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.

2 thoughts on “Chinese Civil War: Air and Naval Forces 1946-49

  1. The Supermarine Spitfire became the backbone of RAF Fighter Command, and saw action in the European, Mediterranean, Pacific and the South-East Asian theatres during World War II. Much loved by its pilots, the Spitfire served in several roles, including interceptor, photo-reconnaissance, fighter-bomber, carrier-based fighter, and trainer.

    It was built in many variants, using several wing configurations. Although the original airframe was designed to be powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine producing 1,030 hp (768 kW), it was adaptable enough to use increasingly powerful Merlin and later Rolls-Royce Griffon engines producing up to 2,035 hp (1,520 kW) and was exported and used by many countries, even after WWII.

    One of these operators was the Republic of China, which used late fighter versions like the powerful F Mk. 22 and the F Mk. 24. The Mk 24 was the last land-based fighter variant of the Spitfire. Very similar to Mk 22, this variant could also carry rocket projectiles and introduced some minor changes to equipment and installations, e .g. a larger, Spiteful-type tail with a double trim tab.

    The Chinese Civil War was a civil war in China fought between forces loyal to the government of the Republic of China led by the Kuomintang (KMT) and forces of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
    The war began in April 1927, amidst the Northern Expedition and essentially ended when major active battles ceased in 1950. The conflict eventually resulted in two de facto states, the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in mainland China, both claiming to be the legitimate government of China.

    From 1937 the USA started supplying aircraft to the KMT Air Force, and this support became especially clear from 1940, when the legendary „American Volunteer Group“ (later re-formed to become a part of the then US Army Air Force as the 23rd Fighter Group) – equipped with shark mouth-marked P-40s – was sent to China. From 1943 the USAAF also used bases in areas held by the Nationalists for flying B-29-raids against Japan. During the war, the USA supplied numerous P-40s, B-25s, and P-51Bs to the Nationalists, while the Communists also organized their own air force (or, better said, several of them), which flew a plethora of very different – mainly completely obsolete – aircraft.

    By 1949 the KMT Air Force was a well-developed and equipped service, flying P-47 Thunderbolts, P-51 Mustangs, B-25 Mitchells and even B-24 Liberator bombers, as well as a considerable number of C-46 and C-47 transports.

    After the Japanese capitulation, the US were concerned about the widespread communist influence, and decided to continue the support of the Nationalists. In 1945, for example, the whole 3rd Amphibian Group of the USMC landed in China in order to help establish a supply system for different Nationalist garrisons.

    The Marines eventually pulled out of China by June of 1946, however, and the Nationalists were now to fight alone against the communists which were increasingly supported by the Soviets. In that struggle, neither their relatively powerful air force – which boasted 40 P-47Ds, some 60 P-51C/Ds and 40 each of B-24Js and B-25Cs – could help the Kuomintang, nor the – more or less – clandestine US support, via such „private“ enterprises like „China Nationalist Relief and Rehabilitation Administration Air Transport“ (CNRRAAT), led by US General Claude Chennault. After several bases in China were overrun by the Communists – Chennault was forced to retreat together with nationalist forces to Kumming, and then to Hong Kong.

    By late 1948, the Communists controlled the whole central and eastern China, while the nationalists held only Beijing and Tientsin – both of which fell in early 1949. The USA restrained from getting directly involved in the conflict again, but continued flying reconnaissance missions along the Chinese borders – and sometimes also behind them.

    During their final operations against the KMT, in early 1949, the Communists captured some 134 aircraft of the Kuomintang Air Force, and they managed to press quite a number of P-51Ds into service, while the Nationalists managed to evacuate some 110 aircraft (primarily P-51s) to Formosa, which provided the bulk of their fighter strength in the coming years.

    After being forced to cease CNAF operations over mainland China, in June 1950 the Nationalists had also to retreat also their last ground forces back to Formosa. This pull-back was supported by the USN carrier-battle-group (CVBG) lead by USS Valley Forge (CVA-45), which subsequently also had to take care for the Nationalists not to mount any counter-offensive. With the start of the Korean War, however, the attention of both – the USA and China – was turned away from the situation around Taiwan, and for the next four years there were no additional clashes, while the Nationalists were able to consolidate their regime.

    In May 1951 the USA have sent a small group of instructors to Taiwan, the task of which was to reorganize the Nationalist armed forces. By 1953, this job was completed so far that the Chinese Nationalist Air Force (CNAF) could be equipped with more modern fighters, including enough Republic F-84G Thunderjets to form one squadron. Simultaneously, it still operated two squadrons of P-47s in the ground attack role and one of Spitfire Mk. 24s and one of P-51s, both of which as fighters. Additional deliveries were to follow soon, replacing the more and more outdated piston-powered aircraft.

    The CNAF at the time was still in control of the airspace over the Fujian province, eastern Guangdong, and southern Zheijang. Most of the CNAF pilots were experienced from earlier operations during the Civil War and some were also recruited from the CAT, which was extensively involved in clandestine operations over mainland China at the time. They would badly need this experience very soon.

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