending very substantial forces into Russian Asia in an effort to bolster the White Russians in their ineffectual fight against the Bolsheviks. The Japanese further increased their influence in Manchuria and ultimately fought a continuous and brutal war in China both against Chiang Kai Shek and later against the Communists under Mao.
It was, however, in the rivalry with the new Soviet Union that Japanese imperialism met its first and vital check at the battle of Nomonhan. It is interesting that Stalin's wholesale executions amongst leaders of the Soviet officer corps led the Western Allies to underestimate the resilience of the Soviet Army. By the same token the astonishing and heroic defence by the Finns against the invading Soviets during the winter war of 1939-40 fooled Hitler into misjudging Soviet strength. Yet the splendid Soviet victory against the Japanese at Nomonhan did not lead anyone into a re-evaluation of Soviet capabilities, nor into adapting those capabilities so as to defend the Western colonial empires against the obvious new reorientation in the Japanese aggressive strategy.
Many books have been written about the failure of the Americans to heed the warnings of the impending attack on Pearl Harbour. The British likewise failed to realise that capital ships were very vulnerable without air cover; so they lost the Repulse and the Prince of Wales battleships and left Singapore open to an overland attack through the supposedly impenetrable Malaysian jungles. The Soviet victory at Nomonhan should have shown Western observers that even suicidal Japanese courage could be defeated by superior technical equipment.
Three years ago the historian Niall Ferguson's edited a collection of "What if..." essays. Many academics are sceptical and indeed outright hostile to such "virtual history" scenarios on the grounds that history is about what actually happened and not about speculating about what would have happened if Cleopatra's nose had been of a different length. However, Ferguson was in good company. No less a historian than GM Trevelyan in his small volume Clio, the Muse imagines a Europe where the French have won a definitive and final victory at Waterloo. We would have been spared a united Germany with its gauleiters, and would have been ruled, possibly from Brussels, by arrogant bureaucrats. As it turned out, it just took us a little longer to get there.
Would a Japanese victory at Nomonhan have forced Stalin to fight on two fronts? Would the Japanese therefore have spared the Western colonial empires in the east? Would there have been a Vietnam War? It is fun but futile to speculate. Victors write the history books, but only the British make acult of their courage in defeat and list Dunkirk and Anaheim as triumphs. I will be surprised if John Colvin's interesting story of Nomonhan finds a publisher in Tokyo.