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 1905–1910 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). Those two con­quests marked 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 below) 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 at the moment by their losses in the Pacific. 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 battleBattle 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 gunBattle 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

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