|Defense of Hengyang|
|Part of the Second Sino-Japanese War of World War II|
|National Revolutionary Army||Imperial Japanese Army|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Fang Xianjue||Isamu Yokoyama|
|10th corps, 17,000 men||11th army, 110,000+ men|
|Casualties and losses|
4,700 killed in action|
2,900 died of other causes
9,400 captured (including 8,000 injured)
3,100 civilian deaths
Japanese claim: 19,000 killed and wounded|
Chinese estimate: 48,000 killed and wounded
The Battle of Hengyang was the longest defense of a single city of the entire Second Sino-Japanese War. When Changsha fell to the Imperial Japanese Army on June 19, 1944, Hengyang became their next target. The reorganized 11th Army, consisting of 10 divisions, 4 brigades, and over 100,000 men, assumed the task of attacking Hengyang.
The city was an important railroad junction and Hengyang Airport was used by USAAC General Claire Lee Chennault's Flying Tigers which were engaged in bombing operations of the Japanese homeland. Therefore, Field Marshal Hajime Sugiyama(杉山 元), chief of imperial staff and war minister, ordered the city must be taken at all costs.
On June 22, Japanese 68th and 116th divisions received their orders to attack the city, which started the 48 days of siege and defense.
After Changsha fell on the 18th of June 1944, Japanese general Isamu Yokoyama's 11th army continued its drive southwards. Yokoyama's plans were to capture Hengyang and Guilin to launch an attack on Liuzhou, thus completing Operation Ichi-go. However, he did not expect his approach on Hengyang to turn out to be such a humiliation to the Japanese empire. The attack on Hengyang would turn out to be the costliest encounter for the Japanese army in the whole course of Operation Ichi-go.
On the 6th of June 1944, the allied forces launched the greatest amphibious offensive of World War 2. The battle of Normandy was won. As the allied armies fought their way towards Berlin, the world turned to watch the war in Europe with excitement as they waited for the victory in Europe to come. Nobody was concerned about what was going on in China, just as a huge, bloody battle in Hunan broke out. However, for the Chinese people, this was a very important battle. This was because, since Changsha was lost, Hengyang had to be held at all costs, because if it was lost, then the Japanese army could cross into Guilin, drive west towards Guizhou, and from there directly attack Chongqing, thus threatening the Chinese wartime capital and military headquarters.
On the 15th of June, Chinese supreme commander Chiang Kai-shek relocated 15 elite divisions to support General Stilwell's forces in Burma. As a result, the forces in Hunan and Guangxi were very thin. On the other hand, the Japanese operation involved more troops than any other battle since the war's start. General Yokoyama deployed 400,000 soldiers in 150 units for this offensive, making it clear that he wanted more than just Changsha.
In mid-1944, the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression was approaching its 8th year. Although the Chinese army did have access to American lend-lease weapons, this was severely restricted. Most of this equipment was still in India, held up by General Stilwell for his forces in Burma. During the siege of Hengyang, the only thing Stilwell did inside China was the destruction of Guilin's airfield and removal of its outer bridge on the 21st of June, ignoring the spirit and morale of the Chinese people and giving up Guilin early on. However, during this time, the Chinese army staged a tenacious resistance against the invading Japanese army. Completely outnumbered and outgunned and with supplies almost used up, the Chinese soldiers were at the brink of complete disaster. But in spite of these extremely grim conditions, they continued to carry on the fight. This was the Defense of Hengyang.
Events leading up to the battle
When the Japanese army captured Changsha and pressed southwards, the Chinese units seemed powerless, because during the defense of Changsha, they dispersed in the face of completely superior Japanese power. Logistics and communication were thus very difficult to maintain. Although Yang Sen's 27th army group and Wang Lingji's 30th army group did fiercely engage the Japanese army at Liling and Chaling respectively, they were unable to stop the advance of the overwhelming Japanese force. As a result, Hengyang was surrounded and unable to receive outside support.
Changsha was lost too quickly, and this was a shock to the Chinese military headquarters. In a hurry, Chiang Kai-shek contacted KMT general Fang Xianjue, commander of the 10th army. He ordered Fang to hold the city for two weeks, in a desperate attempt to buy time for the HQ to fully analyse the critical situation. General Fang had previously participated in the Battle of Changde, where his army suffered heavy casualties. After Changde was liberated from the siege, his army was relocated to Mount Heng for replacements and resupplies. Only on the 2nd of June was it deployed to protect Hengyang.
The 10th army consisted of 3 divisions. In particular, the 10th and 190th division were reserve divisions, and the latter had yet to receive actual troops. As a result, it had an en cadre, but no soldiers. Later, the 54th division, which was originally stationed at Hengyang, was brought over, but this division only had the strength of a single regiment. On paper, the Chinese army had 4 divisions, but in reality, they only had 7 regiments. Even with the addition of its mountain artillery company, field artillery company and anti-tank artillery company, its total strength did not exceed 17,000 men.
After Changsha was lost to the Japanese, the Chinese army had a difficult time to reestablish their line of defense due to overwhelming Japanese advantages in manpower and materiel. The two-star Lieutenant General Fang Xianjue(zh:方先覺) had one single understrength Tenth Corps, although it had four divisions of 3rd, Reserved 10th, 190th, and Temporary 54th, the entire unit was made up of seven understaffed regiments of 17,000 men.
The Chinese commander ordered a mandatory evacuation for 300,000 inhabitants of the city, abandoned some defensive positions south of the city, and began to construct earthworks, trenches, pillboxes and bunkers. The city was protected by two rivers to the north and east and marshlands to the west. As a result, the Japanese armored and mechanized units could only advance from the south. The Chinese created man-made cliffs of 6 meters high, and covered the place with well-placed mortar and light artillery. In addition, they positioned their machine gun nests in a way that they complemented each other, creating wide, overlapping fields of fire. This meant that the Japanese only had two ways to advance. The first way was to scale the cliffs with ladders. The second way was to brave the machine gun fire and run across the open fields.
The 10th army had done all that they could to prepare themselves in their limited timeframe. At the very last moment, the NRA HQ was able to spare some American artillery for the defense of Hengyang. But the condition was that the 10th army had to send its artillery battalion to Kunming to collect it. The battalion traveled to Jincheng Jiang via train, and marched to Kunming from there. En route back to Jincheng Jiang after collecting the equipment, the road was flooded with civilians. The battalion could only abandon some of the equipment and hurry back to Hengyang. By the time they arrived, the battle had already started. The battalion managed to bring back 9 37mm anti-tank guns, 6 75mm field guns, 26 mortars, and 2 bazookas. These weapons would play a major role in the Chinese defense.
If the Japanese army wanted to take the city, they would sustain large casualties. On June 22, 1944, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service began dropping incendiary bombs on the city, and a 30,000 strong force made up of the Japanese 68th and 116th divisions of the 11th army attacked the city at eight o'clock that night, with the 68th attacking from the west and the 116th attacking from the south. General Yokoyama planned to take the city within 2 days. Although faced with concentrated heavy artillery fire, the Chinese continued to hold the line. Only when the Japanese troops began assaulting the positions did their commanders realize something was not right as their troops rapidly fell to small arms fire from the Chinese. Unable to make any progress, a Japanese division commander personally inspected the battlefield from a hill on the 28th. At that time, an explosive shell fell onto his position. The Japanese commander and a few of his staff were crippled. The shell had come from the Chinese 28th regiment's mortar battery.
Because the Chinese had a shortage of ammunition, they adopted a 'Three Don't's Policy': 'Don't shoot at what you can't see', 'Don't shoot at what you can't aim at,' and 'Don't shoot at what you can't kill'. As a result, they could still cope in the early stages of the battle. But for a target to be able to be seen, aimed at and killed, it had to be in close quarters, making the combat very intense.
During the 7 days and nights of continuous assault, the Japanese suffered heavy casualties. As a result, General Yokoyama called a halt to the attack on the 2nd of July. Since the beginning of the battle, the Japanese air force had continuously bombed the city, which was almost completely turned into rubble. However, the Chinese air force also strafed the Japanese positions, and this helped in maintaining the ground troops' morale. On the morning of July 11, the Japanese launched their second try, and did not score any major success despite some small gains. On the other hand, the Chinese army originally only had 10 days' worth of ammunition, but they had been defending the city for half a month already. The situation was becoming increasingly bleak. The NRA troops could only engage the Japanese in close quarters. Faced with hand grenades and rocket launchers, the IJA took heavy casualties.
In the middle of July, the Japanese troops no longer used ladders to climb up the cliffs. Instead, they used the piles of their corpses as ramps to scale the cliffs. According to an NRA veteran, the bodies had piled up so much that he couldn't even see through the firing port of his bunker. He had to shoot the corpses to pieces in order to see through.
On the 18th of July, the IJA were still unable to break through the Chinese southern defensive lines. Pressured with increasingly high casualties, Lieutenant General Isamu Yokoyama(橫山 勇) once again halted the offensive. On August 4, he ordered three divisions to reinforce the 68th and 116th divisions, increasing the total manpower to 110,000 troops. The 40th division attacked from the northwest, while the 58th attacked from the north and the 13th attacked from the east. After four days of intense bombing and artillery shelling, the Chinese garrison was reduced to 2,000 wounded men, less than a regiment (3,000).
On the 6th of August, the Japanese 57th brigade killed around 1,000 wounded Chinese in the Hengyang hospital before engaging in negotiations. As the NRA continued to fight back after more than 40 days of siege, they nearly completely ran out of ammunition. Hengyang was now almost entirely made up of rubble and corpses. On the 7th, General Fang sent a telegram to Chongqing headquarters. In this message, he said "The enemy is breaking in from the north. We are out of ammunition and replacements. I have devoted my life to my country. Goodbye." After sending the message, Fang ordered his staff to destroy all communications equipment.
The next day, the Japanese army broke into the city and captured General Fang. Fang actually tried to commit suicide, but his officers stopped him and tried to negotiate a truce with the Japanese. After the Japanese agreed not to harm the civilian population and to treat the Chinese wounded humanely, General Fang ordered the remaining Chinese soldiers to lay down their arms. The day was August 8, 1944.
Although the Japanese army suffered huge losses, they held the Chinese commanders in high regard. Japanese Emperor Hirohito personally appointed General Fang Xianjue as commander of a puppet unit, made up of his remaining garrison and some Chinese turncoats. But the local Japanese commanders never trusted him or his officers; they were eventually placed under house arrest.
Later studies showed that on the 7th of August 1944, the day before the Japanese army broke into the city, Chiang Kai-shek had sent a telegram to General Fang, saying: "Reinforcements are on the way. They will arrive at your position tomorrow with no delay." However, Fang never received the message.
Chinese special forces under General Dai Li(zh:戴笠), head of China's wartime intelligence service "Military-Statistics Bureau" of National Military Council, carried out a daring rescue mission and freed General Fang and his officers in December 1944. They returned to Chungking to a hero's welcome and were decorated with the order of blue sky and white cloud, the highest honor for a Chinese commander.
The delay at Hengyang cost the Imperial Japanese Army considerable time and the Tojo cabinet collapsed as the war was not in Japan's favor anymore. Lieutenant General Yokoyama was later relieved of his command due to his refusal to obey orders from General Yasuji Okamura(zh:岡村寧次), commander-in-chief of the Japanese China Expeditionary Forces.
The Japanese operation in Hunan did manage to push Chinese troops out of the area, but they could not secure the territory around the railroad or safely transfer war materials to different regions. Because of increased activity of Chinese troops and nationalist guerrillas, they could take no more Chinese land.
- Documentary about the Defense of Hengyang http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hm5oI-hGpZw
- Article about the Defense of Hengyang http://www.mod.gov.cn/hist/2009-07/22/content_4005845.htm
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