On August 15, 1945, the emperor Hirohito orders the Japanese people on the radio to “put up with the unbearable”. The “unbearable” is the unconditional surrender that until then fiercely refused Japan, the last Axis country to continue the war.

What prompts Hirohito to advocate for peace, he who has remained silent, or complicit in Japanese militarism during the fourteen years of war that Japan has provoked in Asia and the Pacific? The answer that spontaneously comes to mind is the devastating impact of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

It was the destruction of these two cities, reduced to ashes by these terrifying weapons, which forced Tokyo threw in the towel.

This unequivocal analysis overlooks a decisive factor: the entry into the war of the Soviet Union on August 9, 1945, three days later. Hiroshima and a few hours before Nagasaki and the lightning conquest of the Manchuria which followed by the Red Army, in what is the most massive military operation of WWII.

A war against Japan, Stalin has been considering since 1943, but he wants to prevent the USSR from fighting in the west and in the east. It conditions its military engagement in Asia to the prior elimination of Nazi Germany.

To the yalta conference, in February 1945, Stalin specifies that he would turn against Japan three months after the end of operations in Europe in order to give the Red Army time to deploy in the Far East.

In April, while the Nazi regime was in agony, Stalin unilaterally denounced the non-aggression pact that the USSR signed with Japan in 1941. As of May, Stalin transferred along the Love river the army corps which defeated Germany.

In July 1945, at the Potsdam conference – the former residence of the King of Prussia Frederick the Great – the United States, Great Britain and the Republic of China renew their ultimatum by threatening Japan with “total destruction” if it does not lay down its arms.

At the opening of this conference, the American president Harry truman warns Stalin that the United States had successfully tested an atomic bomb a few hours earlier and that the United States is determined to use this weapon against Japan.

However, far from being convinced that the atom will end the war, Truman once again insists that the USSR engage as quickly as possible. Stalin accepts, he wants his share of the dismemberment of the Japanese empire.

Potsdam Conference

Potsdam Conference

At the beginning of August 1945, the Red Army was ready. In three months, more than a million and a half soldiers, thirty thousand pieces of artillery and rocket tubes, around 5,500 armored vehicles and assault guns, 86,000 various vehicles and 3,800 planes were transported through Siberia and massed. at the Manchoukuo border, this pseudo independent state created in 1932 by the Japanese military following the Mukden incident.

It is the most massive military operation of the Second World War which is being prepared. The Red Army has never concentrated so many resources. It is true that it will launch out to conquer a disproportionate territory, as vast as Western Europe.

Samurai Rider Takeda

The Japanese defense plan in Manchuria

Faced with this Red Army, seasoned by four years of fighting against the powerful Wehrmacht, supported by an arms industry to the maximum of its capacities and which suffered no damage, benefiting from a network of communications routes admittedly reduced but intact, the Japan is only the shadow of what it was. Its industrial centers are systematically razed by the US Air Force.

Its maritime links with the territories still in its possession were cut off by the submarines and the surface fleet of the Americans which, made daring by the lack of response from the Japanese, launched raids along the coasts of the archipelago and sank the last Japanese ships still seaworthy.

Japan, however, retains one final map: Manchuria. Most of the towns of Manchuria are beyond the reach of American bombers and have been spared.

The attempted air raids on Shenyang – then called Mukden – and other industrial centers caused little damage. The flagship of the Imperial Army before 1941, thekwantung army barracks in Manchuria remains, with the army corps occupying the rest of China, the last living forces of Japan.

This army is 700,000 strong on paper. In reality, it has been impoverished by the levies operated to strengthen fronts like Burma. If, by Japanese standards, the Kwantung army is well armed, compared to the armament of the Allies, it is outclassed in most areas.

It lacks anti-tank parts: its model 97 anti-tank rifles and its model 98 (20 mm) and 41 (47 mm) guns are too weak against thick Soviet armor.

Its armored vehicles are mostly chenillettes – model 94 and 97 Te-Ke – and light tanks – model 95 Ha-Gô – designed to support the infantry and not to enter into duels with other armored vehicles.

The guns of its medium tanks – the 89 A Chi-Ro and 94 models and the latest, the 97 Chi-Ha – are powerless to pierce the steel of their Soviet counterparts while they themselves are highly vulnerable to powerful shaped charges. of their opponents.

Japanese tank model 95 Ha-Gô

Japanese tank model 95 Ha-Gô

The Kwantung army pays for the choice of the high command to have sacrificed the armored weapon out of loyalty to a doctrine that favors the infantry and as a measure of economy(1).

Aviation, about 2,000 aircraft, was stripped of its best elements, handed over to the squadrons of Suicide bomber of the Pacific.

The infantry, keystone of the Kwantung army, is inflated by the contribution of local auxiliaries and Koreans conscripted by force who have neither the loyalty nor the bite of the Japanese troops. A cavalry of White Russians flanked by the All-Russia Fascist Party of Tsarist General VA Kislitsin has been formed, but its military value is negligible(2).

Finally, the command is not the brightest: the most competent officers have been sent to fire in other regions.

Faced with the Soviet threat, the Kwantung army opted for a strategy inspired by the battles of the Pacific. It is no longer a question of hitting the adversary with all his might in search of the battle of annihilation, of conquering with a dice by a frontal impact as required by the strategic principles taught in Japan since the 19th century.

Since the end of 1942, the Japanese have been on the defensive. They bury themselves in ingeniously arranged points of support in order to make the adversary pay dearly for his progress.

From offensive aggressiveness, the Imperial Army’s strategy has turned into a war of attrition where it is ready to sacrifice every last man in the hope of bleeding the adversary.

Aware that the central plain of Manchuria is favorable to Soviet armor, the Japanese plan aims to delay the Red Army once it crosses the Amur River in order to give the Kwantung army time to fall back into the areas. mountainous areas on the border with Korea.

Under the influence of the certainty that the Japanese infantryman is the best in the world, the Japanese command intends to regain the advantage by forcing the Soviets to fight on foot in these steep and wooded regions unfavorable to the armored vehicles.

The experience gained against the Americans in the Pacific is reflected here again: the Imperial Army abandons open spaces – beaches in the case of the Pacific Islands -, favoring the endless possibilities of fortifications of rugged terrain and covered with vegetation. .

Behind the Japanese plan lies an old strategic reasoning. The objective is not to conserve Manchuria, whose vulnerability the Japanese know, but to make this region a buffer zone, a glacis protecting Korea.

Annexed to the empire since 1910, separated from Japan only by the narrow Tsushima Strait barely 100 kilometers wide and all the easier to cross since there is in its middle the island which gave its name to this gully between the Sea of ​​Japan and the Yellow Sea, the peninsula is in fact a springboard ideal for a landing in the archipelago.

To lock this door, Japan entered the war against Russia in 1904. And it is according to this same reasoning that the Kwantung army is preparing a sanctuary on the Korean border.

The Japanese have arrived at the end of a strategic reflection that began half a century earlier. If during the First Sino-Japanese War (1896) and the Russo-Japanese War, this reflection was relevant, during the summer of 1945, it no longer had anything to do with a rational understanding of the balance of power.

It shows the doctrinal vacuum of the Imperial Army, which it compensates for with an unshakeable faith in the meaning of the sacrifice of the Japanese soldier to reverse the course of history.

Surrender of Japanese soldiers to the Soviets

Surrender of Japanese soldiers to the Soviets

In short, the goal is not to beat the Soviets but to wear them down in the same way the Japanese try to exhaust the Americans in the Pacific.

It is no longer a question of winning but of disgusting by bringing the human losses of the adversary to an unbearable level.

The Japanese plan has a structural flaw: this is the mistake that the Japanese high command has been rigidly repeating since the 1930s.

His anticipations are only projections of how the Japanese would campaign if they retained the initiative.

Their reasoning corresponds perfectly to the military resources at their disposal but ignores the profound changes that the war in Europe brought about between 1939 and 1945.

In 1931, devoid of armored vehicles – if we disregard a few Renault T4 tanks that were not really used because of the frost – the Kwantung army conquered Manchuria by following the railroad lines.

The Japanese therefore deduce that the Soviets will follow the railroads. And since the border with Mongolia is inaccessible by train, the Japanese neglect to fortify this region and leave it bare.

However, this is precisely where the Soviet tanks will rush in and lead one of the most brutal blitzkriegs of World War II.

(Warmly) recommended reading:

Ishiwara, the man who started the war

From 1889 to 1949, a man with an extraordinary military and ideological background went through key moments in the history of Japan: forced opening to the West, the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Tokyo trials.

From a family of samurai, trained in Germany in the 1920s, General Ishiwara was notably behind the invasion of Manchuria in 1932. He thus provided essential support for the fascist and racial ideology that would throw Japan into world conflict.

Order the book on Amazon.

(1) : See US War Department, Handbook on Japanese Military Force, 1944, republished by Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1991.
(2) : See Sabine Breillard. Harbin and Manchuria: Space, and Idendity, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2000.

Bruno Birolli

Author of “Ishiwara, the man who started the war” (Amazon); of ” Port Arthur , February 8, 1904- January 5, 1905 ”(Economica), from the chapter“ Autumn storm ”in“ The myths of the Second World War ”(Perrin).

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