The Battle of Wuhan, popularly known to the Chinese as the Defense of Wuhan, and to the Japanese as the Capture of Wuhan, was a large-scale battle of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Engagements took place across vast areas of Anhui, Henan, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, and Hubei provinces over a period of four and a half months. This battle was the longest, largest and arguably the most significant battle in the early stages of the Second Sino-Japanese War. More than one million National Revolutionary Army troops from the Fifth and Ninth War Zone were put under the direct command of Chiang Kai-shek, defending Wuhan from the Central China Area Army of the Imperial Japanese Army led by Shunroku Hata. Chinese forces were also supported by the Soviet Volunteer Group, a group of volunteer pilots from the Soviet Air Forces.[2]

Although the battle ended with the eventual capture of Wuhan by the Japanese forces, the battle inflicted heavy casualties on both sides, as high as 540,000 combined by some estimates.[1]


On 7 July 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) launched a full-scale invasion of China following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. Both Beijing, and Tianjin fell to the Japanese by July 30, exposing the rest of the North China Plain.[3] To disrupt the invasion plans of the Japanese, the Nationalists decided to engage the Japanese in Shanghai, opening a second front. The fighting lasted from 13 August to 12 November, with the Chinese suffering major casualties including "70 percent of Chiang Kai-shek's young officers".[4] After the fall of Shanghai, Nanjing, which was the capital of the China, were threatened directly by the Japanese forces. The Nationalists was thus forced to declare the capital as open city while beginning the process of moving the capital to Chongqing.

With the fall of three major Chinese cities (Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai), there was a large number of refugees fleeing the fighting in addition to the governmental facilities and war supplies that needed to be transferred to Chongqing. Due to inadequacies in the transport systems, the government was unable to complete the transfer. Wuhan thus became the "de facto wartime capital" of the Republic of China, due to its strong industrial, economic and cultural foundations.[5] Assistance from the Soviet Union provided additional military and technical resources, including the Soviet Volunteer Group.

On the Japanese side, the IJA forces were drained due to the large number and extent of military operations since the beginning of the invasion. Reinforcements were thus dispatched to boost forces in the area, but this placed a considerable strain on the Japanese peacetime economy. This caused then-Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe to reassemble his Cabinet in 1938 as well as to introduce the National Mobilization Law on 5 May that year, moving Japan into a wartime economic state.[6]

Although the realisation of the wartime economy slowed the speed at which Japan's treasury was going bankrupt, the economy was not going to be sustainable, taking the costs to maintain military presence against border conflicts with the Soviet Union into account. The Japanese government thus wished to force the Chinese side into submission quickly in order to gather resources so as to put into place its plan of expansion towards the north and south. As Emperor Hirohito said at a meeting before the Battle of Wuhan began, that it was necessary to deliver a final, fatal blow to the Nationalist government and force China into total surrender.[citation needed] He was unwilling to see "the legions of the Empire tied down in China". Thus, Japan threw in everything it had going into the Battle of Wuhan. According to Japanese documents discovered after the war, "the Army put in its maximum effort for the battle at Hankou (a part of Wuhan) and there is no room for flexibility". Even the single division left in Japan itself was put on standby to assist the forces at Wuhan if necessary.[citation needed]

Importance of Wuhan

Location within China

Wuhan, located halfway upstream of the Yangtze River, was the second largest city in China with a population of 1.5 million in late 1938.[7] The Yangtze River and the Hanshui River divides the city into three regions, which includes Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang. Wuchang was the political center, Hankou was the commercial district while Hanyang was the industrial area. After the completion of the Yuehan Railway, the importance of Wuhan as a major transportation hub in the interior of China was further established. It also served as an important transit point for foreign aids moving inland from the southern ports.[8]

After the Japanese capture of Nanjing, the bulk of Nationalist government agencies and military command headquarters were located in Wuhan despite of having moved the capital to Chongqing. Wuhan thus became the de facto wartime capital at the onset of the engagements in Wuhan. The Chinese war effort was thus focused on protecting Wuhan from being occupied by the Japanese. The Japanese government and the headquarters of the China Expeditionary Army expected Wuhan to fall along with the Chinese resistance "within a month of two".[9]

Preparations for the battle

In December 1937, the Military Affairs Commission was created to determine the battle plan for the defense of Wuhan.[10] After the loss of Xuzhou, approximately 1.1 million men or 120 divisions of the National Revolutionary Army were redeployed.[11] The commission decided to organize the defense around Dabie Mountains, Poyang Lake, and the Yangtze River against the 200,000 or 20 divisions of the Imperial Japanese Army. Li Zongren and Bai Chongxi of the Fifth War Zone were assigned to defend the north of the Yangtze, while Chen Cheng of the Ninth War Zone was tasked for defending the south. The First War Zone, located in the west of the Zhengzhou-Xinyang section of the Pinghan Railway, was given the task to stop the Japanese forces coming from the North China Plain. At last, Chinese troops in the Third War Zone, located between Wuhu, Anqing and Nanchang, were given the task to protect the Yuehan Railway.[12]

After the Japanese occupied Xuzhou in May 1938, they sought to actively expand the scale of the invasion. The IJA decided to send a vanguard to first occupy Anqing for use as a forward base for an attack on Wuhan, then for its main force to attack the area north of the Dabie Mountains moving along the Huai River, eventually occupying Wuhan by way of the Wusheng Pass. After that, another detachment would move west along the Yangtze. However, due to the Yellow River flood, the IJA was forced to abandon the plan of attacking along the Huai, and decided to attack along both banks of the Yangtze instead. On 4 May, the commander of the IJA forces, Shunroku Hata, organised approximately 350,000 men of the Second and Eleventh Armies for the fighting in and around Wuhan. Under him, Yasuji Okamura commanded 5 and a half divisions of the Eleventh Army along both banks of the Yangtze in the main assault on Wuhan while Prince Naruhiko Higashikuni commanded 4 and a half divisions of the Second Army along the northern foot of the Dabie Mountains to assist the assault. These forces were augmented by 120 ships of the Third Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy under Koshirō Oikawa, more than 500 planes of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service as well as five divisions of Japanese forces from the Central China Area Army to guard the areas in and around Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, and other important cities, thus protecting the back of the Japanese forces and completing the preparation for the battle.[12]


Japanese troops march on Wuhan

The Battle of Wuhan was preceded by a Japanese air strike on 18 February 1938. It was known as the "2.18 Air Battle" and ended with Chinese forces repelling the attack.[10] On 24 March, the Diet of Japan passed the National Mobilization Law that authorized unlimited funding of war. As part of the law, the National Service Draft Ordinance also allowed the conscription of civilians. On 29 April, the Japanese air force launched major air strikes on Wuhan to celebrate Emperor Hirohito's birthday.[13][14] The Chinese, with prior intelligence, were well prepared. This battle was known as the "4.29 Air Battle" and was one of the most intense air battles of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

After the fall of Xuzhou in May 1938, the Japanese planned an extensive invasion of Hankou and the takeover of Wuhan, intending to destroy the main force of the National Revolutionary Army. The Chinese, on the other hand, were building up defenses and amassing troops around the Wuhan area. They also set up an advance defense line in Henan to delay the Japanese offensive at Xuzhou. However, due to the disparity in Chinese and Japanese troop strength, this line of defense collapsed quickly.

In an attempt to win more time for the preparation of the defense of Wuhan, the Chinese opened up the dikes of the Yellow River in Huayuankou, Zhengzhou on 9 June. The flood, now known as the 1938 Yellow River flood, forced the Japanese to delay their attack on Wuhan. However, it also caused around 500,000 to 900,000 civilian deaths, flooding many cities in the north of China.[13]

Major engagements

South of the Yangtze River

Chinese troops in Xinyang

On 15 June, the Japanese made a naval landing and captured Anqing, signalling the onset of the Battle of Wuhan. On the southern bank of the Yangtze River, the Chinese Ninth War Zone had one regiment stationed west of Poyang Lake, and another regiment stationed in Jiujiang.[15] On 24 June, the Japanese forces made a surprising landing in Madang, while the main force of the Japanese Eleventh Army attacked along southern shore of the Yangtze River. Madang quickly fell to the Japanese, which opened up the route to Jiujiang.[16]

The Chinese defenders tried to resist the Japanese advance, but they could not repel the landing force of the Japanese 106th Division from capturing Jiujiang on the 26th.[8] The Namita detachment moved westward along the river, landing northeast of Ruichang on 10 August and mounting an assault on the city. The defending NRA 2nd Corps were reinforced by the 32nd Group Army and was initially able to halt the Japanese attack. However, when the Japanese 9th Division entered the frame, the Chinese defenders were exhausted and Ruichang was captured on the 24th.

The 9th Division and the Namita detachment continued to move along the river, while the 27th Division invaded Ruoxi at the same time. The Chinese 30th and 18th Corps resisted along the Ruichang-Ruoxi Road and the surrounding area, resulting in a stalemate for more than a month until the Japanese 27th Division captured Ruoxi on 5 October. The Japanese forces then turned to strike northeast, capturing Xintanpu in Hubei on the 18th and then moving towards Dazhi.

In the meantime, other Japanese forces and the supporting river fleet continued their advance westwards along the Yangtze, encountering resistance from the defending Chinese 31st Army and 32nd Group Army west of Ruichang. When the town of Madang and Fujin Mountain, both in Yangxin County, were captured, the Chinese 2nd Corps deployed the 6th, 56th, 75th and 98th Armies along with the 30th Group Army to strengthen the defense of the Jiangxi region. The battle continued until 22 October when the Chinese lost other towns in Yangxin county, Dazhi and Hubei province. The Japanese 9th Division and Namita detachment were now approaching Wuchang.[17]


While the Japanese Army attacked Ruichang, the 106th Division moved along the Nanxun Railway (now known as Nanchang-Jiujiang) on the south side. The defending Chinese 4th Army, 8th Group Army and 29th Group Army relied on the advantageous terrain of Lushan and north of Nanxun Railway to resist. As a result, the Japanese offensive suffered a setback. On 20 August, the Japanese 101st Division crossed the Poyang Lake from Hukou County to reinforce the 106th Division, breaching the Chinese 25th Army's defensive line and capturing Xinzhi. They then attempted to occupy De'an County and Nanchang together with the 106th Division to protect the southern flank of the Japanese Army which was advancing westward. Xue Yue, the commander-in-chief of the Chinese First Corps, used the 4th, 29th, 66th, and 74th Armies to link with the 25th Army and engage the Japanese in a fierce battle at Madang and north of De'an, throwing the battle into a stalemate.

Towards the end of September, 4 regiments of the Japanese 106th Division circled into the Wanjialing region, west of De'an. Xue Yue commanded the 4th, 66th, and 77th Armies to flank the Japanese. The 27th Division of the Japanese Army attempted to reinforce the position but were ambushed and repulsed by the Chinese 32nd Army led by Shang Zhen in Baisui Street, west of Wanjialing. On 7 October, the Chinese Army mounted a final large-scale assault to encircle the Japanese troops. The fierce battle continued for three days, and all Japanese counter-attacks were repelled by the Chinese.

By 10 October, the 106th Division as well as the 9th, 27th, and 101st Divisions which had gone to reinforce the 106th had all suffered heavy casualties. The Aoki, Ikeda, Kijima, and Tsuda brigades were also annihilated in the encirclement. With Japanese forces in the area losing combat command capabilities, hundreds of officers were airdropped into the area. Of the four Japanese divisions which had gone into the battle, only around 1,500 men made it out of the encirclement. This great victory was later named the Victory of Wanjialing.

After the war, in the year 2000, Japanese military historians admitted the heavy damages that the 9th, 27th, 101st and 106th Divisions and their subordinate units had suffered during the Battle of Wanjialing, multiplying the number of war dead honoured in Japanese shrines. It was also said that the damages were not admitted during the war in order to maintain public morale and confidence in the war effort.

North of the Yangtze River

In Shandong, 1,000 soldiers under Shi Yousan, who had defected multiple times and was currently independent, occupied Jinan and held it for a few days. Guerrillas also held Yantai for a short period of time. The area east of Changzhou all the way to Shanghai was controlled by another non-government Chinese force led by Dai Li, employing guerrilla tactics in the suburbs of Shanghai and across the Huangpu River. This force was made up of secret society members of the Green Gang and the Tiandihui, killing spies and traitors. They lost more than 100 men during their operations. On 13 August, members of this force snuck into the Japanese air base at Hongqiao, raising a Chinese flag.

Chinese defenders around the Yangtze River during the Battle of Wuhan.

While these factions were active, the Japanese 6th Division breached the defensive lines of Chinese 31st and 68th Army on 24 July and captured Taihu, Susong, and Huangmei counties on 3 August. As the Japanese continued to move westward, the Chinese 4th Army of the Fifth War Zone deployed their main force in Guangji, Hubei and Tianjia Town to intercept the Japanese offensive. The 11th Group Army and the 68th Army were ordered to form a line of defense in Huangmei county, while the 21st and 29th Group Army, as well as the 26th Army, moved south to flank the Japanese.

The Chinese recaptured Taihu on 27 August and Susong on 28 August. However, with Japanese reinforcements arriving on 30 August, the 11th Group Army and the 68th Army were unsuccessful in their counteroffensives. They retreated to the Guangji region to continue to resist the Japanese forces along with the 26th, 55th, and 86th Armies. The 4th Army Group ordered the 21st and 29th Group Armies to flank the Japanese from northeast of Huangmei, but they were unable to stop the Japanese advance. Guangji was then captured on 6 September. On 8 September, Guangji was recovered by the 4th Corps but Wuxue was lost on that same day.

The Japanese Army then lay siege to Tianjia Town Fort. The 4th Corps sent the 2nd Army to reinforce the 87th Army, and the 26th, 48th, and 86th Armies to flank the Japanese. However, they were beaten back by the battle-hardened Japanese who had greater firepower and suffered many casualties. The Tianjia Town Fort was captured on the 29th, and the Japanese continued to attack westwards. They captured Huangpo on 24 October and were now approaching Hankou.

Dabie Mountains

In the north of the Dabie Mountains, the 3rd Army Group of the Fifth War Zone stationed the 19th and 51st Group Armies and the 77th Army in the Liuan and Huoshan regions in Anqing. The 71st Army was tasked with the defense of Fujin Mountain and Gushi County in Henan. The 2nd Group Army was stationed in Shangcheng, Henan and Macheng, Hubei. The 27th Group Army and the 59th Army was stationed in the Yellow River region, and the 17th Army was deployed in the Xinyang region to organise the defensive works.

The Japanese attacked in late August with the 2nd Group Army marching from Hefei on two different routes. The 13th Division, on the southern route, breached the Chinese 77th Army's defensive line and captured Huoshan, then turned towards Yejiaji. The nearby 71st Army and the 2nd Group Army made use of their existing positions to resist the Japanese onslaught, halting the Japanese 13th Division. The 16th Division was thus called in to reinforce the attack. On 16 September, the Japanese captured Shangcheng. The defenders retreated southwards out of the city, using their strategic strongholds in the Dabie Mountains to continue the resistance. On 24 October, the Japanese occupied Macheng.

The 10th Division was the main force in the northern route. They breached the Chinese 51st Army's defensive line and captured Liuan on 28 August. On 6 September, they captured Gushi and continued their advance westwards. The Chinese 27th Group Army and the 59th Army gathered in the Yellow River region to resist. After ten days of fierce fighting, the Japanese crossed the Yellow River on 19 September. On the 21st, the Japanese 10th Division defeated the Chinese 17th Group Army and 45th Army, capturing Lushan.

The 10th Division then continued to move westward, but met a Chinese counterattack east of Xinyang and was forced to withdraw back to Lushan. The Japanese 2nd Army Group ordered the 3rd Division to assist the 10th Division in taking Xinyang. On 6 October, the 3rd Division circled back to Xintang and captured the Liulin station of Pinghan Railway. On the 12th, the Japanese 2nd Army captured Xinyang and moved south of the Pinghan Railway to attack Wuhan together with the 11th Army.

Fighting in Guangzhou

Due to the continuing stalemate around Wuhan and the continued influx of foreign aid to Chinese forces from ports in the south, the IJA decided to deploy 3 reserve divisions to pressure the naval shipping lines. It was thus decided to occupy the Guangdong port by way of an amphibious landing. Because of the fighting in Wuhan, the bulk of Chinese forces in Guangzhou had been transferred away. As such, the pace of the occupation was much smoother than expected and Guangzhou fell to the Japanese on 21 October.[18]

The successive victories attained by the Japanese forces completed the encirclement of Wuhan. Since the loss of the Guangzhou area meant that no more foreign aid would be flowing in, the strategic value of Wuhan was lost. The Chinese Army, hoping to save their remaining forces, thus abandoned the city on 25 October. The Japanese Army captured Wuchang and Hankou on 26 October and captured Hanyang on the 27th, concluding the campaign in Wuhan.[19]


Battle of Wuhan
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 武漢會戰
Simplified Chinese 武汉会战
Defense of Wuhan
Traditional Chinese 武漢保衛戰
Simplified Chinese 武汉保卫战
Japanese name
Kanji 武漢攻略戦

After four months of intense fighting, both the Chinese Air Force and the Navy were decimated as the IJA had successfully captured Wuhan. However, the main Chinese land force remained largely intact, while the IJA was significantly weakened. The battle of Wuhan bought more time for Chinese forces and equipment in Central China to move further inland to Chongqing, laying the foundation for an extended war of resistance. After the capture of Wuhan, the IJA advance in central China was slowed down significantly by multiple battles around Changsha in 1939, 1941, and 1942. No more major offensives were launched until Operation Ichi-Go in 1944, with limited offensives mounted for the sole purpose of training recruits. The Chinese managed to preserve their strength to continue resisting the weakened IJA, reducing its capability to respond to rising tensions between Japan and the Soviet Union at the borders in the Northeast.[20]

Despite the capture of Wuhan, the Japanese suffered over 140,000 casualties. Although Chinese casualties, at 400,000 total, were more than double this number, it was an improvement from the Battle of Shanghai, where Chinese casualties outnumbered Japanese casualties by more than three to one.



  1. ^ a b c Stephen MacKinnon, "The Tragedy of Wuhan, 1938," Modern Asian Studies 30.4 (October 1996): 931–943.
  2. ^ Mackinnon 2008, p. 102.
  3. ^ Paine 2017, p. 123.
  4. ^ Paine 2017, p. 124.
  5. ^ MacKinnon 2008, p. 66.
  6. ^ MacKinnon 2007, p. 45.
  7. ^ MacKinnon 2008, p. 50.
  8. ^ a b Paine 2012, p. 140.
  9. ^ MacKinnon 2008, p. 98.
  10. ^ a b MacKinnon 2008, p. 120.
  11. ^ MacKinnon 2008, p. 25.
  12. ^ a b Paine 2017, p. 125–126.
  13. ^ a b MacKinnon 2008, p. 121.
  14. ^ Garver 1988, p. 41.
  15. ^ MacKinnon 2008, p. 38.
  16. ^ MacKinnon 2008, p. 39.
  17. ^ MacKinnon 2008, p. 40.
  18. ^ Paine 2012, p. 142.
  19. ^ Paine 2012, p. 141.
  20. ^ MacKinnon 2008, p. 101.


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Coordinates: 30°34′00″N 114°16′01″E / 30.5667°N 114.2670°E / 30.5667; 114.2670