North China Area Army, 2nd Army
The Battle of Tai'erzhuang (Chinese: 台兒莊會戰; pinyin: Tái'érzhūang Huìzhàn) was a battle of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938, between the armies of the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan. The battle was the first major Chinese victory of the war. It humiliated the Japanese military and its reputation as an invincible force, while for the Chinese it represented a tremendous morale boost.
Tai'erzhuang is located on the eastern bank of the Grand Canal of China and was a frontier garrison northeast of Xuzhou. It was also the terminus of a local branch railway from Lincheng. Xuzhou itself was the junction of the Jinpu Railway (Tianjin-Pukou) and the Longhai Railway (Lanzhou-Lianyungang) and the headquarters of the KMT's 5th War Zone.
In January 1938, the Japanese army disregarded the Tokyo headquarters' policy for a one-year truce and pursued the Chinese army retreating from the Shanghai-Nanjing theatre, driving northwards into the three provinces of Jiangsu, Shandong and Henan. These provinces were the area of operations of the KMT 5th War Area. The Japanese planned to fight through the Jinpu Railway from the north and south, regrouping at Xuzhou. From there, they would attack Wuhan and force the KMT into surrender. At this time, the Japanese armies were very powerful, so this operation should have been done with relative ease. As a result, the commanders did not deploy their full forces to complete the task.
But unexpectedly, from January to March, Rippei Ogisu's 13th division met stiff resistance from the forces of KMT commanders Wei Yunsong and Yu Xuezhong during its attack along the southern section of the railway. Eventually, KMT general Liao Lei's forces arrived, and the bloody battle became tightly entangled. The Japanese were forced onto the southern bank of the Huai River, unable to escape. As a result, it was unable to launch the planned pincer attack on Xuzhou with the Isogai division (10th division).
In the northeast, the Itagaki division (5th division) was also advancing towards Xuzhou. However, it was halted at Linyi by KMT generals Pang Bingxun and Zhang Zizhong and their Northwestern Army. Although insufficiently trained and not very well equipped, the Chinese troops inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese, who retreated. This engagement not only broke the myth of Imperial Japanese invincibility but also humiliated Japanese commander Seishirō Itagaki. Even the Tokyo headquarters were shocked. Although the 5th division picked itself back up and tried again, it had already lost the element of surprise. As a result, the Chinese victory at Linyi would later have a big impact on the actual battle in Tai'erzhuang.
Of the three Japanese divisions driving into the 5th War Area, the Isogai division (10th division) was the most successful. This division came from Hebei, crossing the Yellow River and moving southwards along the Jinpu Railway. Because of KMT general Han Fuju's desertion, the division occupied Zhoucun and moved into Jinan without meeting any resistance at all. From there, they arrived at Tai'an. Here, they were faced with fierce resistance from the forces of KMT generals Sun Tongxuan and Sun Zhen. Although the Japanese did suffer losses, the Chinese were very poorly equipped. As a result, the Chinese soldiers could only form line after line of defence in a desperate attempt to fight off the Japanese, who were backed up by planes, tanks and heavy artillery. When one line was wiped out, they would move onto the next line. Step by step, the Chinese fell back. By mid-March, the 10th division had fought its way to Yixuan.
At this time, KMT commanders Sun Lianzhong and Tang Enbo arrived in the region with their forces. Although Sun's second group army consisted of two armies, it had taken heavy casualties during the defence of Niangzi Pass in 1937 and had not recovered yet. As a result, its actual strength was only three divisions. These three divisions were Zhang Jinzhao's 30th division, Chi Fengcheng's 31st division and Huang Qiaosong's 27th division. The 30th and 31st divisions made up the 30th army (under command of Tian Zhennan), while the 27th division made up the 42nd army (under command of Feng Anbang). 5th War Area commander Li Zongren gave the responsibility of defending Tai'erzhuang to Sun Lianzhong, who stationed Chi Fengcheng's 31st division inside the district.
On the other hand, Tang Enbo brought 4 full-strength divisions. They were Zheng Dongguo's 2nd division, Zhang Yaoming's 25th division, Chen Daqing's 4th division, and Zhang Xuezhong's 89th division. The 2nd and 25th divisions made up the 52nd army, while the 4th and 89th divisions made up the 85th army. All of these divisions were reorganised according to the German model and had German advisors attached. As soon as Tang's troops arrived at the battlefield, they began engaging the Japanese north of the Tai'erzhuang area. However, Li Zongren thought that there was too big of a risk losing the Central Army's elite divisions. His plan was to open up a route for the Japanese to drive southwards into Tai'erzhuang. Then, as long as Chi Fengcheng could hold onto the district, Tang Enbo's forces could drive around the back of the Japanese forces to encircle them and give the Chinese the upper hand.
On the Japanese side, Rensuke Isogai's 10th division was not supposed to drive deep into enemy territory alone and attack Tai'erzhuang. It was supposed to have waited for Rippei Ogisu's Ogisu division (13th division) to close in on Xuzhou and Itagaki Seishiro's 5th Division to pass Linyi for additional safety.
However, Isogai was confident enough in his forces. His plan was to take out Tai'erzhuang in a single swift blow to complete the objective of clearing the Jinpu Railway. At this time Tang Enbo ordered Chi Fengcheng to send out a small force to the north and attack the Japanese 10th division. His aim to lure the Japanese into Tai'erzhuang was successful. Isogai deployed 40,000 troops and around 80 tanks to attack Tai'erzhuang from the north. From the 21st of March onwards, the Japanese Air Force launched an extensive bombing operation on the Chinese positions, causing the civilians to flee in terror. On the 23rd, the district was razed by artillery fire. On the 24th, KMT generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek flew to the front lines to inspect the defences. He also left general Bai Chongxi there to help Li Zongren. The Battle of Tai'erzhuang had begun.
The battle involved a Japanese plan to conquer Xuzhou, a major city in the East. However, the Japanese failed to consider the plans of generals Li Zongren and Bai Chongxi, who planned to encircle the Japanese in the town of Tai'erzhuang. The Japanese operation started on 24 March. Overconfidence led the Japanese commanders to overlook the thousands of inconspicuous "farmers" in the area, who were affiliated with Li Zongren and cut communication lines and supplies, diverted streams, and ruined rail lines. By late March, supplies and fuels were being dropped from airplanes to Japanese troops, but the quantities were insufficient.
On 29 March 1938, a small band of Japanese soldiers tunneled under Tai'erzhuang's walls in an attempt to take the city from within. They were caught by the Nationalist defenders and killed. Over the next week, both sides claimed to hold parts of the city and surrounding area, and many were killed in small arms battles.
Finally, the Japanese attacked frontally, failing to consider the greater Chinese numbers. A major encirclement on 6 April, with Chinese reinforcements, preceded a major Japanese defeat and retreat, which the Chinese failed to capitalize upon fully through pursuit due to a lack of mobility.
The Chinese captured 719 Japanese soldiers and large quantities of military supplies, including 31 pieces of artillery, 11 armored cars, 8 armored fighting vehicles, 1,000 machine guns and 10,000 rifles.
Due to lack of anti-armor weaponry, suicide bombing was also used against the Japanese. Chinese troops strapped explosives like grenade packs or dynamite to their bodies and threw themselves under Japanese tanks to blow them up. Dynamite and grenades were strapped on by Chinese troops who rushed at Japanese tanks and blew themselves up. During one incident at Tai’erzhuang, Chinese suicide bombers obliterated four Japanese tanks with grenade bundles.
Amid the celebrations of the victory in Hankou and other Chinese cities, Japan initially denied their defeat and ridiculed the reports of the battle for days. It was reported in the foreign newspapers, however.
The Chinese victory at Tai’erzhuang was their first major victory in the war. The battle broke the myth of Japanese military invincibility and resulted in an incalculable benefit to Chinese morale.