Chinese Civil War: Air and Naval Forces 1946-49

Supermarine Spitfire F Mk. 24, aircraft “65” (s/n 50-0751) of 21st FS, 4th FG, Chinese Nationalist Air Force (CNAF)

HMS Aurora was sold on 19 May 1948 to the Chinese Navy as compensation for six Chinese Custom patrol ships and one freighter that the British seized in Hong Kong and lost during the war. She was renamed Chung King and became the flagship of Chinese navy. On 25 February 1949 her crew defected to the Communists and the ship was renamed Tchoung King, a variation on her previous name. In March 1949 she was sunk in Taku harbour by Nationalist aircraft. She was later salvaged with Russian assistance but then stripped bare as “repayment”. The empty hulk spent the rest of her life as an accommodation and warehouse ship, being subsequently renamed Hsuang Ho (1951), Pei Ching (1951) and Kuang Chou. Her name tablet and shipbell were preserved in Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution.

At the beginning of the Chinese Civil War the Nationalist Air Force – with a reported strength of 1,000 aircraft of all types – had complete air superiority over the Communists. The Nationalists were equipped with a mix of modern US-supplied aircraft like the P-51D Mustang and captured Japanese types like the KI-43 and KI-61 fighters. Bombers were again left-overs from the pre-1945 air force, including the US Mitchell bomber and the Soviet Tupolev SB-2 light bomber. By 1948 the Nationalist Air Force had been reduced to a fraction of its 1945 strength but had one medium and one heavy bomber group, with a mixture of aircraft: 29 US-supplied B24 Liberators, 23 B25 Mitchells, plus a handful of ex-Japanese planes like the KI-48 were also still in service. In addition the Nationalists had 36 Mosquito dive bombers which served in a composite group with four B25s. There were four fighter groups with a total of 139 P-51Ds and 29 older P47s and four of the obsolete P40s dating back to the pre-1941 era. The transport wing of the Nationalist Air Force, which was to prove vital in supplying isolated garrisons, had two groups with a total of 125 C46s and 45 C47 Dakotas. The performance of the Nationalist Air Force during the civil war was mixed with the combat units being poorly led and badly organized. Structures left in place by the US 14th Air Force in 1945, including a large store of spare parts, should have been sufficient to keep the Nationalist Air Force in the air. However, a shortage of skilled ground crew and the corruption of officers meant that at any time a large proportion of available aircraft were grounded. This being said the air force was in almost constant action throughout the war and its transport wing was instrumental in keeping many isolated Nationalist garrisons supplied. Bombers and fighters were reported to often fly too high to be effective against ground targets but there were too few of them to affect the outcome of the war in any case. By March 1949 the majority of Nationalist aircraft had been flown to Taiwan as Chiang Kai-shek began to build up the defences of his island bastion.

The Communists had been supplied by the Soviet Union with a small number of captured Japanese aircraft after 1945. These included at least one example of each of the Ki43, Ki44, Ki55, Ki61 and Ki84 fighters as well as Ki30 and Ki51 attack aircraft. They also received a few Ki48 medium bombers and various trainers and reconnaissance aircraft. Communist crews were trained at an aviation school in Yenan and were joined by `volunteer’ pilots from the Japanese Imperial Air Force. During the civil war a number of Nationalist pilots defected to the Communists with their aircraft and these were then sent back into action after the red star insignia had been added to their planes. In 1949 the Communists captured 1,400 Nationalist aviation technicians in Shanghai, and used them to open a flying school for the PLA.

Although the Nationalist Navy during the civil war was small it faced no opposition from the Communists who had no seagoing vessels at all. Its boats were limited to commandeered junks which were used to transport troops on the inland waterways. The Nationalist Navy had a few larger ships, including the cruiser Chungking which was the ex-HMS Aurora, and a few survivors of the 1937-45 period. Most of its vessels were gunboats and other coastal patrol boats as well as 130 or so ex-US Navy landing craft. These vessels were very useful for moving Nationalist units up and down the Chinese coastline during the early days of the civil war. By 1949 the Nationalist Navy was divided into three squadrons with a total of three destroyers, six destroyer escorts, 34 various types of landing ships, and a number of gunboats and auxiliary ships. As with the other services, the Nationalist Navy had lost heart by early 1949 and it was no surprise when several ships, including the Chungking, went over to the Communists.


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