During the course of World War II, known to Russians as the Great Patriotic War, Soviet forces carried out some 114 amphibious operations of one kind or another.1 Most of these were brown- rather than green-water operations (Soviet doctrine classed river crossings as “amphibious”) though there were exceptions relating to the Black Sea.2 This lack of experience, though, did not deter the mounting of seaborne assaults during the Soviet Union’s 1945 “Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation” against Japanese-controlled territory.3 This took place following the “Agreement Regarding Entry of the Soviet Union Into the War Against Japan,” which was formalized and signed at the Allies’ Yalta Conference on 11 February 1945.
It gave Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin all he asked for, while in return the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan “two or three months after Germany has surrendered.”4 The grand-strategic rationale underpinning this operation was summarised by General Douglas MacArthur, who would lead Operation Downfall, the invasion of Japan:
[O]ur strength should be reserved for use in the Japanese mainland, on the plains of Tokyo, and . . . this could not be done without the assurance that the Japanese would be heavily engaged by the Russians in Manchuria.5
Accordingly the invasion of Manchukuo, the Japanese-controlled puppet state in Manchuria, began at 0005 local time on 9 August 1945.6 As one author has put it: “Someone had done the arithmetic with time zones.”7 Indeed so, for the attack commenced simultaneously with the Declaration of War handed to Japan’s ambassador at 1700 Moscow time on 8 August.8 Under the auspices of the Far East Command under Marshall Aleksandr Vasilevsky, three Red Army Fronts (more or less equivalent to reinforced Anglo-American Army Groups) moved into action.9 In naval terms, the Far East Command also could call upon the Soviet Pacific Fleet, which was “going into battle to finish off the fascist Beast of the East,” and the riverine Amur Flotilla.10 The object of the exercise being, as Marshal Kirill Meretskov (commander of the First Far Eastern Front advancing from the east), phrased it, to “cut the [Japanese] Kwantung army into pieces.”11
The left wing of Meretskov’s command comprised the 25th Army led by Colonel-General Ivan Chistyakov. The task it was set to perform was operationally important and ambitious in scope, composed of two axes of advance with the primary attack directed westward. The secondary, assigned to an Operational Group (according to contemporary Red Army doctrine, an Operational Group was a temporary force designated for operations or missions along a separate axis from the main front or army) under the command of Major-General Grigoriy Shanin would move southwest and into northern Korea. It also would act in conjunction with the Soviet Pacific Fleet. The object was to take control of the main ports on the east coast of the Korean Peninsula thus severing Japan’s sea lines of communication, which were being heavily interdicted by U.S. Navy and Air Forces in any event.12
The Red Army during the course of the war had developed into a highly efficient warfighting organization, one that perforce had learned its business the hard way. The Soviet Navy, in contrast, had little warfighting experience, and though it had carried out amphibious operations, these had been on a comparatively small scale.13 In other words, the harsh lessons that led to British and American proficiency in the practice had passed it by. This was particularly so in the case of assaulting and seizing a major port; Soviet forces had not undergone a “Dieppe” and thus did not know the lessons learned.14 Chief among these was that taking a defended port from the sea was scarcely a practical operation of war; amphibious assaults thereafter generally went in over beaches.
Two linked factors need to be explained before moving on. First, that the Soviets could engage in naval operations safely was due to the fact that, by 1945, the Imperial Japanese Navy had been effectively destroyed by the U.S. Navy. Second, the United States provided most of the means via Project Hula, “the largest and most ambitious transfer program of World War II.”15
Under the auspices of this project, between April and September 1945, some 150 ships were transferred to the Soviet Navy, and some 12,000 Soviet naval personnel were trained in their maintenance and use.16 All the warships transferred were minor, with nothing more potent than escort-type antisubmarine vessels. These included 28 patrol frigates (roughly equivalent to British River-class corvettes) and 32 submarine chasers (used mostly by the Coast Guard in U.S. service). A number of mine-warfare vessels also made the transition; 24 steel-hulled oceangoing fleet minesweepers and 31 wood-hulled auxiliary motor minesweepers. Four floating workshops (informally known as repair barges) also were included. Most useful in terms of amphibious warfare were 30 large Landing Craft Infantry, or LCI (L) in U.S. naval terminology.17
Shanin’s assault into northern Korea went well. Concurrently, the Korean ports of Sonbong, Najin, and Chongjin came under heavy air attack, 616 sorties on 9 and 10 August, from the aviation component of the Pacific Fleet.18 The first two ports were only some 18–25 miles distant from the Soviet-Korean border, while Chongjin was located more than 68 miles farther south. Sonbong and Najin were assaulted from the sea on 12 August, and the landings were unopposed, the Japanese garrisons having retreated south. These successes, combined with the rapid advance of the land-based Operational Group, paved the way for exploitation using similar methods at Chongjin—an important industrial center and the home of a Japanese naval base.
However, Meretskov, the front commander, canceled the amphibious portion of the attack and withdrew the principal landing force allocated to it by 25th Army. His rationale remains unclear, and his memoirs are silent on the issue, as are Vasilevsky’s. The Commander-in-Chief became involved when Admiral Ivan Yumashev, commander of the Pacific Fleet, approached him directly and obtained his sanction to proceed with the operation, but using naval resources only.19
One of the failures identified in relation to the Dieppe operation related to intelligence. This was also the case in respect of Chongjin: “There was no information about the enemy. There was nothing known even about the defenses of the port, whether there were coastal batteries or forts.”20
The command arrangements for the operation were seriously deficient as well. Overall control was vested in Yumashev, who remained at Vladivostok some 124 miles distant, and he appointed no local commander to coordinate and control matters on the spot. One advantage the Pacific Fleet did possess was a large air component, and this was used to reconnoiter the port and environs. Despite these efforts, however, it proved impossible to determine what defenses were in place or the size of the enemy garrison. Scrutiny from the sea failed to clarify the situation. Torpedo boats sent to scout the harbor on 12 August reported that while there were no Japanese warships there, they could not determine the extent of the land-based defenses, nor if there were any enemy forces there at all.21
Faced with this informational void, Yumashev decided to land a small force and follow it up as necessary. Accordingly, a company-sized unit left Vladivostok at 0700 hours on the morning of 13 August on board six torpedo boats. This 181-strong detachment was led by Colonel A. Z. Denisin, the head of the Pacific Fleet’s intelligence section. The purpose of the mission was to conduct a battle reconnaissance to ascertain the strength and intentions of the enemy. Then, if conditions were favorable, the company would seize a bridgehead in the port and hold it until reinforcements arrived. The six boats, with a further four as escort, came under fire from defenses located on the Komalsan Peninsula (Cape Kolokoltsev to the Soviets), a promontory forming the east side of the harbor, as they approached Chongjin.22 The flotilla returned fire and laid a smokescreen, under cover of which at 1340 hours the landing party was put ashore onto the quay at the fishing-boat harbor, overcoming slight opposition.23
This small group spread out while patrols moved north along the banks of the Susong River, which reached the sea just west of the harbor in question, toward the city proper. Denisin meanwhile radioed to Vladivostok that, despite being opposed, his force had landed at, and secured, the fishing harbor. While this was considered good news, nobody at Pacific Fleet HQ knew where that harbor actually was.24 Nevertheless, reinforcements were dispatched to support the initial landing, though it would be many hours before they could arrive.
There were in fact significant Japanese forces in and around the city, and it appears that the sheer improbability of the landing caught them off balance, allowing the invaders to take at least partial control of the coastal area and move some way inland. Once the defenders did realize what had happened, however, they moved to counterattack and quickly pushed to the waterfront. This split the Soviet marines into two groups, whose difficulties were compounded by the fact that neither group contained air-liaison personnel. Close support from the aviation arm of the Pacific Fleet was therefore impossible.
At around 1830, reinforcements arrived in the shape of an additional 90 marines delivered by torpedo boat. They got ashore but were unable to link up with either of the groups already there, so they formed a third separate detachment in the harbor area. Overnight, the situation of these three units became desperate, with ammunition running short and casualties mounting.
They managed to hold on, however, and a degree of relief arrived on the morning of 14 August with the landing of a marine battalion numbering some 710 personnel. This force got ashore but was initially unable to liaise with those already there. They did move forward from the harbor area, however, pushing the Japanese back about one and a quarter miles. The latter regrouped and reinforced and, with artillery assistance, including the guns of an armored train, forced the Soviets back toward the sea. Fighting went on overnight, with the attackers being confined to a shallow zone around two-thirds of a mile deep, and about twice that wide, along the waterfront. There, at least, they had gunfire support from the vessels in the harbor area.
Further help was also on the way from Vladivostok in the shape of a convoy of six frigates, two minesweepers, four submarine chasers, and nine Infantry Landing Craft. On board these ships was the 13th Marine Brigade, amounting to some 3,000 personnel. Also on board was Lieutenant-General Sergey Kabanov, commander of the Pacific Fleet’s coastal defenses, to take command of the operation, plus seven T-26 tanks that he deemed “low-powered.”25 This force was landed into the harbor lodgement at 0400 hours on 15 August. Fierce fighting followed, and only some eight hours later was the perimeter expanded into the urban area to the north with assistance from naval gunfire, the latter destroying the armored train into the bargain.
On the negative side, the sudden ingress of ships into the harbor began setting off aircraft-laid mines, deployed as part of the Americans’ Operation Starvation.26 Three ships were damaged by the detonation of either Mk 25 or Mk 26 mines.27 The Soviets were not aware of what was happening at that time; “information about the minefields was only received from the American command on 21 August.”28
Two more ships were badly damaged by these mines the following day during operations to land additional forces. These included three SU-76 self-propelled guns; the Pacific Fleet did not have the capacity to transport and land heavy armored vehicles, leaving light vehicles as the only option.29 The fighting continued all through 16 August, the marines pushing north into the city and northeast onto the Komalsan Peninsula, where the enemy stubbornly held one of the heights. According to Kabanov the struggle for this position, as well as for the mastery of the peninsula as a whole, was decided by the three SU-76s.30
Yumashev and the Pacific Fleet Command, having realized that they had severely underestimated the difficulties of the operation, put together and dispatched two more convoys with reinforcements. By then, however, enemy resistance was slackening. It ceased altogether when forward detachments of Shanin’s Operational Group, having advanced overland from Najin, arrived on the scene on the night of 16–17 August, and by 1130 on the morning of the latter date these had advanced to the waterfront. The Soviets estimated that during the course of the fighting, the Japanese lost more than 3,000 officers and men killed, wounded, and eventually captured.31
The Chongjin Soviet War Cemetery contains the graves of 352 Soviet personnel, 188 named and 164 unknown, who perished during the battles.32 Among the named Soviet casualties is 20-year-old Mariya Tsukanova, the only female awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union during the course of the Manchurian operation. Wounded and captured on 14 August, the Japanese tortured her for information on the invaders before killing her.33
This was a relatively modest “butcher’s bill” given that in executing the assault on Chongjin, the Pacific Fleet in general, and Admiral Yumashev in particular, contravened just about every principle of amphibious warfare apart from surprise.34 As the writers of the history of the Soviet Pacific Fleet understated it: “The landing operation suffered from a number of significant drawbacks. The main one being the excessive time taken in landing troops. The buildup of forces was slow, which put those already ashore in an extremely difficult position.”35
If Yumashev can be said to have been lucky with regards to the outcome of the Chongjin operation, then it also can be stated that he at least learned from it and was able to put these lessons into practice. For, and despite President Truman’s announcement on 14 August that he had received a message signifying “the unconditional surrender of Japan” and therefore, as he wrote in his memoirs, “The guns were silenced. The war was over,” fighting continued in Manchuria and elsewhere.36 For the Red Army and the Soviet Pacific Fleet, the war was not over, and the Soviets conducted several more amphibious operations in the effort to “finish off the fascist Beast of the East.” But that, as the cliché has it, is another story.
1. Donald K. Cliff, “Soviet Naval Infantry: A New Capability” in Naval War College Review 23, no. 10 (June 1971): 92.
2. See, for example, the operations in November 1943 as detailed in А Кузнецов, Большой десант. Керченско-Эльтигенская операция (Москва; Вече, 2011).
3. See Charles Stephenson, Stalin’s War on Japan: The Red Army’s Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation, 1945 (Havertown, PA; Pen & Sword Military, 2021).
4. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of The United States: Diplomatic Papers, Conferences at Malta and Yalta, 1945 (Washington DC; US Government Printing Office, 1955), 984.
5. Walter Millis (Ed.) with the collaboration of B. S. Duffield, The Forrestal Diaries (New York; Viking, 1956), p. 31.
6. И И Людников, Дорога длиною в жизнь (Москва; Воениздат, 1969) сh. 169.
7. Craig Collie, Nagasaki: The Massacre of the Innocent and the Unknowing (London: Portobello Books, 2011), 117.
8. Феликс Чуев, Молотов Полудержавный властелин (Москва; Олма Пресс, 2002), сh. 39.
9. Л Н Внотченко (hereafter cited as Vnotchenko), Победа на Дальнем Востоке (Москва; Воениздат, 1971) сh. 66.
10. Zakharov et al., 244; В Н Багров и Н Ф Сунгоркин, Краснознаменная Амурская флотилия (Москва; Воениздат, 1970).
11. К А Мерецков (hereafter cited as Meretskov), На службе народу (Москва; Политиздат, 1968), сh. 425.
12. Meretskov, 424; Vnotchenko, 94; and И М Чистяков (hereafter cited as Chistyakov), Служим Отчизне (Москва; Воениздат, 1985), 274.
13. Charles B. Atwater Jr., Soviet Amphibious Operations in the Black Sea, 1941–1943, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1995/ACB.htm.
14. The Dieppe Raid was a British-Canadian amphibious assault on the German-occupied French port of that name, which took place on 19 August 1942. One of the objects of the exercise was to establish if it was possible to seize a major port from the sea. Disaster ensued. Mark Zuehlke, Tragedy at Dieppe: Operation Jubilee, August 19, 1942 (Vancouver; Douglas & McIntyre, 2012). See also U.K. National Archives, ADM 205/174, “Raid on Dieppe (19 Aug 1942): Battle Summary No 33.”
15. Richard A. Russell, Project Hula: Secret Soviet-American Cooperation in the War Against Japan (Washington, DC; Naval Historical Center, 1997), 1.
16. “US Navy Combatant Ships Transferred to the USSR Under Project HULA, May–September 1945,” appendix to Russell, 39–40.
17. Russell appendix, 40.
18. С Е Захаров, В Н Багров, С С Бевз, М Н Захаров и М П Котухов (hereafter cited as Zakharov et al.), Краснознаменный Тихоокеанский флот (Москва; Воениздат, 1973) 177.
19. С И Кабанов (hereafter cited as Kabanov), Поле боя-берег (Москва; Воениздат, 1977) 330.
20. Kabanov, 332.
21. Zakharov et al., 184–85.
22. For a map of the Chongsin waterfront, see https://maps.lib.utexas.edu/maps/ams/korea_city_plans/txu-oclc-6563940.jpg.
23. Unless otherwise stated, this section is based on Zakharov et al., 185–90.
24. There were three harbors within the port of Chongjin—one for naval forces, one for the fishing fleet, and, closest to the Komalsan Peninsula, one associated with the Mitsubishi Iron works; Kabanov, 341.
25. Kabanov, 333.
26. Operation Starvation: “The Air Force mining campaign against Japan which earned such high praise from the Navy was carried out by the Marianas-based B-29s of General LeMay’s XXI Bomber Command. . . . It began in late March 1945 and lasted, with some interruptions, until the war ended five months later.” Frederick M Sallager, “Lessons From an Aerial Mining Campaign (Operation “Starvation”): A Report [R-1322-PR], prepared for United States Air Force Project RAND” (Santa Monica, CA; RAND, 1974), 1.
27. The Mk 25, magnetic, acoustic, or pressure-triggered, contained a charge of 578 kg, while the Mk 26 magnetic mine’s filling was 211–236 kg; John Campbell, Naval Weapons of World War Two (London; Conway Maritime Press, 1985), 168.
28. Zakharov et al., 182.
29. The T-26 tank weighed about 10 tons and, though obsolete, was fast and capable of functioning as an armored reconnaissance vehicle. The SU-76 was only slightly heavier.
30. Kabanov, 337.
31. Chistyakov, 276; Zakharov et al., 197.
33. “In the battle for Seisin [Chongjin], Maria Tsukanova was wounded and captured. The Japanese mocked her, cut her with a knife and gouged out her eyes. The corpse of the heroine was discovered by our soldiers and buried. M. N. Tsukanova was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union.” Zakharov et al., 191.
34. See for example, https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/pubs/jp3_02.pdf.
35. Zakharov et al., 197.
36. Raymond H. Geselbracht (ed.), The Memoirs of Harry S Truman: A Reader’s Edition (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2019), 240–41.