The combination of logistical superiority and tactical surprise gave the Red Army commanders a lot of flexibility when they looked at the maps of Japanese-held Manchuria. First, a little geography: Manchuria is sort of like a box, with high mountains and big rivers along the borders, sloping down to flatland in the middle. The middle part of the province was the prize; that’s where the fertile land, the population and the industry was concentrated. Most of the Japanese defensive forces were concentrated on the east side of the box, where they faced off against the Soviets along a north-south line following the Ussuri River from Khabarovsk down to Vladivostok.
The Kwantung Army commanders expected the Russian push to come from the east, and what defenses they had were concentrated there, especially around a town called Mudanjiang—tiny place by Chinese standards, only three million people in it even today.
The whole western border, butting up against Mongolia, was left all but undefended. To attack from that direction you’d have to cross the Gobi Desert, which the Japanese considered impossible, then go over the Khingan Mountains, which hit about 5500 feet and are what BLM would proudly call a “roadless area.”
So if you’ve read any military history you can guess where the Soviets put their biggest forces: yup, due west, ready to storm across the Khingan Mountains. Of course this put a huge strain on their supply lines, but that was nothing for a force as tough and experienced as these dudes.
Oh, that wasn’t their only attack front. In fact, they attacked everywhere. Like I said, when you study this campaign you get the sense that the Red Army was putting on a show, doing a demonstration of Suvorov’s old line, “Train hard, fight easy.” They’d sure trained hard, and lost a whole generation doing it; but the survivors seemed like they were almost having fun with it, running a clinic.
On August 9, just in time to claim Comrade Stalin’s prizes (Sakhalin Island, the Kurils, Korea), the conductor waved his baton and the whole magnificent slaughter ballet started up. They attacked EVERYWHERE. They attacked from the southwest, right across the Gobi, and one column even came up through Kalgan, in rock-throwing distance of Peking (hey, it was still Peking back then). They rushed south from Khabarovsk, and west from Vladivostok. That was the one place they ran into trouble, at that little town of Mudanjiang, where the Japanese had dug in like gophers expecting the Rapture. The Red Army had 11,000 casualties, one third of its total for the whole campaign, in the attack on Mudanjiang.
I mean, it was like they were showing off. They dropped paratroopers on Harbin, the big prize, in the dead center of the Manchurian plain, and other parachute units on Mukden. Best of all, they dropped in on Port Arthur and Darien, site of Russia’s big humiliation in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5.
Everything went right. It’s too bad we’re too stubborn to give a little appreciation to ex-enemies, because if people knew more about this campaign they’d enjoy the Hell out of it, just for the sheer beauty of the plan and execution.
Like all advances that work better than they’re supposed to, this one stalled because it literally ran out of fuel. Those T-34s got so far inside Kwantung Army lines in the first few days that the Soviet Air Force had to use DC-3s to bring in gas. By that time, it was pretty clear that the cannon fodder the Japanese had left to man the trenches had had enough, so the problem wasn’t so much defeating the Axis forces as beating the American naval task forces down to the Korean Peninsula, the one big strategic objective the Red Army hadn’t yet overrun. They made it about halfway down the Peninsula, and then had to stop because a US force had made a landing at Inchon—yup, the same Inchon that MacArthur was going to make famous a few years later. That’s how the Korean Peninsula came to be divvied up halfway down, like an Xtreme circumcision: because that’s as far as the Red Army’s tanks got before the US Navy’s landing crafts started unloading the USMC. We were still “allies,” of course, but we were already the kind of allies who playfully go for the carving knives when there’s a piece of chicken still on the table, chuckling all the way. Or as Pol Pot said of the Vietnamese in the early 70s, “Friends, but friends with a conflict.”