The USSR and Japan were the only ones who could really brag about their tanks in the region. The Chinese armies had a miserly amount of armoured vehicles, which could not influence the situation significantly.
Soviet MS-1s were typical infantry support tanks: slow, with anti-bullet armour. T-26es and BT tanks with 45 mm guns that appeared later were significantly superior.
Japanese light 7.5 ton Type 95 Ha-Go tanks were armed with a 37 mm gun and a machinegun. Their armour was also made to withstand bullets. These tanks were sufficient against Chinese armour, but not as effective against the Soviets. In 1937, the medium Chi-Ha tank appeared, which was more powerful, but still only adequate by local standards.
Tank battles in the Far East were pretty similar to those in colonial wars: the tanks were few in number, and mostly opposed by infantry, cavalry and artillery. The only conflicts that don't match this pattern are the battles at Lake Hasan and Khalkin-Gol.
The use of tanks in the Far East once again proved that tanks need a well refined mechanism for cooperation with other types of forces. Without them, the effectiveness of tanks is limited. For instance, the initial battles for Jalainur station on the Far-Eastern Railroad saw the use of 10 MS-1 tanks. Initially, the tanks fought alone, as the infantry was not too eager to support them. As a result, the Soviet offensive lost its tempo and the Chinese fortified region was not taken swiftly.
On the next day, November 18th, MS-1 tanks fought in platoons of three, assisted by infantry. This worked. Tanks allowed Soviet horse-drawn batteries to pull up and fire on pillboxes at a point-blank range, and infantry could sneak up and pelt them with grenades. The results speak for themselves: the Soviets lost 7 tanks (all due to technical problems) and 200 men, the Chinese lost ten times as many, with over 8500 captured.
The Japanese used a curious tactic in China. When assaulting cities protected by strong walls, tanks went first, suppressing external defenders while infantry caught up. When infantry broke into the city, tanks went ahead once more and suppressed the remaining resistance. This tactic worked since the Chinese had few anti-tank weapons. When crossing rivers or channels, tanks were used as immobile batteries, firing from stationary positions. In some cases, they were used to cut off railroads or pursue fleeing enemies.
Fall of the Samurai
The 1938 border conflict at Lake Hasan in Primorskiy Krai and 1939 conflict at the Khalkin-Gol river in Mongolia was the first where the number of tanks used reached into the hundreds. 285 Soviet tanks fought at Hasan, including the new BT-7s, and nearly 600 tanks fought at Khalkin-Gol.
The Japanese treated the Lake Hasan conflict as recce in force. They wanted to check the how ready the USSR was for interference into the Sino-Japanese war and to evaluate the capabilities of the Red Army. Several infantry battalions supported by small numbers of artillery took two border heights: Bezymyannaya and Ozernaya. After several days of fierce combat, the heights were retaken.
After the clash, commanders wrote about the need for careful reconnaissance and observation of terrain where tanks were going to fight. It was not performed at Hasan, leading to heavy losses among T-26 and BT-7 trapped in a narrow path between mountains and swamps. Again, cooperation between tanks and other forces was weak.
The Khalkin-Gol conflict began with the Japanese puppet government of Manchukuo making a claim on some Mongolian territory. Soon, these tensions escalated into a war that lasted several months.
The Red Army had a year to work on mistakes made at Lake Hasan, but in practice, the saying "measure twice, cut once" was forgotten by commanders eager to attack. Experience on how to properly cooperate between tanks, artillery, and infantry had to be obtained in battle once again.
However, Khalkin-Gol confirmed that tank units are perfectly prepared for mobile actions. The Soviet 11th Tank Brigade performed a long march in their BT-7s before attacking the enemy. Few vehicles fell behind due to technical reasons on this march. Tanks, especially flamethrower variants, were very useful when suppressing machinegun nests. The result was once again a Soviet victory.
The successes of the Red Army in the Far East were costly, but resulted in valuable experience. The most important thing was that two victories over Japan became a hefty argument for keeping the latter out of the war between the USSR and Germany which loomed over the horizon.
Article authors: Evgeniy Belash and Vladimir Pinayev
Original article available here.