** World War II air war -- air campaign in China

World War II: Air Campaign in China (1937-45)

Figure 1.-- The Chinese were 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. Much of the initial fighting was over Shanghai. Here civilians in Shanghai look at the Japanese bombers beginning to hammer their city (July 1937).

The Chinese were 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).

Air Operations in China: First Phase (1937-41)

The Japanese invaded China after an indident at the Marco Polo Bridge (July 1937). Again local commanders played a central role. This was the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese war. The major battle was fought over Shanghai. Chinese resistance surprised the Japanese, both in the air and on land. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) commited air units to the struggle. They introduced their advanced long-ranged G3M medium-heavy land-based bombers. They also used their carrier-based aircraft. They expected to eaily destroying the small Chinese Air Force, but encountered unexpectedly effective resistance. The Chinese had Chinese Hawk III and P-26/281 Peashooter fighter squadrons. Chang after losing some of his best duvusions and most of his Air Force began to avoid major bttles with the better armed and more disciplined Japanese. As the war continued, Both the Imperil Jpanese Navy and Army conducted a strategic bombing campaign, as far as we know without coordination. The targets were primarily the large cities in Nationalist hands. Some of the hrdest hit cities were shnghai, Wuhan, and Cunking. Nanking and Canton were alo heavily hit. Some of these sities, especilly Nanking and Canton had large numbers of Europeans and thus elicited many reports of the Japanese bombings which clearly targeted civilins rather than milkitary targets. The League of Nations condmned the Japanese. Lord Cranborne, the British Under-Secretary of State For Foreign Affairs, described the Ja[anese bombing. "Words cannot express the feelings of profound horror with which the news of these raids had been received by the whole civilized world. They are often directed against places far from the actual area of hostilities. The military objective, where it exists, seems to take a completely second place. The main object seems to be to inspire terror by the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians..." [ Lord Cranborne] We have never seen an authoritative assessment of Japanese targeting instructions. It is clear that civikian instalatuons were hit, including hospitals clearly painted wuth red cross symbols. To what extent these fcilities were specufically trgeted we are not yet sure, Nor or we sure to what extent the Japanese higher-level commnders or the flight commanders selected the targets we are nit sure. 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 and very expenive. 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 interior cities were 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 (Chongqing) became a major city in southwestern China located at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. 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 more than a decade. A total of 268 air raids were conducted against Chunking more than 11,500 bombs dropped, mainly incendiary bombs. The targets were largely residential areas, business areas, schools, hospitals (non-military targets). These bombings were probably aimed at cowing the Nationlists. Until the arrival of the American Flying Tigers, the Japanese raids were largely unopposed.

Air Operations in China: Second Phase (1942-45)

Japan continued to dominate China, even after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese seizure of the Burma Road made it virtually impossible of getting merican supplies into China. The nature of the air war did change. The Americans flew supplies in over The Hump fom India. Most of the supplies werte to build up American and China air units. The Japanese attacks on Chinese cities tapered off, for two reasons. First the Japanese had occupied so many Chinese cities. Second, Japanese bomber squadrons began to be oppsed by American and eventually Chinese fighter groups. The American Flying Tigers arrived (1942). 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. 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. Not only did Chunking anbd other cities acquire air defebses, but the American began bombing Japanese targets, nostly targets in China. The Americans had planned to bomb Japan from China, but the Japanese Ivhi-go offensive and the american conquest of the Marianas changed those plans.

American Support of China

American support for China began as diplomstic protests of Japanese agression when Japan seized Manchuria (1931). It gradually escalated when Japan invaded China proper (1937). It began with moral outrage and moral embargoes to actual legal embargoes that ultimtely cut off Japan's supply of oil. Japam's dependence on American oil forced it to either end its aggression in China or go to war. Japan chose war. From the begging the aircwar was cental to American support. Imahes of Japanese bombing of Chinese cities shocked Americns. The Japoanese could prevent images of their atroicities in occupied areas from reaching the West. It could not prevent images of their bombing attacks on Chinese cities from reaching the West. When this occurred the United States began a noral embargo, bur effective enough to deny Japan access to American aircraft and aircraft parts. And American support only ecalated from that point. Eventually American military support for China would be primarily launching an air campaign with Nationlidt China. After Jsapan closed the Burma Road. America had no way of getting supplies to China. Finally a new route was oened over the Himalayas--the Hump. Youy couldn't drive a tank to China, but you couild fly aurcradter to China. Flying over the Hump limited the quabtity of supplies, but the were suggicent to supply the U.S. 14th Airfirce. Atr first the effort primarily protected Chimese cities. Eventially the American helkp rebuild the Chimese Aur Firce and to launch sttscks on Japanese military targets throiughout China.


Lord Cranborne

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


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Created: 4:24 AM 9/23/2015
Last updated: 4:24 AM 9/23/2015