Soviet self-propelled guns roll into the puppet state of Manchukuo. Photo: AFP

Seventy five years ago, the last great offensive of World War II was unleashed across an area the size of Western Europe.

Fought at the tail end of mankind’s most terrible war, the Red Army’s “Manchurian Strategic Offensive” is overshadowed, in the events of August 1945, by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6, and of Nagasaki on August 9 – the same day the Soviet assault got underway. 

It is widely overlooked – indeed, virtually unknown – in the West. For example, British historian Anthony Beevor’s global bestseller The Second World War (2012), which covers the battle of Berlin in 11 pages, devotes less than two pages to the drama in Northeast Asia. 

Yet Operation August Storm was a colossal undertaking, pitching 1.6 million Soviet troops against 1 million Japanese. Historians continue to debate whether it, rather than the atomic bombings, holds primary claim in compelling Japan to finally surrender on August 15.

And its geopolitical ramifications are felt to this day.

Artillery fire rolls across the Manchurian hills. Photo: AFP

The last blitzkrieg

In the early hours of August 9, 1945, amid violent thunderstorms, 1.6 million Soviet troops commanded by Soviet Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky stormed into northern China and Manchuria in a gigantic pincer operation. Subsequently, amphibious landings would hit beaches in northeast Korea and the Kuril Islands.

Though the USSR had declared war on Japan on August 8, the offensive was a tactical surprise. Using the same blitzkrieg tactics the Soviets had learned at such terrible cost from the Nazis, the aim was to dislocate the defenses of Japan’s Kwangtung Army – the military force occupying Manchuria, who Red Army troops dubbed “the samurais” – by driving hard and fast into its rear.

Using its colony of Korea as a base, Japan had seized Manchuria in 1931, and established the puppet state of Manchukuo on its soil in 1932. Though wracked by banditry and insurgencies, the territory was rich in resources, both agricultural and mineral. To extract these resources, Tokyo encouraged settlement by both Japanese and Korean colonial subjects. A vast military-industrial complex, run with an iron fist, sprang up, and Manchuria would in 1937, provide Japan with the jumping off point for its invasion of China proper.

Yet this “jewel in the crown” of the Japanese empire, defended by its largest field army, was shattered in just days.

The offensive used the most modern military weapons and tactics.  Soviet T34 and US Sherman tanks, Sturmovik ground attack aircraft and Katyusha multiple rocket launchers were deployed. Soviet paratroopers were dropped in to seize key objectives, while Chinese paratroops were dropped in to conduct guerilla operations. But in the harsh terrain, old technologies also had application: A Mongolian cavalry corps attacked on the northeastern flank.

Fighting Americans in the Pacific and Anglo-India forces in Burma, the Japanese had battled with incredible tenacity: No army in history ever fought so many last stands.  But the Kwangtung Army, softened by years of occupation duty, experienced only in counter insurgency, and with many of its best men having been reassigned to other battlefronts, imploded.  

Max Hastings, in Retribution: The Battle for Japan 1944-45 (2007) notes some Soviet armored units advanced 93 miles on the first day. Japanese anti-tank weapons were unable to take out the enemy tanks. Desperate attempts at tokko (“special attack” – better known as kamikaze) faltered: Men tied explosives to their bodies and dived under Soviet tanks, but their detonations were too weak to penetrate the hulls.  

Moreover, due to the brutality of their occupation, the Japanese could count on no local assistance: the 200,000-strong Manchukuo Army proved useless. Above, the Red Air Force ruled the skies, granting the Soviets near-total aerial superiority.

In Korea, Soviet Naval Infantry made amphibious landings on the northeast coast. The Japanese retreated into the mountains, but then were driven south as Soviet units surged south from Manchuria.

Soviet troops also stormed from Soviet-administered northern Sakhalin into southern Sakhalin, while amphibious troops hit the Kuril Islands.

In Manchuria, the Kurils and Sakhalin, fighting continued for days after the Japanese surrender on August 15, but the result was the same: Japanese defeat.

Soviet armored troops halt to greet locals. Photo: AFP

The human cost

While the Kwantung Army fought and fled, the 200,000 Japanese settlers were abandoned to their fates. For many it would be a welter of misery, bloodshed and rape.  These civilians, as they attempted to flee, ran a double gauntlet. 

Firstly, Soviet forces, while neither as murderous or as cruel as Japanese or German troops, had, in East Prussia and Berlin, displayed a propensity for rape. This would repeat itself in Manchuria. Secondly, many Manchus and Chinese took the opportunity to avenge themselves for years of exploitation and brutality.

Beavor recounts how about 1,000 Japanese women and girls gathered at an aerodrome. When the Soviets arrived, they demanded girls as the spoils of war or threatened to burn down the hanger. Young single women volunteered to go out; older ones offered prayers for their sacrifice. Captured Japanese nurses were turned into comfort women.  

In their masterly oral history Japan at War (1992) Theodore and Haruko Taya Cook record the experience of Yoshie Fukushima, a naïve but adventurous elementary school teacher who was bewitched by the vast wildness of Manchuria. Fukushima married a Japanese military contractor, who made bank in his dealings with the Kwangtung Army. 

Colonial life was good. Fukushima loved meeting young Japanese troops – who she would make pound cake and cream puffs for – and feasted with a local foreman. But even to her, it was clear Japanese occupation was not entirely benevolent: Her husband trained their German shepherd, Esu, to attack those wearing Chinese clothes.

On the day of the assault, she saw Soviet planes overhead. Then a radio bulletin announced the invasion: “The world had been turned upside down.” With her husband having been called up, Fukushima had to rely on herself. She grabbed her nine-month-old son and fled.

But she had no idea where to go. Sometimes she followed rail tracks, sometimes she hid in forests, eating frogs. She passed heaps of bayonetted bodies.  Sick and emaciated, she fell in with retreating soldiers. They were kind, but urged her to kill her baby when he cried at night. She came across a tiny Japanese girl, alone. She carried her – but only for a day. She abandoned her near a Manchurian village: “I felt terrible remorse.”

A rich Manchurian offered her shelter – on the condition that he marry her. The man’s three concubines had out-of-focus eyes; all were opium addicts. Fukushima escaped. When Soviets troops tried to rape her, she told them she had syphilis: the many sores on her face and body convinced them.

In Harbin, Fukushima begged to survive. Eventually, she and her son were evacuated to Japan in 1947.

Nor would all the locals find their liberators congenial. One of Hastings’ sources, Xu Guiming, watched a Soviet soldier grab a local girl and attempt to rape her. As the girl resisted, the soldier’s companion shot her – and accidentally shot his comrade. Troops on a passing vehicle fired a burst, killing the murderer, leaving the three corpses on the street.
“The Russians were supposed to be our liberators, our brothers, but we quickly learned to regard them as enemies…they were no  more than wolves.”

Soviet infantry move through an empty Manchurian town. Photo: AFP

A long, bloody rivalry

The final shattering of Japanese arms by Soviet force in Manchuria was the culmination of a long struggle.

The manifest destiny of Czarist Russia – with its double-headed eagle coat of arms, with one head looking west, one looking east – had always been Asiatic. Moscow’s eastward push naturally thrust it into competition with Imperial Japan, itself keen to exert its influence in Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula – flashpoints of great-power rivalry.

That rivalry had exploded in 1904-1905 with the Russo-Japanese War. Fought largely in and around Manchuria and Korea, it had ended in humiliation for Moscow: Its defeat at Tokyo’s hands had been the first time in then-modern history that an Asian power had defeated a Western power. (The Kwantung Army’s commander in 1945 was Otoza Yamada, an aged veteran of the Russo-Japanese War.)

Simmering tensions ignited again, even after the communist USSR had replaced Czarist Russia. At the 1939 battle of Khalkin Gol/Nomonhan on the Mongolia-Manchukuo border, Soviet forces defeated Japanese troops in a giant pincer operation. (The general responsible for that Soviet victory, Georgi Zhukov, would later repeat the tactic, with war-shifting impact, at Stalingrad.)

In 1941, neither Moscow – facing off against Nazi Germany – nor Tokyo – as it prepared its attack on the United States and on European colonies in Southeast Asia – wanted a two-front war. The two parties signed a non-aggression pact that April.

So was Josef Stalin’s last-minute intervention in the Asian theater an opportunistic desire to settle old scores?

In fact, Stalin had agreed with the Western powers to shift his armies east after the defeat of Nazi Germany at the Tehran Conference in 1943; Vasilevsky began drafting plans for the Manchurian operation in 1944. In April 1945, with Germany virtually defeated, Moscow informed Tokyo it was not renewing the non-aggression pact.

There is no question that the Western Allies sought Soviet assistance in the hideous fighting they expected would be necessary to subdue Japan. Following the carnage experienced during the invasion of Okinawa, the US general staff anticipated 100,000 casualties during Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu, and 250,000 during Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu.

Moreover, given the terrible suffering the Soviet Union, with 27 million war dead, had suffered, Stalin’s desire to wrest maximum spoils is understandable. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Allies agreed that the USSR should take Japanese-administered south Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.

Their country’s suffering was clear to the Soviet soldiers who had traveled the breadth of the Eurasian continent in their month-long rail journey – 3,000 locomotives conveyed them east – to the Manchurian battlefront. European Russia had been utterly devastated by Japan’s Nazi allies and even east of Moscow the ravages were clear: At the towns they passed through, there were only women and children, no men.

And Stalin would prove faithful to the Western Allies.

Instead of seizing all of Korea, where organized resistance ended on August 16, he halted his troops at the 38th parallel as per agreement with the Americans – who would not land on the peninsula until September 8. And in the face of American resistance, he ordered Vasilevsky to stand down the troops he had massed for an amphibious assault on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido.

Soviet naval infantry raise the red flag over Port Arthur, the scene of the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Legacies

The big question is how much weight should be given to the atomic bombs, and how much to the Manchurian invasion, in finally bringing World War II to an end.

Some soft-liners in Tokyo had favored surrender on the condition that Japan be allowed to maintain its colonies in Korea and Manchukuo. That was anathema to the Allies – but Stalin’s offensive swiftly obviated that stumbling block.

The Kwantung Army was Japan’s largest field army and its destruction had major ramifications. The capture of Manchuria and Korea cut off the still largely intact Japanese armies on the Asian mainland from the metropole – a huge military disaster. And airfields in Korea potentially put Allied bombers on Japan’s doorstep.

Still, Emperor Hirohito, in his famous speech announcing surrender to his subjects, cited the atomic weapon – “a new, most cruel bomb” – but not the Manchurian offensive. That may have been a face-saving stratagem: An almost supernatural bomb was more indefensible than Soviet mass.

Historians continue to debate the issue to this day. Hastings takes neither side, offering quotes that consider both.

At a time when many in the military were furiously against surrender, Japanese Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonia summoned his admirals, and told them, “The atomic bomb and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, God’s gifts” – as they provided Japan with excuses to end a disastrous war. Subsequently, Japanese historian Kazutoshi Hando would state, “For Japan’s civilian population, the dropping of the atomic bombs was the last straw. For the Japanese Army, it was the Russian invasion of Manchuria.”

Operation August Storm’s geopolitical ramifications echo to this day.

The territory, and massive stocks of Japanese weapons captured by the Red Army in Manchuria, were handed over to Mao’s communist 8th Route Army in Northern China as it squared off with Chiang Kai-shek’s battered nationalists for their post-war showdown. (Japanese war criminals tried by Mao’s communists in the 1950s would note that their captors’ machine guns were Japanese-made.)

The Kuril Islands remain a diplomatic thorn in the side of Moscow-Tokyo relations to this day.

And the division of Korea, with the Soviets supporting the establishment of the North Korean state and the Americans South Korea, is an issue that plagues the unfortunate peninsula, the region and the world to this day.

The human cost, too, would endure. Only in 1955 did Yoshie Fukushima learn the fate of her husband: He had died in a Soviet prison camp in 1946.

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