S. Martin Shelton

Retired U.S.Navy Captain, Novelist

Book Review: Air War Over Khalkhin Gol: The Nomonhan Incident

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Rating – Three Stars

From May to September, 1939, the Union of Socialists Soviet Republics and the Empire of Japan waged an undeclared war near the Khalkhin Gol (River) over the border between Soviet controlled Mongolia and the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo (formerly the Chinese Province Manchuria). In this little remembered war, casualties in men and equipment were exceedingly high in this vicarious conflict in the remotest and worthless real estate on the planet.

Kotelnikov presents a detailed account of the air war from the Soviet Union’s perspective.  In many ways, his account reminds one of the aerial “dog fights” over the Western Front in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. Unfortunately, his narrative fails to engender empathy in the audience. It’s a dry, statistical account, strung together in a continuous flow of text. The presentation would have been more comprehensible if he would have bulleted the data of the day-by-day air significant battles. His narrative has almost no personal details. We get some of the names of the Soviet and Japanese aviators but we do not get to know them—who they are, what they think, what they do in their off duty hours. The narrative is a dry telling of “just the facts.”

He fails to develop a broad perspective of this conflict. We do not understand very much about the war itself. He does not tell us what the war was really about (a continuation for control of the Pacific provinces—as in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905?). We need some details about the ground war to understand the implications of the air war.  We need information about the belligerent’s political thoughts and implications. At the time, the Second Sino-Japanese war was in full force, and war clouds were building aplenty over Europe.

I fault Kotelnikov severely for not providing comprehensive maps of the conflict. The few maps he offers are miniscule and unreadable. On the positive side, he presents an array of black and white photographs of Soviet aircraft and airmen, beautiful color drawings of the aircraft involved, and a supplement that details the background of the aircraft, their specifications, and performance.

Read more by S. Martin Shelton

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