Chinese Air Force to 1939

In early February 1939, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang invited to their residence in Chungking the new British air attaché in China, Group Captain Robert Stanley Aitken of the Royal Air Force. Over tea, he hoped to find out more about their requests to buy British aircraft and bring RAF advisers to China to reform the air force. Madame interpreted for her husband in flawless English with a slight southern accent. She told Aitken that the administration of the air force was “absolutely rotten” and offered poor value for money. On Chiang’s behalf she stated, “We have had to do without a Navy, we would be better off without a rotten Air Force.” She claimed that the British would have “carte blanche” to reorganize China’s air ministry, the Commission on Aeronautic Affairs (CoAA), and the air force.

This was not the first time that the Chinese Air Force and its “ministry” had been labeled as rotten. In October 1936, Aitken’s predecessor, Wing Commander Harold Kerby, reported that China’s ruling couple were “thoroughly disgusted” by standards at the main flight school at Hangchow and described its white buildings as “a cloak for the rottenness within.” At the end of the month, the generalissimo appointed his wife as chairman of the CoAA. Chiang’s chief air adviser at that time was General Silvio Scaroni of Italy’s Regia Aeronautica. He warned Madame Chiang, “Your Air Force is rotten and as a weapon of war, it is entirely useless.”

Rarely if ever did foreign military attachés have anything good to say about China’s air force or army. The founding father of such critiques was Major John Magruder, who served as the US military attaché in Peking from 1926 to 1930. He would later return to China in the autumn of 1941 as the head of the American Military Mission to China (AMMISCA). In an April 1931 article for Foreign Affairs, Magruder described the Chinese as “practical pacifists.” Whereas Japan had a deep reverence for the fighting man, according to Magruder, the Chinese had no martial spirit, and with the exception of an increased use of machine guns, the Chinese had hardly modernized their armed forces. Military aviation was in a “period of transition from military stage property to a moral auxiliary,” and the Chinese army did not regard it as “a necessary arm”; owing to the inferior performance of army air bureaus, the air force was an “an overrated scarecrow.”

CAF pilots fought bravely in the first three months of the Sino-Japanese War but lacked leadership as well as reserves to prolong the war in the air. When the conflict began on July 7, 1937, Japan’s air forces had outnumbered the CAF by four to one: Japan had 620 army planes with 25 percent reserves, and 600 navy aircraft, all produced by Japanese manufacturers. The Chinese had only 250 airworthy planes, all of which were imported: 230 came from the United States, the rest from Italy or Germany. By the end of November 1937, the CAF had lost all its prewar stock and was down to about 27 planes.

After the air force collapsed, the Chinese started to rely on Russian airplanes and pilots. In August 1937, Chiang had signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, which became the basis for military assistance. The terms of the pact featured low-interest loans with which the Chinese could buy hardware, especially aircraft. Planes began to arrive in November 1937. Over the next three years the Nationalists received a total of nine hundred Soviet planes, of which 80 percent were delivered by the end of 1939.

With equipment came advisers, and the mission known as Operation Zet began to expand. In the Soviet Union the pilots achieved heroic status comparable to that of the Flying Tigers in the United States. In January to February 1938, Russian crews carried out 150 bombing missions against the enemy. By the end of the year, three hundred Russians were involved in Chinese military aviation. Nor was their service risk-free: from 1937 to 1940 some two hundred Russian volunteers died in China.

Operation Zet was so well established by 1938 that the Chinese Air Force seemed to have transferred its loyalty from the Chiangs to the Russians. Such was the conclusion of the assistant US naval attaché, Marine Corps captain James McHugh, who during a long tour in China for the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) reported in detail not only about military aviation but also about the intrigues of the generalissimo’s family circle involving his various Soong in-laws. McHugh was of enormous influence in shaping how the US Navy perceived the shifts of power in the Nationalist regime, as well as at the State Department through his special reports to the US ambassador, Nelson Johnson.

At the end of February 1938, Madame Chiang gave up her chairmanship of the CoAA. Exhausted and in ill health, she retired from aviation affairs and persuaded her brother T. V. Soong to take over as chairman of the CoAA. As McHugh reported, Soong was content to let the Russians assume responsibility for the country’s air defense because they provided much-needed credit and better airplanes than the “superseded models” available from the United States. In a letter to Bill Pawley, Bruce Leighton also observed that Dr. Kung was “relinquishing all initiative in the purchase of aircraft . . . and passing it all over into the hands . . . of T. V.” From 1933 to 1938, Dr. Kung in his role as finance minister had handled nearly all negotiations with Bill Pawley of Intercontinent to buy Curtiss-Wright “Hawk” fighter planes. In 1933, Pawley and Kung set up a joint venture between three American partners—Intercontinent, Curtiss-Wright, and Douglas Aviation—and the Nationalist government: the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO) was designed to save the Chinese government money on the cost of importing planes in their large principal parts—fuselage, wing, and motor. The arrangement was to take advantage of lower labor costs and local raw material to make certain parts in China and assemble the planes there.

This business model worked well until the outbreak of war, which had the effect of greatly increasing the cost of plane parts from the United States and inducing the Chinese to rely on less-costly Russian equipment. In April 1938, Leighton noted that the USSR provided planes at costs that were much lower than anything Intercontinent could offer. Therefore, the prospects for selling American planes were “far from brilliant.” By October 1938, the Nationalists had 207 airworthy combat planes, of which 95 were Russian and 80 were American. There also were 14 French Dewoitines, 10 British Gloster Gladiators, and 8 German Henschel bombers.

  1. V. Soong willingly accepted dependence on Soviet aid, but others in the family circle were uneasy about it, especially Dr. Kung and Madame Chiang and her closest confidant, W. H. Donald. Donald gave special briefings to British diplomats, particularly the air attachés. At the end of 1937, Harold Kerby reported Donald’s suspicions that the Russians and Japanese would settle their differences and carve up China between themselves. Two years later, Aitken, the air attaché, discovered that “mention of the Russians was not welcome”: Madame Chiang flatly commented that “they [the Russians] look after themselves,” while others confirmed that “they will not talk.” Aitken surmised that absolute secrecy was one of the conditions of Soviet aid, and if that condition were broken, Stalin might withdraw his helping hand. There were reports that Russian pilots were just using China as a “sort of training ground.” Even so, the Russians inspired universal respect for their courage and efficiency when they chose to fight; they appeared to be in China for the long term, as some eighty Sino-Russian interpreters were teaching Chinese personnel to speak Russian.

Donald had invited Aitken to come to Chungking and arranged his appointments. He too told the new British air attaché that the air force was in a hopeless state, mainly because of its incompetent officers: Donald singled out for special sanction General Mao Pang-chu (also known as Peter or P. T. Mow), the head of air operations. Because General Mao was “irresponsible and corrupt,” Chiang had appointed General T. C. Chien (Chien Ta-chun), a loyal and honest army officer, to replace him as head of the air force. General Chien, however, knew so little about aviation that he had to rely on Mao for guidance. Madame Chiang asked Aitken to keep the real nature of his visit a secret from T. C. Chien, who proved to be equally cagey toward Aitken. When the latter asked for hard numbers about air force capability, the former said that he could not possibly release these to a British air attaché.

To his surprise, Aitken found that General Mao spoke more common sense about aviation than anyone else, even if he was a “corrupt scoundrel.” His was a pragmatic approach to combat: pilots engaged the enemy only if they had a reasonable chance of success, and they were not allowed to “indulge in heroic deeds against impossible odds.” He showed Aitken a new air force chart that featured at the top the generalissimo, Madame Chiang, and her brother T. V. Soong, as well as a few military men. In Aitken’s view the organization was nothing more than “a heterogeneous collection of terminologies bunched indiscriminately in groups.”

At Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, Aitken met the senior CAF officer in charge of flight instruction, General Chow (Chou Chih-jou), as well as the chief instructor, an American called Colonel Chennault. The conversation was hampered by language difficulties, the evasiveness of Chow, and the deafness of Colonel Chennault. When Aitken asked Chennault what he thought of Mao’s new organization chart, the latter dismissed it as “hopeless” but had no views on improving it: Aitken surmised that “organization was not his forte.”

Aitken understood that there were a dozen or so American Army Air Corps reserve officers training CAF cadets. By all accounts, however, the Americans had poor relations with their students as well as with Chinese officers, who resented the Americans telling them how to teach. There had been a “mutiny” at one school when Chinese instructors told cadets that once they had flown solo, they did not have to mind their American superiors.

One of the American instructors was William MacDonald, an old flying companion of Chennault. In the mid-1930s, Mac had been a wingman in the latter’s AAC aerobatic trio, Three Men on a Flying Trapeze. Although Mac refused to admit that he had flown combat missions, he nonetheless alluded to one: he had tried to instill a true sense of loyalty and duty in Chinese crews, but the first time that he led them against an equal number of Japanese (nine), they deserted him immediately. Aitken understood that MacDonald received a handsome reward for each enemy aircraft that he brought down. When the Chinese reduced his bonus to “a thousand dollars gold,” by which he meant a thousand US dollars, MacDonald objected that on those terms the Chinese could “shoot the blankety things down themselves.”

Aitken got hold of a questionnaire in which Chennault listed for the generalissimo the CAF’s countless defects: weak organization, poor training, bad discipline, and lack of initiative on the part of Chinese personnel, as well as the shortage of reserve aircraft and spare parts. In his view, pilot error due to unsound and inadequate training had caused the air force to lose half its planes in the first six months of the Sino-Japanese War. Nonetheless Chennault believed that Chinese pilots, if properly drilled and equipped, could carry out “guerrilla air action” against Japanese supply lines. The CAF already had a few Curtiss Hawk 75 planes suitable for such air strikes, and he recommended the procurement of more long-range single-seater fighter planes armed with heavy guns or cannon. Aitken disagreed with Chennault’s tactics on the grounds that fighter planes flying over long distances would be vulnerable to enemy attack. Given their air superiority, the Japanese could easily destroy whatever equipment the Chinese might deploy.

Although the CAF seemed to be a lost cause, the Chiangs gave every indication of wanting to reform and revive it. On December 13, 1938, US diplomats in Chungking had reported that the generalissimo was intent on “revamping and expanding the Chinese Air Force.” The government also was about to sign a large contract for planes to be built at a new CAMCO factory located in Yunnan Province. Aitken, however, made no mention of these significant developments. It would appear that the Chinese managed to keep secret their renewed commercial relations with the Intercontinent Corporation, its partner in CAMCO. In December 1938, after a yearlong break, Dr. H. H. Kung resumed his responsibility for American aircraft procurement. He entertained tenders from Bill Pawley as well as another aircraft broker, A. L. “Pat” Patterson. Kung was in the market to buy as many as three hundred new American combat planes from one or the other.

At about this time, Kung also approached the British ambassador to China, Archibald Clark Kerr, about securing export credits worth £10 million to purchase aircraft. Kung raised the possibility of building an aircraft assembly plant at the port of Rangoon (Yangon) in Burma, from which finished planes could be flown to Yunnan Province. This might be necessary because, as Kung pointed out, the transport of oversize aircraft parts on the Burma Road would prove “extremely difficult.”

In February 1939, Aitken was aware of the proposal for a Chinese-owned aircraft factory in Burma. In his secret report, he took issue with the idea of allowing any foreign interests to build and operate aircraft factories “in our possessions.” He concluded, however, that a few RAF officers should come to China to promote British aircraft because they might have a better chance than any other foreign agents to gain a foothold in that market.

Such was the conundrum that enveloped Chinese military aviation during 1938 and 1939. On the one hand, Chiang wanted airpower but had no faith in Chinese subordinates to deliver it. On the other hand, he could not dispense with the Chinese element of air defense: no matter how incompetent senior air force officers might be, the generalissimo needed an air force manned by his own people for the sake of prestige, if nothing else.

Since the Chinese were entirely dependent on foreign planes, foreign personnel were always required to teach the Chinese how to man and maintain their imported equipment. The Chiangs presided over an air organization that resembled the spokes of a wheel: foreign experts had little interaction with each other and formed separate relationships with the CAF clique that flew American, Italian, or Russian aircraft. At the hub was the generalissimo, who demanded the loyalty of foreign as well as Chinese air personnel. The Chinese saw nothing contradictory about the Soviet Union providing nearly all aircraft and personnel for air operations while they themselves explored the possibility of engaging RAF officers to reform the air ministry, the CoAA.

The Chiangs had learned no lessons from past experience about the drawbacks that such cohabitation inflicted on the air force. For example, from 1933 to 1937, thanks to misguided procurement policies, the Chinese ended up with an official Italian air mission, as well as a privately organized group of American flight instructors. The commander of the American group was Colonel John Jouett, a retired officer of the US Army Air Corps. In 1934, he stated categorically that “oil and water cannot mix and it cannot be expected that Italians and Americans with totally different racial characteristics, ideas, methods of training, etc. could work harmoniously together.”

Last but not least was the problem of logistics, which more than any other factor was bound to restrict procurement of Western aircraft. In December 1938, Dr. Kung pointed out to the British ambassador the difficulty of transporting large aircraft parts over the Burma Road. So even if the Chinese ordered planes from Britain or the United States, there was no reliable way of delivering components to Yunnan. The Soviet air mission, by contrast, faced no such obstacles in sending planes to western China: since 1937, they had assembled aircraft near the railhead of the Turkestan-Siberia Railway at Alma Alta (Almaty) in Kazakhstan and flown them to their main base at Lanchow in central China (Gansu Province). From there, planes went on to the large CAF base at Chengdu in the western province of Szechuan, of which Chungking was the capital.

The Russian ferrying operation probably inspired Dr. Kung to believe that a comparable system could be established whereby planes assembled at Rangoon could be flown up to Yunnan. That, however, would require the consent of the British, who were caught between their desire to help China and the need to avoid conflict with Japan. “Nonprovocation” of Japan prevailed and ruled out the possibility of ferrying planes from Far East ports over British territory into China. Therefore in Washington and in London, officials faced the awkward reality that in order to help China in the field of military aviation, they had to rely on the unreliable Burma Road. So, unfortunately, did Intercontinent.

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