The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) was formed by the Kuomintang after the establishment of the Aviation Ministry in 1920. As tensions mounted between the China and Imperial Japan in the 1930s, a number of smaller Chinese warlord airforce men and equipment became integrated into the ROCAF in a centralized effort to counter Imperial Japanese military ambitions.
China became a nominal republic in 1912, when Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) deposed the last Manchu emperor. But the country’s most prosperous, mercantile cities remained de facto foreign colonies. Shanghai’s International Quarter was actually a European city within a city, guarded by French and German legation guards and British, Japanese, and American Marines. The hinterland was ruled in feudal fashion by independent warlords, renegade Imperial or republican generals, wealthy landowners, or simple adventurers who exercised absolute powers of life and death over their subjects. Much of their time was spent in wars and conspiracies against rival warlords, so European-equipped and led private armies were everywhere. Sun Yat-sen, dependent entirely on the former Imperial army for defence, found himself all but powerless. He was forced into alliances with various warlords and lost control of the government he had been elected to lead.
Sun Yat-sen had one powerful ally, however: Lenin. At a time when all the Western powers were backing Japan and expanding their colonies, Soviet Russia renounced Tsarist-era territorial concessions and returned Chinese land. The Soviets supplied arms and advisers to Sun Yat-sen’s movement and set up a military academy under “Galen,” General Vasili Bluecher, and political commissar Mikhail Borodin. Promising Chinese army officers like Chiang Kai-shek were sent to Moscow for advanced training. Soon, the Kuomintang was able to secure a base of operations in Canton and, under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen’s Moscow-sponsored successor, Chiang, launched the Northern Expedition that would, by 1927, subjugate all warlords south of the Yangtze River.
In the 1920s, meanwhile, ultra-right, militarist factions came to dominate the Imperial Japanese Army. They saw their mission as conquest: Japan would establish a vast “East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” that would drive out the Europeans and set Asians to their destined work, supplying labor and raw materials for Greater Japan. Resource-rich Manchuria and Mongolia were to be the initial targets of this great expansion.
Thirty-five years of effort had produced substantial gains by 1930. The Japanese had gained a foothold in China in the one-sided Sino-Japanese War of 1895, when China ceded Formosa (now Taiwan) and Koreato the Emperor’s government. The Russo-Japanese War built on this success by winning control over the Russian naval base at Port Arthur and the Russian railroads in southern Manchuria. The Versailles Peace Conference rewarded Japan’s wartime military and naval service with additional territory in China. The German colonies were awarded to Japan, in spite of the fact that China had itself sided with the Allies. Japan greatly expanded these holdings using anti-Bolshevism as cover. Japan’s forces in Russian East Asia were by far the largest to join the Allied intervention.
In 1931, the generals decided that it was time to complete this slow takeover of north China. When some track was conveniently blown up along a Japanese-owned rail line near the Japanese garrison at Mukden, Japan’s Korea-based Kwantung Army seized the whole province of Manchuria, citing the need to “maintain order,” to protect Japanese nationals, and, once again, to contain “communism.” The generals unilaterally declared the independence of Manchuria from China and proclaimed it the new Japanese protectorate of Manchukuo. In a clear threat to the rest of China, they selected the latter’s deposed Manchu emperor as the puppet head of state for their creation. The vain, gullible princeling soon found himself a virtual prisoner in his own supposed country.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the ROCAF participated in attacks on Japanese warships on the eastern front and along the Yangtze river including interdiction and close-air support for the Battle of Shanghai in 1937. Initially, the Chinese frontline fighter aircraft were mainly Curtiss Hawk IIs and IIIs and Boeing P-26Cs. These engaged Japanese fighters in many major air battles beginning on14 August 1937, when Imperial Japanese Navy warplanes raided Chienchiao airbase; “814” has thus become known as “Air Force Day”. Chinese Boeing P-26/281 fighters engaged Japanese Mitsubishi A5M fighters in the world’s first dogfight between all-metal monoplane fighters. A unique mission in April 1938 saw two Chinese Martin B-10 bombers fly a mission over Japan, but dropping only anti-war leaflets over the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Saga. It was a war of attrition for the Chinese pilots, as many of their most experienced ace fighter pilots, such as Lieutenant Liu Tsui-Kang and Colonel Kao Chih-Hang, were lost. Six months into the war, which is considered the beginning of World War II in Asia, the Chinese Air Force inventory of frontline American Hawk IIs and IIIss and P-26Cs were superseded by faster and better armed Polikarpov I-15s and I-16s as support from the Soviet Union grew and American support faded.
American P-40E Warhawk decorated with the famous sharkmouth nose art that had identified the AVG.
Through attrition and loss of their most experienced fighter pilots in the first half of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Republic of China Air Force ultimately suffered irreversible losses in combat against the Japanese, and by the beginning of 1942 the ROCAF was practically annihilated by Japanese aircraft, particularly with the introduction of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. The ROCAF was eventually supplemented with the establishment of the American Volunteer Group (known as the “Flying Tigers”) with heavily armed and armored Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, and subsequently rebuilt each year following Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor with new aid and vigor from the United States.
The Sino-Japanese War started on 7 July 1937. At that time, Chinese sources estimated the Japanese could field approximately 600 aircraft (from a total of 1,530) against China’s 230 combat aircraft. During the first phase up to 1939, aerial bombing of enemy bomber formations was tried with indifferent results, and leaflet-dropping raids carried out over Japanese cities.
The Japanese bombing raids were also fiercely contested, sometimes with significant Japanese losses. After suffering heavy losses in the Battle of Wuhan in October 1938, most air force units were withdrawn for reorganisation and training.
The ROC Air Force was reconstituted into seven Groups, one separate Squadron and four Volunteer Groups. In 1940, the Russian Volunteer Group was stood down. By the end of 1941, the air force had 364 operational aircraft. Up to 100 of these were P-40Bs operated by the American Volunteer Group. U.S. replacement aircraft began to arrive in March 1942. They included A-29s, P-40s, P-43s, and P-66s, and in 1945 B-25s, B-17s, and P-51Bs and -Ds.
In 1944, the USAAF U.S. 15th Air Force commenced joint operations in the China theatre. By this time the Chinese Air Force was mostly equipped with current operational aircraft types and was superior in all respects to the opposing Japanese air forces which remained.
The Chinese Aviation Museum, is also sometimes referred to as Datangshan due to its location adjacent to the mountain of the same name. The museum was first opened to the public on 11 November 1989, to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.
The museum is located 40 km (25 mi) north of Beijing city.
Part of the museum is located inside a cave in the side of Datangshan Mountain. The cavern was originally part of the tunnels and underground bunker system of Shahe Airbase, and is 586 metres (1,905 ft) long by 11 metres (36 ft) high by 40 metres (130 ft) wide. The road leading to the museum is actually also used as a taxiway between the base and bunker system.
List of aircraft used in China before 1937
This is a partial list of aircraft China purchased prior to 1937:
Handley Page Type O
Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2
Avro 504, Vickers Vimy
Curtiss Model D
Focke Wulf S-24
Focke-Wulf Fw 44
de Havilland Gipsy Moth
Junkers W 33
Junkers W 34
Junkers A 20
Junkers A 35, Junkers K-47
Junkers Ju 52
Junkers Ju 86