Sunday, 26 March 2017

An Oriental Stalingrad and the Chinese Invention of Kamikaze

The Japanese are usually accredited with the development of kamikaze tactics in modern warfare. This is thanks to the dramatic attacks they staged on the Americans in WWII. The rituals that the kamikaze pilots used to prepare themselves for certain death also contributed to the impression that such attacks were part of an ancient and unbroken tradition. They were not. 

The kamikaze attacks launched by the Japanese were acts of desperation, when the war was going against them and their home islands were under direct attack for the first time since the attempted Mongol invasions in the late 13th century. At that time a great typhoon—a "god wind" (kamikaze)—had saved Japan, hence the name of the 20th century suicide attackers.

But rather than the Japanese, who merely branded the technique, it is the Chinese who should get the main credit for its innovation; especially since it appears that the Chinese also "schooled" the Japanese in kamikaze tactics by using them against the Japanese, after they had pushed deep into China.

In July 1937, as part of a strategy of defending and expanding Japanese interests and influence in China in the face of rising nationalist resurgence, the Japanese launched a limited invasion and occupation of the North of China. Their goal was to secure control of the area around Beijing, where their former allies, the Beiyang government, had been deposed by the Chinese Nationalist Party, which was based in the South of China. This invasion was a calculated move by the Japanese, as it would be difficult for the Chinese Nationalist government to challenge it so far from their centers of power.

But rather than accept Japanese domination of the North, the Chinese Nationalists decided to hit back in the only way they could—by launching an attack on the Japanese troops based in Shanghai, which was then an international city under the control of the British and French, but where several foreign powers, including the Japanese, were allowed to station troops to protect their citizens. 

By attacking the Japanese here, the Chinese Nationalist government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, hoped to provoke the Japanese army into fighting the war closer to their own centers of power, while also making the international community more aware and concerned about Japanese aggression. 

The Japanese responded by launching an invasion of the area around Shanghai from the sea, and driving the Nationalists back from Shanghai and then marching to and capturing the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanking. This was supposed to end the war, but it didn't. The Nationalists simply moved their HQ to Wuhan and continued the struggle. 

This meant the Japanese were drawn deeper into China than they wanted to go. In order to fight more effectively, it became important to connect their forces in the Shanghai and Nanking areas with their forces in Northern China. To achieve this goal, their forces in the North started pushing South and crossed the Yellow River. 

Japanese tanks, nicknamed "steel bulls" in this patriotic cartoon.
The Japanese army was much better equipped than the Chinese army, and also enjoyed overwhelming air superiority. Another major advantage were the Japanese light tanks, against which the Chinese had few defences. In this war, the Japanese effectively had all the elements to fight a "blitzkrieg" war against their enemy, more than a year before the Germans launched their own blitzkrieg on Poland.

The qualitative superiority of the Japanese led to growing confidence and then complacency. This set the scene for the Battle of Taierzhuang, which was to prove a temporary but important check on the Japanese advance. It is also thought to have made a big impression on the Soviet general Georgy Zhukov, who was then stationed in the Soviet Far East. Zhukov, of course, would fight and win the great battle of Stalingrad against the German army five years later.

The army advancing from the North included all of Japan's operational armor in China. This was divided between two mobile divisions, the 5th commanded by General Itagaki Seishiro and the 10th commanded by General Isogai Rensuke. Each division had its own tank regiments, and together they had around 100 tanks and armoured cars. Indeed, these were the elite units of the Imperial Japanese Army. 

The Chinese forces were much less well-equipped and trained. they were also in retreat. The Japanese high command hoped to smash them between the hammer of their more mobile Northern army and the anvil of their Southern army, which was allocated a more static role. 

General Li Zong Ren
The 5th and 10th divisions advanced more rapidly than the other Japanese divisions, meaning that they were becoming dangerously separated from their supporting units, and were not securing their lines of communication to the rear. The Chinese general Li Zong Ren saw the opportunity, and came up with a battle plan that strangely echoed that of Stalingrad a few years later.

His plan was to keep his troops in several strong positions that could be by-passed by the mobile Japanese divisions and to draw the Japanese into urban warfare inside the town of Taierzhuang. Once they had been tied down in this way, he planned to strike across their lines of communication and cut them off. 

The Japanese offensive to take Taierzhuang was launched on the 24th of March, 1938, with aerial bombing and an artillery barrage to soften up the Chinese defenders. Over the next two weeks the Japanese fought their way into the city, but, like the Germans in Stalingrad, were unable to take all of it. Meanwhile their lines of supply were exposed to attack.

The Chinese forces fighting inside the town lacked anti-tank guns, necessitating the development of special tactics to deal with the Japanese armoured vehicles. These included special suicide squads, set up years before Japan's own, more famous kamikaze. In fact, it seems reasonable to suppose that the latter was inspired by the former, when the Japanese entered their own desperate phase of the war.

Inside Taierzhuang a series of trenches had been dug and machine gun nests set up. When the Japanese encountered these, the infantry hung back while the tanks moved forward to deal with them. Separated from their supporting infantry, the tanks were more vulnerable and could be attacked more easily. 

Chinese soldiers would then emerge from the trenches and throw bundles of hand grenades under the tracks of the tanks. But the most effective anti-tank weapon proved to be the suicide squads. They wore vests, loaded with dynamite and grenades—not unlike modern Islamic suicide bombers—and ran towards the Japanese tanks and detonated themselves. In one such attack, four tanks were destroyed at once.

After two weeks of hard fighting, the Chinese forces defending Taierzhuang had lost 70% of their men. Using draconian methods, Li forced them to keep fighting, issuing orders that the commander of any unit retreating was to be shot on the spot. Other Chinese units fought to hold up the slow moving main body of the Northern Japanese army, buying time for the fight at Taierzhuang. 

Finally, on 6th April, Li launched a major encirclement operation that forced the Japanese to retreat in disarray. They had lost around 10-20,000 men and over a third of their tanks. The Chinese had suffered a similar number of casualties. 

For the Japanese the battle was a minor setback, but for the Chinese it was a major boost to their ragged morale, and steeled their determination to continue fighting and to oppose the Japanese at any cost. A couple of months later, the Japanese brought up reinforcements and relaunched their offensive, pushing the Chinese back.

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