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LAST

In 1933, in a surreal
clash of ancient and
modern weaponry,

BATTLE
Chinese troops
sought to defend
the Great Wall
from the combined

ON THE
forces of the Imperial
Japanese Army
By Jiaxin Du

GREAT
WALL

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A Chinese-language propaganda
poster, rendered in the wake
of Japans 1931 invasion of
Manchuria, extols the benets
of Japanese protection.

ULLSTEIN BILD/GETTY IMAGES 31


Japans March 12, 1933,
capture of Gubeikou
Castle on the Great Wall
opened that pass through
to the North China Plain.

B
eneath the heatless winter sun, soldiers a state of disrepair since the 1644 Manchu invasion,
sprint across hastily constructed pontoon the obsolescent Great Wall was granted a new lease on
bridges spanning a 55-foot-wide moat, their life in the 20th centuryonly this time from the north
war cries drowned out by a deafening artil- came not nomadic tribal warriors but the industrialized
lery barrage. Raising improvised bamboo juggernaut of Japans elite Kwantung army.
ladders against the walls of the enemy fort, In a poignant twist of fate the Great Wall, that ancient
the attackers scramble up even as defenders masterpiece of military fortication, saw its last action
on the battlements above unleash a shower at the dawn of World War II in Asia.
of hand grenades. The explosives detonate
in mid-air, snapping ladders in half and sending dozens The Second Sino-Japanese WarWorld War IIs often over-
of screaming men to their deaths 45 feet below. looked missing section of the jigsaw, as British historian
As surviving attackers clamber over the rim of the Antony Beevor puts ittook root long before Germanys
forbidding wall, the ght degenerates into a series of brutal 1939 invasion of Poland. Indeed, by the outbreak of the
hand-to-hand melees, with steel broadswords and shorter Spanish Civil War in 1936, which gripped the Western
but no less lethal bayonets drawn for the close-quarters worlds attention, China had been embroiled for ve years
slaughter, as commanders astride Mongolian warhorses in an even bloodier military conict with Japan.
ride from section to section, desperately trying to orga- By the early 1930s the Kwantung armygarrisoned on
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN/GETTY IMAGES

nize their scattered forces atop Chinas fabled Great Wall. Manchurias Liaodong Peninsula since shortly after the
Though such images might seem representative of one 190405 Russo-Japanese Warhad evolved into a totali-
of the many ancient battles that swirled around Chinas tarian militarist faction within the greater Japanese army
most famous fortication, the ght described above actu- that favored expansionism on the Asian mainland. On
ally took place on the chilly morning of Jan. 3, 1933, at Sept. 18, 1931, taking advantage of Japans turbulent politi-
the outpost of Shanhaiguan. Long abandoned and left in cal environment, the Kwantung army independently orches-

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Among the weapons Chinese soldiers
wielded in close combat against the
advancing Japanese were outmoded
yet still decidedly deadlyswords.

trated the Mukden Incident (a staged bombing against a churia. Less mountainous Hebei lay south of Rehe, the
Japanese-owned rail line) and the subsequent invasion of Great Wall serving as a rough border between the two.
Manchuria in a shocking act of insubordination against the Behind the Great Wall lay the bustling metropolises of
Tokyo civilian governments anti-expansionist policy. Beijing (ofcially Peiping at the time) and Tianjin and then
On the Chinese side, Chiang Kai-sheks Kuomintang the vast expanse of the North China Plain. After failing
central government was distracted by its ongoing civil war to secure Rehe-Hebei as a buffer zone by appealing to
against Mao Zedongs Chinese communists, as well as a corrupt local warlord, the Japanese decided to take more
by warlord factionalism within the Kuomintangs own direct action.
National Revolutionary Army (NRA). Although an ardent The Kwantung armys first move was a powerful pre-
nationalist, Chiang was convinced China was not ready for liminary attack on the fortied Chinese garrison at Shan-
full-scale war against Japan and adopted the controversial haiguan, on the easternmost end of the main stretch of
policy of rst internal pacication, then external resis- the Great Wall. Shanhaiguan (Pass of Mountain and Sea
tance. Hence Chinese forces in Manchuria put up virtually in traditional Chinese) was named for its strategic posi-
no resistance against the Japanese invasion. tion on the narrow corridor leading from Manchuria into
Predictably, it wasnt long before the Kwantung army China proper. On the evening of Jan. 1, 1933, after staging
HULTON ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES; DRAGONSPORTS

aspired to further conquests and turned


its sights southwest to the Chinese prov-
inces of Hebei and Rehe (pronounced
RUH-huh). Rehedescribed by a post-
war correspondent as full of tumbling
mountains, violent rivers and trouble The traditional Chinese two-handed dadaoo broadswordissued in
immediately bordered Manchukuo, A Sharp large numbers for use against the Japanesehad a large, heavy
Japans puppet state in conquered Man- Response forged blade of steel and carbon alloy.

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Japan vs. China,
193141
I
n September 1931, taking advantage of both political dissent back home
in Japan and the ongoing chaotic civil war between multiple rival factions
within China, the totalitarian and expansionist-minded Kwantung army
garrisoned on Manchurias Liaodong Peninsula moved to solidify Japans
grip on the Chinese mainland. Using the orchestrated Mukden Incident
(the staged bombing of a Japanese-owned rail line) as a pretext, Kwangtung
units invaded Manchuria. Knowing his own split forces were ill prepared to
engage in a full-scale war against Japan, Chiang Kai-shek put up virtually no
resistance. Rebelling warlords and communists had committed him to a policy
of rst internal pacication, then external resistance. The continuing unrest
and that policy would enable the Japanese to make further gains.
On Jan. 2, 1933, again on the back of a staged incident, the Kwangtung
garrison commander at Shanhai Pass, on the easternmost end of Chinas
Great Wall, launched a combined arms attack on the Chinese defenders. The
ghting was over within hours. The Japanese followed up the next month
with Operation Nekka, the planned occupation of neighboring Rehe province.
This time the ghting stretched more than a week, but the result was the same.
The Japanese occupation of Rehe and neighboring sections of the Great Wall set
the stage for further incidents and the inevitable Second Sino-Japanese War.

1933 Defense of the Great Wall


In a sorry state of neglect three centuries after its Ming Dynasty heyday, the Great Wall
regardless posed a formidable obstacle to Japanese ambitions. Following the March 4
fall of Chengde, the Kwangtung commander wasted no time in ordering his troops to
secure the key passes through to the North China Plain. By mid-April the Chinese were
in retreat. Only international intervention prevented the Japanese from taking Beijing.

MAPS BY STEVE WALKOWIAK/SWMAPS.COM

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Shanhai Pass and Rehe
The forced battle at Shanhai Pass was
the opening shot in the Kwangtung
armys orchestrated campaign to
extend the Japanese occupation from
Manchuria into neighboring Rehe. It
succeeded in less than four months.

From Incidents to War


As they had used staged incidents to
invade both Manchuria and Rehe, so
the Japanese used the manufactured
July 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident
to launch the Second Sino-Japanese
War, which morphed into World War II.

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house ghting. The Japanese had cracked the eastern-
most tip of the Great Wall. But instead of advancing toward
Beijing, the Kwantung army shifted its focus westward,
away from the Bohai Sea, to the mountains of Rehe.

On February 11 Governor-General Nobuyoshi Muto,


com-
mander in chief of the Kwantung army, and his chief of
staff, Lt. Gen. Kuniaki Koiso, revealed the plan for Opera-
tion Nekka, whose strategic objective was the complete
eradication of Chinese military forces in Rehe. Although
Japanese units had already broken through the Great Wall
at Shanhaiguan, a rash advance toward Beijing along the
coastline would expose a long and vulnerable right ank
to the Chinese. Although it was doubtful the hard-pressed
defenders could or would take advantage of the opening,
Muto did not want to take chances. The Kwantung army
would first clear out all areas north of the Great Wall in
guanwai (outside the wall, as the Chinese termed it)
before crossing into guannei (inside the wall).
Muto launched Operation Nekka on February 23 and
within hours received news of Japans censure by, and
subsequent dramatic walkout from, the League of Nations.
The bold offensive called for two divisions and three inde-
Chiang Kai-shek pendent brigades to advance on Rehe along three main
southwestward axes, sweeping across the province to
deliver a powerful knockout blow to Chengde, the pro-
vincial capital just north of the Great Wall. If all went
as planned, the nearly 100,000-strong combined force
of Kwantung and Manchukuo soldiers would secure the
province before Chinese reinforcements arrived.
In fact, the plan went far too well, certainly beyond
Mutos
and Koisos most optimistic expectations. But it was
the Chinese themselves who in large part facilitated the

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: CARL MYDANS/LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES; GALLICA PHOTO ARCHIVES; CHINA GUARDIAN AUCTIONS
dramatic Japanese victory.
As proven in previous battles, Chiangs National Revo-
lutionary Army, though poorly trained and equipped, did
not lack brave soldiers and capable eld commanders. But
the NRA command, from the presiding Military Affairs
Zhang Xueliang Nobuyoshi Muto
Commission down to the divisional level, was beset by
fierce warlord factionalism. Though roughly equal in
a grenade attack, the neighboring Japanese garrison com- number to the invading force, the ill-prepared Northeast-
mander brazenly labeled the Chinese defenders terrorists ern Army, commanded by playboy warlord Zhang Xue-
and ordered them from the pass. When they refused, the liang, collapsed like a house of cards before the Japanese
Japanese launched a combined arms attack on the garrison onslaught. As Lt. Gen. Yoshikazu Nishis 8th Division
the next morning. Compared to their adversaries in the marched into Chengde on March 4, the dilapidated re-
Kwantung armys 8th Division, the ill-prepared Chinese mains of the Great Wall along the border between Rehe and
defenders had little to offer. Other than a handful of Maxim Hebei provinces became the last line of strategic defense
guns and light mortars, their only noteworthy defenses for Beijing, Hebei and the entire North China Plain.
were the centuries-old Ming Dynasty ramparts and watch-
towers. Tanks, armored trains, a squadron of Kwantung Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall is not one con-
army bombers and inshore warships from the Imperial tiguous fortication spanning China. It is, in fact, an intri-
Japanese Navys 2nd Expeditionary Fleet pummeled Chinas cate network of defensive walls, forts, trenches, bunkers
ancient fortications. and natural barriers built, rebuilt and relocated over the
Despite a heroic stand by the Chinese defenders, the centuries by successive Chinese dynasties as their territo-
Shanhaiguan garrison fell after a day of brutal house-to- ries expanded or contracted. The majority of the surviving

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Even with the benet of aircraftsuch
as this biplane bomber preparing for
a missionthe Japanese still had to
directly assault the Great Wall forts.

Lost in In discussions of the Sino-Japanese conict, confusion often arises regarding


the sizes of the opposing forces military units. For example, ofcial Chinese
army had no alternative but to as-
sault these fortresses head on with
Translation documents often translate the National Revolutionary Army formation of jun uphill charges against enemy re from
as army. However, in practice a Chinese jun was equivalent to a Western embrasures and arrow slitsjust as
corpsconsisting of several brigades or divisions and totaling about 20,000 Chinese engineers had intended when
men. The Japanese, on the other hand, did not have any corps-level formations.
they designed the fortifications cen-
In the 1930s a Chinese division, or shi, on average comprised some 7,000
soldiers, while a Japanese division, or shidan, had 25,000 to 28,000 men. turies earlier.
Thus it is common to nd multiple Chinese corps or even armies ghting a While the pace of victory in Rehe
A R M Y took even the Japanese by surprise,
single Japanese division. In this article the Chinese junn is translated as corps.
Muto knew better than to bask in suc-
sections of the Great Wall date from the Ming Dynasty cess. When word reached him on March 4 of the fall of
(13681644), among the most ardent wall-building dynas- Chengde, the Japanese commander immediately ordered
ties of imperial China. Under continual threat of Mongol, all units to disregard their original orders and move south
Jurchen and Manchu invasion from the north, the Ming to secure the key passes along the Great Wall before the
constructed multiple layers of both temporary and perma- Chinese could organize effective resistance and block the
nent walls that ran a remarkable 5,500 miles from the route to Beijing. Unfortunately for the Japanese, they had
Korean Peninsula west to the Taklamakan Desert. advanced so rapidly that their motorized spearhead was
Although by 1933, almost three centuries after the fall of compelled to wait for the bulk of their slowly marching
the Ming Dynasty, the majority of the Great Wall in Rehe- infantry to catch up. That left the Chinese an opening.
Hebei was in a sorry state of neglect, the vast stretches still After warlord Zhangs humiliating performance in Rehe
standing posed a serious obstacle to any attacker. Follow- and his subsequent resignation, Chiang placed forces in
ing natural contours, the serpentine barrier effectively the region under the command of General He Yingqin and
sealed off most passages through the mountains to the a contingent of staff that answered directly to the Chinese
North China Plain, leaving only a handful of heavily for- chairman. Unlike his ignominious predecessor, He realized
BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

tified passesGubeikou on the western edge of Rehe, the gravity of the situation and immediately ordered the
Xifengkou at the center, Lengkou and Jielingkou on the battered Northeastern Armys remaining divisions to
eastern endthrough which an army might maneuver. mount an emergency defense centered on the four major
Even with aircraft and armored cars, Japans 20th-century Great Wall passes. While anticipating reinforcements from

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Deployed in a bamboo grove,
members of a Kwantung army
infantry squad pose before
an assault in Rehe-Hebei.

farther south around Beijing-Tianjin, the general would not the narrow pass. Long stretches of the wall descend pre-
wait on them. cipitous slopes to link up with these fortresses, effectively
He understood the Great Wall constituted but a single line thwarting any possible enemy anking maneuvers.
of defense with no depth, and while the Chinese had the ad- When the main force of the Japanese 14th Mixed Brigade
vantage of terrain, they would be unable to hold in the face and 8th Division nally arrived at Xifengkou on March 10
of overwhelming Japanese repower. Thus his plan called for to launch their assault, the bulk of the reinforcing Chinese
Chinese forces along the Great Wall to delay the Japanese 29th Corps was there to meet them. Fierce ghting ensued
as long as possible, buying time for He to set up a perimeter as the Japanese launched wave after wave of attacks. Under
defense on the outskirts of Beijing and Tianjin. He also re- Lt. Gen. Song Zheyuans astute command, soldiers of the
poorly equipped 29th avoided long-range reghts, which
obviously would have given the enemy an advantage. In-
The traditional Chinese dadao saber stead, they let the Japanese approach within 300 feet before
rushing out to engage them, thus negating the attackers
proved especially effective in the superior firepower by forcing them into close-quarters
combat, at which the 29th was highly adept. Many of the
bloody melees atop the ramparts Chinese wielded a traditional saber known as the dadao,
SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

which proved especially effective in the bloody, medieval-


quested additional reinforcements from the elite Central style melees atop the ramparts.
Army. Chiang promptly approved. Realizing the extent of the Over two days of fighting the high ground and sec-
Japanese incursion in Rehe-Hebei, the Chinese commander tions of the Great Wall around the fortied pass changed
in chief had called off his thus far unsuccessful Fourth En- hands multiple times. More than once the Japanese man-
circlement Campaign against communist forces in Jiangxi. aged to break into and briefly occupy the first of Xifeng-
Great Wall fortications at the four key passes feature kous two barbicans, only to be driven back by the reso-
successive gatehouses that create consecutive barbicans in lute Chinese defenders.

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On the night of March 1112 the 29th Corps launched a Beijing. By late May Chiang also seemed willing to nally
counteroffensive, led by its best swordsmen and martial step up to protect his northern metropolis, allotting He one
artists, who used woodcutters trails to inltrate the Japa- cavalry brigade, two independent artillery regiments and
nese positions. Their superiors specically instructed the 11 additional infantry divisions from the Central Army,
raiders to avoid using firearms and instead rely on the including the German-trained and -equipped 88th Division.
dadao as much as possible. When these elite ghters stum- Then the ghting stopped.
bled on the Japanese 14th Brigades artillery positions, they With Rehe and northern Hebei rmly in Japanese hands,
wreaked havoc on the unsuspecting enemy, slaying scores the Kwantung army had accomplished its goal of secur-
of soldiers in their barracks, destroying artillery pieces with ing the southern border of Manchukuo. Facing mounting
grenades and setting ammunition dumps are. Seeking to pressure from both the international community and anti-
take advantage of the enemys disarray in the rear, the main militarist politicians at home, Muto ultimately decided to
Chinese forces mounted an ultimately unsuccessful frontal bring an end to his grand invasion, halting his forces just
assault against Japanese positions. shy of Beijings city walls. Terms of the Japanese-proposed
After ransacking as much as they could, the Chinese cease-re, which became known as the Tanggu Truce, natu-
raiders vanished into the predawn mist as the disciplined rally did not favor the Chinese, but Chiang acquiesced
Japanese overcame their initial shock and Chinese casu-
alties began to mount. Though strategically insignicant,
the daring raid delivered a blow to the morale of the over-
condent Japanese. In its wake Muto grudgingly called off
his attack on Xifengkou, gaining the ragtag 29th Corps
lasting fame in Chinese military history.

In late March and early April 1933 the Japanese launched


probing attacks on Luowenyu, about 35 miles northeast of
Xifengkou, but the 29th Corps held rm. At the same time
erce battles raged at the other passes along the Great Wall
in Rehe-Hebei, and the results for the Chinese were often
less favorable.
After switching hands three times, Lengkouon the
eastern ank of Xifengkounally fell to the Kwantung Japanese Maj. Gen. regardless, setting the stage for the
armys 6th Division on April 11. As soon as the Japanese Yasuji Okamura shakes July 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Inci-
achieved that signicant breakthrough, the entire Chinese hands with his Chinese dent and subsequent 193745 Sec-
defense along the Great Wall began to crumble. Exploiting counterpart He Yingqin ond Sino-Japanese War. In the mean-
its success, the 6th advanced farther south toward Qianan, after signing a June time, as the Rehe Incident came
threatening to encircle Chinese positions at Xifengkou and 1933 armistice to end to its tentative conclusion, a false
the Rehe Incident.
Jielingkou. On April 13 He ordered defenders at the two peace returned.
passes to retreat, by which time the 29th Corps, originally The 1933 Battle of Rehe was peculiar to early 20th cen-
15,000 strong, had suffered more than 5,000 casualties. tury Asia, where full-scale Westernization was slowly but
At Gubeikou the Chinese Central Armys 17th Corps, surely supplanting traditional ways of life. Just like every-
which had marched up from southern China, fought a thing else from that turbulent time of revolutionary changes,
more modern but by no means less savage battle against the militaryfor a brief momentalso endured a shaky
the spearhead of the Kwantung armys 8th Division. While coexistence of the old and the new. As defenders set up
the Chinese lost the actual fortification at Gubeikou on their machine guns behind stone battlements, and attack-
March 12, they managed to put up a successful elastic de- ers employed both bamboo siege ladders and aircraft, such
fense to prevent the Japanese from exploiting their break- surreal scenes of anachronism were unique among the
through. The 17th also mounted a number of night raids battleelds of World War II. It was in this almost fantasti-
and counterattacks similar to those conducted by the 29th cal setting the last major engagement on the Great Wall
but using German-supplied Bergmann MP 18 submachine unfolded, virtually unseen by the rest of the world. MH
guns instead of cold steel. By May 15 the 17th had suffered
more than 4,000 casualties in its fighting retreat toward Freelance writer Jiaxin Du contributes to both Chinese-
Miyun and had to be replaced by the Central Armys newly and English-language periodicals. For further reading
BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

arrived 26th Corps. By that point Japanese bombers were he recommends Forgotten Ally: Chinas World War II,
already circling over Beijing and Tianjin. 19371945, by Rana Mitter, and The Second World War,
Having foreseen the collapse of the Great Wall defenses, by Antony Beevor, which includes a general account of
He swiftly regrouped his forces for a last-ditch defense at Chinas participation in World War II.

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