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Mitsubishi G3M
Japanese navy Mitsubishi G3M land-based bombers on a bombing run

Fly Boys of the Generalissimo (cont'd)

The Fast Bombers

        While the Chinese Air Force began to attack the Japanese troops and ships around Shanghai, the Kanoya Kokutai stationed at Matsuyama Airfield in Taihoku, Formosa was also ready to launch its “transoceanic bombing”.  Having been strongly influenced by Italian airpower theorist Giulio Douhet, the Japanese believed that they could force Chiang Kai-Shek and his government to submit using only strategic bombing.  The raid on Guernica during the Spanish Civil War was certainly a good example of this theory in practice.  In order to achieve a total victory over the Chinese Nationalists, the Japanese planes planned to penetrate Chinese airspace and use superior speed to avoid fighter interception and drop their bombs in safety.  The invention of the schnellbomber (fast bomber) was just what the Japanese needed.

        The Mitsubishi G3M bomber was manufactured in 1934. By equipping two Mitsubishi Kinsei 41 (or 42?) radial engines, the speed of the G3M2 Model 21 bombers could reach a maximum speed of 232 mph and a cruising speed of 173 mph.  Compared to the Curtis Hawk-III biplanes flown by the Chinese Air Force with a maximum speed of 225 mph and a cruising speed of 157 mph, the G3M was definitely faster.  In any case, when the Chinese tried to intercept the Japanese bombers with their fighters, the G3Ms in group formation could also provide defense for each other with three 7.7mm machine guns mounted on each plane.  The maximum bomb load of the G3M was about 8000kg (1765Ib) which made this bomber a decisive weapon for the IJNAF.  The Hawk-III, by comparison, had only two .3 inch Browning machine guns and could carry only one 500Ib bomb. 

        As Major General Chang Kuang-Ming, who back then was a young pilot with the 22nd Squadron, 4th Pursuit Group of the Republic of Chinese Air Force (ROCAF), pointed out, the Hawk-III was never really a fighter interceptor, but more of an attack plane.  The Chinese, ironically, were also heavily influenced by Douhet’s theories since the Chinese Air Force employed many Italians as flight instructors and advisors.  The Hawk-III had originally been used in the same way as the G3M against warlord and Communist insurgents and had performed well in that role.  However, for General Chang and the rest of Chinese pilots, the war with Japan was a war unlike anything that they had encountered before and they suffered dearly from their lack of an adequate fighter plane.  As General Chang noted, the 4th PG would not have a real fighter plane until the Soviet built Polikarpov I-15bis arrived in late 1937 (The Chinese did receive some Boeing 281 (P-26), which was the only pure fighter used by China at 1937, but only 11 were received, and originally ordered by the warlord of Canton Province).

        Although it was not fully up to the task, the Hawk-III was the only option available in the early days of the war.  The Chinese Nationalists bought a total of 102 Curtis Hawk-III fighters from the United States.  Most of those biplanes were sent to China in crates and were assembled in Hangchow by the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO).  The first Hawk-III arrived in China on March 19th, 1936, and the ROCAF had 72 of them in operation when war with Japan broke out.  The 7th Squadron from the 3rd Pursuit Group, 21st, 22nd, 23rd Squadrons from the 4th Pursuit Group, and the 24th and 25th Pursuit Squadrons from the 5th Pursuit Group were the main CAF units receiving “New Hawks” to replace the Hawk-IIs they used to fly before.

Early Encounter

       Originally, Vice Admiral Kiyoshi Hasegawa, Commander of the Japanese 3rd Fleet, planned to attack the Chinese airfields around Shanghai on August 14th following a Chinese Central Army offensive launched the day before.  Because of bad weather in the area caused by a typhoon, the Japanese planned to delay their attack until the skies cleared.  This plan was suddenly changed after Chinese fighters and bombers began to raid Japanese positions and ships in Shanghai during the morning.  Although the Chinese Air Force did not cause significant damage to the Japanese, Admiral Hasegawa ordered his aircraft to launch their counterattack against the Chinese airfields around 11:40.  With Japanese carrier aircraft unable to participate due to the typhoon, it fell to the G3Ms of the Kanoya Kokutai in Formosa to strike the Chinese airfields.

        The Kanoya Kokutai had eighteen G3M2 bombers and fourteen Nakajima A4N1 fighters.  Under Lieutenant Commander Shinichi Nitta, nine G3M2s were sent to bomb Chienchiu, where the Chinese Aviation School was located.  Another nine led by Lieutenant Commander Nantaro Asano were to bomb Kwangteh Airfield.  With two 500lb bombs aboard each plane, both Nitta and Asano flights took off about 13:05 (Formosa Time) without fighter escort.  With the top speed of G3M2, the flight to both targets took about three hours.  The bombers did not fly in group formation due to the danger of collision caused by poor visibility while flying through the typhoon.  The Japanese also had to maintain their altitude below 500m (about 1641 feet) because of the poor visibility.  Those actions eventually gave the Chinese pilots a good opportunity to taste their first air to air victories against Japan.

        Meanwhile, the air warning system set up by the Chinese detected the Japanese bombers when both formations reached Mainland China near Yungchia and Wenchou.  Although this information was soon reported to General Chiang Chien-Jen, the Commander of Chienchiu Special Area Air Defense Zone, it was still very hard for the Chinese to distinguish whether those planes were Chinese or Japanese due to the bad weather.  At the same time, the 4th Pursuit Group was ordered to enhance the air defense of the Hanchow-Shanghai Area, therefore all Hawk-IIIs were leaving Chou Chia-Kou Air Base in Northern China and moving back to Chienchiu under the Order No.2.

        At this point, the Headquarters Squadron had six Hawk-III which included the personal planes of both commander and vice commander, and four planes in reserve.  Each of the three squadrons comprising the 4th Pursuit Group had nine Hawk-IIIs.  While all the planes flew directly from Chou Chia-Kou to Hanchow, Commander Kao Chi-Hang was still in Nanking for conference.  The communication between planes was in bad shape as well, the pilots could not speak to each other in the air and the only thing they could was to do whatever ground control told them to do.  Since the Hawk-IIIs had an open cockpit, it was also very difficult for the Chinese to fly them during rainy days.

        By 15:50, the sound of air raid sirens could be heard throughout the Hangchow area.  The various flights of the 4th Pursuit Group began to land in Chienchiu Airfield after two hours in the air.  Each of the Squadrons came in three smaller flight elements (consisting of 3 Hawk-IIIs).  The first squadron to reach its destination was the 21st led by Captain Lee Kuei-Tan.  Soon the 23rd Squadron led by Mao Ying-Chu began to touch down as well.  However, the 22nd seemed to have disappeared.  As the pilots climbed out of their planes, the ground crews warned them that the Japanese bombers were directly overhead.  As Pilot Liu Chi-Sheng recalled, they had no time to worry about how much fuel still remained in their tanks or whether they were tired from their long, wet flight, all they could think of was to scramble as quickly as possible and try to gain as much altitude as possible.  They only had about 40 minutes of flying time on average before their fuel ran out, but most of the Chinese pilots rose to the challenge eagerly.

        While the No.1 and No.2 flights of 21st Sq began to take off, the No.3 Flight remained on the ground to refuel.  Since most of the 4th Pursuit Group’s ground crews had remained behind in Chou Chia-Kou, the entire situation in Chienchiu was chaos.  During this crucial moment, a DC-2 landed on the runway, and everyone realized that Col. Kao Chi-Hang was returning to Chienchiu from Nanking.  The first thing Col. Kao did was run into the combat control room for a mission briefing and then he rushed out to find his personal plane, numbered “IV-I” on the fuselage (it had been flown to Chienchiu by pilot Chao Shi-Rhong of the 23rd Squadron).  As soon as he found his Hawk-III, he ordered every pilot on the ground to take off with him. Pilot Wang Yin-Hua remembered that he told Col. Kao they had ran out of fuel, but their commander replied that they must take off even if there was no fuel at all in their tanks.

continued in part 4