However, Xueliang didn't want to quarrel with China's formal leader, Chiang Kai-shek, or with Japan: this was too dangerous, and could cost him his new territory, or even his life. The Young Marshal turned his sights to the Chinese Eastern Railway, controlled jointly by the USSR and China. The railroad passed through his Manchurian territory. Why not turn this joint venture into his personal one?
Main institutions of the railroad were swiftly captured, and their Soviet staff arrested. From there, Xueliang opened fire on Soviet territory. He inherited hundreds of thousands of men, artillery, aircraft, and even tanks, light Renaults purchased in France. The Soviets, not without cause, were worried that he might attack the country's Far Eastern regions.
The situation required a swift and complete solution. A Special Far-East Army (ODVA) was creased.
On the night of November 17th, the Manchuro-Jalainur operation began. Elements of the ODVA crossed the Chinese border. Their mission was to deliver coordinated attacks from the north and east, take the Jalainur fortified region, and surround the garrison of the large city with the same name as the province: Manchuria.
This was not an easy task. Chinese fortifications were built to withstand 152 mm shells, and were partially surrounded with barbed wire. Veterans' memoirs mention trenches up to 4 meters deep in most dangerous directions, minefields, and avalanche traps. The 9000 men of the garrison had 50 mortars, 50 machineguns, bomb launchers up to 150 mm in caliber, and about 20 77 mm guns.
For the Soviets, this would be the first large scale offensive since the Civil War.
Small Support enters the battle
Armoured vehicles fought under Soviet banners before, but these were Tsarist era armoured cars, modernized Gulkevich armoured tractors, captured Renaults, Whippets, and "rhombuses". Other weapons were in no better condition, commanders complained that machineguns would jam after 5-6 bursts, half of their grenades did not explode. There weren't enough binoculars, watches, equipment, horses, or men.
The main ace up the Red Army's sleeve was supposed to be an MS-1 company (9 vehicles). These were the first mass produced tanks in the Soviet Union. In order to retain the element of surprise, their deployment was done in utter secrecy. Not even Soviet infantry knew they would be supported by these tanks.
The operation began. Advance infantry silently took out the guards and attacked. Fighting erupted with several dugouts near the railroad. The Chinese soldiers in them resisted fiercely, remaining in position even as tanks approached, but the dugouts were built poorly. They had large dead zones where an enemy could crawl up form, and straight ventilation shafts, convenient for throwing grenades down.
Despite initial successes and presence of tanks, it was not easy to penetrate the fortified region. MS-1 tanks could not cross the wide trenches and had to find their way around. Since tanks and infantry never learned to cooperate, the tanks, as it said in a report, "wandered around the battlefield and were unavailable to command". Another quote from these reports, which is really applicable to any country in any era: "Tanks acted decisively and without regard for self-preservation, but infantry supported them weakly, and did not display sufficient activity."
Jalainur was not taken on November 17th, and the offensive lost its momentum. A pause was necessary to let infantry rest and pull up artillery.
On the next day, November 18th, tanks acted in three tank platoons, and in tight cooperation with infantry. If there were no tanks, it's doubtful that Soviet artillery would be able to pull up within half a kilometer of the fortifications to open fire point-blank, or that infantry would be able to get close enough to fill them with grenades. Fierce resistance could have stretched out the operation, cost many lives, and given enough time for reserves from Manchuria to pull up.
The fact that Soviet artillery was unable to destroy Chinese fortifications and batteries was an unpleasant surprise. The condition of the Chinese forces was a saving factor: Chinese guns had shells of questionable quality, and were placed in trenches with a limited range of movement. Artillery tactics, according to Soviet specialists, were quite primitive. Each pillbox fought bravely, but independently, with no cooperation. Chinese soldiers fought fiercely until the last bullet, but shot poorly, and used few grenades. Most of the casualties came from bomb launchers.
The tank company suffered 7 losses in those battles (all for technical reasons, the Chinese did not manage to knock out a single tank). With infantry support, the tanks managed to take the fortified region and capture many trophies. Rifles alone were not counted in singles, but in train cars.
As a result of the battles, tankers had many suggestions. They requested canister shot for their guns, radios and flares for communication. In the future, the tankers would have liked heavy tanks, specially designed to break through enemy fortifications. It was deemed necessary to throw up a smokescreen when attacking.
A failure at the railroad would have negatively impacted the international standing of the Soviet Union, which was especially critical in the chaos of the Great Depression and upcoming changes in the world. With only one tank company, and not even the best or most fearsome tanks, the Soviet Union was victorious in its first trial of its military might on the international scale. The MS-1 may not have been the best Soviet tank, but it was the first, and did everything that was expected of them at the Chinese Eastern Railway.
Author: Evgeniy Belash
Evgeniy Belash is a historian, an author of books and articles on the First and Second World Wars. His best known work is "Myths of the First World War". He is the author of a book "Tanks of the Interbellum" on the participation of armoured vehicles in military conflicts in the 1920s and 1930s.
- RGVA materials
- I.I. Fedyuninskiy, Na Vostoke, Moscow, Voyenizdat, 1985
Original article available here.