Thursday, January 8, 2015


Mongolian cavalry

A play opens for off-Broadway trials and for previews by the critics.  You can attend, peruse the publicity or read those critiques and decide for yourself about it.  Books and movies, the same.  But when history offers trial runs and early previews of the big shows to come, it doesn't tell you when or where they will be, and even in hindsight they may remain mostly unknown.

When Anthony Beavor's Stalingrad came out in the nineties, many including me were eager to find out, from what had been hidden in the Soviet archives before the 1991 collapse, how the USSR could turn their desperate toehold in the city into a decisive victory and turning point.  What the Germans and the Allies did not recognize was that the strategy and methods had been well developed and used to great effect already.  The lesson was there to be learned, but it was so far off the horizon it remained mute.

Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who achieved the Stalingrad victory, had developed his game-changing technique a few years earlier when in command on the Far Eastern front facing the Japanese Kwangtung Army in Manchuria during the summer of 1939, culminating in the decisive Battle of Khalkhin Gol (August 20).  During the 1930s, Japan's conquest of large parts of China and possession of all of Korea and Manchuria put her on a collision course with the USSR.  Their leadership was considering a Northern Strategy versus a Southern one, both more in pursuit of resources than territory.  While they were considering that a push south toward India and Australia would yield oil, rice and rubber (the navy was strongly in favor of it) border clashes with the Soviet Union decided the issue in the little-known, but all-important, battle that would end any desire to take on the Russians, lead to Pearl Harbor and to the end, largely, of European imperial possessions in Asia.  The progress of WWII and its aftermath were both clearly laid out in a godforsaken place few could find on a map, or consider important or even memorable.

In a few words, at Khalkhin Gol Zhukov employed a suite of bold new tactics -- a final armor/combined forces blitzkrieg assault, keeping the Japanese in the dark about the preparatory buildup, employing superior air power, and pinning down the enemy center while sweeping around his flanks in a pincer envelopment -- exactly the winning formula he employed a second time at Stalingrad.  The only essential difference was the lack of infantry integrated with the armor thrust at Khalkhin Gol, an oversight which Zhukov corrected.

Marshal Zhukov and the Mongolian commander

Stalin thanked his Far Eastern commanders by executing them in the 1941 purge, sparing Zhukov.  Tough company to work for.

The main revelation made in Beavor's book concerned the astounding size of the secret Soviet rear-area buildup at Stalingrad prior to Zhukov's successful counterattack at the beginning of 1942.  The decisive victory in  1939 on the Manchurian border had ended the prospect of a second, Eastern, front for the Soviets and freed up almost all those troops (28 divisions) to overwhelm the Germans on the Volga plains. 

Lincoln's words about the dedication ceremony of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg -- that it would be little noted or long remembered by the world -- could well be applied to the events of a long-ago August along a river in the farthest parts of that world.


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