China is the most populous country on the planet. It has always had a massive population. From a military logistics point of view this equates to more canon fodder – an unsympathetic view to take, but true nonetheless. Six of the five deadliest conflicts in human history involved Chinese soldiers (it would have been six if they had been allowed to fight during World War One – although they were used as labour) with three of the conflicts raging exclusively in China. Few people in the west realise how many casualties the Chinese suffered during World War Two – second only to the Soviet Union, between 15 and 20 million in all, one third of all casualties in the war, in case you were wondering.
So the country is no stranger to armed insurrection, invasion nor civil strife. The first half of the 20th century appeared to be shaping up for more of the same. After being thoroughly humiliated by European, Japanese and American powers near the turn of the century the country fell into a seemingly endless series of wars between the old imperial regime, opportunistic warlords, a republic of questionable democratic ideals and communists. However, by 1927 the various conflicts had coalesced into the Chinese Civil War, fought between the Nationalists (the Kuomintang) under Chiang Kai-Shek and the Communists who were led by Mao Zedong. Chiang’s army gained the upper hand in the fighting and nearly destroyed the Communists in 1934 but Mao, along with 100,000 men, escaped and retreated 6,000 miles in what became known as the Long March – only 20,000 survived the arduous trek.
However, some respite for the demoralised communist army was near.
The civil war was temporarily suspended in the late 1930s and early 1940s as the combatants were forced to turn their attention on the Imperial Japanese armed forces who had invaded their country. Mao and his army fought in the rural northern provinces, primarily employing guerilla hit-and-run tactics. He also used the time to solidify his support from the local peasants whilst stockpiling weapons provided by the Allies and captured from the Japanese. During the war the Communists actually gained strength. Meanwhile the Nationalists faced stronger Japanese opposition in the south, greatly weakening their army.
In 1946, a year after the end of World War Two, the Chinese Civil War resumed in earnest. Thanks to the Soviet army, who had liberated Manchuria (north-east China) and turned over large stockpiles of captured weapons to the Communists, the balance of power began to shift against the Nationalist regime. From 1946 to 1948 the war raged with no significant advantage being gained by either side. However, throughout this period the Communists continued to grow ever stronger.
By September 1948 the Communists had enough manpower and material to gain the initiative and launched a series of three successful campaigns that all but ended the war in near total Communist victory (the Nationalists managed to hold onto the island of Taiwan where the Kuomintang are currently in opposition in the legislature).
Liaoshen Campaign (12 September 1948 – 2 November 1948)
For the first time since the beginning of the civil war the Communist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had expanded so considerably in Manchuria that it surpassed the Nationalists in total operational strength. In response to the deteriorating situation against Communist offensives, Chiang Kai-Shek decided to replace the commander of his armies in the region. However, this proved problematic as he often clashed with the new commander, Wei Lihuang, over tactics. Wei believed that it was better to “preserve the status quo” and concentrate on defending the cities of Shenyang and Changchun, whilst Chiang felt the army should pull back and defend the Shanhai Pass and prevent the PLA from entering the North China Plain.
By Spring 1948, the PLA were in control of of the countryside across north-east China, forcing the Nationalists into defensive pockets in Shenyang, Changchun and Jinzhou. The Communists had also seized control of the Jingha Railway, cutting off the Nationalist land supply lines to Shenyang and Changchun.
The city of Jinzhou was a vital point in the passage from Manchuria to the North China Plain. Between 12 and 28 September the Communists launched a series of attacks and maneuvers that cut Jinzhou off from its supply lines, effectively isolating the city. The Nationalists attempted to reinforce Jinzhou and break the PLA encirclement attempt as well as fortify their positions in another vital point of the passage, the city of Huludao.
By 8 October, the PLA had amasssed 250,000 troops and completed the encirclement of Jinzhou. Between 10 and 15 October, the Nationalist reinforcements for the city from both the west and east began closing in on the Communists, but were decisively stopped in the Blocking Battle of Tashan. This halt of the enemy allowed the PLA to assault Jinzhou, capturing the city on 15 October along with 80,000 soldiers of the garrison.
Next up. Changchun.
Changchun had been encircled for more than five months prior to the Liaoshen Campaign. The weakened and starving garrison were unable to break out of the city despite Chiang Kai-Shek ordering them to do so. Following news of the fall of Jinzhou the entire Nationalist 60th Army in the east of the city simply switched sides and the Nationalist Seventh Army agreed to terms of surrender on 19 October with the remaining forces in Changchun surrendering on 23 October.
In a desperate response to the heavy defeats in Jinzhou and Changchun, the Nationalist Ninth Army Group attempted a counteroffensive in Heishan county, north of Jinzhou. The Communists successfully defended their positions and subsequently encircled and destroyed the Nationalist army group.
Now it was Shenyang’s turn.
The PLA began to move in on the city which fell into disarray and the Nationalist Eighth Army Group collapsed as their commander fled the danger via plane on 30 October. On 1 November, the Communist forces launched the final assault on Shenyang. The 140,000 strong Nationalist garrison quickly surrendered. On 2 November the Communists moved to capture nearby Yingkou on the coast – the Nationalist 52nd Army narrowly escaping by ship. The remaining Nationalist forces in the area managed to preserve strength and made an orderly withdraw from Huludao to Tianjin.
The northeast was completely clear of Nationalist forces and the Liaoshen Campaign effectively came to an end. However, the Communist leadership did not sit back on its haunches and savour its victory for long. Instead they launched two more campaigns running simultaneously. One in the north, the Pingjin Campaign, aimed at ending Nationalist dominance of the North China Plain and concentrated around the cities of Beiping (Beijing) and Tianjin (Hence the name Pingjin). The southern action, the Huaihai Campaign (named after the Huai River and the Lung Hai Railway), was a major offensive against the Kuomintang headquarters in the city of Xuzhou.
Huahai Campaign (6 November 1948 – 10 January 1949)
After the city of Jinan in Shandong province fell in September 1948 (an unrelated action to the Liaoshen Campaign), the PLA began planning for a larger campaign to engage the remaining Nationalists in the province – the bulk of which was based around Xuzhou. In the face of the deteriorating situation in the northeast, the Kuomintang government decided to deploy their forces on both sides of the Tianjin-Pukou Railway to prevent the PLA from advancing south to the Yangtze River.
The Communist War Council approved a plan to encircle the Nationalist Sixth and Seventh Armies stationed in the Shandong province and dispatched their forces to assault the garrisons in Henan and Anhui provinces with the objective of breaking through to Shandong.
The attack began on 6 November and the two Nationalist armies began retreating to Xuzhou by crossing the Grand Canal. On 8 November, 23,000 Nationalist troops defected to the Communist side, exposing the retreat route of the Seventh Army. 70,000 PLA soldiers marched on, surrounding the main force of the Seventh Army east of Xuzhou, and intercepted the remaining force as they were crossing a river. The Nationalist garrison in Xuzhou planned to rescue the Seventh Army, but the Communists had anticipated this move (thanks, in part, to superior intelligence) and deployed more than half of their force to block the relief effort. The Seventh Army managed to hold out for 16 days without supplies and reinforcements, inflicting nearly 50,000 casualties on the PLA forces. But in the end it was not enough and the Seventh Army was destroyed after it’s ferocious fight for survival.
Now that the Seventh Army was no longer in existence, the east flank of Xuzhou was completely exposed to PLA attack and Chiang Kai-Shek was persuaded to re-locate the Nationalist headquarters to the south.
The Nationalist Twelfth Army was marching, from Henan province, to reinforce their beleaguered comrades… but, they were intercepted and after nearly a month of bloody fighting they too ceased to exist. Only 8,000 survivors managed to penetrate and breakout from the enemy encirclement. Many of the newly captured Nationalist POWs joined the Communist forces. Chiang did try and save the Twelfth Army by ordering three armies to relieve them. I’m sure you can guess what happened by this point – that’s right, the Communists caught up with these reinforcements and they too were encircled only 9 miles from Xuzhou. How were the Communists able to catch them so quickly? Again, superior intelligence.
On 15 December the Sixteenth Army broke out from the Communist encirclement, but at great cost – although the General of the Army, Sun Yuanling, eventually made it safely back to Nanjing, most of his officers and men were killed or captured in the process.
Another General, Du Yuming, one of the most capable strategists in the Nationalist Army, decided to hold out as Chiang had ordered. He came up with three different options for the current situation: recall Nationalist troops from Xi’an and Wuhan provinces to battle the Communists; wait for reinforcements; or break out on their own. Du was disappointed when Chiang selected the riskiest option for his army – breakout. Time was running out though.
There was a full month of heavy snowfall, which made it impossible for the Nationalist Air Forces to provide air support to the besieged ground units. As food and ammunition began to diminish, many soldiers killed and ate their horses whilst Communist forces enticed them with food to surrender – around 10,000 did so. On 6 January, the PLA launched a huge offensive on the Thirteenth Army, who promptly withdrew to the Second Army’s defensive lines. Four days later General Du Yuming was captured whilst the Sixth and Eighth Armies retreated to the south of the Huai River.
This was arguably the most successful of the Three Campaigns. The Nationalist forces suffered over 500,000 casualties, including much of their most elite forces under direct command of Chiang Kai-Shek. This greatly weakened Chiang within the Kuomintang government and he announced his temporary retirement. As the PLA began to approach the Yangtze river, the momentum was completely shifting toward the Communists and without any effective measures to stop them from crossing, the Nationalist government began to lose support from the United States and American military aid began to dry up.
Pingjin Campaign (29 November 1948 – 31 January 1949)
After the great success of the Liaoshen Campaign, the balance of power in Northern China had shifted in favour of the Communists and their People’s Liberation Army. After the Communist Fourth Field Army entered the North China Plain, the Nationalists abandoned Chengde, Baoding, the Shanhai Pass, and Qinhuangdao and withdrew their remaining forces to the cities of Beiping, Tianjin and Zhangjiakou and strengthened the defences of these garrisons. The Nationalists were hoping to preserve their strength and reinforce Xuzhou – where we know there was another campaign underway – or alternatively retreat to the nearby Suiyuan province if necessary.
On 29 November 1948 the PLA launched an assault on Zhangjiakou (later identified as one of the most strategically important cities in China and aptly named “Beijing’s Northern Door”). The Nationalist 35th and 104th Armies were sent to reinforce the city, only to be recalled to defend Beiping on 5 December as it became obvious that it was at risk of becoming encircled by the enemy.
As had become custom by this point, on their return from Zhangjiakou, the 35th Army found themselves encircled by the PLA at Xinbao’an and friendly forces sent to relieve them were, themselves, intercepted. The PLA launched their offensive against the city on 21 December, destroying the 35th Army.
After capturing both Zhangjiakou and Xinbao’an, the Communists began to amass troops around the Tianjin area from 2 January 1949. Almost immediately after the conclusion of the Huaihai Campaign (10 January) in the south, the PLA launched its final assault on Tianjin on 14 January. After nearly 30 hours of fighting, the Nationalist 62nd and 86th Armies were destroyed – a total of 130,000 men were either killed or captured. The remaining forces retreated south by boat on 17 January.
That’s the “jin” part. Time for the “Ping”.
Now that Tianjin had fallen into enemy hands and the Communists held the north and had recently driven the Nationalists further south in their Huaihai Campaign, the Nationalist garrison in Beiping was effectively left isolated – one tiny dot of blue in a sea of red. The garrison’s commander, General Fu Zuoyi, realising that resisitence was futile, decided to negotiate a peace settlement on 21 January and within the following week 260,000 Nationalist troops exited the city in anticipation of the immediate surrender. The PLA’s Fourth Field Army entered Beiping on 31 January to take control of the city, marking the end of the Pingjin Campaign.
In only a period of several months, Mao Zedong’s Communists had achieved near total victory through three exceptionally successful campaigns. Chiang Kai-Shek’s support, both inside and outside of the country, dwindled with each successive Communist victory – and they came in quick and often. US Secretary of State, George C. Marshall stated that:
The present regime has lost the confidence of the people, reflected in the refusal of soldiers to fight and the refusal of the people to cooperate in economic reforms.
Within weeks of Marshall’s announcement (20 December 1949) the Communists had overran the remaining Nationalist positions in Xuzhou, forcing the Nationalists south of the Yangtze River and captured the whole northern sector of the country. The remaining Nationalist army and Kuomintang government continued their retreat until they finally withdrew to the island of Formosa, which was later renamed Taiwan. Here, Chiang Kai-Shek regained power and developed the island into an Asian economic power – to this day, the island, officially called the Republic of China, still lays claim to the whole of the Chinese mainland. Mainland China, however, remains firmly in control of the Communist Party and Mao Zedong’s political descendants.
The Communist takeover of China achieved by the battles of the Three Campaigns greatly influenced not only that country but the entire world. Over the next two decades, Mao focused on consolidating and then wielding his complete control over his country, ruthlessly putting down any opposition. Under Mao’s rule, an estimated 65 million Chinese citizens died in his pursuit of his new socialist country – anyone who got in his way was simply done away with through execution, imprisonment and even forced famine!
Fortunately for the rest of the world, Mao remained focused on his own country, disagreeing with the Soviets on political and philosophical aspects of Communism and the two nations suspicioulsy eyed one another as potential enemies rather than natural allies. China’s internal struggles and regional disputes with it’s neighbours have restricted its influence on the world. Even though it remains the largest and strongest Communist nation and the only potential Communist threat to the West, China remains more interested in internal and regional disputes than in international matters – although it has, in recent years, began to expand its soft power through trade and international development, particularly in Africa.
Had the Nationalists held back the Communist onslaught during the battles of the Three Campaigns, China would likely have played a very different role in subsequent world events. There would have been no Communist China to support North Korea during the Korean War or North Vietnam’s efforts to take over South Vietnam. Had Chiang Kai-Shek with his outward views and Western links been victorious then China may have taken a more assertive role in recent world history. Instead, the Liaoshen, Huaihai and Pingjin Campaigns would keep China firmly under the yoke of one man and locked in his inward looking bubble for decades rather than opening to the outside world earlier than 1978 – only 2 years after Mao’s death.
The Rest is History