China’s Final Victory, 1943–5

These Nationalist troops are undergoing specialist training at a US-run commando training school in May 1945. The school ran courses in irregular warfare and also a paratroopers’ course with selected Nationalist volunteers. US instructors came from the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, and several training camps were set up in western China. Uniforms, weaponry and equipment are of US origin with P-17 rifles and Thompson sub-machine guns.

A young Communist cavalryman in 1945 shows an elite soldier of the Chinese Red Army. The Communists made great use of their cavalry arm during the Sino-Japanese War, especially in the latter years of the conflict. This soldier’s relatively smart uniform, equipment and modern Mauser 98k rifle indicate that he belongs to one of the better cavalry units. However, the lack of clips for his rifle in the canvas bandolier over his shoulder is evidence of the shortage of ammunition suffered by the Communists.

By 1943 the Sino-Japanese War had been fought for six long years and both the Japanese and the Chinese were exhausted. War weariness amongst the Japanese in China had become a major problem with no end to the war in sight. The ever expected Nationalist collapse had never materialized and all Japan’s efforts to subdue the Chinese had failed. Some Chinese had collaborated with the Japanese but they were despised by the vast majority of the population. The Japanese population’s enthusiasm for the war had also faded as more and more of their sons’ ashes were returned home for burial. However, the Japanese were still committed to their occupation of China and over 1,000,000 men were still serving there. With no hope of further reinforcements for China, especially in terms of weapons and equipment, the Japanese Imperial army could not defeat the Chinese. The Japanese were unable to defeat Nationalist China before they had commitments to their Pacific War, from December 1941. Now with Allied aid supporting China, even if in limited quantities, the Chinese were getting stronger as the Japanese were weakening. A stalemate now existed in China and the Japanese Imperial army no longer had the will to try and defeat the Chinese. At the same time, the Nationalist and Communist forces could not hope in the short term to defeat such large Japanese forces stationed in China. Japanese tactics had also changed since 1941 with the emphasis now on holding onto what they had gained rather than trying to conquer more territory. When they went out on operations the main aim of the Japanese was to take food and other supplies from the population. As time went on, the Japanese Imperial army was less willing to confront Chinese forces, whether regular or guerrilla. At the same time, the average Chinese soldier had lost their inferiority complex towards the Japanese army and its soldiers.

Although the Chinese theatre was still important to the Japanese, the situation with the Allies was to take on more significance. Their struggles in the Pacific from 1942–5 and with the British in Burma from 1943–5 became more important. Much of their heavy equipment had, however, been transported to other theatres and in particular the Pacific Islands. Because of their weaknesses the Japanese Imperial army had now to concentrate on trying to control the guerrilla threat in China until 1945.

In one final desperate effort to reverse their decline in China the Imperial army launched a large-scale offensive. In April 1944, the ‘Ichi-Go’, or ‘Number One’, offensive was begun and was to be one of Japan’s last major operations in China. Huge Japanese forces were marshalled for the offensive with 400,000 men, 1,500 artillery pieces and 800 tanks taken from all over China. Ichi-Go was divided into two separate operations with the first, ‘Ka-Go’, aimed at destroying all Nationalist forces still north of the Yangtze River. One of Ka-Go’s aims was to surround and destroy the Nationalist army that held part of the Peking–Wuhan railway. This objective was easily achieved, although the Japanese advance was limited by lack of supplies once they out reached their supply lines. A second phase, known as Operation ‘U-Go’, was to be launched once Ka-Go had got underway. The aim of U-Go was to knock out the airbases of the US 14th Air Force which were being used to bomb the Japanese mainland. After destroying these airbases the combined Japanese force was to advance into Szechwan province with the ultimate aim of capturing the wartime capital Chungking. Nationalist divisions facing the offensive were made up of poorly trained and armed conscripts who were soon demoralized and fell back in front of the advancing Japanese. U-Go was a great success and the US air bases fell in quick succession as the Nationalist forces retreated in confusion. On 8 August the city of Hengyang, to the east of the Chinese capital, fell to the Japanese and it seemed that an advance on Chungking was now inevitable. As the campaign in southern China dragged into November 1944, however, the Japanese began to run out of food and other supplies. Vital air cover was also lost when the Japanese had to send its fighters to Japan to defend their homeland. Over the next few months Ichi-Go ground to a halt and the Chinese finally began to make some successful counter-attacks. Chiang Kai-shek had been proved right when he said that ‘The Japanese will run out of blood before the Chinese will run out of ground’.

In April and May 1945 the Japanese launched what was to be their last offensive in China with the aim of capturing a US air base at Chihchiang. The Chihchiang Offensive was launched from territory recently taken during the Ichi-Go operation. Large Nationalist forces were stationed to halt the advance and after being reinforced to a strength of four divisions they threw back the Japanese. In early 1945 the Japanese Imperial High Command had already introduced plans to consolidate their positions in China. By withdrawing units from outlying garrisons in southern China they intended to concentrate them in central China in the region of Wuhan. Other formations would be gathered in the Canton region and in the Peking region, where they faced less opposition from guerrilla forces. As the Japanese tried to move their forces into these fastnesses they came under attack by Chinese guerrillas. In August a new threat had to be faced in Manchuria, which although not strictly involved in the Sino-Japanese War, was to influence its end greatly. The Soviet Union’s victory in Europe in April 1945 released huge numbers of troops to take part in a new offensive in Manchuria. Since the 1900s Japan had always feared an attack in the East by the Red Army but a neutrality pact signed between the Soviet Union and Japan in the 1930s had held. Now that Japan was on the verge of defeat, the Soviet Union decided to renege on this agreement and on 8 August they struck. With an overwhelming army of 1,500,000 men, 26,000 artillery pieces, 3,700 tanks and 500 combat aircraft, they launched a blitzkrieg offensive that swept the Kwangtung Army away. The Kwangtung Army was a substantial size on paper but out-of-date tanks, obsolete artillery and depleted units were the reality. Soviet claims of 84,000 Japanese dead and almost 600,000 prisoners taken were not disputed. Although not really part of the Sino-Japanese War, this was a devastating defeat for the Imperial army in East Asia.

However, the end in China was be dictated by events elsewhere and with Japan’s defeat in the Pacific and the dropping of atomic bombs in August 1945, the war was over. On 2 September all Japanese military forces in China officially surrendered to the victorious Chinese, both Nationalist and Communist. Most Japanese military and civilian personnel were repatriated quickly with a surprising lack of violence from the triumphant Chinese. Nationalist China’s victory was to prove illusionary as within a short time conflict was to break out with the Communists. After a brief interlude and attempts at mediation between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung, the civil war between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists was to resume in 1946.


China’s contribution to victory had been in tying down vast numbers of Japanese aircraft, military vehicles and above all troops. In 1945 about two million, half of them in Manchuria, awaited surrender and repatriation. Both the Nationalists, with their promise of a ‘Free China’ now backed by the USA, and the communists, with their ambitions for a People’s Republic backed by the Russians, swooped to secure the surrendered munitions and to claim the abandoned infrastructure, the mines, the factories and the teeming territories. In this race, Manchuria, now a heavily industrialised region thanks to Japanese investment and less devastated by the late war than the rest of China, constituted the greatest prize. It had been invaded by the Russians in the dying months of the war, which handed the advantage to the communists. When Nationalist and communist armies both converged on it, the Nationalists, while much the stronger, found their progress slowed by the Russians. The communists, joined by local partisans and some Koreans, were allowed to help themselves to the stockpiled Japanese weaponry and establish themselves in the far north. It was thus in Harbin, the first city run by the CCP, that Lin Biao reorganised his forces as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and in late 1946 began to push south.

By then American attempts to get the two sides to accept a ceasefire and some form of power-sharing under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership had collapsed. ‘The greatest obstacle to peace has been the complete, almost overwhelming suspicion with which the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang regard each other,’ began General George Marshall’s report on the failure of his mediating mission. ‘They each sought only to take counsel of their fears.’ The fears proved real enough when in early 1947 the fighting flared into open war and each side assumed its true colours. The communists no longer disguised their revolutionary intent. Lands were confiscated and redistributed, landowners held to account, informants encouraged, and mass indoctrination campaigns organised. The Nationalists, on the other hand, betrayed their old preference for corporate croneyism, indifference to popular sentiment and economic incompetence. A collapse in morale as a result of rampant inflation (500 per cent a month in 1948), famines, rural unrest and student protests undermined the Nationalist regime more fatally than the communist victories. By 1948 the PLA had inflicted a series of disastrous defeats on the Nationalists in Manchuria, leading to mass desertions. All over northern China the CCP’s peasant guerrillas were simultaneously making the countryside a no-go area. More victories and desertions meant that by the end of 1948 most of China north of the Yangzi was in communist hands.

Jonathan Spence likens Chiang Kai-shek’s plight to that of the Ming pretenders after the Manchus had overrun the north in 1644–45. Chiang himself might have been more reassured by those earlier dynasties, stretching back through the Song and the Eastern Jin to the Wu of the Three Kingdoms period, which had made a greater success of their southern sojourn. He certainly considered standing firm south of the Yangzi, while he investigated the alternative possibility of again withdrawing to Sichuan and Yunnan. But in the end he opted for the greater safety of Taiwan, which had been restored to the republic after the defeat of Japan. Art treasures and texts from the Imperial Palace in Beijing, the nearest thing to regalia that he could lay his hands on, were removed there in 1948; and in early 1949, as the PLA overran the south in a series of lightning advances, Chiang himself fled across the Taiwan Strait with about a million of his troops. Other Nationalists were driven into Thailand, Laos and Burma. Many emigrated overseas.

As president of his rump ‘Republic of China’, Chiang ruled on in Taiwan until his death in 1975. In good dynastic tradition he was then succeeded by his son until Taiwan adopted a parliamentary form of government in the late 1980s. Mao, who would die in 1976, outlasted Chiang by just a year. But his ‘People’s Republic of China’, officially proclaimed from Tiananmen, the Heavenly Gate, in Beijing in October 1949, proved markedly more resistant to parliamentary representation.

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