One-shot After Action Report: The Heroes of Ningbo

Just going to throw up a little thing I recently wrote in a game of Hearts of Iron II: Darkest Hour that I played. I was Japan, and I was stunned by how vicious the Chinese defense was. Enjoy!

    The Heroes of Ningbo

For decades the Chinese resistance to the Japanese advances during the Second Sino-Japanese War has inspired patriotism and pride in the Chinese people. It has served as a model for all those who since resisted Japanese rule, from the remains of the Communists to the various abortive warlord attempts at semi-independence from Tokyo. Arguably none are as lauded as the men of the First Battle of Ningbo, Nov. 26th 1938-Jan 3rd 1939 by Western dating.

With a paper strength of just over 70,000, the 18 months of war had left divisions in tatters and brigades missing from the face of the earth, and most historian’s estimates suggest that the true number of Chinese soldiers involved was approximately 56,000. They were led by Field Marshal Tang Shengzhi, who had grown dissatisfied with Premier Chiang’s leadership and perceived personal betrayal, but had nobly put aside these concerns in the name of fighting for China. He had been earmarked by Chiang as the leader for the defense of Nanking but the Japanese amphibious assault on the region had been so rapid that the city fell before the Chinese could muster a defense.

The Japanese forces numbered some 60,000, all regular infantry supplemented by six brigades of Tankettes (Japanese armored car and tank technology having lagged greatly in comparison to the European belligerents of WW2). Having driven Chinese forces out of the surrounding regions of Jinhua and Wenzhou, the Chinese had been cut off in Ningbo and its environs. Some of the units had been stationed in the region for some time but the majority were those who had hastily and continually retreated from the fighting in the north. Nevertheless Tang managed to inspire his men – who were at this stage a rather ragtag group of KMT troops, absorbed warlords, and refugees from the Communist enclave which the Japanese had so brutally overrun in the spring of 1938.

Cut off, surrounded, and stalwart to the last.

Armed with outdated equipment, run ragged by over a year and a half of constant retreats and fighting, the men in Ningbo were given a stark speech by Field Marshal Tang as the Japanese drew close. A British emigrant to China in the 1900s who lived in the city had the foresight to record the speech as he sheltered a Chinese soldier who had been wounded in the fighting, and this is generally taken as the definitive copy thereof.

“Men, we have come here from many paths. I have myself served both the Kuomintang government and have served some who oppose them. I know among you are soldiers from all over China, some of whose homes are now in the hands of the vicious Japanese, some of whose remain behind out lines. It makes no matter now: We are all Chinese, and while these eastern barbarians remain on our soil we have no differences, we have no ideologies, except liberation of China for the Chinese!

“I will not lie to you. We face a grim task. Many of us shall perish in the coming battle. Our enemy, barbarous as they are, are well-equipped and well-trained. We make do with outdated and mismatching equipment, scrimped from local collections or donated by friends abroad. But we have things they do not: We fight for our homes! We fight for our country! And we fight in land excellent for defense! We have already put much effort into preparing our defense positions, and any Japanese advance shall come at a high cost in blood.

“We know taking Ningbo is crucial to the Japanese advance along the southern coast of China. As long as we remain here their forces are tied down. So do not hope for only survival! China depends on us! Hope that our actions, whether we win or lose, whether you live or die, cost the Japanese time! Every day we hold them here is a day for our brothers to train. Every hour we hold them is an hour for new guns to be built or bought, for trenches and pillboxes to be dug and built. I cannot promise you all survival, for we know the brutality of the Japanese even to those who surrender. But I can promise you victory, if you do your duties and hold to the last!”

Stunningly, the defense of Ningbo went even better than Tang had dared to promise. Casualties were very high on both sides; over 12,000 Japanese dead (Their second-highest losses until that point, only exceeded by the Battle of Yan’an) and over 15,000 Chinese estimated dead among the military alone. Yet with their outdated equipment, poor training (Only two of the seven Chinese brigades were infantry proper. The rest were militia units.), and near-total lack of heavy equipment, without hope of retreat or escape, and with supplies rapidly dwindling, the tenacious Chinese forced the Japanese attackers to withdraw after five weeks of brutal combat.

To the eternal chagrin of Tokyo, their second assault on Ningbo went little better than the first. Despite using fully rested and reinforced units, naval bombardment, air support, and facing an encircled and trapped enemy, the Second Battle of Ningbo lasted from January 30th until February 28th. Casualties on the Chinese sides were considerably lower – the Chinese had had time to dig in formidably and could repel the Japanese attacks with much greater ease. The Japanese lost almost 16,000 troops in the second battle. For the Chinese some reinforcements had been drawn from the locals of the region – not exactly front-line troops, but the few weeks of training had allowed at least a few hundred more vaguely competent soldiers to face the Japanese. Moreover, some dozens of brave souls had volunteered to assist Ningbo and had traveled there on supply ships, which faced increasingly dangerous Japanese interdiction attempts.

It was not until mid-April, when new units who had recently been readied in the Home Islands arrived in Wenzhou, that the IJA was finally able to crack the nut that was Ningbo. It cost them a total of over 60,000 lives, held up the Japanese advance along the coast for four months, and required the reallocation of two full IJN fleets to provide offshore support as well as four wings of the IJAAF’s air fleet, and a doubling of the commitment of troops from 6 divisions to 12.

It was not enough to stop Japan. But the defense went down in Chinese history as one of the most tenacious, brave acts of the entire war against the Empire of Japan, and it gave districts further down the southern Chinese coast a great deal of time to recuperate, regain strength, organize themselves, and dig in, making subsequent battles much more costly and difficult for the Japanese. Supplies smuggled in by sea helped to keep the Ningbo army in something resembling fighting condition, and it required an embarrassing degree of effort on the part of the Japanese to succeed in their attack. It was the first time the Chinese had prevailed to such a degree in engaging the Japanese and gave an enormous morale boost to the soldiers who remained facing the Empire throughout China.

3 thoughts on “One-shot After Action Report: The Heroes of Ningbo”

  1. Haha, well my BA is in International Relations and Politics and my MA is in Strategic Studies, so I should hope I can write something vaguely worthwhile along those lines. xD Thanks for the kind words :D

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