Type 052B or Guangzhou Class Destroyer

The Type 052B or Guangzhou class destroyer (NATO reporting name: Luyang I class) is a class of multirole missile destroyer built by the People’s Republic of China. Two ships have been built, with Guangzhou (168) and Wuhan (169) both being commissioned into the PLAN in July 2004. This class features a stealthy hull and significantly improved air defence systems, an area that had been a major weakness on previous ships designed by China. These ships represent a major improvement over the older generation vessels and reflects PLAN’s need to have a modern destroyer.

The Type 052B is built with considerable Russian technology including the Russian-made 9M38 Buk-M1-2 (NATO codename: SA-N-12 Grizzly) air defence missile system, an extremely effective air defence system with a range of 38 km. Most military analysts expect the Guangzhou class to be similar to the Russian Sovremenny class destroyer in terms of general performance. The displacement of the Type 052B is 5850 tons. The ship features a “low point” design combined with radar absorbing paint to reduce radar signature. The ship’s funnel incorporates cooling devices to reduce infrared signatures. The stern flight deck can host a Kamov Ka-28 ASW helicopter.

The Type 052Bs are equipped with two missile launchers, one forward and one aft on the ship. These launchers can launch the SA-N-12 Grizzly Surface-to-Air Missile. Each launcher has two dedicated MR-90 Front Dome fire control radars and carries a total of 48 missiles. They also haves 4 quad YJ-83 Anti-Ship Cruise Missile launchers located amidships. For guns there is a 100mm cannon in ‘A’ position and this is the first PLAN vessel to be equipped with a Close-In Weapons System, or CIWS. For sub-surface threats, she is armed with 2 triple 324mm Yu-7 Anti-Submarine torpedo tubes and two Type 75 twelve-barrel 240mm antisubmarine rocket launchers. The Type 052B is equipped with four 18-barrel Type 724 chaff launchers for part of its self-defense suite.

Weapon Systems

The Type 052B destroyer is armed with two Russian-made surface-to-air missile launchers, one on the front deck behind the 100mm main gun, and one on top of the helicopter hanger. The launchers can fire the latest 9M317 Shtil (NATO codename: SA-N-12 Grizzly) semi-active, radar-homing, medium-range air defence missile. The missile uses the ship’s Russian-made Fregat M2EM Top Plate 3D circular scan radar for target acquisition, and the Front Dome (two radar for each launcher, each radar with two guidance channels) indication radar for missile guidance. Up to three missiles can be aimed simultaneously. The range is up to 38km against aircraft and 20km against anti-ship cruise missile. The ship carries 48 missiles.

Four 4-cell launcher for the YJ-83 (C-803) sea-skimming, radar-homing anti-ship cruise missile system are installed behind the funnel. The YJ-83 is said to have a final approach speed of Mach 1.5 and a maximum range of 150km. It was noted that the YJ-83 onboard the Type 052B relies on a Russian-made Band Stand fire-control radar to provide target information, which would enable the YJ-83 to reach its maximum range of fire without relaying target information by the shipborne helicopter.

The Type 052B destroyer was the first PLA Navy warship to be fitted with the CIWS. There is a seven-barrel 30mm Type 730 CIWS installed on each side of the bridge. The weapon system has a maximum rate of fire of 4,600~5,800 rounds/min.

The ship also has a single-barrel 100mm gun developed by 713 Institute on the basis of the French Creusot-Loire T100C design. The gun can be used against surface targets and air targets such as aircraft and low speed missile, with a maximum rate of fire of 90 rounds/min. The gun can be operated in fully automatic mode from the radar control system, from the shipborne optical sighting system, or laid manually. The turret design incorporates strong radar cross-section reduction features.

The Type 052B destroyer is fitted with two triple 324mm Yu-7 (Mk-46 Mod 1) antisubmarine torpedo tubes and two Type 75 twelve-barrel 240mm antisubmarine rocket launchers. Range is up to 1,200m. The rocket is armed with a 34kg warhead. Additionally, the destroyer has four 18-barrel multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) installed on the front deck. The purpose of these MRLs remains unknown but is thought to be used to launch antisubmarine rockets, ground- attack rockets and/or decoys/chaffs.


The Type 052B uses a Fregat-MAE-5 (Top Plate) 3D search radar, mounted at the top of the forward mast. Four MR90 Front-Dome radars provide fire control for the SA-N-12 missiles. A Type 344 fire control radar controls the main gun. A bandstand radar provides fire control for the YJ-83 ASCM missile.


The air search radar is a Russian Fregat M2EM (NATO codename: Top Plate) 3D air search radar operating at D/E band. The radar has a maximum detect range of 230km to aircraft and 50km to sea-skimming missile. There are four (in contrast to six on Sovremenny class) Russian Front Dome fire control radar (F band) for the 9M38 air defence missile. The main gun and anti-ship missile are controlled by the Russian Band Stand radar.

Command and Control

The ZJK-5 combat system onboard the Type 052B is thought to be an improved variant of the Type 051B (Luhai class)’s ZJK-4-3A. The ZJK-5 is based on the 1553B military data bus and the 100Mbps Ethernet technology. The multi-channel defence suite is capable of engaging several targets simultaneously.


The destroyer’s stern hanger accommodates one Kamov Ka-28 (NATO codename: Helix) antisubmarine warfare (ASW) helicopter. Carrying various weapons including torpedoes and deep charges, the helicopter can operate in all weather conditions up to 200km from the host ship. Alternatively, the destroyer can carry an indigenous Z-9C helicopter.


The Type 052C’s propulsion is in the form of CODOG, consisting of two Ukraine-made DA80/DN80 gas turbines rated at 48,600hp and two Shaanxi diesels (Chinese copy of the MTU 20V956TB92) rated at 8,840hp (6.5 MW).


Type: Guided missile destroyer

    Unit cost – around US$400 million per ship by 2004’s price

    Ships – Guangzhou (168) and Wuhan (169) as of 2006

    Propulsion – 2 x Zorya-Mashproekt DN80 gas-turbines

    2 x MTU Friedrichshafen 12V 1163TB83 diesels

    Length – 155 meters

    Beam – 17 meters

    Draft – 6 meters

    Displacement: 5,850 tons standard, 6,500 tons full load

    Speed – 30 knots

    Crew – 280 (40 officers)

    Combat Data System – ZKJ-7 information processing system designed by the 709th Institute (reported speed: 100 MB/s)

Sensors and processing systems:

    Fregat-MAE-5 (Top Plate) 3D air search phased array radar

    MR90 Front-Dome fire control radar

    Mineral-ME (Band Stand) over-the-horizon targeting radar

    Type 344 fire-control radar

    Data link: HN-900 (Chinese equivalent of Link 11A/B, to be upgraded)

    Communication: SNTI-240 SATCOM


        16 x YJ-83 SSM

        48 x SA-N-12 SAM in 4 x 12 magazine

        1 x 100 mm gun

        2 x 30 mm Type 730 CIWS

        2 x Triple 324 mm ASW torpedo tubes

        2 x Type 75, 12-barrel 240 mm antisubmarine rocket launchers (range 1200 m, 34 kg warhead)

        4 x 18-barrel Type 726-4 decoy/chaff launchers

        Aviation: 1 Kamov Ka-28 ASW helicopter

Type 051B Luhai-class / Luyang-class Multirole Destroyer


Fall of Nanjing I

The Taiping forces’ victory over the Qing army in capturing Nanjing is depicted here. The Taiping soldiers, were relentless in training and became fierce fighters. Harvard Yenching Library.

The Qing army recaptured Nanjing in 1864.

After Issachar Roberts left him in the winter of 1862, Hong Rengan had little contact with anyone else from the outside world. A stray German missionary named Wilhelm Lobscheid finally came through Nanjing a year and a half later, in the summer of 1863, while Gordon and the Anhui Army were making inroads in Jiangsu province. He found the Shield King bitter and defensive. “Have we ever broken faith with foreigners?” Hong Rengan asked him. “Have we ever retaliated [against] the enmity of England and France?” If the foreigners wanted to be the Taiping’s enemies, they had better beware, he said. “We are fighting in our own country, and to rid ourselves of a foreign power, and woe to the stranger who falls into our hands after the first shot has been fired against Nanking.” Lobscheid was dismayed by the sting of betrayal he heard in Hong Rengan’s voice and wished for a new beginning between the rebels and the foreign powers. “Sir Frederick Bruce will one day be recalled to give an account of the ruinous course of policy he has advised his Government to adopt,” he wrote to a Hong Kong paper after his return from Nanjing, “and foreign influence will at last prevail in the council of the rebels. But whether that will be upon the ruins of the silk and tea plantations, or upon the graveyards of thousands of British subjects, we shall soon have an opportunity of witnessing.”

Though Hong Rengan no longer managed foreign affairs, he was still the top-ranking official in the rebel court, and all of the capital’s business still passed through his hands. For the most part, the other kings still had to go through him to get access to his reclusive cousin the Heavenly King. And once the anger about the doings of missionaries had faded, his cousin gave him new responsibilities that in some ways were more personal, and therefore more trusting, than the ones he had given him before. In 1863, he asked Hong Rengan to take charge of his teenage son, the Young Monarch, and to ensure his safety no matter what happened to Hong Xiuquan himself. As the guardian of the heir apparent, Hong Rengan feared he might fall short “of the great trust reposed in me,” and he was “filled with anxiety and gave way to tears.”

The immediate pressures of the war forced Hong Rengan to put aside his plans for a new government and a new diplomacy for China. The military campaigns and the supply lines simply had to come first, and as the problems on those fronts intensified, the dawn of his imagined state receded into the distance. His cherished reforms—the railroads, the law courts, the trading entrepôts, the newspapers, mines, banks, and industries—would all have to wait. It was all he could do to hold the leadership in the capital together. Hong Xiuquan’s madness was growing as the military setbacks mounted, and intimations of doom drove his visionary mind toward its longed-for apocalypse. He refused to countenance a retreat, trusting only to the Heavenly Father, and began granting rewards and honors to his followers with careless abandon, creating so many new kings—more than a hundred of them—that his son the Young Monarch couldn’t even keep all of their names straight. The bickering of the officials in the capital was increasing and becoming more bitter, just at the time when it shouldn’t.


Meanwhile, the famine in the countryside deepened. Despite the relief stations Zeng Guofan had set up in southern Anhui, conditions in that mountainous part of the province had deteriorated far beyond even the horror that had existed when he first took control of Anqing. “Everywhere in southern Anhui they are eating people,” he wrote in his diary on June 8, 1863, a remark whose very banality signified the degree to which the unthinkable had become commonplace. It was one of several notations on cannibalism in his diary, though in this instance the concern that drove him to mention it wasn’t so much that human meat was being consumed per se—for that was old news—but that it was becoming so expensive: the price per ounce had risen fourfold since the previous year, meaning that even this most dismal of sustenances was becoming unaffordable. There was cannibalism in Jiangsu province as well, he noted, east and south of Nanjing, though the price of human flesh there was reported to be lower. Charles Gordon saw its gruesome footprint for himself while on campaign, though he didn’t think his brethren back in Shanghai could possibly understand the true horror of it. “[T]o read that there are human beings eating human flesh,” he wrote to his mother, “produces less effect than if they saw the corpses from which that flesh is cut.”

Northern Anhui was a wasteland. Bao Chao tried to scout out a supply line through the province to support an army on the northern bank of the Yangtze across from Nanjing, but he gave up hope. In normal times, the flat midsection of Anhui was an unbroken plane of jade in the spring, with rice shoots glowing in the open sun that dazzled in reflection off the threadlike irrigation canals. But Bao Chao reported that in a journey of more than a hundred miles through the region in the spring of 1863, he hadn’t seen so much as a blade of grass. There was no wood to be burned for cooking fires. There was nothing to support human life at all. Similar dark reports came from Jiangsu, where the fighting had all but emptied the countryside for a hundred miles around Shanghai. Wild pigs scavenged in abandoned villages, feeding on the dried corpses of the dead. As governor-general, this was the region of Zeng Guofan’s jurisdiction and lofty authority. “To hold such great responsibility in such terrible times,” he brooded in his diary, “surely this is the most accursed existence of all.”

Yet the desolation had its silver lining. Whether or not Zeng Guofan actively supported a scorched-earth policy, he clearly saw in the devastation of the landscape the same benefits for counterinsurgent warfare that others, at other times in the world’s history, would find as well. In a memorial to the throne on April 14, 1863, he described the ruin of southern Anhui. “Everything is yellow straw and white bones,” he wrote. “You can travel an entire day without meeting a single other person.” The most worrisome aspect of this desolation, as he saw it, was that the rebels, denied any access to food, might try to break out and head southwest into Jiangxi province.

At the same time, he explained, there was much to find pleasing in the situation. The rebels depended on the support and acceptance of the peasants among whom they lived, and the famine conditions would create conflict. People would leave the regions surrounding the Taiping’s area of control and “disappear like smoke,” leaving them without supporters. If the farmers had no seeds, they would have to abandon their fields, leaving the rebels with nothing to eat. “Campaigning in a region with no people, the rebels will be like fish out of water,” he wrote. “In a countryside devoid of cultivation, they will be like birds on a mountain with no trees.” The devastation, he expected, would eventually reach the point where the rebels could no longer survive.


Zeng Guoquan finally captured the stone fort on Yuhuatai on June 13, 1863, in a sudden nighttime attack following months of quiet preparation. He took the position with little loss of life, though Zeng Guofan (who sought to gain as much credit for his brother as possible) reported to Beijing that six thousand rebel defenders had been killed in the battle. With control of the hill, Zeng Guoquan now effectively shut down the south gate. From Zeng Guoquan’s new vantage point atop Yuhuatai, the rebel capital spread out below like a giant Chinese chessboard. The game of encirclement was begun for real now, and his elder brother, back in his chambers in Anqing, playing his obsessive rounds of Go, laid his pieces carefully, plotting out the pattern of moves that would surround the city, cut off all points of escape, and bring the contest to its conclusion.

The western and northernmost gates of Nanjing opened onto the Yangtze River, which ran past the city in a northeasterly direction. On the bank of the river opposite the city lay gigantic Taiping forts that protected the mile-wide Yangtze corridor as it skirted the capital. On June 30, the Hunan river forces launched a furious attack on these forts. Taking advantage of a strong crosswind, the Hunanese sent in wave after wave of sampans, which rode in close-hauled on the downstream current, tacking sharply against the headwind, then fired their guns and came about, sails spread wide, to run before the wind that pulled them back upstream out of range in a grand whirl of coordinated motion. The Taiping shore batteries blasted away at the circulating sampans, wounding and killing more than two thousand Hunanese sailors, but in the end the forts were taken and all of the defenders slaughtered. The Hunan Army took full control of the Yangtze River where it met the northwest corner of Nanjing, and the rebels could no longer make crossings to the north of the city. The western gates of the city were now useless to them.

The last Taiping general to cross the river before the forts were captured was Li Xiucheng, who returned on June 20 from an expedition to the north. He had left Nanjing with an army in February 1863, three months after he had failed to dislodge Zeng Guoquan from his camp at Yuhuatai, to try to break through the Hunan Army forces in northern Anhui and open a new supply line for the capital. His search through the wasteland of Anhui was as fruitless as Bao Chao’s, and his troops were ravaged horribly by starvation in the course of their journey. Reduced to eating grass, they still repeatedly found the cities they attacked occupied by well-provisioned Hunan Army garrisons that drove them off with heavy casualties. The news that Zeng Guoquan had captured the fort on Yuhuatai in his absence was the final straw, and Li Xiucheng returned straight to the capital when he heard. The army with which he returned to Nanjing on June 20, crossing the river in stages ten days before the forts on the north bank fell, was by his own estimate smaller by a hundred thousand men than the one with which he had left in February. But no sooner did he return to the side of his besieged sovereign than he had to leave again, because his help was needed in Suzhou, which was threatened by Li Hongzhang, and Hangzhou, under attack by Zuo Zongtang’s army. There were too many fronts, too few commanders, too few resources.

Control of the river gave the Hunan forces dominance over the western gates of the city, and with the southernmost gate shut down by his brother’s position on Yuhuatai, Zeng Guofan turned his attention to the northern and eastern faces of the city. Immediately after the river forts were captured, he sent Bao Chao to cross over to the city and lay siege to the Shence Gate, the primary inland gate on the city’s north side. In that alone he was unsuccessful; disease broke out in Bao Chao’s camp, and a call for help came from southern Anhui and Jiangxi, where the Hunan Army garrisons were contending with the flight of Taiping armies headed westward from Zhejiang. So Zeng Guofan had to remove Bao Chao from Nanjing and send him back to Anhui, leaving that gate open.

Through the summer and autumn of 1863, Zeng Guoquan’s forces continued to spread out, conquering a succession of ten heavily defended bridges and mountain passes that gave them mastery of the roads southeast of the city. In November, he sent a detachment northeast to the site of the Ming imperial tombs in the hills just east of the city, where he had his men build a three-mile wall linking to his southeastern positions, thereby blocking off the eastern approach almost completely. On the eastern side of Nanjing, the only gate that still remained open was the Taiping Gate, which opened outward a couple of miles to the west of the Hunan Army’s blockade at the Ming tombs. Two powerful rebel forts watched over it from the side of a precipitous mountain that edged up against the city outside the wall at that point. The city-facing slope of the mountain was known as the Dragon’s Shoulder, and the castle at its top was the Fortress of Heaven, while the one at its bottom was the Fortress of Earth. By December 1863, the Taiping Gate, with its two guardian fortresses, along with the Shence Gate on the north side of the city that Bao Chao had abandoned, were the only points of rebel control left on the city’s entire twenty-three-mile circumference.

Quiet terror reigned inside Nanjing. With only the two gates still open and therefore only two roads leading away from the city, food supplies were limited and there was almost no traffic in or out. There were about thirty thousand people inside the walls, a third of them soldiers. After Suzhou fell to Li Hongzhang in December, Li Xiucheng returned again to Nanjing and pleaded with the Heavenly King that they had to leave; they had to abandon the capital and lead an exodus down into Jiangxi province. But the Heavenly King refused, angrily accusing him of lacking faith. The sovereign’s intransigence was maddening, but Li Xiucheng was unwilling to defy his orders to stay put, so he began preparing the population inside for a prolonged siege. There was one advantage, though, in there being so few people in such a vast city. Under his direction they began opening up land in the northern part of the city for cultivation. With hard work, they could grow enough food to sustain themselves for a long time—perhaps even forever, if the walls held. But the entrapped society was not at peace. Hong Xiuquan’s paranoia was mounting, and even his cousin couldn’t temper the excesses of his mad cruelty. The people lived in fear of his grotesque and capricious punishments. For the crime of communicating with anyone outside the walls, people were now being pounded to death between stones or flayed alive in public.

More might have fled the city and begged to be allowed to shave their heads and return to the side of the dynasty, except that they knew what had happened to the civilians in Anqing. By late December, they also knew what had happened to the kings who had surrendered at Suzhou. Their judgment was wise. Several groups of women were sent out from Nanjing over the following months, and though they were not killed outright, in a fate more uncertain they were “given” to the rural population as wives.18 But even that indulgence would end. In the late spring of 1864, Zeng Guofan would advise his brother not to let any more women or children escape the city. Forcing the rebels to support the whole population inside, he explained, would accelerate their starvation. And he didn’t want his brother to inadvertently let any of the rebels’ family members survive.

With the Brave King dead and the Loyal King torn between multiple fronts, Hong Rengan once again found himself thrust into military command. As the exits from the city were cut off one by one, his cousin told him to go out of the capital to rally troops from the nearby territories and bring them back to relieve Nanjing. But even the military novice Hong Rengan could sense that the tide had shifted. The death of the brilliant and charismatic Brave King had left a vacuum in Anhui to the north and west of Nanjing, and without him there it was now impossible to defend the capital from northern approaches, impossible to reopen the river crossing and the northern road through Pukou that had been their all-important outlet during the previous siege of Nanjing. (Li Xiucheng’s attack on Hangzhou, which had broken that earlier siege, had started on the very crossing they were now unable to control.) There was no commander who could replace the Brave King, and despite the great numbers of troops who had followed him gladly while he lived, now that he was dead, his armies had dissolved, returning to their homes, heading north to join the Nian, or surrendering to the imperial side. “With the fall of the Brave King, the prestige of the troops was gone,” wrote Hong Rengan in reflection, “and as a matter of course they dispersed.” To make matters worse, the news came that even Shi Dakai the Wing King had surrendered with his renegade army in Sichuan during the summer, and there was no longer any hope of his coming to the aid of Nanjing either.

Hong Rengan set out from the capital on the day after Christmas 1863, leaving his brother and his wives and children behind in Nanjing. He journeyed first to Danyang, fifty miles to the east, where the Green Standard generals had met their end in 1860. The uncle of the Brave King commanded the garrison there, but he said there were no soldiers to spare for Hong Rengan to take back to Nanjing. So he prepared to continue onward, toward Changzhou, thirty miles farther east along the Grand Canal. But then the news came that Changzhou had fallen to Li Hongzhang’s army, and he had to stay in Danyang through the winter. When spring broke, he traveled south into Zhejiang province, where the city of Huzhou, fifty miles north of the capital, Hangzhou, was still holding out.

When Hong Rengan had gone out to raise an army back in 1861, the process of recruitment had been almost effortless—simply a matter of planting his standard, writing his poems, and then waiting as the multitudes came to him to lead them into battle. But not anymore. In both Danyang and Huzhou he found only vulnerability, not strength. The commanders were worried about attacks from the imperial forces who had just conquered Suzhou and Changzhou. The soldiers were afraid of food shortages and refused to leave the relative safety of their garrisons to follow him back to the capital. In compromise, he made a home for the summer in Huzhou, promising the commanders that he would wait there with them until September, when the new harvest of grain in Nanjing would be ready to feed them all and they could march together back to the capital.

Meanwhile, new recruitment was swelling the Hunan Army to an unprecedented size. By January 1864, there were 50,000 Hunan soldiers at Nanjing. In total, Zeng Guofan commanded some 120,000 troops, about 100,000 of them on land and the rest in the river navy. Along with the 50,000 under his brother at Nanjing, there were 20,000 garrisoned in southern Anhui, 10,000 in northern Anhui, 13,000 roving with Bao Chao, and 10,000 stationed between Anhui and Suzhou. And that wasn’t even counting Li Hongzhang’s Anhui Army, which followed up its conquest of Suzhou with a march toward Nanjing from the east, smashing through the walled cities of Wuxi and Changzhou in rapid succession. Nor did it count the army under Zuo Zongtang in Zhejiang province, fighting its way toward Hangzhou in preparation to come at Nanjing from the south. All of the forces were converging.

As the armies expanded, the battles continued to go their way. In February 1864, Zeng Guoquan’s forces managed to capture the castle at the peak of the Dragon’s Shoulder, the Fortress of Heaven. The rebels still held the Fortress of Earth at its base, which guarded the point where the mountain ridge met the city wall. But with the control of the upper fort, the imperials dominated the field, and they were able to set up stockade camps at the Shence Gate and the Taiping Gate against little resistance. Once those final two gates were invested, the city was closed off completely. Soon afterward, on March 31, the Zhejiang capital, Hangzhou, fell to Zuo Zongtang with support from the French-Chinese force out of Ningbo. The defenders who escaped the fallen city fled to Huzhou, fifty miles to the north, where they found refuge with Hong Rengan through the summer. The other rebel armies that were scattered throughout Zhejiang began abandoning the province, moving in a disorganized retreat westward into Jiangxi. With the loss of both Hangzhou and Suzhou, the Taiping no longer held any of the major eastern cities. There were no more avenues of rescue for the capital. All there was left was the siege.

Fall of Nanjing II

Zeng Guoquan had a dream. He dreamed that he was climbing up a high mountain peak, all the way to the summit. When he got to the top, however, he couldn’t find any path to continue forward, so he turned around. But when he did, he saw that there was no longer any path behind him either. He told his secretary about this dream on a grim, rainy day at the end of March. “I fear it is not auspicious,” he said sadly. His army’s supplies were nearly exhausted—for, as it was turning out, the devastation of the countryside bode even worse for the Hunan Army siege forces than for their enemies. Even though their supply line along the Yangtze remained open and uncontested, by the spring of 1864 there was no longer much food that could come to them from it. The soldiers were surviving on rice gruel, nothing more. He worried that his battalion commanders, ashamed of being unable to provide better for their men, were no longer keeping discipline in the camps. “Our food is about to run out, and there’s nowhere around to gather more,” Zeng Guoquan confided to his secretary. “If we don’t break this city in a month, our whole army is going to crumble to pieces.”

Inside the city, it was a different world. By April, broad expanses of land at the northern end of Nanjing sprouted green as the seedlings of the garrison’s first crop of wheat broke through the surface of the newly cultivated soil. In contrast to the landscape for hundreds of miles all around them, theirs was an oasis of fertility and cultivation. The results of their labor were viewed with envy and bitterness by one of Zeng Guofan’s admirals peering through a glass from a distance. Even as the rebels inside the city looked forward to a bountiful harvest, his own men faced the prospect of starvation if they didn’t bring the siege to a conclusion soon.

Zeng Guoquan’s forces managed to hold on into the early summer, but pressure was beginning to mount from Beijing, where the government was running out of patience. It demanded that Nanjing be conquered without further delay. But Guoquan wanted full credit for recapturing the city, so he resisted suggestions that Li Hongzhang’s Anhui Army be brought up to Nanjing to supplement his Hunan forces. As commander in chief, Zeng Guofan was torn between the anticipation of victory, and concern that his brother’s army at Nanjing would collapse from lack of supplies while he continued to stubbornly refuse help. He berated his brother’s vanity. “Why must you have sole credit for conquering Nanjing?” he wrote to Guoquan on June 19. “Why should one person be the most famous under heaven?” Zeng Guofan knew Beijing court politics better than his younger brother, who had no such experience, so he finally invited Li Hongzhang to join in the assault on Nanjing—knowing that a failure to do so would invite charges that his family put their personal ambitions above the good of the empire. Li Hongzhang, out of respect for his teacher’s predicament, politely made an excuse not to come and allowed the Zeng family to continue as the sole force against Nanjing while blunting the criticisms from the court.

By this time, Zeng Guoquan’s siege works at Nanjing had expanded to a breadth of scale that was stunning by any standard. The Hunan Army had built a three-mile road for supplies through a bog, connecting the river to hard ground within two miles of Zeng Guoquan’s headquarters on Yuhuatai. Charles Gordon visited him there as a private citizen after the Ever-Victorious Army was disbanded, and from the lookout atop the hill, gazing over the silent rooftops of Nanjing, he could see that there would be little resistance if and when the wall was finally breached. “For miles the wall is deserted entirely,” he noted, “only here and there is a single man seen, miles from any support.” All was quiet, and “a deathlike stillness” hung over the vast city.

The lines of vallation encircled the rebel capital as far as the eye could see: mile after mile of continuous wooden breastworks punctuated by mud forts—more than a hundred of them—each with a few hundred men inside. In some places they ran dangerously close to the wall, just a hundred yards or so, but nobody was shooting at them from above. Indeed, a sense of quiet and repose (some would say boredom) permeated the muddy camps. Makeshift shops had sprung up, where enterprising locals sold goods to the soldiers. There were no visible sentinels. It wasn’t that the Hunan troops were lazy, just that there wasn’t anything they could do for the time being other than wait and pass the time. The real work was being done underground and out of sight.

In the absence of any guns that could penetrate the wall, the Hunan Army relied on a more ancient method of defeating a walled city: they dug under it. Zeng Guoquan’s miners sank a series of pits around the city wall. Where the moat was interrupted or ran widely enough from the wall that they could begin their digging inside its reach, they dug down fifteen feet or so before starting inward horizontally toward the city. But where the moat protected the wall, they had to angle downward as deep as ninety feet underground to skirt safely below it. To screen their efforts from the spotters who made occasional appearance on the wall, they threw up stockades in front of the digging—but as each tunnel lengthened, the rubble hauled out by the miners piled up higher and higher until it finally rose above its concealing stockade. There was also the problem that as the shallower mines lengthened, the grass on the surface above them turned brown, leaving a telltale path for which the spotters were specifically looking.

The tunnels were about four feet wide and seven high, propped up internally with frames of wood and tree branches. If there was no water above them, the miners punched vertical holes through the surface for ventilation—which prevented suffocation but again risked attracting the attention of the spotters. Meanwhile, from inside the city, the Taiping were slowly digging their own countermines outward, guided by those same spotters. And when they managed to puncture the wall of an incoming mine, they used bellows to blast it full of noxious smoke or flushed it with boiling water or sewage to drown the miners and render the tunnel useless. In the one instance where the Hunan Army’s mine did get close enough to the wall for them to detonate a charge, it didn’t generate enough explosive force and failed to make enough of a breach to allow the Hunan troops inside. In that case, the rebels simply built a new wall behind the existing one, to block off the point of damage.

By June, the Hunan Army had sunk mines at more than thirty sites around the city wall with nothing to show for their efforts except four thousand dead miners. But on July 3, they finally captured the Fortress of Earth at the base of the Dragon’s Shoulder on the eastern side of the city. Like the stone fort on Yuhuatai to the south, the Fortress of Earth looked right over into the city, but it did so from an even higher vantage point and from an even closer position that practically touched the side of the wall. With the fort in hand, Zeng Guoquan’s forces set up a battery of more than a hundred cannons on the slope of the Dragon’s Shoulder and began pounding a constant barrage over the wall, night and day, the guns bellowing over the ramparts and blasting the buildings and ground surface on the other side, sending the spotters and miners scurrying for safety. They began filling in the gap between the fort and the wall with rubble, earth, and bales of straw, hoping to level the surface to the point where they could simply walk over it into the city. And below the covering fire of their cannons, under the ground at the foot of the Dragon’s Shoulder, Zeng Guoquan’s most ambitious tunnel yet grew longer and longer.

The tunnel started about seventy yards out, its main artery carving straight for the wall, groping forward at a rate of fifteen feet a day through earth and stone. As it neared the base of the nearly fifty-foot-thick city wall, it divided into several branches, each worming its way separately underneath, sapping hollow chambers at intervals under the mammoth structure above. The defenders knew it was there, but the incessant ground-shaking cannon fire from the battery on the Dragon’s Shoulder made it impossible to counter-tunnel against it. On July 15, Li Xiucheng led a blistering midnight sortie out of the Taiping Gate with a few hundred cavalry, trying to storm the stockade at the tunnel’s opening, but the Hunan forces drove them back into the city. Three days later the tunnel was almost complete, and Zeng Guoquan gave the order to load the chambers under the wall with explosives. This time, desperate for a success after so many failures and fearing that the court had lost its patience, he erred on the side of abundance. His men packed six thousand cloth sacks under the wall, containing a total charge of twenty tons of gunpowder.

They sprang the mine at noon on July 19. A battalion of four hundred handpicked veterans crouched low to the ground just before the wall, swords tightly gripped, steeling themselves to launch through the breach into close-quarters combat. At a distance behind them on the slope of the Dragon’s Shoulder, a thousand more were ready to follow. The lit fuse simmered and worked its way slowly down into the pit, then disappeared into the dark mouth of the tunnel. As time stretched out anxiously above ground—first five minutes passed, then ten, then twenty, thirty—the fuse continued invisibly on its slow path below, sparking along the rough floor of the mine and finally splitting off like spider legs at the end to trace the last distance to its multiple targets. Then, with a terrific shuddering of the earth, the massive wall went up—and up—blasting outward and skyward in a thunderous convulsion of smoke and stone that first obliterated the sky and then rained back down with a hailstorm of granite rubble so deadly it crushed every man in the vanguard of four hundred who crouched below. But when the black smoke cleared over their mangled and broken bodies, it revealed a breach nearly two hundred feet wide, right through the wall.


As the rumbling of the explosion echoed off into the distance, the Hunan Army forces arrayed on the Dragon’s Shoulder gave up a shout and started running down the hill, storming the breach with swords aloft, clambering over the rubble and the bodies of their dead comrades to meet the Taiping defenders head-on. The first troops to force their way through the ranks of defenders made a beeline through the wide streets of the city, maps in hand, straight for the palace of the Heavenly King. But Li Xiucheng had beaten them there and spirited away Hong Xiucheng’s son the Young Monarch before they could catch him. When the first Hunan troops arrived at the palace, they found it eerily empty and quiet—for the Heavenly King was already dead. He had perished more than six weeks before they broke through the wall, most likely of disease, and was already securely buried in his robes of state when they got there (Zeng Guofan would later have his body exhumed to make sure it really was he). Confused, they reported to Zeng Guoquan that the Young Monarch had committed suicide. Other units raced around the inside shell of the wall to attack the gates from behind, driving out the rebel defenders and opening the massive doors or raising ladders as the other Hunan forces poured into the city from all directions.

In the chaos of occupation that evening, Li Xiucheng bid a tearful good-bye to his family and led the Young Monarch with a small party on horseback through the streets of Nanjing disguised as Hunan soldiers. With the luminous glow of a setting sun directly behind them, they charged the breach in the wall, broke through the line of surprised sentries, and vanished into the gloaming.

When the Hunan troops couldn’t find Li Xiucheng, Zeng Guoquan panicked. He wrongly believed that the Young Monarch was dead like his father, but if Li Xiucheng had gone free, he knew he could re-form his army elsewhere and continue his resistance. The long-fought conquest of Nanjing would be for naught. The war would never end. But in the end they did catch him. After charging the breach in the wall and evading the cavalry who chased them into the night, Li Xiucheng gave the Young Monarch his best horse to help him escape and was left with a broken nag that soon wore itself out and refused to run any farther. He sent the child king ahead with the others, keeping only a couple of horsemen in his own party, and took refuge in an abandoned temple on a hillside twelve miles to the south of Nanjing.

The small rebel band had no supplies and no plan. A group of local peasants eventually discovered them there, and when they realized who Li Xiucheng was, they wept and knelt on the ground before him. They begged him to shave his head so he wouldn’t be caught and tried to find a place to hide him. But there were others in their community who figured out who this strange visitor was and saw riches to be had for turning him in. Two of them (“scoundrels,” he called them) captured him and turned him over to Zeng Guoquan’s forces on July 22, just three days after his escape.

The whereabouts of the Young Monarch were unknown, but Zeng Guoquan finally had the Loyal King in hand. He was the most coveted prisoner of all, the last great military commander of the rebels. Without his leadership, bands of Taiping soldiers might continue to fight and survive and even carve out small kingdoms for themselves in remote corners of the empire, but they could never conjure the momentum they had enjoyed under his leadership. With his capture, the war was effectively finished.

The vaunted discipline of the Hunan Army broke down completely when Nanjing fell. The militia soldiers were unpaid and barely fed, and with this total victory in their final objective—after years of bitter campaign away from their families and their homes—they broke ranks and laid waste to the rebel capital in an orgy of uncontrolled looting. Zeng Guoquan issued proclamations forbidding his troops to murder civilians or kidnap women, but the commanders paid no attention (and in some cases even helped) as their soldiers ran amok. The rebels who stood against them were butchered in the streets, while younger women were dragged off and the remaining able-bodied men were forced into service as porters to carry away huge loads of loot from the city—gold, silver, silks, furs, jade. Even some of Zeng Guoquan’s own aides who entered the city to investigate the looting were robbed and beaten by roving gangs of Hunan soldiers. First the soldiers set fire to the palaces; then they burned the homes. And then it was as if the whole city had gone up in flames. A purplish red pall hung over the broken capital for days, until a heavy rainstorm came pouring down on the afternoon of July 25 and finally washed the city clean.

Zeng Guoquan’s secretary entered the city on July 26 and was overwhelmed by what he found inside. All of the rebel males who were still alive appeared to be carrying loads for the Hunan Army soldiers or helping them dig up stashes of buried treasure. It looked to him as though they were being set free afterward or at least escaping the city. But not the others. The elderly had been slaughtered with abandon. So had the sick and the infirm, who couldn’t serve as forced labor. Most of the dead bodies he saw lying along the streets were those of old people, but there were countless children as well. “Children and toddlers,” he wrote in his diary, “some not even two years old, had been hacked up or run through just for sport.” As far as he could tell, there wasn’t a single woman left in the city under forty years old. The living prostrated themselves on the ground. They showed signs of mutilation by soldiers who had tortured them to reveal the locations of hidden loot. “Sometimes they had ten or twelve cuts on them,” he wrote, “sometimes several times that. The sound of their weeping and moaning carried into the distance all around.”

There was no question in his mind that all of this was the work of his own army. He listed in his diary the names of several of Zeng Guoquan’s commanders he knew had taken part in the massacre and looting, writing in fury, “How can they face their general? How can they face the emperor? How can they face Heaven and Earth? How can they face themselves?” An unbreathable stench filled the air from the bodies that rotted in the streets, and Zeng Guoquan issued feeble orders that the battalions should at least drag corpses to the side of the road and cover them with rubble, so there would still be an open path for travel through the city.

Little is known of what happened to the thousands of young women who were taken from Nanjing, but one, at least, managed to leave a record of what happened to her after the city fell. Her name was Huang Shuhua, and she was sixteen years old. The soldiers came, she said, and “They killed my two older brothers in the courtyard, then they went searching through the rooms of the house. One of the strong ones captured me and carried me out. My little brother tugged on his clothing, my mother threw herself down before him, weeping. He shouted angrily, ‘All rebel followers will be killed, no pardons—those are the general’s orders!’ Then he murdered my mother and my little brother. My eldest brother’s wife came out, and he killed her too. Then he dragged me away, so I don’t know what became of my other elder brother’s wife. I was grief-stricken, sobbing and cursing at him, begging him to kill me quickly. But he only laughed at me. ‘You, I love,’ he said. ‘You, I will not kill.’ ”

The soldier tied her up and put her on a boat to take her back home with him to Hunan. He was from Zeng Guofan’s home county of Xiangxiang, the very place where Zeng’s army—indeed, his whole campaign to bring order back to the empire—had originated. And now, after all those years, the forces Zeng Guofan had conjured were finally coming home with their legacy. At the soldier’s village, the young woman would face the horror of spending the rest of her life as the wife of the man who had murdered her entire family. She wrote down her story on two slips of paper one evening while they were still traveling, as they stopped at an inn for the night. One slip of paper she hid on her body; the other she pasted to the wall of the inn. Then she somehow found the wherewithal to kill him, before she hanged herself.

Zeng Guofan finally took possession of Nanjing when he arrived from Anqing on July 28, nine days after his brother’s forces breached the wall. Despite the loss of control over their troops, for the upper echelons of his army it was still a time for celebrations and the savoring of victory. Officers under his brother took him around the perimeter of the wall in a sedan chair, telling him tales of battles fought and won and showing him scenes of destruction that still leached their smoldering vapors into the air. The evenings were reserved for poetry and plays, for wine and song, for the sublime intermarriage of remembrance and forgetting. Operas were performed before grand banquets of more than a hundred tables, crammed with officers, secretaries, and advisers. And soon the honors would pour forth from the dynastic government, once the news of Zeng Guofan’s victory reached them in Beijing, and the imperial capital went silent, and the empress dowager wept.

But the empress dowager was far away; within Nanjing, it was the end of his war, not the dynasty’s. Zeng Guofan seeded his reports on the fall of Nanjing with fabrications, claiming that a hundred thousand rebel soldiers had been killed in the fighting, inflating the glory of his family and his army, masking their looting and atrocities against civilians. He kept careful control over what the court would know. To that end, from the day he arrived in Nanjing he took over the interrogation of Li Xiucheng for himself. The Hunan Army commanders had already secured a long confession from Li Xiucheng in the week since he had been captured—pages upon pages detailing his origins and the history of the war and explaining the tactical decisions he had made, many of which they still did not understand. The honor of beginning the questioning had fallen to Guoquan, who had taken to the job with undisguised relish; his primary tools were an awl and a knife, and he managed to cut a piece out of Li Xiucheng’s arm before the others made him slow down.

When Zeng Guofan took over the interrogations on July 28, at last the two hoary, weather-beaten commanders in chief of the civil war faced each other in person for the first time: square-shouldered Zeng Guofan on the one side, the weary-eyed scholar, his long beard turning gray; wiry, bespectacled Li Xiucheng on the other, the charcoal maker who had risen to command the armies of a nation. It would be no Appomattox moment, however. There was no wistful air of regret and respect between equals. For the defeated, it was no prelude to reconciliation, to twilight years on a rolling plantation. This war ended not in surrender but in annihilation. Zeng Guofan would spend long hours of the following evenings editing his counterpart’s fifty-thousand-word confession, striking out passages that didn’t paint his own army in a good light and having it copied and bound with thread for submission to the imperial government, before casually ordering Li Xiucheng’s execution—in spite of orders he knew were coming from Beijing, that the rebel general be sent to the Qing capital alive.


The last any foreigner saw of Hong Rengan was in Huzhou just before the fall of Nanjing. A mercenary named Patrick Nellis was there, a crew member from Sherard Osborn’s fleet who had been crimped into the rebel service and was helping to defend the city. It was early in July, and the kingdom was collapsing all around, though the walls of Huzhou still held for the moment. Hong Rengan and another king spoke from a platform to an assembly in one of the courtyards. The lectures seemed to go on for hours. Nellis didn’t speak any Chinese, so he couldn’t understand much, just the names of a few places he recognized: Suzhou. Hangzhou. They were losing. Jiangxi. They were going to escape. After the speeches were over, Hong Rengan descended from the platform and came over to him.

He spoke to Nellis in English, but his diction was slow and halting from lack of use. The old fluency was gone. It had, after all, been a long time since any of the missionaries had come to visit him at his palace. And it had been a long time since he had entertained his foreign friends with dinners of steak and wine, serenading them with hymns sung in English. It had been a long time since he had reminisced with them about glad days past in the emerald beauty of Hong Kong, or enchanted them with his brilliant hopes for the future of the kingdom. That world was gone now. His hopes had all withered on the vine.

He asked Nellis what his nationality was.

“An Englishman,” Nellis replied.

“I have never met a good foreigner,” said Hong Rengan.

They finally caught up with him in early October. After Li Xiucheng’s capture in July, Hong Rengan left Huzhou to take over the protection of the Young Monarch. Along with a ragtag escort of soldiers and horsemen, they survived for nearly three months, making it all the way down to the southern part of Jiangxi province, more than four hundred miles southwest of Nanjing and only a hundred and fifty miles from the Meiling Pass, over which he had first come from the south. In their search for a place of safety they were, by the time the imperials scouted out their trail, closer to Canton and Hong Kong than to the fallen capital they had left behind. Their flight ended in a remote, mountainous country fifteen miles northeast of a town known as Stone Wall. Hong Rengan was bringing up the rear of the ragged procession. The horses and men were exhausted, so they stopped to make camp for the night. Instinct told him to continue on through the darkness along the narrow rural paths, but they had no local guide who could show them the way. The attack came near midnight, without warning. A sentry must have fallen asleep at his post. The imperial soldiers were upon them before they could put on their armor or mount up their horses. Hong Rengan fled on foot into the night, alone, wildly running through the trees and into the dark mountains. But he came in the end to a place where the hills pressed together from both sides, and there was no passage to go forward. There was no longer a path behind him either.

The End of the Taiping Rebellion

An 1884 painting of The Battle of Anqing (1861)

Detail from The Suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, ink on silk.

The extent of Taiping control in 1854 (in red)

When Zeng Guofan arrived to take control of Nanjing in July 1864, for the dynasty it was an occasion not just of triumph but of terror as well. For he was, at that moment, the most powerful man in all of China. The rebel capital was crushed. His army was transcendent. He exercised a de facto military dictatorship over eastern and central China. And he had never been fully under the dynasty’s control. Though his Hunan Army fought to uphold the rule of the Beijing government, his command fell largely outside of its direct influence, and even as the dynasty had relied almost entirely on him to prosecute its war against the rebels to its end, there wasn’t a moment when his actions weren’t watched from Beijing with a strong measure of dread. As it turned out, Frederick Bruce’s worry that Zeng Guofan would prove “a formidable competitor for power in the centre of China” grasped only a fragment of the real picture. For generations after the fall of the Taiping, the story would be told that several of Zeng Guofan’s top commanders—including his brother Zeng Guoquan—had counseled him that the time was nigh to abandon the faltering Qing dynasty to its fated end and take power in Nanjing for himself, as the new emperor of China.

But he did not do that. In truth, even as his campaign for Nanjing began to enter its final stages, he was already preparing to disband his personal army and relinquish his military power. He would hold on to his grand position as governor-general of Jiangxi, Jiangsu, and Anhui after the war, supervising the reconstruction of eastern China from his offices in Nanjing—a palatial complex of offices he ordered built right on top of the ruins of the Heavenly King’s own palace. But just at the point when watchers in China and abroad waited on tenterhooks to see whether the victorious general would now send his army northward to Beijing to overthrow the emperor of the Manchus and clean up the mess of the Qing Empire, he had already made up his mind to cede power, to send his soldiers home, and to live out the rest of his life as a mere civil official within the imperial bureaucracy—the most powerful of the civil officials, to be sure, but still just an official and still a loyal subject of the child emperor and his regent, the empress dowager.

Zeng Guofan’s seemingly paradoxical combination of power and submissiveness, which baffled those who knew him as a ruthless military leader, was a result of the sharp division of his inward and outward selves. The outward man was indeed a brilliant and merciless general, who, by the end of the war, was possessed of almost unlimited power. He wielded a battle-hardened army, the most fearsome in China, formed of soldiers from his own home province, loyal only to himself, who viewed him very much like a god. He accepted the death of multitudes with a calm equanimity (the same equanimity, to be sure, with which he had viewed the prospect of his own death in the war). This was the man Yung Wing had seen as “literally and practically the supreme power in China,” the man Frederick Bruce had worried would take over the central empire. This was the man the Qing government feared, because it could not control him and he followed their orders largely at his own pleasure.

But the inward Zeng Guofan, the man known only to his brothers, his sons, and a handful of close friends, was a man of deep reverence and quietude who was often wracked by uncertainty and depression. He was a general who had never asked to be one. He was never truly sure of his own command or certain of his power. He was a man who wanted most of all to go back to his books and lead a quiet life of moral scholarship. And for that man, a grasp for power at the end of the war was utterly unthinkable. Skeptical as he may have been of the corruption, greed, and incompetence of the government bureaucrats in Beijing, Zeng Guofan never questioned the legitimacy of the emperor himself. Zeng Guofan’s was, after its fashion, a religious kind of loyalty—a faith that Heaven had chosen the ruler of the empire, and whatever the court’s advisers and secretaries and counselors might say or do, Heaven’s choice must be followed.

Furthermore, those who later wondered why he didn’t take the throne for himself—and there would be many—assumed that the rulership of China was somehow a thing to be desired. But for Zeng Guofan, especially given the tumultuous era in which he lived, power was a fearful prospect. It conjured up the terror of failure, of falling short of the great responsibilities laid upon him—and, indeed, the nagging fear that as his power and influence grew beyond all precedent, it would bring down divine punishment to crush him for overstepping his bounds. He knew that a conscientious emperor lived his life in fear, with the full weight of the kingdom on his shoulders, and the keenly judgmental eye of Heaven fixed upon him for his entire existence from coronation until death. Zeng Guofan had gotten a taste of such responsibility on a smaller scale in Anhui during the final years of the war, and he had found it the most accursed existence he could imagine. The emperor of China was not a man to be envied; he was a man to be pitied.

The demobilization of Zeng Guofan’s army began in August 1864, less than a month after the fall of Nanjing, though his preparations were under way even before the city was taken. In May, he had put in for a sick leave—which, he explained to his brother Guoquan, was really just an excuse to go into hiding after the war ended, to escape critics who were growing suspicious of his power. He recommended that Guoquan do the same. “If by good fortune Nanjing should fall, we brothers will have to retire, and this can be our way to prepare,” he wrote. But Guoquan resented his elder brother’s advice, and Zeng Guofan sent him scathing letters, warning him to toe the line. He had already seen memorials from the Board of Revenue speculating that Guoquan was trying to expand his economic powers, and he admonished his younger brother not to invite the jealousies of others. “Military commanders who have usurped fiscal power have never brought anything but evil to the country and harm to their own families,” he wrote. “Even if you, my brother, are a complete idiot, surely you cannot be ignorant that you have to distance yourself from power to avoid being slandered.”

In spite of his efforts to recede from view, the attacks from the court would begin soon enough—first, charges of looting and mismanagement leveled at Zeng Guofan’s brother Guoquan and his subordinates, accusing them of corruption and usurpation, of failure to keep discipline among their troops. Then the critics in Beijing would turn on Zeng Guofan himself, accusing him of bringing misery to the people of eastern China in order to embezzle an enormous personal fortune, carping that he had gained his high offices not by talent but by mere luck. They would tear him down for his presumption and arrogance now that he had fulfilled his service and was no longer needed. For the scant eight years that remained of his life, they would give him no rest, would approve no retirement or pause in his duties, as his beard turned white and his eyesight dimmed into blindness. His diary in the years after the war was suffused with expressions of regret. His dream of returning to his scholarship, his home, his life of contemplation was deferred, and deferred again, until he found himself once again looking forward wistfully to the release that would come with death. “I would be happier there,” he wrote in a letter home in 1867, “than I am in this world.”


The most widely accepted estimates put the death toll of China’s nineteenth-century civil war at somewhere between twenty million and thirty million people. The figure is necessarily impressionistic, for there are no reliable censuses to compare from the time, so it is typically based on demographic projections of what the Chinese population should otherwise have been in later generations. According to one American study published in 1969, by as late as 1913, nearly fifty years after the fall of Nanjing, China’s population had yet to recover to its pre-1850 level. A more recent study by a team of scholars in China, published in 1999, estimated that the five hardest-hit provinces—Jiangxi, Hubei, Anhui, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu—together suffered a population loss of some eighty-seven million people between 1851 and 1864: fifty-seven million of them dead from the war, and the rest never born due to depressed birthrates. Their projection for the full scale of the war in all provinces was seventy million dead, with a total population loss of more than one hundred million. Those higher numbers have recently gained wider circulation, but they are controversial; critics argue that there is no way to know how many of the vanished people died—from the war, from disease, from starvation—and how many took up lives elsewhere. Nevertheless, even the most subjective anecdotal reports from travelers on the lower Yangtze testified to the deep scars on China’s cities and countryside, which were still far from being healed even decades after the Taiping war, and those figures begin to give a sense of the unprecedented scale of destruction and social dislocation that consumed China in what is believed to be the deadliest civil war in all of human history.

Given the shocking scale of the chaos and violence, perhaps the most amazing outcome of all is that the Qing dynasty managed to remain in power afterward—and not just for a few limping years beyond the end of the Taiping but for nearly five decades, into the twentieth century, until a Chinese nationalist revolution finally brought it down in 1911. It can hardly be said, however, that the Qing dynasty won the war against the Taiping. Rather, it was saved—by a combination of Zeng Guofan’s provincial military, on the one hand, and the haphazard foreign intervention of the British, on the other. Those two independent forces—one internal and one external—were both deeply suspicious of the other, though their separate campaigns against the rebels appear strangely, in historical hindsight, to have played out as if they were somehow coordinated. Both fought to salvage the reign of the Qing because they believed, for very different reasons, that its endurance would bring the better outcome for their own futures: Zeng Guofan, by preserving the system of honors, recognitions, morals, and scholarship that had rewarded him so well before the war; and the British, because some of them—influential enough in aggregate—believed that the preservation of the Qing dynasty against collapse and the prevention of a Taiping regime in China were the only way to ensure the continued growth of their own trade and thereby make up for their heavy losses elsewhere in the world, particularly in the United States.

If the aftermath of the war was a disappointment for Zeng Guofan, the eventual payoff for the British was even more questionable. The predicted boom in commerce that was supposed to follow the suppression of the rebellion never materialized. On the contrary, the end of the war proved disastrous for Shanghai. Lord Palmerston, it turned out, had been quite correct to link Britain’s rising profits in China to her intervention against the Taiping—but not for the reasons he thought. It wasn’t the bringing of peace that helped British trade, but the continuance of war. By preventing the Taiping from capturing Shanghai and by prolonging the violence in the province surrounding it, the British intervention created a set of conditions under which Chinese traders, wealth, and goods all poured into the safe zone of Shanghai to escape the chaos the British themselves were helping to perpetuate. The wealthy who fled to Shanghai drove up land prices and flooded the foreign traders in Shanghai with goods for resale. Moreover, as long as the war raged along the Yangtze River, Chinese traders were willing to pay high premiums for the security of shipping their goods in foreign bottoms, under flags that would not draw fire. But once the Taiping were suppressed, those advantages evaporated. Foreign shippers lost much of their edge when the Yangtze became safe again, and departing refugees left the Shanghai real estate market to collapse behind them. The boom of the war years gave way to an extended slump in which two of the largest British firms went bankrupt. Ironically, what nobody—least of all Palmerston—had realized was that restoring peace to China had never actually been in Britain’s interests.

There was little for the British to celebrate on the diplomatic side, either. The intervention did not buy them the goodwill or favor of the Manchu government they had expected, nor did it gain them any kind of renewed openness to foreign trade. Frederick Bruce would soon be derided for his “Mandarin-worshipping policy,” which had turned the British government, as many saw it, into the lapdog of the Qing rulers. But in coming to terms with its role in the Chinese war, England’s pride depended on the constant repetition of Bruce’s version of events—to the point of nearly unanimous agreement—that it was the Taiping who had caused all the destruction in the war, that they were nothing more than a force of anarchy, that they were the enemy of all that was civilized or well governed. In that light, there was no question that Britain’s intervention in the war was humanitarian. Thanks to the canonization of this version of events, Charles Gordon and Frederick Townsend Ward would go down in history as the great foreign heroes of the China war, who saved the Chinese from destruction. Against the shame of the Opium War and the destruction of the Summer Palace, Gordon and Ward stood as hopeful (and even benevolent) symbols of cooperation between Chinese and foreigners. By the same logic, the war itself would be forever labeled in English not as a civil war but as the Taiping Rebellion—a name that takes the side of the Qing dynasty and renders the Taiping mere rebels against the proper and legitimate government, outlaws and sowers of disorder who bore sole responsibility for the chaos of the time.

Voices of dissent were few, but some who had questioned the basis of their country’s intervention at the time still managed to voice their continued disapproval afterward, even as they knew that such dissent was no longer welcome. Robert Forrest, the British consul who had traveled overland through the Taiping territories and who had lived for several months on a boat outside Nanjing, put it most poignantly in an article he wrote for the Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1867. In the article, Forrest disputed the conventional belief in Britain that the destruction of the Taiping had finally set the Chinese Empire right again but lamented that “facts, no matter how recorded, never overthrow prejudice,…and my experiences of Taiping rule, although the result of a long residence at the Capital, will never be favourably regarded, if in any way opposed to existing ideas.” Pointing to the slump in trade that had followed the suppression of the Taiping, he mused that for all of the hatred his people had shown to the rebels during the war, “if it went to the vote to-morrow how many foreigners would not wish them back again?”

Nevertheless, he knew that none of his countrymen wanted to hear the truth, as he had experienced it, which was that the Taiping had never really been the monsters or locusts they were made out to be. “But if I were to tell what order did really reign at Nanjing,” he wrote,

very much like the Warsaw article it is true, but still order—that there were some uncommonly clever generals among the Heavenly King’s officers … that in places not actually the seat of war the ground was well cultivated—that the conduct of the Taiping troops was not one bit worse than that of the Imperialists—and that the inhabitants of such towns as Shaoxing and Hangzhou have asserted that their lot under Taiping rule was infinitely better than their unhappy fate when those cities were recovered and fell for a time into the hands of barbarian officers;—if I stated these things, with every proof, I should be reviled as a rebel and a speaker of blasphemy against the brilliant political dawn now spreading over the empire.

When the end finally came for the Qing dynasty in 1911, it would come at the hands of a new generation of anti-Manchu revolutionaries who were well aware of their predecessors. Some cut their queues and wore their hair long to look like stylized Taiping rebels. Others wrote propaganda tracts condemning Zeng Guofan as the greatest traitor to his race who had ever lived, who butchered untold numbers of his fellow Chinese in order to uphold the racially alien dynasty of the Manchus. The most prominent leader of this new generation was a Cantonese named Sun Yatsen, who had grown up hearing stories of Taiping heroes and whose friends nicknamed him Hong Xiuquan.

China had continued to weaken in the decades following the fall of Nanjing, in spite of valiant efforts by Li Hongzhang, Zuo Zongtang, and other former generals and Chinese officials to introduce reforms that would revive the country. They achieved remarkable success internally, suppressing the Nian and Muslim rebellions after the Taiping were vanquished, and restoring domestic order to the once broken empire. But crushing indemnities from foreign wars bankrupted the treasury, and the ongoing corruption and conservatism of the Manchu court hampered their attempts to introduce broad-based reforms. And while there may have been peace within the country, externally China was simply left behind by the breathtaking rise of its smaller neighbor Japan. For once again the Japanese benefited from the negative example of China. As the Japanese government in the 1850s had avoided its own Opium War by signing foreign treaties without overt hostility, so did influential young samurai in the 1860s look to China at the end of its civil war as a warning of what their country might become without dramatic change. A revolution later that decade gave way to a rapid program of industrialization and social transformation that bore a remarkable similarity in spirit—if not in religion—to what Hong Rengan had envisioned for his own thwarted state. By the 1890s, Japan’s modernized navy would decisively overpower the Qing fleet, and Japan would take the island of Taiwan from China as its first major colony. By the early twentieth century, Chinese reformers would be looking to Japan as the model of what their own country must become if it were to have any chance of surviving into the future.

But perhaps it didn’t have to turn out that way. In an interview with a British reporter in 1909, Japan’s elder statesman Ito Hirobumi—four-time prime minister and chief architect of the nineteenth-century reform movement—looked to the violence just beginning to unfold in China in the run-up to the 1911 Revolution and declared it long overdue. In his opinion, the new Chinese revolutionaries were merely finishing the work that the Taiping had started fifty years earlier, and in which he firmly believed they would have been successful if left to their own devices. “The greatest mistake which you Western people, and more especially you English people, made in all your dealings with China,” he told the reporter, “was to help the Manchus in putting down the Taiping Rebellion.”

Ito echoed the many observers from the time of the war who had argued on behalf of neutrality, who had maintained—ultimately in vain—that Britain must stay out because the warfare in China was part of a natural process of dynastic change that had to follow through to its end. “There can be very little doubt that the Manchu Dynasty had reached the end of its proper tether when the Taiping Rebellion occurred,” he insisted, “and, by preventing its overthrow, Gordon and his ‘Ever-Victorious Army’ arrested a normal and healthy process of nature. Nothing that the Manchus have done since then affords the slightest evidence that they deserved to be saved. Rather the contrary. And when they fall, as fall they must and will before very long, the upheaval will be all the more violent and all the more protracted for having been so long and unduly postponed.”

Speaking with the benefit of hindsight more than forty years after the fall of Nanjing, Ito helped to vindicate the opinions of those British at the time—in Shanghai, in Parliament, in the papers—who had argued so strenuously that a foreign military intervention in the Chinese civil war to bring order back to the country would not, in the long run, be a boon for China but instead consign the Chinese to continued oppression by a corrupt power whose era of greatness and fair rule was long past. And his observation, looking back on the dynasty’s continued reign after the war, that “Nothing that the Manchus have done since then affords the slightest evidence that they deserved to be saved” was a statement with which a very large number of Chinese in his own time would have readily agreed.

From the standpoint of our own time, a hundred years later still, Ito Hirobumi’s prediction that when the Manchus were finally overthrown, “the upheaval [would] be all the more violent and all the more protracted for having been so long and unduly postponed” was unfortunately borne out as well. The Manchus fell two years after the interview, to be replaced by a republic that broke down almost immediately into civil war. Wracked by decades of internal violence, weakened and nearly helpless in the face of continued foreign encroachments, China would spend the following century trying to claw its way back to the position of power and prominence in the world it had held for so much of its earlier history. But by 1912, when the delayed process of reinvention finally began in earnest, the country was already so far behind its competitors that the thought of catching up seemed—until recently—to be all but impossible.

If there is any moral at all to be gleaned from the outcome of this war, which brought so little of lasting benefit to either its victors or the country in which it was waged, it is not likely to be of the encouraging sort. For in a certain sense, the blame for the war’s outcome might be laid at the feet of our intrepid preacher’s assistant, Hong Rengan. After a few years among the missionaries in Hong Kong, he believed that he knew the hearts of the British and could therefore be the one to build a bridge between his own country and theirs. This belief led him to advocate a policy of appeasement and openness toward foreigners that ultimately proved the ruin of his own people. By the same token, blame could also be laid with the shy British ambassador Frederick Bruce for imagining, after a short residence in Shanghai and Beijing, that the Qing dynasts were a force of civilized monarchy standing against a chaotic horde of rebels who had no king or governing vision—and, on that basis, persuading his home government that it was necessary to intervene on behalf of what he thought was the only viable power in China.

Hong Rengan and Frederick Bruce had in common that each thought himself uniquely blessed with insight into what was good and knowable in the other’s civilization, and they also had in common that they were both grievously wrong. So in the end, perhaps the tale of the foreign intervention and the fall of the Taiping is a tale of trust misplaced. It is a tale of how sometimes the connections we perceive across cultures and distances—our hopes for an underlying unity of human virtue, our belief that underneath it all we are somehow the same—can turn out to be nothing more than the fictions of our own imagination. And when we congratulate ourselves on seeing through the darkened window that separates us from another civilization, heartened to discover the familiar forms that lie hidden among the shadows on the other side, sometimes we do so without ever realizing that we are only gazing at our own reflection.

Shenzhen (DDG-167) Type 051B destroyer

Santa Rita, Guam (Oct. 22, 2003) — The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) guided missile destroyer Shenzhen (DDG-167) enters Apra Harbor, Guam. The Shenzhen and the oiler Quinghai Hu (AO-885) are making the People’s Republic of China’s first ever port call to Guam.

TYPE 051B LUHAI-CLASS: Consists of only one ship, No.167 Shenzhen

Shenzhen was laid down by Dalian Shipyard in Northeastern China in May 1996. The Shenzhen made the switch from the Luhu-Class’ Diesel-Gas-Turbines to Gas Turbine engines. The Luhai-Class is 2,000 tons larger than the Type 052 destroyer, Luhu-Class.

The Type 051B programme caught great attention at the time as it was then the largest surface combatant ever built by China. It was also the first Chinese warship to have adopted the sloped-side hull to reduce the ship’s radar cross-section profile. However, when the ship was finally commissioned in late 1998, it became clear that the ship only had very limited improvement in its weapon systems over the previous Chinese indigenous destroyers. For example, despite the earlier speculation that the ship would be equipped with a vertical launch system (VLS) for air defence missile, it turned out to be only equipped with an eight-cell HQ-7 short-range SAM.

Shenzhen completed its sea trial in late 1998 and joined service with the PLA Navy South Sea Fleet shortly after. No subsequent ship was commissioned, though unconfirmed report suggested that a second hull was almost completed before the construction programme was stopped. The unfinished second hull was stationed in Dalian Shipyard for several years before it was finally launched in 2004 to be built as Type 051C (Luzhou class) air defence missile destroyer 115 Shenyang.

Type 051B was the first Chinese indigenous warship to have been incorporated with radar cross-section reduction features, including a streamlined hull with slightly sloped sides and superstructure, two solid masts with fewer protruding electronic sensor arrays, ‘cleaner’ deck with less weapon systems piled together, and two funnels with infrared signatures reduction devices. These features are inherited by the following-on indigenous destroyers in the PLA Navy.

The ZBJ-1 is the PLAN’s fleet command system. It is installed aboard major combatants so they can act as command ships. The first class to receive ZBJ-1 was the Type 051B destroyer but the system proved unwieldy and was dropped until an improved version was fitted aboard Type 052C destroyers and the current Type 052D. The ZBJ-1A supports amphibious task forces and is reputedly installed aboard Type 071 landing platform docks, while the ZBJ-2 is supposed to be used on the aircraft carrier Liaoning.

The sole Type 051B destroyer 167 Shenzhen participated in the PLA Navy’s first goodwill visit to Africa in 2000, the first visit to Europe in 2001 and the first visit to Japan in 2007. In 2004, the ship received its mid-life modernization refit in 2004, with its original 100mm main gun and the HQ-7 air defense missile system being replaced by improved models.

In early 2015, the sole Type 051B destroyer was spotted at the Zhanjiang naval base undergoing work. Initially it was unclear whether this was due to a midlife refit program or decommissioning, but pictures revealed in January 2016 that the ship was being refitted with new systems. For self-defense, the four old Type 76A 37 mm AA guns were replaced with two H/PJ-11 eleven-barreled 30 mm CIWS (export designation Type 1130) that can shoot 10,000 rpm, one covering each side. Anti-aircraft defense is upgraded from the 8-unit HQ-7 with a 10–15 km (6.2–9.3 mi) range to a 32-cell vertical launch system (VLS) in front of the superstructure for 50–60 km (31–37 mi)-ranged HQ-16s, directed by four Type 345 (Front-Dome type) illuminators, increasing SAM coverage by 16 times. The helicopter hangar was modified to carry a single Ka-28 ASW helicopter in place of the original dual Z-9 hanger, and two new mast structures were fitted; a Type 382 Radar on the forward mast and a Type 364 targeting radar (under dome) on the aft mast. The upgrades give the Type 051B weapon and sensor capabilities similar to the Type 054A frigate. The Type 382 replaced the Type 381 singe-faced phased-array radar, and moved from the aft to the forward mast to remove the blind arc it previously exhibited, the quarterdeck was fully enclosed, and new apertures were added in the transom indicating that torpedo decoy and towed array sonar systems have been added; a variable depth sonar has not been installed. The ship completed the weapon systems upgrade in August 2016.

Type 051B (Luhai Class) Missile Destroyer

General characteristics

Displacement: 6,100 tons

Length:  153 m

Beam:    16.5 m

Draught: 6 m


    2 Steam turbines

    94,000 shp (70,100 kW)

Speed:   31 knots (57 km/h; 36 mph)

Range:   14,000 miles

Complement:     250 (40 officers)

Sensors and processing systems:

    Combat data system – ZKJ-6 Information processing system designed by the 709th Institute (Reported speed: 10 Mbit/s)

    Data link: HN-900 (Chinese equivalent of Link 11 A/B, to be upgraded)

    Communication: SNTI-240 SATCOM

    Sea Eagle 3-D air search radar

    Type 360S air/surface search radar

    Type 344 fire-control radar (for 100 mm gun & SSMs)

    Hull mounted sonar

    Towed array sonar


    16 YJ-83 anti-ship missiles

    32 HQ-16 VLS

    1 dual Type 79A 100mm naval gun

    2 Type 1130 CIWS

    6 torpedo tubes

    2 anti-submarine rocket systems

    Before 2015-16 refit:

    16 HQ-7 surface-to-air missiles (replaced by 32 VLS HQ-16)

    4 x 37mm AA guns (replaced by 2 x Type 1130 CIWS)

Aircraft carried:  2 helicopters: (Kamov Ka-28 or Harbin Z-9C)

Aviation facilities:            

    Hangar accommodating 2 helicopters

    Landing platform for one helicopter

    Helicopter landing system

First Wartime Aeroplane Flight

Bleriot XI (French, early WWI). Single-seat/two-seat reconnaissance. Developed from Louis Bleriot’s 1909 cross-Channel monoplane; existed in several sizes/ forms. Used in Italo-Turkish War 1911-12, Balkan Wars, early months World War I; thereafter as trainer. 50hp or 80hp Gnome engine; max. speed 75mph (120kph); makeshift armament of pistols and/or rifle or carbine.

Pioneers of Italian aviation. Captain Luca Bongiovanni and the sub-lieutenant De Muro. students pilots at the school of Aviano. photographed before a training flight. Italy 1912. (Photo by: SeM/UIG via Getty Images)
Nieuport monoplane

In the earliest air actions, carried out by Italian airmen in Libya (Tripolitania), the bomb dropped by Lieut. Gavotti was a 2-kg weapon like the one shown here: it was known as a Cipelli bomb, so named after its inventor.

Today I have decided to try to throw bombs from the aeroplane. It is the first time that we will try this and if I succeed, I will be really pleased to be the first person to do it,” wrote Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti to his father. With other military aviators of the new Italian Royal Army Air Services Specialist Battalion, Lt. Gavotti had been sent to the Ottoman Turk provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica to fight in the Italo-Turkish War. His aeroplane was a Blériot monoplane, one of only a handful in Italy’s possession.

Today two boxes full of bombs arrived. We are expected to throw them from our planes. It is very strange that none of us have been told about this, and that we haven’t received any instruction from our superiors. So we are taking the bombs on board with the greatest precaution. It will be very interesting to try them on the Turks.”

Etrich Taube

The influence of World War I on the use of aeroplanes for military purposes has left a general impression that aerial warfare was originated during those fateful years. In fact, the true pioneers of air warfare in aeroplanes were a handful of courageous Italian airmen who served during the little-known Italo-Turkish War in Libya in 1911-12, almost three years before the commencement of the European conflict.

In August 1911 the Italian Army manoeuvres had shown a potential for aircraft in general reconnaissance roles, and on 25 September came an order to mobilise the Italian Special Army Corps and, more significantly. an Air Flotilla. On that date the Flotilla comprised a total of nine aeroplanes-two Bleriot XI monoplanes, two Henry Farman biplanes, three Nieuport monoplanes, and two Etrich Taubes-manned by five first-line pilots, six reserve pilots and 30 airmen for all forms of technical maintenance. All nine machines were immediately dismantled, crated and sent by sea to Libya, arriving in the Bay of Tripoli on 15 October. With minimum facilities available, the crated aircraft were put ashore and transported to a suitable flying ground nearby, where assembly commenced almost immediately. The first aeroplane was completed by 21 October.

On the morning of 23 October 1911, Captain Carlos Piazza, commander of the Air Flotilla, took off at 0619 hours in his Bleriot for an urgently-requested reconnaissance of an advancing body of Turkish and Arab troops and eventually landed back at base at 0720 hours. This was the first-ever war flight in an aeroplane. Shortly after Piazza left, his second-in-command. Captain Riccardo Moizo, piloting a Nieuport, also took off but returned after 40 minutes with little to report. Both men were airborne again on the following day, seeking the location of enemy troops and, in Moizo’s case, being successful.

Next day, 25 October, Moizo was again in the air and sighted a large Arab encampment in the Ain Zara region. As he circled his objective, Moizo was greeted with a barrage of rifle fire and three bullets pierced his Nieuport’s wings. Though these caused no serious damage, it was the first occasion on which an aeroplane had experienced hostile ground fire. Within the following three days two more aircraft had become available. These-an Etrich Taube, piloted by Second Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti, and a Henry Farman, by Lieutenant Ugo de Rossi-soon joined their seniors on scouting patrols over enemy camps and emplacements.

The Flotilla commander, Captain Piazza, quickly perceived further roles for his aircraft and, after several unsuccessful attempts, finally achieved a measure of air-to-ground co-operation with the local Italian artillery commander; Piazza dropped messages of correction or confirmation (in small tins) after observing the actual results of artillery fire. This presaged a major role for aeroplanes in the imminent European war. Piazza also envisaged the possibilities of aerial camera work and, on 11 November, sent an urgent request to his headquarters for provision of a Zeiss Bebe plate camera. After several weeks of waiting. Piazza took it upon himself to borrow a camera from the Engineer Corps in Tripoli and had this fixed to his Bleriot, positioned just in front of his seat and pointing downwards. Manipulation of the controls and the plate camera at once meant that only one exposure could be made on each flight, but it was the birth of airborne photo-reconnaissance.

The Turks, without any air arm, were forced on to the defensive and retaliated by rifle and machine gun fire. Since the Italian aviators could not fly very high, these weapons had some effect; one Italian aircraft outside Tripoli was hit seven times by rifle fire while flying at 2500 feet, though neither the aircraft nor the pilot was disabled. One luckless flyer had an engine failure behind enemy lines and was captured, though there appears to be no record of his subsequent fate; with the reputation the Turks had in those days it was probably grim.

Aerial bombardment

Although there appears to be no evidence that any of the Flotilla’s pilots ever attempted to take aloft and use any form of firearm, the concept of an offensive role for their aircraft was exemplified by the use of aerial bombs. The first-ever bombing sortie was that undertaken on 1 November 1911 by Second Lieutenant Gavotti, when he dropped three 2kg Cipelli bombs on the Taguira Oasis and a fourth bomb on Ain Zara. The relative success of Gavotti’s sortie led to the use of modified Swedish Haasen hand grenades and these were replaced by a small cylindrical bomb, containing explosive and lead balls, designed by Lieutenant Bontempelli.

By February 1912, the Flotilla’s machines had been modified to carry a large box (dubbed Campodonicos), each of which could hold ten Bontempelli bombs, which could then be released, simply by the pilot pulling a lever, in salvo or singly. The age of aerial bombardment had dawned. Nor was this form of aerial warfare confined to daylight sorties. Later in the campaign, on 2 May 1912, Captain Marengo, commander of a second air formation which arrived at Benghazi in late November 1911, made a 30-minute night reconnaissance as the first of several similar patrols. Then, on 11 June before dawn, Marengo dropped several bombs on a Turkish encampment, inaugurating the night bomber role.

During December 1911 and January 1912 the work of the Flotilla was severely hampered by atrocious weather conditions, including high winds and sudden storms. However, its aircraft continued to give direct tactical support to the ground troops by scouting ahead of advancing columns and locating enemy troops in the vicinity. Fresh aircraft for the Libyan airmen began arriving in January, along with new pilots, including Lieutenant Oreste Salomone, later to gain honours and national fame as a bomber pilot during World War 1. By the end of January, due to the eastward movements of the advancing Italian ground forces, it became necessary for the Libyan Flotilla to change its base airfield, and a move was made to Homs on 12 February. From here the aircraft flew in yet another new role: aerial propaganda. The pilots scattered thousands of specially prepared leaflets far and wide amongst Arab camps, with the result that large numbers of tribesmen were persuaded to become allied to the Italian cause.

Revolutionary tactics

By this time the value of the aircraft was being fully recognised by Italian Army commanders and the feats of the pilots were acclaimed in official dispatches. The overall commander of Italy’s Air Battalion. Lt Col di Montezemolo, arrived in Libya in February 1912 to inspect the Air Flotilla and report on its activities and results. One item in his subsequent report was the recommendation that Captain Piazza be repatriated to Italy, due to the commander’s bouts of fever, and that he be succeeded by Captain Scapparo. Piazza, once fit again, should be employed in organising flying tuition.

The obvious success of the Libyan Air Flotilla soon led to a second, though smaller flotilla being dispatched to Cyrenaica and based at Benghazi. Once established, this formation’s first war sortie-a reconnaissance patrol- was flown on 28 November by Second Lieutenant Lampugani. Though mainly restricted to the areas close to Benghazi, this formation had its full share of operational experiences. Most flights were met with fierce opposition from Turkish ground fire, including anti-aircraft artillery. This latter novelty was first experienced by Lieutenant Roberti on 15 December 1911 when flying over some Turkish trenches; his aircraft and propeller received several shrapnel strikes. As if to compliment the gunners on their accuracy, Roberti coolly dived across the enemy battery positions and dropped some of his personal visiting cards.

A terrible precedent

As recorded earlier, the commander of the Benghazi formation, Captain Marengo, instituted a series of night bombing and reconnaissance sorties between May and July. His only night-flying aid was an electric torch, fixed to his flying helmet and operated by a normal hand- switch, in order to read his few instrument dials. Tragically, it was a pilot of Marengo’s formation who became the Italian Air Service’s first-ever wartime casualty. On 25 August 1912 at 0610 hours Second Lieutenant Pietro Manzini took off for a reconnaissance patrol but almost immediately side-slipped into the sea and was killed.

With the end of the campaign, the Italian airmen won acclaim from the international Press. One particularly prophetic war correspondent, with the Turkish Army throughout the war, wrote, `this war has clearly shown that air navigation provides a terrible means of destruction. These new weapons are destined to revolutionise modem strategy and tactics. What I have witnessed in Tripoli has convinced me that a great British air fleet must be created.’ Certainly, by their skill, imagination and courage, the Italian Air Flotillas had inaugurated man’s latest form of destruction, pioneering most of the military roles for the aeroplane.

Air Warfare Over Malta

The final air raids on Malta would come on 26 February 1943, when the Italians tried to sneak a bomber over the island at daybreak. It did not make it. That evening a handful of enemy fighters tried a hit-and-run attack, but failed.

For the Maltese this was a landmark day. Throughout the siege nearly 1,600 civilians had been killed, over 1,800 seriously injured and nearly 1,900 wounded. The rationing had caused casualties too: infant mortality rates were incredibly high in 1942 when one baby in three would die. In fact 2,336 babies under the age of one died that year.

Of all the centres of population the dockyard town of Senglea had suffered the worst with 80 per cent of its buildings destroyed. Even the remaining 20 per cent was so badly damaged that they could not be lived in. Repairs were impossible as the streets were clogged with rubble.

Throughout the siege around 547 British aircraft had been lost in air combat. A further 160 had been destroyed whilst they were on the ground. Various estimates have been made of the enemy losses. In all probability 1,252 German and Italian aircraft had been shot down over the island. In addition there were 1,052 probable kills. In 1942 alone the RAF fighters had destroyed 773 enemy aircraft and possibly an additional 300, which could not be confirmed. Anti-aircraft guns had claimed over 180. In the same year the RAF had lost 195 fighter aircraft and 106 pilots. In 1942 alone the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm had hit eighty-three enemy ships with bombs or torpedoes and had damaged at least another fifty vessels.

The Royal Navy had returned to Malta by the end of 1942. It was now far safer to moor in the Grand Harbour. On 21 December Royal Navy destroyers sunk an enemy supply ship and on 16 January 1943 an Italian merchant ship was sent to the bottom. Between 19 and 20 January the Royal Navy sank an Italian water tanker and then sank eleven out of twelve enemy supply ships.

Compared to the previous months of 1942, December saw an enormous number of cargo vessels arriving at Malta. Sailing from Port Said on 1 December the cargo ships Agwimonte, Suffolk, Glenartney, Alcoa Prospector and the Yorba Linda arrived on 4 December. They delivered 55 tons of supplies. The cargo ships and the escort of three cruisers and ten destroyers suffered no losses en route. Another convoy sailed in on 10 December, having left Alexandria on 6 December; the cargo ships American Packer and Ozarda once again arrived safely. Beaufighters had gone out from Malta to escort the convoy in and they ran into three BV222 six-engine flying boats. During the encounter one of the flying boats was shot down, as was one of the Beaufighters. Another convoy left Alexandria on 9 December, arriving in Malta on 14 December and yet again two merchant ships, Clan Macindoe and Erinna arrived unmolested.

Two Beaufighters belonging to 272 Squadron left Malta at 08.40 on 19 December. They were accompanied by four Spitfires of 249 Squadron. The mission was an offensive reconnaissance. Shortly after 11.00, during their return to Malta, they spotted a DO24 flying boat near Dlimara. One of the Spitfires shot it down, but unfortunately shortly after this one of the Beaufighters crashed into the sea and exploded, killing the crew.

Further supplies arrived on 21 December, having left Port Said on 17 December. Despite the fact that offensive sweeps by the Maltese-based fighters and bombers were commonplace, the month had seen thirty-five enemy air raid alerts and sixty tons of bombs had been dropped on the island.

As the New Year dawned, Malta was adopting a new role. It was no longer besieged, but it would now operate as a bridgehead between the Allied forces gathering in North Africa and the exposed underbelly of the enemy in Sicily and mainland Italy. Victory was still a long way off and privations would still continue on the island. The work was unabated: it was no longer a question of keeping a handful of Hurricanes and Spitfires aloft in an attempt to keep the enemy at bay. Malta had become an armed camp and was fast becoming an island aircraft-carrier, with an offensive capacity to cause enormous damage to the Italians and Germans. The appearance of many German and Italian transport aircraft in the region signalled not the threat of invasion, but desperation on behalf of the enemy. Their shipping losses had been crippling, none of their surface vessels were safe and the few that remained were unwilling to run the gauntlet of Allied aircraft, submarines and surface vessels that now dominated the Mediterranean. The transport aircraft represented the only hope to resupply the dwindling German and Italian effort in North Africa.

January 1943 saw the first month since the outbreak of hostilities when no bombs were dropped on the island of Malta, despite twenty-five air-raid alerts. In the last week of January Tripoli had been captured by the Allies and this was to mark the beginning of the end of enemy resistance in North Africa. Attacks were being launched not only on the Italian mainland, North Africa and Sicily, but also on airfields such as the one on the island of Pantelleria.

The new offensive role of the Spitfires that had so gallantly defended the island brought new challenges to the pilots and their ground crews. A new airfield had been set up on Malta, at Krendi. The new Wing Commander of the two squadrons based there was Sandy Johnstone. They had launched innumerable fighter sweeps over Sicily, hoping to lure German and Italian aircraft into the sky. More often than not the enemy had refused battle. In order to maintain pressure on the enemy, particularly in Sicily, experiments were put into motion to fit a 500lb bomb under each wing of each Spitfire, effectively transforming the fighter into a fighter bomber.

The first attack went in against a chemical factory at Pochino on Sicily on 16 January 1943. Twenty-four Spitfires were employed in the attack, twelve as conventional fighters and the others as fighter bombers. Johnstone later wrote about his experiences in the attack:

In each Spitfire, with his 500lb lethal weapon under each wing, the pilot kept his screaming dive under control while he zeroed the bombs on target by using the normal gun sight. One after the other the bombs ran down on the target area, dropping at regular intervals and exploding with frightening velocity. At least three made direct hits on the factory, sending tons of masonry hurtling through the air to join the twisted metal of the gutted machinery. As the last bomber began its dive I swooped down to ground level with my eleven escorting companions and raced in on the scene of destruction, raking the smoke and flames with cannon and machine-gun fire. The vibrations set up by the firing of the guns was like the tingling of newly awakened nerves. It was a strange overwhelming feeling of excitement that made your mouth dry with the taste of it; your heart beat faster and your body tensed itself in its firm and unrelaxed grip. I swept towards the wreckage of the factory. As I pulled back on the stick to lift the Spitfire above the smoke, there were clear indications that my fire power had struck home. There were signs of a large explosion and judging by the clouds of steam, followed by dense black smoke which billowed from the tall chimney and burst outwards from several of the factory windows, I was certain that I had hit a massive boiler. Reforming, the bomber aircraft, now shed of their loads, acted as an escort to the twelve straffers whose ammunition was spent. We set course for Malta and were back on the ground, ready to refuel without any retaliation from the Sicilian-based enemy aircraft.

Although Johnstone’s attack met with little in the way of reaction from the enemy, not all operations were so fortunate. Pilot Officer Nesbitt of 185 Squadron failed to return after a morning sweep over south-east Sicily on 4 February. He was seen to bale out at 09.00 some 15 miles north-east of the Grand Harbour. Nesbitt reported:

When returning from a sweep on Sicily, owing to engine failure, I was forced to abandon my aircraft about 15 miles from the island. The air screw revolutions increased to 3,300 and I tried to adjust this by pulling up the nose of my aircraft, closing the throttle and moving the air screw pitch-lever back. Nothing seemed to happen so I straightened out, whereupon the engine cut. Checking the ignition switches and petrol lever, I tried the throttle and also tried priming. As this had no effect I put the air screw into fully coarse and started to glide at 135 ASI from approximately 18,000 ft on a coarse of 220̊°. I was then between 5 to 10 miles from the coast of Sicily.

Nesbitt finally managed to ditch. He was covered by four Spitfires of 126 Squadron and was in the water for nearly 40 minutes before HSL166 picked him up.

Incidents such as these were an almost daily occurrence. Another Spitfire was lost on 8 February, a Baltimore on 18 February, a Mosquito on 21 February and another Spitfire that had been in a dogfight with Me109s on 26 February. Engine failure was more of a hazard than engagements with enemy aircraft. Ditching into the sea was still a hazardous affair, despite the successes of the Air Sea Rescue launches and seaplane tenders. On 1 March, for example, eight Spitfires of 185 Squadron made a sweep over Sicily at 25,000ft. They had barely arrived over Sicily when Flight Sergeant Miller’s engine stopped and he was forced to bale out some 32 miles to the north of the Grand Harbour. This had occurred shortly before 09.00 hours. Luckily for Miller HSL107 swiftly picked him up and he was back at his base at 11.40 that day. Miller reported:

I was flying on a sweep over south-east Sicily with seven other fighters of 185 Squadron. At 08.50 hours, while at 23,000 ft and 15 miles inland over Sicily I was about to participate in an attack on three Me109s when my engine cut without any warning. Having tried unsuccessfully to restart the engine, I released my harness and began to glide towards base. When down to 5,000 ft, I attempted to jettison the hood but was unable to do so, I therefore slid it back and turned the aircraft over. My parachute got wedged by the handle of the hood but managed to get free and, after a short drop, found the toggle and the parachute opened. On my way down I removed my gloves and boots and turned the quick release box. Immediately my feet touched the water I released my parachute. When in the water I first freed the dinghy from its cover and, when it was free of the parachute, pushed the lever on the Mae West to operate the CO2 bottle, which did not function properly. I then tried to inflate the dinghy manually but did not know that the valve locking-pin had to be removed. As the dinghy was a dead weight and tending to drag me down, I undid the quick release on my Mae West and let the dinghy go free. I then tried to inflate the Mae West by mouth but was only able to do so partially on account of the sea swell and the effort required.

In the first three months of 1943 Malta’s bombers and torpedo bombers sunk nine enemy vessels, had fourteen probables and damaged several others. Typical of this type of work was an attack made in mid-March. A Baltimore, on reconnaissance patrol, spotted a convoy that was southbound in the Gulf of Taranto, protected by a destroyer escort and an air escort of fifteen Me110s and Ju88s. Five hours later nine Beauforts, with Beaufighter cover, discovered the convoy. The Beaufighters made for the aircraft whilst the Beauforts honed in on the largest of the convoy ships, an 8,000 ton tanker. The tanker was hit three times and there was a huge cloud of smoke rising from the ship and smoke pouring across its decks.

Valuable contributions were also being made by Wellington torpedo bombers. They operated against targets at night that were illuminated by Wellingtons equipped with flares and radar. One such example of an attack took place in January 1943 when Flight Sergeant Hornung attacked an enemy cargo vessel, believed to be 4,000 tons, and escorted by a destroyer. Hornung’s aircraft weaved through a barrage of anti-aircraft fire from the ships and struck the merchant vessel with a pair of torpedoes. The target immediately burst into flames.

Sergeant W A Fraser had an amazing fortnight at the beginning of February 1943. On 2 February a pair of search aircraft had spotted a convoy off the south-east coast of Italy. When Fraser’s Wellington arrived there was only one flare illuminated, which made it difficult for him to make an attack on the tanker and avoid the pair of escorting destroyers. He managed to release the torpedo at 700 yards, hitting the 6,000 ton tanker, which then caught fire and had to be beached. On 7 February he made a successful attack on a 6,000 ton merchant ship, badly damaging it. On 15 February he made an attack on another tanker of 5,000 tons. Despite it being defended by a pair of destroyers and one his crew members being wounded, his torpedo struck the tanker amidships.

By April 1943 the 8th Army had linked up with the Anglo-American troops operating in Algeria and preparations were underway to invade Sicily. By the end of May 1943 the number of Malta’s frontline aircraft stood at around 600 compared to just 200 towards the end of 1942. The new arrivals on the island included four Spitfire wings and additional Mosquito and Beaufighter squadrons. The old airfields had been enlarged and new landing fields had been created. Malta could now dominate the central Mediterranean.

The wheel had definitely turned full circle and in September 1943 Faith, one of the three original Gladiators that had faced the Italians more than three years before, was retrieved from the bottom of a quarry where she had lain. She was then presented to the people of Malta by Air Marshal Sir Keith Park. Faith very much represented the courage and the fortitude of the servicemen and the civilians of the island.

In June 1943 Operation Corkscrew was launched against the Italian island of Pantelleria. In effect it would provide a practice for the forthcoming invasion of Sicily and Italy and it would also give the Allies a chance to gauge the impact of bombing on defensive positions. The tiny island, just eight and a half miles by five and a half miles, lay 140 miles to the north-west of Malta. Plans had been drawn up as early as 1940 to take the island, but these had been put off as it was believed that it would be difficult to continue to hold the island and support Malta at the same time. In June 1943 14,203 bombs, which amounted to 4,119 tons, were dropped on the sixteen gun batteries on the island. There were eighty guns defending the island and the bombing wrecked over half of them. Communications were destroyed, along with air raid shelters and ammunition stores. On D-Day (11 June 1943) surface vessels opened fire on the island an hour before the landing craft reached the beaches. By the time the first British commandos clambered ashore the white flag was already flying.

The Germans had already evacuated the airfield, leaving just a handful of technicians. The Italians, however, had left a garrison of 10,000 men. Within the next two days Lampedusa and Linosa, two other Italian-held islands, were also captured and the route to the invasion of Sicily was now open.

Back on Malta, the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, General Eisenhower and General Montgomery, Commander of the British 8th Army, established their new headquarters at Valletta, in preparation for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Some 3,000 ships were being gathered and many of the 600 aircraft based on Malta would provide air cover for the invasion.

The island had received a visit from an American engineer on 25 May 1943. He had come at the invitation of Lord Gort and Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park. British and American engineers had surveyed Gozo, looking for a possible site of a new airstrip. Eisenhower was concerned that Malta’s airfields were not large enough to deal with the huge amount of aircraft that would be required for the opening of the Italian campaign. Eisenhower said:

British field engineers, who depended to a great extent upon hand tools and light mechanical equipment, had given up all hope of finishing an airfield there [Gozo] in time for use in the Sicilian campaign.

The arrival of the American engineer, Major Lee Baron Colt, brought new hope to the plan. He believed he could have an airstrip ready in two weeks. All he needed was men and equipment. Company E, 21st Engineer Aviation Regiment was moved to Gozo. They would have to clear cultivated fields and terraces in order to build a runway 4,000 ft in length and 150 ft in width.

There was continued action still, with numerous dogfights taking place over Sicily and the waters between the Italian island and Malta. Almost daily there were losses.

There was intense excitement on 20 June when the rumour that King George VI was about to visit Malta was confirmed at 05.00. He would be arriving in the Grand Harbour onboard the cruiser HMS Aurora that morning. All the dignitaries were out in force to greet the monarch, along with thousands of Maltese citizens. The King toured the island, visiting many of the sites of the conflict over the past years. Gort signalled to the King on his departure:

At the close of a day never to be forgotten in the history of these islands, the armed forces and the people of Malta and Gozo humbly wish Your Majesty God speed. We are deeply sensible of the honour our beloved sovereign has bestowed on his fortress by this personal visit whilst Malta still stands in the van of the forces of the United Nations in the central Mediterranean. As in the past, this colony has only one intention — never to falter in the service of Your Majesty.

The King replied:

It was with great eagerness that I seized the occasion of my visit to North Africa to come to Malta and bring to the armed forces and to the Maltese people a message of good cheer on behalf of all other peoples of the British Empire. The warmth with which I have been received today has touched me more than I can say. It has been for me one further proof of the loyalty which has inspired the island fortress to withstand the fiercest blows that a cruel enemy could inflict upon her. I thank the people of Malta from my heart and send them my best wishes for the happier times that surely lie ahead.

As for the development of the airfield on Gozo, success was confirmed when seventy-four Spitfires of the 31st Fighter Group, led by Lieutenant Colonel Fred M Dean USAAF were transferred from Tunisia on 30 June. The month had ended with just thirty air raid alerts and not a single bomb had been dropped on Malta.

Malta now braced itself to become part of the invasion effort. Operation Husky was due to be launched on 10 July 1943 and it would be from Malta that Eisenhower would first step foot on enemy-held Europe just two days later. Raids were still necessary prior to the invasion. Each enemy aircraft destroyed in the air or on the ground brought the prospects of the invasion success closer.

According to statistics compiled in England, the total number of enemy aircraft destroyed between 1939 and June 1943 in operations against the RAF and Fleet Air Arm amounted to 3,500 in the Middle East region, which included Malta. This was an incredible amount since the total number of enemy aircraft shot down over Great Britain in the same period was 4,201. RAF losses in the Middle East region amounted to 1,977 aircraft.

Malta’s Spitfires were still in action, even after Allied troops had begun their invasion of enemy-held Europe. Daily Maltese Spitfire sweeps led to dogfights over Sicily and beyond.

By 5 August, with British and Canadian troops almost at Mount Etna on Sicily, Eisenhower delivered his own tribute to Malta:

The epic of Malta is symbolic of the experience of the United Nations in the war. Malta has passed successively through the stage of woeful unpreparedness, tenacious endurance, intensive preparation and the initiation of a fierce offensive. It is resolutely determined to maintain a rising crescendo of attack until the whole task is completed. For this inspiring example the United Nations will be forever indebted to Field Marshal Lord Gort, the fighting services under his command and to every citizen of the heroic island.

The Times of Malta throughout the entire siege had never failed to be published. Mabel Strickland, the editor, writing on 17 August after Sicily had fallen, wrote:

The hideous German Junkers 88s no longer possess the sky, instead there is the continuous drone of British fighters and bombers, heading out for Italy, speeded on their mission by the Maltese with a fierce and furious delight. They are the first liberators of oppressed Europe.

A greater joy was to come to Malta on 8 September. The remnants of the Italian fleet, just twenty-eight vessels, steamed into the Grand Harbour to surrender. The Germans had tried to sink the surrendering Italian surface fleet and had managed to destroy the Italian battleship and flagship, Roma.

On 28 September Marshal Badaoglio signed the Italian surrender at Malta. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham sent a telegram of confirmation to London:

Pleased to inform their lordships that the Italian battle fleet now lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress of Malta.

Malta’s staunchest ally and supporter arrived on the island in November 1943. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was later to write:

The interrelation between Malta and the desert operations was never so plain as in 1942, and the heroic defence of the island in that year formed the keystone of the prolonged struggle for the maintenance of our position in Egypt and the Middle East.

On Wednesday 8 December 1943 Malta played host to President Roosevelt. He commended the islanders for their contribution:

In the name of the people of the United States of America I salute the island of Malta, its people and defenders, who in the cause of freedom and justice and decency throughout the world have rendered valorious service far above and beyond the call of duty. Under repeated fire from the skies, Malta stood alone but unafraid in the centre of the sea, one tiny bright flame in the darkness, a beacon of hope for the clearer days which have come.

The civilians and servicemen of Malta had suffered enormous losses and privations and many of the vessels that had brought them hope had also been lost. HMS Eagle, USS Wasp and HMS Welshman had all been sunk by the time the war had ended. The USS Wasp had been sunk off Guadalcanal in the Pacific by a Japanese submarine on 15 September 1942. HMS Welshman had been sunk off Tobruk on 1 February 1943 and HMS Eagle had of course been sunk during Operation Pedestal. Four torpedoes, fired from the German submarine U-73 had sunk her in the early morning of 11 August 1942, 70 miles south of Cape Salinas.

Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie wrote in 1944 of the victory that would have appeared to have been so impossible in 1940:

It was my privilege to witness these amazing happenings from the vantage point of Malta, which was destined to play a great part in the epic struggle. It is possible that the importance and the role of that island fortress have only been imperfectly understood until recently, but it is very evident now that its importance was so great and its role so vital to our wellbeing in the Mediterranean that its retention in our hands justified any effort and any sacrifice however great. It is no exaggeration to say that the security of Malta reacted very definitely on the safety of Egypt, and all that those words imply. If Malta had fallen, the safety of Egypt would have been very gravely endangered. It was from Malta that the attacks were launched by sea and air on the enemy’s lines of communication between Italy and North Africa. By means of these attacks we were able to exert some influence on the effectiveness of the enemy forces in North Africa, and in this way to reduce the threat on Egypt.

Dobbie went on to describe the perilous position that Malta found itself in at the beginning of hostilities:

Our resources were meagre enough. Especially in the early months of the Italian war, the garrison was unbelievably weak both in men and material, and the enemy undoubtedly knew exactly how weak we were. Our air resources in Malta were practically nil, although the fortress was only a few minutes flying away from the many air bases in Sicily and southern Italy at the disposal of the strong Regia Aeronautica. No wonder the Italians had been boasting that they would overrun the island within a few days of the declaration of war. Their resources were amply adequate to justify them making the attempt, especially in view of our own weakness. But this attempt was never made (just as the attempt to invade Britain was never made), and all other attempts during the two long years and more to reduce the fortress by other means failed. We acknowledge with admiration and gratitude the way the people of Malta, the three fighting services and the Merchant Navy faced the ordeal and willingly paid the price needed to keep Malta safe. But even so the fact that Malta is today still in British hands is a miracle. The miracle of Malta is a part, and a big part, of the Mediterranean miracle.

The war front was gradually leaving Malta in the rear. By December 1943 there had been no air raid alerts over the island, a situation that had existed for at least two months. January 1944 saw two air raid alerts and there were none in February.

By August 1944 the island and the servicemen had settled down to a new, more peaceful routine. On 5 August Gort visited Valletta for the last time. He had been appointed High Commissioner and Commander in Chief in Palestine and would be replaced by Lieutenant General Sir Edmond Acton Schreiber.

The last alert was sounded on 28 August 1944. It began at 20.43 and the all clear was sounded at 2.100 hours. In all, Malta had experienced 3,349 air raid alerts. The island had been under alert for 2,357 hours. Of these 1,206 had been actual bombing raids.

The year 1944 brought more food, security and an end to the terror. There were still huge mounds of broken buildings. Each village and town on the island was scarred and disfigured by the actions of the enemy over the period of the siege. Daily Allied aircraft, not Italian or German raiders, flew overhead. The island was subjected to successive invasions: not by the enemy but by servicemen bringing in supplies and material or in transit to or from the front in Italy. Still alert for any danger, the fighter squadrons and anti-aircraft batteries scoured the skies for the sign of an enemy attack. In the harbours cargo ships and other vessels sailed in and out freely, unmolested by the attentions of Ju87s and Ju88s. In the Grand Harbour there was the wreckage of many of the ships that had brought much needed supplies and reinforcements to the island.

For many years the scars left by the blitz on Malta remained. The countryside was strewn with burned out aircraft, the villages and towns with collapsed buildings. In time the army, the air force and the navy would all leave Malta. To this day the Opera House lies in ruins, the only landmark on the island that has not been rebuilt.

In 1992 the Siege Bell Memorial was built on the site of a Bofors gun emplacement, overlooking the Grand Harbour. At noon each day the bell is rung to remind the islanders and the tourists that the island remains the home of the many airmen that fought and died on Malta and that the island remains their resting place.


The origins of ninjutsu, placed approximately between 500 and 300 B.C., are commonly linked (as are most Oriental arts of combat) to Chinese sources. Mention is often made of the interesting section on methods of espionage which is embodied in the ancient treatise The Art of War, written by the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu. There is no single English term that can be used to define with precision this art or science, nor to accurately describe its practitioners, the notorious ninja. One translation of ninjutsu might be “the art of stealth,” which is a term commonly employed in the doctrine of bujutsu. This definition, however, identifies only one of the many characteristics and functions of ninjutsu—concealment, or the creating and perpetuating of an aura of mystery. The functions of the ninja may be represented in general as having been those of infiltration into hostile environments, performance of various acts of sabotage or assassination, and management of a successful escape once a mission had been accomplished. Infiltration of enemy centers and castles, in fact, gave rise to a particular subspecialization of ninjutsu which was known as toiri-no-jutsu, while slipping through enemy lines in time of open warfare or military alert became a specialty referred to as chikairi-no-jutsu. The various deeds to be performed once infiltration had been successfully accomplished were as varied as the military or strategic circumstances themselves. We can divide these deeds or acts into three main categories: first, the gathering of intelligence by espionage, and all of its correlated activities; second, assassination, subversion, destruction of enemy defenses; and third, action on the battlefield, including combat operations in almost every form, ranging from an open encounter to an ambush (whether against a defenseless victim or a heavily-protected lord).

Ninja, then, were often raiders who hired themselves out as spies, assassins, arsonists, terrorists, to the great and small lords of the Japanese feudal age. When certain “disreputable” tasks had to be undertaken, the honor-bound warrior (who was expected to fight openly against his foe in accordance with the rules of his profession) was not usually the one asked to perform them. Large organizations of ninja families, specializing in such tasks, were generally available to the highest bidder.

As spies, the ninja reportedly made their first notable appearance in the sixth century, with an employer of royal blood, Prince Regent Shotoku (A.D. 574–622). They were frequently hired by the fighting monks of the mountains, the redoubtable yama-bushi, who battled against both the imperial forces at the end of the Heian period and those of the rising military class (buke). Strong ninja guilds became firmly entrenched in Kyoto (which was virtually ruled by them at night), and their schools proliferated until there were at least twenty-five major centers during the Kamakura period. Most of these centers were located in the Iga and Koga provinces, and the concentration of these dangerous fighters had to be smashed time and time again by various leaders seeking to gain control of the central government. Oda Nobunaga is reported to have employed forty-six thousand troops against Sandayu at Ueno, destroying four thousand ninja in the process. The last impressive employment of these fighters on the battlefield seems to have been in the Shimabara war (1637), against forty thousand rebellious Christians on the island of Kyushu.

With the ascendancy of the Tokugawa and their heavily policed state, smaller groups of ninja were employed by practically every class against members of other classes, and even within a class by certain individuals against any clansmen who opposed them. Ninja were also used in the espionage network constructed by the shogun to control the imperial court and the powerful provincial lords. The ninja of Koga province, for example, were notorious throughout Japan as secret agents of the Tokugawa; and roaming bands of ninja are said to have engaged groups of warriors in local battles, either to suppress attempted sedition or to enlarge the ninja’s own territorial control. Individual lords and powerful members of other classes such as the merchants, for example, also employed the ninja, who left behind them an unbroken record of more than five hundred years of intrigues, disruptions, assassinations, and other assorted forms of disorder.

By the beginning of their teenage years, young ninja boys in the ninja villages of Iga and Koga will have internalized the basics of ninjutsu.

  1. Ninja kid learning the principles of balance, supervised by his dad, his primary instructor throughout his life.
  2. Young ninja learning underwater breathing techniques utilizing a bamboo tube. Later in life he might have to hide for hours under the surface of a lake or river to avoid detection by enemies.
  3. Vital swordsmanship training. Ninja kid taking his first lesson in how to deal with a ring of attackers. He has to anticipate how each bamboo rods will swing back and forth in order to avoid contact with them.
  4. Ninja boy in extensive missile practice, learning how to spin the shuriken and hit the target accurately.
  5. Young ninja learning survival skills traveling into the mountains and catering for himself. He is cooking a bag of rice buried under a campfire, with the rice wrapped in a cloth and soaked in water.
  6. Ninja child interviewed by the shonin, or head of the ninja settlement. He is assessing the child’s progress.
  7. 2-, 3- and 4-man techniques for jumping over tall obstacles like walls:
  8. Ninja teamwork with excellent acrobatic skills. On the other side of the wall the vigilant observer might conclude that the ninja has the ability of flying. In this technique one ninja runs forward carrying his mate on his shoulders, who then leaps from this lifted position.
  9. Two ninja assisting a third to maneuver over a wall by giving him a powerful ‘leg up’.
  10. Four men forming a human pyramid.
  11. Ninja utilizing an ashigaru’s yari, or long spear, to pole-vault over a ditch.

Reconnaissance became a primary concern during the Warring States period (Sengoku jidai, 1467– 1568) and centered on the famed spies known as ninja, whose activities were called ninjutsu (ninja arts and training). The widespread internecine warfare of the mid- to late-Muromachi period made infiltration and information-gathering a focus of military operations. Training in ninja techniques like those described below in “Dagger Throwing” and “Needle Spitting” have relatively recent origins in Japan, despite having developed out of espionage tactics that were fairly common in the medieval era. As with legends praising brave and virtuous samurai, modern (and medieval) misconceptions about ninja traditions have enhanced the ninja mystique. Clothed in notorious secrecy and black garments, and endowed with famed accuracy, acrobatic skills, and awe-inspiring weapons, these figures have played prominent roles in film and literature concerning the martial arts. Most ninja missions supplied little such drama, although concealing the identity of successful ninja was considered paramount.

Famed ninja bands, such as the Iga school (originating in present-day Mie Prefecture) and the Koga school (part of Shiga Prefecture today), were identified with the regions in which they began. Villages in these areas were entirely devoted to instruction and mastery of ninja techniques. Ninja who trained in such regional bands served as scouts, penetrating enemy territory to gather information, conduct assassinations, or simply to distract and confuse the enemy at nighttime. Daimyo relied upon legions of these figures beginning in the 15th century as domains competed for dwindling land and other resources.

Ninja techniques, known as shinobu in Japanese, included strategies of artifice, camouflage, and deception, as well as an array of weapons and tools designed especially for espionage and covert use. In the Warring States period, clandestine missions were critical to military tactics, and thus ninja practices were transmitted orally to maintain secrecy. While medieval samurai enjoyed a somewhat undeserved reputation for noble intentions and valor, ninja temperament was compared to that of a trickster who eschewed the forthright bravery of military retainers, preferring the advantages offered by ambush and sleight of hand. Opportunistic ninja offered themselves as assassins for hire and pirates during the nearly continuous unrest of the 15th to 16th centuries. They became a significant threat in the 16th century. For example, Oda Nobunaga sent 46,000 troops to Iga province in 1581, although tales recount that 4,000 were killed by the Iga ninja.

In the Edo period, threatened with extinction under the enforced Tokugawa peace, ninjutsu became a formal martial art which may have attracted followers simply because of the general fascination with these mysterious, elusive, seemingly magical figures. As ninjutsu became one of the most alluring of the standard 18 military arts (bugeijuhappan), samurai enthusiasts organized ninja teachers, classes, skill requirements, tools, weapons, and techniques systematically in manuals designed for instruction. One of the primary ninja manuals, the Mansen shukai, was compiled in 1676 by Fujibayashi Samuji. This important text detailed the traditions and techniques of the Iga and Koga schools of ninjutsu.

The ninja families were tightly-knit microcosms well integrated into larger groups (in accordance with the ancient clan pattern). There were leaders (jonin) who formulated plans, negotiated alliances, stipulated contracts, and so forth, which subleaders (chunin) and agents (genin) then carried out faithfully. These groups formed larger guilds with individual territories and specialized duties—all jealously guarded. A man seldom joined a group in order to become a ninja; he usually had to be born into the profession. The arts, techniques, and weapons of each family, of each group, were kept strictly secret, being transmitted usually only from father to son and even then with the utmost circumspection. Disclosure of ninjutsu secrets to unauthorized persons meant death at the hands of other ninja of the same group. Death usually also followed capture, either at one’s own hand or that of another ninja, who would leave behind only a corpse for the captor to question.

Books and documents (torimaki) related to the heritage, arts, and techniques of ninjutsu, therefore, were considered secret family treasures which it was the responsibility of each generation to preserve and transmit to the next. They contained instructions concerning those techniques of combat with which the ninja had to familiarize himself and which he had to master (including the traditional martial arts of the country: archery, spearmanship, and swordsmanship). In turn, the ninja cleverly adapted the use of these arts to suit his own devious purposes. He used an easily assembled short bow, for example, instead of the warrior’s long bow, and he also devised methods of telescopically reducing a spear—with astonishing results when it suddenly sprang into full extension. Members of the Kyushin ryu, a school of ninjutsu, became noted for their unorthodox methods of using a spear (bisento). Swords and other assorted blades, finally, were also used on the ends of various collapsible poles to which chains were attached for quick retrieval; often blades were projected by hidden springs, or they were simply thrown by hand according to the techniques of shurikenjutsu. The ninja were also masters of the techniques of iaijutsu, which enabled them to draw swords or daggers with blinding speed. The Fudo ryu, another school of ninjutsu in feudal Japan, was considered vastly superior in the development of this particular kind of dexterity with blades.

The ninja, however, also had a full array of specialized weapons for his exclusive use, each with its particular and fully developed method of employment. Blow-guns, roped knives and hooks, garrotes, various spikes (toniki), brass knuckles (shuko), an extensive assortment of small blades (shuriken), including dirks, darts, star-shaped discs, and so forth, were all included in his arsenal. The shuriken or “needles” were usually kept in a band containing up to five deadly missiles, and they could be thrown in rapid succession from any position, in any light, and from varying distances. The ways of throwing the shuriken seem to have been grouped together, attaining the status of a full-fledged art (shurikenjutsu). Even members of the warrior class reportedly studied its techniques in order to be able to use their short swords (wakizashi), daggers (tanto), and knives (such as the ko-gatana and kozuka) with greater accuracy and effectiveness at long distances. Shuriken could also be forged into a star-shaped disc with many sharp points radiating from a solid center. Sometimes called shaken, these sharp stars were usually thrown with a whipping movement of the wrist which sent them spinning toward their target—often unnoticed until it was too late. Especially famous were the chains or cords with a whirling weight on one end and a double-edged blade on the other (kyotetsu-shoge), which the ninja knew how to use with merciless precision; there was also the innocent-looking bamboo staff carried by an apparently unarmed pilgrim—the staff concealing, however, a chain with a weight at one end and a lead block at the other.

The ninja’s skill in penetrating enemy strongholds (houses, castles, military camps, individual rooms, etc.) was based upon his knowledge of practical psychology, as well as upon his mastery of a most impressive array of climbing devices (roped hooks, flexible ladders, special shoes, hand spikes, etc.), which he could also use as weapons. In addition, he usually carried breathing tubes and inflatable skins so that he could stay underwater for long periods of time or cross castle moats, lakes, or swamps with comparative ease. A skilled chemist (yogen) in his own right, the ninja often used poisoned darts, acid-spurting tubes, flash-powder grenades, smoke bombs, and so forth, cleverly adapting ancient Chinese discoveries in chemistry and inventions in explosives to his particular requirements. After the arrival of the Portuguese, he even used firearms. These weapons, in addition to the spiky caltrops which he dropped behind him as he made his escape, all contributed to his skill in evading capture by slowing down, blinding, killing, crippling, or merely surprising his pursuers.

Among the unarmed methods of combat which he mastered, jujutsu, in its most utilitarian and practical form, predominated. Schools of ninjutsu, however, also specialized in particular systems of violence seldom found elsewhere. The ninja of the Gyokku ryu, for example, were expert in the deadly use of the thumb and ringers against vital centers in the human body. This method became known as yubijutsu. The students of the Koto ryu were particularly proficient in breaking bones (koppo).

From the above, it appears obvious that a ninja was a truly dangerous foe, skilled and prepared to cope efficiently and ruthlessly with almost all the possible dimensions of armed and unarmed combat. His overall bodily control and range of muscular possibilities was often astounding. In addition to training in the various arts mentioned above, he is said to have been able to climb sheer walls and cliffs (with the help of certain equipment), control his breathing under water and his heartbeat under enemy scrutiny, leap from great heights (walls, etc.), disengage himself from knots and chains, walk or run for long distances, remain still for hours (even days, some authors claim), blend with shadows, trees, statues, and so forth, as well as impersonate people of every class, thus being able to move about freely even in areas which were under strict surveillance. In this context, his knowledge and command of practical psychology, as indicated earlier, appears to have been highly developed and is said to have included sleight of hand and hypnosis (saiminjutsu)—skills which may have formed the basis for a number of the ninja’s more startling exploits.