Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Armour in China

Steven Zaloga

Military Modelling Manual 1983

Armour expert Steven Zaloga provides details and photographs of A.F.V. activities during the period 1920-45 in this unlikely part of the world.

THROUGHOUT THE FIRST HALF of the 20th Century, China was wracked by an interminable string of civil wars and foreign intervention. Although armoured vehicles did not play a central role in this fighting, Chinese armoured vehicles are, nonetheless, very interesting if only for their cosmopolitan selection. Where else could one find an armoured unit equipped with British, Italian, German, American and Soviet armoured vehicles fighting side by side
The predominant influence on early Chinese armour was undoubtedly Russian. In the wake of the Russian Civil War, a number of armoured trains eventually made their way into Chinese territory and into the hands of the warlords who dominated China in 1920. A good example of this was the armoured train Orlik. This train was originally in German service on the Eastern Front in 1917 when it was captured by the Imperial Russian Army. It subsequently fell into Bolshevik hands during the Civil War, and in 1919, fell into the hands of the Czech Legions while they were battling their way out of Soviet Russia along the Trans-Siberian Railway. This particular detachment eventually made its way into Manchuria, where they attempted to turn the train over to the Chinese. Instead, it was initially seized by the Japanese who had many troops in China in connection with concessionary arrangements in Manchuria.

The Japanese later turned the train over to a sympathetic (i.e. puppet) warlord. The Chinese warlord most closely associated with armoured train development in China during this period was Chang Tsung-chang who controlled Chihi province. Chang Tsungchang had both Japanese and Russian mercenaries in his army, and had a number of trains built with Russian assistance at the Tsinan yards in Shantung province. His success with armoured trains in various wars with neighbouring warlords led to dozens of armoured trains being built throughout China. In the early 1920s, the Kuomintang Party led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen began to take steps to assert national control over the warlords In 1924, it established the Whampoa Military Academy, headed by Gen. Chiang Kai-shek who would take over direction of the Kuomintang following Sun Yat-sen's death. The military arm of the Kuomintang, the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) sought the assistance of the Soviet Union in securing the arms needed to fight the warlords. The Soviets agreed, not only due to the fact that the NRA contained leftist and communist units as well as conservative nationalist units, but also because the Soviets viewed the NRA as a reliable counterweight against Japanese activity in China.

By 1925, there were over 1,000 Soviet troops and advisers in China and amongst their many activities was building up the armoured train force of the NRA. The Russian advisers, including Marshal V. K. Blyukher, were all experienced veterans of the Russian Civil War, and many had personal experience with the armoured trains used in that conflict. The armoured trains built with Russian aid closely resembled Russian trains, although their armament consisted of whatever types of guns could be obtained whether Chinese, British, Japanese or Russian. Generally the trains had two artillery cars, each with two turreted guns, plus various machine gun sponsons. In addition, there was usually a control car which could contain infantry, an armoured locomotive, and various other cars for carrying supplies or additional troops. The trains were usually designed to permit their use forward or backward. The Soviet advisers were instrumental in training NRA crews in Bolshevik tactics which stressed using armoured trains in an offensive role. Trains would advance on enemy positions and then disgorge infantry which would attack under the heavy fire of the train. In contrast, the warlords frequently used their trains as personal transportation with limited combat roles. Even when used in combat, the warlord trains seldom used infantry, and troops were reluctant to leave the protective armour of the train. This was often a fatal mistake since it allowed enemy infantry to disable track around, or otherwise hinder, the train. The fate of the train Hupeh gives a good example of armoured train fighting in China during the civil war between the northern warlords and the NRA attacking from the south out of Canton.

In the early 1 920s, Chang Tsung-chang had three armoured trains built at the Tsinan yards in Shantung, the "Yangtze River", "Great Wall" and "Hupeh", based along Russian lines. They were all involved in the fighting around Shanghai in 1927 with the NRA. The "Yangtze River" was surrounded by the NRA near Shanghai in April 1927 and, once captured, the crew was shot. The "Great Wall" was surrounded near Shanghai and the tracks were cut on both sides, leaving h only a three miles stretch of rails. It soon ran out of ammunition, and its crew were slaughtered, as was the custom. The "Hupeh" was left as a rearguard at Peng-Pu to cover the withdrawal of Chang Tsung-chang's army, and it also was surrounded and captured. The NRA took the better, undamaged portions of the three trains, and consolidated them into two trains, the "Chung Shan", and another, the name of which is unknown. These were used against the Fengtien northern warlords. Both were captured by the warlord Sun Chuan-fang's army at Lincheng in July 1927. The "Chung Shan" was turned over to the new warlord of Chihli province, Tupan Yu-pu, and it was renamed "Hupeh" while being refitted in Shantung province. It is believed to have fallen back into NRA hands during a later battle.

Besides assistance in constructing armoured trains, the Russian advisers to the NRA also assisted in the construction of small numbers of improvised armoured cars. These were not as useful as the trains, as the road network in China at the time was primitive and automotive supplies were very hard to come by. These were also popular in the armies of the warlords, and were usually built by foreign n,ercenary troops or by White Russians who settled in China in the wake of their defeat during the Russian Civil War. In spite of the important role played by Soviet advisers in the early rise of the NRA, Gen. Chiang Kai-shek was extremely suspicious of their influence, and the influence of leftist elements of the Kuomintang. In 1927, he began a purge of communists from the Kuomintang, and eventually severed ties with the Soviets. In their place came German advisers from the Reichswehr. The Germans had no experience with armoured vehicles or trains, but by 1930, the NRA had defeated many of the largest warlords' armies, and had built up a sizeable force of armoured trains and armoured cars as is evident in the accompanying chart. One of the most peculiar offshoots of the German assistance was the attempt by BMW to sell the Chinese Army 400 armoured motorcycles with sidecars. It is not known how many actually were purchased...

The first tanks to arrive in China were FT-17 Renaults. During the civil war, the Western powers had imposed an arms embargo on China, but the warlord Chang Tso-lin who commanded the Manchurian Army (Tung-pei-chun) managed to secure a deal with a French firm for 36 FT-17 tanks. The first 10 were sent via a British tramp steamer in 1924 as agricultural tractors, and four more arrived in Newchang in November 1925. They were used in fighting between the Manchurian Army and the forces of the warlord Wu Pei-fu who controlled the neighbouring Jirho and Chihar provinces. In 1927, Chang Tso-lin was assassinated by the Japanese who had designs on Manchuria. But when his son, Chang Hseuh-liang took over the Manchurian Army, he decided to join forces with the N RA in a common anti-Japanese front. In this fashion, the NRA gained its first tanks. This also added a number of Manchurian Army trains to the Chinese Army. The FT-17s were attached to the First Cavalry Brigade of the 1St Army Division in 1929, and were used in fighting against the warlords. Three were lost to the Japanese in the wake of the seizure of Manchuria in September 1931.

In the meantime, the Nanking government decided to begin to acquire tanks for itself. In 1929, it ordered 24 Vickers Carden Loyd machine gun carriers, and in May 1929 the first 12 were delivered. These were sent to Suchow and fought on the Lunghai front. About 4 were lost by June 1930. There were numerous efforts to build indigenous armoured vehicles in China in the early 1 930s using automobiles and imported lorries as a basis. In 1932, even improvised tanks were built. In April 1932, Marshal Liu Hsiang began forming the Armoured Car and Tank Corps in Chungking. The basis for this unit was 3 armoured cars and 6 light improvised tanks. The armoured cars were built in Shanghai and consisted of GMC M31 6 lorries with a pair of machine guns mounted coaxially with a 37mm gun in a fully revolving turret. Five of the light tanks were built on Cletrac 20 agricultural tractors with a single turret and a .303 cal. Lewis machine gun. The remaining tank was built on the heavier Cletrac 30 chassis and had a 37mm gun and one .303 cal. Lewis machine gun. Unfortunately, no photos of these curious vehicles are known to exist.

In 1935, with the threat of war with Japan increasing daily, the Chinese decided to began purchasing more modern equipment in Europe. Due to the connection with the German Military Mission, 10 PzKpfw I AusfAs were purchased along with a few dozen armoured cars such as SdKfz 221 and SdKfz 222s. In addition, 20 CV 33 tankettes were purchased from Italy. The largest purchases were made in Britain from Vickers. In 1935, 16 Vickers Armstrong 6 ton E tanks were bought, and the following year an additional 4 were bought, equipped with radios. Along with the first shipment of Vickers 6 tons were 29 Vickers Carden Loyd (VCL} Amphibious Tanks Model 1931. In 1936, 4VCL Light Tanks Model 1936 were also purchased. These were formed into three armoured battalions under the command of Xu Ting-yao. The 1st Armoured Battalion in Shanghai was equipped with 32 VCL Amphibious Tanks Model 1931 and Vickers 6 ton E tanks. The 2nd Armoured Battalion, also headquartered in Shanghai, was equipped with the remainder of the Vickers 6 ton tanks, surviving VCL machine gun carriers and the VCL light tanks totalling 32 tanks. The 3rd Armoured Battalion in Nanking was equipped with the 10 PzKpfw I Ausf A and 20 Fiat CV33 tankettes as well as some German armoured cars China also obtained a small number of French Renault ZB light tanks in the late 1930s, but the circumstances surrounding their acquisition are unclear. [see note 1]

In the summer of 1937, full scale war finally broke out between China and Japan. The Japanese Kwangtung Army was far better equipped than the Chinese Army, and certainly did not suffer from the political divisions and suspicions that plagued the Chinese as a legacy of the civil wars. The Chinese armoured units did not make much of a showing in the fighting against the Japanese. Both the 1st and 2nd Armoured Battalions fought the Japanese during the 1937 battle for Shanghai. However, the tanks were ill-suited to urban fighting, and the Japanese claimed many of the Vickers 6 ton tanks as war trophies. By 1938, there were less than half of the 96 tanks surviving with which China had started the war. The outbreak of the war with Japan also led to shifting alliances. The Germans gradually edged out of their advisory relationship with China due to complaints from the Japanese. In their place returned the Soviets, who were deeply worried about Japanese incursions towards Mongolia and Siberia.

The Soviets had been involved in border skirmishes with the Japanese Kwangtung Army in Manchuria since 1934, and serious fighting broke out in Mongolia at Lake Khasan in 1938. The Soviets agreed to begin supplying the Chinese Army with enough weapons for 25 divisions though this eventually never came to pass. In regards to armoured equipment, the Soviets agreed to assist the Chinese in forming the 200th Mechanized Division, and in 1938 sold them 87 T-26 Model 1933 tanks along with a number of FAI and BA-6 armoured cars. The new division also absorbed the left-overs of the decimated armoured battalions. The alliance with the Soviet Union did not prove as fruitful as hoped. In 1939 the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, and defeated the Kwangtung Army at Khalkin Gol in Mongolia which relieved the pressure on Russia's eastern flank, thereby lessening the incentive to help the Chinese. China began to turn to the United States for aid and finally, in January 1941, was permitted to join the Lend Lease programme. Among the early results of this decision was the shipment of 36 M3A1 Scout Cars in October 1941 just before the outbreak of the Pacific War between Japan and the US.

With the outbreak of war with Japan, the US took a more enthusiastic interest in arming Chiang-Kai-shek's forces. The usual means of supply was from India, through Burma and up the Burma Road into China. Japan's drive through Burma threatened this route, and the US requested Chinese support in keeping the supply route open. The Chinese were not very keen in providing troops to fight on foreign soil when they had their hands tied at home, but among the few divisions sent to fight in Burma was the 200th Mechanized Division. This division particularly distinguished itself during the fighting in Burma. Gen. J. Stilwell in one of his reports on the First Burma Campaign wrote: "The Chinese Tank Corps in particular covered itself in glory in operation. Not too much was expected of them, as they are not seasoned troops, veterans of many battles and possessors of a mechanical heritage. The tanks and supporting infantry killed about five hundred Japanese in addition to spreading consternation throughout enemy positions wherever they appeared. It represented a series of actions thatwould havedone credit to a seasoned unit and was especially meritorious considering the amount of training (three months) and other preparation that had gone into this group."

The action to which Stilwell referred was the battle in the Hukwang valley near Maingkwan-Walawbum in March 1942. The 200th Mechanised Division on a number of occasions served as a rearguard, and suffered severe losses during the fighting, including much of its armoured equipment. The loss of the Burma Road made further supply of tanks and other armoured equipment to the Chinese Army nearly impossible. There had been an offer to provide the Chinese with about 200 Marmon-Harrington T16 light tanks left over due to the cancellation of a Dutch order after the fall of the Dutch East Indies in 1942, but these could not be delivered and even the Chinese did not seem very keen on these dreadful light tanks.

The rebirth of the Chinese armoured force did not take place until 1943, when the US agreed to form a Provisional Tank Group with Chinese forces re-equipping in India. This unit was jointly manned by Chinese and American troops initially, though later the Americans retired to technical support of the unit, with the Chinese troops providing the bulk of the tank crews and other combat elements. It was equipped from British Lend-Lease stockpiles in India, consisting mainly of M4A4 Sherman tanks, M3A3 Stuart light tanks, and some Bren Carriers and half-tracks. It went into operation in 1944 in Burma in operations to reopen the Burma Road and force the Japanese out of the area. It later formed the core of Chinese Nationalist tank units that would fight in the civil war with Mao-Tse-tung's communist forces after the end of the Pacific War.

The author would like to thank D. Y. Louie for his help in preparing this article, as well as to J. Probst and Osamu Tagaya for assistance in locating photographs of Chinese armoured vehicles.
Chinese armoured trains at conclusion of Civil War (June 1930)

Unit Train Location of unit
1st Detachment Chung Shan 1 Unassigned
  Chung Shan 2  
2nd Detachment Peiping Lunghai
  Hu Kwang  
  Sin Cheng  
3rd Detachment Yun Kwei Tsinpu
  Kwang Wei Chang Cheng
4th Detachment Shan Tong Chiaotai
  Tai Shan  
5th Detachment Hsi Ping Kinhan
  Min Sheng  
(unattached trains) Hsiang Ao Yuehhan
  Tai Ping Lunghai
  Tung Yi Lunghai
  Ho Ning Shanghai-Nanking
  Wo Yuan Shanghai-Nanking
  Kiang Ning Shanghai-Hanchow
  Min Chu undetermined
  Ho Ping undetermined
Note: Besides these trains, there were two corps, the 1st and 2nd Armoured Train Corps of the Manchurian Army, commanded by Gen. Tsao Yueh-chang allied to the Chinese Army. Each of these corps had three Detachments numbered 1 through 3 each composed of 2 trains, numbered 1 and 2 rather than named. There were also a small number of trains in the hands of warlords.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating article - interesting not only for the technical information, but the way that the alliances between China and other countries changed during this time.