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Tai-erh-chuang, 1938: The Japanese Juggernaut Smashed, by 2d Lt. William M. Waddell
The tactic of attacking fortified cities is adopted only when unavoidable. . . . If the general cannot overcome his impatience but instead launches an assault wherein his men swarm over the walls like ants, he will kill one-third of his officers and troops, and the city will not be taken. This is the disaster that results from attacking fortified cities. —Sun Tzu
In early April 1938 a lone Chinese soldier stood on a wall in the town of Tai-erh-chuang to survey his surroundings. Tanks, armored cars, and trucks were strewn about the countryside, abandoned once they had run out of fuel. Dead horses, broken machine guns, and deserted field guns lay across the landscape. The soldier could detect the faint smell of burning flesh. Interspersed among the quiet chaos lay 16,000 dead Japanese soldiers. For the first time in 340 years, China had defeated Japan in battle.
The Imperial Japanese Army faltered in Tai-erh-chuang because it was lured into a vicious city fight for which it was dangerously unprepared. The semimodern Japanese army had not achieved the necessary combined-arms integration to prosecute such a battle. Japanese infantry hid behind the strength of their firepower, tanks advanced without adequate protection, and neither of them effectively used maneuver to gain a tactical advantage over the opponents. Furthermore, the Japanese commanders themselves committed operational blunders as their minds become dangerously fixated on the consuming fight within the city’s bounds.
Chinese acumen stood in contrast to Japanese deficiencies. Perhaps owing to their material inferiority, the Chinese in and around Tai-erh-chuang displayed remarkable imagination. Their situation forced them into creative tactical and operational solutions, which served to frustrate the disjointed and uncoordinated efforts of the Japanese invaders. The disasters that beset the Japanese and the forethought that benefited the Chinese provide insightful lessons for the modern military.
The story of the Sino-Japanese War is one of immense struggle punctuated by catastrophe. Taken as a single event, the victory at Tai-erh-chuang illustrates that the Chinese could be capable planners and organizers. It also highlights the sophistication of their military thought. The Chinese not only understood their adversaries’ mind-set but manipulated it to advantage. In effect, the Chinese laid a trap at Tai-erh-chuang. The Japanese were lured into and systematically destroyed in a brutal street fight, punctuated by sweeping maneuver.
Early Days of the Sino-Japanese War
The opening of the Sino-Japanese War had not gone well for the Chinese. The defense of Shanghai had been a valiant but an ultimately futile effort. Chiang Kai-shek’s German-trained Central Army held on to Shanghai through a series of gruesome offensives and equally foolish dare-to-die defensive stands. The height of China’s military modernization perished in Shanghai. Casualties for the battle may have been as high as 300,000. By December 13, 1937, the Japanese had pushed their way to Nanking. Chiang shifted his headquarters to the relative safety of Wuhan in December. Things were equally worrisome in the north. Paoting and Tsangchow fell to the Japanese First and Second Armies, respectively, on September 24. Chinese resistance was crumbling before the Japanese advance, while Chiang carefully hoarded his remaining units in order to preserve his delicate hold on Chinese leadership.
The Japanese intended to force a Chinese capitulation by endangering the ad hoc capital at Wuhan. Rail and river provided the primary means for the Japanese advance. The Tientsin-P’ukow railroad line provided one such high-speed avenue of approach. Japanese efforts in this area should have been stalled by the presence of Han Fu-Chu’s 80,000–strong 3d Army Group. Such was not to be as Han fled Tsinan, thereby leaving this front wide open for Japanese exploitation. Chiang Kai-shek paid Han the traitor’s wage by executing him in Hankow on January 25.
The opportunity was not lost on the Japanese. If the Japanese could strike south quickly, they could seize the junction of the Lunghai and Tientsin-P’ukow railway lines at Hsuchow. From there, the way to Wuhan lay before them. The object of the Japanese southern drive was the hodgepodge 5th War Area under the command of Li Tsung-jen, who had been given the task of defending Hsuchow.
Troops and Terrain
Li’s command structure was certainly convoluted. Owing more to political expedience than military necessity, many of Li’s subordinates commanded units noticeably larger on paper than what the unit could actually put into the field. Many army group commanders were concurrently corps commanders, and in two cases officers were serving simultaneously as army group, corps, and division commanders. For instance, P’ang Ping-hsun nominally commanded the Third Army, but it consisted of only one corps, in which there was only one division.5 The layering of command, primarily for political reasons, served to confound the modern perspective and undoubtedly complicated command and control of Chinese armies.
Chinese troop dispositions reflected the confusing nature of the Chinese command structure. A standard division, on paper, consisted of at least two infantry brigades, one artillery battalion, and a variety of support units. In sum, the Chinese division was nominally 10,000 men strong. Two divisions or more made up a corps, and at least two corps formed an army. Unfortunately, few Chinese armies were actually organized in such a manner. The rapid integration of the various warlord armies into the Kuomintang (KMT) force structure invalidated any organizational uniformity. Even a cursory glance at the command structure of the 5th War Area reveals how few units adhered to this rigid prescription. It is probably safe to assume that only the Central Army units under Li’s command even approached this strength.
Despite the awkward arrangement of his command, Li chose his battlefield well. He was able to do this because Japanese attention shifted to his area only as their drive to seize the Nationalist major political organs had been frustrated by their timely withdrawal to Wuhan. Furthermore, Li had been in the area as early as November 1937 and hence understood the terrain. The defensive line of the 5th War Area extended below the relatively impassable mountains in southern Shantung. The position of the mountains channeled an attacking force around the heights through two widely separated routes. One avenue passed on the western side of the range through the cities of Tsouhsien and T’enghsien in succession. This course also coincided with the vital Tienstin-P’ukow main rail artery. The second approach brought an adversary around the mountains to the east through the strategically significant city of Linyi. Once a force had cleared this obstacle, it still would find itself separated from its supporting column by roughly eighty kilometers. The quality of this defensive sack is further heightened by Wei-shan Lake and the Grand Canal, which effectively shore up a defending force’s left flank. Below the Wei-shan the Grand Canal turns abruptly east, creating a significant barrier to attacks as well as a convenient rallying point for defenders. Below the mountains and to the east of Tai-erh-chuang, the terrain becomes broken by a series of rivers, canals, and marsh. Any attacker moving into this region would find his area of operations increasingly limited. Furthermore, the nature of this region necessarily caused defensive pockets to form around the various cities, which, in turn, were hedged by the already mentioned natural fortifications.
In essence, any invading host’s push into this region on a broad front had to be widely dispersed and incapable of mutual support. Once the mountains were cleared, the area where a juncture of forces could be made was significantly limited. Forces entering the cul-de-sac would find themselves advancing obliquely into the bowl with their lines of communication trailing behind them at widely divergent angles. This arrangement forced the attacker to seize the cities in order to effectively control the rail lines.
The Preparation for Battle
It is quite likely that some Chinese officers were mentally prepared for this battle. Henri Johan Diederick de Fremery, a retired Dutch artillery colonel and military advisor to China, reported that the Chinese had indeed foreseen such a circumstance. Recognizing this area as a potential threat to Nanking, staff officers conducted several staff exercises and the matter was discussed in earnest at the Central Military Academy. This information was partially corroborated by the work conducted at the Chinese Staff College at Lu-ta. The students at Lu-ta engaged in several wargames focused on “mobile defense.” The scenarios postulated a deep penetration by enemy columns into Chinese territory. Once the enemy formations reached the height of their advance, they were to be subjected to violent attacks from the rear and on the flanks.
The general concept of the Japanese effort, as it developed, was that Japanese troops would speed south to effect a juncture at Tai-erh-chuang. From there they would consolidate for the siege of Hsuchow. The task to press the attack to Hsuchow fell to Lt. Gen. Juzo Nishio’s Second Army. Nishio’s 10th and 5th Divisions would take the Japanese to the vital Lunghai railway. The Lunghai offered a high-speed route for the Japa- nese to reach Wuhan and the interior of China. David Barrett, the assistant American military attaché to China, aptly described the Lunghai as “China’s jugular vein.” Han Fu-Chu’s ignominious withdrawal had placed Taian, Yenchow, and Tsining into Japanese hands in quick succession and further placed the Lunghai at Japan’s mercy. Nevertheless, Nishio threw his 10th Division (Lt. Gen. Rensuke Isogai) against Wenshang/Tsining. The 5th Division, under Lt. Gen. Seishiro Itagaki, was dispatched from Taian with the object of ultimately seizing Tai-erh-chuang via Linyi.
The early Japanese successes in the north had come without much of a price. The relative ease of these initial conquests inspired a certain degree of military adventurism in the Second Army. It is interesting to note that the Second Army believed that it faced no less than eleven Chinese divisions to its front. With this fully in mind, it plunged ahead. The commanders in the 5th War Area quickly surmised their danger, but, more importantly, they perceived their opportunity.
The Japanese Attack
The 10th Division opened the attack by throwing its Nagase detachment, consisting of four and a half infantry battalions and two field artillery battalions, against Tsining. The Chinese resistance around Tsining broke on February 20. Chiahsiang came soon after, falling on the twenty-fifth. Simultaneously the 5th Division, spearheaded by the Katano detachment, motored out of Weihsien. In short order Chuhsien and Ishui fell to the 5th Division. Itagaki stood poised to throw the weight of his motor column against the Chinese at Linyi. To ensure success, the command of the Katano detachment was placed under Maj. Gen. Jun Sakamoto.
Li Tsung-jen was not idle as the Japanese daggers thrust ever closer to the heart of his defense. Recognizing Linyi’s importance, Li transferred P’ang Ping-hsun’s Third Army to defend it. The term army is deceiving, because P’ang commanded, in fact, only five infantry regiments. His force had been discriminated against by the Central Government and labeled an “unattached” unit. Li was certainly risking much by entrusting this defense to such a questionable organization.
Li knew better. P’ang’s troops formed a highly cohesive unit. They had fought for years together under the same banner. Even captured soldiers would try to return to their regiment if they were offered an opportunity for escape. All of P’ang’s regiments were at full strength, although they were short of ammunition. Li requisitioned additional equipment for P’ang, notably mortars, and sent him off to stop Itagaki. There would be no retreat from Linyi.
Li recognized his situation for what it was. He understood that his forces could not hope to stop both advancing divisions at the same time. Defending a line south of the mountain range would have surrendered the operational initiative and condemned the 5th War Area to a slow retreat at best. Instead the main effort of the Japanese attack was to be drawn in and destroyed. Li identified the main effort as the 10th Division. It traveled down the railroad and posed the greatest potential threat to Hsuchow. Although Li could not hold the 10th for long in any one place, he could draw it in and predict its movements given its dependency on the rail line. Furthermore, the cities along the rail could be used as a series of nominal stopgaps to slow and entice Isogai’s advance. To accomplish this, Li would have to hold Linyi at all costs. The fulcrum of his defense, Tai-erh-chuang, would not be able to withstand the combined attack of both Itagaki and Isogai. What Li needed most was time. He required time to bring in reinforcements capable of closing his planned salient and time to get them where they needed to be.
Itagaki wasted little time. By the end of February he had engaged P’ang Ping-hsun around Linyi. The earlier string of relatively bloodless victories stood in stark contrast to what now developed in and around Linyi. Much to Itagaki’s consternation, the Chinese in Linyi stood fast. The Japanese quickly escalated the scale of their attack. Despite their vigor, however, the Japanese attacks against Linyi were largely frontal. The nature of the city fight canalized Japanese endeavors into bloody assaults on staunchly held pockets of resistance. These mobile forces would have been better used to surround the Chinese rather than batter aimlessly at P’ang’s men. No concerted effort was made to encircle and isolate the vital road junction. This allowed the Chinese to repeatedly reinforce the beleaguered defenders.
P’ang had done well, but in the face of nearly the entire 5th Division, his situation became desperate. The subsequent calls for help did not go unnoticed by Li Tsung-jen in Hsuchow. Chang Tse-chung’s LVIX Corps stood ready for deployment to Linyi. Chang, however, had been lambasted by Chiang Kai-shek and China at large for his failure to defend Peiping the previous autumn. Li petitioned Chiang in Chang’s defense, then offered Chang a chance to repudiate his former infamy and stand boldly against the Japanese. Chang would do that and more.