Forgotten war

Nomonhan

John Colvin <em>Quartet, 252pp, £18</em>

War may be hell, but one of its best-kept secrets is how few of its participants are actually killed. The little-known series of battles along the border of Manchukuo and Outer Mongolia referred to as Nomonhan, however, is one of the exceptions. In the summer of 1939 the Japanese army suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Soviets and their Mongol vassals. To John Colvin this defeat was the fulcrum in history that turned Japanese eyes southward towards the territories of the western colonial powers.

The Japanese had to turn somewhere - their nation in 1938 was overpopulated and under-resourced, and its industry was frustrated by trade barriers. A country smaller than Texas had, by the 1930s, a population of 80 million. Yet only desperation would lead anyone to dispute the barren steppe of eastern Siberia - a void land where there are three seasons in one day - when there were richer prizes elsewhere. Why a "strike north" was a worthy aim for a self-respecting colonial power is never quite explained here. Colvin's English talent for understatement has the mutual dislike and distrust between Russia and Japan merely "accentuated" by their 1904-05 war, but a personal element seems plausible. Such a sentiment was certainly not harboured by Emperor Hirohito. It was the rash actions of individuals that precipitated the conflict in his unwilling name.

The Japanese blithely pursued their aggression, underestimating their adversaries as they themselves were to be underestimated two years later, at Singapore, by the British. While General Zhukov amassed armour, infantry and fighter aircraft, the Japanese high command in Tokyo was forbidding air attacks against bases in Mongolia, because it did not want a "major" war with the USSR. When artillery was considered, the region, Colvin writes, seemed like one huge Russian firing range. While the guns fired, the Japanese used swords and bayonets whenever they could - convinced that this terrified the Russians. Faulty intelligence hinted at Soviet retreats when they were in fact growing stronger all the time. The Japanese light brigade charged every day for the crucial ten days in August, with inevitable results. Out of a force of 75,000, casualties numbered around 25,000.

The Japanese seem seldom to have doubted an eventual victory. While they matched even the British for pig-headedness, they were also capable of bravery that Colvin rightly calls "incandescent". Even then one wonders where such bravery came from. Among the faulty intelligence they received was the supposed inability of the Red Army to function after the depredations of Stalin's purges. But the Soviets at least kept their suicidal tendencies for peacetime. One Japanese company commander inspired his men with the thought that their coffins would be worth -100,000. When a lieutenant's tank was immobilised by a Soviet "piano wire" trap, he promptly committed hara-kiri. During the withdrawal to Nomonhan on 31 August, two corporals held the arms of the Japanese commander, General Komatsubara, to prevent him from shooting himself. Many more committed suicide in the wake of the final defeat.

Had the Japanese won, though there was still no official sanction for a push into Russia, the momentum towards a full-scale invasion might conceivably have been irresistible. It is still an exaggeration to call the subsequent Japanese actions in the Pacific "the wind that raged out of Nomonhan", but the strength of Colvin's narrative here gives that secret war of 1939 a distinctive importance and poignancy of its own, regardless.