*** World War II air war -- terror bombing Japanese air raids on Chinese cities

World War II Air Operations: China (1931-45)

Japanese air operstions in China
Figure 1.--While the world's focus was on the dramatic events in Europe, especially Hitler's attempt to bring Britain to its knees, the Japanese continued to pound Chinese cities. The Nationalist capital of Chunking became the primary target as the Japanese Army couldn't penetrate that deep into the interior. The press caption of the wire service photograph read, "Chinese cart home a Japanese prize slung on poles the battered fuselage of a Japanese airplane, which participated in the terrific five-day-and-night bombing of Chunking [Chongqing], was carted off to headquarters by these Chinese. It was brought down on the outskirts of Chunking. The bombing climaxed three months of aerial attack which ended August 25." The photograph was dated September 11, 1940. A Chinese source provides a slighly different caption, "March 1940: the Japanese reconnaissance plane was shot down in the outskirts of Chongqing, a group of recruits were ordered to lift the head of the Chinese aircraft wreckage to the city public display." It looks like a Mitsubishi Ki-15-I (Army Type 97 Command Reconnaissance Plane) known as 'Babs' by the Allies. It was in service from 1936-45. It had a two-man crew and could carry to 250 lb bombs. Note the light-weight of the Japanese construction. It is not clear how the Japanese plane was brought down. Ground fire is possible, but the Chinese had few fighters to intercept the Japanese. Mechanical failure is another possibility. Frustration with their inability to defeat the Chinese, incredibly led the Japanese to attack America.

The Japanese used their air superiority not only to attack military targets, but to indiscriminately attack Chinese cities 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. Most of the Japanese attacks appear to have been terror bombing pure and simple with no actual military purpose. The Chinese to the surprise if the Japanese did not surrender. In the east, the air attacks were followed by land attacks and occupation, often leading to horrific 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 Japanese Army. Distance and difficult terrain made the logistics of following the Nationalists with sizable forces impossible. The Japanese were hard-pressed to occupy the area already seized. The Nationalist Army could not be engaged effectively so deep in the interior by the Imperial 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 small Chinese air force was quickly brushed aside and after the first year virtually non-existent. The relocated 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 into caves for protection. Thus the Japanese, who would after the war complain bitterly about the bombing of their cities, engaged in virtually 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 arrived (1942). HBC has not yet developed details on the Japanese terror bombing of Chinese cities, but we do have some details on a general page about Japanese atrocities. The Japanese attacks would continue unopposed until the arrival of American planes and pilots--the famed American Volunter Group (AVG). The AVG is better known as the Flying Tigers. The Flying Tigers were a very small force, but even so for the first time, the Japanese began to suffer substantial losses. With the Japanese attack ion Pearl Harbor bringing 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.

Indiscrininate Bombing (1931-37)

The war in China began with the Japanese seizure of Manchuria. This was launched by the Japanese Kwantung Army. Chang decided not to resist with the regular hinese army. The Japanese used their air superiority not only to attack the military targets in Manchurian but to indiscriminately attack cities there as well. This was the gennining of Japanese terror bombing of China. This was nothing like the percission attacks at Pearl Harbor. Rather the Japanese basically just cobducting area bombing attacks, simply dumping bombs on cities. The Japanese like to consider themselves victims of World war II an point to their devestated cities. Unmentioned in the fact that before Japnese cities were ttacked in any significant way, the Japanese had beemn attacking virtually undefended Chinese citie fo nearly 15 years. The Chinese had no anti-aircraft defenses or organized civil defense systems. The result was extensive civilian casualties. The air attcks were limited to Manchuria and adjacent areas of Northern China. The major exception was Shanghai. While Chang did not resistr the Japanese seizure of Mamchuria, students and other Chinese were incensed with the Japanese. Denonstrations and boycotts ensued. And Japanese nationals including officials and police were attacked. The Japannese began boming Shanghai to punish the Chinese.

Treaty Ports

The only Chinese cities off limits to the Japanese were the two remaining treaty ports, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a Crown Colony. Chang and the Nationalistrs launched a campsign after world war I to close down the various Treaty Ports, It was one of Chang's mahor achievements. The Japanese were the most difficult to deal with. They in partiular attempted to maintain Tsingtao (Qingdao) which they had seized from the Germans and austriand during World War I. Tsingtao was close to Manchuria where they had interests (especially Kwantung) and Korea which they had seized before the War. Shanhjai had a European and Japanese treaty area. The Japanese air attacks avoided the International Settlmebt in Sganhai and until the invasion of China proper, Japanese armoes were not near Hong Kong located in Southern China. .

Japanese Bombers

Japanese Air Objectives

It is unclear what the Japanese objective were with their small force of heavy long-range bombers. China was a huge country. And Japan could not hope to attack it with its realtively small force of stratehic bombers. The Japanese had a smuch smaller bombing force than either the Americans or British. And they had a much larger country to subdue. And it was a very backward country based primarily on peasant agriculture. Only a smll part of the population lived in cities. You could destroy all of China' citis and industry and not affect the lices of much of the population. As a result, conquest had a very different set of difficulties than phased by the Europeam Axis. As a result, strategic bombing was not going to win the war in China or evem significantly impairing the Chimese war effort. It is unclear as a result just what Japan's objectives were in bombing Chinese cities. There were obvious targets like factories, weahouses, marshelling yards, ect. But the Japanese also hit large schools and universities, hospitals, hotels, and churches. As best as can figure out, the Japanese bonbadiers appar to have targeted any large buildings that stood out. The hospitals seem as special case. Many were boldy marke with red crosses nd white background markings. The Japanese appear to have ignored such marking. And when Japnese soldiers entered Chinese cities there were trrible incidents in the hospitals. In Chinese cities at the time, most buildimgs were one or two story structures. Milti-story apartment building like those in Europe were relatively rare. The Japanese appear to have targeted large or tall buildings--aything that stood out. In the first 6-months of the War, Chinese universites were leveled or basly damaged: Nankai (tianjin), Zhongyang (Nanjing), Tongji and Fudan (Shanghai), and Zhongshan (Guangzhou). [Lary, p. 116.] There is a very large body of literature on the Allied and German air campaigns, including strategy, targets, shifting assessments, pilot breiefing, and other aspects of the air war. We have been able to find nothing similar concerning Japanese air operations. We have no idea just what strategy the Japanese air commanders worked out. We have never found actual documents or details on the dicussions of air commanders. But based on their operations it seems to have been primarily terror. We do not know just what instructions the Japanese bomber pilots had.

Vulnerability of Chinese Cities

China at the time of World War II was the most populace country in the world. There were many cities, but the vast proportion of the population were peasants living in the country side. This was not a population that could be effectively bombed. There was very little industry. This meant that there were very few actual targets of any strategic importance. Even so, the Japanese heavily bombed China beginning nearly a decade before the outbreak of World War II. The Japanese did not have a well-thought out strategic bombing campaign. They just assumed that if they bombed Chinese cities that the Government would capitulate. This was not just as Japanese belief, it was one widely held in Europe at the time by many military strategists. Japan began bombing China as part of the seizure of resource-rich Manchuria (1931). Japan with its large, densely populated wood and paper cities was a country vulnerable to strategic bombing. perhaps the most vulnerable in the world. The Japanese War Lords, however, like the NAZIs believed that their own cities could never be bombed. This of course would prove to be a giant miscalculation. although it seemed safe at the time. China did not have bombers and American bombers did not have the needed range to cross the vast Pacific Ocean and reach Japan. Japan invaded China proper (1937) and began bombed Chinese cities. As China was not heavily urbanized nor industrialized, the Japanese bombing had little impact on China's ability to resist the Japanese aggression. Thus the Japanese bombing while creating a humanitarian disaster in the cities, did not significantly impact the Chinese war effort. Strategic bombing is effective only against industrialized, not agricultural countries. There were no important war industries in Chinese cities to be destroyed, only civilians to be terrorized. The Japanese destroyed the small Chinese Air Force in first few months if the War. Thus China's cities were unprotected until the Americans arrived (1942) Japanese bombing, however, was essentially punching into air. During the first year of the War, the Chinese resisted with traditional forces. Set piece battles were fought. There armies were defeated and people in the temporary capital at Nanking subjected to unspeakable horrors. The Rape of Nanking is one of the most grizzly atrocities of World War II (1937). After Nanking fell, the Nationalist Government retreated into the interior where the Japanese Army could not get to them. Japan initiated a 5-year bombing campaign targeting the Nationalist war-time capital of Chunking (Chongqing) and other targets in Sichuan (February 1938-August 1943). The goal was to force the Nation lists to surrender. The Nationalist cities were undefended until the American Flying Tigers arrived (1942). The Chinese report 268 raids. Chunking became one of the most heavily bombed cities of the War. The Japanese bombing of China is today largely forgotten in Japan and the West. For many if not most people, World War II brings up images of shattered Japanese cities. Hiroshima and Nagasaki has touching memorials to the lives lost there as a result of the American bombing. But I note not a single mention of the much larger number of Chinese people killed by the Japanese bombing of China and even more by the atrocities committed there. The Japanese killed some 15 mullion Chinese, mostly civilians. Japanese school children who visit these memorials annually leave wondering, why did the Americans do this to our beautiful, peaceful country?

Air Campaign (1937-45)

China was the first civilian population subjected to intensive aerial bombrdment. It began with seizure of Manchuria (1931), but hostilities quickly ended. It was not until the Japanese invasion of China proper that really intensive bombing of Chinese cities began meaning attacking civilian targets. Presumably it was to terrorize the Chinese into surrendering. Most of the Japanese attacks appear to have been terror bombing pure and simple with no actual military purpose. The Chinese to the surprise if the Japanese did not surrender. The strategic doictrines of air had noy been worked out when the Japanese began the air war against China (1931). In fact this was still true in the early-1940s after the German and Soviets launched the war in Europe. It was widely believed that no country could sustain yhe npmbing of its cities. This appears to have been the primary objectove of the Japanese air attacks. China did not have major industries producing arms. And the impact of the terror bombing ws limited by the small cize of the Jaoanese bomber force and the relatively small proportion of the Chinese population living in cities. CIH has not yet developed details on the Japanese terror bombing of Chinese cities, but we do have some details on a general page about Japanese atrocities. There were two destinct phases of the air war in China. The first phase following the Japanese invasion of China (July 1937). And than aecoind phase follwing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the onset of the Pacific War (Secember 1941).


 Lord Cranborne

Nary, Diana. China's Republic (Cambridge University Press: 2007).


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Created: 4:47 AM 12/24/2013
Spell checked: 8:47 PM 12/24/2013
Last updated: 5:23 AM 5/20/2023