Chinese Nationalist Army

Chinese Nationalist Army 1937-1941.

Chiang Kai-sheks's German-trained and equipped Chinese soldiers.
Chiang Kai-sheks’s German-trained and equipped Chinese soldiers.

The seizure of Mukden on 19 September 1931 marked the beginning of overt Japanese aggression against China, and from 1937 there was open war. The disorganized Chinese forces were no match on the battlefield for the Japanese armies, but determined resistance prevented a complete collapse. The very size of China precluded a total Japanese victory, and although the Chinese Nationalist government was forced to leave all the major industrial areas and set up a new capital at Chungking, it maintained the struggle, and, in alliance with the communist forces of Mao Tse-tung, tied down enormous numbers of Japanese troops.

Chinese Forces

At the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in July 1937 the Nationalist Army expanded to about 1.7 million men; its official order of battle included 182 infantry divisions, 46 independent brigades, 9 cavalry divisions, 6 independent cavalry brigades, 4 artillery brigades and 20 independent artillery regiments.
A division had (again, officially) 2 infantry brigades, each of 2 regiments; an artillery battalion or regiment; an engineer and a quartermaster battalion, and small signals, medical and transport units.

In practice, the provision of support and service elements varied greatly from division to division, as did their field strength. The average strength of a division as described above was around 9,000-10,000 men; but this only applied to the ten German-trained divisions re-organized in 1937. The great majority, as well as newly raised or temporary divisions, would average only about 5,000 men. Independent brigades might have about 4,500 men, while their temporary equivalents were perhaps 3,000-strong.

China in 1937 was still a deeply divided country, and the KMT government could not rely on all its nominal forces equally. Rebellions and other disloyalties by various regional military commanders throughout the 1930s had made Chiang Kai-shek very suspicious of a large part of his forces. The most loyal and therefore best-trained and equipped troops were approximately 380,000 men of Chiang Kai-shek’s own pre-1934 army, most of whom had been trained by German instructors. They were commanded by graduates of the Whampoa Military Academy in Canton, which Chiang had himself commanded in 1924, creating an educated and politically reliable officer corps for the KMT army.

Another 520,000-odd men belonged to formations that were traditionally loyal to Chiang, though not of his own creation. Together with this hard core, these gave him a strength of 900,000 men that the government could rely upon. Beyond these armies there existed another class of so-called ‘semi-autonomous provincial troops’ that could sometimes be mobilized in the KMT government’s interest, totaling perhaps another 300,000 men divided between the provinces of Suiyuan, Shansi and Shangtung in the north, and Kwangtung in the south-east.

The rest of the Nationalist army was made up of troops led by commanders who, while having no real loyalty to Chiang Kai-shek, were willing to fight alongside him against the common enemy, Japan. The fighting quality of these troops of questionable loyalty varied from very good to extremely poor. For instance, the 80,000 soldiers and 90,000 militia of the far southern province of Kwangsi were well-led, equipped and disciplined, while the 250,000 soldiers of Szechuan in the south-west were described as the worst-trained and equipped, most undisciplined and disloyal of all Chinese Nationalist troops.

Eroded by casualties – particularly among the trained pre-1937 officer corps – and by poverty of resources, most of these formations were under strength, badly fed, badly cared for, badly clothed and equipped, and badly led, with a combat value comparable to that of the marauding peasants levies of an earlier century. Historically, China’s brutal military culture had given the peasant soldier no reward for victory beyond the opportunity to pillage, and no real emotional stake in any cause beyond his own immediate unit. Caution and cunning were admired, self-respect did not depend upon initiative and dash in the attack or endurance in defense. Unless success came quickly they tended to fall back; on the other hand, even after a headlong retreat in the face of the enemy the long-suffering peasant soldiers could sometimes be brought back to their duty after a short respite.

chinese nationalist soldiers

Weapons of the Chinese Nationalist Army

With an army which quickly rose to over 2 million men, and only a number of small local arsenals and arms factories, the Nationalist army faced a constant problem in arming its troops. By the early 1930s a bewildering array of rifles and machine guns from all over the industrial world had been imported at one time or other by the Chinese. With no central policy on arms purchasing, the various military regions and the virtual warlords who commanded them imported at whim for their own troops. This chronic lack of standardization was only partly addressed by the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War.

By 1937 the predominant rifle of the Chinese armies was the 7.92mm German Mauser 98k which had been recommended by their German advisers in the early 1930s. The Mauser, imported in large numbers and soon under production in Chinese arsenals, was commonly known as the Chiang Kai-shek rifle. Other rifles based on the Mauser design were also imported from Belgium and Czechoslovakia, as the FN24 and VZ24 in their rifle and carbine forms. The older Mauser Gewehr 88 was also widely used by China, and was produced as the Hanyang 88 in Chinese factories.

column of Chinese soldiers
A column of Chinese soldiers singing patriotic songs march along a dirt road during the winter fighting. They wear winter-weight ski-types caps with the ear flaps tied on top. Most of the men are armed with the Hanyang 88 rifle but two men in front have later Mauser models .

Many types of machine guns were also imported during the 1930s – indeed, China was in several instances the only export customer for some of the more obscure European weapons. If an arms’ dealer could not sell his wares to the KMT government, he could always try his luck with one of the provincial army commanders. The predominant Chinese light machine gun was the excellent Czechoslovakian ZB26, imported and copied in large numbers. Other models imported included the Swiss ZE70, the Finnish Lahti, and the Soviet DP26. Machine guns were always in short supply and even the best Chinese forces only had about one-third the allocation per division enjoyed by the Japanese troops.

The Chinese had historically been poor in modern artillery, and most field guns were of the light and mountain classes. Its shortage is illustrated by the fact that in 1941 there were only 800 artillery pieces in the entire Chinese Army. During his early campaigns Chiang Kai-shek had acquired the habit of keeping as much of the artillery as possible under his own control, to weaken any potentially mutinous subordinates. Traditionally the shortfall in conventional artillery had been partly offset by the use of mortars of all calibers.

Chinese artillery in action.
Nationalist Chinese artillery in action.

Chinese Stuart tanks on the Ledo road
Chinese- and American-crewed M3A3 Stuart light tanks advancing down the Ledo road against Japanese-hol positions at Myitkyina.
The Nationalists used a number of armored trains in their internal campaigns, but only a handful of light tanks and other armored vehicles had been imported from Britain, Germany, Italy and the USSR in the 1920s-30s, mainly Renault FT-17 tanks and Carden Loyd carriers. Soviet aid was extended to Chiang-kai Shek’s forces in China to assist in combating the Imperial Japanese Army. Soviet advisors were sent to China to help form the 200th Army Mechanized Corps, equipped with 88 T-26 tanks purchased from the Soviet Union, as well as a number of BA-10 and BA-20 armored cars, and a various British, Italian and German tanks already in Chinese service.

Basic Chinese divisions:

StrengthGerman-trained infantry divisionnormal Infantry divisionIndependent brigade Cavalry divsion
Total units10172469 + 6 Brigades
Infantry regiments4?-424 (Cav)
Total men9,529c. 5,000c. 4,500?
Machine guns324236 (200 light, 36 heavy)??
Artilleryc. 40 (?)nonenonenone

References and literature

The Armed Forces of World War II (Andrew Mollo)
World War II – A Statistical Survey (John Ellis)
The Chinese Army 1937-49, World War II and Civil War (Philip Jowett)

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