Development of Chinese Nationalist air force (1937–45)
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The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) was formed by the Kuomintang after the establishment of the Aviation Ministry in 1920. As tensions mounted between China and Imperial Japan in the 1930s, a number of smaller Chinese warlord airforce men (including Guangdong Provincial Air Force) and equipment became integrated into the ROCAF in a centralized effort to counter Imperial Japanese military ambitions.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the ROCAF participated in attacks on Japanese warships on the eastern front and along the Yangtze river including interdiction and close-air support for the Battle of Shanghai in 1937. Initially, the Chinese frontline fighter aircraft were mainly Curtiss Hawk IIs and IIIs and Boeing P-26Cs. These engaged Japanese fighters in many major air battles beginning on 14th August 1937, when Imperial Japanese Navy warplanes raided Chienchiao airbase; "814" has thus become known as "Air Force Day". Chinese Boeing P-26/281 fighters engaged Japanese Mitsubishi A5M fighters in the world's first dogfight between all-metal monoplane fighters. A unique mission in April 1938 saw two Chinese Martin B-10 bombers fly a mission over Japan, but dropping only anti-war leaflets over the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Saga. It was a war of attrition for the Chinese pilots, as many of their most experienced ace fighter pilots, such as Lieutenant Liu Tsui-Kang and Colonel Kao Chih-Hang, were lost. Six months into the war, which is considered the beginning of World War II in Asia, the Chinese Air Force inventory of frontline American Hawk IIs and IIIss and P-26Cs were superseded by faster and better armed Polikarpov I-15s and I-16s as support from the Soviet Union grew and American support faded.
Through attrition and loss of their most experienced fighter pilots in the first half of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Republic of China Air Force ultimately suffered irreversible losses in combat against the Japanese, and by the beginning of 1942 the ROCAF was practically annihilated by Japanese aircraft, particularly with the introduction of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. The ROCAF was eventually supplemented with the establishment of the American Volunteer Group (known as the "Flying Tigers") with heavily armed and armored Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, and subsequently rebuilt each year following Imperial Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor with new aid and vigor from the United States.
The Sino-Japanese War started on 7 July 1937. At that time, Chinese sources estimated the Japanese could field approximately 600 aircraft (from a total of 1,530) against China’s 230 combat aircraft. During the first phase up to 1939, aerial bombing of enemy bomber formations was tried with indifferent results, and leaflet-dropping raids carried out over Japanese cities.
The Japanese bombing raids were also fiercely contested, sometimes with significant Japanese losses. After suffering heavy losses in the Battle of Wuhan in October 1938, most air force units were withdrawn for reorganisation and training.
The ROC Air Force was reconstituted into seven Groups, one separate Squadron and four Volunteer Groups. In 1940, after the USSR concluded a non-aggression pact with Japan, the Soviet Volunteer Group was withdrawn. By the end of 1941, the air force had 364 operational aircraft. Up to 100 of these were P-40Bs operated by the American Volunteer Group. U.S. replacement aircraft began to arrive in March 1942. They included A-29s, P-40s, P-43s, and P-66s, and in 1945 B-25 Mitchell, B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, and P-51B and -D fighters.
In 1944, the USAAF U.S. 14th Air Force commenced joint operations in the China theatre. By this time the Chinese Air Force was mostly equipped with current operational aircraft types and was superior in all respects to the opposing Japanese air forces which remained.
Units of the Chinese Airforce 1937-45
- 1st Group, (bombers), Tupolev ANT 40 SB III, VI, North American B-25 Mitchell, Northrop Gamma 2E, Northrop A-17
- 2nd Group, (bombers), Tupolev ANT 40 SB III, Northrop Gamma 2E, Northrop A-17, 19 Lockheed A-29, 8 Avro 627 China built domestically as scout-bombers at Guangxi
- 30th Squadron: 20 Fiat BR.3
- 6th Group, (light bombers/scout-bombers), 21 O3U/V-92C, Douglas O-2MC
- 7th Group, (light bombers/scout-bombers), 42 O2U Corsair, Douglas O-2MC
- 8th Group, (bombers), 2 Northrop Alpha 4 (converted locally to scout-bombers), 30 Ilyushin DB-3 (later into the Composite Group), Consolidated B-24 Liberator, B-25 Mitchell, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
- 12th Group, (bombers)
- 10th Squadron, (bombers), 4 Vultee A-19
- 3rd Group, (fighters) Fiat CR.30, 9 Avro 626, Polikarpov E.15bis, E.15ter (E.15III, E.153), and E.16, P-40C, P-51D, P-36 Hawk, 36 Gloster Gladiator Mk-1, P-66 Vanguard
- 4th Group, (fighters) Curtiss (Hawk III), Polikarpov E.15bis, E.15ter (E.15III, E.153) and E.16, P-40, 41 P-43 Lancer
- 22nd Squadron (fighters): 9 Curtiss 68C Hawk III (F11C-3)
- 5th Group, (fighters), Polikarpov E.15bis, E.15ter (E.15III, E.153), P-40N, P-51D, P-66 Vanguard
- 9th Group, (fighters) 120 Curtiss 68C Hawk III (F11C-3), 20 A-12 Shrike
- 26th Squadron A-12 Shrike
- 27th Squadron A-12 Shrike
- 11th Group, (fighters), P-40N
- Russian Volunteer Group, (pursuit), Polikarpov E.15bis, E.15ter (E.15III, E.153) and E.16
- Russian Volunteer Group, (bombers), Ilyushin DB-3, Polikarpov R-5 Scout-bombers
- American Volunteer Group 'Flying Tigers', (fighters), P-40B, P-40E
- Composite Group
- Temporary Organised Group-Air Cadet Flying School.(Fighter), Curtiss 68C Hawk III (F11C-3)
- 12th Squadron (Reconnaissance): 9 P-38/F-5
- 13th Squadron (bombers & transports): 3 Savoia-Marchetti SM.81, 1 Spartan Executive Model 7W (lost on Dec 12, 1937).
- 14th International Volunteer Squadron (bombers): 20+ Vultee A-19, Northrop Gamma 2E, Northrop A-17, 3 Martin B-10
- 15th Squadron (dive bombers): 10 Henschel Hs 123
- 18th Squadron (Scout-bombers): Caproni Ca.101 and Douglas O-2MC; originally stationed at Guangdong, later changed to fighters with Curtiss Hawk 75M.
- 27th Squadron (light bombers): 9 Bellanca 28-90B
- 29th Squadron (fighters): 6 Breda Ba.27
- 32nd Squadron (fighters): Nakajima Type 91 fighter
- 34th Squadron (fighters and bombers): 14 Armstrong Whitworth Atlas, 6 Westland Wapiti, Mitsubishi Type 92.
- 41st French Volunteer Squadron (fighters): 6 Dewoitine D.510
- 20 Focke-Wulf Fw 44 of various units
- 30+ de Havilland Gipsy Moth of various units, including 13 seaplane versions of Chinese navy. (All lost by the end of 1937).
- Central Aviation School (trainers): 16 Armstrong Whitworth A.W.16, also used as fighters in the early stage of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
- Luoyang Aviation School (trainers): Breda Ba.25, Ba.28
- Liuzhou Aviation School (trainers): Around 20 Avro Avian(616 IVM), 6 Avro Cadet, 5 Avro Tutor, 7 Nakajima Ko-4 (Japanese license produced Nieuport-Delage NiD 29 C.1)
- 3rd Reserve Squadron: 5 Loening C-2-H (seaplane version of Loening OA-1)
- Aerial Survey Squadron: 1 Spartan C44, 1 Messerschmitt BFW M18d, Junkers W 33, Junkers W 34
Chinese air force aces
- Wang Banyang: 13 victories a.k.a. John Wong (American-born Chinese air force volunteer)
- Liu Zhesheng: 11-1/3 victories
- Yuan Baokang: 8 victories
- Gao Wuxin: 8 victories
- Chen Ruitian (a.k.a. Arthur Chin) 7 victories (Americanborn Chinese air force volunteer)
- Liu Cuigang: 7 victories
- Louie Yim-Qun: 3 victories
- Wong Sun-Shui: 5 victories
- Official Chinese air force aces
- Liu Che-Sun (柳哲生):9
- Wang Kuang-Fu (王光復):8
- Kao Yo-Shin (高又新):8
- Liu Tsu-Gan (劉粹剛):7
- Tsang Shi-Lan (臧錫蘭):7
- Hwang Shin-Yui, Baffallo (黃新瑞):6
- Chen Shui-Tin, Arthur (陳瑞鈿):8
- Tang Kuan (譚鯤):5 or 6
- Yu Yi-Chin (樂以琴):5
- Chow Chi-Kai (周志開):5
- Lo Ying-Te (羅英德):5
- Leng Pei-Su (冷培澍):5
- Liu Chi-Sheng :10
- Chow Ting-Fong :6
- Liu Chui-Kang :7
- Lu Ji-Chun :5
From 1937 to the beginning of 1941, the Soviet Union served as the primary supplier to the ROCAF, and from October 1937 to January 1941, a total of 848 aircraft in 13 batches were ordered by the Chinese government and were supplied on credit, worth roughly 200 million dollars. In addition, there were 37 aircraft transferred to Chinese when Soviet force withdrew from China after the signing of Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact. These aircraft included 563 fighters, including 252 I-152, 75 I-153, 132 I-16 Type 10, 75 I-16 Type 17 and rest being I-15 bis, which was not part of the purchase in the 13 batches. Also included were 322 bombers, including 179 SB-2M-100A, 100 SB-2M-103 24 DB-3, 6 TB-3 and 13 SB that were not part of the purchase in the 13 batches). Also included in the 13-batch purchase were 5 UT-1 trainers. However, of the 250-300 combat aircraft supplied annually, only a few dozen would survive through the end of the year.
While the USSR provided most of the military aircraft to Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1930s, many early Chinese aircraft were supplied by the American Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company. In 1937 the Hawk II and Hawk III biplanes comprised the backbone of Chinese fighter aviation. These were soon followed by the Hawk 75 monoplane. The demonstration model Hawk 75N, with non-retractable landing gear was purchased in 1938 and became the personal aircraft of the American advisor to the Aviation Committee, Claire Chennault who oversaw training and lobbied for the procurement of American aircraft.
The entry of the USA into the war with Japan at the end of 1941 led to the receipt of Lend-Lease equipment from the United States, including aircraft. American Lend-Lease aviation equipment had already begun to arrive in China as early as the middle of 1941, though that includes the first shipments before January 1942 which arrived under the guise of purchases. Including previously purchased American aircraft, US soon replaced USSR as the largest supplier for the Chinese Nationalist air force during the war (Including the Second Sino-Japanese War that actually broke out in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria). The US aircraft supplied to China in its struggle against the Japanese invaders included: A-12, A-17, A-19, A-29, B-10, B-17, B-24, B-25, B-29, C-19, C-43, C-45, C-46, C-47, C-100 (Gamma 2E light bomber version), Curtiss F11C Goshawk, P-12, P-26, P-36, P-38, P-40, P-43, P-47, P-51, P-61, P-66, and PB4Y.
Retraining on American aircraft occurred for the most part in India. (Karachi and other cities), where Chinese pilots were sent both as groups and as entire units. As early as the end of 1941 Chinese pilots, mainly recently graduated from flight schools, began to be sent to the USA for longer training and mastery of American aircraft.
The first American P-43A fighters were received by the 4th Air Group (21st - 24th Squadrons) in March 1942. They retrained in Kunming, but for the new aircraft the pilots sequentially flew in small groups to India. On 24 April the deputy commander of the 24th Squadron, Wu Zhenhua, crashed on the flight to Kunming. On 12 May, Chen Lokun, the flight commander of the 24th Squadron was killed during a training flight, crashing into a tree during landing. In July for unclear reasons the P-43 of the 4th Air Group commander, Zheng Shaoyu, caught fire in the air and the pilot was killed. On 3 August 1942 during a training flight the deputy group commander Chen Sheng crashed. A similar series of crashes accompanied the mastery by the Chinese of almost every new machine. (It is notable that in Chinese sources the family names are given only of the perished commanders of various ranks, while the losses amongst the line pilots are hardly even noted.) Concluding their conversion to the P-43A in early August 1942, the group returned to Chengdu.
In February 1943, preparing for transition to the new American air equipment, the Chinese transferred to India the primary training groups from their flight schools. Only training for reconnaissance and photography continued to be carried out in China. In March 1945 the cadets completing primary training in India were sent to America to train further. By that time the number of cadets dispatched had reached 1224, of whom 384 managed to return to China and participate in combat. In all, from 1942 to 1945 420 training aircraft were sent from the USA to China through India, including 20 AT-6, 8 AT-7, 15 AT-17, 150 PT-17, 127 PT-19, 70 PT-22, and 30 BT-13, and also 10 Beechcraft D-17 medical aircraft.
While the modified Hawk 75M with retractable landing gear was created specially for China, it was not widely used in the war against the Japanese, in spite of the fact that 30 aircraft, and 82 kits for assembly were delivered in the summer and autumn of 1938. It was planned to assemble the Hawk in a factory operated by the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, which had been evacuated from Hankou to Loiwing. The latter location, not far from the Burmese border on the eastern bank of the Ruiluqiang River in Yunnan Province, at that time seemed protected from Japanese attacks, but technical difficulties plagued the actual assembly of the Hawk 75 in that location. Although the Japanese had not bombed the factory, only eight machines were assembled by October 1940. The fate of the remaining kits is unknown.
Following the failure of Hawk 75 production, the CAMCO factory planned to organize assembly of the export version of the Curtiss-Wright CW-21 Demon, light fighter. Three aircraft and 32 sets of components were ordered from the USA. The factory at Loiwing worked until April 1942, when on account of Japanese attacks it had to be evacuated to Kunming, while its American personnel set up shop in India. From 1943 to 1946 the aircraft factory, which was dispersed in the ravines neighboring Kunming, assembled an experimental series of nine fighter monoplanes, probably from components of the Hawk 75M and 75A-5, and CW-21. To a degree they were similar to the American prototypes and their further fate is unknown. In western sources the first example figures under the designation Chu X-PO.
- Rossi, J.R. (1998). "History: The Flying Tigers - American Volunteer Group - Chinese Air Force". AVG.
- Rossi, Dick (1980s). "A Flying Tigers Story". The Flying Tigers - American Volunteer Group - Chinese Air Force.
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