Stalin’s War on Japan
The Red Army’s Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation, 1945
Pen & Sword Military, Barnsley, United Kingdom, 2021, 272 pages
Book Review published on: September 10, 2021
Poorly understood by Americans, the last chapter of World War II included the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, often characterized as an opportunistic “land grab” against Japan’s ally after the first atomic bomb was dropped. In fact, the Manchurian operation was a well-planned attack, and Charles Stephenson’s Stalin’s War on Japan: The Red Army’s Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation, 1945, sheds light on this amazing story.
When the Western Allies began planning for the invasion of Japan’s home islands, they asked for Soviet assistance to keep the large Kwantung army in Manchuria tied down so the troops could not be moved to Japan itself and repel American troops landing on the beaches. The Soviet Union had a binding nonaggression pact with Japan in 1943 when the topic came up for the first time during Allied planning conferences and when the Soviets recognized that sooner or later they were bound to have a showdown with Japan. As early as April 1945, Red Army units were pulled out of combat in Europe in order to make sure this showdown came on Joseph Stalin’s terms.
The Kwantung army was a shadow of its former self due to the number of troops sent to fight in China and the Pacific, but the Japanese and their allies still had a large number of troops in Manchuria. The Japanese also felt secure that Soviets had only one logistics artery into the Far East, and that was the Trans-Siberian Railway.
However, much had happened to the Red Army since its Winter War with Finland in 1939. That conflict saw the USSR invade a much smaller and militarily weaker enemy and yet lose significant material and tens of thousands of soldiers in the frozen forests of Finland. Coordination among different formations was poor, support from artillery abysmal, and staff planning subject to the political workers who questioned the decisions of commanders. In contrast, the operation in Manchuria would be waged with five years of war behind the Soviets, backed by experienced and well-equipped soldiers, and commanded by generals who succeeded in beating back the Germans to Berlin. Initiative and flexibility, absent in the Red Army in the early part of the Great Patriotic War, had also returned.
The operation benefited from maskirovka, or deception, as to when and where the Soviet sledgehammer would fall, despite necessary preparation work to establish roads in marshy areas and moving support artillery within range. When the lead Red Army elements advanced, it moved in three fronts: the Trans-Baikal Front from the western desert, the 2nd Far Eastern Front utilizing riverine forces along the Amur and Sungari rivers, and the 1st Far Eastern Front attacking in the eastern marshlands. Once Japanese defenses were broken, the terrain became the greatest challenge to the mechanized advance into Manchuria.
Stalin’s War recounts the experiences of these different armies as they managed to penetrate the surrounding mountains, cross the Gobi Desert, push through swamps and across waterways to reach the central plain of Manchuria. Commanders of formations “on the ground” had flexibility to request changes to orders, such as bypassing fortifications instead of assaulting them, forgoing planned artillery preparation in favor of surprise and utilizing several parallel routes in the desert to minimize problems caused by dust.
The war against Japan was not a culmination of the Red Army’s evolution during the Great Patriotic War; far from it. The invasion of Manchuria was conducted not just with veteran units of the Battle of Berlin but also with Soviet troops which had been guarding against a Japanese attack on the USSR while it fought for its life against the Germans and thus saw little action. The three fronts were equipped with T-34s but also had M4 Sherman lend-lease tanks and BT-7 fast tanks, both of which were outclassed by the latest panzers but could fight against the best armor the Japanese possessed. But with all that said, the Soviets learned their lessons well in five years, lessons in decision-making and staff work which were unthinkable in the aftermath of the Red Army’s purges, and this is reflected in Stalin’s War.
Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas