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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, November 12, 2017

China's first tank Battle.

Thanks to Seon, of Sensha-Manual, for providing me with the report on the Japanese tanks action used in this article.

On the 9th of August 1937 a Japanese staff car drove down a road in China. Riding in the car were the driver and one Japanese officer, First Lieutenant Isao Oyama. Lt Oyama was a member of the Japanese Marines, the SNLF, he was heading towards a Chinese airfield near Shanghai. For the last five years the Chinese and Japanese had, outwardly, been at peace. Although both sides were aware there was a continuation of their war coming, what Lt Oyama's mission was hasn't been recorded. Because both the officer and his driver were shot and killed by a Chinese solider as they attempted to gain entry to the airfield. This incident was all the casus belli the Japanese needed, and the war was back on.
After the fighting in 1932 the Chinese had been preparing for war, or at least trying too. They had obtained German advisor's and equipment. The leader of the advisor's was a German Colonel called Hans Vetter, whom, it seems, had served during the First World War (It should be noted I've been unable to find a biography for him). While the Chinese leaders did agree on the German suggestion to transform their army into a modern force, they met with some obstruction. However, at the time the Chinese army was still in its warlord period where each local warlord commanded his own troops. Any attempt to merge and create sensible divisions was met with resistance from the warlords as each saw the mergers as a risk to his position. Equally as they were embezzling money a merger would limit their income. By the time the fighting broke out only eight infantry divisions had been formed along the lines suggested by the Germans. Of these forces two divisions, the 87th and 88th were dispatched to Shanghai to push the Japanese back into the sea.
Troops defending the French Quarter
Fighting in Shanghai would indeed be difficult, as parts of the city were territories belonging to the worlds global powers. Initially the Chinese wanted to push through the French quarter to reach the river bank, and then outflank the Japanese. However, this would have created international incidents with France at the very least. For that reason the Chinese forces were limited to moving directly through the Japanese and Chinese held areas.

First of all, the Japanese moved several thousand men into Shanghai and began to bombard the city with ships. A few days later, late in the afternoon the Chinese launched their first assault which was defeated with heavy casualties. For an account of the period see here.
On the 16th of August new orders arrived. Instead of costly frontal assaults the Chinese were to try new tactics. These were instantly recognisable as the "Stormtroop" idea from the First World War. Teams of men would infiltrate forwards and launch surprise assaults on the Japanese defenders. If there was a strongpoint it was to be ignored, except for a suppressing force, and the main attack was to sweep round it. This operation was to be named Iron Fist. There is some confusion as to when Iron Fist started. Sources I've found cite the 16th, 17th and 19th. However, it seems likely that the 17th is the date.

To get into position the Chinese troops would mouse hole through building, or use beams to cross from roof to roof over alleyways. These tactics seemed to work at first. But a plane launched from one of the Japanese ships at anchor in the river spotted their movements and the Japanese were forewarned.
Even so, when the attack was launched the Chinese did make some bloody progress. The main problem encountered was a crossfire. As they advanced down streets, when they came to intersections they would suffer from enfilading fire as well as Japanese troops on the roofs of the buildings firing down.

The Chinese high command was also confused about progress with conflicting reports arriving. It became so bad that one commander ordered that when a position was captured sign posts were to be taken down and the signs returned to his command post as proof. The artillery support that was meant to cover the Chinese slowly got further and further ahead as the Chinese forces were delayed. Equally the Japanese ships in the river began to fire in support of their forces.
At this point the Chinese brought up their newest weapons, two companies from the Independent Mechanized Regiment, consisting of Vickers 6 ton tanks. The tanks had been brought in 1934 and 1935 in three batches. Twelve in March, four in May and the final four in September 1935. All the tanks were single turret models with the Vickers export 47mm gun, a short barrelled weapon. Only the four ordered in 1935 came fitted with radios. Some 14,800 rounds of ammunition were also purchased for the main guns, including 2400 rounds of practice ammo.

At first these tanks began to make their presence felt, despite the lack of co-ordination between the infantry and tanks. This resulted from the tanks having just arrived, and absolutely no training, or even a meeting between the tank crews and infantry had taken place.
Towards the end of the day's fighting the Japanese had been pushed backwards. Now they occupied the last line of buildings on the water front, one more attack and they would be pushed into the river. The line of buildings were warehouses, with very thick walls. Even direct hits from 150mm artillery pieces were unable to damage the walls of this fortress, and the Japanese were dug in and not going anywhere. After a bloody assault the Chinese were unable to make any headway and with light failing were forced to call off the attack. Overnight the Japanese were able to bring in re-enforcements and push the Chinese back.
The next day the battle resumed, the Chinese counter attacks supported by their few remaining tanks began to push the Japanese back again. This time however the Japanese had brought their own tanks. A pair of I-Go tanks, one Kou model, the other an Otsu.
A picture taken looking along Wayside road, the morning after the battle
The Chinese lack of coordination between tank and infantry began to show at this point. A single Vickers tank was sitting in the middle of Wayside Road blasting any Japanese movement in the building at the end of the road. Meanwhile the same building was being attacked from a northerly direction by Chinese infantry. The Japanese made an attempt to advance down Wayside to flank the Chinese assault, however the tank's machine guns stopped that idea. The road to the north that the Chinese were trying to cross was called Ward Road.
The Otsu was sent down the left flank of the Japanese held building, which was Ho Mai Road. Fighting along it, it reached and passed Ward Road, before turning east into Kwen Ming Road. Here it ran into a large force of Chinese infantry. Although the Chinese were soldiers of the 87th Division, and so part of the Chinese new model army, they lacked any anti-tank weapons. This allowed the Otsu to reign supreme. With its infantry supporting it they managed to push down the entire length of Kwen Ming road, taking about an hour to clear it. With enemy forces flanking them the Chinese facing the Japanese held building were unable to resist a counter attack. The Japanese also had a new piece of equipment, a flame thrower. Using this they were able to push down Ward Road.

The Otsu, having cleared Kwen Ming Road took an intersection and headed south with its infantry following. It emerged onto the top of Wayside Road, and was able to see the Vickers tank in the distance. Keep in mind that by this point the Vickers tank hadn't moved for nearly two hours, mainly one suspects due to the lack of information about what the situation was between the infantry and the tanks.

Although the Otsu could see the Vickers the range was judged to be too great for the low velocity 57mm to penetrate. So the Otsu advanced with its infantry in tow once more. At a range of 500m the tank halted and fired. The round hit a nearby building causing a shower of rubble and dust. This served no other purpose to alert the tank crew that they were under attack.
Map of the battle, the location of the Vickers and the Route of the Otsu are estimates. However the range between the two is correct for the Otsu opening fire. One should also be careful of the buildings occupied. These are the only ones the reports state where captured. Its likely that there was fighting in other places.
But where was the tank under attack from? The crew were unaware of the enemy tank behind them. The next shot struck the rear of the tank's storage box on the rear of the turret. Immediately the Vickers responded by beginning to turn its turret. This was the moment the Japanese had been waiting for. The Kou, parked for the entire action at the corner of Mo Hai and Wayside Roads was signalled and it advanced around the corner and began to fire on the Vickers. Its shell hit the left side of the turret. The infantry also began to fire on the tank with their anti-tank weapons, getting a penetration on the machine gun port and the hull front.
Damage to the Vickers tank. These are shots showing the actual tank involved in the action. The damage lines up with the report precisely.  Namely a hit to the left hand side of the turret from the Kou, and infantry AT fire hitting the glacis and the Machine gun mount. THE hit to the rear turret box is taken form the report, but the Report says the hit was to the "Rear Carriage", which could mean a lot of things, and is one of the marvels of translation.
The next day Operation Iron fist was called off by the High Command. But on the 20th the Chinese tried again. Their commander, Zhang Zhizhong found a repair depot with a few tanks. He knew the commander of the unit and asked for an attack. The young officer in charge said "The vehicles are no good. The enemy fire is fierce and the infantry have trouble keeping up." However, when ordered the young officer launched his attack. By now the Japanese had been heavily reinforced, and were bristling with anti-tank weapons. They also had fire from the supporting warships. In moments all of the tanks were destroyed.

Image credits:
www.ww2incolor.com, www.tanks-encyclopedia.com and forum.axishistory.com