Strike & Counter-Strike: The Far East & the Pacific
1915 – 1916
The Japanese attack on Sanya, October 1915
- The King recieving news of the victories in the Orient.
The Japanese had not been idle during the Spring and Summer of 1915. In May they invaded the undefended Irish Mariannes Islands. In August the Irish wireless radio on Nauru was destroyed and the island occupied. Finally early September saw the invasion of Okinawa; long abandoned by Irish soldiers the Japanese were met only by cheering, flower throwing locals. Foreign newspapers wondered aloud if Formosa – and then the entire Irish Orient was next.
Aside from the blow to prestige these losses did not hurt the Irish much; there were 10,000 Irish soldiers in Formosa awaiting Japanese invasion and 32,000 in Zhanjiang. The Irish Navy could call upon two battle cruisers, seven light cruisers and an armoured cruiser, a stronger and far more modern force than at the start of the war. But appearances could be deceptive. The battlecruiser Alaska had struck a Japanese mine in February and would spend much of the year in repairs. Worse the loss of her sister Hibernia to another mine in March left the Navy very wary of risking of their big ships in the open sea. Morale had reached crisis point.
The Army had not suffered the same repeated bloody noses the Navy had taken but they also had to constantly worry about Chinese rebels (suspected - albeit with little evidence - of being sponsored by the Japanese.) Even before the war once bustling, cosmopolitan Zhanjiang and peaceful backwater Shanghai had turned tense and green and khaki uniformed figures an all too frequent sight. How could such a force hope to take the offensive without being stretched far too thin?
Help was on the way. Lieutenant-General Malachy O'Donnell, a walrus moustached Limerickman had been commander of the Massaua garrison since 1910 and had been as surprised as anyone to find himself ordered from to take command of Formosa. Not that he was going alone: the 9 & 10th Divisions were also being transported. If the Japanese struck at the key island they'd have to face 32,000 Irish soldiers with artillery support - enough to give even the fearless Imperial Army pause for thought.
O'Donnell's reassignment provoked an explosion of resentment - but not in Dublin. Lieutenant-General Phelim O'Sullivan (no relation to Henry O'Sullivan, the disgraced Admiral who was dismissed in June) had formerly been commander in Formosa but now found himself abruptly posted to Zhanjiang. In theory this was no demotion but it was universally expected that the Japanese would hit Formosa first or at the very least before attacking Zhanjiang and O'Sullivan was hardly slow in writing letters back to his friends in Ireland, bitterly claiming he was being set aside because O'Donnell was friends with the King. This was undeniably true - O'Donnell had been the King's aide-de-camp - but unfair; O'Donnell was considered an excellent soldier throughout the army. Conversely (outside of his own clique) O'Sullivan was not widely loved. Rumours of personal cowardice had dogged him for years and intense arrogance bred from a spoiled background did little to help. No sooner had he arrived in Zhanjiang than he had quarelled with Admiral Moore who turned out to be an O'Donnell partisan.
The morning of 1 October 1915 was a wet and miserable one in Zhanjiang with long tendrils of mist curling down the streets of fine colonial houses where the Irish population lived and the smaller more crowded dwellings of the Chinese. The gloom was not just in the weather; the previous week rationing had been introduced for the first time and the self proclaimed jewel of the Irish empire was struggling with belt tightening. For the civilians the first sign that things were not normal was a rolling thunder coming in from out to sea and distant flashes in the fog. This was no storm though. Somewhere out there a naval battle had started.
The Japanese had seized upon a plan of breathtaking audacity. Bypassing Formosa and O'Donnell a Japanese squadron under Maruyama had steamed down into the South China Sea. Their target was Hainan which they planned to seize from under the Irish nose and to isolate Zhanjiang by mining the Gulf of Tonkin. A little after midnight the first Japanese troops landed near Sanya.
In Zhanjiang the news slowly filtered through to the military and were met with sheer disbelief: no one had expected a strike here. After a few moments of stunned silence Admiral Moore telephoned O'Donnell to break the news and inform him that the Navy would incercept the Japanese fleet - "but in all likelihood the Japanese already have boots on the ground in Hainan."
The Battle of the Gulf of Tonkin, October 1915
The Japanese had underestimated the Irish ability to respond quickly: had they finished laying their minefield Moore's fleet would have been trapped in port. As it was the battlecruiser Patagonia errupted upon them through the fog like an avenging angel, her 12-inch guns launching salvo after salvo at Maruyama's ships. Beside her, like hunting hounds accomping their master were the sleek modern cruisers Meath, Down, Longford & Armagh and in the distance the venerable Louth, her old engines struggling heroically to keep up.
The battle - if such it could be called - lasted less than an hour and ended with the Japanese at the bottom of the sea. Yet Moore had been right: the Japanese had men ashore and it would be up to General O'Sullivan to deal with them.
The 2nd (Dublin), 3rd (Ulster) & 6th Divisions were based in Zhanjiang and O'Sullivan decided to commit them all to the counter-attack before the Japanese dug in. Early in the morning of 2 October the first Irish troops crossed the short stretch of water dividing Hainan from the mainland. Besides outnumbering the Japanese more than three to one O'Sullivan had 30 field artillery pieces - though even these would not fire the first shells to hit the Japanese troops. Patagonia could fire far inland and thundered away all day at the enemy positions.
The fighting raged for three days after which fewer 800 exhausted Japanese soldiers surrendered; all that was left of the 10,000 that had landed. The Irish had suffered too but by the evening of 5 October the only flag flying on Hainan soil was the gold harp. The Japanese threat to Zhanjiang was over.