Chinese Operations in the Korean War, 1950–1953 Part I

When China’s peasant army intervened in the Korean War in October 1950, all of the material factors favored the UN armies. Led by Marshal Peng Dehuai, the Chinese attacked into Korea with roughly 380,000 men commanded by two army groups, the 13th and the 9th.6 The 13th Army Group with about 180,000 men faced the main UN force, the US Eighth Army marching up the western side of the Korean peninsula, while the 9th Army Group faced the US X Corps on the eastern side with only about 120,000 men. In addition, the units assigned to the 13th Army Group were all veteran formations from the Chinese civil war. Against them, the UN forces consisted of 450,000 men, of which about 225,000 were Republic of Korea (ROK) troops.

Peng Dehuai in his Marshal uniform

In addition to their slight numerical edge, the UN armies, and particularly their American backbone, possessed an incalculable advantage in equipment, mobility, and firepower. Chinese units were laughably underequipped compared to their American counterparts. Only one-quarter to one-third of the Chinese infantrymen even had rifles. The vast majority went into battle with only grenades. The Chinese armies attacked without any artillery. They had a few Katyusha MRL batteries but held these in reserve at first. They had no antitank weapons. Instead, every Chinese platoon carried enough TNT for 8–10 five-pound satchel charges that had to be placed in the wheels of a tank or thrown through an open hatch to have any effect. The heaviest weapons Chinese units possessed were a handful of 120-mm mortars per regiment and only light mortars and light machine guns at lower echelons. Those weapons the Chinese did have were a heterogeneous assortment captured from the Japanese and the Guomindang and so consisted of older US, European, Japanese, and some Russian small arms. The Chinese had no radios below regimental headquarters, and had so few of these that divisions generally relied on runners for communications. Finally, the Chinese entered Korea with a logistics system that had to rely entirely on porters except for about 800 old trucks, of which only 300–400 were operational on any given day.

The Chinese Intervene. The initial Chinese assault began on October 21, 1950. They struck with total surprise. Chinese CC&D efforts were phenomenal, and US intelligence never detected the movement of their vast armies into Korea. The Chinese also were greatly aided by the self-deception of UN-commander General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters. MacArthur adamantly believed that the Chinese would not intervene (and if they did that they would be easily defeated by US air power), and so he and his subordinates repeatedly disregarded evidence of an impending Chinese offensive.

When the Chinese attacked, UN forces were caught spread out all over northern Korea and completely unsuspecting. The Chinese hit so quickly and so hard that many units were overrun before they knew what was happening. Initially, the Chinese deliberately targeted South Korean formations, believing them to be weaker than American or other non-ROK formations. They enveloped the ROK 1st Infantry Division, attacking simultaneously from the rear and both flanks before the division ever knew they were there. The South Koreans fought their way out only because they were able to call on enormous US firepower to cover their retreat. The Chinese then smashed the ROK 6th and 8th Infantry Divisions, caving in the right flank of the ROK II Corps and causing the entire corps to collapse. The Chinese armies kept pushing west, trying to roll up the lines of the US Eighth Army. They enveloped and mauled the US 8th Cavalry Regiment at Unsan, before the Eighth Army commander, Lt. General Walton Walker, ordered the entire army to fall back to the Chongchon River. At the Chongchon, the United States was able to regroup and bring to bear its overwhelming firepower to halt the Chinese advance.

Marshal Peng concluded that it would be too costly to try to break through the UN lines along the Chongchon and instead opted to pull back in hopes of luring the UN armies back north. Peng’s intention was to coax the UN forces out of their fortified lines and get them on the move where they would be easier prey for another Chinese offensive. In addition, the Chinese started to suffer from logistical problems almost immediately. Within days of the initial attacks, Chinese combat units had outstripped their man-powered supply columns. Chinese units carried only three days of food, and after a week of combat were tired and starving. This too argued in favor of a withdrawal and preparation for a new offensive.

The Chinese Second Phase Offensive, their main assault against the UN, began in late November 1950. By that time, Marshal Peng had regrouped and resupplied his forces and believed he had his support services in better shape for a new offensive. He would commit 388,000 Chinese troops against a UN force in northern Korea that now numbered only 342,000. To make matters worse, the Americans had interpreted the withdrawal in early November as an indication that the Chinese had been beaten—despite the fact that they had won nearly every battle they fought—and had run back to Manchuria. Consequently, on November 24, MacArthur ordered a renewed offensive to the Yalu River, despite the misgivings of some of his more clear-headed field commanders. Once again, UN forces pushed back up the peninsula, spread out, and paid little heed to forward reconnaissance. The Chinese struck on November 25th like a hurricane. They attacked with complete surprise and their operations were devastating.

Contrary to popular belief, Chinese forces rarely employed “human wave” attacks. Human wave assaults entail hurling masses of lightly armed infantry against an enemy position in an effort to take that position through shock and attrition. The idea is that the horde of soldiers will simply swamp the position despite their paucity of skills or weaponry. The Chinese regularly employed massed infantry tactics, but rarely human wave attacks. The differences are subtle but important.

In Korea, Chinese forces were so lightly armed that they could not generate adequate firepower for virtually any military operation. Consequently, the Chinese had to employ masses of infantry for those roles in which better-equipped armies would normally use firepower. Specifically, Chinese armies could not use firepower to cover the movements of a unit or to pin an adversary while another force maneuvered against it. Instead, the Chinese had to use infantry assaults for all of these tasks. In addition, the Chinese at times employed what they called the “short attack”—a variant of the Soviet echelon attack, albeit without tanks. In a short attack, Chinese infantry formations would repeatedly attack a narrow enemy defensive sector in hope of wearing down the defenders and creating a breakthrough they could exploit. While manpower-intensive, both of these approaches represented more sophisticated uses of light infantry than what is traditionally meant by a “human wave attack.”

The most common Chinese tactic was to employ masses of infantry to keep constant pressure on a position—just as a Western force would use firepower to do the same—while other elements outflanked and enveloped the enemy position. Obviously, this resulted in terrible casualties because keeping pressure on a UN position required the Chinese to send large numbers of lightly armed infantry into the heavy firepower of US and allied units. The Chinese only employed true human wave attacks on occasion late in the Korean War, when so many of their veteran soldiers had been killed that they had to rely largely on raw recruits who lacked the training and experience to employ more sophisticated tactics.

Bloody or not, Chinese tactics were highly effective, securing victory after victory despite the lopsided imbalance in weapons and equipment. Chinese units employed a constant screen of reconnaissance patrols to locate enemy positions. Chinese patrols would then further probe the enemy lines looking for unit boundaries, flanks, gaps, and other weak points. Under cover of darkness, infantry units would infiltrate through these gaps or around the enemy’s flanks. These forces would be employed in the attack to surround front-line combat units; overrun enemy command posts, artillery, and other support units; and set up ambushes deep in the rear to cut the enemy’s escape route. Other Chinese units, employing painstaking CC&D, would sneak up as close to the enemy defensive positions as possible without giving themselves away. The purpose of this was to be able to rush the defender from a short distance to get into close combat immediately. This was advantageous because the Chinese were superb in hand-to-hand combat and because this hindered UN units from bringing their artillery and air support to bear.

Whenever possible, the Chinese would begin their attack suddenly and under cover of night. Ideally, Chinese infantry infiltrated earlier would combine with formations in front of the enemy to launch assaults from all sides simultaneously. When this was impossible, some units would launch a frontal assault to pin the enemy as other forces conducted a double envelopment of the position. Then, while some reduced the encircled enemy positions, others would bypass them and push on into the rear to attack the enemy’s depth. As soon as one sector was secured, Chinese forces would press on quickly deeper into the enemy’s rear or into the flanks of nearby enemy units. When enemy forces were put to flight, Chinese units pursued aggressively for as long as they could. These tactics were employed at every level of the Chinese military, from army group and army right down to company and platoon, and proved highly successful throughout the war.

The Chinese used these tactics in November 1950 to tear huge holes in the UN lines. The main Chinese attacks were directed against the center of the UN front, where the Eighth Army in the west and the X Corps in the east were separated by the impassable mountains of central Korea. The Chinese 13th Army Group attacked the ROK II Corps and the US IX Corps on the right flank and center (respectively) of the Eighth Army advance while the 9th Army Group attacked the US 7th Infantry Division and the 1st US Marine Division holding the left flank of the US X Corps.

Chinese successes were spectacular. In the west, the Chinese split and then destroyed the two forward divisions of the ROK II Corps, allowing two entire Chinese armies to push around the right flank of the Eighth Army and envelop the US 2nd Infantry Division as well as the right flank of the US 24th Infantry Division. The 2nd Infantry Division took 4,000 casualties and lost over 50 percent of its equipment fighting its way out of the Chinese encirclement. A Turkish Brigade rushed north to hold the collapsing right flank was butchered, and the US 1st Cavalry Division also took heavy losses when it was brought forward for the same purpose. Chinese forces penetrated and enveloped parts of the US 25th Infantry Division and the ROK 1st Infantry Division, forcing both back with heavy losses. In the east, Chinese forces outflanked and mauled the US 7th Infantry Division. The only significant reverse the Chinese suffered during the entire campaign was against the US 1st Marine Division, which conducted a brilliant fighting withdrawal. Although the Chinese threw two entire field armies against them, the Marines fought phenomenally and, with plentiful fire support, they crippled the Chinese 9th Army Group and cut their way south.

The Marines aside, UN forces fell back in panic and confusion and the Chinese pressed them as hard as they could. However, the Chinese advance simply ran out of steam south of Pyongyang. Several factors were at work. First, Chinese forces could not advance as quickly as the UN could retreat. Without any motor transport, the Chinese could not keep pace with the fully mechanized UN units. The Chinese lost contact with the UN on December 3 and did not catch up to them again until December 20 when the UN had regrouped and formed a new defensive line north of Seoul. Second, China’s ramshackle logistical system could not support an advance even as quick as the Chinese infantry could march. As in October, Chinese units quickly began to run out of food and ammunition. As winter crept in and they had no warm clothing, they also began to suffer heavy losses from frostbite and exposure. Many units showed superhuman endurance and kept moving south without resupply, but eventually they too had to halt. Finally, US air power prevented the Chinese from advancing during the day and complicated Chinese logistical problems by working over roads, bridges, and rail lines, and destroying many of the precious few trucks and rail cars the Chinese had.

Continuing the Offensive. The Chinese resumed their assault on New Year’s Eve. This “Third Phase Offensive” was a virtual replay of its predecessor. The Chinese again took the UN forces largely by surprise, launching 280,000 men against a 100-mile assault sector. In the center of the peninsula, Chinese units again concentrated on the ROK II Corps, again smashing through it and then turning onto the flanks of the American units on either side. In the west, the Chinese mostly broke through the ROK divisions deployed between the American divisions, and then conducted double envelopments of the US units. Once again, in the first weeks of the offensive, the Chinese inflicted heavy losses on the UN forces and sent them reeling backward. However, almost immediately, logistical problems and China’s dearth of motor transport—compounded by the relentless pressure of US air power—prevented the Chinese from turning local successes into strategic victories. Time and again, Chinese units could not move fast enough to close their encirclements before the UN units slipped from their grasp. By mid-January 1951, the Chinese had taken Seoul and pushed the UN south of the Han River, but they ran out of steam before they could obliterate the UN armies altogether.

The Third Phase Offensive was China’s last shot at victory in Korea, and when it failed, stalemate became inevitable. By late January 1951, several important changes had deprived the Chinese of the capability to achieve a decisive victory. First off, Chinese losses were staggering. According to Marshal Peng, by the end of the Third Phase Offensive, China had lost roughly half of the force originally deployed to Korea in October and November 1950. Most of these casualties were the result of combat, logistical problems, and winter weather, with combat losses being the smallest of the three categories. What mattered was that so many of those killed were the hardened veterans of World War II and the Chinese Civil War. Consequently, Chinese armies increasingly were filled out with raw recruits sent to Korea with virtually no training.

Meanwhile, Chinese logistical problems continued to worsen. American air power prevented the Chinese from effectively using the railroads inside Korea, so supplies had to be carried by porter from the Manchurian border 300 kilometers away. Chinese divisions required remarkably few provisions compared to their American counterparts, but as soon as they went on the offensive, the extra distance from the Manchurian railheads began to weigh down their advance. At the end of the Third Phase Offensive, Chinese troops were attacking UN units primarily to seize their rations rather than to take their positions or drive them out of Korea.

In addition, Lt. General Matthew Ridgway took command of the US Eighth Army in late 1950 and then succeeded General MacArthur as theater commander in 1951. Ridgway was a brilliant general who rebuilt the UN armies and devised new tactics for fighting the Chinese. With Ridgway in command, UN forces were far more dangerous than they had been in the past.

In early February, Ridgway launched a limited counterattack that made little progress and took heavy casualties. Less than a week later, the Chinese responded with their Fourth Phase Offensive. Through outstanding CC&D efforts the Chinese again surprised the UN units, but the declining strength of the Chinese armies and the growing strength of UN forces with Ridgway in command made this offensive even less successful than the last. Surprise and Chinese tactical prowess again combined to bring some short-term successes: Chinese armies again routed several ROK divisions, allowing the Chinese to penetrate and envelop nearby American units. The US 2nd Infantry Division, finally back on line after its drubbing in November, was once again encircled and mauled. This time, however, Ridgway had devised tactics that allowed the UN to employ its firepower more effectively to kill Chinese and break up their assaults. Chinese units suffered appalling losses as a result of these tactics, and again their logistics failed them, forcing pauses that let UN units slip away before they could be cut off and destroyed. After only a week, the Chinese were forced to pull back to regroup.

It took the Chinese over two months to recover from their Fourth Phase Offensive. During this time, Ridgway launched a series of limited counterattacks that succeeded in retaking Seoul. Then on April 22, the Chinese commenced their Fifth Phase Offensive. This was Peng’s last bid at victory, and for it he had assembled 500,000 Chinese and North Korean troops. Yet it too followed the trend of accomplishing less than its predecessor.

The Chinese again achieved tactical surprise, and again aimed their initial assaults at ROK units. However, Ridgway had begun a program to retrain and re-equip ROK troops and, this time, the ROK divisions were pushed back, but not routed. UN troops also had learned to defend their positions in-depth and from all sides so that Chinese infiltration was much harder and less effective. In addition, the UN now had roughly 650,000 troops (227,000 US, 400,000 ROK) defending a much shorter front, making it far more difficult for the Chinese to find gaps between their units. Finally, Ridgway had concentrated unprecedented levels of firepower and simply obliterated everything in front of the UN lines. American artillery batteries were employed to bombard suspected Chinese assembly points whenever an attack seemed possible, while the US air forces conducted over 7,000 ground attack sorties in support of UN troops.

Chinese manpower reserves and tactical skills were such that they were again able to penetrate the UN lines, but they could not translate these breakthroughs into strategic victories. Mobility and logistics problems hobbled the Chinese advance from the start, giving Ridgway time to bring up American divisions held in reserve that proceeded to check and then reduce the Chinese penetrations with overwhelming firepower. As their supplies dwindled and their casualties soared, Chinese morale disintegrated and whole units began to crack under American pummeling. The Chinese pushed to the outskirts of Seoul, but were unable to retake the city.

The War Drags On. After the failure of the Chinese Fifth Phase Offensive, the fighting in Korea bogged down into a bloody stalemate. Both Peng and Ridgway recognized that they could not score a decisive victory over the other. Chinese maneuver skills and manpower resources essentially balanced out American firepower, mobility, and logistics. Both sides conducted frequent limited offensives meant to secure more advantageous defensive terrain, but neither attempted another grand “end-the-war” offensive.

Instead, the Chinese dug-in deep. They built elaborate trench and tunnel complexes with interlocking fields of fire, strongpoints, minefields, and hidden exits from which the defenders could launch sudden counterattacks from unexpected locations. According to Marshal Peng, the Chinese dug 1,250 kilometers of tunnels and 6,240 kilometers of trenches by war’s end. In the late summer of 1951, after the failure of China’s great offensives, the USSR began to provide Beijing with modern weaponry. The Soviets sent tanks, artillery, trucks, infantry weapons, and advanced fighter aircraft such as the MiG-15 to China. This new arsenal gave the Chinese considerably more firepower than in the past and a better ability to hang on to their defensive positions.

As a result of the sudden influx of Soviet equipment into China, the war in the air over Korea became interesting just as the war in the ground deadlocked. The Chinese Communists had never had an air force before, and their pilots had no more than a year of training before they took to the skies, so Beijing set only modest objectives for the new service. Essentially, Marshal Peng asked only that the Chinese Air Force provide air defense for his ground armies. At first, the Chinese fighters tried to intercept US bombers—mostly B-29s—attacking the Chinese logistics network in northern Korea. The B-29 was no match for the MiG-15 and thus Chinese pilots began doing considerable damage to US bomber formations in late 1951. However, these operations prompted the United States to deploy advanced F-86 Sabre and F-84 Thunderjet squadrons to Korea to escort the bombers and clear out the MiGs. In dogfights with the US fighters, especially the Sabres, the Chinese were initially mauled. The Sabre was a slightly more capable aircraft than the MiG, but the big difference was that virtually all of the US pilots were veterans of World War II while the Chinese were brand new to flying. Nevertheless, over time the Chinese pilots gained experience, and some became quite good.

As the size of China’s air force grew and the experience of its pilots improved, Beijing tried more ambitious air operations. First, in April 1951, the Chinese attempted to make a major air effort in support of their Fifth Phase Offensive by employing large numbers of IL-10 Sturmovik ground-attack aircraft they had received from the USSR. However, in ferocious battles with the US Sabres and Thunderjets, the MiGs could not clear the sky for such a ground-support campaign.

Next, the Chinese attempted to halt the US air campaign against Chinese lines of communication that was hampering the flow of supplies south to the front lines. In the summer and fall of 1951, the Chinese deployed 690 combat aircraft in Manchuria, of which 525 were MiG-15s, to try to gain air superiority over the battlefield. At that time, the United States had only one wing of Sabres and another of F-84s in Korea. United States’ pilots reported that the Chinese were better led, better trained, better organized, and employed better tactics than in the past. In some cases, this was because the Soviets had dispatched some of their own veteran pilots to fly the MiGs for the Chinese (and North Koreans).

Although the Chinese continued to be on the losing end against the Sabres, they were able to put up such huge numbers of aircraft that they began to seriously interrupt the US tactical air campaign against their logistics system. In response, the US air forces threw all their assets into a massive offensive counter-air campaign consisting of fighter sweeps and constant attacks on Chinese forward air bases. The MiGs rose in defense and fought huge, swirling dogfights with the American fighters. Although the US Air Force was unable to knock out the Chinese airbases altogether, they shot down hordes of MiGs in this way. Nevertheless, in 1952, the Chinese Air Force became even more aggressive, deploying ever greater numbers of aircraft (1,800 aircraft, including 1,000 jet fighters) and flying them farther and farther south. Still, although Chinese dogfighting skills continued to improve, they could never beat the Sabre pilots, and so over the course of 1952 and 1953, attrition began to wear down the Chinese Air Force, forcing it back on the defensive, and reducing its ability to interfere with other US air operations. Ultimately, the American Sabres would shoot down 566 MiGs for the loss of about 100 of their own.

With the fighting deadlocked on the ground and the United States having defeated the Chinese air threat, both sides agreed to peace talks in 1951. Nevertheless, it took two years of on-again, off-again negotiations to produce a ceasefire agreement on July 27, 1953, largely because of disagreements over the handling of prisoners of war. Actual costs for the Chinese remain unknown, but the most recent assessments suggest that probably around 450,000 Chinese were killed in the fighting. On the other hand, the South Koreans suffered 137,899 killed and the Americans 36,516 dead, most of whom were killed fighting the Chinese.

Patterns of Chinese Military Effectiveness

Overall, Chinese military forces fought very well during the Korean War. Chinese forces labored under a variety of important disadvantages, many of them derived directly from the poverty and underdevelopment of Chinese society at the time. Yet they scored major victories, knocking the UN armies out of North Korea and then fighting them to a draw around the 38th Parallel. Of greater importance, the specific performance of Chinese military forces in battle showed little similarity to that of the Arab armies. Although there were areas of overlap, primarily related to limited technical skills, even in these cases the similarities were not identical.

Chinese Strategic Leadership. China’s generals mostly showed a high degree of competence. Peng Dehuai obviously stands out as a first-rate commander, but Beijing’s strategic direction in general was very good.36 Allan Millett has argued that if Peng had deployed more of his force east of the Chongchon River in the November 1950 Second Phase attack, it would have produced an even more crushing victory than Peng achieved. That may be a correct appraisal, but it still does not detract from Peng’s performance under difficult conditions, nor the scope of what he did accomplish on this and many other occasions. In particular, Peng and China’s other generals seemed to have had an excellent understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their own forces and carefully crafted their operations to suit those capabilities.

Peng’s various offensives in Korea were well conceived, and had UN forces been less mobile and his own logistical system been more robust, the UN might easily have been thrown off the peninsula altogether. Even working under these constraints his operations achieved remarkable results. His offensives always featured a single-minded concentration of force against the decisive points coupled with deft maneuvers to confuse and cut off enemy formations. Nor would it be fair to criticize Peng for failing to incorporate his own logistical weaknesses and the enemy’s mobility into his planning: Peng’s mission, throw the UN off the Korean peninsula, probably was unattainable given the capabilities of his forces, yet he came remarkably close.

The direction of Chinese operations also was first class in every category. China’s military moves were thoroughly planned and meticulously prepared. Chinese generals used feints, deception, disinformation, and maneuver in superb combinations to achieve surprise and defeat otherwise superior opponents. They were extremely diligent about reconnaissance and intelligence operations. Although willing to pay heavily in casualties, it is difficult to say they squandered lives: Chinese operations were well-thought-through and there was a clear, well-reasoned purpose to their sacrifices. Chinese strategic leaders kept the control and organization of their forces simple and straightforward and commanded enormous armies with remarkably primitive communications systems. Chinese offensives were noteworthy for consistently securing surprise, uncovering the weak sectors in an enemy’s defense, concentrating overwhelming force at the decisive point on a battlefield, and forcing the enemy to fight at a disadvantage through rapid maneuver. On the defensive, Chinese operations were marked by a thorough appreciation for the terrain, extensive and well laid-out fortifications, and an ability to sense the flow of battle and shift forces appropriately in response to changes.

Before we move off the topic of China’s strategic leadership, it is worth noting that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was heavily politicized at this time in commissarist fashion.39 Political officers were present down to company level, and numerous officers and soldiers were Communist Party members who enforced party dogma. Chinese officers generally assumed that the political commissars were more powerful than they were since all military orders had to be countersigned by the ranking political officer.40 Patrick Coe has noted that in the Chinese military of the Korean War, “Decisions in combat (and elsewhere) not only had to be militarily or tactically correct; they also had to be politically correct.” Mao Zedong was a notoriously paranoid, capricious, and bloody-minded dictator who terrified his generals. Peng’s own rise was primarily a result of his steadfast loyalty to Mao, yet Mao endlessly micromanaged Chinese operations, often pushing strategically foolish ideas that drove Peng and his staff to distraction.

All of this reinforces the point that while politicization can be an impediment to military effectiveness, it is not inevitable, and various armies have found ways to compensate. Likewise, emphasizing the promotion of loyalty over competence does not mean that every general in a politicized military will be incompetent. There are brilliant loyalists too, especially in armies with considerable recent combat experience where the audit of battle can help sort the wheat from the chaff.

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