Changsha, Hunan Province, China December 24, 1941

In the years since the political upheaval that brought Emperor Meiji to power (1868–1912), the Japa­nese began looking to the Asian main­land as a well­spring of new mineral, agricul­tural, and human resources to exploit for their use, benefit, and advan­tage. In the mid-1890s and 1905 to 1910 Japan brought the Korean Penin­sula into its imperial orbit as well as the southern part of Liao­dong Penin­sula (Kwan­tung Leased Terri­tory), formerly leased to Tsarist Russia. At the out­break of the First World War Japan occupied German-leased terri­tories in China’s coastal Shan­dong Pro­vince. (The 1919 Ver­sailles Treaty con­firmed the trans­fer to Japan of Germany’s rights in Shan­dong.) An agree­ment with Russia in 1916 helped secure Japan’s influ­ence in Man­chu­ria and Inner Mon­go­lia on China’s north­eastern and northern fron­tiers, respec­tively. Japan’s power in Asia grew with the demise of the tsarist regime and the dis­order the 1917 Bol­she­vik (Soviet) Revolu­tion left in Siberia. Japan con­tri­buted 70,000 troops to the Allied Expeditionary Force sent to Siberia in 1918.

Following stresses produced by World War I and the Great Depre­ssion, a mili­tant Japa­nese nation­alism flared up, prompting a full-blown inva­sion of Man­chu­ria in 1931 and the crea­tion of a Japa­nese puppet state, Man­chu­kuo. From then on the Japa­nese army in Man­chu­kuo con­stantly skirmished with Chinese mili­tias until 1937, when Japan’s armed forces captured both the Chinese port city of Shan­ghai and the Chinese Nation­alist capital of Nan­king (Nan­jing) in 1937. It was the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

However, by 1941 Japan’s armed forces had become bogged down in China. What they needed was a killer offen­sive to defeat Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nation­alist government, the Kuomin­tang (KMT), and its National Revolu­tionary Army. Twice, once in 1939 and again in 1940, the Nation­alists had repulsed Japa­nese efforts to take the key city of Chang­sha, the capital of Hunan Pro­vince (see map) and a city deep inside Chi­nese Nation­alist terri­tory. On this date in 1941, Decem­ber 24, the Japa­nese opened their third assault on Chang­sha. Among their objec­tives as before: take Chang­sha, inflict maxi­mum casual­ties on Chiang’s soldiers and airmen, weaken Chiang’s prestige, destablize the KMT by encour­aging Chiang’s polit­ical rivals, and force Chiang’s hand in negoti­ating a Sino-Japanese peace. A pressing new objective emerged at the end of the year: prevent Chiang from solid­i­fying the KMT supply line to or rein­forcing British defenders bottled up in their crown colony of Hong Kong, now in Japanese crosshairs.

For the third time the Japanese air and ground assault on Chang­sha missed most of its objec­tives. Three days of heavy fighting in which the Japa­nese Eleventh Army tried battering its way into the city ended on Janu­ary 4, 1942, in a pain­ful retreat. Chi­nese army and guer­rilla units harassed the exhausted, half-starved Japa­nese during their escape 100 miles north to Yochow (Yueyang). Third Changsha had been another debacle for the enemy, while Chiang’s forces, prestige, and posi­tion as the head of the KMT were all strength­ened. The boost in for­tunes spilled over to the Western Allies (Amer­i­cans, British, and Aus­tra­lians) as well, stung by their losses in the Pacific at the moment. In Chiang and his National Revo­lu­tionary Army the Allies saw a part­ner who could now be taken more seriously and whose involve­ment in the China Burma India Theater could and should be stoked.

China vs. Japan: The Four Battles of Changsha, 1939–1944

Location of Changsha in China’s Hunan Province

Above: By the early 1900s the 3,000-year-old forti­fied city of Chang­sha had emerged as an impor­tant com­mer­cial, mining (tung­sten), manu­fac­turing, and trans­por­ta­tion center (road, river, and two major rail­roads) in south-­central China and was home to a signif­i­cant number of expa­tri­ates after Chang­sha was opened to foreign trade in 1904. On-site Japa­nese mili­tary leaders believed that the cap­ture of Chang­sha, with its sur­rounding dis­tricts (golden­rod in map), was key to paci­fying Hunan Pro­vince (light gray area), which in turn was criti­cal to the Chi­nese Nation­alist war effort. Only after attacking the city on their fourth try in mid-1944 did the Japa­nese succeed in their aims. The suc­cess­ful 47‑day opera­tion involved 360,000 Japanese troops—more troops than any other Japa­nese cam­paign in the war—arranged against 300,000 Nation­alist defenders. At this point, though, the tide of war was turning inex­o­ra­bly against the Japanese, both on the Asian main­land and in the Pacific. Japan’s offensive power was history.

Changsha street battle Battle of Changsha: Japanese soldiers hold off Chinese counterattack

Left: This photograph shows the Japanese army forcing its way into Chang­sha on Septem­ber 27 or 28, 1941, during the second Battle of Chang­sha (Septem­ber 6 to Octo­ber 8, 1941). The Japa­nese offen­sive was carried out by more than 120,000 troops supported by naval and air forces. Chi­nese defenders num­bered 300,000 and were in pos­ses­sion of nearly twice as many artil­lery pieces. After heavy fighting on the 28th, the Japa­nese began a general retreat, suffering 13,000 casual­ties (Japa­nese source) or 48,000 casual­ties (Chinese source). A little over a year later Japanese forces paid a third visit to Chang­sha, suffering just over 6,000 casual­ties (Japanese source) or 56,000 casualties (Chinese source).

Right: Behind brick walls and sandbags Japanese troops fend off a Chinese counter­attack during one of the four battles of Changsha.

Battle of Changsha: Japanese soldier with heavy machine gun Battle of Changsha: Chinese soldier with light machine gun

Left: A Japanese soldier fires a Type 92 heavy machine gun across the Milo (Miluo) River north of Changsha on Septem­ber 22 or 23, 1941, less than a week before the Japanese army entered the city (Second Battle of Chang­sha). The relatively slow-firing 7.7mm, air-cooled Type 92 typically required a 3‑man team and was the stan­dard Japa­nese heavy machine gun used in World War II. Captured Type 92s were also used extensively by Chinese troops.

Right: A Chinese soldier mounts his Czechoslovak-designed ZB vz. 26 (ZB-26) light machine gun at Chang­sha, Janu­ary 1942. Chi­nese sol­diers were the main users of this gas-operated, air-cooled machine gun in World War II. Though more than 30,000 ZB-26s were exported to China between 1927 and 1939, due to high demand Chi­nese small-arms factories were producing the gun as well.

Japanese Expansionism in Asia During the 1930s and 1940s

WWII Chronicles book coverHistory buffs, there is good news! The Daily Chronicles of World War II is now avail­able as an ebook for $4.99 on Amazon.com. Con­taining a year’s worth of dated entries from this web­site, the ebook brings the story of this tumul­tu­ous era to life in a com­pelling, author­i­ta­tive, and suc­cinct man­ner. Fea­turing inven­tive naviga­tion aids, the ebook enables readers to instantly move for­ward or back­ward by month and date to dif­fer­ent dated entries. Simple and elegant! Click here to purchase the ebook.