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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Last Iron Blow

Today's article was a request, sometimes on my Facebook page I ask for help selecting what articles to do. And someone asked for an article about an artillery duel. Well I finally got around to writing it!

In early May 1939 a brief but bloody war broke out between the Japanese and the Soviet Union, it was a fight over an utterly unimportant border area that ballooned out of all proportion. It escalated from a small action involving a couple of companies, over an undefined area of sandy desert into a huge war with multiple divisions on each side. This was called the Nomonhan incident (Or Khalkhin Gol to the Soviets).
The reason for the fight was a badly defined border. Simply put both sides thought the border ran elsewhere. So when a group of cavalry entered the area to look for grazing for their horses it started the ball rolling.

As the action escalated the Japanese had their first taste of employing tanks in modern combat. After the tanks had been withdrawn it left the Japanese infantry with a few light field guns on the battlefield. The Soviet forces had overwhelming support from heavy artillery. Unable to compete with this fire-power the Japanese couldn't operate during the day. Luckily the Japanese infantry was extensively trained in fighting at night, and so using these skills the Japanese managed to slowly push the Soviet forces back. The normal cycle of events would be a night time Japanese advance and close quarter fighting. Then the Japanese would fall back a short while and take cover and dig in during the day. If they stayed close to Soviet positions they'd get destroyed by the Soviet gunners. By creating a larger no-man's land they avoided the worst of the Russian fire.

As they neared the river the Japanese sent out infiltration parties to destroy Soviet bridges over the river. Most got through, although it's not possible to say how many Russian bridges there were, it may be that the Japanese got all but one of them. Certainly it looked that the Japanese could have won with another few nights of fighting. Then the Japanese were ordered to pull back, much to the infantry’s shock and dismay. The Japanese High Command had decided to try a grand offensive, instead of smaller skirmishing attacks. For this they'd decided to bring in the big guns.
A Selection of Japanese artillery captured at the end of the war
At the end of June the 3rd Heavy Field Artillery Brigade received orders to move out. Based at Ichikawa in Japan it moved to Osaka, then to Pusan, and finally by train to Hailar, the nearest railhead to the Nomonhan fighting. It was equipped with sixteen 15 cm type 96 howitzers and a similar number of Type 92 10 cm guns. Its personnel were well trained regulars and it was considered a model, if not even an elite unit of the Japanese Army. One of the Imperial Princes even served as an officer.
Another artillery unit with four 15 cm Type 89 guns, and a pair of unknown guns taken from the Port Arthur Fortress also joined the 3rd Heavy. Together, with the 1st artillery intelligence regiment, they formed an Artillery Corps.
Type 89 15cm Cannon in travel position
The Nomonhan front had many problems, for all forces. Such as very few landmarks, which made navigation tricky, or the lack of cover. For artillery there were added issues such as heat haze and incredibly clear air. The latter meant that visual ranging was often very imprecise, with errors of up to 4000 meters.
The lack of landmarks caused lots of trouble even just moving into position. The lone staff officer who was sent ahead to scout locations for the gun regiments to occupy had many false starts, and got lost several times before he found three suitable locations. Even then they were far from ideal. The officer then led each regiment into position personally, which meant him staying awake for several days in a row.

Another problem was the lack of ammunition. Japan had never needed large amounts of artillery in the war against China and therefore her production of rounds wasn't great. To compound the issue the rail head was 200 miles away from the fighting. Each day the supply trucks left Hailar at 0900, they reached the gun positions about 1600, where they unloaded and immediately returned to the railhead to load up again. Even so by late July 4800 rounds of 10 cm, 900 rounds of 15 cm cannon and 4000 rounds of 15 cm howitzer ammunition had been stockpiled.
With these supplies in position, and having completed surveys and registering locations of possible targets, the Japanese could prepare their grand offensive. For X-Day the following was planned:
1). All units ready and in position by 0500.
2). At 0730 preparation fire to draw enemy artillery fire and confirm their locations for 30 minutes.
3). At 0800 two hours of intense bombardment to destroy the enemy guns.
4). Finally at 1000 the infantry assault will be launched to clear the enemy from the Chinese side of the river.

The Japanese were expecting to cover the distance of several miles to the river in two hours, and herein lies one of the flaws of the Imperial Japanese Army; massive over confidence.

After three days of delays X-Day arrived on the 23rd of July 1939. When the guns opened fire there were cheers and applause from the Japanese infantry who had suffered for several months under Soviet bombardment.
The Japanese guns fired as fast as they could. The Type 92 10 cm guns on the first day fired about 117 rounds per gun, sometimes at the rate of one shell per minute. The guns became red hot. The Type 89 15 cm guns, firing two rounds every three minutes, became so hot they had to have wet rags wrapped around their gun barrels and water poured on them, slowly turning the guns from black to white. One battalion had to halt firing because the guns were so hot the shells were not ejecting, as the heat caused them to become stuck in the breeches. The empty cases had to be rammed out from the barrel end.
On the Soviet side when a gun pit was hit you could see parts of bodies, gun carriage and wheels thrown up into the air through six power binoculars. The Russians could be seen trying to move their guns back out of range of the Japanese artillery, although several 152 mm howitzers were sited in very strong positions and could continue to operate without interference. Russian counter fire was light and only a handful of casualties were sustained. Some of the casualties were self inflicted, at the end of the day the order to cease fire was given, however a shell had just been loaded into a gun. The officer in charge of the gun paused to ask permission to fire the last shell, when the hot gun caused the round to cook off in the chamber.
The Japanese officers were confident they'd utterly destroyed the enemy artillery, however in reality they'd had much less effect. This was partly due to the difficulty in reconnaissance. The lack of landmarks and the confusion between spotting and airborne photography, plus the Soviet habit of building dummy gun positions and guns had caused an element of confusion to creep into the target selection. In some cases multiple batteries were identified as one, in others one battery became several.
When the infantry assault was launched it ran straight into a whirlwind of Soviet artillery fire, and despite the best efforts of the Japanese infantry they couldn't advance. In the end the attack was called off.

The next day the orders were issued for "a last iron blow" to knock out the Soviet guns. During the night some officers of the force had requested that the Japanese guns be moved up right behind the infantry line, to push their range backwards. After a long argument some guns were moved forward. However these guns were spotted moving into position, and when they fired their first two rounds they were brought under heavy and accurate fire. One Russian shell landed just 5m from the command trench and the command staff for the unit deployed forward was nearly buried. The forwards guns played no further part on the 24th. Japanese accuracy was further degraded when the Russians blew up one of the few landmarks, the Sambur Obo. More Russian counter battery fire fell on this day, and the casualties were much higher. By the end of the day eight of the sixteen Type 92 10 cm guns were out of action.
Type 89 15cm ready to fire.
On the 25th the artillery duel was less intense. Despite its best efforts the Japanese infantry were unable to advance still, and the grand offensive was called off. The Japanese army would never again mount an offensive in this war. With the passing of the initiative the Soviet commander, Georgy Zhukov, was able to mass planes, armour and guns to utterly overwhelm the Japanese positions in August.

Image Credits:
http://www3.plala.or.jp/takihome/ and http://www.ww2incolor.com