03/17 – The Battle of Nanchang

IJA troops move up alongside their Type-89 medium tanks during the initial offensive on Nanchang. (Pinterest)

On this day in 1939, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) launched a massive assault on Nanchang, the capital of China’s Jiangxi province. Facing them were soldiers of the Chinese National Revolutionary Army, a worn down but well-armed force on the opposite side of the Xiushui river. After years of regional tensions, the Second Sino-Japanese War had broken out in 1937; by 1939, the IJA had pushed hundreds of miles into mainland China and began staging out of Wuhan. Nanchang was an important transportation hub that, if captured, would severely degrade the Chinese ability to resist the IJA. (Note: The First Sino-Japanese War took place in the late 19th century. Needless to say, China and Japan had been unfriendly for many years).

The extent of the IJA’s push into China during the war. The Japanese offensive only postponed the Chinese Civil War, which resumed immediately in 1945 after VJ-Day. (Wikimedia Commons)

The assault began with a heavy artillery barrage from IJA positions on the Xiushui river. As high-explosive (HE) shells and deadly gas from Unit 731 (Japan’s horrific experimental weapons unit) began hammering the Chinese Nationalists, IJA sappers constructed bridges in the fast-flowing river. Soon, IJA Type-89 tanks were rolling across the river and into Nanchang. By March 26th, much of the Chinese resistance had broken; a counter-attack ordered by Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek threatened to reverse Japanese gains, but the IJA rallied and held the city. By May 9th, the Chinese troops were in full retreat. Roughly 75,000 people were killed in the Battle of Nanchang, many of them civilians.

Chinese Nationalist troops defending their positions. (Wikimedia Commons)

The attack on Nanchang was a part of the IJA’s Northern Expansion Doctrine, an effort to secure land and resources for the growing needs of Imperial Japan. Although Nanchang was a Japanese victory, the battle slowed the IJA’s momentum. After running into the Soviet Red Army with disastrous results at Khalkhin Gol in May of 1939, the IJA was forced to discard the Northern Expansion Doctrine; led by the Imperial Japanese Navy, their focus shifted to the islands of Southeast Asia instead (leading them into direct conflict with the United States). Although the Chinese Nationalists – with aid from America and the USSR – had beaten the Japanese by 1945, the conflict resulted in the deaths of roughly 20 million people and enabled the resumption of the Chinese Civil War. By 1949, the Nationalists had been forced back to Taiwan and the Communist People’s Republic of China was officially established on the mainland.

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