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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Main Bottle Tank

There are any number of battles in military history which boil down to "how did you mess that one up?". Where one side has all the advantages and still manages to lose against an an enemy who, by rights should have been flattened in the first half hour. Well during the fighting at Nomonhan in 1939, there was just such a battle.

As I've mentioned before the fighting at Nomonhan was due simply to a badly marked border, and a chunk of land claimed by both sides. When the Mongolians entered the disputed land it caused a battle where the Japanese were quickly wiped out. From there the skirmish escalated to a full blown war. At the start of the war the Japanese held the initiative, and drew up plans for an offensive into Mongolia. However they lacked a lot of the requirements for such an assault, and tried to make do on a shoestring and eventually the much better organised and larger Russian Army smashed them.
The start of the Japanese offensive was to bridge the Halha River, secure the opposite shore with a division of soldiers, while a veteran regiment mounted in trucks launched a lighting attack deep into Mongolia. The motorised infantry was to be the 26th Infantry Regiment commanded by the able Colonel Shinichiro Sumi. While the men were veterans, the regiments equipment wasn't in such a good state. Rushed to the front they had six each of heavy machine guns and battalions guns and two mortars across the entire regiment. Even the trucks were pressed into service from civilian sources, often still driven by their civilian drivers.

If these weakness caused worry to Col Sumi, the Japanese Higher Command did not share his misgivings and ordered the assault to begin on the evening of 2nd of July. Problems started immediately. Navigation in the region was horrifically hard, as there were very few landmarks. In one place one engineer unit began building its pontoon bridge on a lake, until it was noticed that there was no current. The bridge itself dated from the early 1900's and had never been designed to carry more than a field artillery piece. Even this equipment was in such short supply that the bridge (the engineers had all the bridging material in China) had to have pontoons so widely spaced that the bridge could only support a single truck at a time, and the truck had to be fully unloaded. To make matters worse the bridge was only 2.5m wide (about the width of a standard car park space). The crossing point was also the narrowest part of the river, but this too caused problems and compounded others. Because the river was narrower, the current was much faster, which lead to the bridge being curved, making the drive across even more difficult. Plus the river bank was sandy gravel which made it exceptionally difficult to anchor the pontoons. Every so often crossings would have to be halted for half an hour or so to allow the bridge to be repaired. Because of this, and other units that belonged to the infantry division also wanting to cross (Col Sumi was the ranking officer on the scene but he was described as an "outsider" to the division and so was largely ignored) the 26th Regiment only had a single battalion across the river by noon on the 3rd. Yet in the wildly optimistic plans drawn up by the divisional command, Col Sumi's entire regiment should have been across the river the night before.
With Russian pressure mounting on the infantry division protecting the bridgehead, and it likely to take most of the rest of the day for the rest of the 26th Regiment to cross the Japanese were faced with a choice, send a single battalion to do the job of three or wait and see what would happen. If you've read anything about the Japanese during Nomonhan it'll come as no surprise to find that they decided to proceed with the single battalion attack.

The battalion across the river already consisted of the 532 men and 78 trucks of Major Adachi's 1st Battalion. Although the other two battalions of the 26th Regiment dismounted and crossed the bridge on foot which was much quicker, they were still separated. The 1st Battalion began its advance towards its distant objective. After advancing for about a kilometre it ran into enemy armour.
Col Sumi stood atop an observation point and looked to the west, on the horizon he could see shapes moving in the blistering heat haze, Russian tanks were beginning to amass for an assault.
Against them stood a handful of Japanese soldiers and a smattering of field guns from 1906. The terrain was against the Japanese as well, it was flat open desert with no cover. Even the sandy soil was against the Japanese. At the time one of the principal Japanese AT weapons was a Type 93 mine on a bamboo pole. The pole was used to position the mine under the tank's tracks, where upon it would explode, disabling the tank. In the light sandy soil a tank would often pass over the mine, pushing it into the ground without meeting enough resistance to set off the explosive charge.
In preparation for this fight Col Sumi had dispatched officers to visit units that had seen action against the Russians earlier, and they returned with a variety of experience on the subject. One of the things that was suggested were Molotov cocktails. To this end Sumi's regiment requisitioned some 1200 bottles of soft drink, after some arguing with the quartermaster. First they had to be emptied, the soldiers were happy to do. Then they were filled with some sand to give them ballast, and the rest with petrol. When the tanks approached the bottles would be capped off with some wadding and then lit from a match and thrown at the Soviet tanks. These bottles were known as Kaenbin.
When the Soviets charged the 26th Regiment they attacked with a mass of hundreds of tanks and armoured cars. The Japanese infantry were out in the open with no cover, and no AT weapons, apart from the Kaenbin. As the tanks approached the soldiers started trying to light matches to ignite the wicks on their petrol filled bottles. However the wind ripping across the desert snuffed out the matches. In desperation the first bottles were flung unlit. Much to everyone's surprise the bottles smashed on the side of the Russian tanks, and spread fuel all over the tank. The tanks had been rushed from their base over many miles, and had been driving all the way in the baking sun, meaning the decks of the tanks were scaldingly hot. The petrol would catch fire from a combination of the heat of the direct sun and the searing deck plates. The tank would begin to burn from the bottom up, giving the appearance of the ground being on fire. Then the flames would creep higher. When they entered the petrol tank there would be a larger puff of flames and the tank would judder to a halt.
In that first action the Japanese claimed to have destroyed 83 tanks, in the open with nothing more than the Kaenbin.
You can see how much cover the Japanese had from this and other pictures. Its interesting to note if you look at the area now there's actually a lot more cover than there was back in the 30's.

By the end of the day the Russian forces had been forced to withdraw, however with stocks of Kaenbin almost exhausted, and no other means of defence the Japanese had to fall back, although the surprising resistance did mean the Soviets didn't push as hard as they might. This allowed the Japanese forces to fall back across the bridge and then destroy the span.

Image credits:
warfarehistorynetwork.com and www.flamesofwar.com

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