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Friday, September 18, 2020

Using junks to conquer an island: the strange case of Hainan in 1950

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Hainan is China’s largest tropical island, located at the southernmost tip of southern Kanton province. Also known as the Hawaii of the East, is has a population of approximately 9.3 million people. It´s almost the same size as Taiwan and shares the same climate. Unfortunately, unlike Taiwan, it was conquered by Mao´s Communists during the last big battle of the Chinese Civil War. Whereas the Chinese mainland had already fallen at the end of 1949, the Hainan Campaign, a series of battles fought between nationalist and communist troops on the island itself, ended with total victory for Mao Tse-tung on May 1st, 1950.

In early March 1950, the Nationalists were expecting an imminent attack on Hainan. Veteran General Xue Yue, nicknamed the “Patton of Asia” by the Americans during their joint fight against the Japanese in World War II, was a peerless soldier and confident that he could hold the island. In total, Xue had about 100,000 man under his command: five armies and two divisions, a marine regiment with four dozen warships and four air force groups with forty-five aircraft of various kinds.

His opponent was General Deng Hua, an experienced Communist cadre who had fought the Japanese as well, and already taken Kanton. He also commanded more or less 100,000 soldiers, which in comparison were poorly equipped. But Deng would be able to rely on the 15,000 man led by guerrilla leader Feng Baiju, who had been ordered to tie down the island´s garrison and weaken the coastal defense in the process. Having managed to mobilize a total of 2,130 junks and over additional 4,000 civilian sailors for their cause, during this initial phase the Communists decided to conduct small-scale landings first to probe if that strategy would really work.

On March 5th 1950, over eight hundred troops in a total of thirteen junks sailed from the southwestern tip of the Leizhou Peninsula in Kanton province towards Hainan. In the early afternoon of March 6th 1950, the bulk of the landing force had successfully landed, linking up with Feng´s partisans. This first victory was possible due to the same navigational error made by several junks of one company, which landed directly on the beach where the nationalist coastal defenses were the strongest and in consequence were wiped out. However, this bloody mistake produced an unexpected benefit for the attackers by making the defenders erroneously believe this would be the main spot of future landings.

The Nationalists boosted their defenses at the wrong locations, leaving other places vulnerable. As a result, between March 11th and March 21st, a growing number of Communist soldiers in junks would reach the island until the main landing finally took place on April 10th.

The defending forces detected the enemy’s departure from the peninsula hours too late, and their navy couldn’t intercept them in time. A destroyer with the flowery name “Eternal Peace” at least made an attempt, but gravely underestimated the enemy. Firing at close range, and with the nationalist ships unable to depress their guns low enough to fire back, the communist junks’ movable mountain gunsbadly damaged the nationalist flagship early during the engagement and forced it to retreat.

In a haste to prepare for the defense of Hainan, the Nationalists had also failed to change their warships’ ammunition. Most of the armor-piercing simply flew through the wooden junks, failing to detonate when hitting. Although all attacking vessels were badly damaged, after several hours of chaotic battle none had actually been sunk by those heavy guns.

On April 17th, an important nationalist defense line collapsed and another firm communist beachhead was established. Three days later, a desperate counterattack left some areas weakly defended, which were promptly attacked by the second wave of landing forces. Soon those became strong enough to eventually annihilate or badly maul a considerable number of adversaries. Realizing that the situation was hopeless, General Xue retreated with his staff and the bulk of remaining troops to Taiwan.

On April 23rd the capital Haikou fell, and the next day the remaining Nationalists suffered a combined attacked. By May 1st, on the last day of the campaign, two nationalist divisions were completely destroyed while covering the final retreat of their comrades from the island. The Communists had achieved total victory in Hainan despite having little experience in amphibious warfare, as wooden junks armed with primitive cannons were able to fight off modern warships. Also, the local insurgent force proved to be of great advantage in terms of terrain familiarity. A combined effort, paired with superior motivation, fully leveraged the technical superiority of the Nationalists.

At the end, communist casualties totaled 4,500 wounded or killed, while nationalist losses are estimated at 33,000. Most of them surrendered to the invaders. After Hainan had been conquered, most observers thought that Taiwan would be next. Luckily, regardless of all political propaganda, 70 years later it´s still not part of China.

In fact, following the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25th, 1950, Peking never attempted to invade Taiwan proper. North Korea´s invasion of South Korea put the US on alert, and for more than a decade a lid on further Communist expansion in Asia. Washington parked the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait, and significantly increased military help to the Nationalists holding Taiwan. At the end, it´s very probable that Great Leader Kim Il-sung saved Generalissimo Chiang Kais-shek from being finished off by Great Helmsman Mao tse-tung. What an historical irony!

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this easily digestible historical background! My work is related to Chinese studies, but my spare-time does not allow me to read many history books. Therefore, such articles give me the chance to broaden my historical knowledge.

    • I´m glad that you enjoyed it! Well, I try to keep historical articles simple, but still accurate and interesting.

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