Part 11: Feb. 1938 and Planning an Offensive New
Part 11: Feb. 1938 and Planning an OffensiveFebruary of 1938 opened with the battle for Lingbao still raging on. As of Feb. 4, most of the KMT militias had been forced from the province, but the two reserve infantry divisions had joined the battle, preventing a total collapse.
The battle raged on until Feb. 9 when Japanese forces called off the attack. KMT forces had lost 1200 men while the Japanese lost about 1100. Later that same day, the Japanese began what appeared to be a major offensive across the whole line. In the east, they attempted to take both Kenli and Pingyin once more. KMT forces were well dug-in in both provinces, but the Japanese had gathered a large number of divisions for both of the attacks.
On the western front, Japan launched an attack on Weinan, just west of Lingbao. KMT forces had been caught redeploying, causing some disorganization among the defenders.
One day later, an attack was launched on Kaifeng, just east of Zhengzhou. This appeared to be the most promising for the Japanese because one division had already gained a bridgehead, and the skillful Komatsubara was leading the assault.
Also on Feb. 10, KMT forces won the battle of Pingyin. They had lost only 70 men while inflicting over 500 casualties. This battle clearly demonstrated that China's investment into infantry equipment was beginning to pay off.
The battles continued to rage along the front until Feb. 13. Japanese forces had been kept out of Kenli, securing the eastern Huang He Line. Almost 2000 Japanese had fallen while the Chinese lost only 300. The casualty ratio was very surprising because Chinese militias had suffered horribly against Japan in the previous months. However, it was possible that the KMT infantry in the province had borne the brunt of the assault. Further, Japan had included cavalry in the attack, and they struggled to cross the river.
By Feb. 16, it appeared the Japanese might make progress on the western front but not in the center. At Kaifeng, both sides were looking worn, but the Chinese had sufficient reserves to keep wearing the Japanese down. However, Japanese forces had made substantial progress in Weinan, likely gaining a bridgehead over the Huang He in the west.
On Feb. 18, the Japanese ended their attack on Kaifeng after losing over 2000 men. The KMT defenders had lost almost 2400 but successfully held the province. At Weinan, the KMT's reserve infantry had arrived in the battle just in time to relieve the battered militias. Some of the militias withdrew to Xi'an while the rest withdrew south. There were not enough KMT divisions in the region to entirely man the line, but the poor terrain and limited supply lines would hopefully limit the Japanese threat.
On Feb. 22, the KMT infantry could no longer hold and withdrew to the east. KMT forces had lost over 2600 men while the Japanese only lost 1800. Japanese tanks had once again proven decisive when faced against poorly armed Chinese militia.
Also on Feb. 22, Chiang had decided it was time to push the Japanese out of Zhengzhou and reduce the chance they might concentrate enough forces to collapse the central Huang He Line. The attack was spearheaded by Bai Chongxi's oversized infantry divisions and heavily supported by both KMT militias and cavalry divisions.
The Japanese commanders of a Manchukuoan miltia division launched a futile attack on Linru in an attempt to relieve pressure on Zhengzhou. By Feb. 24, the Manchukuoans had been beaten back, losing over 300 men while the Chinse lost less than 20. On Feb. 25, a Japanese infantry division restarted the attack on Linru but made very little progress.
On Feb. 26, the Japanese withdrew from Zhengzhou and called off the attack on Linru. Both sides had lost about 1200 men due to these battles, but Chiang was pleased that Chinese forces now controlled all of the Huang He Line.
With the security of the Huang He Line ensured (assuming no dramatic Japanese action), the last few weeks had been spent considering an offensive action. While China could likely hold the Huang He indefinitely, it was felt an offensive was necessary to destroy Japanese divisions and hopefully take the initiative. The Republic of China was only growing stronger over time, but no foreign country could be expected to intervene on China's behalf and end the war. The Soviet Union was clearly more interested in China and Japan bleeding each other dry while the United Kingdom was more concerned by German rearmament.
The United States had great sympathy for the Republic of China's ordeal, largely thanks to the advocacy of the 'China Lobby', but the populace was not willing to risk a war in Asia. However, the US government refused to provide any aid as there were too many profitable business ties to Japan.
Time magazine was especially sympathetic to the Republic of China and Chiang Kai-shek
KMT observers had found that the Japanese line was weak along the central portion of the Huang He Line, often being held by Manchukuoan conscripts or poorly equipped cavalry divisions. Initially this appeared to be purely academic as there were no strategically vital targets in the area, but von Falkenhausen proposed the Chinese could break through in this sector, send enough divisions through to exploit the breakthrough, and then encircle Japanese forces between the Huang He and the coast. He believed the German-trained divisions had learned enough of Germany's famed 'stormtrooper' tactics that they could spearhead this major offensive.
Chiang and his closest generals worked together to develop von Falkenhausen's plan into something that could be achieved by the forces available. The plan came to be known as Operation Tripod, named after the traditional Chinese cauldrons used to give offerings (ding), as can be seen on the Order of the Sacred Tripod, a prestigious award in the Republic of China.
The plan consisted of three phases and would require all of the forces along the central and eastern Huang He Line as well as the German-trained divisions that had been held in reserve for much of the war so far. Before the offensive could begin, the German-trained divisions had to be brought forward to their staging areas in and around Zhengzhou. They would not be in position until early March, so the offensive was set to begin in mid-March. The elite divisions would begin the initial phase of the operation by assaulting both Jiaozuo and Puyang. These provinces were chosen because they would allow Chinese forces to concentrate the maximum number of troops to quickly force a crossing before the Japanese could respond.
The second phase of the plan would require Chinese infantry and cavalry to advance through the gap in the line, heading north and east. The westernmost divisions would consist of the divisions that were already stationed along the Huang He; these men were expected to shield the breakthrough from any Japanese counterattack from the west. The easternmost spearhead would be led by the German-trained divisions. These men had to advance the farthest and were expected to face the toughest opposition, so only Chiang's elite forces could achieve this.
The third phase required the elite infantry divisions to end their advance north and east by capturing Nangong and Linqing. At the same time, KMT forces stationed in Kenli would advance across the Huang He, linking up with their comrades in Nangong. These forces would be supported by the newly raised 200th Mechanized Division, consisting of one motorized infantry brigade and one motorized support brigade. The division was largely equipped with German weapons and armored cars, but also featured a handful of Soviet T-26 tanks. The second motorized brigade was still training and would not be available until later in the spring. It was hoped the mobility of the division would take the Japanese by surprise, preventing them from escaping the trap until stronger forces could be brought up.
Newly trained Chinese tankers with their Soviet-supplied T-26 tanks
Nangong was the key to the attack as this would leave all of the Japanese divisions stationed along the eastern Huang He encircled and ready to be destroyed by KMT forces. Capturing Linqing would be useful to break up the Japanese pocket and make it easier to liquidate before the Japanese could gather their reserves and relieve the trapped troops.
This offensive would benefit China in several ways. First, it would encircle and destroy some of the best equipped and most well trained Japanese forces in China. Intelligence had confirmed that somewhere between five and ten divisions would be trapped in the pocket, including a motorized division. Second, this offensive would bring Chinese forces closer to Beiping, regaining most of the territory lost to Japan in the war. Finally, this would leave the Japanese forces overextended in the west, rather than able to concentrate on the Manchurian border. If a second offensive could be launched to trap the Japanese in western China, Manchuria would be largely undefended and vulnerable to a KMT invasion.
German-trained infantry preparing for Operation Tripod
Operation Tripod also carried major risks though. The Japanese had concentrated substantial forces in the west which could redeploy and cut the Chinese spearhead off before the encirclement was achieved. Further, Japanese forces might withdraw from the Huang He before the trap could be closed, making the offensive largely meaningless. Most importantly, Chiang was risking his best troops, far beyond the defensive line of the Huang He. The Chinese had beaten Japanese forces before, but always with overwhelming numbers or defensive positions. Operation Tripod would require KMT soldiers to face the Japanese in the open and win, something that had yet to be proven...