battle of khalkhin gol

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The Non-German defenders of the Atlantic Wall,

In 1942 Germany began construction of the Atlantic Wall in order to defends its World War II territorial conquests from a possible Allied amphibious invasion.  The wall consisted of various fortifications, mines, tank barriers, mortars, artillery pieces, machine gun nests, pillboxes, and bunkers, and was designed to fend off any beach landing. On June 6th, 1944 Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy and quickly overran these defenses.  Thousands of German soldiers were captured, but surprisingly still many of those capture were not German at all.

At the very beginning of the war Germany upheld its Nazi belief in pure Arianism. However as the war dragged, that sentiment quickly gave way as casualties grew and manpower shortages worsened. Both the Wehrmacht and the SS began to accept foreign volunteers.  Many of these foreign troops were sent to man the defenses of the Atlantic Wall.  These soldiers came from all over Europe, and even the Middle East and Asia.  One notable extreme was the Indian Legion, also known as the Azad Regiment, which consisted of volunteers from India who believed that a German victory would secure India’s independence from the British Empire. 

The reasons for volunteering were varied, some political, many as a necessity for survival.  By far the most numerous foreign volunteers were those from the Soviet Union. Some volunteered because they were disgruntled with Soviet rule, for example the Russian Liberation Army, which joined the Wehrmacht to oppose communism in Russia. However most volunteered as an alternative to spending the rest of the war as a POW.  Soviet POW’s were treated terribly during the war, with 3.3 to 3.5 million dying of starvation, disease, exhaustion, and overall maltreatment. For many Soviet POW’s, service with the German Army was the only way to avoid such a horrible fate. Typically, these troops were often not very reliable in combat. Understandably, they were not very motivated to sacrifice life and limb for their conquerors. In some cases they proved to by a grave liability, such as the case of a battalion of soldiers from Georgia which manned the Atlantic Wall defenses on the Dutch island of Texel, who in 1945 openly rebelled against the Germans.

As well as many thousand foreign volunteers, there were also many thousand foreign conscripts who were forcibly made to serve in the German Army. By far the most interesting extreme in this instance were a group of Koreans who were captured by American forces during the D-Day invasion. For three decades Japan had occupied Korea, and the men were forcibly conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army. In 1939 Japan attempted to invade the Soviet Union through Mongolia, but were badly beaten at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. The Koreans were captured and sent to the gulags, but with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, were then forced to join the Red Army and fight on the Eastern Front.  They were then captured by the Germans, conscripted into the German Army, and forced to man the defenses of the Atlantic Wall at Normandy.

By far the most numerous conscripts were Polish.  Before World War I many parts of Poland had been a part of Prussia, and later the German Empire. When Germany re-conquered these territories they considered many of the people living there to be ethnic Germans.  As such, they were considered full citizens of the Reich and thus were subject to German draft laws.  Many still believed themselves to be German and thus were willing to fight for the German cause, however many spoke Polish, had adopted Polish customs, and believed themselves to be Poles. Regardless, refusing to obey the draft laws could result in serious consequences, not only for the individual but his family as well. Some 500,000 Poles were conscripted into the Wehrmacht, with many serving on the Atlantic Wall. Like the Soviets, the Polish also were not the best soldiers as they were often unwilling to fight for their taskmasters. Around 85,000 would defect to the Free Polish Forces in France. In addition to Polish Troops, a number of Czechs considered ethnic Germans would be conscripted as well.

Overall, one in six defenders of the Atlantic Wall were not German. Nothing demonstrates the diversity of these defenders more than the photo below of a group Wehrmacht soldiers captured during D-Day

Front Row (from left to right):  a Yugoslav; an Italian; a Turk; a Pole

Back Row (from left to right): a German; a Czech; a Russian who was forced into the army when the Nazis occupied his town; and a Mongolian.

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During the battle of Nomonhon (Khalkhin Gol) in 1939, Captain Fujita commanded a Type-94 Anti-Tank gun, and under his supervision, his regiment was able to beat back several Soviet tank offensives, but soon ran out of ammunition, and so when the Russian tanks attacked his position again, he unsheathed his katana, climbed onto a Russian BT-5, opened the copula, pulled out the tank’s commander, and savagely stabbed him to death. He was then severely wounded in his arm by the tank’s gunner who had popped out behind them.

He survived, recevied the Order of the Golden Kite for his bravery in combat, and spent the rest of the war as an instructor training fresh troops.

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The Soviet Invasion of Manchuria, Part I — The Rising Sun and the Bear

In 1930 China was in turmoil as the country was divided among a number of warlords who controlled their own independent realms.  On the pretext of defending an important Japanese built railway in the region of Northeast China called Manchuria, the highly imperialistic Japanese government stationed the Kwantung Army to protect it.  The Kwantung Army was the elite force of the Japanese Army, and perhaps the most prestigious command of in the Japanese military.  

Although under the authority of Japanese High Command, the Kwantung Army had a mind of its own as it was staffed by officers who sought power, wealth, and glory.  In 1931 the Kwantung Army conducted a false flag operation where they bombed the railway they were guarding.  Blaming the bombing on a local warlord, they used the incident as a pretext to invade and conquer all of Manchuria.  The forces of the local warlord, although larger than the Kwantung Army, were no match for the organization and professionalism of the Japanese.  Within five months, the Kwantung Army had defeated the Chinese and conquered Manchuria.  They created a puppet stated called “Manchuko”, which was ruled by a puppet emperor from the former Chinese Manchu Dynasty.  Incredibly, the Kwantung Army did all of this without any orders from the Japanese government.

Throughout the 1930’s Japan continued to expand into Chinese territory.  By the late 1930’s Japan also sought to expand into the Soviet Union, hoping to gain possession of the rich oil and gas fields of Siberia.  In the summer of 1938, a series of clashes between Japanese and Soviet forces occurred near Lake Khazan near Vladivostok. Then in 1939, the Kwantung Army attempted a full scale invasion of the Soviet Union and her ally, Mongolia.  The two armies met at a river called Khalkin Gol on May 11th, 1939.

The Japanese invaded with a massive force composed of 75,000 men of the 6th Japanese Army, a unit of the Kwantung Army.  Throughout the summer of 1939, the Japanese assaulted Soviet-Mongolian lines, but had little success.  Then a large Soviet force led by future marshal Georgy Zhukov arrived with a heavily mechanized army.  While the Japanese prided themselves on their courageous infantry, throughout World War II they always lacked armored forces.  In addition Japanese tanks were of typically light armed and armored light tanks.  Japanese tanks also had the reputation as being the among the worst tanks produced during the war. By contrast, the Soviets had a reputation for producing some of the best tanks of the war.  The pathetic tanks of the Japanese Army were no match for the steel behemoths of the Soviet Red Army.

At the Battle of Khalkhin Gol the Japanese brought 135 tanks 250 aircraft. Georgy Zhukov brought 500 tanks, hundreds of vehicles, and over 800 aircraft. In late August, he conducted a massive counterattack lead by three tank brigades and 50,000 infantry.  The Red Army easily swept the Japanese air force from the skies, while simultaneously bombing Japanese defensive positions and supply lines.  Soviet tank units made mincemeat of the Japanese armored forces while smashing through the flanks of the Japanese.  Once the Japanese flanks were destroyed, Soviet infantry encircled and surrounded the Japanese.  Zhukov demanded the Japanese surrender, but the Japanese commander, Michitaro Kumatsubara, announced that he would fight to the death.  Over the next several days Soviet artillery and aircraft pounded the Japanese as the Red Army tightened its noose around the encircled army.  It seemed that within a matter of days the 6th Army would be wiped out.  Then in August, 1939 it was announced that Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, and since Japan was Germany’s ally, they were required to make peace with the Soviets.  In essence, the Japanese had been saved by the bell.

The Battle of Khalkhin Gol was the biggest ass whoopin’ dealt to the Japanese until the Battle of Midway in 1942.  Afterwards, the Japanese signed a separate non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, pretending that the whole thing had never happened.

As a result of the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, the Japanese chose not to intervene when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, then the Soviet Union overran and destroyed Germany.  However, a promise between Joseph Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt guaranteed that the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan would clash once again.

To be Continued… 

In 1944, American paratroopers captured Yang Kyoungjong in Normandy. They thought he was a Japanese soldier in German uniform. He wasn’t, he was a Korean with an amazing story.

He’d been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese after they invaded Manchuria. Later he was captured by the Red Army at the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol. They sent him to a labour camp, from which they forcibly conscripted him into the Red Army in 1942.

A year later he was captured by the Germans at the Battle of Kharkov, and in 1944, they sent him to France as part of a Wehrmacht Soviet Battalion, where he was captured after D-Day by the paratroopers.

From Normandy he was shipped to a Prison Camp in the UK, after which he emigrated to the US, where he finally passed away in 1992 as a US citizen, resident in Illinois.