Defending the Indefensible – Hong Kong I

While some British military officials had doubted that the Japanese were capable of challenging the mighty British Empire, more farsighted leaders realized as soon as full-scale war broke out with Germany in 1940 that Hong Kong could not be defended. But they also stressed the need to hold on to the colony to maintain face and to prevent the harbor from falling into enemy hands. Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided against reducing the local garrison, which would weaken both the prestige of the empire and the morale in China. Yet the Hong Kong government was in a weak position to prepare for an invasion. The huge number of refugees from China drained resources (by early 1941, the colony’s population was well over 1.5 million), while the colony’s status as a free port, coupled with its open border with China, made controlling immigration—not to mention the movement of Japanese agents and sympathizers—impossible.

The colonial government was thus in the unenviable position of preparing to defend a colony that could not be defended, even while maintaining its neutrality. In September 1938 the government reinstated the Emergency Powers Ordinance of 1922, which allowed the police to deport anyone not employed; prohibit public meetings and organizations; censor Chinese newspapers, pamphlets, and placards; and call up a special force of constables. They also allowed the government to control food prices, intern Chinese and Japanese soldiers taking refuge in Hong Kong, and prohibit repairing and provisioning Japanese or Chinese vessels involved in the hostilities.

Even as the government was professing Hong Kong’s neutrality, it was preparing to defend the colony against a Japanese invasion. In July 1939, all British male subjects of European origin between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five were made liable for compulsory service in the Defence Reserve. After criticism from the local press and Chinese unofficial members of the Legislative Council, in summer 1940 the government began a program of air-raid tunnels. In 1940, the colonial government evacuated a number of British women and children to Australia. Among the evacuees were Eurasians holding British passports, who because of the Australian government’s White Australia policy were dropped off in Manila. This provoked an outcry from Eurasian and Chinese leaders in Hong Kong. In July 1941, Japanese assets in Hong Kong were frozen (as they were in Britain and the United States), although barter trading continued for a while.

Like all British colonies, Hong Kong became part of the British war effort once Britain declared war on Germany for invading Poland in September 1939. Hong Kong had already been part of the Chinese war effort, its formally neutral status notwithstanding, but the fact that both China and Britain were now at war joined the Chinese and the British communities in common cause. In April 1940 the colony contributed to the British war effort through new taxes and several gifts of cash. The South China Morning Post organized a Bomber Fund, while both Chinese and expatriates contributed to campaigns such as the British Prisoners of War Fund, the British War Organization Fund, the Chinese Relief Association, and the Hong Kong and South China Branch of the British Fund for the Relief of Distress in China. Under the Chinese Defence League’s “Bowl of Rice” campaign, donors ordered meals at participating restaurants but ate only a bowl of steamed rice, donating the price of the meal to the Chinese war effort. Robert Ho Tung, the Eurasian tycoon, donated a vessel to the Hong Kong Naval Volunteer Force.

Despite the Chinese community’s generous contributions to both war efforts, the colonial government doubted that it could rely on the Chinese to help defend the colony. The official view was that because most Chinese considered Hong Kong a temporary home, they were incapable of making any sacrifice for Hong Kong. Yet the government had done little over the previous century to evince the type of loyalty that it now sought from its Chinese subjects. Nor had the government shown that it trusted the Chinese enough to enlist them to defend the colony. Only in May 1938 was a Chinese company added to the Volunteer Defence Corps, founded in 1855 before the Second Opium War. And only after the Chinese members of the Legislative Council had assured the governor of Chinese support were British subjects of Chinese extraction allowed to register for the Defence Reserve. Although the British War Office finally agreed to accept Chinese infantry forces in October 1941, the minimum height and weight restrictions kept many of them out: of the six hundred who applied, only thirty-five were accepted.


On December 8, 1941, Hong Kong time, Japanese bombers attacked Hong Kong, Malaya, Pearl Harbor, and the Philippines. Within as many minutes, five Royal Air Force aircraft at Kai Tak airfield in Kowloon had been destroyed. As Japanese troops moved swiftly across the New Territories and into Kowloon, propaganda leaflets declaring “Asia for the Asians” called on Chinese and Indians in the colony to rise up and drive out their British exploiters. Within seventeen days, the Japanese took Hong Kong Island, occupying the entire colony until August 30, 1945. On Christmas Day, one week after the Japanese launched a three-pronged attack on Hong Kong Island, Governor Mark Young, who had arrived in the colony in September from Barbados, surrendered unconditionally to Lieutenant General Sakai Takashi. By February 1942, after the fall of Malaya and Singapore, the sun had set over Britain’s empire in East Asia.

Why did the British resistance fall apart so quickly? A better question might be, given the overwhelming strength of the Japanese forces, why did Hong Kong not fall even earlier? Although critics later complained that the British should have put up a stiffer resistance, both regular troops and volunteers followed Churchill’s orders to fight to the end. When Governor Young finally surrendered, he did so after rejecting three earlier offers of surrender and partly to prevent the Japanese invaders from committing the kind of atrocities they had inflicted on the city of Nanjing in 1938. On the eve of the invasion, the Hong Kong side, led by Major General Christopher Maltby, had approximately ten thousand forces—including two British battalions, the Hong Kong Volunteers, two Indian infantry battalions, and two battalions of infantry offered by the Canadian government—and a small number of airplanes and ships, with no chances of any naval reinforcements. A false announcement by the British military on December 20 that some sixty thousand Chinese troops were on their way may have raised morale, but it could not alter the fact that the Japanese side enjoyed clear superiority at sea, on land, and in the air. The Japanese had more than twenty thousand troops as well as more and better planes and ships and could always count on reinforcements from within China. By the time three of Chiang Kai-shek’s divisions arrived in Canton to attack the Japanese forces there, Hong Kong had already fallen. As the title of Tony Banham’s recent study of the invasion suggests, the colony had “not the slightest chance.”

Whereas the British commanders were almost all new to Hong Kong (Maltby had arrived only in August) and the two battalions of Canadian infantry were still being trained, the Japanese had several years of experience fighting in China, and many of their troops had been training together for the assault on Hong Kong. British defense plans changed late in 1941 from defending only Hong Kong Island to holding down the Japanese at the Gin Drinkers’ Line—a series of pillboxes running eleven miles from Gin Drinkers’ Bay in western Hong Kong to Port Shelter in the eastern region—and then retreating to defend Hong Kong Island. This did not leave enough time for effective planning and training. The British also failed to use the local Chinese effectively; the some 450 who volunteered were used primarily in service positions. The British, who moved mainly by road, were hamstrung when their military transport system fell apart. Helped by spies along the way, the fit, organized, and well-equipped Japanese moved quickly by foot, often at night.

The British had weak, outdated, and insufficient artillery and ammunition. Their persistently weak intelligence underestimated the size and quality of the Japanese forces. The Japanese had much better intelligence, obtained over several years by placing agents throughout Hong Kong in various civilian positions. (Several Japanese residents suddenly appeared in Japanese military uniforms shortly after the surrender.) Large numbers of Japanese merchants had been in Hong Kong since the 1930s, and almost one hundred Japanese remained in Hong Kong in late 1941. A Japanese intelligence map, now housed in the Harvard University Map Collection, shows just how well the Japanese knew their target. Based on British maps, this meticulously detailed map includes administrative boundaries, railway tracks, roads and paths, telephone and telegraph lines, wireless transmitters and underwater cables, police stations and post offices, telegraph and telephone offices, schools, hospitals, churches, temples, pagodas, cemeteries, wells, orchards, marshes and wetlands, uncultivated and barren areas, and both deciduous and coniferous forests.

The human costs of the invasion are unclear. British sources estimated 2,311 troops killed or missing and around the same number wounded, but a recent study places the number closer to 1,560 dead or missing. Japanese figures are less reliable, ranging from initial reports of only 675 killed or missing and 2,079 wounded to the equally dubious report by Tokyo later of 7,000 killed and 20,000 wounded; a more realistic estimate is around 2,000 killed and between 5,000 and 6,000 wounded. As in most wars, it is impossible to tell how many civilians were killed in the invasion. One estimate places the dead at 4,000 and the wounded at 3,000, but the actual numbers were probably much higher.

Rensuke Isogai


Thus began the three years and eight months of “The Captured Territory of Hong Kong,” which although touted as part of Japan’s “Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” was little more than Japanese colonialism. Despite their anticolonial rhetoric, the Japanese quickly transformed Hong Kong from a British colony into a Japanese one. Statues of British royalty were removed, while street and place names were replaced with Japanese names (Queen’s Road, for example, became Meiji Road). Even the racehorses at Happy Valley were bestowed with Japanese names. The new rulers also Japanized the landscape with various monuments and a cemetery in Causeway Bay for the Japanese horses killed during the invasion, to which Chinese residents were forced to bow. Replacing the Gregorian calendar with the Japanese calendar (based on the contemporary emperor’s reign), the Japanese introduced their own holidays, such as the emperor’s birthday, the Yasukuni Festival for Japanese war dead, and Empire Day or National Foundation Day. In May 1943, the new authorities established the East Asia Academy to introduce potential government servants, teachers, and businessmen to Japanese morals and customs. As an official Japanese publication explained, since Hong Kong was now a “Hong Kong for the East Asians,” it was time for the “poisonous remains of British cultural leftovers” to be “thoroughly eradicated.”

Although they portrayed their invasion as liberation from colonialism, as elsewhere in their new empire the Japanese in Hong Kong soon showed that they could be far more brutal than the British had ever been. On January 4, 1942, all of Hong Kong’s British, American, and Dutch residents were arrested. The Japanese displayed their victory over the British for Hong Kong’s non-European population to see, parading prisoners of war through the streets and forcing Allied captives to bow to Chinese, pull rickshaws, and clean the streets. Most of the British civilians were imprisoned in Stanley, on the south side of Hong Kong Island, while the military prisoners were held at a former British camp at Sham Shui Po in Kowloon. Although most of the Americans were repatriated, the head of the Stanley internment camp, Frank Gimson, who had arrived as colonial secretary the day before the Japanese invasion, insisted that the British civilians remain in Hong Kong as a show of force. Many civilian and military prisoners were executed; others died of disease and malnourishment. But even though Prime Minister Tojo Hideki ordered that the European prisoners have only the barest of rations, the British in Hong Kong had it better than their counterparts in some of the Japanese camps in Southeast Asia. In Hong Kong, writes historian Philip Snow, “the keynote of their treatment was humiliation rather than brutality for the sake of it.” Still, the “combined shock of the defeat and internment” undermined the “entire pre-war edifice of British supremacy in Hong Kong.”

Those who suffered the most, both in the invasion and during the occupation, were the same people the Japanese repeatedly insisted were not their enemies: the Chinese. The Japanese authorities tried to reduce Hong Kong’s population by repatriating the refugees who had come from China in the years leading up to the invasion. In early January 1942, they announced that anyone without residence or employment would have to leave. Although the Japanese had a hard time enforcing this policy, within a year Hong Kong’s population had dropped from more than 1.5 million to 1 million. By the end of the occupation in August 1945, it was under six hundred thousand. In three and a half years, at least ten thousand Hong Kong civilians were executed, while many others were tortured, raped, or mutilated. Army officers were even more vicious than their men, but the most systematically brutal were the Kempeitai, the notorious Japanese military police who routinely performed executions by beheading at King’s Park in Kowloon and used Chinese for shooting or bayonet practice. Dorothy Lee, a social worker, recalled how everyone lived “in fear of the ‘midnight knock.’ The Japanese might come to your door at any time to take over your house or flat and, in the early days, they came into rape.” Lee saw one Japanese corporal known as “the killer” personally behead twelve civilians within several minutes.

Although the Japanese created countless atrocities throughout their empire, Hong Kong’s unique situation may have encouraged the scope and intensity of this brutality. As they did in Malaya, Indochina, and Indonesia, many Japanese administrators and soldiers resented the Chinese of Hong Kong for supposedly having served their European overlords so willingly. Unlike the colonies of Southeast Asia, however, Hong Kong lacked the natural resources to make conquest worthwhile. Although the new regime introduced a program for reopening factories to produce goods such as shoes made with rubber from Indochina and Malaya, the Japanese economic record was disastrous. Shortages and price increases were exacerbated by orders from Tokyo to confiscate anything of value and send it to Japan. By late 1942, when the war was going badly for Japan, the governor tried even more vigorously to restrict Hong Kong’s scarce resources for the Japanese troops. In January 1943, the Kempeitai set two German shepherds on a group of Chinese women who had been gathering grass for fuel. Only after the dogs had chewed pieces of flesh out of them were the women released. As the colony’s overseas trade suffered, by mid-1943 the food shortage became even more unbearable. Several hundred corpses—some with parts of their thighs and buttocks removed for food—littered the streets every day, and many residents survived only by eating rats. The weakening of central government control and the expansion of corruption that accompanied Japan’s failing war effort made conditions even worse and “opened the way to an orgy of private greed.” Uncontrolled and free to do as it pleased, the Kempeitai in Hong Kong created an “empire unmatched by the Kempeitai branches in any other Japanese-occupied zone” and “waxed fat on the narcotics trade.”

Despite some provisions under the Japanese for educating Hong Kong’s poor, the education system practically fell apart. Whereas more than one hundred thousand children were enrolled in school before the war, by the end of the war this number had plummeted to around three thousand. Yet any account of the Japanese occupation must also include some of the more positive changes. Snow argues that the Japanese brought more Chinese into the “central administration of the colony than the British had ever done.” The Japanese practice of delegating tasks gave Chinese a larger role than under the British, while the Japanese also created a network of district bureaus, which the British never had. Unlike the British, the Japanese went to great lengths to publicize and explain their policies to the Chinese. The Japanese also made some positive changes in public health and agriculture. With “something close to a mania” for preserving public health—mainly to protect the health of Japanese soldiers—they kept outbreaks of smallpox and cholera minor compared with the prewar years.


Defending the Indefensible – Hong Kong II

The Royal Navy cruiser HMS Swiftsure, entering Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, through North Point on 30 August 1945.

The document of surrender was signed by Japan on 16 September 1945 in Hong Kong.

Collaboration took different forms and assumed various levels of intensity. As soon as the Japanese flag was raised in Central District on December 27, Japanese flags appeared all over the area, and Hong Kong’s new rulers had no trouble finding recruits for their administration. Some Chinese may have believed in Japan’s rhetoric of “Asia for the Asians,” but most people in Hong Kong, relieved that the invasion was over, collaborated simply to get by. For the Eurasians who were recruited for the same kinds of clerical and secretarial posts that they had held under the British and had nowhere else to go, collaboration must have seemed a rather logical choice. The writers for the Hong Kong News, which had been published before the war by Japanese businessmen and was revived by the occupation authorities, were mainly Eurasians and Indians. Many Eurasians and Portuguese became brokers between the Japanese administration and the Chinese population, running various black or gray markets. The Japanese also tried hard to win over the Indian population, promising to help them drive the British out of India. Some Britons also worked with the Japanese; for example, high-level bankers chose to collaborate to ensure some level of financial stability. Similarly, P. S. Selwyn-Clarke, the former director of medical services, worked with the Japanese for the sake of the Chinese community and the interned Europeans and prisoners of war.

To consolidate their rule, the Japanese tried to recruit the same community leaders who had worked with the British. On January 10, 1942, two weeks after the British surrender, Lieutenant General Sakai invited some 130 of the leading Chinese and Eurasians to a formal luncheon at the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon. Sakai insisted that the war in Hong Kong was against Britain, not China, and that the Chinese and Japanese should work together for the prosperity of all the races of Greater East Asia. Lieutenant General Isogai Rensuke, who became governor later that month, established two councils consisting of Chinese and Eurasian leaders for managing the Chinese population. On the Chinese Representative Council were Robert Kotewall, the chair; Lau Tit-shing, manager of the Communications Bank and chairman of the Chinese Bankers’ Association; Li Tse-fong, manager of the Bank of East Asia (which had maintained extensive contacts with Japanese firms before the war) and former unofficial member of the Legislative Council; and Chan Lim-pak, who had once been comprador to the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank in Canton. The Chinese Cooperative Council, whose 22 members were selected by the Chinese Representative Council from the leading professionals, was chaired by Chow Shouson.

Some Chinese leaders were enthusiastic about working with the Japanese. Lau Tit-shing, for example, was president of the Chinese-Japanese Returned-Students Association and, according to sociologist Henry Lethbridge, was “very pro-Japanese,” having been “thoroughly brainwashed by his early education in Japan.” When Lau died in April 1945, he was honored by the Japanese governor. Chan Lim-pak had been arrested by the British during the Japanese invasion on charges of “defeatist talk” and aiding the enemy. He was killed in 1944 by an American bomber while en route to Japan. But most Chinese and Eurasian leaders probably collaborated with the Japanese in the same way the majority of Hong Kong’s population did: “with reluctance and misgiving, and as a matter of physical survival.” Fear and pragmatism were no doubt strong reasons for collaborating, as was preserving their own class interests. And many collaborated with the Japanese to help the local community. Indeed, three colonial officers testified after the war that they had met secretly with Chow Shouson and Robert Kotewall shortly before the fall of Hong Kong and requested that they cooperate with the Japanese to protect the interests of the Chinese community. That there was so little Chinese resentment toward the two Chinese councils during the occupation suggests that most Chinese understood that the Chinese and Eurasian leaders had to cooperate.

Just as collaboration during the Japanese occupation took many forms, so did resistance. As they had under the British, many Chinese simply ignored the regulations and proclamations issued by the Japanese authorities. Chinese staff in the governor’s office often failed to show up for their mandatory Japanese classes; clerks at Chinese-run department stores refused to sell goods to Japanese, pretending that they were out of stock; and entire schools moved to unoccupied parts of the mainland rather than comply with the new curriculum. By summer 1943, people in Hong Kong realized that the war no longer favored the Japanese. By 1944, Chinese and Eurasian leaders started to avoid their duties on the two Chinese councils.

Given Hong Kong’s urban nature, most organized resistance occurred in the rural New Territories, especially along the Chinese border. Led by Lindsay Ride, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the Volunteer Defence Corps who had escaped from the Sham Shui Po prison camp, and with help from local Chinese such as Paul Tsui, a recent graduate of the University of Hong Kong, the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) helped European and Chinese residents escape from Hong Kong, gathered intelligence, and rescued Allied airmen shot down by the Japanese. Based in Guilin in southern China, the BAAG was technically a noncombat unit of the Indian Army. By late 1942, the Chinese Nationalists had revived an underground movement, while the Communist guerrillas of the East River Column were active in the New Territories and in the urban areas of Hong Kong. Despite the mutual suspicions among the British, Nationalists, Communists, and their respective agendas, this joint resistance helped to break down racial divisions between Britons and Chinese and to create a “camaraderie unimaginable in the pre-war years.”


British planning for postwar Hong Kong began almost immediately after the fall to Japan, which, compounded by the loss of Singapore and Malaya, was a terrible blow to British morale. As the Colonial Office began to reassess the British failure to defend Hong Kong, one of the conclusions was that the British should have relied more on local Chinese and accepted help from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. Some wartime planners argued that the invasion might even be a chance for the British to start afresh in Hong Kong after the war by building a better sense of community between the British and the Chinese, including by opening higher-level government positions to local Chinese. They were especially eager to prevent the type of anticolonial nationalism that had erupted in India and would eventually lead to independence in 1947.

The British plans for recovering Hong Kong, however, faced opposition from both China and the United States. With help from American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whose grandfather had been a partner in the American firm of Russell and whose mother had once lived in Hong Kong), in January 1942 Chiang Kai-shek became the supreme allied commander of the China-Burma-India Theater. Chiang hoped to use the war to recover Hong Kong and to end the embarrassing unequal treaties. Supported by the United States, in mid-1942 Chiang’s Nationalists approached Britain to give up Hong Kong, or at least the New Territories. In late 1942, Sino-British negotiations began for abolishing extraterritoriality in China and revising the status of the New Territories after the war. At the Cairo Conference of November 1943, Roosevelt promised to help Chiang recover Hong Kong if he agreed to help the Chinese Communists fight the Japanese.

Even while wartime planners in Britain were committed to restoring Hong Kong to British rule after the war, they also realized that the Chinese Nationalists’ demands would have to be taken seriously and that conditions in postwar Hong Kong would have to be different. Although the Nationalists suddenly aborted their campaign to recover the New Territories—content for the time being with the agreement that China would reserve the right to raise the issue at a later time—some British officials believed that Hong Kong might have to be surrendered for Britain to focus on its other possessions, especially India and Egypt. Realizing that many American officials supported China, some British officials even suggested giving up Hong Kong before the United States applied pressure on Britain to do so. In mid-1942, the Colonial Office conceded that Hong Kong might have to be surrendered after the war. Even in late 1945, George Kitson, head of the China Department at the Foreign Office, suggested that Britain return Hong Kong for both symbolic and practical purposes: as a token of gratitude for China’s help in defeating Japan, as a gesture of friendship in a new postwar world, as proof that British colonialism was entering a new phase, and as a preemptive move to prevent possible confrontation with China over the region.

As the war turned against Japan’s favor, however, by early 1943 the Colonial Office resolved to retain Hong Kong after the war. The Colonial Office became particularly optimistic in February 1944 when Li Shu-fan, a prominent Chinese surgeon who had made his way to London, assured the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office that most members of the Chinese upper classes would prefer British rule to Chinese rule after the war. That summer, the Hong Kong Planning Unit was established under Frank Smith, the former colonial secretary. After 1944 the unit was led by David MacDougall, a Hong Kong cadet who had escaped during the Japanese occupation. By mid-1945, Winston Churchill realized that Chiang Kai-shek could not try to recover Hong Kong without support from the United States, which now considered the continuation of the British Empire vital to its own interests in the postwar world. As victory became imminent, in the summer of 1945 the Hong Kong Planning Unit and the China Association, a powerful lobby representing British business interests in China, began to consider various proposals for constitutional reform, among them giving a greater role to local Chinese. Churchill now declared that Hong Kong would be removed from the British Empire “over my dead body.”

As the British planned for recovering Hong Kong, the problem of what to do with the old business and professional elite arose. The British needed a local support base, but some of the Europeans interned during the war had criticized leaders such as Robert Kotewall and Chow Shouson for being too compliant with the Japanese. Yet the returning colonial government would have great difficulty finding anyone to replace these old leaders. Furthermore, there was the problem of convincing the local Chinese population that Britain, rather than Nationalist China, deserved to rule Hong Kong after the war. This explains both why the British, who could not afford to lose the people they had depended on for so long, decided to keep the old leaders and why these leaders worked so hard to restore British rule. The Colonial Office eventually decided that Chow and Kotewall had been acting in the colony’s best interest.

Just as victory against Japan became certain, a more immediate challenge arose. Japan surrendered on August 14 1945, earlier than most British military planners had predicted. American and Nationalist Chinese troops were making progress in China, getting closer by the day to Canton. Knowing that Roosevelt wanted Chiang Kai-shek to accept the Japanese surrender as supreme commander in almost all of the China Theater, the British feared that Chiang’s troops would try to accept the surrender in Hong Kong. Although Chiang assured them that he would not try to retake Hong Kong after accepting the surrender, the British dispatched Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt from Sydney with a fleet to reach Hong Kong first. When Britain and China asked the United States to help them resolve the matter, Chiang proposed delegating surrender authority to a British official in Hong Kong, but only if Britain agreed not to accept the Japanese surrender until after Chiang had formally accepted the surrender for the China Theater. Britain agreed, and on September 16 Harcourt accepted the Japanese surrender on behalf of Britain and China in the presence of a Chinese and an American official.

This arrangement briefly soured Sino-British relations, but it was as pragmatic as it was symbolic. It also helps explain why Hong Kong remained a British colony after the war. Although there were loud calls in China for recovering Hong Kong and although he had almost sixty thousand troops within three hundred miles of Hong Kong when the Japanese surrendered, Chiang realized that Britain would not give up Hong Kong easily and that a failure to recover Hong Kong would discredit him in China. Furthermore, he needed the support of both the United States and Britain to be a major player in the new world order. Preoccupied with recovering northern China and keeping Chinese Communist troops from recapturing Japanese-held territory, he did not want to provoke the Communists into entering the race for Hong Kong, especially since their East River Column was closer to Hong Kong than were his own troops. Concerned about the postwar order, the United States had now softened its stance toward colonialism. Harry Truman, who became president after Roosevelt died in April 1945, was less committed than his predecessor to restoring Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, while General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific, supported outright the continuation of the British Empire in East Asia. The British realized that they could not prevent Chiang’s troops from recapturing Hong Kong and that the United States, regardless of its new attitudes toward colonialism, would not help the British resist such an attempt. They also realized that such an arrangement would play out better among the Chinese population of Hong Kong, some of whom, proud of China’s new status, thought that this might be a chance to get rid of the British.

China’s Final Victory, 1943–5

These Nationalist troops are undergoing specialist training at a US-run commando training school in May 1945. The school ran courses in irregular warfare and also a paratroopers’ course with selected Nationalist volunteers. US instructors came from the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, and several training camps were set up in western China. Uniforms, weaponry and equipment are of US origin with P-17 rifles and Thompson sub-machine guns.

A young Communist cavalryman in 1945 shows an elite soldier of the Chinese Red Army. The Communists made great use of their cavalry arm during the Sino-Japanese War, especially in the latter years of the conflict. This soldier’s relatively smart uniform, equipment and modern Mauser 98k rifle indicate that he belongs to one of the better cavalry units. However, the lack of clips for his rifle in the canvas bandolier over his shoulder is evidence of the shortage of ammunition suffered by the Communists.

By 1943 the Sino-Japanese War had been fought for six long years and both the Japanese and the Chinese were exhausted. War weariness amongst the Japanese in China had become a major problem with no end to the war in sight. The ever expected Nationalist collapse had never materialized and all Japan’s efforts to subdue the Chinese had failed. Some Chinese had collaborated with the Japanese but they were despised by the vast majority of the population. The Japanese population’s enthusiasm for the war had also faded as more and more of their sons’ ashes were returned home for burial. However, the Japanese were still committed to their occupation of China and over 1,000,000 men were still serving there. With no hope of further reinforcements for China, especially in terms of weapons and equipment, the Japanese Imperial army could not defeat the Chinese. The Japanese were unable to defeat Nationalist China before they had commitments to their Pacific War, from December 1941. Now with Allied aid supporting China, even if in limited quantities, the Chinese were getting stronger as the Japanese were weakening. A stalemate now existed in China and the Japanese Imperial army no longer had the will to try and defeat the Chinese. At the same time, the Nationalist and Communist forces could not hope in the short term to defeat such large Japanese forces stationed in China. Japanese tactics had also changed since 1941 with the emphasis now on holding onto what they had gained rather than trying to conquer more territory. When they went out on operations the main aim of the Japanese was to take food and other supplies from the population. As time went on, the Japanese Imperial army was less willing to confront Chinese forces, whether regular or guerrilla. At the same time, the average Chinese soldier had lost their inferiority complex towards the Japanese army and its soldiers.

Although the Chinese theatre was still important to the Japanese, the situation with the Allies was to take on more significance. Their struggles in the Pacific from 1942–5 and with the British in Burma from 1943–5 became more important. Much of their heavy equipment had, however, been transported to other theatres and in particular the Pacific Islands. Because of their weaknesses the Japanese Imperial army had now to concentrate on trying to control the guerrilla threat in China until 1945.

In one final desperate effort to reverse their decline in China the Imperial army launched a large-scale offensive. In April 1944, the ‘Ichi-Go’, or ‘Number One’, offensive was begun and was to be one of Japan’s last major operations in China. Huge Japanese forces were marshalled for the offensive with 400,000 men, 1,500 artillery pieces and 800 tanks taken from all over China. Ichi-Go was divided into two separate operations with the first, ‘Ka-Go’, aimed at destroying all Nationalist forces still north of the Yangtze River. One of Ka-Go’s aims was to surround and destroy the Nationalist army that held part of the Peking–Wuhan railway. This objective was easily achieved, although the Japanese advance was limited by lack of supplies once they out reached their supply lines. A second phase, known as Operation ‘U-Go’, was to be launched once Ka-Go had got underway. The aim of U-Go was to knock out the airbases of the US 14th Air Force which were being used to bomb the Japanese mainland. After destroying these airbases the combined Japanese force was to advance into Szechwan province with the ultimate aim of capturing the wartime capital Chungking. Nationalist divisions facing the offensive were made up of poorly trained and armed conscripts who were soon demoralized and fell back in front of the advancing Japanese. U-Go was a great success and the US air bases fell in quick succession as the Nationalist forces retreated in confusion. On 8 August the city of Hengyang, to the east of the Chinese capital, fell to the Japanese and it seemed that an advance on Chungking was now inevitable. As the campaign in southern China dragged into November 1944, however, the Japanese began to run out of food and other supplies. Vital air cover was also lost when the Japanese had to send its fighters to Japan to defend their homeland. Over the next few months Ichi-Go ground to a halt and the Chinese finally began to make some successful counter-attacks. Chiang Kai-shek had been proved right when he said that ‘The Japanese will run out of blood before the Chinese will run out of ground’.

In April and May 1945 the Japanese launched what was to be their last offensive in China with the aim of capturing a US air base at Chihchiang. The Chihchiang Offensive was launched from territory recently taken during the Ichi-Go operation. Large Nationalist forces were stationed to halt the advance and after being reinforced to a strength of four divisions they threw back the Japanese. In early 1945 the Japanese Imperial High Command had already introduced plans to consolidate their positions in China. By withdrawing units from outlying garrisons in southern China they intended to concentrate them in central China in the region of Wuhan. Other formations would be gathered in the Canton region and in the Peking region, where they faced less opposition from guerrilla forces. As the Japanese tried to move their forces into these fastnesses they came under attack by Chinese guerrillas. In August a new threat had to be faced in Manchuria, which although not strictly involved in the Sino-Japanese War, was to influence its end greatly. The Soviet Union’s victory in Europe in April 1945 released huge numbers of troops to take part in a new offensive in Manchuria. Since the 1900s Japan had always feared an attack in the East by the Red Army but a neutrality pact signed between the Soviet Union and Japan in the 1930s had held. Now that Japan was on the verge of defeat, the Soviet Union decided to renege on this agreement and on 8 August they struck. With an overwhelming army of 1,500,000 men, 26,000 artillery pieces, 3,700 tanks and 500 combat aircraft, they launched a blitzkrieg offensive that swept the Kwangtung Army away. The Kwangtung Army was a substantial size on paper but out-of-date tanks, obsolete artillery and depleted units were the reality. Soviet claims of 84,000 Japanese dead and almost 600,000 prisoners taken were not disputed. Although not really part of the Sino-Japanese War, this was a devastating defeat for the Imperial army in East Asia.

However, the end in China was be dictated by events elsewhere and with Japan’s defeat in the Pacific and the dropping of atomic bombs in August 1945, the war was over. On 2 September all Japanese military forces in China officially surrendered to the victorious Chinese, both Nationalist and Communist. Most Japanese military and civilian personnel were repatriated quickly with a surprising lack of violence from the triumphant Chinese. Nationalist China’s victory was to prove illusionary as within a short time conflict was to break out with the Communists. After a brief interlude and attempts at mediation between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung, the civil war between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists was to resume in 1946.


China’s contribution to victory had been in tying down vast numbers of Japanese aircraft, military vehicles and above all troops. In 1945 about two million, half of them in Manchuria, awaited surrender and repatriation. Both the Nationalists, with their promise of a ‘Free China’ now backed by the USA, and the communists, with their ambitions for a People’s Republic backed by the Russians, swooped to secure the surrendered munitions and to claim the abandoned infrastructure, the mines, the factories and the teeming territories. In this race, Manchuria, now a heavily industrialised region thanks to Japanese investment and less devastated by the late war than the rest of China, constituted the greatest prize. It had been invaded by the Russians in the dying months of the war, which handed the advantage to the communists. When Nationalist and communist armies both converged on it, the Nationalists, while much the stronger, found their progress slowed by the Russians. The communists, joined by local partisans and some Koreans, were allowed to help themselves to the stockpiled Japanese weaponry and establish themselves in the far north. It was thus in Harbin, the first city run by the CCP, that Lin Biao reorganised his forces as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and in late 1946 began to push south.

By then American attempts to get the two sides to accept a ceasefire and some form of power-sharing under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership had collapsed. ‘The greatest obstacle to peace has been the complete, almost overwhelming suspicion with which the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang regard each other,’ began General George Marshall’s report on the failure of his mediating mission. ‘They each sought only to take counsel of their fears.’ The fears proved real enough when in early 1947 the fighting flared into open war and each side assumed its true colours. The communists no longer disguised their revolutionary intent. Lands were confiscated and redistributed, landowners held to account, informants encouraged, and mass indoctrination campaigns organised. The Nationalists, on the other hand, betrayed their old preference for corporate croneyism, indifference to popular sentiment and economic incompetence. A collapse in morale as a result of rampant inflation (500 per cent a month in 1948), famines, rural unrest and student protests undermined the Nationalist regime more fatally than the communist victories. By 1948 the PLA had inflicted a series of disastrous defeats on the Nationalists in Manchuria, leading to mass desertions. All over northern China the CCP’s peasant guerrillas were simultaneously making the countryside a no-go area. More victories and desertions meant that by the end of 1948 most of China north of the Yangzi was in communist hands.

Jonathan Spence likens Chiang Kai-shek’s plight to that of the Ming pretenders after the Manchus had overrun the north in 1644–45. Chiang himself might have been more reassured by those earlier dynasties, stretching back through the Song and the Eastern Jin to the Wu of the Three Kingdoms period, which had made a greater success of their southern sojourn. He certainly considered standing firm south of the Yangzi, while he investigated the alternative possibility of again withdrawing to Sichuan and Yunnan. But in the end he opted for the greater safety of Taiwan, which had been restored to the republic after the defeat of Japan. Art treasures and texts from the Imperial Palace in Beijing, the nearest thing to regalia that he could lay his hands on, were removed there in 1948; and in early 1949, as the PLA overran the south in a series of lightning advances, Chiang himself fled across the Taiwan Strait with about a million of his troops. Other Nationalists were driven into Thailand, Laos and Burma. Many emigrated overseas.

As president of his rump ‘Republic of China’, Chiang ruled on in Taiwan until his death in 1975. In good dynastic tradition he was then succeeded by his son until Taiwan adopted a parliamentary form of government in the late 1980s. Mao, who would die in 1976, outlasted Chiang by just a year. But his ‘People’s Republic of China’, officially proclaimed from Tiananmen, the Heavenly Gate, in Beijing in October 1949, proved markedly more resistant to parliamentary representation.

China: Warlords, regionalism, and national unity, regional devolution

Wu Pei-fu, the ‘Jade Marshal’ or ‘Scholar Warlord’, was the dominant commander in the Chihli Clique throughout the early and mid-1920s. Wu was probably the best field general during the Warlord Period, but politically he was relatively naive, and was betrayed on several occasions.

Wu Peifu mediate a peace with Zhang Zuolin.


C1: Trooper, 2nd Cavalry, 8th Division, 1923

This cavalryman mounted on a Mongolian pony has a padded cotton jacket and trousers worn with a pair of fur-lined boots, and his peaked cap has sewn-in ear flaps. He has been lucky to receive a pair of motoring goggles, as used by several warlord armies to protect the eyes from dust on the march. The orange armband has the Chinese character for his commander’s surname, ‘Wang’, stencilled In black. In the service of the ‘Jade Marshal’, Wu Pel-fu, General Wang Ju-ch’un commanded the 9,000-strong 8th Division in Hupeh province in 1923. The trooper is armed with a 6.5mm Mannlicher Carcano 91TS carbine, probably imported by Wu Pei-fu as part of a $5.6 million supply shipment negotiated with an Italian arms dealer in 1922. He also has a sword, based on the rna-tao sabre of medieval China; these were used at various times during the early 20th century, and special units of Nationalist troops armed with them fought the Japanese in Jehol province as late as 1933. Some cavalry also used the da-dao fighting sword, but this longer-bladed weapon was more suitable for slashing at the enemy from horseback.

C2: Military courier, 3rd Division, 1924

This boy, aged about 12, is one of those taken out of the officer training school set up by the Chihli Clique leader Wu Pei-fu to help with his army’s communications. During the 1924 campaign Wu was desperately short of reliable troops, and took the officer cadets from their academy to release other men for the front line. Although Wu had a reputation as a relatively humane commander this sacrifice of his army’s future officers would not have worried him unduly; he was reported at the time to have 30,000 boy soldiers in his army, who were all orphans of soldiers killed in previous battles. The boy is wearing the same grey cotton uniform as his adult comrades and has a leather despatch case to carry his messages. For self-protection he has been given an Italian 10.35mm Glisenti M1889 revolver.

C3: Infantryman, 11th Division, 1922

This soldier is about to leave for the front during the fighting against the Fengtien Army of Chang Tso-Iin in 1922; at this stage his grey cotton uniform is still in good condition, but it will soon show wear-and-tear. His infantry-red collar patches indicate, in Roman numerals on his left, his division; his right patch would show his personal details in Chinese characters, such as his number within his unit. This complicated system of identification was occasionally seen, but the exact protocol varied from region to region. His rank of private first class is shown by the stars on the shoulders of his tunic, but again, shortages meant that many soldiers lacked rank insignia. The red armband was described by Edna Lee Booker, a correspondent who saw Wu Pei-fu’s troops leaving for the war. The infantryman is well equipped, with a Japanese backpack and other accoutrements including ammunition pouches designed to carry clips for the Japanese Arisaka rifle, although this soldier is in fact armed with the common Mauser M1888 or a local copy. Booker also described the paraphernalia carried by the troops fastened to their packs; in this case the soldier has a teapot, but others are described as carrying trench picks, shovels, oiled-paper umbrellas, hot water bottles, lanterns and alarm clocks. 

C4: Sergeant, ‘Big Sword Corps’, 1924

This NCO belongs to an elite unit of Wu Pei-fu’s army. The ‘Big Sword Corps’ acted as a bodyguard for their commander and were responsible for keeping order, when necessary beheading officers and men who had failed in their duties. (During the fighting against Chiang Kai-shek’s NRA in 1927, Wu had to send this elite corps into battle to try to stem their advance.) As with most soldiers responsible for discipline in Chinese armies, the men of this unit were picked for their stature and strength – the big executioner’s sword needed a pretty strong man to wield it efficiently. The rank of chung-shih is indicated by the stripe and two stars on the shoulder straps, and he has collar patches in the pink of the military police. The red armband with a central yellow disc is one of several types recorded as being worn by warlord troops at the time. Besides the sword – which was not really intended for combat use – he is armed with a Mauser M1896 automatic pistol with a wooden holster-stock, and he has spare clips in the leather pouches at his waist. 

After the death of Yuan Shikai in 1916 unified military rule from Peking gave way to disseminated military rule. Within a few months the country was divided into a great number of what were known then as satraps, none of them stable or lasting, all based on regional ties, all dominated by warlords. China had become, as Sun Yat-sen had predicted it would, a sheet of shifting sand. Though there continued to be national governments in Peking they wielded very little power, and came and went with bewildering frequency.

China is a vast and diverse country. The regional diversity is expressed in dialects, often mutually unintelligible, in cuisine, in traditions and customs – and in identity. Before there was an empire there were many independent states, whose names survive in the alternative names of provinces (QiLu/Shandong, ShuBa/Sichuan, Yue/Guangdong).

In the many periods of disunity since the founding of the first state in the third century BC, regional power holding always emerged to fill the void left by a collapse at the center. The process of devolution and fragmentation was one that China knew well. The most famous period of disunity came after the end of the Han dynasty, when China was divided into three. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi), an immensely popular novel written more than 1,000 years after the events it described (and almost certainly apocryphal), told of the anguish of division and civil war through a string of stories of courage, treachery, and intrigue. The stories were known to every Chinese, whether educated or not; they appeared as opera plots, as oral stories, and in cartoons. Disunity was as inevitable as unity, said the Three Kingdoms stories. Some people behaved badly in times of troubles, others came into their own – but the evil men often won; the most evil of all, Cao Cao, triumphed over the greatest strategist, Zhuge Liang, a man of brilliance and humanity.

It may seem a stretch to use a novel as a guide to understanding reactions to disunity and uncertainty – but the mentality portrayed in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms had a formative influence on young men of the early Republic, men such as Mao Zedong, who had all read the novel as boys. Theirs was a Three Kingdoms reaction to disunity: think things through carefully, devise stratagems, and know that the solutions will require force as well as intelligence. The answer was to combine Zhuge Liang’s brilliance with Cao Cao’s ruthlessness.

Warlords and their armies

The rise of regionalism and regional identities had been encouraged by the disappearance of universal examinations in 1905, and by the loss of the law of avoidance. After 1916 the center’s ability to make appointments at the provincial level disappeared, and regional rulers came to power, often soldiers, who called themselves military administrators (dujun); other people called them warlords.

These men saw disunity as opportunity for their particular regions. The negative reactions to warlordism in the civilian world reflected the fear of chaos, of the country falling apart – the fear that had haunted China’s rulers since the beginning of the empire. This fear lived in the metropolitan world of the emperors and the bureaucrats. It was not shared by warlords, men who focused on one region only, nor by many of the people whose lives they controlled, whose horizons did not extend beyond a region and its culture.

In the civilian elite’s stereotype, a warlord was a deceitful, devious, illiterate man, sunk in backward patterns of behaviour, uncouth and filthy. Zhang Zongchang, the “Dog-Meat General,” who ruled Shandong for many years, fitted the stereotype. He was uneducated, a bandit by origin, loud-mouthed, cruel. His proudest “possession” was his large harem, in which there were women from China, Japan, Russia, and western Europe. He lived by violence, he lost his power by violence, and he died violently (after he had lost power), shot at the station of his former capital, Jinan.

Few warlords were as awful as Zhang. Some were progressive figures, complex men who blended self-interest with a genuine interest in the future of China. The most famous of this type was Feng Yuxiang, a mass of contradictions, blunt and devious, a personal power seeker and devout nationalist.

Other warlords were local strongmen who looked after their own regions, and in some cases gave them the most secure and stable periods of rule they were to know in many decades. In Shanxi, Yan Xishan, who ruled the province for more than three decades, is remembered as a model ruler; in Guangdong, Chen Jitang, who controlled the province for most of the 1930s, is considered a local hero; in Guangxi, the rulers of the province from 1925 to 1949, the “Guangxi Clique,” are revered for their martial spirit, which gave the province the name of “China’s Sparta.”

Tuzi buchi wobian cao. “The rabbit doesn’t eat the grass beside its nest.” Source: traditional

The better warlords understood the old proverb about a rabbit not eating the grass beside its own burrow, and they tended to show concern for the people of the region they controlled. They provided stable government, which, even though it came with tax swindling and rampant corruption, was preferable to chaos or anarchy. Tax income stayed in the region – except for the amounts that warlords salted away in Tianjin, Shanghai, or Hong Kong (cities under foreign control) – for the time when their rule came to an end.

The men referred to as “petty warlords” did the most damage to Chinese society. They really were bandits, uncouth and crude. They exploited and vandalized the regions they controlled. Their rule was often short. When they were overthrown by other warlords they went back to banditry or joined local militias.

The number of men under arms expanded dramatically in the early Republic. By the early 1920s there were at least 1.5 million soldiers, and an equally large number of armed men not serving in formal military units – irregulars, militiamen, bodyguards, and bandits. There was a two-way traffic between the organized and the informal armed worlds.

Warlordism had a strongly inhibiting effect on one aspect of Chinese society where there might otherwise have been change. The emancipation of women, which had just begun in China’s cities, was impossible in areas under indifferent or bad warlord control. Girls had to be protected by their families from the unthinkable – rape – and so many of them lived cloistered lives at home.

The warlord system provided immense numbers of jobs – either directly, as soldiers, or indirectly, in the manufacturing and service industries that catered to the military. The continuing growth of China’s population facilitated the expansion of the military. As the population grew, employment opportunities did not. Most of the jobs in the new factories were for young women. There were more and more young men in the rural areas for whom there was no work. A few could emigrate – to Manchuria, Southeast Asia or North America – but the closed nature of migration flows limited this solution to a few regions of China, all of them coastal.

Young men from regions with no established migration chains had only a few opportunities for off-farm employment – peddling, moving to the city, or going into the military.

Warlord finances

The foreign banks, like the concessions, contribute largely to the amenity of Chinese civil war and political strife. Once loot is turned into money and deposited with them by the looter, it is sacred and beyond public recovery. Cases have been known in which generals, far from expecting interest on their deposits, have been eager to pay the banks a small percentage for the privilege of being allowed thus to cache their gain. At a town up the Yangtze [Yangzi], a Chinese military commander visited the American- Oriental Bank and said that he wished to deposit with them, instead of in his own headquarters, what he politely called his records, and left thirty large trunks with the bank. He was presently defeated, and the bank manager was a little disturbed as to what he should do if the incoming conqueror were to demand that these records be handed over. But the in-coming conqueror felt equally insecure, and was more concerned to get his own records safely in to the bank than to obtain those of his enemy. Another huge batch of trunks was brought in, and the bank manager, much relieved, had both sets of trunks piled one beside the other.

Arthur Ransome, The Chinese Puzzle (London: Allen and Unwin, 1927), pp. 123–4.

Tupolev Tu-16

One of the classic aviation designs of the 1950s, the Tu-16 was Russia’s most successful jet bomber. It remains in active service today as a missile platform and maritime reconnaissance craft.

The origins of the famous Tu-16 trace back to 1944, when bad weather forced down three U.S. Boeing B-29s on a Russian airfield in Siberia. The Soviet Union, neutral toward Japan, promptly detained the crews and confiscated the aircraft. This technological windfall handed Soviet dictator Josef Stalin the world’s most advanced bomber aircraft, and he immediately ordered reverse-engineered copies for the Red Air Force. They became known as the Tupolev Tu-4 and received the NATO designation BULL. By 1950 the Americans and British were developing and deploying advanced jet-powered bomber designs, so Stalin authorized production of Soviet models as well. The new Tu-16 thus became the first successful Soviet jet bomber, the first with swept-back wings, and the first with engines buried in the wing roots. It was revealed to the West in 1954 as a midwing aircraft of extremely sleek lines. The landing gear were uniquely positioned in trailing-edge pods, as the wing was too thin to contain them. Tupolev’s conservative approach gave the Tu-16 a robust construction that in turn led to a long and varied service life. Around 2,000 were manufactured and given the NATO code name BADGER.

Initial models of the Tu-16 were tactical nuclear bombers, but, lacking the necessary range to hit the United States, they were quickly phased out by more modern designs. Most were shunted over to the Soviet navy, which employed them in long-range reconnaissance and antishipping strike roles. Many BADGERS encountered at sea were usually configured with one or more cruise missiles in the bomb bay or under the wings. The type was also exported to China in the late 1950s and was produced there in some quantity. An estimated 70 Tu-16s fly with Russian naval aviation and will continue serving for years to come.

Tupolev Tu-16 Experimental Versions

This graceful twin-jet bomber sustained what was in financial terms the most important programme in the entire history of the Tupolev design bureau up to that time. Since then, because of inflation, the Tu-154 and Tu-22/Tu-22M have rivalled it, though they were produced in smaller numbers. The prototype Tu-16, the Type 88, was a marriage of upgraded B-29 technology in structures, systems and to some degree in avionics, with totally new swept-wing aerodynamics and what were in the early 1950s super-power turbojet engines. The Tu-16 entered production in 1953 powered by Zubets (Mikulin KB) RD-3M engines of 8,200kg (18,078 Ib) thrust. The second series block had the RD-3M-200 of 8,700kg (19,180 Ib) followed by the 9,500kg (20,944 Ib) RD-3M-500, which was then retrofitted to most earlier aircraft.

From 1953 the basic aircraft was repeatedly examined against alternatives based as far as possible on the same airframe but using different propulsion systems. Most of the studies had four engines. Tupolev had originally schemed the 88 around two Lyul’ka AL-5 turbojets, but the design grew in weight to match the big AM-3 engine, and this was the key to its win over the smaller Ilyushin with the Lyul’ka engines. In parallel with the production aircraft one project team led by Dmitri S Markov studied versions of the 88 with not two but four AL-5 engines, and then four of the more powerful (typically 14,330 Ib, 6,500kg) AL-7 engines. These Type 90s would have been excellent bombers, with increased power and much better engine-out performance, but the decision was taken not to disrupt production. On the other hand, virtually the same inboard wing and engine installation was then used in the Tu-110 transport, two of which were built using the Tu-104 as a basis. Some of the four-engined bomber studies had engines in external nacelles hung on underwing pylons.

From 1954 Type 88 prototypes and a wide range of production Tu-16s were used over a period exceeding 40 years as experimental aircraft. Some carried out pioneer trials in aerial refuelling at jet speeds.

One large group of about 20 aircraft was kept busy in the development of avionics, including navigation, bombing and cartographic guidance, parent control of drones and targets, and the direction of self-defence gunnery systems.

Probably the most important single duty of Tu-16LL (flying laboratory) aircraft was to airtest new types of turbojet and turbofan engine. In each case the engine on test would be mounted in a nacelle either carried inside the weapon bay or, more often, recessed into it. Usually the test engine would be suspended on vertical hydraulic jacks or a large pivoted beam so that in flight it could be extended down fully into the airstream, with its efflux well clear of the rear fuselage. In many cases the engine pod or the Tu-16 fuselage ahead of it would be fitted with a fairing or door which could be left behind or opened as the pod was extended for test. Among the engines air-tested under Tu-16LL aircraft were: the Ivchenko (later Progress) AI-25, Lyul’ka AL-7F- 1, AL-7F-2, AL-7F-4 and AL-31F, Solov’yov (Aviadvigatel) D-30, D-30K, D-30KP and D-30F6 (in MiG-31 installation), Lotarev (Ivchenko Progress) D-36, Kuznetsov NK-6 (with and without afterburner) and NK-8-2, Tumanskii (Soyuz) R-l 1AF-300 (Yak-28 nacelle) and R-15- 300 (in the Ye-150 and the totally different MiG- 25 installation), Metskhvarishvili R-2I-300 and R-21F with Ye-8 inlet, Khachaturov R-27 versions (including the vectored R-27V-300 in a complete Yak-36M prototype fuselage, Mikulin (Soyuz) RD-3M (many versions), Kolesov (RKBM) RD-36-41 and RD-36-51, and Dobrynin (RKBM) VD-7, VD-7M and VD-19 (in a proposed Tu-128 installation), etc.

One Tu-16 had its entire nose replaced by that intended for the Myasishchev M-55, in order to test the comprehensive suite of sensors. Another tested a scaled version of the bogie main landing gear for the Myasishchev M-4 and 3M strategic bombers, replacing the normal nose landing gear. A new twin-wheel truck was added at the tail. According to documents a Tu-16 with outer wings removed tested the complete powerplant of the Yak-38 (presumably in free hovering flight) though photographs have not been discovered.


Among the main production variants of the Badger were the Tu-16 and Tu-16A bombers; Tu-16KS and Tu-16K-10 missile carriers; Tu-16SPS, “Elka”, and Tu-16Ye ECM aircraft; Tu-16R reconnaissance aircraft; and Tu-16T torpedo bomber; others were produced from conversions. Individual aircraft could be modified several times, with designations changed, especially concerning missile-carrying aircraft.

Badger A (Tu-16) – This the basic configuration of the Tu-16 bomber deployed in 1954 to replace the Tu-4. Several modified models of these variant existed, all of which were known as Badger A in the West.

Tu-16A – Modified Tu-16s designed to carry nuclear bombs, one of main versions, with 453 built. Many of those units were subsequently converted into other variants.

Tu-16Z – An early specialized version of the Tu-16 that served as airborne tankers (a refuelling method: wing-to-wing), though they retain their medium bomber role.

Tu-16G (Tu-104G) – Fast air mail model, Aeroflot aircrew training version.

Tu-16N – A dedicated tanker version for Tu-22/Tu-22M bombers, with probe and drogue system. Entered service in 1963. Similar aircraft Tu-16NN converted from Tu-16Z.

Tu-16T – Limited production maritime strike version (torpedo bomber), that served in the Soviet Naval Aviation, and carried torpedoes, mines and depth charges. 76 built and some more converted. All units subsequently converted into Tu-16S configuration.

Tu-16S – A lifeboat carrier version used for search and rescue operations.

Tu-16Ye – These were equipped with heavy electronic warfare and electronic intelligence (ELINT) equipment.

Badger B (Tu-16KS) – Variant designed as a launch platform for two AS-1 Kennel/KS-1 Komet missiles. 107 built in 1954-1958, served with the Soviet Naval Aviation, Egypt and Indonesia. Soviet ones later converted with newer missiles.

Badger C (Tu-16K-10) – Another Naval Aviation variant, units of this version carried a single AS-2 Kipper/K-10S anti-ship missile. 216 built in 1958-1963. It differed from other variants having a radar in a nose. A further development, the Tu-16K-10-26, carried a single K-10S and two KSR-2 or KSR-5 AS-6 Kingfish missiles (K-26 missile complex). Some were later converted into ELINT platforms.

Badger D (Tu-16RM-1) – Maritime reconnaissance model with ELINT equipment; 23 converted from Tu-16K-10. It retained its radar in a nose and could guide K-10S missiles, fired from other planes, at targets.

Badger E (Tu-16R) – Reconnaissance version of the airframe, with ELINT equipment, first of all meant for maritime reconnaissance. It could guide KS missiles.

Tu-16RM-2 – modified Tu-16R, serving in the Naval Aviation. It could guide KSR-2 missiles.

Tu-16KRM – Launch platforms for target drones (a variant of Tu-16K-26).

Badger F (Tu-16RM-2) – Another reconnaissance version based on the -16R/RM but with the addition of external ELINT equipment.

Badger G (Tu-16K/Tu-16KSR) – Serving in the Naval Aviation, these were conversions from earlier models. These were designed to carry bombs in internal bays in addition to carrying air-to-surface missiles externally, such as the AS-5 Kelt and AS-6 Kingfish. There existed numerous variants, designated either from carried missile complex (K-11, K-16 and K-26) or from missiles of these complexes (KSR-11, KSR-2 and KSR-5). Following further modifications, they were also given suffixes. Main variants:

Tu-16KSR-2 – carrying the K-16 complex (two KSR-2 missiles). Used from 1962. Similar aircraft, converted from other variants, were designated Tu-16K-16.

Tu-16K-11-16 – carrying the K-16 complex (KSR-2 missiles) or the K-11 complex (two anti-radar KSR-11 missiles). Used from 1962. Similar aircraft were designated Tu-16KSR-2-11. Over 440 Tu-16 could carry the K-16 or K-11 complex.

Tu-16K-26 – carrying the K-26 complex (two KSR-5 missiles), retaining a capability of KSR-2 and 11 missiles. Used from 1969. Similar aircraft were designated Tu-16KSR-2-5-11 or Tu-16KSR-2-5 (no KSR-11 capability). Over 240 Tu-16 could carry the K-26 complex.

Tu-16K-26P – carrying the K-26P missiles (two anti-radar KSR-5P missiles, as well as KSR-5, 2 or 11).

Badger H (Tu-16 Elka) – Designed for stand-off electronic warfare and electronic counter-measures support.

Badger J (Tu-16P Buket) – Another electronic warfare variant configured as an ECM strike escort.

Badger K (Tu-16Ye) – Believed to be a version of the Badger F configuration possessing enhanced ELINT capability.

Badger L (Tu-16P) – Another version of the Badger J with more modern systems and used in ELINT role.



Fire on Water I

Sandwiched between the mighty Ming and Qing empires is perhaps the most ephemeral, obscure and equivocal of all Chinese dynasties. For the single ‘emperor’ of the so-called Shun dynasty, a rebel commander named Li Zicheng, never meaningfully ruled China at all.

In the mid-seventeenth century a series of drought-induced crop failures and an outbreak of plague stirred up social unrest, and disenchanted peasants began to band together to contest Ming rule. These rebels coalesced into two great armies, and Li Zicheng led one of them. Even as he besieged and captured the ancient capital of Xi’an, he maintained the pretense that he was a loyal subject trying to liberate the Ming Chongzhen Emperor from the malign influence of officials. That fiction became harder to sustain once Li took Luoyang and then Kaifeng, at which point his victory seemed assured.

Now styling himself the ‘Prince of Shun’, in 1644 Li advanced on the capital of Beijing. Recognizing that defeat was inevitable, the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide and the glorious Ming dynasty was brought to a close. Yet Li occupied Beijing for barely a month before his army was defeated by the former Ming general Wu Sangui and his allies, the Qing from Manchuria. The rebel chief only just had time to proclaim himself the first Shun Emperor before fleeing to the west and disappearing from history, presumed dead by 1645. A humble peasant of Sha’anxi who proved to be a skilful military strategist, Li learnt that it is easier to end a dynasty than to found one.

Li’s campaign saw one of the most devastating uses of water as a military weapon. In 1642 his forces surrounded Kaifeng (then known as Bianjing) and laid siege for many months. Li tried everything. He built a great tower higher than the city wall, armed with cannons, but his opponents responded by building an even taller one overnight to return the fire. He tried tunnelling through the 35-metre-thick walls, but was repelled. He filled the excavations with gunpowder to blast down the walls, but the explosions blew outwards, killing his troops as they rushed forward in anticipation of a breach.

Although these assaults were repulsed, the Ming governor of Kaifeng was getting desperate, and in the summer of 1642 he issued a fateful command. The dykes of the Yellow River, which was swollen and raging in the flood season, were to be broken down so that the deluge would disperse the rebel troops. Having run out of other ideas, Li had already hatched the same scheme: he planned to flood Kaifeng to end the resistance. Neither side seemed to consider that the floodwaters would harm them too, believing that only their opponents would be damaged.

Kaifeng had been the capital of the Song dynasty, and its proximity to the Yellow River had made it a major centre of commerce; in the eleventh century it may have been the largest city in the world. But the Mongol invaders had besieged it and destroyed the hydraulic network that sustained it, and then the Yellow River itself had shifted course, leaving Kaifeng stranded and marginal on the floodplain. Repeated flooding had gradually raised the level of the surrounding land above that inside the city walls, so that Kaifeng was a basin ready to be filled if the river broke its banks.

It was the citizens of Kaifeng who came off worse from the governor’s plans to use the river as a weapon against Li Zicheng. The city was drowned to its rooftops. The waters rampaged through the walls and into the streets, destroying homes and sweeping people to their death. The death toll seems hardly credible: allegedly, around 300,000 of the 378,000 inhabitants of Kaifeng perished in this human-made catastrophe. The once great city was reduced to ruins, making Li’s victory a hollow one. Devastating famine and pestilence followed the 1642 flood, which has been ranked as the seventh greatest ‘natural’ disaster in history. Kaifeng was abandoned until it was rebuilt by the Qing Emperor twenty years later, and it never recovered its former glory.

In war, water is a dangerous and unreliable ally. That has rarely deterred Chinese leaders from thinking that they can command its power: a belief all too often proved delusive.

The famous sixth-century-BC martial strategist Sun Tzu (Sunzi), whose treatise Sunzi bingfa (The Art of War) was allegedly an influence on leaders ranging from Mao Zedong to Norman Schwarzkopf, regarded water’s military significance to be primarily metaphorical. ‘Military tactics’, he wrote,

are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.

Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.

Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.

Sun Tzu was rather wary of real water, however (‘After crossing a river, you should get far away from it’, he advised), and the image of warfare generally presented in The Art of War – great armies manoeuvring over open tracts of land – gives a very incomplete view of how military affairs were conducted in China. Very often the key conflicts involved rivers, lakes and marshes. They were about dominating the water routes, and often took place on the water itself. Great fleets clashed on lakes and rivers in naval engagements comparable in size and significance to any taking place in the seas of Western Europe, or later in the open Atlantic and Pacific. China was a kingdom contested on water, with water, and for water.

For the issues haven’t changed through the ages; the strategic importance of waterways was as great for the Qin conquering Wei and Shu as it was for the Communists and Nationalists fighting the Japanese. (Only with the coming of the railways was their role for military transportation rivalled.) The decisive power of the Tang ‘tower ships’ and Song paddleboats was not so different from that of the imperial British gunships conquering the Yangtze in the nineteenth century. And attempting to harness water itself in battle was no less hazardous for Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s than it was for Li Zicheng and the Ming in the 1640s. Aquatic warfare has been a constant determinant of China’s fate.

According to Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘The main foundations of every state . . . are good laws and good arms . . . you cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow.’ Few nations were as ready to face up to the realities of power and governance as Machiavelli would have had them do, which was of course why his unflinching view of political power won him many enemies. China is no exception. The Confucian political philosophy stressed that stability depended on the virtue of the emperor; if he was virtuous, ‘good laws’ would follow and the population would be content without coercion. But in fact the state was often created and maintained by military force: by organized violence and war. With a nation this vast, this vulnerable to uprising, rebellion and invasion, it is hard to see how it could have been otherwise. Time and again, discord and disobedience began far from the centres of power – if an emperor let down his guard or let himself be distracted in one quarter of the empire, trouble brewed in another. While some dynasties did fall through foreign invasion, such as the incursions of the Jurchens (Jin), Mongols (Yuan) and Manchurians (Qing), others failed because of poor leadership and bad policy decisions: the collapse came from within. That is really what the Communist Party of China fears today.

Leaders from the Han to the Maoist eras could affect an attitude of wu wei, of remote benevolence, only if in reality they possessed a formidable apparatus of state control. And to control China, you must control its rivers – whether that means recognizing their strategic military and economic importance, or literally restraining them as if nature itself were the enemy.

Waterways served two primary strategic functions. The first was as transportation conduits. The first Qin Emperor, Shi Huangdi, could not have contemplated conquest of Sichuan without relying on the Min, Yangtze and Han rivers to take his troops deep into the kingdom of Shu. The Han and Yangtze were also essential to the Qin campaign against the kingdom of Chu downstream to the east, prompting the Qin general Bai Qi to create amphibious military units around 280 BC. Military goals initially motivated the great Dujiangyan hydraulic waterworks masterminded by Li Bing (see here): the crops that it irrigated were needed to feed the troops in Sichuan.

The second strategic role of rivers was as natural barriers to conquest. When the Southern Song rulers in Hangzhou called the Yangtze its ‘Great Wall’, they were alluding to the obstacle it – and the other rivers in the perpetually contested region between the Yangtze and the Huai – presented to the equestrian forces of invaders such as the Jurchens and Mongols, who were all but invincible on the grassy plains of the north. As the Jurchens descended to create the Great Jin dynasty, pushing the Song into southern China in 1127, it was the Huai River that marked the boundary between them.

For these reasons, China’s wars were often waged on and around the rivers. They were the arteries of military conquest, the fluid arenas of dynastic change. Battles fought on rivers and lakes became the stuff of legend. The most famous of them is surely the Battle of the Red Cliff, the engagement in AD 208 that sealed the dissolution of the Han and marks the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. This was possibly the largest naval conflict in history in terms of numbers of vessels, although the battle has been so romanticized – most famously in the early Ming classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms – that it is hard to distinguish fact from fantasy. Poets from Li Bai to Su Shi have composed odes in its memory; it is, in the historian Lyman van Slyke’s estimation, China’s Trojan War or Arthurian legend, a pageant of drama, pathos, comedy, loyalty and deceit. Everyone in the Yangtze valley will tell you these stories, which they know better than their own recent history.

Fire on Water II

Battle of Red Cliffs, and Cao Cao’s retreat (also shown: Battle of Changban). Note that the battlefield location is marked at the site near Chibi City.

The demise of the Han dynasty was messy. Like many other dynastic declines, it began as a peasant revolt incited by dissatisfaction at the oppressive conduct of a corrupt ruling class, and was exacerbated by flood and famine – in this case caused by breaches of the lower Yellow River. Those latter events were interpreted as a withdrawal of heaven’s mandate, and from around AD 170 peasants displaced from their homes by floodwaters and penury, along with unemployed soldiers, formed into bands that swelled to ramshackle armies. In 184 a Daoist rebel sect called the Yellow Turbans began to wrest territories north of the Yellow River from the command of the emperor Lingdi.

The Yellow Turban uprising lasted for twenty years, and by the end of it the Han empire had been brought to its knees. After Lingdi died in 189, rule was shared between his consort Empress He and her half-brother He Jin, general of the Han army. But He Jin was hostile to the powerful clique of court eunuchs, and later that same year he was assassinated. A warlord named Dong Zhuo then seized the throne, ruling through the puppet emperor Xiandi, Lingdi’s son. When his harsh and despotic rule ended with his death in 192, another ambitious warlord – Cao Cao of Wei, who had acted as a Han military commander during the Yellow Turban revolt – made Xiandi his own puppet and effectively ran what remained of the empire.

Cao Cao’s authority was challenged by the leaders of other states: by Sun Quan, Marquis of Eastern Wu, south of the Yangtze in modern Zhejiang, and by Liu Bei, a warlord who set himself up as ruler of the state of Shu. Faced with Cao Cao’s overwhelming forces, Sun and Liu agreed to an alliance, and they met Cao Cao’s troops at Chibi (Red Cliff) on the Yangtze in Hubei. Some records claim that Cao Cao had over 800,000 men, his opponents just 30,000. The outcome of the battle would decide the future of China: would it be unified by Cao Cao, masquerading as a servant of the hapless Xiandi, or splinter into rival states?

As the Shu and Wu forces confronted Cao Cao’s massively superior army, the Wu commander Zhou Yu played an old trick. To plant an alleged defector in the enemy midst to lead them astray – compare the ploy of the king of Qin against ancient Shu (see here) – seems to assume an optimistic degree of credulity. But it perhaps speaks of the fissiparous nature of warlord-era China that such defections were common enough to make the scheme believable. In any event, Zhou Yu sent his military strategist Pang Tong to join Cao Cao. When Pang Tong heard that Cao Cao’s army, unused to river combat, was becoming seasick on the ships, he proposed that the vessels be chained and bolted together to stop them from rolling with the waves. ‘The river is wide, and the tides ebb and flow’, he says to Cao Cao in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms:

The winds and waves are never at rest. Your troops from the north are unused to ships, and the motion makes them ill. If your ships, large and small, were classed and divided into thirties, or fifties, and joined up stem to stem by iron chains and boards spread across them, to say nothing of soldiers being able to pass from one to the next, even horses could move about on them. If this were done, then there would be no fear of the wind and the waves and the rising and falling tides.

Then Pang Tong volunteered to return to the Wu troops, assuring Cao Cao that he could arrange for more defections. Sure enough, in due course Cao Cao received a letter from one of the Wu generals, Huang Gai, saying that he was going to change sides and bring with him boats loaded with grain.

The day after the full moon in the eleventh month of 208, Cao Cao’s fleet set out to attack. Chained together, it moved as a solid mass. ‘When [the boats] got among the waves, they were found to be as steady and immovable as the dry land itself. The northern soldiers showed their delight at the absence of motion by capering and flourishing their weapons.’ But what if they were attacked with fire, and needed to scatter, one of Cao Cao’s advisers asked anxiously? The leader laughed. The wind is in the wrong direction, he said – if the enemy tried to use fire, it would be blown back onto them.

Seeing the vast armada approach, Zhou Yu was overtaken by a sickness and confined to his bed – an ill omen for the approaching battle. But Liu Bei’s military adviser Zhuge Liang came to his bedside and offered a solution. ‘To defeat Cao Cao’, he said, ‘you have to use fire.’ But how could that work, the general wondered, knowing what Cao Cao too knew of the wind? Then Zhuge Liang revealed that he had magical knowledge: ‘I can call the winds and summon the rains.’ He explained that, with a Daoist spell, he could conjure the south-east breeze that was needed to make fire work against Cao Cao.

Meanwhile, the Wu general Huang Gai completed the plan by readying his fireships:

The fore parts of the ships were thickly studded with large nails, and they were loaded with dry reeds, wood soaked in fish oil, and covered with sulfur, saltpetre, and other inflammables. The ships were covered with black oiled cloth. In the prow of each was a black dragon flag with indentations. A fighting ship was attached to the stern of each to propel it forward. All were ready and awaited orders to move.

Confident of Huang Gai’s defection, Cao Cao was unconcerned as the twenty Wu ships approached, despite the south-easterly wind that Zhuge Liang’s ritual had awakened. The latter was nothing to worry about, he told his anxious ministers – of course the wind direction might change from time to time. ‘That is my friend, the deserter!’ laughed Cao Cao as the vessels drew close. ‘Heaven is on my side today.’

But then the trap was sprung:

When the ships were about a mile distant, Huang Gaifn waved his sword and the leading ships broke forth into fire, which, under the force of the strong wind, soon gained strength and the ships became as fiery arrows. Soon the whole twenty dashed into the naval camp. All Cao Cao’s ships were gathered there, and as they were firmly chained together not one could escape from the others and flee. There was a roar of bombs and fireships came on from all sides at once. The face of the water was speedily covered with fire which flew before the wind from one ship to another. It seemed as if the universe was filled with flame.

The inferno consumed Cao Cao’s fleet. The flames leapt so high, it was said, that they scorched the cliffs red.

The famous victory of Shu and Wu over Cao Cao is far from the end of the tale. The two allies always knew that one day they were likely to face each other in the battle for supremacy; and so it transpired. Zhuge Liang built a fortress at Fengjie to ward off the Wu army, but to no avail. Wu triumphed, and Liu Bei fled to Baidicheng above the Yangtze gorges, where he died. The Three Kingdoms then dissolved into a patchwork of states and would-be minor dynasties, all overlapping and squabbling, until the Jurchen invaders from the north overran Wei in AD 265 and then Wu in 280, forming the precarious (and soon fragmented) first Jin dynasty.

China didn’t truly become one empire again until 581, when Yang Jian, Duke of Sui in the Northern Zhou dynasty, seized power and declared the Sui dynasty (see here). The duke, now Sui Emperor Wendi, then needed to conquer a southern dynasty called the Chen. In the 580s, the immense Sui warships defeated the Chen navy on the Yangtze. These five-storey ships were then the largest in the world, holding 800 men and equipped with great spiked balls swinging from derricks. Against this terrifying armada the Chen could do nothing, and for a brief but energetic period the Sui ruled from Guangdong and Hainan to Hebei.

Tall ‘tower ships’ became a stock feature of the Sui and Tang navies. They are described in the gloriously named manual Tai bai yin jing (Canon of the White and Gloomy Planet of War), written in 759 by the Tang Daoist and military strategist Li Quan:

These ships have three decks equipped with bulwarks for the fighting-lines, and flags and pennants flying from the masts. There are ports and openings for crossbows and lances, while [on the top deck] there are trebuchets for hurling stones . . . [The whole broadside] gives the appearance of a city wall. In the Jin period the Prancing Dragon Admiral Wang Jun, invading Wu, built a ship 200 paces in length, and on it set flying rafters and hanging galleries on which chariots and horses could go.

With multiple decks rising to as much as thirty metres, these ships might be armed with ‘fending irons’: long arms pivoted on jibs and ending in iron spikes, which could be sent smashing down from an upright position to wreak havoc on enemy craft. Meanwhile, swift-moving attack ships known as meng chong were used at least since the Han era; the Tang armoured them with plates or sheets of leather, wood, rhinoceros hide or iron, both to give cover from arrows and stones and to repel boarders.

Innovation in naval military technology was one of the most belligerent facets of the inventive ‘genius of China’ expounded by Joseph Needham in his encyclopaedic examination of how the country’s science and civilization co-evolved. A great fleet of warships enabled the Southern Song to fend off Yangtze pirates in the twelfth century, and around the early 1130s a Song official hit on the notion of building ships powered by hand-driven paddle wheels, so that they could be manoeuvred even on windless days. Because their wheels were hidden beneath protective coverings, the ships, called ‘flying tiger warships’, seemed to the enemies to move by supernatural power, filling them with fear. These vessels had up to twenty-four paddle wheels, but usually just two or four, powered by several dozen crew members. They carried trebuchets that flung gunpowder-filled grenades, and wielded great wrecking balls suspended by chains, or systems of pulleys and booms that allowed rocks to be dropped onto enemy ships from a great height. ‘No other civilization produced anything like them’, Needham claimed.

Unfortunately for the Song, the bandit leader Yang Yao captured the carpenter who designed the mighty paddle-driven war vessels and forced him to build some for him. By 1135 Yang had a fleet of several hundred with which to defend his piratical activities on the Yangtze. But when, that year, the Song commander Yue Fei fought Yang Yao on Dongting Lake, he devised a strategy to disable the paddle fighters. His troops spread grass and logs on the lake surface, clogging and breaking the wheels. Yang Yao was defeated and beheaded.

That victory did Yue Fei little good in the end. When his heroic achievements began to make him too popular in the eyes of the Song leaders, the general was imprisoned and poisoned. But thanks to a hagiography written by his grandson, Yue Fei became celebrated during the Ming era as the model of a (wronged but) virtuous servant of the state. There is still a temple dedicated to him today near the West Lake of the former Southern Song capital of Hangzhou, and his slogan ‘Recover our Rivers and Mountains’ was turned into a patriotic song during the war with the Japanese in the twentieth century.

It’s not clear why word of Yue Fei’s rather simple strategy didn’t get out, but the Southern Song were able to continue using their paddle-wheel ships to good effect in their campaign against the Jurchen invaders – the Great Jin dynasty – in the north. When the two powers clashed in 1161 in the battles of Tangdao (in the East China Sea) and Caishi (on the Yangtze), the technical ingenuity of the Song carried the day. At Caishi the Song commander Yu Yunwen, allegedly leading a force of just 3,000 troops and 120 warships powered by paddle wheels, defeated a Jin navy of 70,000 men and 600 vessels. (The imbalance was almost certainly inflated by the victors’ scribes to magnify the achievement.) The Song ships showered the Jin navy with incendiary bombs, a tactic described in ‘Hai qiu fu’ (‘Rhapsodic Ode on the Sea-Eel Paddle-Wheel Warships’) by the Southern Song poet Yang Wanli:

Our ships rushed forth from behind [the island] on both sides. The men inside them paddled fast on the treadmills, and the ships glided forwards as though they were flying, yet no one was visible on board. The enemy thought that they were made of paper. Then all of a sudden a thunderclap bomb was let off. It was made with paper and filled with lime and sulphur. These thunderclap bombs came dropping down from the air, and upon meeting the water exploded with a noise like thunder, the sulphur bursting into flames. The carton [paper] case rebounded and broke, scattering the lime to form a smoky fog, which blinded the eyes of men and horses so that they could see nothing. Our ships then went forward to attack theirs, and their men and horses were all drowned, so that they were utterly defeated.

For all its might and ingenuity, the Song fleet couldn’t protect the empire from the Mongol invaders when, after defeating the Jin, they turned on their Song allies. Khubilai Khan’s cavalry were invincible on the northern plains, but in the south the Mongols needed to fight with ships. They assembled a navy with extraordinary speed, importing sailors and shipwrights from Korea as well as conscripting locals in Shandong. The troops learnt the skills of water combat quickly, and in 1267 they faced the Song fleet at the twin cities of Xiangyang and Fancheng on the Han River – a strategic gateway to the confluence of the Han and the Yangtze – in one of the most celebrated battles in Chinese history. It was certainly one of the most protracted, allegedly lasting for six years, and was fought both on land and on water. The Mongols used their fleet of 5,000 ships to blockade the Han and prevent supplies from reaching the besieged cities, while their cavalry saw off the Song troops attempting to provide reinforcements. Powerful new siege machines such as counterweight trebuchets (a design imported from the Middle East) beat down the city defences. When the Southern Song commander Lü Wenhuan finally surrendered in 1273, the Mongol conquest of China was inevitable. The general Bayan (called Hundred Eyes by Marco Polo, a colourful mistranslation of his Mongolian name) battled his way down the Yangtze to the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou, which fell in 1276.

The conquerors were more generous in victory than they were in the winning of it. The Song Emperor Gongdi was a six-year-old boy, and the court was effectively led by his mother, Empress Dowager Quan, and grandmother, Grand Empress Dowager Xie. After the capitulation, mother and son were taken to the northern capital of Khanbaliq, where Gongdi was given the title Duke of Ying. He later moved to the former Mongol capital of Shangdu in Inner Mongolia, and finally to Tibet (then known as Tubo), where he entered a monastery in 1296.

That wasn’t quite the end of the Song. A defiant faction of the court escaped with Gongdi’s two brothers, and the eldest was declared emperor in Fuzhou, Fujian, in 1276. The entourage was soon forced to flee to Lantau Island, today a part of Hong Kong, where the eldest brother died and the younger, aged seven, was declared Emperor Huaizong. The remains of the Song navy – still a mighty fleet – harboured at Yamen in Guangdong province. In 1279 the Mongol (now Yuan) force, although fewer in number than its opponent, closed in for the endgame, and once again proved its naval supremacy. At the Battle of Yamen the young Huaizong perished along with thousands of officials as they leapt into the sea during that final conflict.

A naval battle ended the Yuan dynasty too: the rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang, who became the first Ming Emperor (see here), crushed the imperial forces, also at Caishi, in 1355. Before he could become emperor, Zhu then had to overcome his rival Chen Youliang, a leader of the Red Turban rebels. The two navies met on Poyang Lake in 1363 in what has sometimes been called ‘the largest naval battle in history’ (a contested accolade, as you can see). Zhu’s ships faced a force three times as great, but he won the battle with his incendiary firepower. Vessels loaded with combustibles, and sometimes with gunpowder, were sent crashing into Chen’s triple-decked warships. Chen was eventually killed after breaking out from the lake and being pursued along the Long River.

The Chinese perfected the use of incendiary devices for water warfare, constructing boats that were divided in the middle so that the rowers aft could detach the incendiary fore section and retreat to literally watch the fireworks. Fire was one of the most devastating weapons for river combat, and was developed to a versatile art as naval warfare became ever less a matter of hand-to-hand engagement and more about flinging projectiles. ‘Sky-flying tubes’ would set fire to enemy sails; ‘gunpowder buckets’ and ‘fire bricks’ scarcely need their destructive potential to be spelled out.