The Nationalist Chinese Air Force
There is a book waiting to be written – perhaps it has been but I haven’t seen it- on the Nationalist Chinese Air Force in World War II. The story of the official Chinese Air Force begins with an American training mission in 1932. The American mission ends in December 1934 when the contract expires. Although the Japanese apply pressure to end the American connection – rumor has it that Chiang makes a show of conciliating the Japanese while retaliating against the Americans for failing to engage in combat to help Chiang put down an attempted coup by a warlord in Fukien province in 1934.
Whatever the real reason, the American mission is superseded by an Italian one. The Italian mission’s flying school boasts a 100% graduation rate. Chinese pilots, it seems, never wash out under Italian tutelage. The Italians also sell aircraft to China and establish a badly run factory for producing Italian aircraft in China.
When war with Japan begins, the nominal Chinese air force is 500 aircraft and 350 pilots. However when you subtract the planes that are either trainers, mechanically unserviceable or existing only on paper it amounted to about 100 combat aircraft and perhaps 150 pilots able to fly them in combat.
For airplanes, the Chinese had a mix of types including Curtis Hawk biplanes, Boeing P 26s, Vought Corsairs, (the biplane) as well as Heinkel, Breda and Fiat fighters. For bombers they had some Junkers, Capronis and Savoia Marchetti 81s and a few Martin 139s and Northrop attack planes – a single engine light bomber type.
So the Nationalist air force began with a very mixed bag of planes for a limited supply of pilots. However, their most important air asset was acquired in a semi-fortuitous way. There was always a faction of the Nationalist leadership that regretted the departure of the Americans and wanted to bring them back. In 1936 a Chinese general traveling in America observed an American army aerobatic team led by a Captain Claire Chennault. The Chinese offered Chennault more money and – more importantly – more freedom, responsibility and authority than he could ever hope to have in the American Army Air Force to serve as adviser to the Chinese on air force matters. Before the Flying Tigers, Chennault devoted his efforts to getting the best out of China’s mixed bag of dubious air assets including new foreign aid – most notably two bomber and four fighter squadrons provided by the Soviet Union in late 1937.
When the war with Japan began, Chiang committed his air force to the battle for Shanghai where the Chinese developed a reputation for weak flying skills and great courage and devotion. Their attacks were pressed home ferociously. They even raided Japanese bomber bases on Formosa. However, their attacks achieved little except the exhaustion of the Chinese bomber force.
Chinese fighter pilots were more effective defending Chinese cities against Japanese bombing raids. Using tactics developed by Claire Chennault, the Chinese inflicted heavy losses on unescorted Japanese bombers, refuting the theory that bombers would always get through and could only be countered by even more powerful bombing attacks. Even when the Japanese changed tactics and started sending strong fighter escorts the Chinese pilots held there own.
Of course it could not last. The Chinese effort was not sustainable. What saved the Chinese from the Japanese air force was the Japanese need for more aircraft for the Pacific and Southeast Asia. The Soviets stopped helping the Chinese first because of their nonagression pact with Japan’s ally Germany. Then because they needed every plane to defend themselves against those same Germans. The Americans felt their own industrial and logistical resources were best spent establishing an American air presence in China.
Still, there is a fascinating story here. Has anyone told it? Is it available in English? If not, here is an idea for some aviation enthusiast’s book project. If someone writes it, I’ll certainly read it.
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