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Khalkhyn Gol: Cost of Victory. The counterattack of 11th Light Tank Brigade.

Written by Андрей Кравченко
Published on Sunday, 03 January 2010 22:13
Last Updated on
Read 16755 times

The skirmishes in the area of Khalkhin-Gol (Nomongan) were a part of an armed conflict between USSR and Japan in the vicinity of Mongolia’s Khalkhin-Gol River not far away from Manchurian (Manchukuo) border, which lasted from spring to fall of 1939. The final battle occurred at the end of August and resulted in a complete destruction of Japan’s Sixth Army. On September 15 USSR and Japan signed an armistice.

Let’s look at one of the key moments of the battle, possibly the decisive moment, which was the Japanese attack, attempting to completely surround and rout the combined Soviet-Mongolian force. In the beginning of July Japanese Command has gathered a large force in the area of Khalkhin-Gol River. It consisted of all 3 regiments from the 23rd Infantry Division, Manchurian army’s Cavalry Division, 2 tank regiments and one artillery regiment. According to the Japanese plan there were to be two attacks. The first, led by major-general Kobayashi, included the crossing the Khalkhin-Gol River and a move in the direction of the ferries toward the rear of Soviet forces, stationed on the east bank of the river. The second attack, by which the Japanese wanted to paralyze the Soviet forces, was led by Yasuoka Detachment. It was to directly strike Soviet positions at the bridgehead.

Yasouka Detachment initiated the attack. Its plan was to create a diversion and to set up a trap. The Japanese intended to create an impression of swift and powerful strike in order to force the G. Zhukov’s forces to call for reinforcements from the other side of the river. Meanwhile Kobayashi’s group was supposed to strike the ferries and the West side of the river and prevent Soviet forces from crossing the river. Obviously the Japanese were aware of the fact that any force, trying to cross the river would be extremely vulnerable. The Japanese hoped to either force the Soviets to abandon their bridgehead or to completely rout Zhukov’s forces.

Yasouka Detachment’s attack started on July 2nd around 10.00. However it was met with heavy fire from the Soviet artillery, which slowed the Japanese advance. On July 3rd the Japanese attempted several more attacks. Zhukov, seeing that the Japanese were attacking the bridgehead, decided to counterattack by flanking the enemy. The gathering of forces started during the night of July 3rd. The following forces were used in the counterattack: 11th Light Tank Brigade, 7th Mechanized Brigade as well as some detachments of Mongolian cavalry. It was Zhukov’s decision to counterattack that prevented the Soviet defeat. At 3:15 Kobayashi’s group started to cross the river near Bain-Tsagan Mount. After crossing the river the group was able to defeat detachment of Mongolian cavalry, defending the ferry there. With the help of air support the Japanese were also able to repel the Mongolian counterattack. By 6.00 two entire Japanese battalions managed to cross the river and then started moving south toward the ferries. However at about 7.00 the Japanese ran into the Soviet Mechanized brigade, which was moving into the designated position for counterattack. As a result of this the Soviet Command now knew exactly what the Japanese were up to.

Zhukov’s reaction was instant. He decided to immediately counterattack the Japanese bridgehead, established during the night. This task fell to 11th Light Tank brigade, commanded by M. Yakovlev. Its original task was to cross the Khalkin-Gol River in the area of the ‛ruins“, in other words a little more to the north then where the Japanese managed to cross the river. However, now that the Soviets were aware of the enemy movement the brigade was redirected toward the newly established bridgehead. This resulted in an attack against the Japanese infantry, which was moving toward the ferries, from three different directions by all three tank battalions.

At 9:00 the leading company of the second battalion, consisting of 15 BT tanks and 9 armored fighting vehicles, engaged the enemy using a flanking maneuver. The engagement resulted in a complete routing of the south bound Japanese infantry battalion along with the towed artillery battery. After this engagement the second battalion was unable to gain any more ground due to the fact that the 71st Japanese infantry regiment, which crossed the river earlier, was able to entrench itself at the bottom of the Bain-Tsagan mountain.

As soon as the main forces of the 11th Light Tank brigade assumed the position for attack, the Soviets engaged the enemy from three different directions. First battalion and detachments of Mongolian mechanized division were supposed to attack from the north. The Second battalion was supposed to attack from the south. Third battalion along with the 24thth mechanized regiment was unable to gather at the rally point in time due to unfamiliar terrain. Even in this situation Zhukov decided to carry out the attack using what he had at the moment, which was just tanks without the infantry support. The attack began at 10.45. mechanized regiment was supposed to engage the enemy from the west. The attack was to begin at 10.45, however the 24th mechanized regiment was unable to gather at the rally point in time due to unfamiliar terrain. Even in this situation Zhukov decided to carry out the attack using what he had at the moment, which was just tanks without the infantry support. The attack began at 10.45.

The firefight lasted about four hours. The second battalion, consisting of 53 BT-5 tanks, attacked the enemy from the south but was met by Japanese troops armed with Molotov cocktails and anti tank mines tied to long sticks. As a result the Soviets lost three tanks and 2 armored fighting vehicles. Both damaged armored vehicles as well as one of the three tanks were evacuated to safety.

In the morning of July 4th the Japanese attempted a counterattack. After softening the Soviet positions with a large group of bombers and a three-hour artillery barrage the Japanese infantry attempted to attack the Soviet lines. During that day the Japanese attempted five separate attacks, however all proved to be unsuccessful and resulted in heavy casualties.

Finally at 19.00 Soviet and Mongol forces attempted an assault. The Japanese were unable to hold their line and were forced to retreat toward the ferry under the cover of the night. On the next day at dawn 1st and 2nd tank battalions of the 11th Light Tank Brigade broke through toward the Japanese ferry and engaged the enemy there. In order to avoid losing the ferry to the Soviets the Japanese command decided to blow it up. As a result of this the remaining Japanese forces which crossed the river earlier, were unable to come back over the river, which resulted in their complete routing. The Japanese forces scattered abandoning much of their weaponry. The Soviet forces, therefore, were able to capture it. The Japanese, however, were able to avoid complete routing due to rough terrain, which prevented Soviet tanks from engaging in a pursuit.

In the morning of July 5th the commander of the 11th Light Tank brigade Lieutenant A. F. Vasilyev led the attack of four BT tanks against eleven Japanese tanks. Using extensive maneuvering and constantly firing at the enemy the Soviets were able to knock out four Japanese machines without suffering any loses. As a result of this Lieutenant Vasilyev was awarded the Hero of Soviet Union Medal.

Seventy seven out of one hundred and thirty three Soviet tanks, participating in the battle near Bain-Tsagan Mountain, were either knocked out or damaged. Fifty one of these tanks could not be repaired. The casualties among the personnel were moderate. Twelve men from the 2nd Battalion were killed and nine were wounded. Ten men from the 3rd Battalion were killed and twenty three were missing in action. The Soviets came out victorious and a large number of damaged tanks was repaired. By July 20th the 11th Light Tank Brigade had one hundred twenty five tanks in its disposal.

According to the summary documents completed after the battle the classification of the 1st Army’s armor loses is as follows:

«Anti-Tank fire – 75-80%
Molotov Cocktails – 5-10%
Field Artillery fire – 2-3%
Aviation attacks – 2-3%
Grenades/Mines – 2-3%

The majority of loses came from the anti-tank fire and from Molotov Cocktail-armed infantry – approximately 80-90%. As a result of a Molotov Cocktail hit armored vehicles catch on fire; anti-tank artillery hits also sets most of the armored vehicles on fire. In this case the vehicles cannot be repaired. They are completely useless; the fire starts very quickly, only 15–20 seconds after the hit. The clothing of the escaping crew catches on fire. Heavy black smoke comes out of the vehicle as a result of the fire. It can be seen from 5–6 km away. After about fifteen minutes the shells within the vehicle start to detonate. As a result of this the tank turns unto a pile of scrap metal. According to an observation by a Japanese officer, burial fires of Russian tanks resembled the smoke from steel mills of Osaka».

The Japanese encountered the same problem as the Soviets. The armor penetration capability of Soviet anti-tank weapons was superior to the armor of Japanese vehicles. For instance out of seventy three tanks, which participated in Yasouka Detachment’s July 3rd attack, forty one tanks were knocked out; eighteen of them could not be repaired. By July 5th they returned to their original location. Japanese tank regiments were pulled out of the battle because of losing combat effectiveness. On July 9th they returned to their original location.

The delay in liquidation of the Japanese bridgehead most definitely could have produced grave circumstances for the Soviets. The shortage of available forces would have led to inability to prevent Japanese infantry’s advance toward the ferries located in the rear of the Soviet positions. Untouched the Japanese could have effortlessly marched for fifteen kilometers, eventually reaching the ferries. Moreover, half of the distance to the ferries was already covered by the Japanese by the time they were located by detachments of Soviet 7th Mechanized Brigade. Waiting for the arrival of infantry from the mechanized regiment, which was lost in the unfamiliar terrain, would have been equal to suicide. Four months later other less decisive than Zhukov commanders will be getting encircled by the Fins in Karelia in far less dangerous situations because they will not use their forces to destroy the Fins able to break through toward the rear of the Soviet forces. Due to his decisiveness Zhukov managed to prevent the encirclement of the Soviet Armies. A couple of dozen burnt BT tanks was a justifiable price to pay.

As a result of fighting for the bridgehead on the western bank of the Khalkin-Gol River, the Japanese, under constant bombardment from Soviet aviation and artillery and from being under attacks from 11th Light Tank Brigade, have suffered 800 dead or wounded out of the total of 8000, comprising Kobayashi’s force during the retreat, which lasted almost twenty four hours. The casualties of the 11th Light Tank Brigade during the decisive attack against the bridgehead were more than justified. Loses were noted and respective awards were issued. Thirty three tankers were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union Medal as a result of the Khalkin-Gol Battle. Twenty seven of them were from the 11th Light Tank Brigade.

Epilogue for those, who like to count Red Army’s ‛unneeded casualties“.

Yom Kippur War started on October 6th 1973. The Egyptian forces were able to establish a bridgehead on the eastern shore of the Suez Canal. On October 8th two Israel Armored divisions were supposed to attack the established bridgehead. 143rd Division, led by Ariel Sharon, never made it to the bridgehead in time for the attack; 162nd Division, commanded by Abraham Adan, encountered heavy use of brand new AT-3 Sagger anti-tank system by the enemy and sustained tremendous loses – about 60% of the vehicles was knocked out. The anti-tank missiles turned out to be just as effective against Israeli tanks as anti-tank weapons, used against Soviet BT tanks near Bain-Tsagan in 1939.

English translation:
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Isaev. Marshal Zhukov. ‛Yauza“ 2006.

M. Pavlov, I. Zheltov, I. Pavlov. BT Tanks 2005.

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