Zaoyang-Yichang Operation

The 'Zaoyang-Yichang Operation' was one of the 22 major engagements between the Chinese nationalist government’s National Revolutionary Army and the Japanese army in the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (1 May/18 June 1940).

At this time the Japanese were attempting to speed their attempts to compel a Chinese surrender. Thus the Japanese planned to advance directly along the Yangtze river to the relocated Chinese capital of Chungking ion south-western China. To do so, they would need to capture Yichang, a key city in the western part of Hubei province.

The Japanese did not commit very large numbers of men or equipment, which made it possible for enabled the main Chinese commander, General 1st Rank Li Zong-ren, who had frustrated the Japanese before this, once again to repel the Japanese.

On 1 May 1940, three divisions of Lieutenant General Waichiro Sonobe’s 11th Army began a drive towards Zaoyang, driving toward the 5th War Zone’s strongholds in the Tongbaishan and Dahongshan mountains in an attempt to encircle and then to destroy Lieutenant General Tang En-bo’s 31st Army Group in a pincer movement. The Chinese strategy was to allow the Japanese forces to operate long enough to run short of supplies, and then to counterattack: this tactic had been employed with success in the 1st Battle of Changsha (September/October 1939). When the Japanese managed to outmanoeuvre Tang’s forces, General Zhang Zi-zhong marched his 33rd Army Group to Tang’s support. The Japanese forces rallied and pushed back the Chinese, and Zhang was killed by machine gun fire when he refused to retreat from the front line. He was the most senior Chinese commander to be killed in combat during the war.

According to their own records, the Japanese lost 2,700 men killed and 7,800 wounded, while Chinese records indicate that 11,000 Japanese were killed. While the Chinese 5th War Area arguably made tactically sound decisions in its planning for the battle, it was ultimately overwhelmed by the greatly superior firepower of the Japanese combined-arms offensive, for the Chinese relied primarily on small arms to face the onslaught of the Japanese air, naval, artillery and armoured assault power.

As the Chinese commanders had surmised, however, the Japanese were indeed overextended, and were thus in no position to pursue their victory. However, the Japanese navy pushed strongly for the occupation of Yichang, located at the edge of Sichuan province and connecting the 5th and 9th War Zones. The navy felt that Yichang was essential as a forward base for air attacks against Chungking. After considerable argument, the Japanese army agreed to occupy Yichang. This dealt a considerable blow to the morale and fighting capacity of the Chinese as they attempted no large-scale offensive after this time.