Resisting Alone: China’s Defensive War Against Japan
China’s defensive war against Japan
1939 - 1941
author Paul Boșcu, April 2019
After 1938 the nature of the war in China changed: the gigantic clashes of the first 2 years were fewer in number. As the Chinese started focusing on defensive actions, and guerilla warfare in the occupied areas, the Japanese tried to subdue the locals by staging a number of offensives. Up until December 1941, when the US entered the war against Japan, China found little aid from outside. Instead China's destiny became entangled by shifting diplomatic entanglements, internal conflict between the Chinese Communists and Nationalists, and social changes that would alter the destiny of the Chinese people.

After 1938 the nature of the Sino-Japanese war changed from offensive to defensive. The dramatic battles of the first year of the war were fewer in number. Instead, China's fate became tied up with shifting alliances, diplomatic intrigues and social change that would permanently alter the country's course. Central to those changes were new ideas of social provision: the circumstances of war forced the new regimes into competition with each other. Nationalists and Communists would strive to demonstrate that as the state demanded more of its people, so they should demand more of their government.

Although within China and in the outside world Chongqing was painted as a fierce center of resistance, the reality was rather less impressive. The city was ill-equipped for the massive refugee flight, and quickly became dotted with different types of temporary housing. Such hastily built dwellings were hardly a surprise in a desperately poor city suddenly thrust into national and international prominence. Chongqing's population had soared as refugees poured into Free China. Sichuan province served as a major base for the government's plans for resistance and reconstruction.

When they wrote their memoirs, the outsiders who visited the Communist capital at Yan'an in Shaanxi province came back, over and over again, to the subject of food. Food was rationed carefully and there was little variation, although mothers with children were given extra meat. Wartime Yan'an was stark and regimented, particularly for those who had accepted the discipline of the party. Even more than in Chongqing, Yan'an was the testing-ground for a new social contract. The party and state promised deeper commitments to social provision, but demanded complete obedience in return.

From September 1939 until the spring of 1941, the Nationalists could not count on any meaningful foreign support. Internationally, the situation was highly fluid, with no one clear about the final shape of the international alliances that would slug it out on the battlefield. During this period, with the Japanese no longer threatened by the Soviet Union, the fighting moved to south China. The Japanese redoubled their efforts to bottle the Nationalists up in Sichuan, including large-scale strategic bombing campaigns. The Nationalists continued their efforts to keep the war going across China, and were able to defeat a Japanese offensive aimed at taking Changsha.

The period between the fall of Wuhan and the beginning of Japan’s Southern Advance has often been characterized as a stalemate. It is certainly true that after the Battle of Wuhan the choreography of the war changed. Beforehand, hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Japanese troops engaged each other in the deathly dance of set-piece battles on a stage hundreds of miles long and wide. Afterwards, the war became diffuse and dispersed, with little activity in some areas for long periods of time.

The altered nature of the war was the result of changes in Japanese and Chinese strategy. Neither side desired to continue with the large-scale military operations that had characterized the first phase of the war. While the Japanese had come to the conclusion that they could not secure a quick military victory but must also rely on political means, for the Nationalists it was even more true that a military victory in the short term was impossible. However, prevailing in the war and imposing their visions remained the goal for both.

The Nationalist approach during the second phase of the War of Resistance can be described as establishing a series of fortress zones across China designed to interdict Japanese lines of communication, offer a multiplicity of targets so that the Japanese were forced to dilute their forces, and keep the war going across China as a national endeavor. The major base was Sichuan, which provided by far the most recruits for the army as well much of its food.

Many aspects of life in the city of Chongqing were beyond the Nationalist government's control, and none more so than the terrifying new reality of constant bombings. In the winter of 1938 there were a few 'trial raids' on the city. The attacks began in earnest from the spring of 1939, and it was the destruction that rained down on the twentieth anniversary of the nationalist Fourth of May demonstrations which marked the start of a stream of destruction from the sky that would be part of everyday existence for years to come.

The raids happened in spring and the height of the summer, when the city was at its hottest, with temperatures reaching more than 40 degrees Celsius. In the shelters, as the Chongqingers awaited the raids, the atmosphere was stifling, and people brought hand fans to keep themselves cool.

The authorities recruited professional body-carriers to deal with the corpses of people killed in the raids, and they would be paid the equivalent of one jin (half kilogram) of rice per body carried. The corpses would be buried together at a spot named the 'new coffin mountain', having been transported on one of the boats which shipped bodies out of the city. At the height of the raids, more than a hundred boats operated at a time.

As the May 1939 raids showed, even if the all-clear had sounded, another raid might be imminent, and people became used to the idea of settling down in the hot, dark shelters for days at a time. Their emergency kits and toilet arrangements would last for a couple of days, but after that, they were at the mercy of enterprising vendors who were willing to brave the raids to sell overpriced essentials to the families trapped in stifling, lightless conditions. Emerging after five or six days in the shelter was a painful process for some, as their eyes simply were not used to the bright sunshine.

Chongqing's air-raid defenses remained weak, largely because the alternative would have required a swift increase in China's aerial warfare capacity, as well as anti-aircraft weapons and other equipment that the country simply did not possess. Chiang's wife Song Meiling addressed the problem in 1937 by recruiting one of the more remarkable figures to work in wartime China: retired US Air Force Major-General Claire Lee Chennault. Chennault took over the training of China's still minimal air force. He also recruited pilots from the US who might be better able to take on Japanese fighters. The group was officially known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG), but it soon became much better known by its nickname, the Flying Tigers.

The Japanese were almost as unprepared for the responsibilities of occupation as the Nationalists were for governing in retreat. The invaders had not expected the events of July 1937 to turn into an all-out war, and they had few concrete plans in place to deal with the extent of their sudden new conquests. Their general technique was to find collaborators, preferably people of some standing, to run local government for them. They wanted their conquests to pay for themselves, or better still, to provide revenue for Japan, but realized that in the short term they would have to spend money to restore order.

Strong government was necessary, yet no such government was available. The suppression of 'banditry' became a common theme for the occupiers and their collaborators. This was not always simply a pretext. Kidnapping was not uncommon before the outbreak of war, but the withdrawal of the National government from eastern China cleared the path for banditry. As the war went on, the Japanese and local authorities would blur the issue by using the term 'bandit' to refer to groups ranging from criminals simply out for ransom to anti-Japanese partisans.

A more ambitious replacement regime was the Reformed Government of China. In March 1938 the government was officially formed in the Great Hall of the National Government in Nanjing, and headed by Liang Hongzhi, whose political career had been eclipsed under the Nationalists. Having publicly declared their status in Nanjing, the entire government got on a train and returned to the New Asia Hotel, Shanghai. From there, they ran what became known to detractors as the 'Hotel government' for the next two years. Very few people in Shanghai knew anything about the shadowy leaders who came and went at the top of their government.

In Shanghai the first Japanese-controlled government was instituted in the part of the city that had formerly been under Nationalist control. The 'Great Way government' (Dadao zhengfu) lasted only for a few months, but it was the first attempt in the city to provide an alternative to the now-retreated Nationalist government.

Shanghai was not the only place where the Japanese assault had created chaos. A western missionary, Katharine Hand, reflected on the first year in Yizhou under Japanese occupation: ‘The Japanese garrison is still here in the city and the guerillas [sic] in the country. Friction is frequent and inevitable. We never know when or where there may be a more or less serious battle. The bandits are taking advantage of the situation. The country people are in terror, frequently fleeing hither and yon. We still have so many refugees that we can't take all the students we would like into the dormitories. The refugees are many of them city people who have absolutely no place to go. The city remains a sort of military fortress, mostly in ruins, with no local business, and few inhabitants except the soldiers. The hospital is filled almost to capacity, but few can afford to pay for their treatment. Many of the people would have starved if we had not had relief funds to give to them. Many, who were doing well before the war, are without jobs or the prospect of them… What is the end and when? Would we be happy if we knew?’

Japan began sweeps of entire districts known to shelter guerrillas. This was the ‘three alls’ policy: kill all, burn all, destroy all. In northern China entire villages were razed, crops seized or destroyed, and peasants slaughtered. The strategy succeeded in reducing an underground Communist structure to roving guerrillas and reduced the size of the Communist base areas, but it was obviously no way to make China an economically productive part of the Japanese Empire. Even if Japan could afford the loss of soldiers in battle, the financial cost was another question.

The war changed the fortunes of the Chinese Communist Party. No longer a band of rebels on the run, they were now officially regarded as a junior partner in the United Front against Japan. The development of Communist political policy in the years of the war was inexorably shaped by the demands of warfare itself. The war also transformed the career of Mao Zedong. Mao had not been the only possible leader for the party when the war broke out, but his position had been greatly strengthened.

Other leaders varied in the strength of their threat to Mao. In the spring of 1938, Zhang Guotao had realized that his hopes of dominance in the party were becoming ever weaker, and he defected to the Nationalists. Wang Ming was a more substantial challenger, particularly since his pedigree included prestigious training in Moscow. The loss of Wuhan meant that his hopes of organizing an urban base for Communist power were no longer realistic. Instead, it was the rural areas where the CCP would make inroads, and Mao's vision prevailed over Wang Ming's.

Mao knew that the United Front with the Nationalists was an outstanding opportunity for the CCP to extend its power, but also one fraught with great danger. In particular, the Red Army would be placed under the overall command of Chiang Kai-shek. However, the CCP had no intention of being left without armed forces of its own and remaining vulnerable to Chiang's purges. The Communist armies numbered some 30,000 men at the start of the war, and they were reorganized as the Eighth Route Army which quickly expanded to around 80,000 troops. Not long afterward, the Communists were authorized to establish a second force of up to 12,000 men known as the New Fourth Army, which would operate in central China.

In the first years of the war, Mao's writings show a politician and thinker in the process of change. Mao took advantage of his relative isolation in Yan'an by reading extensively in Marxist literature. He had always been a voracious reader, but the fact that he was no longer on the run allowed him space for the first time to immerse himself in the ideology he had embraced as a young man.

Mao saw the fall of the principal Chinese cities as a sign that the positional warfare of the large Nationalist armies was over, and that guerrilla warfare would be the dominant strategic method, at least until the war became internationalized. This was a leap of faith, for there was no indication in autumn 1937 that the war was likely to become global. Nor was Mao correct in arguing that conventional pitched battle was no longer effective; Xue Yue's defense of Changsha in 1939, for instance, would preserve a key strategic city for Nationalist China for at least a few more years.

Yan'an was not immune from Japanese attack. In November 1938 some seven Japanese aircraft launched bombs on the old city. One observer, Wang Guangrong, recalled 'seventy or eighty dead or wounded, flesh flying, terrible to see'. The bombers came again the next day, hitting Mao's own house, and killing thirty soldiers. But people learned fast. At New Year and Chinese New Year, Yan'an was raided again, but this time preparations were better and there were few injuries. The town's old Ming dynasty tower was fitted out with anti-aircraft guns, and the bell was tolled as an air-raid warning. In total, there were some seventeen air raids between 1938 and late 1941.

The Communists also advanced in central China, setting up the JinChaJi base in the borderlands between Shanxi and Hebei, as well as in northwest Shanxi and the Taihang mountains of southeast Shanxi. The initial years of the war saw significant expansion of the Communist Party and its allied forces. Between 1937 and 1941 the number of members rose from some 40,000 to 763,447, and from a total force of some 92,000 at the start to some 440,000 troops over the same period.

In Shanxi province the provincial militarist Yan Xishan had formed an alliance of convenience with the Communists, despite (like Chiang) being hostile to the party by instinct. Yet in the first months Shanxi's capital city of Taiyuan became the headquarters for the CCP's North China bureau, overseen by Liu Shaoqi.

Within the Communist base areas, there were also local militias, many of whose recruits divided their time between normal agricultural activity and military service, reducing the fear (prevalent in the Nationalist areas) of young men being recruited to the army and leaving the family without a breadwinner.

After the fall of Wuhan, Chiang Kai-shek had made it clear that the government had no intention of surrender. He also believed that Wuhan, which had been defended at the cost of so much blood, was no longer essential to his strategy. New routes to supply Free China from the northwest and northeast were being established, and the Nationalists were now defending several crucial lines. But there was still no likelihood of significant international intervention in China. The CCP continued to maintain control in parts of northern and central China, but the Nationalists knew that they would be forced to rely on their own resources to avoid defeat. The first stage of the war was over. Now it was time for the second, defensive stage, to begin.

Chiang declared that the Japanese, pulled in all the way along the Yangtze, were exactly where the Nationalists wanted them. In the autumn of 1938 the Japanese had landed at Bias Bay (also known as Daya Bay) off the coast of Guangdong province in southern China, and within ten days had captured the great southern port of Guangzhou. Yet even this shocking loss was now spun as part of an overall strategic success. Chiang was well aware that this argument might seem desperate rather than logical.

The Nationalist army would also have to significantly improve its record. Over and over again, Chiang declared, the army had behaved in ways that undermined organization. In general, the army ought to 'blend seamlessly' with the population, but in practice, in many areas, when the army arrived, the locals moved away, concerned that they might be harassed or exploited. The fault did not lie just with the ordinary soldier, but also with officers.

Chiang also acknowledged his own share of the blame. He declared that the loss of Nanjing had been 'the greatest shame of his life'. He took responsibility for the loss of Shanghai, Wuhan and Madang, and also admitted that he should have destroyed the airfields and bunkers at Wuhan. By sparing them, he had left a base for the Japanese to bomb Chongqing. Yet even so, he chose his words carefully, blaming the loss of Guangzhou and Madang on his having chosen 'bad subordinates'.

In the first two years of the war, the National Government had managed to survive against the odds. Its own efforts to cope with inadequate armies, refugee flight and aerial bombing had contributed significantly to that survival, but the Nationalists had also benefited from fortunate circumstances. The Communists had generally stuck by the terms of the United Front and cooperated with the Nationalists - at the very least, by not confronting the government outright.

From 1939 to 1941 the conflict had become not only a war of resistance against Japan and its Chinese collaborators, but also a duel between the Nationalists and the Communists. Chiang ordered new political and economic measures against Mao's heartland. In particular, he sought to regain control of parts of Hebei, Shanxi, Henan and Shandong that the CCP had come to think of as its own areas of control. The campaign aimed to box the Communists in, rather than to invade their territory, but it was a clear sign that relations between the two sides were beginning to break down. However, neither side could afford to let its own public, let alone the international community, think that the United Front had failed.

In December 1940 Xiang Ying, commander of the section of the Communist New Fourth Army stationed in Anhui province, received orders from Chiang Kai-shek that the Communist forces in Anhui must retreat north of the Yangtze River, out of the zone of Nationalist control patrolled by General Gu Zhutong. Xiang Ying assumed that the evacuation would take place in cooperation with the Nationalist troops. But instead a telegram arrived with disappointing news from party headquarters in Yan'an, where Mao and the overall Red Army commander Zhu De were located: ‘You should not have any further false hopes about the Nationalists. Do not rely on them to help you with anything... If you end up being attacked by the Nationalists on one side and the Japanese on the other side, it will be extremely dangerous for you.’

When clashes broke out between Nationalist and Communist troops at the borders of the SGN region, the CCP claimed that the fighting had been initiated solely at the local level and did not reflect any wider abandonment of the United Front. Chiang could hardly disagree openly. Yet Mao also wanted to hint at the risk that the Nationalists ran by seeking to suppress the Communists.

The two sides felt ambivalent towards each other even as relations soured. Chiang had always been wary of Mao, but he had a rather more positive view of Zhou Enlai, and the respect was mutual. Nonetheless, the Nationalist blockade continued, with disastrous effects on the economy of the Communist base area.

During their march to Wuhan, the Japanese had bypassed Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province, as they had encountered strong resistance there. The city, on the western shore of Lake Poyang, dominated the fertile plains of north Jiangxi and was a base for the 9th War Zone under Xue Yue. Located along the south shore of the Yangtze River, the 9th War Zone was a major threat to the Japanese. The battle for Nanchang took place in the spring of 1939. The Japanese took the city.

Although Lo Zhoying counterattacked with ten divisions, he was driven back after briefly taking the airport and the train station. This campaign in some ways still belonged to the first phase of the war and was important for the Japanese to secure the Yangtze up to Wuhan.

Chiang's troubles were made even worse by events in Europe. In the late summer of 1939 two events changed the face of the conflict: the expected outbreak of war between Germany and Britain along with France, and the unexpected outbreak of peace between Germany and its ideological foe, the USSR. At a stroke, the attention of the European powers was concentrated on their own fight for survival. The war in East Asia, already a secondary concern for them, now became a minor matter indeed. The Japanese also exploited the weakness of China's potential European allies by effectively cutting off the supply lines China received from Burma and Indochina.

The peace between Germany and the USSR was marked by the announcement of the signing of a non-aggression pact between Moscow and Berlin, perhaps the most astounding ideological reversal of the twentieth century. A week later, Nazi Germany's troops invaded Poland, and war with Britain and France followed two days later.

Chiang wanted to create a concert of allies who would help defend China against Japanese incursion. He had never been keen to see a general European war, rightly believing that it would distract attention even further from China. Nonetheless, he could see opportunities for new alliances, now that the battle lines had been drawn between the imperialist democracies and fascism. In this respect, the new warmth between Berlin and Moscow was a disaster for him. Chiang had been desperate to involve the USSR in the fight against Japan. Now the Soviets were effectively allied with the Nazis, who in turn were allies of Tokyo.

The crowning blow came in the aftermath of events in the frozen north of Europe. In the Winter War of 1939-40 the Soviets invaded Finland, prompting Britain and France to sponsor a motion expelling the USSR from the League of Nations. At the time, China was a member of the League Council, and it refused to exercise its power of veto on the motion. The Soviets were furious at Chiang's failure to prevent their expulsion, and for the rest of China's war with Japan the relationship between Chiang and Stalin would remain deeply mistrustful. China would have to fight without further major Soviet assistance.

Chiang's government desperately needed supplies sent along the railway from the Indochinese port of Haiphong to Kunming in Yunnan province, nearly one thousand kilometres to the northwest. The Japanese repeatedly bombed the railway. Japanese troops under Lieutenant General Nakamura Akihito invaded Indochina. The fighting ended within a few days when Indochina capitulated, but Japanese troops remained in the colony until the end of the war, severing the Nationalist government from the vital railway line.

While the Battle of Britain raged over the skies of southern England, the Japanese government demanded that London close the Burma Road linking the British colony to the border with China. This would cut off supplies of war materiel that were being shipped to Rangoon and then transported onward via the Burma Road into Nationalist China. Churchill's government had seen France fall in June and feared that Britain was in danger of imminent invasion. Unable to contemplate opening up a new front for conflict in Asia, they closed the road.

The beginning of the Second World War in Europe affected the Nationalists in other ways as well. As a Chinese operational plan put it, ‘the enemy will use the inability of the European Powers to pay attention to the East to launch a rapid offensive on Changsha to impress the world and enhance the prestige of the criminal traitor Wang Jingwei.’

The Japanese Imperial Army, its operations now unified under the China Expeditionary Command, sent 100,000 troops to take the central Chinese city of Changsha. The city had already suffered grievously after the retreat from Wuhan when Chiang had ordered that it be burned. If the Japanese could capture Changsha, then they would hold Hunan, one of the great breadbasket provinces of central China. From there, the way to Sichuan in the west would lie open, and they could hope to defeat Chiang's regime in Chongqing once and for all. But the Japanese assault on Changsha failed.

The Cantonese general Xue Yue defended the city brilliantly, using a combination of formal field warfare and guerrilla tactics to lure the Japanese into ambushes and prevent them from resupplying themselves. Changsha remained in Chinese hands.

The Battle of Changsha lasted for a month, and ended with a comprehensive Japanese defeat. Chinese tactics proved effective. Before the Battle, Xue Yue created three lines of defenses north of Changsha and deployed forces to block the approaches to Changsha from the east. He also divided his forces into what he called a field army, a garrison force, an assault force, and a reserve. The garrison force was deployed in the three defensive lines. Its task was to resist while gradually falling back, drawing the Japanese into areas where ambushes had been prepared. The field force conducted guerrilla operations in the Japanese rear ‘to destroy their transport and communication lines, attack their logistical facilities, and cut off their supply lines’. The assault forces attacked the Japanese flanks and also slipped into the battlefield in civilian clothes to ‘set ambushes, kill commanding officers at various levels, destroy communications, and create chaos’. Reserve forces defended strategic areas and reinforced the assault forces during counter-offensives.

The Nationalist military now seized the initiative with a series of offensives across the whole country. In a series of coordinated attacks, the army was to strike out and recapture huge swathes of territory, from Yan Xishan's former area of control in Shanxi province in north central China to Guangxi in the southwest. But almost nothing went according to plan. Yan Xishan carved out his own deal with the Japanese for control of parts of Shanxi and withdrew from the campaign. In the south, the Japanese surprised Chiang by launching an invasion of the southwestern province of Guangxi, capturing the city of Nanning and cutting off the route to the sea.

When planning began for the Winter Offensive, it was presented as a major operation. The 2nd, 3rd and 5th War Zones were to undertake major offensives. In the 2nd War Zone in Shanxi, the objective was to cut railroads and re-occupy south Shanxi. In the 3rd War Zone, eleven divisions were to advance between Japanese strong points and occupy the shores of the Yangtze River at various points to interdict river traffic and so isolate Japanese forces in Wuhan. The 5th War Zone was to cut the southern section of the Beiping-Hankou Railroad and drive the Japanese from north Hubei.

The Winter Offensive took place when the international and domestic situations were unfavorable. Chiang stated to US diplomats that following the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty he feared that Britain might seek to revive the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. That idea was certainly being mooted. The British Ambassador in Japan responded to a proposal by Sir A. Clark Kerr for an increase in military aid to China by arguing that this could only fuel Japanese militarism. Instead, he argued, ‘in the course of the struggle in which we are now engaged in Europe we already have to deal with the USSR as a covert enemy and may soon have to fight her in the open. One of our natural allies in such circumstances would be Japan, who can ill afford to see the Soviets emerge enlightened and strengthened from the present struggle… In certain circumstances it might suit Japan’s book to make a peace with China such as Chiang Kai-shek could accept in order to join a strong combination of Powers bent on settling accounts with the USSR.’ Chiang remarked to US diplomats that China now could only depend ‘on the friendship and justice’ of the USA. If the international context was not favorable for a major offensive, neither was the domestic situation. Wang Jingwei’s peace movement gained new force.

A deal between Yan Xishan and the Japanese undermined the Winter Offensive even before it had begun. In November 1939, Yan proposed to the Japanese that in return for their withdrawal from a number of areas in Shanxi and the supply of Japanese arms and ammunition, he would cease resistance and help the Japanese in campaigns against the Chinese communists. In December, Yan began an offensive against the Communists’ Eighth Route Army.

Japan’s unexpected invasion of Guangxi further weakened the prospects of the Winter Offensive. A Japanese invasion force landed at Qinzhou Bay on the south coast of Guangxi Province. Nanning fell and by early January the Japanese had built up a force of 100,000 troops in the province. This invasion came as a surprise to the Nationalists. At the Liuzhou Military Conference of February 1940, Chiang Kai-shek apologised for having failed to anticipate it.

The Japanese invasion of Guangxi encountered little resistance because two divisions had been moved from Guangxi to the West River area in Guangdong in advance of the Winter Offensive. Bai Chongxi, responsible for the defense of Guangxi, was unable to bring the Japanese advance to a halt. The fighting in Guangxi was tough and went on for two months, during which the 5th Army lost 16,000 troops, while control of the Kunlun and Gaofeng Passes switched hands twice. While the Chinese were able to prevent any further Japanese inroads, the consequence for the Winter Offensive was that an important part of the Chinese forces, including those with the best offensive capabilities, were tied down in Guangxi.

Instead of being able to deploy troops aggressively to retake captured territory, the Nationalists found themselves on the defensive once more. Two months of fierce fighting finally repelled the Japanese advance, but the momentum for the Nationalists' Winter Offensive had been utterly lost.

Even though the Winter Offensive was probably not undertaken in the belief that it could be successful in defeating Japan in China, it nonetheless was intended as a serious campaign and it did give the Japanese a real scare in some places. However, operations petered out within days and as at Shanghai, the coordination between divisions was virtually nonexistent.

After the Winter Offensive, in the remainder of 1940 the Nationalists did not launch another major operation against the Japanese. This was the result in part of a further deterioration in the international situation. In July 1940, Britain agreed to stop the supply of arms, ammunition, petrol, trucks, and railroad building materials through Burma and Hong Kong. Domestically, the second half of the year was dominated by further conflict between the Communists and the Nationalists.

In February 1940, Frank Lockhart, Counsellor at the US Embassy, filed a report to Washington on behalf of Ambassador Nelson Johnson, summarizing the war situation in the year just gone by: ‘There were no indications that Chinese determination to continue resistance had lessened, despite the uncertainties in the international situation, friction in the “United Front”, and the severe strain of war on the national economy. General Chiang Kai-shek retained the confidence of the nation and his influence was effective in settling the difficulties which arose between various factions in the government... One important factor in maintaining and increasing Chinese determination to resist was the ruthless Japanese bombing of civilian populations, the most murderous instance of which occurred in Chongqing in May.’

Insecurity all around contributed to the worst clash of the war between the Communists and the Nationalists. The Winter Offensive and Japan’s campaign to take Shashi and Yichang to isolate the Nationalists in Sichuan made it clear that the Nationalist position was fragile. In January 1941, after the New Fourth Army refused to accept an ultimatum to move their forces north of the Yangtze River, Nationalist units destroyed one of its divisions. The Nationalists were able to prevent the spread of the Communists south of the Yangtze, but Communist strength was not significantly affected.

China's situation was precarious by the spring of 1940. High-level Japanese negotiators tried to secure an agreement with Chiang in Chongqing, while Wang Jingwei was attempting to formalize his own Nationalist government in Nanjing. This strategy, known in Chinese as the Tong Operation, and in Japanese as Operation Kiri, led to talks in Hong Kong. The talks foundered on issues of principle: Japan wanted to station troops in northern China and gain formal recognition of Manchukuo, which Chiang absolutely refused.

The Nationalists were in a perilous military position: the United States remained neutral, and Europe was in turmoil. In fact, during that spring, as the fall of France looked imminent, the British government similarly put out very discreet feelers to test the possibility of a negotiated peace with Germany. For China, there was no possibility of Western assistance. The Japanese saw it as a propitious moment to persuade Chiang to concede. Now, at a time of great danger for his government, Chiang opened the door to negotiations just a crack.

Things worsened in the spring of 1940: the city of Yichang in Hubei province fell to a new Japanese advance. Yichang had been the transit point from Sichuan to the other parts of the country, and its loss meant that Chiang's regime was even more isolated. As had happened before, an initially successful Nationalist assault had turned into a disaster.

Nationalist tactics were based on the avoidance of positional warfare and, as during the first Battle of Changsha, to let the Japanese move beyond their supply bases, avoid defeat for a week, and then strike back. Chiang Kai-shek stated to Tang Enbo before the battle, ‘if the Japanese attack, they cannot sustain an offensive for longer than a week before they have to retreat’. He ordered him to place ambushes at regular 30-50 km intervals along the anticipated lines of Japanese retreat and attack their flanks and rear. However, the Japanese moved around Tang’s forces.

The Japanese were determined to make a success of this offensive, which took place at the same time that the Germans overran the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. They transferred a division from the Kwantung Army for the purpose. The fighting was intense and may have cost the Japanese 30,000 or 40,000 deaths. When it was over, the Japanese had taken the fertile north Hubei plains and captured Yichang, while the forces of Li Zongren’s 5th War Zone had to retreat.

The Japanese capture of Yichang was an extremely serious blow to the Nationalist position. The Nationalists launched determined counterattacks but the Japanese were equally committed to take the city, through which ran the most important transport lines from the Sichuan base to fronts elsewhere in China. The Japanese also hoped to use Yichang as an airbase to conduct strategic bombing campaigns.

If previously the Japanese air force had been used tactically in support of infantry operations, it now began a strategic bombing campaign against the Chinese rear. The introduction of the famous Zero fighter with its longer range made this possible. The first fifteen were deployed in China in the summer of 1940 and the airplane demonstrated its value when in August 1940 it shot down all Chinese airplanes defending Chongqing, thus making it possible for Japanese bombers to attack unopposed. During the long summer of 1940, cities such as Chongqing, Chengdu, Xi’an, Changsha, and Lanzhou were subjected to virtually continuous Japanese air assault.

Chinese cities were systematically bombed in order to shake civilian morale. Chongqing was bombed 268 times between 1939 and 1941. Casualties subsided when the Nationalists built underground shelters, and Chinese behind the Japanese lines would radio warnings when Japanese planes took off.

By the summer of 1940 the two major Communist armies dominated much of north and central China. The Eighth Route Army under the command of Peng Dehuai launched the only major conventional military offensive by a Communist army during the War: they launched an all-out assault on railway lines, roads, bridges and other elements of the infrastructure necessary for Japanese control in north China. The fighting invited a massive Japanese counter-assault that enabled them to reassert control of railway lines.

Under the general command of Peng Dehuai, Communist troops inflicted considerable damage, but the Japanese responded with the even more effective ‘three alls’ campaign. The main Communist army lost 100,000 men to casualties and desertion; the population in areas under CCP control plummeted from 44 million to 25 million. Yet the Chinese still did not surrender.

The disastrous year of 1940 seemed to cast doubt on the idea that there might be any future for China outside the Japanese Empire. Nonetheless, events far away would provide a sliver of hope for the National Government. Late in 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been re-elected as president of the United States. Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, were both aware that the Nazi domination of Europe had laid down a profound challenge to American influence there. And with China's 'Open Door' to trade closed off under Japanese occupation, it was becoming clear that simple neutrality might no longer be an option.

In a 1941 report on China's domestic and international politics, US Ambassador Nelson Johnson observed that during the great German sweep through Europe in the middle of 1940, the Chinese had been anxious about Allied commitment to their cause. However, Britain's refusal to surrender, along with continuing Soviet goodwill, had encouraged the Chinese public, which now looked to the US and Britain for support.

In 1941, the Nationalist position improved. The Japanese conducted three offensives aimed at destroying the most important three war zones in China that now had been virtually cut off from Chongqing. Only one of these offensives ended in a Japanese victory. The Nationalists were helped by the delivery of a new batch of Soviet airplanes while the Japanese redeployed many air units to Indochina and elsewhere as the likelihood of war with the USA and Britain increased.

For the Battle of Southern Henan the Japanese mobilized 150,000 troops, 300 tanks, and 100 airplanes. Besides securing the southern section of the Beiping-Hankou Railroad, the Japanese sought to weaken the 5th War Zone, which continued to be a threat after the Yichang Campaign. Instead of Chinese forces becoming encircled, it was the Japanese who were surrounded. The battle ended with the Japanese, minus their casualties, back at their jumping off points.

The Japanese central column advanced north along the Beiping-Hankou Railroad, while its left and right flanks advanced simultaneously on either side of the railroad. As before, Nationalist strategy was to avoid a decisive confrontation in the first phase of the operation, cut off the Japanese rear, and wait until the Japanese had run out of supplies. This strategy again proved successful, and during this campaign, the Japanese suffered more casualties than the Chinese.

The Battle of Shanggao in Jiangxi lasted about a month. This Japanese offensive came in response to the re-training and re-arming program of the 9th War Zone. Lo Zhoying’s Group Army in this war zone remained a major threat to Japanese positions in Hunan and Jiangxi as well as the Yangtze River. Shanggao was a city of considerable strategic significance. The battle was a Chinese victory that is not as well known as the Battle of Taierzhuang but which was at least as impressive, especially given the disasters that had befallen the Nationalists in 1940.

For the 9th War Zone forces in the Wugongshan and Jiulingshan mountains, Shanggao was a forward protection point. Furthermore, it was located on the old land route from Nanchang to Changsha, and was therefore important for the Japanese to take if they wanted to attack Changsha from the west.

The Japanese advanced along three different routes for a converging attack on Shanggao. The Nationalists had built three lines of defenses. At first they concentrated on harassing the Japanese flanks. They succeeded in preventing the Japanese columns from linking up near Shanggao, and they then cut the rear of the Japanese central column and finally encircled the Japanese division and the independent brigade that made up its main force. The Japanese were compelled to dispatch a relief force from Wuhan, but nonetheless lost nearly half the forces they had committed.

The victory at Shanggao was soon overshadowed by the defeat of the 1st War Zone under Wei Lihuang in the Zhongxiao mountains of Southern Shanxi. In this campaign, the Japanese were able to achieve their objectives and to firm up supply lines. This made it possible for the Japanese to cut through Nationalist positions, isolate various Chinese forces, and then destroy them. The Nationalists were forced to retreat from the Zhongxiao Mountains.

From this area, the Nationalists threatened Japanese flanks in north China and kept pressure on Yan Xishan. The Zhongtiao Mountains protected routes into Shaanxi Province and to Xi’an itself. It was also important for the Nationalists to hamper communications between Yan’an and Communist bases elsewhere.

The world woke up to the news that some three million German troops were on the move into the Soviet Union. Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the USSR, was a stunning reversal of the previous two years of non-aggression between the two major European dictatorships. In Chongqing and Yan'an the German attack on the USSR was seen as a positive sign that the war might be turning against Japan. In Nanjing it was seen differently. Zhou Fohai guessed that the Japanese could not reconcile their treaty of neutrality with the USSR and their membership of the Anti-Comintern Pact, which was supposed to bind the Axis powers together against Soviet expansionism. However, because the Germans had attacked first, Zhou noted, Japan was not obliged to assist them.

The war in Europe was utterly transformed. The German invasion had taken Stalin by surprise, largely because he had failed to heed increasingly shrill warnings from senior colleagues who were receiving intelligence from well-placed spies in Germany. The Comintern, seeking to shore up its alliances, now demanded that the Chinese Communists cooperate further with the Nationalists.

Barbarossa faced the Japanese with the question of whether to join Germany in the war against the Soviet Union. Significant voices in Japan did favor such a course of action. However, the leaders of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria, who would have to conduct the campaign, opposed Japanese participation in the attack on the Soviet Union. They believed that ‘it will take time to prepare for military action against the Soviet Union’. The General Staff agreed. Ultimately the Japanese did not attack.

The final Japanese operation of 1941 was a second attempt to conquer Changsha. Rather than seeking to encircle Changsha, the Japanese attempted to take the city by a quick offensive, including by deploying airborne assault forces. Chinese tactics relied on a gradual withdrawal at the front, attacks in the rear, and in this case large-scale attacks on the eastern flank of the Japanese. Once the Japanese reached the outskirts of Changsha, the Chinese were able to cut their supply lines, and counterattacked. As at Shanggao, the Japanese lost nearly half of their forces without making substantial gains.

Japan mobilized 120,000 troops for the operation. As with the first battle of Changsha, these forces were concentrated near Yueyang. They descended south in separate columns, one of which used the Dongting Lake and the Xiang River, a second the Canton-Hankou Railroad, and the third three roads to the east.

The summer of 1941 marked a decisive shift in the geopolitics of the war. Germany's invasion of Russia now confronted Japan with the choice of whether or not to enter the war against the USSR as well. Having dismissed the idea of attacking the USSR, Japan's leaders turned their attention instead to another great power: the United States. The inability of the Japanese to achieve further traction in China led to calls for a wider expansion of their influence in the region, in particular Southeast Asia with its rich supply of oil, rubber and other materials that were vital to the war effort. The Roosevelt administration was increasingly concerned by these developments. Now the administration increased the amount of aid available to China.

Japanese politics had become increasingly dominated by the inability to end the China war. Despite their inability to subdue China, Japanese leaders were making the decision to raise the stakes yet further.

Once the geopolitical situation began to reach its final shape in 1941, both Britain and the USA initiated covert programs to provide military aid to China. The British initiative to train and arm a guerrilla force in China fitted this purpose. Chiang Kai-shek approved a proposal by Ambassador Clark Kerr and Valentine Killery, the head of the Oriental Mission of the Special Operations Executive, which would see the British supply arms and ammunition through Burma as well as train and lead 30,000 Chinese guerrilla troops.

Roosevelt's representative Lauchlin Currie visited Chongqing to let Chiang Kai-shek know that the US would soon deliver $45 million worth of military equipment. General John Magruder, the head of a small group designated as AMMISCA (the American Military Mission in China), had been sent to Chongqing in September 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbor, as part of the discreet preparation for possible Chinese entry into an alliance against Japan. The China branch of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA) was headed by General William 'Wild Bill' Donovan, who had been sent out by Roosevelt to China in early 1941.

In Japan, General Hideki Tojo became the new prime minister of an already belligerent government, and Tokyo hastened preparations for war with the Western powers. Over the autumn of 1941, ever more desperate talks took place between the United States and Japan. The United States was insistent that Japan must withdraw its forces from China; Japan was equally adamant that it would not do so.

In the early morning of 7 December 1941, the US Pacific Fleet was anchored at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Two waves of Japanese bomber aircraft, launched from six aircraft carriers, attacked the vessels and their sleeping crews, destroying the battleship Arizona outright and damaging seventeen others, as well as most of the military aircraft parked nearby. Some 2,400 Americans died, and another 1,100 were wounded. Chiang Kai-shek heard the news at one o'clock in the morning and immediately dictated a letter of support to President Roosevelt, pledging commitment to a new 'common battle'.

The fighting in the first few years revealed serious weaknesses on the Chinese side. The Nationalists nonetheless survived, in part, because of Japanese strategic choices and political failures. Nationalist defensive strategies were also important. They avoided a decisive campaign, spread the war out over large areas, offered a multiplicity of targets, and withdrew into areas in which it was difficult for the Japanese to operate. During the second phase of the war, Nationalist tactics of withdrawing in advance of a Japanese penetration and countering by hitting the Japanese flanks and rears were frequently successful.

The surprise attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was a desperate gamble to knock the player with the deepest pockets out of the military game. If the US Pacific fleet were neutralized, then Japanese attacks on the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), and the Southeast Asian mainland would face only minimal resistance. And if Japan gained the time to incorporate these territories, with their rich resources, into an empire that included China, then it might be able to build up a military machine that would keep the United States out of the Western Pacific. But Japan’s leaders had miscalculated.