Anthony Tucker-Jones’s photographic history is a fascinating visual introduction to the armoured battles of the Second World War in the Far East and Asia-Pacific regions, from 1937 to 1945. In contrast to the experience of the armies that fought in Europe and North Africa, in the Far East tanks remained an infantry support weapon, and their role is often neglected in histories of the conflict. Japanese armour confronted tanks deployed by the Chinese, Russians, British and Americans.
Early in the war, against Chinese forces which lacked armour, the Japanese had some success, but their light and medium tanks were no match for their Allied counterparts. Later Japanese designs were better armed, but they were built in such small numbers that they could do little to stem the Allied advance. The role of armoured vehicles in each theatre of the war in the Far East is shown in a selection of over 150 rare wartime photographs that record armour in action in China, Manchuria, Mongolia, Malaya, Burma and during the battles fought for the Pacific islands.
This excerpt describes circumstances of the Battle of the Khalkhin-Gol River:
By July 1939 the Japanese had massed some 38,000 men, supported by 135 tanks and 225 aircraft, east of the Khalkhin-Gol River The outnumbered Zhukov could muster little more than 12,500 Soviet-Mongolian troops, though his main asset was a force of 186 tanks and 226 armoured cars. Notably the Soviet armour comprised the T-26 light tank as well as the BT-5 and BT-7 fast tanks. The Japanese relied on the Type 97 — which although a match for the BT tanks, were too few in number — and the slower Type 89 medium tanks.
[On the 2nd July 1939 the Japanese reached the Khalkhin-Gol River and began to build a pontoon bridge across it, near Mount Bain-Tsagen]
The Japanese pushed 10,000 troops, 100 pieces of artillery and 60 anti-tank guns onto the mountain. The defenders from the Mongolian 6th Cavalry Division could muster barely 1,000 men and 50 guns, including those on the eastern bank of the river. The Japanese seized Mount Bain-Tsagen and advanced south along the west bank.
[General Zhukov described the counter-attack]
“Our trump card was the armour, which we decided to send into action immediately in order to crush the Japanese troops which had just crossed the river, not letting them dig in and organise anti-tank defences. There was no time to lose, since the enemy, who saw our tanks advance, rapidly began to take defensive measures and started bombing them.The tanks had no shelter. For hundreds of kilometres around us the terrain was absolutely open. There was not even a bush in sight.”
At 07:00hrs on 3 July the Soviet Air Force and artillery commenced softening-up the Japanese positions. At 09:00hrs the tanks of the 11th Tank Brigade moved up with the full attack being launched at 10:45hrs. Japanese defences and anti-tank guns proved inadequate and the Russians began to make ground.
The Japanese were taken completely by surprise. Nakamura, a Japanese soldier, in his captured diary revealed:
“Several scores of tanks attacked unexpectedly, causing chaos amongst our troops. There was terrible confusion. Horses stampeded, neighing and dragging gun carriages with them: cars scattered in all directions.Two of our planes were shot down. The morale of our troops fell. Japanese soldiers could be heard using such words as ‘terrible’,‘sad’,‘dispirited’,‘ghastly’, etc more and more often.”
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