World War II: Japanese Invasion of China--Air Attacks (1937-41)


Figure 1.--The scene here was dated December 10, 1938. The Hearst newspaper captionn conveyed growing anti-Japanese sentiment, "It could happen to you. Present day China is a country of mained women and children. A young Chinese wounded in a previous air raid, is being carried from a hospital as the circling bombers offer a new threat to the sabctuary of the sick and dying." Notice the European medic assisting in the hospital. I'm not sure about the uniform. Notice a Chnese medic wears the same unifirm.

The small Chinese air force consisted of mostly obsolete air craft. The Chinese also had no tactical doctrine for effectively persuing the aircraft they had. As a result, the Japanese destroyed most of the Chinese air force early in the War. This left the Chinese Army without air cover. The Japanese used their air superiority not only to attack military targets, but to indiscrinately attack Chinese citis as well. The cities had no anti-aircraft defenses or organized civil defense systems. The result was extensive civilian casualties. Japanese pilots also attacked the American gunboat Panay. The only Chinese areas off limits to the Japanese were the European treaty ports like Shangahi and Hong Kong. It is unclear what the Japanese objective was in attacking civilian targets. Presumably it was to terrorize the Chinese into surrendering. This did not occur. The Chinese simply moved deeper into the interior of China beyond the reach of the Japamese Army, but not beyond the range of Japanese bombers. One unintended impact of the Japanese bombing raids was a huge impact on the Japanese image among Americans. The Japanese attacks were reported by Western journalists as impages appeared in both newspapers/magazines and movie newreels. Public opinion in America which was already oro-Chinese turned massively anti-Japanese. There was no interest in enterung the war, but there was considerable sympathy for aiding China. And one of China's main requests was aid in developing a modern air force. The Japanese attacks would continue unopposed until the arrival of American planes and pilots--the famed Flying Tigers.

Aviation Industries

The air war in Asia and the Pacific was determined in large measure by the aviation industries of the combatant countries, especially the United States and Japan. China had no significany aviation industry of its own and relied heavily on imports from otherr countries. Foreig pilots also played an important role The small Chinese air force consisted of mostly obsolete air craft. The Chinese also had no tactical doctrine for effectively persuing the aircraft they had.

China's 14th Squadron

Japan's invasion of China (July 1937) brought the country in conflict with a country that had a modern airforce. China's small airforce was unprepared for this. Chiang had hired foreign mercenary pilots which were organized into the 14th Squadron. The pilots were nostly from the United States and France. Some had flown for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. THe 14th Squadron was commanded by Vincent Schmidt, an American World War I pilot. The foreigners poloted the plabnes, the air gunners and ground crews were Chinese. The Squadron’s planes were quite a mix, including Vultee V-11 and Northrop 2E light bombers, two Martin 139 medium bombers, a Bellanca 28-90 racing plane, and two Dewoitine D-510 fighters. The 14th Squadron using its bombers attacked Japanese lines (August, 14, 1937). Chinese crews flew two Martin bombers on a leaflet raid over Nagasak (May 19, 1938).

Soviet Assistance

The Soviet Union had been an early supporter of the Chinese Republic. The Soviets were increasingly concerned with Jpanese expansion. The Japanese seizure of Manchuria threatened Soviet Siberia, The Soviets had amajor aviation industry and airforce. After the Japanese invasion, they began supplying China with both planes and pilots, including I-15bis fighter biplanes and I-16 monoplanes. They also supplied Tupolev SB-2s and pilots. These were used to attack Japanese facilities on Formosa (Taiwan).

Japanese Invasion (1937)

The Japanese launched an invasion of China proper, launching the Second Sino-Japanese War. (July 1937). The Japanese Kwantung Army turned a small incident into a full-scale war. Chinese forces were unable to effectively resist the Japanese. The Japanese military was not only better armed and organized, they were also incredibly brutal. The rape of Nanking was ome of the most terrible attrocities of World War II. The Japanese methodically moved south, seizing control of most of eastern China and all of the major ports by the time war broke out in Europe. (1939). The Kuomintang Army was battered, but the Japanese were unable to destroy it. Chiang used the samed tactics that Mao and the Communists had used, withdraw into the rugged, easily defensible interior. The Japanese moved up rivers and railroad lines into the interior of China. Much of the Japanese Army was committed to the war in China. It did not prove as draining for Japan, however, as the Soviet campaign did for Germany. This was in pat because of the ineffectiveness of the Kuomintang Army. Resistance to the Japanese fell primarily on the Kuomintang because the Communists were in the remote areas of northwestern China. Also neither Chiang or Mao wanted to weaken their forced by fighting pitched battles with the Japanese.As a result, the Japanese destroyed most of the Chinese air force early in the War. This left the Chinese Army without air cover.

Japanese Air Attacks on Chinese Cities (1931-42)

The Japanese used their air superiority not only to attack military targets, but to indiscrinately attack Chinese citis as well. The cities had no anti-aircraft defenses or organized civil defense systems. The result was extensive civilian casualties. The only Chinese areas off limits to the Japanese were the European treaty ports like Shanghai and Hong Kong. It is unclear what the Japanese objective was in attacking civilian targets. Presumably it was to terrorize the Chinese into surrendering. This did not occur. In the east, the air attacks were followed by land attacks and occuoation, often leading to horific actions, such as the rape of Nanking. The Chinese, unable to protect their major cities, simply moved deeper into the interior of the country beyond the reach of the Japamese Army. Distance and did=fficult terraine made the logistics of following the Nationalists with sizeable forces impossible. The Japanese were hard-pressed to occupy the area already seized. The Natioanlist Army was beyond the reach of the kimperail army, but not beyond the range of Japanese bombers. The air war in Asia began as in the European theater with mastery of the skies by the Japanese. The Chinese air force was quickly brushed aside and after the first year virtually non-existant. The reklocated Chinese capital of Chunking became the major Japanese target. The first raids caused wide-spread panic as there were no bomb shelters. . Gradually the city adjusted. People moved nto caves for protection. Thus the Japanese, who would after the war compalin biterally about the bombing of their cities, engaged in virtially unopposed terror bombing of Chinese cities for nearly a decade. This began before the actual invasion with the terror bombing of Shanghai (1931). And would only be limited when the American Flying Tigers arrivd (1942). HBC has not yet developed details on the Japanese terror bombing of Chinese cities, but we do have sone details on a general page about Japanese atrocities. The Japanese attacks would continue unopposed until the arrival of American planes and pilots--the famed Flying Tigers. The Flying Tigers were a vey small force, but even so for the first time, the Jaoanese began to suffer substantial losses. With the Japanese attack ion Pearl Harbor bringung america into the War, substantial American air units began to arrive in China making Japanese air raids on Chunking and other Chinese cities increasingly difficult.

Close Air Support

Our information is limited at this time, but we have read very little about Japanese close air support oprations. Much of the literature deals with terror bombing of undefended Chimese cities. As the Japanese Air Force was a unit of the Japanese Army, one might expect that this would have been a priority as it was with the Luftwaffe formed largely from Heer officers. (Other air forces like the Americans and British were more fizated on strategic bombing.) And the Japanese like the Germans lacked the indudrial capacity to build both a strategic and tactical air force. But we have fojund very little in the literature describing close air support to grojund forces. We do not even know if the Japanese had forward air controllers (FACs) on the ground. Hopefully reades with some knowledge on this aspect of the air war in China will provide some insight on this question.

The Panay

American involvement in China did not begin with the Japanese invasion and the Roosevelt Administration. American naval vessels began cruises on the Yangtze River in 1854. The mission of these early cruises was to show the flag and support American consular officers. The naval mission grew ever more complex as the authority of the Imperial Government deteriorated in the late 19th century and became an important instrument of American foreign policy. Operations included putting landing parties ashore on occassion to protect U.S. interests. The U.S. Navy after the turn of the 20th century began to conduct the patrols in a more organized fashion. The Navy deployed purpose-built gunboats and began coordinting operations with the Britidsh Royal Navy. The U.S. Navy was also deployed in anti-piracy patrols off the Chinese coast. Japnese forces were moving up the Yangtze River toward the Chinese capital which had been evacuated from Peeking to Nanking. Two U.S. Navy gunboats were at Nanking, the U.S.S. Luzon and the U.S.S. Panay. Chinese officials notified the American Embassy on November 27, 1937 that it must evacuate. Japanese pilots also attacked the American gunboat Panay.

American Public Opinion

One unintended impact of the Japanese bombing raids was a huge impact on the Japanese image among Americans. The Japanese attacks were reported by Western journalists as impages appeared in both newspapers/magazines and movie newreels. Public opinion in America which was already oro-Chinese turned massively anti-Japanese.

Claire Chennault

The United State protested the Japanese invasion of China, but did nothing to aid the Chinese. Claire Chennault was am aggresive champion of fighter aircraft. He irritated his superiors in the U.S, Army Air Corps. He was forced to retire from the Air Tactical School, obstendibly because of bronchitis. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, the head of the Chinese Air Force, hired him to train Chinese pilots. Chennault immeduately accepted the job. Chennault attempted to establish an organized training program and in paicular change Chinese tactical doctrine, The Chinese pilots were unreceptive. They were poorly disciplined and fid not think a foreign trainer had anything to offer. They objected to practicing missions. Chennault was frustrated and unable toaffect needed changes. The Japanese outclassed the Chinese Air Force and virtually destroyed it. The Japanese had large numbers of modern air craft as well as well-trained and disciplined pilots. The Japanese Army with support from its air arm deized Shanghai and Peeking early in the War and then large areas of China. Chiang to preserve his Army had to withdraw to remote Kumming. Here the lifeline of the Burma Road was the only source of foreign supplies and equipment. Without pilots to train or planes to fly, Chennault could no longer assist the Chinese. Madame Chiang sent Chennault back to America to obtain planes and pilots to help build a new Chinese Air Force.

American Isolationism

There has always been a strong isolationist strak in American political life. Americans separated by two great oceans have since the Revolution seen ourselves as different and apart from the rest of the World. From the beginning of the Republic, President Washington warned of entagling foreign alliances. For much of our history, Britain was seen as the great enemy of American democracy and Manifest Destiny. World War I was America's first involvement in a European War and the United States played a critical role in winning that War. Had the Germany not insisted on unrestricted sunmarine warfare, in effect an attack on American shipping, it is unlikely that America woukd have entered the War. Many Americans in the 1920s came to feel that America's entry into the War was a mistake. There was considerable talk of war profiteering. Many were detrmined that America should avoid war at any cost. This feeling was intensified with the Depression of the 1930s and the focus on domestic issues. With the growing military might of a a rearmed Germany, others such as Charles Lindburg, thought that America could not win another war. Many not only opposed American envolvement, but even military expenditures. Aginst this backdrop, President Roosevelt who did see the dangers from the NAZIs and Japanese militaists, with great skill and political courage managed to not only support Britain in its hour of maximum peril, but with considerable political skill managed to push through Congress measures that would lay the ground work for turning American into the Arsenal of Democracy, producing a tidal wave of equipment and supplies not only for the American military, but for our Allies as well in quantities that no one especially the AXIS believed possible.

American Aid (1940-41)

The Japanese attacks would continue unopposed until the arrival of American planes and pilots--the famed Flying Tigers. The Japanese destroyed the small, obsolete Chinese Air Force. Claire Chennault had failed in his effort to train Chinese pilots (1937-40). Madame Chiang sent him back to the United States to obtain American assistance. America was still isolationists, but attitudes were chnging. Japanese aggessions and cooperation with the Axis as well as occupation of French Indochina convinced the Roosevelt Adimistration that Japan would have to be confronted. President Roosevelt wanted to assist China. He saw China as a potentially ally to help curb Japanese expansion. The President hoped that American military assistance ptograms would enable the Allies to defeat the NAZIs and Japanese militarists. The policy became increasingly impractical after the fall of France (May 1940).

The Flying Tigers (1941-42)

President Roosevelt after hearing from Claire Chennault, who Madame Chiang Kai-Shek had hired him to train Chinese pilots, decided to help China build a modern air force. He signed an executive order 1940 which permitted U.S. military personnel to resign so that they could participate in a covert operation to support China (May 1940). This is significant because it was was the first direct American military action to impede Axis aggression. It was taken in the atmospshere of the fall of France and the president deciding to run for a third term. Subsequent Japanese actions beginning with the occupation of northern French Indo-China obly confirmed the President's decision to aid China. And the Magic intelligence from the cracking of the Japanese Diplomatic (Purple code) made it clear that the Japanese public protestratuins of a desire fir peace were a diplomate charade (September 1940). President Roosevelt approved the transfer of Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters to China. They would be included in the Lend Lease Program (1941). The planes were originally slated for the British RAF which was just beginning to brace for the Battle of Britain. America woud eventually produce a phenomenal number of aircraft. At this time, howevr, production was still limited and the U.S. Army Air Corps struggling to obtain needed new aircraft. The President also secretly approved the formation of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) to fly the P-40s. These were the first modern fighters ever deployed in China. The AVG's main task was to protect the Burma Road so that supplied could continue to reach China. The all-volunteer AVG became known as Chennault's Flying Tigers. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (December 1941) before the AVG could go into action. It thus no longer had to be a covert operation. Although very small, provide the Chinese a creditable air capability for the first time. Initially part of the AVG was deployed on both ends of the Burma Road. The Japanese invasion of Burma forced the Burma contingent to redeploy to China. It also cut off supplies over the Burma Road. The AVG continued to operate with supplies flown in from India over the Himilayas. The P-40s flown by the AVG were on paper no match for the fast, manueravble Japanese Zeros, but they were more robust and had armor protecting the pilots. Chennault developed battle tactics that enabled the Tigers to deal with the Zeros, but their major goal was to intercept the Japanese bombers hammering Chunking. ThecArmy Air Corps and U.S. Navy did not take the AVG seriously and did not adapt Chenault's tactics until losses in the Pacific forced them to adjust tactics. Eventually the AVG was formed into the U.S. 14th Air Force. Some of the Tigersjoined up, Others left China. Many of the new crews honored the AVG by also painting the shark's mouth image and referring to them selves as the Flying Tigers.






HBC








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Created: 1:58 AM 8/2/2007
Last updated: 4:21 AM 12/24/2013