Sino-Japanese War

The Battle of the Yalu River (“Naval Battle of the Yellow Sea”) was the largest naval engagement of the Qing-Japan War, and took place on 17 September 1894, the day after the Japanese victory at the land Battle of Pyongyang. It involved ships from the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Qing Beiyang Fleet. The battle is also known by a variety of names: Battle of Haiyang Island, Battle of Dadonggou, Battle of the Yellow Sea and Battle of Yalu, after the geographic location of the battle, which was in the Yellow Sea off the mouth of the Yalu River and not in the river itself. In the second half of the nineteenth century in Asia, both Qing and Japan put major resources into creating modern navies of armored steamships with guns firing explosive shells. Their battle at the Yalu River in 1894 ended with the defeat of Qing Empire Beiyang Fleet.

Turning to Germany for training and equipment of their army and to Great Britain for ships and naval instructors, the Japanese soon knew themselves to be the leading oriental military power and began to stretch their muscles. The first to feel their strength were the Chinese. Although the humiliating defeats leading up to the enforced treaties with the western powers had opened their eyes to the need to acquire western military and commercial skills and a `self-strengthening movement’ was set on foot under the guiding hand of the all-powerful minister Li Hung-chang, the Chinese people and their Manchu rulers lacked the martial ardour and the sense of purpose that raised the Japanese so rapidly to modern military and industrial power. Arsenals were founded at Shanghai, at Foochow and Nanking where small ships were built and guns manufactured. Chinese students were sent abroad, a naval academy founded at Tientsin and a steam navy, built abroad, was commissioned, or rather four separate navies – at Canton, at Foochow, in the Yangtse River and (in the north) the Peiyang fleet. Only the last of these was under the direct control of the Peking government.

Such an arrangement was an inadequate basis for sea power and when, in 1874, a Japanese expedition was sent to Formosa to exact retribution for the murder of some Ryu-kyu sailors by Formosan aborigines, the Chinese were unable to take any effective steps to protect this overseas outpost of their Empire. Actually the whole basis for the Japanese action was in Chinese eyes false. For the Ryu-kyu Islands had been a regular tributary of China since 1372. But the Japanese Lord of Satsuma had, unknown to the Chinese, subjugated them in 1609, since when the island king had been also a tribute-paying vassal of Satsuma.

Negotiations, in which the British minister to China, Thomas Wade, acted as mediator, led to a settlement by which China paid an indemnity of half a million dollars and agreed not to condemn the Japanese action. This latter concession tacitly implied Chinese acceptance of Japanese sovereignty over the Ryu-kyus and five years later this was confirmed by Japanese formal annexation.

Korea and Japan

In 1875 it was the Koreans’ turn to clash with the newly awakened aggressive power. Though Christian missionaries had, in spite of periodic persecution, spread their faith widely in the kingdom since the second half of the eighteenth century, the Koreans had successfully resisted all Western efforts to promote trade or establish diplomatic relations. In 1866, following a sweeping massacre of Christian priests, the French had sent a punitive expedition of seven ships and six hundred men which captured Kangwha near Seoul, but after suffering more than thirty casualties in a skirmish outside the city, withdrew. An American merchant ship seeking trade was destroyed and the crew killed in the same year. An American squadron sent to investigate the matter in 1871 steamed into the Han River, on which Seoul lies; on being fired on by shore batteries, the ships bombarded the city of Kangwha on two successive days but then withdrew, their mission unfulfilled.

To the Japanese, Korea represented either a natural stepping stone to their penetration of the mainland or a pistol pointing at the heart of their country. They soon determined it should be the former. An expedition to force diplomatic and trade relations was planned; a surveying team with gunboat escort began charting the approaches to the Korean capital in 1875, and when this was fired on, the gunboats retaliated, destroying the Korean forts. A squadron of six Japanese warships appeared. The Chinese government was at that time in no state to interfere on behalf of its tributary state. The Korean Regent was instructed to negotiate and the Treaty of Kangwha, 24 February 1876, was the result. Not only was Korea thereby opened to diplomatic and commercial relations with Japan, but she was recognized as an independent state on an equal footing with Japan and, in the absence of any protest by China, was thus freed of her ancient vassalage.

When the United States concluded a similar treaty in 1882, the Koreans took the opportunity, in a separate statement, voluntarily to acknowledge Chinese suzerainty ; and it was under the auspices of the Chinese government that the treaty and those with Britain, France and Germany which followed it were concluded. Nevertheless Japan soon became influential in Seoul, operating in support of Queen Min, to reform the government and modernize the army, and against the reactionary Regent, Taewongon. In 1882 the latter provoked a rising during which the Japanese legation was burned, seven Japanese officers were killed and the minister forced to flee to Japan.

Both Chinese and Japanese warships arrived to enforce a pacification. The Chinese envoy arrested the Regent and deported him to China. A settlement with Japan was patched up, the most significant feature of which was the establishment of the Japanese right to station troops for the protection of the legation. The Chinese government, however, now took steps to re-assert suzerainty. Extra-territoriality for their nationals was one of the terms of a commercial treaty ; six Chinese battalions were stationed in Korea and a young Chinese officer, Yuan Shih-k’ai, who was in the years ahead to play a leading role in the history of China, was appointed to train the Korean army.

Pro-Chinese and pro-Japanese factions now grew up and in December 1884 the latter, encouraged by the Japanese minister and aided by the Japanese legation troops, staged a revolt in which the royal palace was broken into and the king captured. Yuan Shih-k’ai’s troops gained the upper hand, however; the Japanese, facing annihilation, set fire to their legation and, formed into a square with their wounded and womenfolk in the centre, fought their way through the winter night to the coast.

With a technique that was to become only too familiar, the Japanese made the incident an excuse for sending an expedition to enforce payment of compensation while at the same time a Sino-Japanese Convention was concluded at Tientsin. By its terms both Chinese and Japanese troops were to be withdrawn; but, deeply significant for the future was the mutual agreement that either China or Japan might send troops into Korea for the restoration of order provided they gave each other prior notice. For the time being, however, Chinese influence was supreme with Yiian Shih-k’ai virtually Governor of Korea.

French Aggression

But the Japanese, growing ever stronger on land and sea, were biding their time, while China, for lack of adequate sea power suffered a humiliating defeat when she attempted to oppose French aggression in Vietnam. Annam, as Vietnam was then called, was an ancient tributary state of China. Tribute missions had been sent to Peking even after the French had annexed the three southern provinces (Cochin-China) following the despatch of a punitive expedition to Saigon in 1859 on account of attacks on missionaries. She established a virtual protectorate over the remainder by another treaty in 1874. French troops were stationed in North Vietnam and fortresses built along the Red River. They were opposed by an irregular Chinese `Black Flag’ army, a remnant of the rebel Taiping army which from 1850-64 had controlled much of China and came near to unseating the Ch’ing dynasty. Regular Chinese troops were also surreptitiously sent to Tonking.

The fighting on land that followed was sporadic and indecisive. But when on 23 August 1884 the French Rear Admiral Courbet, with a squadron consisting of three powerful armoured cruisers and nine smaller ships attacked the Chinese Foochow squadron of one iron vessel, six wooden sloops, two armed transports, two gunboats and a number of war junks, the huge French superiority of force made the encounter into little more than a military execution. It took a mere forty-five minutes, following which the French guns were turned destructively on the arsenal and the defensive forts. The French fleet went on to occupy Keelung in Formosa and the Pescadores.

Meanwhile a blockade of the Yangtse River estuary and stoppage of the tribute grain from South China to the capital had been undermining the warlike resolution of the Empress Dowager ; when a serious defeat of the French army in Tonking offered a face-saving opportunity, a peace treaty was negotiated in June 1885, which recognized France’s position in Annam.

Yet another ancient tributary was lost to China in the following year when Burma became a British protectorate. Japanese hunger for a share in the apparent break-up of China strengthened their determination to possess themselves of Korea when the moment was ripe.

In 1894 an uprising by a Korean religious sect known as the Tongkaks, assisted by agents of the Japanese secret society, Genyosha, caused the Korean government to appeal to Yuan Shih-k’ai for help. A force of about 2,500 Chinese infantry was landed at Asan on the Korean west coast. This was the moment the Japanese had been waiting for: a balanced army eight thousand strong was immediately transported to Chemulpo.

Li Hung-chang turned to the western powers for mediation. Proposals by the British and Americans were rejected by the Japanese and, with war imminent, the Chinese chartered three British steamers to carry reinforcements to Asan. Two of these, escorted by the small protected cruiser, Tsi-Tuen, and the sloop, Kwang-Yi, reached Asan safely ; but as the two warships put to sea again on 25 July 1894 to return to Taku, they were intercepted by the Japanese Flying Squadron of three fast light cruisers, Yoshino, Naniwa and Akitsushima, under the command of Rear Admiral Tsuboi who had orders to stop the transport of troops to Korea, if necessary by force, and to deal with any Chinese warships met, though war had not yet been declared.

Convoy Battle

In the unequal fight that developed the Chinese were overwhelmed, the Tsi-Yuen being heavily damaged, though she was unaccountably allowed to limp away to the Chinese naval base of Wei-hai-wei ; the little sloop was forced to beach herself, where she was quickly destroyed. While the Yoshino was chasing the Tsi-Yuen off the scene, there came in sight two more ships. These were the chartered Jardine and Matheson steamer, Kowshing, carrying 1,200 Chinese troops, twelve guns and two Chinese generals, and her escort the 572-ton sloop Tsao-kiang. The sloop was quickly induced to surrender to the Akitsushima. The Naniwa, commanded by Captain Heihachiro Togo (who eleven years later was to be the hero-admiral, victor at the Battle of Tsu-shima), meanwhile signalled the Kowshing to stop and, having ascertained that she was carrying troops, ordered her to follow the cruiser. When the British master signalled that the Chinese would not allow him to comply and requested Togo to take off the Europeans on board, the Japanese captain declined on the grounds that his boat might be attacked. Four hours of unproductive signalling was brought to an end when the Naniwa opened fire at point blank range and sank the Kowshing. The British officers were picked up by the Naniwa’s boats; some 512 Chinese managed to swim ashore or cling to wreckage, but loss of life was heavy.

War between China and Japan was formally declared on 1 August. As with all wars, this one would inevitably be concluded by the victory of one of the opposing armies; but the decision would have already been secured at sea, on the local control of which depended the support and supply of both. For although Korea was connected to China at its landward frontier, road communications were so primitive as to be of little use for the despatch of reinforcements or supplies.

That only by battle with the opposing fleet could such an essential control be secured was not understood by Fi Hungchang, who forbade Admiral Ting Ju-ch’ang, commanding the Peiyang fleet, to proceed to the east of a line drawn from his base at Wei-hai-wei to the mouth of the Yalu River. The Japanese fleet arrived off Wei-hai-wei on 10 August and bombarded its forts, but the challenge was not accepted; the Chinese ships remained in harbour. Thus Admiral Ito, the Japanese Commander-in-Chief, was left undisturbed to convoy his land forces to Korea where such a Japanese superiority was quickly built up that the Chinese army was defeated and driven north.

Battle of Yalu

Admiral Ting was now ordered to escort a troop convoy to the Yalu from Port Arthur. This was successfully achieved ; but it was off the mouth of the Yalu that Admiral Ito arrived on 17 September 1894, placing himself between Ting and his bases and forcing the Chinese admiral to accept the battle he had professed to desire. Ting at once put to sea and cleared for action.

The two fleets were, on paper, evenly matched. Indeed, to the school that believed that the heavily armoured battleship mounting four 12-inch guns was the arbiter of naval battles, the Chinese was the more powerful. For Ting had two of these, the Ting Yuen, his flagship, and the Chen Yuen as well as eight cruisers mounting guns varying in calibre from 10.2-inch to 5.9-inch. None of these guns was of the quick-firing type which had been invented seven years earlier.

The Japanese fleet under Admiral Ito was divided into a Main Squadron under his personal command and a fast Flying Squadron under Rear Admiral Tsuboi. The biggest ships of the Japanese Main Squadron were three unarmoured cruisers, Matsushima (Ito’s flagship), Itsukushima and Hashidate, which mounted but one 12.6-inch gun each. The remainder of the squadron consisted of two cruisers Fuso and Hiyei, ancient veterans built seventeen years before, carrying a few antiquated guns, and one, the Choyoda, armed with nothing bigger than 4.7-inch guns, but of the quick-firing type.

Rear Admiral Tsuboi’s flag flew in the cruiser Toshino, a fine modern ship of 4,150 tons with 6-inch and 4.7-inch quick firers. With him were three other fast cruisers; Takachiho and Naniwa, mounting two 10.2-inch guns and six 6-inch each, and the Akitsushima which, like the Toshino, carried only quick-firing guns of 6-inch and 4.7-inch calibre. None of these ships was armoured, but even the slowest could make nearly nineteen knots, a good speed at that time.

So far it might seem that the Japanese fleet was much too weak to think of facing the heavy guns of the Chinese. On the other hand all the Japanese ships except Takachiho, Naniwa, Fuso and Hiyei carried between ten and twelve quick-firing guns, either 6-inch or 4.7-inch. A meeting between the two fleets might show which of the rival theories was right – that of the believers in the massive blow of a few big guns, or the contrary theory that many quick-firers would smother the slow-firing, big-gun ships before they could score many hits.

When the time came, however, the test was not to be so clear-cut. There were several reasons for this. The Japanese fleet was a highly trained and skillful force, whereas the Chinese, who a few years previously had achieved a high state of efficiency under the guidance of Captain W. M. Lang of the British Navy, had reverted on his departure to the condition of glossed-over incompetence usual in the armed forces of the Empire. The ships were kept outwardly smart and well-painted, but behind this facade there were half-empty magazines and unpractised gunners. Troubles in the shell factories had led to indifferent bursting charges, or even cement and coal dust inserted in their place.

Furthermore, Admiral Ting had a faulty conception of naval fighting tactics based on the outcome of the Battle of Lissa, fought twenty-eight years earlier, in which the Austrian victory had been won by a frontal, line abreast attack on the Italian line, and an eventual recourse to the ram. The fact that the big guns of his two battleships could all fire ahead increased Ting’s faith in such a method. He had completely overlooked the fact that guns had greatly increased in range and effectiveness since Lissa, so that a fleet which awaited such an onslaught in line ahead would have a considerable gun advantage for a long period during the approach. The ram had consequently ceased to be a practical proposition.

Such were the two fleets that now steered for an encounter; the Japanese at about ten knots, which was the best that Fuso and Hiyei could achieve, the Chinese at a knot or two faster. Ito’s fleet was in line ahead with the Flying Squadron in the van. Besides the major units there were present two ships of little or no fighting value, the gunboat Akagi and an armed merchant steamer Saikio Adaru, which were to prove an embarrassment to Ito. It is not clear why the Japanese admiral did not send such vulnerable ships away to the southward, where they would have been clear of the battle. Instead he stationed them on the port side of his Main Squadron, the side away from the enemy.

Meanwhile Ting’s squadron was approaching on a south-westerly course in a formation somewhat similar to Tegetthoff’s at Lissa, with the two big ships in the centre. But owing to tardiness in getting under way, the two starboard wing ships were lagging, while on the other wing one of the Chinese cruisers, the Tsi-Tuen, was well behind and unable to get up into station. In fact, viewed from the Japanese ships, the Chinese squadron seemed to be in considerable disorder.

The tactics of the two admirals were soon evident. At the long range for those days of six thousand yards, the Chinese opened fire with their big guns. With calm confidence the Japanese held their fire, and indeed they could well afford to do so; for with the rapidly changing range making shooting difficult, the unpractised Chinese gunners failed to score a single hit during the approach.

The Japanese line drew steadily across the Chinese front until the Flying Squadron was able to pass round the starboard wing, and at a range of three thousand yards open a withering fire from their quick-firers on the wing ships of the Chinese formation. Their Main Squadron now came into action, passing close ahead of Ting’s flagship and the Chen Tuen, which bore down as though to ram, both battleships being heavily shot up in the process. The whole of Ito’s squadron except the Hiyei, the rear ship, passed safely round the northern flank of Ting’s line, and Ito then led round to star¬ board, circling the now completely disorganized Chinese fleet and keeping up a punishing fire to which only a feeble reply was made.

Indeed the Chinese had more than the enemy’s fire with which to reckon. Dense funnel smoke, increased by that from a hundred guns, enveloped the whole scene. The laggard Tsi-Tuen, coming up at last, plunged into the smother and ran amok, colliding with two ships of her own side, sinking one and so damaging another that it steamed away blazing to be beached. The Tsi-Tuen herself then withdrew to Port Arthur, where her captain subsequently paid for his actions with his head.

Meanwhile the Hiyei, unable to follow the Japanese Main Squadron round the Chinese flank, boldly turned to pass through the Chinese. Avoiding two torpedoes fired at her and which strangely enough hit nothing in spite of the milling throng of ships, the Hiyei won through, though suffering considerably in the process.

The two weak Japanese ships, Akagi and Saikio Maru, also cut off, kept on across the Chinese front, the former being badly battered. Seeing this, Rear Admiral Tsuboi led the Flying Squadron round to port to come back and cover them. This brought a temporary relief to the Chinese ships, but by the time Tsuboi had completed his turn the Chinese found themselves between two fires, Ito to the eastward and the Flying Squadron to the north-westward.

By now Ting’s squadron was in desperate straits. Apart from the victims of the Tsi-Tuen’s wild career, two other cruisers, smothered by the rapid fire of Tsuboi’s 6-inch and 4.7-inch guns, had gone down. Yet another had struggled away burning furiously, ultimately to be run aground near Port Arthur. Ting was thus left with only four of his original ten ships, all of which had suffered severely and had shot away nearly all their ammunition.

Complete annihilation of the Chinese squadron was in Ito’s grasp. The Japanese had not achieved this without damage to themselves, however; in particular Ito’s flagship Matsushima had been hit twice by 12-inch shells, once by a 10.2-inch, suffering more than a hundred casualties, and had been set on fire. By the time Ito had transferred his flag to the Hashidate and despatched the Matsushima, Hiyei, Akagi and Saikio to base for repairs, the sun was sinking low; and as dusk fell, the two fleets disengaged and formed up on parallel courses in line ahead.

A renewal of the fight might now have wiped out the Chinese force, but a new element had entered the situation. The two torpedo-boats of Ting’s squadron had joined him from the Yalu. This caused Ito to decide to await the dawn before completing the enemy’s annihilation, and in the night Ting slipped away with his surviving ships, which included his two battleships. Nevertheless the Japanese had won a considerable victory, and had secured control of the disputed sea area, making certain of victory on land. There the Japanese were able to occupy Dairen and to capture the fortified base of Port Arthur by attacking the forts from the rear. They went on to capture Wei-hai-wei in February 1895, turning the guns of the forts on the damaged remnants of the Peiyang fleet. Admiral Ting committed suicide; the fleet surrendered.

Li Hung-chang, the inspirer of the Self-strengthening Movement by which China had hoped to withstand further foreign aggression, but which had failed primarily because the Chinese public service was so riddled with corruption and incompetence, was disgraced and dismissed. He was reinstated, however, at Japanese insistence upon an envoy of sufficient stature being sent to negotiate a peace settlement. The Treaty of Shimonoseki which was finally signed on 17 April 1895 provided for recognition of Korean independence and termination of tribute to China ; a large indemnity ; the opening of four more Chinese ports ; Japanese right to open factories and engage in industry in China ; finally, and most ominously, the cession to Japan of Formosa, the Pescadores and the Liaotung Peninsula on which Port Arthur and Dairen were situated.

For the moment Japan had in spectacular fashion burst out of her backwardness and obscurity to claim an equal status with the western powers. Great Britain had already offered a treaty revision to abolish her extra-territorial rights and during the next few years her example was followed by other powers. But Japan was now to suffer a humiliating set-back on her road to great power status, one which was to colour her attitude ever afterwards.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explosion and Loss of the Battleship Mutsu

A Japanese sketch of the broken Mutsu on the bottom.

A Japanese sketch of Mutsu’s No 3 main gun turret as found. Gun, turret and barbette were later salvaged and are currently exhibited.

Mutsu’s original 41 cm No. 4 turret at the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, Eta Jima in 1947.

The loss of the battleship Mutsu during the Second World War was the IJN’s biggest accident with regard to the displacement of the ship and number of dead.  

On 8 June 1943 Mutsu was moored to the buoy for the flagship near Hashirajima. At about 1210 she was shaken by a major explosion in the after part of the ship. The hull was severed abaft the No 3 main gun turret by the force of the explosion. The fore part capsized to starboard and sank. The stern section rose out of the water and sank more slowly. Four hours after the explosion Mutsu had disappeared beneath the waves.

When Mutsu exploded and sank the following four ships were in the vicinity: the battleship Fuso, the light cruiser Tatsuta, and the destroyers Wakatsuki and Tamanami. At first it was thought that the ship had been torpedoed by an enemy submarine. Consequently, the destroyers were ordered to drop depth charges, while at the same time the survivors were rescued. In addition to her own complement of 1,321, a further 153 men of the 10th Harbour Defence Unit were on board for training and of the total of 1,474 officers and men, 1,121 became victims of this catastrophe and only 353 survived.

An investigation committee with Admiral Shiozawa Koichi in the chair was established and began its enquiry. Basing on the testimony of survivors, the committee concluded that if a fire had broken out in the neighbour-hood of the No 3 and No 4 main gun turrets and caused such a catastrophic explosion, it must have begun in the powder magazine of No 3 main gun turret. The most likely cause was self-ignition of the Type 3 shell (3 Shiki-Dan) stowed in that magazine.

The Type 3 shell was a shrapnel (Sankai-Dan) shell recently developed for defence against air attacks. Inside the body of the 40cm shell there were 735 hollow steel tubes 20mm in diameter with a length of 90mm stacked in layers and filled with white phosphorus. The incendiary bodies were expelled forwards from the detonation point and formed a cone-shaped danger zone with a diameter of up to 240 metres at the end of their trajectory. However, despite the spectacular visual effects, the danger to an attacking aircraft was low.

Large numbers of Type 3 shells were stowed in the magazines of battleships and heavy cruisers but, following the destruction of Mutsu, all had to be landed by order. The investigation committee conducted repeated experiments at the Kamegakubi Experimental Range of Kure NY in order to confirm the self-ignition of this shell as the most probable cause of the explosion. Models of the original size were produced and numerous experiments carried out. In parallel a colour-burning experiment was executed in the presence of several dozens of survivors. The colour of the smoke generated by the burning of the powder of the Type 3 shell was white, while that emitted by the propellant for the standard projectiles (common and AP) was brown. Mutsu’s survivors confirmed that the smoke emitted when the magazine exploded was brown. The tests also failed to generate self-ignition of the Type 3 shell, and it was absolved as the cause of the loss of Mutsu; as a result, the Type 3 shell was again embarked on major IJN warships.

A later investigation by divers found that the third main gun turret and its barbette had been separated from the hull and was damaged. This discovery served to confirm the assumption that the explosion had taken place in the powder magazine below No 3 main gun turret. However, the true cause of the explosion could not be established and is still unknown; again, arson or decomposition of the propellant were suspected.

The IJN investigated all items relating to naval powder from the administration to the production including handling and stowage inside the ship, and there were further attempts to improve safety. A plan to increase powder production by the simplification of the processes was also postponed, meaning that the magazine explosion on board Mutsu did have an impact on powder production planning in the IJN.

Waging Gentlemanly War

The Battle of Kawanakajima was an annual event fought between Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. Both daimyo would ensure the battle ended in a draw.

Depiction of the legendary personal conflict between Kenshin and Shingen at the fourth battle of Kawanakajima.

Two of the early Sengoku Jidai’s most colourful daimyo were Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. They represented the last of the gentlemen warriors, who conducted their warfare according to the honourable traditions of old. Every year for five years in a row the armies of Kenshin and Shingen met in the same place on the plain of Kawanakajima to do battle. Sometimes, when one army had gained the upper hand it would withdraw as a sign of respect for the opposition. When Shingen’s salt supply was cut off by Kenshin’s ally, the Hojo clan, Kenshin sent Shingen a supply of salt from his own stock, commenting that he `fought with swords, not salt.’

The first half of the fifteenth century in Japan saw sporadic rebellions taking place, all of which were quelled successfully until 1467, when a quarrel between two samurai houses developed into a military and political disaster. The resulting Onin War was fought largely around the capital and even in the streets of Kyoto itself, which was soon reduced to a smoking wasteland. The shogun at the time was Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Yoshimitsu’s grandson, who was totally unable to prevent a slide into anarchy. Instead Yoshimasa contented himself with artistic pursuits, and was one of the early devotees of the tea ceremony. He also built the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in an attempt to emulate his illustrious ancestor. His cultural achievements were many, but the power of the shogunate declined as never before.

With such a vacuum at the heart of Japanese politics, many samurai took the opportunity to develop their own local autonomy in a way that had not been seen for centuries. It was as if the powerful landowners of the Nara period had been reborn, and throughout Japan there was a scramble for territory. Some ancient families disappeared altogether to be replaced by men who had once fought for them and achieved local power through war, intrigue, marriage, or murder. Other ancient lines prospered, and found themselves having to share Japan with upstarts who may have started their careers as ashigaru (foot soldiers) but who now owned a considerable amount of territory, which they defended using wooden castles and loyal followers. These lords called themselves daimyo (great names), and led lives that were constantly being challenged by neighbors. Literally scores of battles took place, leading to the century and a half between 1467 and 1600 being dubbed the Sengoku Jidai (the period of Warring States), by analogy with a similar turbulent period in ancient China.

A good example of the trend was to be found in north-central Japan where the territories of the Takeda and Uesugi families were located. They were at war for half a century. Their most famous members, Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin, were princes in their own provinces, and led thousands of fanatically loyal samurai. Takeda Shingen is customarily credited with being the finest leader of mounted samurai in Sengoku Japan. At Uedahara in 1548 and at Mikata ga Hara in 1572, the Takeda cavalry rode down disorganized infantry missile units. But for cavalry charges to succeed, the old samurai tradition of singling out a worthy opponent for a challenge to single combat had to wait until the enemy line was broken, so group operations became the norm.

The Takeda and Uesugi fought each other five times at a place called Kawanakajima (“the island within the river”), a battlefield that marked the border between their territories. Not only were the armies the same, the same two commanders led them at each battle. In addition to this intriguing notion of five battles on one battlefield, Kawanakajima has also become the epitome of Japanese chivalry and romance: the archetypal clash of samurai arms.

In its more extreme form, this view even denies the possibility that anyone actually got hurt at the Kawanakajima battles, which are seen only as a series of “friendly fixtures” characterized by posturing and pomp. In this scenario the Kawanakajima conflicts may be dismissed as mock warfare. During some of the encounters, admittedly, the two armies disengaged before committing themselves fully to a fight to the death, but the wounds and the dead bodies were real enough, and the fourth battle of Kawanakajima in 1561 produced many casualties on both sides.

The Battle of Kawanakajima


Author: Hiroyuki Shindo

From February 1942 until July 1944, a war of attrition was fought by the air forces of the United States, Australia and Japan in Papua, New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands. Although this period comprises more than half the length of the war in the Pacific, somehow more attention seems to be paid in popular histories to other aspects of that war, such as the actions of the carrier fleets of Japan and the United States. The air campaign in the South Pacific, however, was of extreme importance, not just to the persons of all sides who fought there, but to the outcome of the war. This is because it was in, over and around the island of New Guinea that the Japanese Army and Navy, and their air forces, were first stopped, worn down and finally pushed back. Since it is obviously impossible to look at every aspect of that campaign in a single article, the following discussion concentrates on the major strategic and operational issues on the Japanese side. It also focuses on Japanese air operations over the main island of New Guinea, even though in actuality these operations, when seen from the Japanese side, were closely intertwined with activities undertaken in the Solomon Islands.

Broadly speaking, the Japanese air campaign over New Guinea may be divided into four phases. The first phase was the Japanese Navy’s offensive campaign against Port Moresby, from the spring through fall of 1942. Next, from early 1943 until about June of that year, the Japanese Army filled in for the Navy (whose air forces were increasingly committed to the Solomons campaign) and fought a campaign which was intended to be offensive but became increasingly defensive in nature. The third phase was a short period in the summer of 1943 in which the Japanese Army assigned a more positive role to its air forces in New Guinea, only to see the bulk of that force destroyed in a single air attack. Finally, the Japanese Army air forces fought an unglamorous defensive campaign for approximately a year, from the summer of 1943, before the Japanese Army was pushed out of New Guinea and the war itself shifted to the Marianas and the Philippines.

Occupation of Rabaul and the start of air operations against Port Moresby

When the Japanese Army and Navy developed plans for a forthcoming war with the United States and Great Britain in 1941, the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, particularly New Britain, were included in their target list from early on. This was because Japanese planners (especially those in the Navy) saw Rabaul on New Britain, with its excellent natural harbour, as a potential threat to Truk Island in the Carolines. Situated only 1100 kilometres from Rabaul, Truk was the site of the Japanese Navy’s most important base in the central Pacific Ocean. The seizure of New Britain was therefore necessary to protect the base at Truk, and the surrounding islands had to be controlled as well, in order to secure Rabaul. While the main efforts of the Army and Navy would be aimed at the southwest Pacific area – i.e. the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, Netherlands East Indies and other surrounding areas that made up the so-called “Southern Resources Area” – both the Army and Navy therefore assigned units to operations in the South Pacific.

In the plans which received imperial sanction on 5 November 1941, the Army’s South Seas Detachment was assigned the task of seizing first Guam, then airfields in the Bismarck Islands, in order to eliminate the threat posed by the enemy. Since the operation in the South Pacific was seen as the Navy’s responsibility, however, the Navy’s Special Landing Forces were to take over the occupation of Guam at an appropriate time, after which they would cooperate with the Army in occupying Rabaul. It was further specified that the South Seas Detachment would be replaced by the Special Landing Forces and withdrawn to the Palau Islands as soon as possible. The Navy’s Fourth Fleet, based in Truk, would be responsible for supporting both the Guam and the Rabaul-Bismarcks operations. A sea-borne assault on Rabaul was accordingly made on 22 January 1942 by the Special Landing Forces, with the support of both land-based and carrier-based aircraft, and the town quickly captured.

While these operations were being carried out, the Japanese Army and Navy, faced with the unexpectedly rapid success of their operations in the Philippines, Malaya and Netherlands East Indies, had to decide upon their next steps. Briefly speaking, Japan’s options included continuing westward into India; invading the Australian mainland; invading New Guinea, the Solomons, Fiji and Samoa, in order to cut off Australia from the United States; and driving eastward towards Hawaii. The Navy High Command wanted to invade Australia, in order to eliminate it as potential springboard for a counter-offensive by the Allies, but the Army balked at this because it would require an excessive commitment of manpower. The Navy therefore settled for the lesser option. The Fourth Fleet, with the XI Air Fleet (the Navy’s land-based air force in the Pacific theatre), was ordered to assault Lae, Salamaua in New Guinea, Port Moresby in Papua, and the Solomon Islands.

In compliance with this strategy, Zero fighters of the Chitose Air Corps moved to Rabaul on 31 January. Shortly afterwards, on 2 and 5 February, Kawanishi Type 97 “Mavis” flying boats of the Yokohama Air Corps bombed Port Moresby for the first time, and the air war over New Guinea was underway. On 9 February, Gasmata (on New Britain’s southern coast) was occupied, and work begun on an airstrip. To carry out further operations, the 4th Air Corps was newly created, with a nominal strength of 27 fighters and 27 bombers. It was placed under the command of the 25th Air Flotilla, and its headquarters was located in Rabaul. On 24 February, aircraft from the 4th Air Corps began bombing Port Moresby.

On 7 March 1942, the Japanese High Command decided upon the operations which would follow the so-called “First Stage Operations,” which had been aimed at the occupation of the Netherlands East Indies and other areas of the Southern Resources Area. The second stage of operations which was thus adopted called for the continuation of major offensive operations in order to secure a long-term, unbeatable politico-strategic situation, after which additional active measures would be taken aimed at forcing Great Britain to capitulate and making the United States lose the will to fight.1 As part of this new strategy, the decision was made to continue the advance in the Solomons and New Guinea area, with the aim of eventually cutting off the supply route between the United States and Australia. The 7 March decision therefore confirmed what was already being executed. Lae and Salamaua on the northeastern New Guinea coast were occupied on 8 March. Two days later, the Tainan Air Corps (one of the fighter units deployed to Rabaul as part of the new strategy) sent eleven of its Zero fighters to Lae, which became an exceedingly busy advanced airbase.2

Until the end of July 1942, the naval air units based at Rabaul and Lae became intensely involved in flying missions over the Owen Stanley Range to attack Port Moresby, or other Allied bases on the New Guinea mainland. Such operations consisted of either bombing missions with fighter escort, or sweeps by fighters alone. The Japanese fighter units at this time were also kept extremely busy intercepting Allied air attacks on the Japanese bases. This phase of the air war was characterized by the lack of clear superiority by either side. Although the Australians and Americans often lost more aircraft in individual air battles, Allied air strength did not diminish significantly. On the other hand, the Japanese, although suffering fewer losses, saw a slow decline in the quality of their forces as highly-trained and experienced pilots were lost and replaced by less and less experienced ones. This period was, therefore, somewhat of a stalemate, as the Japanese could not batter the Allied air forces enough to drive them out of New Guinea.

The commitment of Army air forces to the South Pacific

The next stage in Japanese air operations over New Guinea involved the deployment of Japanese Army air forces in the region. After the Americans landed on Guadalcanal Island in the Solomons on 7 August 1942, the Japanese air forces based in Rabaul became involved in a two-front operation. Now they were forced to make increasingly greater efforts in the Solomons, while continuing their campaign against New Guinea (which still principally meant Port Moresby). The air battle in the Solomons would be fought principally by naval aircraft, and, as this commitment grew, the Army’s air forces would play a greater role over New Guinea.

The American counter-attack at Guadalcanal came as a complete surprise to the Japanese. In their estimate of the world strategic situation in March 1942, the Japanese High Command had concluded that the Americans would not mount a major counter-attack before 1943. On 12 August the Army and Navy High Commands agreed that the American landing on Guadalcanal was only a local tactical move, and the island could be easily recaptured. This view began to change after the Battle of the Tenaru River on 21 August, when the Japanese Army’s Ichiki Detachment, numbering some 900 men, made the first attempt to retake Henderson Field and was almost completely wiped out. The Japanese Navy High Command now realized that it would take more than a simple operation to retake Guadalcanal, and that controlling the air around the island was a prerequisite for success. The Navy felt, however, that it alone was unable to make the necessary commitment in terms of air forces, due to the depletion of its air units in Rabaul. In late August it therefore asked the Army to send some of its forces to reinforce the air effort in the Solomons and New Guinea area.3

The Army considered the Navy’s request, and almost immediately rejected it. First of all, the Army was not inclined to make a major commitment in the South Pacific area, because it still felt that its traditional area of responsibility was the Asian mainland, while the Pacific Ocean area was the traditional responsibility of the Navy. This had been the understanding since the establishment of the Japanese Army and Navy in the late 19th Century, and while there was no formal written agreement to this effect, the Army and Navy’s doctrines, training, tactics, strategy and equipment were all based upon it. Over the years the Army’s air units had been prepared almost solely for fighting a war with Japan’s traditional enemy on the continent, Russia. The Army had never even considered the possibility of conducting air operations in the New Guinea-Solomons area, and recognized that it knew almost nothing about the geographic, climatic and other conditions of the South Pacific. Not only was the Army extremely reluctant to commit its air forces in such circumstances, but it suspected that the Navy actually did have additional air forces in quieter areas of the Pacific which it could commit to the South Pacific.

The Army formally replied to the Navy in late August. Besides the reasons given above, the Army explained that its air forces were spread out all over Manchuria, China, Burma and Sumatra, and in addition had to defend the Japanese homeland from possible threats from the North Pacific area. There were, it claimed, no personnel or aircraft that could be spared for the South Pacific. The Army also pointed out that its air forces had been trained and prepared for mainland operations, and were ill-suited for conducting operations or deployments over large expanses of water, which would be the case if they were committed to this new theatre. Furthermore, it was mentioned that there were no overland air routes to the South Pacific front which Army air units might follow, and that airfields and other necessary facilities were too unprepared there for them to operate properly. Thus, no agreement was reached at this stage concerning the deployment of Army air forces to the South Pacific.

In mid-September a further attempt to retake Henderson Field which the Army mounted, using the Kawaguchi Detachment, also failed. As preparations commenced for yet another attempt involving the 2nd Division, the need for regaining command of the air around the Solomons was keenly recognized by Army planners. Gradually, opinion within the Army High Command began tilting towards the deployment of Army air forces to the region. In late October a proposal was produced by the Operations Section of the Army General Staff for the assignment of two fighter and two light bomber sentais (air groups) to support Army operations in New Guinea. This, however, was only intended as a temporary measure to help out the Navy while its air units were committed to the Guadalcanal campaign. (In fact, by then the Navy’s major bombing missions against Port Moresby from Rabaul had all but ceased, except for night raids by one or a few planes at a time, as more and more Navy planes were sucked into the Guadalcanal campaign.) As soon as Port Moresby was captured, it was intended that the Army air forces would be pulled out again.

The issue was settled shortly afterwards. From 28 October, Takushiro Hattori of the Operations Section, Army General Staff, visited the New Guinea-Solomons front, including XVII Army headquarters on Guadalcanal. His report dated 11 November called for, among other things, the deployment of army air forces to the region in order to regain air superiority. In mid-November, the Army and Navy High Commands and the Government produced an estimate of future American air power which projected that the Americans would have in the South Pacific some 11,000 army and navy first-line planes by December 1942, and 24,500 by December 1943. It was recognized that the most urgent need facing Japan was to increase her air power.

Faced with looming defeat on Guadalcanal, and with setbacks in their drive on Port Moresby where Japanese forces had begun withdrawing from Kokoda on 26 October, the Army finally decided to commit some of its air forces to the South Pacific. On 18 November an “Army-Navy Central Agreement on Operations in the South Pacific Area” was signed, and the 6th Air Division was committed to the New Guinea front. This, it should be noted, was only a temporary arrangement to support the Navy’s operations – that is, the Army units would be “loaned” until the Navy’s air forces recovered or certain victorious conditions (such as the occupation of Port Moresby) were attained. In accordance with the agreement, sixty Nakajima Type 1 “Oscar” fighters of the 11th Sentai reached Rabaul via Truk on 18 December, and almost immediately became involved in air defence operations. By the end of the month they were flying missions against targets on mainland New Guinea, such as Buna, some of these as joint missions with Navy aircraft. On 29 December, heavy bomber units of the Army were ordered to deploy from Burma to New Guinea.

Six weeks later, on 3 January 1943, another Army-Navy Central Agreement was signed which designated the areas of responsibility of the Army and Navy’s air units. The Army air forces were given the mission of supporting the ground forces on New Guinea and providing their air defence, and supporting the transport of supplies to New Guinea. The Navy air forces would be responsible for air operations in the Solomons, and for air operations in New Guinea other than those assigned to the Army.4

While the decision to withdraw from Guadalcanal was made at the end of 1942, on 4 January the Army and Navy High Commands ordered that operations on New Guinea were to be continued. The purpose of Japan’s operations in the South Pacific was to be to “secure a position of superiority”. Lae, Salamaua, Wewak and Madang on New Guinea were to be strengthened or occupied, and the area north of the Owen Stanleys was to be secured so that it could function as a base for operations aimed at Port Moresby.5 The Japanese then had 164 Army and 190 Navy aircraft on their bases at Rabaul and the surrounding area. At this stage, therefore, the Japanese had decided to abandon the southern Solomons but still intended to continue offensive operations in New Guinea, aimed at the eventual capture of Port Moresby.

Thereafter, Japanese air operations over New Guinea were conducted principally by the Army, operating out of Wewak and other bases. In addition to bombing raids on Allied airbases, the Japanese air forces also had to take on ground support missions (although never conducted as closely as was the case with the Allied air and ground forces), combat air patrol over their own airbases and escort missions of ship transports operating around New Guinea. As was the case with the Japanese Navy aircraft operating against Port Moresby in mid-1942, however, the Japanese never really gained the initiative in the air, and instead were gradually pressed into the defensive.

The Japanese were acutely aware of the gradually growing strength of the Americans during this period. At the end of January 1943, the Japanese Army estimated that American strength in the New Guinea area was 300 aircraft – the same as the combined strength of the Japanese Army and Navy. They estimated, however, that the Americans were producing 4,000 aircraft per month, of which the South Pacific would receive 480 (and the New Guinea front at least 80) aircraft per month. Judging that the Americans would suffer losses of 50 per cent per month, the Japanese Army projected that the Americans would have 700 aircraft in the New Guinea area by June, and 950 by September. Compared to this, the combined strength of the Japanese Army and Navy in the New Guinea-Solomons area was projected to grow to possibly 350 in June, but was not expected to exceed that number at any time.6 The Japanese were therefore clearly aware that if the current situation continued, the Americans would gradually attain a sheer superiority in numbers through 1943.

After the Japanese successfully withdrew from Guadalcanal in early February 1943, the next major setback which befell them was the Battle of the Bismarck Sea on 2-3 March that year. In this action, an entire convoy of transports carrying the 51st Division and a large amount of heavy weapons and supplies earmarked for the reinforcement of Lae, was sunk in the Dampier Straits, along with four out of eight escorting destroyers. As a result of this disastrous defeat, which occurred even though the Japanese had provided the convoy with what they believed was an adequate fighter escort, the Japanese were forced to realize that they could no longer run major convoys of transports in areas where the Americans were able to operate their bombers more or less freely. This posed obvious problems for the supply of the Japanese troops on New Guinea.

Following the Bismarck Sea battle, the Army reconsidered its entire New Guinea strategy, including the possibility of abandoning New Guinea outright and withdrawing to a new defensive line. This option was not adopted, however, because the Navy’s operations – not only in the New Guinea area but also throughout the South Pacific – would be constricted by such a pullback by the Army. In addition, no new defensive line to which the Army might safely fall back was prepared, and in any case, such a retreat would only expose the Philippines, Celebes and other Japanese-held islands in the South Pacific to air attack. Joint Army-Navy studies which were held on 14 March confirmed this policy, and the Army continued to try to hold its current positions in New Guinea.7


Further commitment and destruction of Army air forces

The lopsided defeat in the Bismarck Sea was an enormous shock to the Army High Command, which was forced to recognize even more the importance of the New Guinea front to Japan’s war efforts, and that the situation there was extremely critical. As a result, the Army had to rethink its strategy for the Pacific War, and decided to make a further substantial commitment to the area, in both ground and air forces. On 25 March 1943, a revised Army-Navy Central Agreement was concluded between the Army and Navy High Commands.8 Regarding the South Pacific, it was agreed that the main weight of operations would be placed on the New Guinea front, i.e. the defence of Lae and Salamaua and the strengthening of bases along the northern coast, while a holding or delaying operation would be fought in the Solomons. The assault on Port Moresby, while officially still a long-term objective, was for all practical purposes abandoned, although lip service was still paid to it to avoid damaging the morale of the troops fighting in New Guinea.

Reflecting this revised strategy, the Army decided to strengthen its air forces in the New Guinea area. Earlier, on 18 March, the Army High Command had decided to strengthen its air forces in the South Pacific generally, starting with the replacement of the fighter units in the 6th Air Division. The newly assigned units were the 68th and 78th Sentais of the 14th Air Brigade, which flew the Kawasaki Type 3 “Tony” fighter. These units started arriving in Rabaul in late April, and were duly deployed to New Guinea. On 2 April the Army further decided to dispatch to the New Guinea front, among other units, the 13th Sentai (flying the Kawasaki Type 2 “Toryu” twin-engine fighter) and the 24th Sentai (flying the venerable “Oscar”). These units began arriving in Rabaul in the latter half of May.

The situation changed further when the Japanese discovered that the Allies were constructing airfields in the New Guinea highlands, at Mount Hagen and Bena Bena, which would threaten the Japanese airfields at Madang and Wewak. Ground operations to meet these new threats were immediately planned. As a further measure it was decided to send to New Guinea the 7th Air Division, which was a relatively new formation, having been formed in late January 1943. It had been previously assigned to bases in eastern Java, Timor and other islands in the East Indies, and, along with the defence of this area, had been scheduled to carry out air raids on the Port Darwin area. In order to meet the extremely pressing situation in New Guinea, however, it was ordered to deploy to Wewak on 19 June.

Thus, the Japanese Army was busily deploying new air units to the New Guinea front in the spring and summer of 1943. While the actual movement of these forces was delayed due to the insufficient readiness of bases in the New Guinea, among other reasons, Army air strength – at least on paper – was steadily reinforced during this period. The Army made another organizational change during this period, when it created the Fourth Air Army to exercise overall command over the 6th and 7th Air Divisions. The new air army was formed in mid-June, and its headquarters began deploying to Rabaul from 25 July through 10 August.

These moves were important because they indicated a shift in the Army’s stance concerning its air forces in the New Guinea area. Until then, the Army had considered its air forces in the South Pacific as a temporary measure, a backstop for the Navy’s efforts in the region. Over the spring and summer of 1943, however, the Army came to recognize fully that the defence of northern New Guinea against the Allied advance was its responsibility, and began to deploy additional air forces from Manchuria and elsewhere to the New Guinea front. Eventually about a quarter of the Army’s air forces would be committed to the South Pacific. Considering that most of these units were the best that the Army had, and would be subjected to losses of approximately 50 per cent per month, this was indeed a major commitment by the Army.9

As mentioned above, the 7th Air Division was ordered to deploy to New Guinea on 19 June 1943. The major 7th Air Division units which were transferred at this time were the 59th Sentai (fighters), 5th Sentai, 7th Sentai (heavy bombers) and 61st Sentai (heavy bombers). While the Eighth Area Army, which commanded the Army ground and air forces in the Solomons-New Guinea region, wanted the move to occur as soon as possible, the 7th Air Division resisted, citing the lack of readiness of the airfields to which they would deploy. Ultimately, it was not until mid-July that the fighter units were transferred, with the bomber and other units following in late July and beyond.10 Meanwhile, on 9 July, the 6th Air Division also moved its headquarters to Wewak.

With these new deployments, it seemed that the Army air forces had overcome the growing disparity between the Japanese and the Allied air forces. However, in mid-June, the Army finally had to face reality, and the Operations Section of its High Command agreed upon an “Outline for Operations Guidance in the New Guinea Area” with the Operations Sections of the Navy High Command, which called for a holding strategy in New Guinea.11 While this meant that the assault on Port Moresby was finally and formally shelved, the Army air forces in New Guinea still had the task of neutralizing the Allied air bases at Mount Hagen, Bena Bena, Wau, Salamaua and other places. In addition, they had to defend their own airbases, and provide fighter escort for convoys attempting to supply the Japanese garrisons on New Guinea.

Defensive tasks sapped much of the Japanese Army’s air strength on New Guinea. In fact, by this time the Army air forces were fighting a largely defensive campaign. Out of 1,308 sorties flown in July 1943, 494 were convoy escort, 84 were intercept and 190 were ground support. Such missions meant that fewer aircraft and pilots were available for mounting air attacks on Allied airbases, even though the need for such air attacks was well-recognized as necessary for regaining air superiority.12

In early August 1943, the Fourth Air Army had an operational strength of 130 aircraft (the Navy’s operational strength in the Solomons-New Guinea area at this time was approximately 220 aircraft).13 This was just one-third of what the Fourth Air Army was supposed to have on paper, and was also only an operational rate of approximately 50 per cent. The major causes of this low operational rate were widespread illness among the aircrews, along with, of course, the lack of aircraft replacements.

Nevertheless, the Japanese attempted to carry out their plan to regain air superiority. On 12 August, the Fourth Air Army began to carry out air raids on the Allied airbases at Hagen, Bena Bena, Wau, Salamaua and elsewhere. This effort came to naught, however, when on 17 August 1943 Allied air armadas mounted a surprise air attack on Wewak, which was the Japanese Army’s principal airbase on New Guinea. As a result of this action, over 100 Japanese aircraft were destroyed, and the Fourth Air Army was reduced to an operational strength of just over 30 planes. The destruction of the Japanese air forces meant that the Allies could now conduct air operations more or less freely as far northwest as Aitape, whereas until then they had been held to Madang.14

The Army took this defeat quite seriously, since it meant a virtual end to air operations in New Guinea for the time being. The major cause for the scale of the defeat, as stressed by Eighth Area Army, was said to be the unpreparedness of the Japanese airbases. In particular, it was pointed out that the lack of sufficient aircraft shelters had left the Japanese planes vulnerable. In addition, the lack of a sufficient warning system was also identified as a culprit. The Japanese were still relying almost completely on a visual warning system, which did not provide enough time for aircraft on the ground to either scramble or be hidden. This problem was made worse by, again, the primitive condition of the airfields, which did not allow the quick scrambling of a large number of aircraft.

Yet another major cause stressed by the Fourth Air Army was the fact that all of its planes had been based on Wewak and other airbases which were, quite literally, in the front line. The Fourth Air Army, along with the 6th and 7th Air Divisions, had wanted to deploy its units more in depth, with a certain number of aircraft based at airfields further to the rear. However, both the Army High Command and the Eighth Area Army had insisted that as many aircraft as possible be based at airfields at the front, to make them easier to use in operations. While this was to a certain extent inevitable, since the Japanese did not have the necessary number of airbases in the rear, it also meant that the bulk of their aircraft would be based in locations extremely vulnerable to large-scale enemy air attacks.

The end of the Japanese air forces in New Guinea

After the debacle at Wewak, the Army tried to replenish its losses. At the same time, it began to strengthen its airbase at Hollandia, in order to provide more depth to the Wewak position. The Allies, however, would not wait while these efforts were being made. In September, the Allies pushed the Japanese back from their positions at Lae and Salamaua, and on 22 September they landed near Finschhafen, on the northeastern coast of New Guinea. Despite their desperate defensive efforts, therefore, the Japanese continued to slowly be pushed back in New Guinea, and in the Solomons as well. In late September, the Army air forces had at their disposal only 60 or 70 operational aircraft with which to oppose the Americans in New Guinea, even though they had two air divisions, the 6th and 7th, in the area.15

Faced with these developments, the Japanese High Command was finally forced to make a major strategic change. On 15 September 1943 the concept of the Absolute National Defence Zone was adopted as policy, finally revising the strategy of 7 March 1942, mentioned above, which had called for the continuation of major offensive operations in order to secure a undefeatable strategic situation. Under the Absolute National Defence Zone concept, a delaying action would be continued in the South Pacific while a new line of defence was prepared along the Marianas-Carolines-Philippines arc. Here it was hoped that the Americans would be smashed when they tried to assault it. Counter-offensives would follow, and, if the situation permitted, offensive operations in New Guinea would be resumed in mid-1944 or later.16

The Army and Navy High Commands adopted new strategies based upon the new concept on 30 September. Regarding the New Guinea area, the Second Area Army was transferred from Manchuria on 29 October and placed in charge of defending the East Indies and the western half of New Guinea up to 140 degrees east longitude. On 30 October, the 7th Air Division was transferred from the Eighth Area Army to the Second Area Army, and its headquarters pulled back to Ambon Island on 21 November.

During this time the 6th Air Division, using what few planes it had (since the Japanese air forces had not recovered from the August air raid), continued its mostly-defensive operations out of Wewak. When the Allies landed at Saidor on 2 January 1944, thereby sealing off the Dampier Straits, the Fourth Air Army launched an all-out counter-attack against the invasion areas. By this time, however, it had less than 100 operational aircraft, and was able to fly only 160 sorties in all on five separate missions. Not only did this have a negligible effect on the Allied landing force, but by the time this effort was over, the Fourth Air Army was down to less than 50 operational planes.17 The Japanese Navy also launched attacks against the Saidor invasion force, since the loss of the Dampier Straits would mean that Rabaul and New Guinea would be cut off from each other. Even when the Navy aircraft operating out of Rabaul were included, however, the Japanese were down to approximately 100 operational planes for the entire New Guinea-Solomons area by mid-January, which made even a holding operation extremely difficult and indicates the desperate situation of the Japanese air forces in this entire area at this time.

In order to improve its position, the Army High Command decided at the end of January 1944 to move the Fourth Air Army’s centre of operations further westward than Hollandia, in order to give its positions more depth and enable it to conduct a more flexible holding operation. These orders were held up by Eighth Area Army, however, because it felt that the necessary airbases in the rear, to the west, were not ready. The High Command also decided at this time to temporarily reinforce the Fourth Air Army with some of the Second Area Army’s air units. While they would remain under Second Area Army control, these units were to “cooperate” with the Eighth Area Army. The units to be loaned in this fashion were the 33rd and 77th Sentai (fighters), 45th and 75th Sentai (light bombers) and the 60th Sentai (heavy bombers). These had been slated as Second Area Army reserve, to be based in the East Indies, but were thus committed to the front line.

In the meantime, the Japanese Navy’s air force was finally knocked out of New Guinea and the Solomons as well. On 17 February 1944, U.S. Navy carriers launched a massive raid on the key Japanese base in the Central Pacific, Truk Island, destroying over 200 Japanese aircraft and inflicting heavy damage. The Japanese Navy had tried to hold out at Rabaul because its loss would threaten Truk, but since Truk was now directly threatened, the Japanese Navy had to replace its air losses with the only air forces available, which were those at Rabaul. Three days after the attack, all of the remaining naval aircraft of the Japanese II Air Fleet at Rabaul were flown to Truk, and the Japanese naval air arm’s presence in the New Guinea-Solomons area came to an end.18

On 25 March 1944, the Fourth Air Army was transferred to the Second Area Army, and its headquarters arrived in Hollandia. As an airbase, however, Hollandia was still not adequately prepared. For example, facilities needed for dispersing aircraft and supplies, and for storing supplies, were still not ready. In addition, radar and other warning and intelligence networks were also only being prepared. The same situation which had plagued the Japanese at Wewak thus existed at Hollandia. Nevertheless, by the end of March the Japanese Army had managed to assemble approximately 300 aircraft at Hollandia; of these, however, only about 150 were operational.

In an eerie repeat of the earlier disaster at Wewak, the bulk of Japanese aircraft at Hollandia were wiped out in an air raid carried out over two days, 30-31 March. Over 150 planes were destroyed on the ground. The commander of the 6th Air Division and the chief of staff of the Fourth Air Army, among others, were relieved, because for them this was the second time that so many Japanese aircraft had been caught by surprise on the ground. This time, the Japanese were not given any time to recover. On 22 April 1944, the Americans landed near Hollandia. The personnel of the 6th Air Division, including its remaining pilots, were forced to retreat overland to the west, arriving in Sarmi by early May, but had to leave their aircraft behind. As a result, the 6th Air Division’s remaining 100 aircraft were lost. The division was never reconstructed, ultimately being disbanded in August 1944.

This left the 7th Air Division, operating at this time primarily out of bases in the East Indies. But this force, too, was severely depleted. On 25 May 1944, it had an operational strength of only 87 aircraft.19 When the Americans landed on Biak Island two days later, the 7th Air Division tried to provide air support for the defenders, but since it had so few aircraft – most of which had to be used for convoy escort and air defence missions – it was unable to do so effectively. By early July the Biak garrison had been wiped out. This was to be the last major action in which Japanese air forces operated over New Guinea. Thereafter, the major action in the Pacific would shift to the Marianas, Palaus and then the Philippines, and what remained of the Japanese Army and Navy air forces was committed to these areas. The air war in New Guinea was effectively over, having ended in an Allied victory.

Causes and implications of the Japanese defeat

There was no single, direct cause for the Japanese defeat in the air battle over New Guinea. Since this issue has been covered extremely well in many works in both English and Japanese, the causes will be enumerated only briefly here.20 First of all, the numerical advantage of the Allies was undoubtedly a major factor. While this was not a decisive advantage until the latter half of 1943, its effect was ultimately crucial. The Allies’ aircraft strength grew steadily, while the Japanese air forces in the area barely grew, and instead often steadily decreased, in number. This applied to aircrews and ground support staff. The Allies, and especially the Americans, were able to send increasing numbers of such personnel to the front, and as the war progressed they were better trained too. In comparison, the Japanese were hard-pressed to replace their pilots and ground staff, and the flying and combat abilities of what replacement pilots were sent to the front gradually decreased in quality.

The technical quality of the aircraft used was also a factor. While Japanese aircraft in this period, especially those of the Navy, were quite adequate (and in some respects excellent) for certain purposes, they were not as suited for an aerial war of attrition when compared to the Allies’ aircraft. For example, Japanese machines, lacking good self-sealing fuel tanks and pilot armour, were more susceptible to damage. In addition, Japanese types were often more difficult to manufacture, which means that they were not as suited to mass production as those operated by the Allies.21

A third factor is the generally low level of technology of Japan at this time, in comparison with the Allies. For example, as has often been pointed out, the Japanese constructed most of their airfields with manual labour. The Japanese Army recognized this as a problem as early as 1942, and had studied the issue – even establishing a base construction school in Japan22 – but little if anything had changed by 1944. This meant that the Japanese could not construct airbases quickly enough to maintain some semblance of parity with the Allies.

Another technological area in which Japan was deficient, and which is sometimes overlooked, is aircraft engine technology. To the end of the war, the Japanese were unable to produce a reliable 1,500-2,000-horsepower engine which would also be small enough to be used on fighter aircraft. Because of this, they were unable to equip their fighters with pilot armour, heavier armaments and better self-sealing fuel tanks. It is often said that the Japanese sacrificed these things because they wanted to lighten their aircraft and improve their offensive capabilities. While this is true, it is also the case that the Japanese wanted to install these items, especially later in the war, but could not do so because their additional weight would worsen aircraft performance to an unacceptable degree. The Japanese were unable to develop an engine large enough to handle the weight increase, so they had to leave such items off and make do with relatively unprotected aircraft.

Individually, each of these or any of the other factors which brought defeat to the Japanese air forces may not have been decisive; combined, they proved to be fatal. Faced with such a combination of negative factors, it is doubtful whether any nation could have overcome them and attained victory.

Finally, what did defeat in the South Pacific air war mean for the Japanese? The obvious implication is that it exposed the Marianas, Carolines and other central Pacific islands to Allied counter-attack, as well as the East Indies and Philippines. More importantly, it destroyed the air forces of the Japanese Navy, and to a lesser degree the Army as well, in terms of pilot quality. According to one estimate, the Japanese Navy’s losses between August 1942 (the start of the Guadalcanal campaign) and February 1944 (the end of its presence at Rabaul) amounted to more than 7,000 aircraft and aircrew members.23 This was the equivalent of several years’ worth of pilots.24 Because the quality of pilot training declined year by year, this meant that the ranks of experienced pilots within the Japanese Navy was severely depleted by early 1944. Since the Japanese Army committed some of its best air units to the New Guinea front, the large losses these suffered meant that the Army, too, had lost a large number of its best pilots.25 It is, therefore, not much of a surprise that the Japanese air forces, especially those of the Navy, suffered such lopsided defeats in the 1944 battles in the Marianas and the Philippines.

The Japanese were able, within a few months, to partially replenish the numbers of aircraft and pilots it had awaiting the Allies in 1944. What they could not replace were the qualitative losses they suffered in the South Pacific. Notwithstanding that Japanese aircraft were becoming outmoded by 1943, right up to the war’s end these could be very effective in the hands of a good pilot. But when the quality of the pilots declined, the result was disastrous. Without an effective air force, the Japanese would have had an exceedingly difficult time holding off the Americans in 1944, especially since the Americans’ air forces had steadily improved, both in quality and quantity, during 1943 and early 1944. The greatest implication of the Japanese defeat in the South Pacific therefore may be that it eliminated Japan’s ability to achieve air superiority anywhere in the Pacific during the remainder of the war.

© Hiroyuki Shindo

The author

Hiroyuki Shindo is currently an assistant professor in the Military History Department of the National Institute for Defense Studies, Tokyo. His special areas of interest are US-Japan diplomatic and military relations in the 1930s and 1940s, and the military history of the Second World War.


1 Takushiro Hattori, Daitoa Senso Zenshi (A Complete History of the Great East Asia War) (Tokyo: Hara Shobo, 1965), p.294.

2 The activities of the Navy’s air forces based in Rabaul and Lae during the spring and summer of 1942 have been excellently depicted in Saburo Sakai, Sakai Saburo Kusen Kiroku (Sakai Saburo Air Combat Records)(Tokyo: Shuppan-Kyodosha, 1953) (English translation: Samurai! (Dutton, 1957)) and many other works.

3 For a detailed account of the process by which the Army air forces were committed to the South Pacific, see Boeicho Boeikenkyusho, ed., Senshi Sosho Tobu Nyu-Ginia Homen Rikugun Koku Sakusen (Army Air Force Operations, Eastern New Guinea) (Tokyo: Asagumo Shinbunsha, 1967), pp.20-63.

4 Boeicho Boeikenkyusho, ed., Senshi Sosho Rikugun Koku no Gunbi to Unyo (3) Daitoa Senso Shusen made (Equipment and Operation of Army Air Forces (3) Until the end of the Great East Asia War) (Tokyo: Asagumo Shinbunsha, 1976), p.72.

5 Boeicho Boeikenkyusho, ed., op. cit. Senshi Sosho Tobu Nyu-Ginia Homen Rikugun Koku Sakusen, p.155.

6 Boeicho Boeikenkyusho, ed., op. cit. Senshi Sosho Rikugun Koku no Gunbi to Unyo (3) Daitoa Senso Shusen made, p.75.

7 Boeicho Boeikenkyusho, ed., op. cit. Senshi Sosho Tobu Nyu-Ginia Homen Rikugun Koku Sakusen, pp.185-90.

8 Takushiro Hattori, op. cit., pp.405-407.

9 Boeicho Boeikenkyusho, ed., op. cit. Senshi Sosho Rikugun Koku no Gunbi to Unyo (3) Daitoa Senso Shusen made, p.95.

10 Among other reasons, the slowness with which the Army transferred its air forces around the Pacific has been given as one of the reasons why the Army air forces were relatively ineffective against the Allies, because that prevented them from deploying and operating rapidly in areas where they were most needed. Masatake Okumiya, Rabaul Kaigun Kokutai (Rabaul Naval Air Corps) (Tokyo: Asahi Sonorama, 1998), pp.169-170.

11 Boeicho Boeikenkyusho, ed., op. cit. Senshi Sosho Rikugun Koku no Gunbi to Unyo (3) Daitoa Senso Shusen made, pp.93-95.

12 Ibid., p.104.

13 Ibid., p.101.

14 Ibid., pp.107-108.

15 Takushiro Hattori, op. cit., p.504.

16 Takushiro Hattori, op. cit., p.498.

17 Boeicho Boeikenkyusho, ed., op. cit. Senshi Sosho Rikugun Koku no Gunbi to Unyo (3) Daitoa Senso Shusen made, p.152.

18 Okumiya, op. cit., pp.366-369.

19 Boeicho Boeikenkyusho, ed., op. cit. Senshi Sosho Rikugun Koku no Gunbi to Unyo (3) Daitoa Senso Shusen made, p.187.

20 For example, see Eric Bergerud, Fire in the Sky (2000), for an excellent, interesting and in-depth analysis of the air war in the South Pacific.

21 For an analysis of Japan’s aircraft technology and its effects on the war as seen from the Japanese side, see for example Kunio Yanagida, Reisen Moyu (Zero Fighter Aflame) (Tokyo: Bungei Shunjyu, 1984-1990).

22 Boeicho Boeikenkyusho, ed., op. cit. Senshi Sosho Rikugun Koku no Gunbi to Unyo (3) Daitoa Senso Shusen made, p.135.

23 Bergerud, op. cit., pp.667-668.

24 An exact equivalent is difficult to calculate, because the Japanese were expanding their pilot training programs every year even before the Pacific war began.

25 According to one estimate, nearly 800 aircraft were lost by the Japanese Army in the South Pacific. Bergerud, op. cit., p.668.

The Siege of Tsingtau 1914: Aircraft

Launching a Maurice Farman two-seater from the Wakamiya during the Siege of Tsingtau.

“Plüschow in front of the city wall of Haizhou in the province of Jiangsu, on November 6, 1914. On that day he had escaped the besieged Tsingtao by his plane, and after a flight of ca. 200 km to the southwest, landed at Haizhou, because the plane had no fuel anymore.”

Both sides had elements of an air component; the Japanese Navy had the Wakamiya Maru with its complement of four Maurice Farman floatplanes, whilst the army detachment, initially consisting of three machines, deployed from an improvised airstrip near Tsimo on 21 September. Japanese aviation was, as was the case in every other nation, a recent phenomenon in terms of powered aircraft. Previous interest in aeronautics had centred on the use of balloons for reconnaissance, the first Japanese military balloons were sent aloft in May 1877, and an advanced kite type was designed and constructed in 1900 and successfully used during the Russo-Japanese War. A joint committee, with army, navy and civil input, was created on 30 July 1909 to investigate and research the techniques and equipment associated with ballooning; the Provisional Military Balloon Research Association or PMBRA.

Nominated by the Japanese Army to serve on the PMBRA were two officers with the rank of captain, Tokugawa Yoshitoshi and Hino Kumazo. Both had some experience with aviation. Hino designed and constructed a pusher type monoplane with an 8hp engine that he unsuccessfully, the engine was underpowered, attempted to get off the ground on 18 March 1910. Tokugawa was a member of the balloon establishment during the Russo-Japanese War. Both were sent to Europe in April 1910 to learn to fly at the Blériot Flying School at Étampes, France. Having passed the rudimentary course, they purchased two aeroplanes each and had them shipped to Japan; Tokugawa obtained a Farman III and a Blériot XI-2bis in France whilst Hino purchased one of Hans Grade’s machines and a Wright aircraft in Germany.

The first flights of powered aeroplanes in Japan occurred on 19 December 1910 at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. Tokugawa flew the Farman III, powered by a 50hp Gnome engine, for 3 minutes over a distance of some 3000m at a height of 70m. Hino followed him immediately afterwards in the Grade machine, powered by a 24hp Grade engine, which flew for just over a minute and covered a distance of 1000m at a height of 20m.

A naval member of the PMBRA, Narahara Sanji, started on designing and constructing an aeroplane, with a bamboo airframe and a 25hp engine, during March 1910. Because of the low powered engine the machine failed to lift off when this was attempted on 24 October 1910, but with a second machine, the ‘Narahara Type 2’ powered by a Gnome engine similar to that used in the Farman III, he managed a 60m flight at an altitude of 4m on 5 May 1911. This flight, at Tokorozawa, in Saitama near Tokyo, the site of Japan’s first airfield, is considered to be the first Japanese civilian flight as Narahara had left the navy when he made it. It was also the first flight by a Japanese-manufactured aeroplane.

The first military flight by a Japanese-manufactured machine took place on 13 October 1911, when Tokugawa flew in a ‘PMBRA Type (Kaisiki) 1’ of his own design, based on the Farman III at Tokorozawa. These pioneers, whilst they had made astonishing progress, did not however possess the necessary research and technological resources to take Japanese aviation further. Because of this the Japanese decided to import aviation technology from Europe, though the navy established the Naval Aeronautical Research Committee in 1912 to provide facilities to test and copy foreign aircraft and train Japanese engineers in the necessary skills. Via this system, the foundations of a Japanese aviation industry were being laid; in July 1913 a naval Lieutenant, Nakajima Chikuhei, produced an improved version of the Farman floatplane for naval use. Nakajima Aircraft Industries, founded in 1917 after Nakajima resigned from the navy, went on to massive success.

The French were the world leaders in military aviation, with 260 aircraft in service by 1913, whilst the Russians had 100, Germany 48, the UK 29, Italy 26 and Japan 14. The US deployed 6.55 It comes as no surprise then to note that during the campaign against Tsingtau all the aeroplanes deployed by both Japanese services were French. Four Maurice-Farman MF7 biplanes and one Nieuport 6M monoplane formed the Army’s Provisional Air Corps, flying eighty-six sorties between them, whilst the navy deployed one Maurice-Farman MF7 floatplane and three Henri-Farman HF7 floatplanes. The navy planes flew 49 sorties and dropped 199 bombs.

A floatplane from the Wakamiya Maru flew over Tsingtau on 5 September, causing something of a surprise to the defenders, on a reconnaissance and bombing mission, releasing three bombs that caused no harm. It wasn’t the first aerial bombing ever – that had taken place during the 1911–12 Italo-Ottoman War – but it was a total surprise to the defenders. The reconnaissance element of the mission was more useful, being able to ascertain that Emden was not in harbour but that there were several other warships present. It was to be the first of several visits by both army and navy aeroplanes, against which the Germans could offer little defence, though the fact that the defenders had their own air ‘component’ was to result in what was probably (there are other contenders) the first air-to-air combat in history. Indeed, despite the remoteness of the campaign from the main theatre, this was only one of a number of such ‘firsts’.

Aviation on the German side was represented by one man and one machine; Kapitänleutnant Gunther Plüschow and his Rumpler Taube. Plüschow had served in the East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron, at the time under the command of Vice Admiral Carl Coerper, as a junior officer aboard SMS Fürst Bismarck in 1908. Assigned to the Naval Flying Service in autumn 1913, he arrived on 2 January 1914 at Johannisthal Air Field near Berlin to commence pilot training, and, having first taken to the air only two days previously, acquired his licence on 3 February 1914. The Naval Air Service, which had been created in 1912 and divided between aeroplane and airship sections the following year, was, in 1914, something of a misnomer; naval aviation was in a greatly underdeveloped state with sole assets consisting of two Zeppelin airships, four floatplanes and two landplanes. This was largely due to Tirpitz, who, despite his later assertions that, prior to 1914, he saw the aeroplane as the weapon of the future as against the airship, was not prepared to, as he saw it, divert funds from the battle-fleet in order to develop the technologies and techniques required.

Having not seen it for some six years Plüschow arrived in Tsingtau by train on 13 June – an extremely long and undoubtedly tedious journey across the Siberian steppe – whilst two Rumpler Taube aeroplanes with 100hp engines, especially constructed for service in China, travelled by sea arriving in mid-July 1914. The second machine was to be piloted by an army officer assigned to the III Naval Battalion, Lieutenant Friedrich Müllerskowski, and the arrival of the two aviators and their machines took the total ‘air force’ available in the territory to three men and aircraft. The third aviator was Franz Oster, a former naval officer who had settled in Tsingtau in 1899, but returned to Germany in 1911 and learned to fly. He returned to the territory in 1912, via Ceylon (Sri Lanka) complete with a Rumpler Taube equipped with a 60hp engine. During his sojourn in Ceylon he attempted a flight at Colombo Racecourse in a Blériot Monoplane on 30 December 1911 that ended in near disaster; the machine was wrecked and Oster was hurt. He nevertheless, after having returned to the territory and replaced the engine in his Taube with a 70hp Mercedes unit, made a series of flights from the Tsingtau racecourse, the first being on 9 July 1913.

Plüschow and Müllerskowski took charge of reassembling the two aeroplanes delivered by sea and the former successfully made several flights from the extremely small and dangerous landing ground at the racecourse on 29 July 1914. A further two days were needed to get the second aeroplane constructed, and on the afternoon of 31 July Müllerskowski set off on his first flight. It ended in disaster; after only a few seconds in flight, and from an altitude estimated to be 50m, the machine lost control and plunged over a cliff onto the rocks below. Müllerskowski was seriously, though not mortally, wounded and the Taube completely wrecked.

Whether it was just bad luck or whether there were atmospheric conditions pertaining at the time that made flying problematical we cannot know, but it would seem to have been a combination of the two that afflicted Plüschow on 3 August. Having taken off successfully and flown a reconnaissance mission over the territory, his first ‘important’ sortie, he was experiencing difficulty in attempting to land when his engine failed and he crash-landed into a small wood. He was unhurt but the Taube was badly damaged and, upon accessing the spare wings and propellers sent out with the aeroplanes, he discovered that the replacement parts had rotted away or suffered moistureinduced damage during the voyage. He was fortunate that the engine, for which replacement parts could only have been extemporised with difficulty, was still serviceable and that there were skilled Chinese craftsmen available; the latter fashioned him a new composite propeller from oak. Despite this device having to be repaired after every flight, having been assembled with ordinary carpenter’s glue it exhibited a disconcerting tendency to revert to its component parts under the strain of operational usage, it remained serviceable throughout the rest of the campaign.

Plüschow’s machine was out of action until 12 August, but on the 22 August an attempt was made to augment it with Oster’s aeroplane; he attempted to lift off from the racecourse in his older craft but stalled and crashed, occasioning damage necessitating several days of repair though remaining unhurt personally. Another attempt was made on 27 August with the same result, though this time the damage was more severe with the aeroplane ‘completely destroyed’ to such an extent that ‘reconstruction was no longer viable’. It seems however that Oster did not concur as the diary entry for 13 October 1914 made by the missionary Carl Joseph Voskamp, records Oster once again, and apparently finally, attempting and failing to take off, and notes that this might be due to unfavourable atmospheric conditions.

Plüschow and his Taube, by default the sole representatives of German aviation, could not of course provide anything much in the way of air defence against the Japanese. Nor could they achieve a great deal in the way of keeping open communications with the world outside the Kiautschou Territory. What was possible though, within the operational capabilities of man and machine, was reconnaissance, and the clearing up somewhat of the weather on 11 September allowed an aerial sortie to take place two days later. Plüschow flew northwestwards to investigate rumours of the Japanese landing and advance, and discovered their forces in some strength at Pingdu; the marching elements of the Japanese force reached Pingdu between 11 and 14 September. He also received his ‘baptism of fire’ from the infantry, returning with around ten bullet holes in his plane and resolving not to fly below 2000m in future in order to preserve his engine and propeller.


Reconnaissance duties devolved then on to the air component, represented by Plüschow and his Taube. There was also a balloon detachment consisting of two observation-balloon envelopes and the necessary ground infrastructure. The German observation balloons of 1914 were known as Drachen, a name commonly adopted for all sausage-shaped kite-balloons, and had been developed by Parseval-Sigsfeld. Adopted for use in 1893, they represented a significant investment in terms of equipment and manpower for the Tsingtau garrison, the standardised balloon section in 1914 consisting of 1 balloon (plus 1 spare envelope), 4 observers, 177 enlisted ranks, 123 horses, 12 gas wagons, 2 equipment wagons, a winch wagon and a telephone wagon. The balloon had made several ascents from Tsingtau during the course of the conflict, but the observer had been unable to see anything of value. In order to attempt to remedy this the device was moved closer to the front and another ascent made on 5 October. It was to be the last such, as the Japanese artillery immediately found its range with shrapnel shell and holed it in several places. A ruse involving the spare balloon was then tried; it was sent up to draw the attackers’ fire and so reveal the position of their guns. According to Alfred Brace:

It contained a dummy looking fixedly at the landscape below through a pair of paste-board glasses. But there happened to arise a strong wind which set the balloon revolving and finally broke it loose and sent it pirouetting off over the Yellow Sea, the whole exploit, I learned afterwards, being a great puzzle to the British and Japanese observers outside.

Plüschow flew reconnaissance flights every day that the weather, and his propeller, permitted, sketching the enemy positions and making detailed notes. He achieved this by setting the engine so as to maintain a safe altitude of over 2000m, and then steering with his feet, the Taube had no rudder and horizontal control was achieved by warping the wings, whilst peering over the side of his cockpit. The Japanese had extemporised a contingent of antiaircraft-artillery – the ‘Field-Gun Platoon for High Angle Fire’, with the necessary angle achieved by dropping the gun-trail into a pit behind the weapon – and although the shrapnel barrage thus discharged proved ineffective it was deemed by Plüschow to be troublesome nevertheless. Where he was at his most vulnerable was on landing, and a battery of Japanese artillery was tasked specifically with destroying the Taube as it descended to the racecourse, which of course was a fixed point at a known range. Little more than good luck, and what he called ‘ruses’ such as shutting off the engine and swooping sharply to earth, saw him through these experiences, but remarkably both man and machine came through without serious injury.

Whatever inconveniences Plüschow and the fortress artillery might inflict upon the force massing to their front, they could do nothing to prevent the landing of men and materiel at Wang-ko-chuang and Schatsykou, nor could they prevent the deployment of these once landed. The previous efforts by the navy in terms of minelaying did though still pay dividends, as when the Japanese ‘aircraft carrier’ was badly damaged. As the report from the British Naval Attaché to Japan put it in his report of 30 November:

[…] a few minutes after 8 a.m. [on 30 September] the ‘Wakamiya Maru’ struck a mine in the entrance of Lo Shan Harbour, and had to be beached to prevent her sinking; her engines were disabled owing to breaking of steam pipes, No. 3 hold full, and one man killed – fortunately no damage done to aeroplanes though it is feared that a spare engine may be injured. […] As the Aeroplane establishment is all being moved ashore at this place this accident will not affect the efficiency of the Aeroplane Corps.


In order to achieve the enormous amount of digging that the plan required, the organic engineering component of the 18th Division, the 18th Battalion of Engineers, was augmented by two more battalions; the 1st Battalion of Independent Engineers (Lieutenant Colonel Koga) and the 4th Battalion of Independent Engineers (Lieutenant Colonel Sugiyama). The infantry that would man the siege works were also provided with weaponry specifically suited to trench warfare; two light platoons and one heavy detachment of bomb-guns (mortars).

In order to gain detailed knowledge of the defences the naval and army air components were tasked with flying reconnaissance missions over the German positions. They also flew bombing missions, which caused little damage, and attempted to discourage their single opponent (though they were initially uncertain how many German aircraft they faced) from emulating them; the latter with some degree of success. Plüschow records that he was provided with extemporised ‘bombs’ made of tin boxes filled with dynamite and improvised shrapnel, but that these devices were largely ineffectual. He claimed to have hit a Japanese vessel with one, which failed to explode, and to have succeeded in killing thirty soldiers with another one that did. It was during this period that he became engaged in air-to-air combat, of a type, with the enemy aeroplanes. Indeed, if Plüschow is to be believed, he succeeded in shooting down one of the Japanese aeroplanes with his pistol, having fired thirty shots. It would appear however that even if he did engage in aerial jousting of the kind he mentions the result was not as he claimed; no aircraft were lost during the campaign. The Japanese did however do their utmost to prevent him reconnoitring their positions, as they were in the process of emplacing the siege batteries and, if the positions became known, they could expect intense efforts from the defenders to disrupt this process. Experience showed the Japanese that the time delay between aerial reconnaissance being carried out and artillery fire being concentrated on the area so reconnoitred was around two hours.

Indeed Watanabe insisted that his batteries were emplaced during the hours of darkness, despite the inconvenience this caused, and carefully camouflaged to prevent discovery. That the threat from Plüschow, albeit indirect, was very real had been illustrated on 29 September; he had overflown an area where the British were camped and noted their tents, which were of a different pattern to the Japanese versions. This had resulted in heavy shelling, causing the camp to be moved the next day to the reverse slopes of a hill about 1.5km east of the former position. He also posed a direct threat though perhaps of lesser import; on 10 October he dropped one of his homemade bombs on the British. It failed to explode, but the unit concerned moved position immediately – such an option was not available to 36-tonne howitzers that required semi-permanent emplacement.


The Japanese Navy began sending in vessels to shell the city and defences again. On 25 October the Iwami approached, though staying outside the range of Hui tsch’en Huk. By listing the ship to increase the range of her main armament, Iwami was able to fire some thirty 305mm shells at Hui tsch’en Huk, Iltis Battery and Infantry Work I. The next day the vessel returned in company with Suwo and the two vessels bombarded the same targets. On 27 October Tango and Okinoshima replaced them, and the same ships returned the next day to continue the assault. Because of the distance involved, some 14.5km, this fire was inaccurate in terms of damaging the specific installations in question, but nevertheless was destructive of the nerves of the trapped garrison. It was particularly frustrating in terms of the gunners at Hui tsch’en Huk who were unable to effectively reply.

In addition to this display of naval force, Japanese air power had been much in evidence over the period, their operational activity increasing with sorties over the German lines and rear areas.

Almost every day these craft, announcing their approach by a distant humming, came overhead, glinting and shining in the sun as they sailed above the forts and city. At first they were greeted by a fusillade of shots from all parts of the garrison. Machine guns pumped bullets a hundred a minute at them and every man with a rifle handy let fire. As these bullets came raining back upon the city without any effect but to send Chinese coolies scampering under cover, it was soon realised that rifle and machinegun fire was altogether ineffective. Then special guns were rigged and the aeroplanes were subjected to shrapnel, which seemed to come nearer to its sailing mark each day but which never brought one of the daring bird-men down. One day I saw a biplane drop down a notch after a shell had exploded directly in front of it. I looked for a volplane [glide with engine off] to earth, but the aviator’s loss of control was only momentary, evidently caused by the disturbance of the air. During the bombardment these craft circled over the forts like birds of prey. They were constantly dropping bombs, trying to hit the ammunition depots, the signal station, the Austrian cruiser Kaiserin Elizabeth, the electric light plant, and the forts. But […] these bombs were not accurate or powerful enough to do much damage. A few Chinese were killed, a German soldier wounded, tops of houses knocked in, and holes gouged in the streets, but that was all. The bombs fell with an ominous swish as of escaping steam, and it was decidedly uncomfortable to be in the open with a Japanese aeroplane overhead. We are more or less like the ostrich who finds peace and comfort with his head in the sand: In the streets of Tsingtau I have seen a man pull the top of a jinrickisha over his head on the approach of a hostile aeroplane and have noticed Chinese clustering under the top of a tree.

They also managed an aviation first on the night of 28–9 October when they bombed the defenders’ positions during the hours of darkness. Attempts to keep Plüschow from effectively reconnoitring were largely successful, even though the efforts to dispose of him or his machine permanently were ineffective. However, because problems with the Taube’s homemade propeller kept him grounded on occasion, and because the Japanese positions were worked on tirelessly, when he did take to the air he found the changes in the enemy arrangements – ‘this tangle of trenches, zigzags and new positions’ – somewhat bewildering and difficult to record accurately. Precision in this regard was not assisted by the Japanese attempts to shoot him down or otherwise obstruct him.

The artillery coordinating position on Prinz-Heinrich-Berg reported itself ready for action on 29 October and Kato sent four warships in to continue the naval bombardment whilst acting under its direction. Between 09:30hr and 16:30hr Suwo, Tango, Okinoshima and Triumph bombarded the Tsingtau defences, adjusting their aim according to the feedback received from the position via radio. They withdrew after discharging some 197 projectiles from their main guns, following which SMS Tiger was scuttled during the hours of darkness.

Plüschow managed to get airborne on the morning of 30 October and was able to over-fly the Japanese positions before the enemy air force could rise to deter him. This might have been lucky for him as one of the aeroplanes sent up had been fitted with a machine gun. He was able to report the largescale and advanced preparations of the besieging force, information that the defence used to direct its artillery fire. This was repaid when Kato’s bombarding division returned at 09:00hr to recommence their previous day’s work. Despite the communication channel working perfectly, and the absence of effective return fire from Hui tsch’en Huk – they had established the maximum range of this battery was 14.13km and accordingly stayed just beyond its reach – the firing of 240 heavy shells again did little damage.

The 31 October was, as the defenders knew well, the birthday of the Japanese Emperor and by way of celebration Kamio’s command undertook a brief ceremony before, at about 06:00hr, Watanabe gave the order for the siege train to commence firing, or, as one of the correspondents of The Times put it: ‘daylight saw the royal salute being fired with live shell at Tsingtau’. The Japanese fire plan was relatively simple.

On the first and second days, in addition to bombardment of the enemy warships, all efforts would be made to silence the enemy’s artillery so as to assist the construction and occupation of the first parallel.

From the third day up until the occupation of the second parallel (about the fifth day) the enemy artillery would be suppressed, his works destroyed and the Boxer Line swept with fire in order to assist in the construction of the second parallel.

Following the occupation of the second parallel, the majority of the artillery fire would be employed in destroying the enemy’s works, whilst the remainder kept down hostile infantry and artillery that attempted to obstruct offensive movement in preparing, and then assaulting from, the third parallel.

After the Boxer Line had been captured, the artillery would support the friendly troops in securing it from counter-attack and then bombard his second line; Iltiss, Moltke and Bismarck Hills.

There were, roughly, twenty-three Japanese artillery tubes per kilometre of front, a density that was comparable to that attained during the initial stages of the war on the Western Front, though soon to be dwarfed as artillery assumed the dominant role in positional warfare. The land-based artillery was augmented, from about 09:00hr, by the naval contribution as Kato once again sent his heavy ships into action.

The combined barrage soon silenced any German return fire because, even though they had refrained from pre-registering their siege batteries, the Japanese knew where the fixed defensive positions were and shortly found their range; fire was also brought to bear on any targets of opportunity. The German batteries were suppressed less by direct hits than by their positions being submerged in debris from near misses. This was to prove of some importance for the defenders were able in several cases to return their weapons to service, largely due to the relative antiquity and thus lack of sophistication of much of the ordnance, without the need for extensive repairs. Indeed, despite the crushing superiority enjoyed by the attackers, the defensive fire was to continue to some degree throughout the day and into the night. The most obvious sign of the effects of the bombardment, at least to those observing from a distance, were the huge plumes of smoke caused by hits on the oil storage tanks adjacent to the Large Harbour. Two of these, owned by the Asiatic Petroleum Company – the first Royal Dutch/Shell joint venture – and Standard Oil respectively, had been set afire early on and their contents in turn caused other fires as they flowed around the installations, these proving beyond the capacity of the local fire brigade to control. In fact the destruction of the Standard Oil installations was accidental. The General Staff History records that a note had been received via the Japanese Foreign Office from the US government asking that they be spared. Accordingly the objective was struck out of the plan but to apparently no effect, perhaps demonstrating the relative inaccuracy of the fire.

There were a number of independent observers of the operations at this stage; correspondents from various journals and foreign military observers had arrived in the theatre in late October. Though the Japanese were intensely secretive they could not conceal the fact of their bombardment or the plainly visible results.

The thunder of the great guns broke suddenly upon that stillness which only dawn knows, and their discharges flashed readily on the darkling slopes. The Japanese shooting, it is related, displayed remarkable accuracy, some of the first projectiles bursting upon the enormous oil tanks of the Standard Oil Company and the Asiatic Petroleum Company. A blaze roared skywards, and for many hours the heavens were darkened by an immense cloud of black petroleum smoke which hung like a pall over the town. Shells passing over these fires drew up columns of flame to a great height. Chinese coolies could be seen running before the spreading and burning oil. Fires broke out also on the wharves of the outer harbour.

Many of the Japanese shells, no doubt due to the lack of pre-registration, were over-range and landed in Tapatau and Tsingtau, though the former received the worst of it. It has been estimated that at least 100 Chinese were killed during this period and a deliberate targeting exercise carried out later in the day on the urban areas. The bombardment continued with varying levels of frequency throughout the daylight hours of 31 October, and at nightfall the Japanese gunners switched to shrapnel – by bursting shrapnel shell over the defenders’ positions they made it difficult, if not impossible, for repairs to be carried out. Such fire also covered the forward movement of the Japanese engineers as they extended their saps towards the Boxer Line and began constructing the parallel works some 300m ahead of the advanced investment line.

At daylight on 1 November the high-explosive barrage resumed, again concentrating primarily on the German artillery positions though many of these were now out of action. The secondary targets were the defences in the Boxer Line, particularly the infantry works and the extemporised defences between them. The ferro-concrete redoubts withstood the bombardment without any serious damage, and, though they were scarred and badly battered externally, none of the projectiles penetrated any vital interior position. The communication trenches and other intermediate field works were however obliterated and this, together with the destruction of much of the telephone system, isolated the personnel manning the works, both from each other and from the command further back. The targeting of the signal station further hindered communication of every kind, and with the bringing down of the radio antenna even one-way communication from the outside world was terminated. Shutting this down was probably a secondary objective; the primary reason for targeting the signal station was to prevent it jamming and otherwise interfering with Japanese wireless communications which had become a problem.

After nightfall the sappers returned to their task of advancing the siege works whilst infantry patrols went forward to reconnoitre and probe the defences. One such probe crossed the Haipo and a four-man party entered the ditch near Infantry Work 4, which was under the command of Captain von Stranz, and began cutting the wire. They remained undetected for some time, indicating the lack of awareness of the defenders who stayed under cover, but were eventually heard and forced to retire with the loss of one man after machine-gun fire was directed at them. A second patrol took their place a little later and, under the very noses of the defence, completed the wire-cutting task before they too were detected.

The defenders conceived that an assault in strength was under way and called down artillery fire in support from Iltis Battery and moved a reserve formation made up of naval personnel, whose ships had been scuttled, towards the front. The Japanese patrol withdrew, leaving the defenders under the erroneous impression that they had defeated a serious attempt at breaching the line, rather than, as was the case, an opportunistic foray. However, what the probe had revealed to the attackers was that the defenders were remaining largely inside the concrete works, leaving the gaps between them vulnerable to infiltration. This was confirmed by the experiences of a separate patrol that reconnoitred near Infantry Work 3, also known as the ‘Central Fort’ to the Japanese; the knowledge gained being of some potential worth. Also of value was an understanding of the nature of the barbed-wire obstacles. These were permanent fixtures, with extra heavy wire holding barbs ‘so closely together that it would be difficult to get a pair of pliers in a position to cut it’. It did prove possible to cut the wire, but the stakes it was strung on, made from heavy duty angle-iron secured to a square baseplate some 300mm per side and sunk into the ground to a depth of about half a metre, proved almost impossible to dislodge. Initial intelligence had indicated that the wire was charged with 30,000 volts, but direct examination showed this not to be the case.

Apart from repelling the Japanese attack, as they thought, the defenders spent the night of 1–2 November destroying further equipment that might be of use to the besiegers. Chief amongst this was Kaiserin Elisabeth; shortly after midnight, having fired off her remaining ammunition in the general direction of the Japanese, the vessel was moved into deep water in Kiautschou Bay and scuttled. Explosive charges extemporised from torpedo warheads ensured that the ship was beyond salvage even if the wreck was located. The Austro-Hungarian cruiser was only one of several vessels scuttled that night, including the floating dock, which was seen to have disappeared the next morning. Only the Jaguar remained afloat at sunrise at which point the rapid rate of advance of the attackers, up to the edge of the Haipo River between Kiautschou Bay and the area in front of Infantry Work 3, was revealed to the Germans.

Revealed to the Japanese, by their action during the hours of darkness, was the precise position of the Iltis Battery and this was promptly targeted and put out of action by counter-battery fire. The remorseless battering by the siege train also resumed, and the German inability to respond effectively due to the accuracy of Japanese return fire began to be exacerbated by a shortage of ammunition. The Japanese bombardment, though intense, was perhaps not as destructive as it could have been. What seems to have mitigated the effect to some extent was the high rate of dud shells. One press correspondent that entered Tsingtau after the conclusion of operations noted the proliferation of ‘giant shells, some three feet long and a foot in diameter, [that] were lying about on side-walk and street still unexploded’. Burdick, working from contemporary German estimates, calculates that between 10 and 25 per cent of the Japanese ordnance failed to explode. This shortcoming, being attributable to faulty manufacture, played a major role in sparing the defenders a worse ordeal than they had to endure anyway.

Also sparing the defenders to some extent on 2 November was the onset of rain, which affected the assailants more than the defence inasmuch as the attackers’ diggings became waterlogged and collapsed in some cases. Further alleviation was attributable to the reduction of the rate of fire of the 280mm howitzers. Their temporary emplacements suffered from the immense recoil and had the potential to render firing both dangerous and inaccurate. The remainder of the siege train concentrated its fire on the Boxer Line, particularly in an attempt to destroy the wire and obstacles in the trench and thus mitigate the need to resort to manual methods with their inevitable human cost. The power station was also targeted, with the result that the chimney was brought down in the evening, thus rendering the city dependent on primitive forms of lighting.

The 3 and 4 November saw further progress in the advancement of the siege works and continuing bombardment, though useful targets for this were now at a premium as little of the defences remained other than the concrete Infantry Works. The defenders had begun destroying their batteries on 2 November as they ran out of ammunition, and in any event returning the Japanese fire was a hazardous business due to the rapidity and accuracy of the response. The lack of defensive fire allowed some reorganisation of the siege artillery and several of the batteries were moved forward and swiftly re-emplaced with the minimum of disruption. On the far right of the Japanese line the sappers attached to 67th Infantry Regiment had advanced their works to within a short distance of the Haipo River, and thus close to the city’s water pumping station situated on the eastern bank. The decision was taken by 29th Infantry Brigade to attempt to take the station on the evening of 4 November and a company sized unit, comprising infantry and engineers, was assembled. It had not been bombarded by the siege artillery; the idea seemingly being to preserve it for future use by the occupying force. So the engineers cut through the defensive wire with Bangalore Torpedoes, thus allowing the infantry to surround the place, whilst a box artillery barrage insulated it from any attempted relief.

Despite its relative isolation the pumping station was actually a wellfortified strongpoint. The machinery rooms, stores and personnel quarters were located underground and well protected by ferro-concrete. The whole was surrounded by a bank of earth some 6m in height, itself protected by a ditch, about 12m wide and 2m deep at the counterscarp, that was filled with barbed-wire obstacles. The leader of the platoon investigating the area, 2nd Lieutenant Yokokura, later reported that the personnel manning the station had locked themselves inside behind ‘iron doors’ and were still working the pumps, but when they realised that the enemy were upon them they opened the doors and surrendered. The haul amounted to one sergeant major, twenty rank and file, two water works engineers and five Chinese, together with twenty-five rifles. The station was immediately fortified against any counter-attack and with its loss Tsingtau was without a mains water supply and thus dependent on the several, somewhat brackish, wells within the city.

Elsewhere along the line the nocturnal ‘mole warfare’ techniques advanced the saps and trenches ever nearer to the ditch in order to construct the third parallel – the final assault line. This progressed everywhere apart from the British sector of front, where enemy fire prevented the final approach being made. As Barnardison reported:

On 5 November I was ordered to prepare a Third Position of attack on the left bank of the river. This line was to a great extent enfiladed on both flanks by No. 1 and 2 Redoubts, especially the latter, from which annoying machine-gun fire was experienced. The bed of the river […] had also to be crossed, and in doing so the working parties of the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers suffered somewhat severely, losing 8 non-commissioned officers and men killed and 24 wounded. The 36th Sikhs had only slight losses. Notwithstanding this a good deal of work was done, especially on the right flank. I considered it my duty to represent to the Japanese Commander-in-Chief the untenable nature, for permanent occupation, of the portion of the Third Position in my front, but received a reply that it was necessary for it to be held in order to fit in with the general scheme of assault.

Though most diplomatically phrased, it is possible to distinguish in the final sentence of this quotation a hint of asperity in the relations between the Allies. Indeed, though suppressed for political reasons at the time, the British military contribution did not impress the Japanese in any way, shape or form. Reports from the front revealed the perception that the British were reluctant to get involved in the fighting and ‘hard to trust’. More brutal opinions had it that they were no more than ‘baggage’ and ‘decoration’ on the battlefield. The nature of these observations filtered through to the Japanese press, one report stating that: ‘Only when nothing happened were British soldiers wonderful and it was like taking a lady on a trip. However, such a lady can be a burden and lead to total disaster for a force when the enemy appears.’

Daylight on 5 November saw three Japanese aeroplanes overfly the German positions dropping not explosive devices, as might have been expected, but rather bundles of leaflets carrying a message from the besiegers:

To the Respected Officers and Men of the Fortress.

It would act against the will of God as well as humanity if one were to destroy the still useful weapons, ships, and other structures without tactical justification and only because of the envious view that they might fall into the hands of the enemy.

Although we are certain in the belief that, in the case of the chivalrous officers and men, they would not put into effect such thoughtlessness, we nevertheless would like to emphasise the above as our point of view.

On the face of it this message seemed to clearly indicate that the besiegers, perceiving that they would shortly be in occupation of the city, desired that as much of it be preserved as was possible. If so they adopted a rather contradictory attitude inasmuch as shortly after dispensing it a naval barrage, delivered by Mishima, Tango, Okinoshina and Iwami from Hai hsi Bay to the west of Cape Jaeschke, was directed onto the urban area of Tsingtau. Backed by the land batteries, this bombardment caused great damage to the city, though one shot, apparently misaimed, struck one of the 240mm gun positions at Hui tsch’en Huk, destroying the gun and killing seven of the crew. Without a mains water supply the possibility of fire-fighting in Tsingtau was greatly reduced and several buildings were burned down, though because of the relative spaciousness of the city fires did not jump easily from building to building and so there was no major conflagration. Tapatau, the Chinese quarter, was not constructed on such generous proportions, though the relatively smaller size of the dwellings and their less robust structural strength meant they collapsed rather than burned, and it too was spared an inferno. Because the German artillery was now virtually silent the sapping work continued during daylight hours without fear of interruption, and the third parallel was completed during the day close up to the defensive ditch. Unable to effectively counter these moves the defenders, also ignoring the Japanese plea as contained in their airdropped leaflet, began putting their coastal artillery batteries out of action, which in any event, other than Hui tsch’en Huk, had proved mostly ineffective. It was clear to all that the end was not far off, and only the ferro-concrete infantry works remained as anything like effective defensive positions, though a report from one to Meyer-Waldeck ‘reflected the universal condition’:

The entire work is shot to pieces, a hill of fragments, without any defences. The entire trench system is knocked out; the redoubt still holds together, but everything else, including the explosives storage room, is destroyed. Only a single observation post is in use. I shall hold the redoubt as long as possible.

Given the impossibility of offering effective resistance to the besiegers, Meyer-Waldeck was under no illusions as to the length of time left to the defence force. Evidence for this may be adduced from his ordering Plüschow to make a getaway attempt the following day. He was to carry away papers relating to the course of the siege and several symbolic items such as the fastenings from the flagpole, as well as private letters from members of the garrison.

The attackers saw the elusive Taube take to the air the next morning, and, according to Plüschow himself, make a last circuit of Tsingtau before setting off southwards; ‘never,’ as the Japanese General Staff history put it, ‘to come back’. Though the Japanese artillery made what was to turn out to be their final efforts to shoot him down, hostile aircraft did not attempt to follow and he made good his escape towards neutral China, eventually reaching Tientsin where he was reunited with the crew of S-90. As he left his ground crew destroyed any remaining equipment, but his place over the city was soon taken by the Japanese aeroplanes who sortied in force, dropping numerous bombs onto the defenders’ positions, as a less than effective adjunct to the efforts of the artillery. As the bombardment from land and air went on the Japanese infantry began to move into their final assault positions in the third parallel. The British however, still troubled by the fire from the German machine guns, only occupied their sector with a thin outpost line. The Governor, noting the proximity of the attackers and expecting an imminent assault, ordered a general alert for the afternoon.

Kamio now had all his infantry where he wanted them, with the exception of the British contingent, and all his equipment in place. His orders for the night of 6–7 November did not however call for a general assault, but rather stipulated small scale, though aggressive, probing of the Boxer Line to test for weak spots, together with the usual artillery barrage. He emphasised flexibility and the exploitation of success. As darkness fell the sappers dug forward from the third parallel and, using mining techniques, burrowed through the counterscarp before blowing several breaches in it. This allowed the infantry direct access to the ditch without the need to leave the entrenchments. It was also discovered that the ditch in front of Infantry Works 1 and 2 differed somewhat from the saw-tooth version already noted, being a conventional channel in section. It was also found to be subject to flanking fire from the Central Fort (Infantry Work 3).

Wire that had remained intact following the previous attention of the artillery was cut or covered, allowing more or less unrestricted access within the ditch, and patrols moved across it and out onto the German side as darkness fell. At around 23:00hr a firefight broke out around Infantry Work 2 as a patrol from the 56th Infantry Regiment attempted to infiltrate and bypass it. The defenders were more alert than they had been on 1 November and sallied out to meet them. Eventually, after about an hour of fighting, the Japanese retreated and called down an artillery barrage onto the defenders for their pains.

More or less concurrently Infantry Work 3 (Central Fort) under the command of Captain Lancelle was the object of similar tactics. The results were however rather different. Engineers from the 4th Independent Battalion, preceding units from the 56th Infantry Regiment, discovered that they met with no resistance whatsoever when they began cutting two ‘roads’ through the entanglements in both the inner and outer ditches in front of the fortification. Accordingly this work was completed expeditiously, and the information on the apparent passivity of the defenders in that sector passed up the chain of command. Major General Yamada, commander of the 2nd Central Force, immediately decided to attempt an assault to take the work, but sought the sanction of Kamio before so doing. The division commander concurred, so a company sized unit under Lieutenant Nakamura Jekizo of the 56th Infantry Regiment crossed the ditch at about 01:00hr.

The plan required some courage on the part of the participants, who were all volunteers. They comprised twenty engineers and six infantry NCOs who were armed with hand grenades, whilst further infantry units, complete with mortars, stood ready in immediate support. The whole regiment was also awaiting developments and was ready to advance at a few minutes’ notice. Formed into two detachments, the raiders used ladders to climb into the ditch away from the breach and, unseen, safely reached the German parapet which they scaled before moving to reform. The plan called for a stealthy advance until the occupants of the redoubt opened up on them, and then a charge forward throwing the grenades in an attempt to disable the defenders and damage the machine guns. This procedure was modified when it became apparent that the fortification was, effectively, unguarded and Nakamura instead sent his men left and right around it to the rear (or ‘gorge’ in fortification terms) where they occupied the shelter trenches.

Detailing ten grenadiers and an NCO to resist any German potential counter-attack, he used the rest of his men to block the redoubt’s exits and then sent for reinforcements. Before these could arrive however the Japanese were detected by defence posts on the flanks of the fortification, whereby a hot fire with machine guns was opened. Several volleys of grenades stemmed that, and in the meantime the redoubt’s telephone wires were cut and access was forced into the signal room where, after the occupants were overcome, the power was cut. This plunged the whole work into darkness and prevented any further telephoning or signalling.

By this time two platoons of reinforcements had begun to arrive; half of them formed a defensive line behind the redoubt whilst the rest broke into it. It was claimed that they found the occupants in bed, but whatever the truth of the matter Lancelle immediately surrendered the work complete with its complement of about 200 men to Nakamura. It had taken forty minutes and been, to quote Burdick’s words, ‘ridiculously easy’. It was undoubtedly a famous and daring victory, and Nakamura was awarded the Order of the Golden Kite (4th class) which he undoubtedly deserved.

In practical terms however, there was now a large and growing gap in the very centre of the Boxer Line, and word quickly got to Meyer-Waldeck who ordered his reserves to counter-attack under cover of a German barrage. Whilst such a move was theoretically sound, it was, practically, almost impossible. There was simply not enough artillery left to provide an effective bombardment, and precious little manpower, particularly in comparison with that available to the attackers, to seal the breach. The effort was made, but the counter-attackers, including a contingent of Austro-Hungarian sailors landed from Kaiserin Elisabeth, were simply too weak to throw back the rapidly reinforcing Japanese.

The Boxer Line, being a linear defence, was vulnerable to being ‘rolled up’ from the flanks once breached at a given point. The Japanese having made the breach now proceeded to widen it by moving against Infantry Works 2 and 4 on either side. Both works held out for some hours, assisted by the Jaguar, the last German warship afloat, which fired away her remaining ordnance in support. The outcome however could be in no doubt and both works surrendered after about three hours of resistance. The Boxer Line was now useless, for with no defence in depth the penetration meant the route to Tsingtau was now as good as wide open. The Japanese infantry surged through the gap and began a general advance on Tsingtau and various strategic points, such as Iltis and Bismarck Hills. The batteries on the former fought the attackers for a time before surrendering, whereas the artillerymen on the latter, having fired away the last of their ammunition, set charges to destroy their guns and vacated the position at about 05:00hr. This final destruction of land-based artillery had its counterpart on the water; Jaguar, after attempting to repulse the infantry attack, had been scuttled in Kiautschou Bay.

At 06:00hr Meyer-Waldeck held a meeting at his headquarters in the Bismarck Hill Command Post where the latest information was assimilated. It had long been an unwritten rule of siege warfare that a garrison could honourably surrender following a ‘practical breach’ being made in their defences. The Japanese, using classic siege warfare methodology, had now achieved just such a breach. Whether the Governor was aware of the ‘rule’ is unknown, but he had now only two options; surrender or a fanatical ‘fight to the last man and last bullet’ scenario. Meyer-Waldeck was no fanatic. Brace put it thus:

If the governor had permitted the unequal struggle to go on his men would have lasted only a few hours longer. It would be an Alamo, and the name of the German garrison would be heralded throughout history as the heroic band of whites who stood against the yellow invasion until the last man. On the other hand the governor had with him a large part of the German commercial community of the Far East which Germany had built up with such painstaking care.

The Governor ordered the white flag hoisted on the signal station and over the German positions and composed a message to Kamio: ‘Since my defensive measures are exhausted I am now ready to enter into surrender negotiations for the now open city. […] I request you to appoint plenipotentiaries to the discussions, as well as to set time and place for the meeting of the respective plenipotentiaries. […]’ The carrier of this message was Major Georg von Kayser, adjutant to Meyer-Waldeck’s Chief-of-Staff, naval Captain Ludwig Saxer – the latter being the Governor’s appointee as German plenipotentiary. Despite Barnardiston’s contention that all firing ceased at 07:00hr Kayser had difficulty getting through the lines in safety, but he was eventually allowed to proceed under his flag of truce to the village of Tungwutschiatsun, some 4km behind the Japanese front line, more or less opposite the celebrated Central Fort (Infantry Work 3).81 It was agreed that a general armistice would come into play immediately, and that formal negotiations for the capitulation would commence that afternoon at 16:00hr in Moltke Barracks.


The Battle of Shanghai, 1937

Thirteen years after Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Tokyo Bay, a nationalist rebellion overthrew the conservative Tokugawa Shogunate, installed the Emperor Meiji in power, and implemented a program of sweeping national reform. In an act no less stunning than the revolution itself, nearly all of the former ruling families voluntarily surrendered their power to the emperor, declaring, “We therefore reverently offer up all our feudal possessions so that a uniform rule may prevail throughout the Empire. Thus, the country will be able to rank equally with the other nations of the world.”

By 1895, Japan achieved its goal. Japanese armies had seized Korea and defeated China in the first Sino-Japanese war. Ten years later, Japan sent shockwaves through the world when the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) sank or destroyed most of the Imperial Russian Fleet in the two-day battle of Tsushima (27–28 May 1905)—at the time the most significant naval action since Trafalgar. Japan’s warships were newer with more modern guns and range-finders than those of their Russian opponents. Whereas the Russians used wireless communication sets produced in Germany, the IJN used sets that had been manufactured in Japan.

To the Western powers, Japan’s meteoric rise to strategic prominence in northeast Asia demonstrated that the Japanese were fundamentally different from the Chinese, and, indeed, from all the peoples of the Far East. John Pershing, who served as the U.S. military attaché in Tokyo during the Russo-Japanese War, described the Japanese he saw as “a strong, virile, aggressive race, with an ambition and determination that will carry them very far in the contest of nations for power.”

Britain lost no time in securing an alliance with Imperial Japan to contain Russian expansion, as well as to compensate for Britain’s strategic dilemma of “imperial overstretch.” Under the terms of the original 1902 Anglo-Japanese Treaty, Japan agreed to secure British commercial and territorial interests in the Far East, allowing Britain’s Royal Navy to concentrate in the North Sea for its future war with Germany while Britain recognized Japan’s de facto conquest of Korea. The treaty lapsed in 1923 after the signing of the Washington Naval Treaty, but in the run-up to World War I, the treaty placed Japan on the winning side, a position that rewarded Japan with control of Germany’s Chinese and Pacific territories—lucrative gains for Japan’s modest role in the war. Far more important, Japan gained Western recognition as a great power.

For a nation that rose from obscurity to great power in less than fifty years, the military triumphs over China and Russia were intoxicating. When an incident occurred on the night of 7 July 1937 involving Japanese and Chinese troops near the Lugou bridge, known internationally as the Marco Polo bridge, the temptation for Tokyo to conquer yet again was too strong to resist.

Major General Ishiwara Kanji, the dynamic Japanese army officer who masterminded the Mukden Incident (the alleged Chinese bombing of a Japanese railway) that wrested control of Manchuria away from Nationalist China in 1931, was cautious. He urged restraint, telling the general staff of the Kwantung Army, “If we act now against China, the sky will fall in. Let’s keep the incident from developing further and have the local command settle the issue.”

Concurrently, Emperor Hirohito approved the mobilization of five Japanese divisions for a campaign against the Chinese that his minister of war claimed “would be finished up within two to three months.” When Ishiwara heard the news, he was more pessimistic. He told his colleagues, “We may find ourselves with a full-scale war on our hands. The result would be the same sort of disaster which overtook Napoleon in Spain—a slow sinking into the deepest sort of bog.”

Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of Nationalist China, responded by ordering the Chinese army to attack the Japanese garrison in Shanghai, eventually sending 600,000 Nationalist Chinese troops to fight for the city of 3.3 million people, which in 1937 was the fifth largest port in the world and Asia’s financial capital. Chiang was well aware that Shanghai was a city where fabulously rich Chinese and European “colonials” lived like kings inside a special “international zone” next to millions of impoverished Chinese. Under the circumstances, Chiang decided to make the fight for Shanghai in Zhabei, the poor, industrial section of the city on the north side of the international zone, hoping to produce an incident that would rally the Europeans and Americans to his side in the war with Japan.

For reasons that seem obtuse today, Japan’s military and political leaders believed control of China, a nation torn by civil war with hundreds of millions living in poverty, would add to Japan’s margin of victory in future wars. Japan’s national military and political leaders equated industrialization and access to markets and resources with the control of territory and peoples.


The appearance of Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships” in Japanese waters in 1853 forced the Japanese to face a disconcerting reality: Japan’s military power and the economic strength to support itself were inferior to those of the West. Without a rapid transformation into a modern state, Japan itself might not survive contact with the West.

To modernize and catch up with the Western nations, Japan embraced “raw, unbridled capitalism.” Japan may not have had Calvinism and the Protestant culture that launched Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States on the economic fast track to prosperity and power, but Japan possessed the time-honored values of integrity and hard work, as well as a culturally and racially homogenous population with a deeply ingrained sense of duty and a collective obligation in all aspects of life.

The same cultural values of energy and intelligence that underpinned Japanese economic modernization also catapulted the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) into modernization. As always, revolutions in military affairs involve much more than new technology. For a national military strategy to be effective, its goals and tenets must align in harmony with the respective nation’s cultural norms, geographic position, and economic potential.

In Japan, the ruling elites looked carefully at the various ways in which other great powers sought to harmonize these factors—culture, geography, and economy—within the framework of national military strategy. Thus, the Japanese embraced the American model for industrialization, the British model for ship-building and maritime power, and the German military model for land power. But it was Japan’s embrace of Otto von Bismarck’s Prussian-German concept of “rich country, strong military” that most profoundly influenced Japanese thinking about national security.

In time, two competing strategic views emerged in Japanese thinking about security and commercial trade, a continental approach and a maritime approach. The continental IJA faction argued for Japanese expansion to the “north,” through Korea and into Manchuria, Mongolia, and, eventually, eastern Siberia. The maritime IJN faction urged expansion to the “south,” the soft underbelly of Asia and the Pacific basin. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the IJA overpowered the IJN. Eventually, the IJA drove Japan into war first with China, then tsarist Russia.

In 1924, an important figure in Japanese military history, General Ugaki Kazushige, stepped into the middle of this contest for the hearts and minds of the Japanese people. Ugaki served as minister of war from 1924 to 1927 and again from 1929 to 1931. He lived and studied abroad, serving twice in Germany as Japan’s military attaché, from 1902 to 1904 and again from 1906 to 1907. During this service, Ugaki developed a strong affinity for the German people, their patriotic spirit, and their cultural values of integrity and hard work. On completing his service in Germany, he envisioned Japan’s future strategic cooperation with Germany “as a means to keep Russia down in case our force will not be [strong] enough. I would rather prefer a Japanese-German alliance than a Japanese-Chinese one. Suppressing Russia and China from two sides, East Asia will come under our hegemony, Western Europe under Germany’s.”

Believing control of Manchuria and, if possible, eastern Siberia was essential to Japan’s long-term security and prosperity, Ugaki made a detailed examination of the massed Japanese bayonet charges and frontal assaults against Russia’s fixed fortifications during the Russo-Japanese War. He was repelled by the Japanese losses and found the Japanese generals’ callous disregard for human life distasteful.

Ugaki also grasped the most important lesson of the confrontation with Russia: Japan’s victory was more the result of Russian incompetence and the inability of Russian forces to maneuver against the Japanese than of Japanese superiority. General Kodama Gentaro, the IJA chief of staff during the Russo-Japanese War, confirmed this insight, declaring, “This greatly simplified matters for us. It also made the result of battle far greater than we had anticipated.” Ugaki concluded that the views of many younger IJA officers were correct. In the future, the IJA would need the mobility and firepower to conduct sweeping flank attacks, enveloping or encircling the Russian enemy.

When Imperial Japan was invited by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 to join the Western allies in a joint attack on the new Bolshevik state, General Ugaki, now deputy chief of the Imperial General Staff, was assigned to plan Japan’s military intervention. Ugaki welcomed the opportunity and drafted the IJA’s plans for the seizure and occupation of eastern Siberia. He saw intervention in Russia as an immense opportunity to reinvigorate Japan’s northern strategy and expand its foothold on the Asian landmass. His far-reaching plans utilized the railways all the way to Lake Baikal and recommended their expanded use to move Japanese forces farther west if the opportunity arose. However, in Russia, the IJA encountered a new Russian enemy in the form of Bolshevik cavalry forces—mobile guerrilla armies that operated over thousands of square miles, often under horrible weather conditions.

In four years of hard fighting, the Bolshevik armies scored few military triumphs, but they did wear down the IJA and push Japan’s limited industrial capacity and economy to the point of exhaustion, imparting a strategic lesson Ugaki would not forget: Japan’s army and its supporting scientific-industrial base were not prepared to meet the requirements of modern warfare. Ugaki resolved to change this condition by infusing the Meiji-era IJA with new thinking, a new organization, and new forms of armored mobility, firepower, and aircraft. The question for Ugaki was how to finance and implement his plan.

After the IJA’s four-year intervention in Siberia ended, the politics of economic stringency confronted the army with a severely constrained defense budget. A new internal debate raged regarding how, where, and against whom to fight. Once again, Ugaki’s eyes fixed on Manchuria, not the Pacific, and his relations with the admirals of the IJN quickly deteriorated. He viewed Japan’s enormous investment in naval power as a diversion of resources the IJA would need for the unavoidable collision that would decide Japan’s strategic future: a land war with the Soviet Union.

As chief of staff, Ugaki embodied the fight for change inside the Imperial Japanese Army, which was always intertwined with its contest with the IJN for resources. Ugaki’s faction consisted of the so-called revisionists, IJA officers who believed strongly that future wars would commit the army to protracted conflicts against more advanced Soviet and Western opponents, particularly the Western colonial powers in Asia. The revisionists believed that modern armaments and new organizations for combat, not numbers or morale, were the keys to victory in future warfare. Under Ugaki’s leadership, the revisionist program reorganized the IJA into smaller, triangular (three-regiment) divisions and introduced new technology in the form of tanks, mobile artillery, and aircraft—all paid for with savings from an overall reduction in IJA manpower.

On the other side of the debate were the IJA traditionalists, officers convinced that numerically large conscript forces could always compensate for deficiencies in weaponry and technology so long as they were imbued with strong combat spirit. The traditionalists argued that future wars would look like Japan’s first and brief war with China in 1898 or the more intense Russo-Japanese War. Since Japanese troops were always outnumbered by Bolshevik insurgent forces in Siberia, the traditionalists cited the IJA experience in Siberia as evidence for the importance of numbers rather than mobility and firepower. Major General Horike Kazumaro, who opposed Ugaki, expressed the traditionalist view, asserting, “We made studies, but putting it bluntly, Japan’s industrial capacity at that time could not carry out all these things we’ve spoken of, like mechanization of the army, the development of tanks, and the use of aircraft in group formations. If we overstrained in trying to do it, it would have entailed a third and a fourth force reduction, and the army would have been broken up.” Though the IJA’s share of the defense budget fell from 18.8 percent in 1919 to 16.2 percent in 1922, the traditionalists made sure the IJA grew smaller, but they also resisted change in its organization, equipment, or thinking about warfare.

However, Ugaki’s fortunes changed in 1923, when his patron and mentor Tanaka Giichi, now Japan’s prime minster, appointed Ugaki as minister of defense. He was finally in a position to drag the IJA through a second revolution in Japanese military affairs. The essential features of Ugaki’s reform package were to:

Reduce the army budget. Reductions included the disestablishment of four infantry divisions to offset the costs the Japanese government incurred during the four-year Siberian intervention and the Great Kanto earthquake, an approximately 7.9 magnitude quake that transformed Tokyo into a blackened wasteland of death and destruction. Discharged officers were sent to middle schools and high schools to become teachers.

Retire general officers opposing reforms. Ukagi removed the IJA’s top eleven generals, prompting a Japanese journalist to record, “There was no way to treat these stone heads other than to replace them.” Ugaki’s allies were thus put into key positions in both the army general staff and national command structure during 1925.

Change the force structure. Ugaki set forth his program to reorganize Japanese divisions from square divisions into triangular divisions. The square division was downsized by removing one regiment and skipping the brigade as an intermediate level of command between regiment and division, thereby achieving more savings in manpower without a loss of fighting power. The smaller division retained the same number of supporting arms—artillery, engineers, and related elements—leaving the formation just as effective, but more mobile and less vulnerable to concentrated enemy fires.

Modernize the force. Ugaki secured a reduction in the IJA budget to 12.4 percent in 1927 that partially funded the purchase and eventually the development of new tanks, artillery, aircraft, and automatic weapons for the IJA. He established the bureau of supplies and equipment to supervise the IJA’s modernization.

In the two years after Ugaki left office in 1927, many of his reforms were predictably delayed or halted entirely. Reactionaries in the senior ranks of the IJA reasserted their influence to slow or halt Ugaki’s efforts to modernize the army at the expense of the numbers of men serving in the IJA. Simultaneously, interservice rivalry between the army and the navy worsened, further poisoning the contest for resources and bureaucratic dominance. In later years recalling the events of his two terms as minister of war, Ugaki said, “I tried to seize the initiative, but the tendency of the army was to go in the opposite direction.”

It would take another nine years for Major General Ishiwara Kanji, another Germanophile in Japanese uniform, to push through Ugaki’s reform program. In 1936, Ishiwara succeeded in persuading the IJA leadership to complete Ugaki’s reforms by reorganizing all of the IJA’s divisions into smaller triangular formations equipped with more modern weapons. The commitment of resources and manpower to Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 postponed Ishiwara’s implementation plan until 1940, too late for the IJA’s decisive battle with the Soviet armed forces in 1939 at Nomonhan. Dismayed by Tokyo’s rush to war with China, Ishiwara cabled the minister of war with the following message concerning the decision to invade China proper: “Tell the Prime Minister that in the two thousand years of our history no man will have done more to destroy Japan than he has by his indecisiveness in this crisis.”

None of the IJA’s infantry divisions that fought in the battle of Shanghai were reorganized until after 1940, long after the tactical and operational advantages of the smaller, triangular division over the large, unwieldy World War I square division were undeniable. Though Ugaki’s reforms did not succeed in transforming the IJA divisions into smaller, more mobile formations, Ugaki did succeed in equipping Japanese divisions for the battle of Shanghai with twice the number of fighting men, three times the number of rifles, and double the number of crew-served weapons (machine guns and mortars) and artillery than were present in the Chinese divisions that opposed them. Despite the setbacks to modernization, thanks to Ugaki, the IJA deployed two tank brigades plus one additional tank battalion to fight in the battle. As it turned out, the presence of just twenty-four tanks inside each Japanese infantry division was decisive in the battle for Shanghai.


Tokyo’s deliberate escalation of the dispute with China over the Marco Polo bridge incident into full-scale war on 7 July 1937 hurled Japan’s Kwantung Army into action. In mid-August, Japanese forces struck south from Manchuria to seize Beijing and Chahar. General Chiang Kai-shek suddenly confronted a difficult situation. Nationalist Chinese military strength in the north was thin, and China was still weak from years of civil war between his Nationalist forces and Mao Zedong’s Communists.

Confronted with a similar strategic dilemma in 1933, Chiang opted to consolidate his strength in the south and concentrate China’s military power against the Chinese Communist Party, at the time a much more serious threat to Nationalist China than Japan. Under the terms of the Tanggu truce that ended Japanese hostilities with China, the price paid for this temporary retreat was humiliating but small. The humiliation entailed the formal recognition of Japan’s conquest of Manchuria and the loss of Rehe, a portion of Inner Mongolia controlled by China. Yet Manchuria and Mongolia were not historically part of China, and the regions had few Chinese inhabitants. Chiang chose to husband his resources and defend what he considered to be most important: China’s core Han population. Shanghai was an entirely different matter.

Chiang could play for time in the north, but Shanghai, only forty miles from Nanjing, was the capital of Nationalist China, meaning it could not be surrendered without a fight. In mid-July, Chiang ordered General Zhang Zhizhong, a forty-two-year-old political confidant and commander of Chinese forces in Shanghai and the 9th Nationalist Chinese Army Group, to prepare his troops for an attack to drive the Japanese garrison out of Shanghai.

Under the terms of the Tanggu truce that ended China’s previous hostilities with Japan, a demilitarized buffer zone was established between China and the city of Shanghai. The Chinese military presence in the city was restricted to a Peace Preservation Corps, essentially a large paramilitary police force, but Japan was allowed to maintain a military garrison in Shanghai together with the French, British, and Germans. As soon as war broke out in July, both sides began moving additional men and equipment into Shanghai: the Chinese into the ranks of Shanghai’s Peace Preservation Corps and the Japanese into their fortified Shanghai garrison.

Shanghai and Its Surroundings

The Japanese commander tasked with the mission of seizing and securing Shanghai was sixty-year-old Matsui Iwane, a distinguished Russo-Japanese War veteran of samurai heritage who had retired from active duty just four years earlier in 1933. Matsui had served as IJA chief of intelligence under Ugaki and supported his military reforms on the German military model.

Like many officers of his generation, Matsui believed Japan’s mission was to liberate Asia from Western colonial rule. Early in his military career, Matsui was strongly sympathetic to China’s nationalist movement. In his younger years, he even befriended Sun Yat-sen, the leader of China’s republican revolution who led the movement to overthrow China’s last emperor in 1911. In 1937, in a sad turn of events for Matsui, he was tasked to attack a country he had once hoped to liberate.

On reporting for duty in Tokyo, Matsui was presented with a new operational plan to invade and occupy northern China with nine to fourteen divisions while three divisions seized Shanghai and two more divisions landed in Hangzhou Bay, south of Shanghai. Once Shanghai was secured, the plan directed Matsui to advance on Nanjing and compel the surrender of China’s Nationalist government. In many ways, the plan was a Japanese version of Germany’s Schlieffen plan from World War I, aimed at knocking out China quickly, then turning north to refocus Japanese military power on the real threat to Japan: the Soviet Union. Moving beyond Nanjing to secure China’s vast interior was never mentioned or anticipated in the original plan.

Until General Matsui and the Shanghai Expeditionary Force (SEF) arrived, the 3rd IJN Fleet under the command of fifty-four-year-old Rear Admiral Hasegawa Kiyoshi would fight the Chinese on land, on sea, and in the air. Hasegawa was a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War and had served on Admiral Togo Heihachiro’s flagship, the battleship Mikasa, when the IJN destroyed tsarist Russia’s fleet in the Straits of Tsushima. He also served as Japan’s naval attaché in Washington and in 1945 provided the final report on the condition of the IJN to Emperor Hirohito, persuading him to surrender.

For the IJA to succeed in its fight for Shanghai, Admiral Hasegawa knew that Japanese positions ashore in the city of Shanghai must be retained at all costs. On his own initiative, Hasegawa moved quickly to reinforce the small Shanghai Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF)—literally, Japanese sailors taken off ships, issued rifles, and used as infantry on land with additional sailors. In the ten days before the IJA arrived, Hasegawa expanded the SNLF to ten thousand sailors. They would provide an important margin of victory in the battle by defending Japanese positions ashore against the attacking Chinese Nationalist army until the IJA arrived.

Anticipating the decisive role that Japanese naval gunfire and airpower would play, Hasegawa also requested additional naval power. Tokyo responded by sending the 8th Cruiser Division and 1st Destroyer Squadron to reinforce the fleet. By 11 August, Admiral Hasegawa had a fleet of thirty warships in the 3rd IJN Fleet, including the 16th Destroyer and the 11th Battleship divisions plus two aircraft carriers.

Three ships of the 11th Battleship Division were anchored in Shanghai harbor to provide fire support to Japanese forces in the city. The rest were located up and down the Yangtze River, where they operated without interference from the Chinese. The Nationalist Chinese had a fleet of fifty-nine ships and twelve patrol boats equipped with torpedoes designed for riverine or coastal operations, but without the ability to mine the approaches to Shanghai harbor and the Yangtze River, the vessels were of little use in this battle.

Knowing that all of the IJN’s forces could not operate from Shanghai harbor, Hasegawa directed the Kamoi, 1st Carrier Division, 1st Combined Air Unit, 22nd Air Unit, and the 12th Sea Plane Division to set up bases of operations in the vicinity of the Shengsi Islands some thirty kilometers off the coast of Shanghai. These units added a total of thirty-eight Type 96 attack/reconnaissance planes and twenty Type 95 fighters, all vastly superior in range and striking power to China’s antiquated and numerically inferior air force.

On paper, the Chinese National Revolutionary Army fielded a force of 1.75 million soldiers. As is often the case in war, the numbers were impressive but misleading. At most, perhaps 300,000 Chinese soldiers were trained and organized in any meaningful way.

Chiang Kai-shek regarded the troops that his German advisers trained as his best. Like the Japanese army officers, Chiang Kai-shek held the German military in very high esteem. His closest military advisers were Germans. One of the most famous, Colonel General Hans von Seeckt, travelled to China and provided him with a white paper that was instrumental in persuading Chiang to stand up an elite force of 80,000 men under German advisers. In August 1937, these troops were better trained and equipped than the rest of the Nationalist Chinese forces, but they were still in an early stage of development and not ready to take on the IJA in pitched battle.