Review of Asian Studies last struggle of the chinese civil war: the battles on quemoy and dengbu, 1949

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Hsiang-Wang Liu

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
The battles on Quemoy and Dengbu in 1949 at the end of the Chinese Civil War have received little attention from scholars. Only recently did two books begin to discuss them. The Chinese Civil War: Decisive Encounters by Odd Arne Westad in 2003 mentioned them on one page. A 2008 study by Michael Szonyi, Cold War Island: Quemoy on the Front Line has more pages of description, but it is a work of social history. Both provide few details on the nature of the war.1
These two battles have become political symbols nowadays for the two regimes across the Taiwan Strait. The battle of Quemoy was especially emphasized by them during last two decades for it almost saved the Nationalist regime on Taiwan whereas the Communist in Beijing failed to take it. This war on the offshore islands was unique in various ways. Very few contemporary records were recorded about both battles. The basic U.S. governmental documents like The Foreign Relations of the United States is quite silent on this topic.
Before the battles, the Nationalists controlled almost every archipelago along China’s coast. In the north, they took the Changshan archipelagos to blockade the Bohai Gulf. In the east, the Zhoushan islands were to watch Shanghai, almost closing off the exit for the Yangtze. The rest of islands, from the East China Sea to the South China Sea, Quemoy/Amoy, Wanshan, and Hainan were still well protected in 1949.
Among all, the Changshan was the least significant, simply because it was unable to close off the sea route to North China. It was too distant in the remote north, difficult for the Nationalists on Taiwan to reach. The Nationalists garrisoned only about 1,700 soldiers there, too small to survive. The troops eventually collapsed in August of 1949 when North China was completely in Beijing’s hand.


The rest of the islands, however, were defended with stronger forces and effectively blockaded South China from the Yangtze to the South China Sea. Taiwan, geographically separated from the mainland by about one hundred miles and in the center of this island-chain, became the central base for these offshore islands. Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalist leader, regarded Taiwan as his last base for a long time. In the wake of the Huaihai Campaign of late 1948, he had reorganized the government on Taiwan. When the situation on mainland was worsening, he elevated the status of Taiwan. In May, 1949, Shanghai was lost. Taiwan began to flank the mainland. One month later, Chiang in Taiwan declared a blockade all Chinese coast and harbors.2

Chiang’s strategic plan then was to keep Southern Fujian including Amoy and Quemoy as the front for Taiwan.3 These two islands, Amoy and Quemoy, were traditionally the gateway between Taiwan and the mainland. He deployed considerable forces there. Amoy, the island city, was especially the economic and political center of Southern Fujian. From Amoy the Nationalists stretched into the continental interior, and on the right to some offshore islands like Pingtan and Matsu to threaten Northern Fujian from the sea. Taiwan was the base behind to aid Southern Fujian. The Taiwan Strait in this sense was the Nationalist lake.
The Nationalists exerted their remaining naval and air forces to cruise that lake. The People Liberation Army(PLA) simply could not ship troops from Shanghai to invade Fujian or Canton by sea, but rather had to rely on movement by foot through inland to attack those areas. Though some islands were far closer to the mainland and exposed to the PLA’s artillery firepower, the Nationalist major island bases were safe enough by geographical distance. This enabled the Nationalists to land their troops on mainland at will. They never worried about any threats from the sea. They controlled all sea routes. It might be termed as a kind of sea power against the land power of the Communists. The land power was totally confined in the continent.
This sea power by nature is a forward advancing. While the Taiwan Strait was a Nationalist lake, the mainland coastal bases were logically their advancing positions. But to maintain the sea power is not easy. In late 1949, Chiang’s reliable navy was only less than 40 armed ships and his small air forces were comprised of less than one hundred effective airplanes. This firepower was clearly not enough to maintain his forward policy.4 Chiang needed strong fleets to maintain effective control. Small-scale or occasional operations to protect interests on the mainland only provided a temporary superiority. Once the PLA’s modern firepower grew to a sufficient level, the Nationalist sea power would vanish soon.
So was Chiang’s strategy offensive in nature, but it was limited due to his feeble sea power. Those islands he occupied did not have much defensive value for long. They were scattered, near the mainland, and far away from Taiwan. Shipping supplies from Taiwan was expensive. The danger from the mainland was always imminent, especially when the Communists shelled. The Zhoushan Islands alone had consumed half of the revenue of Taiwan.5 For other islands, it was impossible to expect to be fully supplied; thus, they were in a very dangerous position that, when the Communists were ready to attack, they could not effectively resist. They became, in fact, extravagant burdens.
But for Chiang, these islands were not only to be the bases to “recover” China in the future, but also were political in nature for the goal of anti-communist war. As the Communists conquered the mainland, the United States saw the importance of the island regime to blockade Beijing. Chiang’s hold of the offshore islands demonstrated his determination and dovetailed with American interests over Asia a lot. The significance of holding the islands was more political than military at this sense.6 Domestically, this political nature was more evident that Chiang’s holding of the islands and the forward coastal bases not only protected Taiwan, but also legitimized his regime.
Facing such a situation, the Communists only relied on their ground troops to wage war against those bases. The attacking forces were part of PLA 3rd Field Army, which much outnumbered the Nationalists in Southern Fujian with firepower and soldiers.7 Attacking the continental Fujian did not seem difficult to them.
Prelude of the war: Amoy
In the late summer of 1949, the PLA 10th Army Group (AG) launched autumn attacks on Southern Fujian. The Communists’ aim was to capture Amoy and Quemoy in the end. With more than 100,000 troops, the PLA 10th AG dispatched one-third of them along the coast, sailing from Northern Fujian to take over Pingtan Island, the largest island along Southeast China’s coast, lying 50 miles or so north of Quemoy. At the same time, most of the troops came down the mainland to attack Southern Fujian.8
The Communists first took Pingtan island, but their victory in the battle of Pingtan was basically accidental. On September 13, they shelled the neighboring islands, then boarded junks for Pingtan. An unexpected typhoon hit the areas then, almost destroying their junks. Only a few thousand soldiers landed on Pingtan where a small group of Communist guerrillas joined with them. Together, they attacked the Nationalists on Pingtan, but the Nationalists gave up the island and transferred to Matsu, another group of islands farther away from the continent, where later became one of the most crucial offshore island bases, second only to Quemoy, for Taiwan.9
The other Communist forces were expected to take over Southern Fujian easily. Some 30,000 Nationalists who defended the area were very demoralized. Most of them were the defeated troops from the Yangtze. They were very vulnerable to invasion. Chiang shipped some minimal supplies from Taiwan to them, but this did not improve the situation.10 On September 19, the PLA 10th AG swiftly destroyed the Nationalists there, occupying all of Southern Fujian coast except for the two main islands of Amoy and Quemoy. The entire continental Southern Fujian was lost without significant resistances.
Amoy, an urban island situated in a gulf surrounded by continent, was the center of Southern Fujian. To the west of it was a tiny island, Gulangyu, once a Western concession, and to the east, the island of Quemoy, another Nationalist base in the area. Quemoy then was the rear, watching the sea. After taking Southern Fujian, the PLA spent one month to prepare next attack against the two island bases. The main problem was to acquire ships to cross the narrow ocean waters there. The PLA levied junks from surrounding fishing villages, but most of the junks were not good for an ocean crossing. The ships’ flat bottoms made them unsafe to maneuver through turbulent waves. Only in calm weather, they were useful to cross the seas.11 On September 26, the PLA 10th AG was set to take both islands, Amoy and Quemoy at one time. However, it could not gather enough junks to ship all troops at a time. By early October, the PLA had only 630 junks available and was able to ship only 15,000 soldiers at a time. The invading troops, therefore, could not attack Amoy and Quemoy simultaneously. They had to choose only one target.
The PLA chose Amoy first. Quemoy was then a secondary place, far poorer than Amoy. The Nationalist main body was on Amoy. If taking Quemoy first, the PLA would likely miss a chance to destroy the Nationalist main body which might flee from Amoy to Taiwan. It would be better off not to let them go. Amoy, moreover, was the center in the areas and was geographically very close to the continent. Taking it was more easily and it would mean to destroy the Nationalist defensive net of the region. The PLA expected that, should it “liberate” Amoy, Quemoy would follow suit or the Nationalists on Quemoy would flee to Taiwan. It would be only regrettable that it could not at the same time destroy the other smaller group on Quemoy.12
Chiang did not ignore the imminent danger upon Amoy. On October 6, he sailed from Taiwan to Amoy to encourage the confidence and to forge an alliance with local dignitaries together against the Communists. He also ordered the 12th AG of the Nationalists in East Guangdong to come to the area as the reinforcement. But the 12th AG came too late. Since lacking transportation carriers, it did not join the battle on Amoy in time, but arrived on Quemoy in late October, just as the battle commenced there.13

With only some 30,000 soldiers, the Nationalists on Amoy were in an absolutely weaker position. Though building bulwarks and a variety of defensive barriers, they were impossible to be able to resist the PLA’s heavy artillery. The Nationalists had no artillery to hold the city-base.14 The troops were the same soldiers who fled from Southern Fujian in an extremely lower morale. All these contributed their failure of the defense.

On October 15, the PLA troops launched a flank attack against Gulangyu Island. However, it ended up being a disaster for the Communists. With the powerful gun fire, they first shelled the island, nearly destroying the Nationalists’ bulwarks, but the junks carrying the Communist soldiers lost control and, facing a strong ocean tide, the PLA were unable to reach the island. Only a few Communist troops eventually landed but were completely annihilated by the Nationalists. The Nationalists actually scored a victory on that tiny island, but this did not change the bigger picture.15
The battle for Amoy Island, however, netted a different result. With the aid of a strong monsoon, PLA’s junks crossed the water at night. On October 16, the PLA successfully landed northern Amoy and swiftly set up the first beach head. The Nationalists fiercely counterattacked. It was a hard battle for the Communist landing troops. Many were forced to fight in the water, causing dramatic casualties. The situation was improved until all forces landed on the coast and the returning junks carried the second wave of troops to the island, leading to their hold of northern Amoy. The Nationalists hence could not stop the PLA’s advance.
To try to reverse the situation, the Nationalists reinforced from southern Amoy. But the darkness of the night impeded the relief troops’ advance. Failing to arrive at the battlefield on time, they missed the chance to save the situation. By then, the PLA had consolidated their northern bases and further expanded into central Amoy, where serious clashes took place. After counterattacking in vain, the Nationalists withdrew to southern Amoy. On the 17th, they abandoned it and retreated to Quemoy, but they had already suffered a heavy loss.16
The Communists won, but all these victories made them ignore many signs of warning that were revealed on these offshore island battles. In the first battle on Pingtan, the PLA troops had encountered an unpredictable typhoon that hampered their advance. It is that the Nationalists abandoned Pingtan island and the Communists got it. That is very much by sheer luck. However, they dismissed the accidental nature of the victory, and continued to approach Amoy and its neighboring areas without much caution.17
The next attack on Gulangyu island had been a failure, and it is the victory on Amoy that concealed this misfortune. They did not understand that nature. One more lesson was that the first attack on Amoy was almost unsustainable, but they survived and succeeded by the second wave of reinforcement. Had their relief forces not come in time and their junks not returned back with more forces to come or had the Nationalists boldly counterattacked enough, it would be hard to say who would have triumphed. The island battle requires a safe supply by sea to the battlefield. The PLA’s junk-fleet risked too much, making it vulnerable to modern weapons from land, sea, and air.18 Geographically, Quemoy was farther away from the mainland. Unlike the situation on Amoy, the junk-fleet would have found it more difficult to reach that designated landing site.
The Battle for Quemoy Island
Strategically, Quemoy was the last Nationalist base in the area. Without it, the Nationalists could not control Taiwan Strait and Taiwan would be exposed to the PLA threat. They could not lose it. The distance from Quemoy eastward to the Pescadores in the Taiwan Strait was 82 miles, to southern Taiwan, 150 miles, and to north, 100 miles. The Nationalists were not unfamiliar with the story of Koxinga to take over Taiwan from Southern Fujian in 1661. The Qing emperor, Kangxi, later repeated the history through there to capture Taiwan in 1683. Chiang urged to hold the island.
Quemoy is 164 square kilometers, a little larger than Amoy. Its shape is like a dumbbell with the thinnest part in the center. To the east is a hilly region; the west a decline to the sea. On the tip of the northwest of the island is a peninsula, Guningtou, with many cliffs. Generally, the eastern part of the island is difficult to land on, since enormous reefs scatter in the sea, and the western part is sandy beach, much easier to land on. However, only the northern side in the center faces the mainland and very close to it. Therefore, if any operations from the mainland were taken, it would be convenient and logical for the PLA to land only on the northern beach near Guningtou.
In the island, located in the interior were houses built with thick dirt. Almost every house could be used as a stronghold in war. It was a poor island, with no modern buildings and very few well-to-do people, only fishermen and farmers in a population of around 40,000 people, most crowded in the southwest corner, the capital city of Quemoy. To them, any political change was insignificant. They were indifferent to the struggle between the Nationalists and the Communists. It was impossible for the Communists to stir up a peasant uprising, or, for that matter, for the Nationalists to organize an anti-Communist movement.
After taking Amoy, the soldiers of the PLA 10th AG relaxed their guard. Their headquarters was now moved into Amoy and it was urgent to resolve famine on Amoy first.19 They were not much worried with the next battle on Quemoy. With a population of more than 200,000 in Amoy, food and fuel became scarce then. Inhabitants even had to tear doors as fuel for warmth, and famine had already spread over the island. The PLA troops hurried to supply two million kg of rice to resolve the problem, temporarily relieving the situation.20 It certainly took more time for the economy to recover.
As to the next battle, the PLA counted that the Nationalists would have no more than 20,000 soldiers on Quemoy. Those soldiers had suffered defeats in previous battles, and they were too weak to repel a PLA attack. Of these, only about 10,000 soldiers could be mobilized for battle. To the Communists, it looked like another easy victory ahead. Even Amoy, such a heavily armed island, had been taken easily; Quemoy, a secondary base, was contemptuously expected. If the Nationalists there did not flee, it was for the Communists to take the island and destroy them. The Communists gathered about 400 junks, enough to carry 9,000 soldiers at a time. They planned, after the junks were returned, a second wave of troops would be aboard to reinforce their first attacking troops. The Communists believed in a total of 20,000 able PLA soldiers would be enough to overwhelm the Nationalists on the island.
This optimistic sentiment was not universally shared. On October 20, the PLA captured some Nationalists captives, and learned that the Nationalist 12th AG was en route to Quemoy to bolster the defense. It was valuable information. Su Yu, the Communist leader of East China, admonished the PLA on Amoy not to launch any attack until the junks could ship at least 20,000 soldiers at one time. The PLA 10th AG, however, played down that suggestion and continued its preparations.21 Within ten days they were ready to wage the attack. The PLA 10th AG selected elite troops for the operation. These troops were trained to get used to sea battles. If their junk fleets fell into chaos, they were told to fight on individually to land on Quemoy. Their strategy was that, after landing, they were to strike western Quemoy first, then down to the south, and turn east to completely take the whole island. The PLA troops boasted to have lunch in the capital of Quemoy after the landing.
As the Communists estimated, the Nationalists on Quemoy were demoralized and weak in confidence. Most of the Nationalists had the experience of failure on the mainland. It would be hard for them to counter the PLA again. In order to salvage the situation, Taiwan reinforced them with the 12th AG which was already on the way to come plus a group of newly trained armies of some 5,000 soldiers.22 The latter troops had been recruited and trained on Taiwan for one year. They were young, vigorous, well-disciplined, and deployed to the first possible landing area, the beach on the north.23
The Nationalist 12th AG was also composed of new recruits, but less trained. Its original army had collapsed in the Huaihai Campaign, but Chiang Kai-shek asked Hu Lian, the commander, to recreate this Army Group with new soldiers. Hu recruited them from villages in Southeast China, and trained them for some months, then gradually sent them to Quemoy.24 Some soldiers still had no uniforms or weapons. Thus, by the time when the battle took place, the Nationalists had added two more groups of new recruits, those youth from Taiwan and the troops of 12th AG from eastern Guangdong. The former was at the front as defense armies, the latter as attacking forces which were on the way to come. The front armies were the fresh new forces. They built 400 covering sites on the beach, distanced 100 meters apart, forming a powerful fire net.25 The latter was still on the sea from East Guangdong. When the battle broke two days, most eventually arrived and joined the battle. The Nationalists on Quemoy were far stronger than what the Communists thought.
The problem was timing -- when to attack Quemoy for the Communists? The Nationalists at the front figured that the time would be around October 24-26, since these three days were the period of high tide of the sea. It would be more convenient and safer for the junks to ride this high-tide wave to approach and land Quemoy.26 In order to face an imminent fight, the Nationalists practiced an exercise on the day of 24th of October. They were trained to endure half an hour of possible shelling from the north by the PLA and then to try to annihilate the PLA junk fleets when they were approaching the beach. During the half-day drills, one tank had trouble moving and was left on the beach for repairs. Two tanks were ordered to aid it. These three tanks would later become unexpectedly involved in the first fighting.27
The Communists did not delay their plan, and their rationale was different. They had taken all islands north of Quemoy, aimed their guns at the northern beach of Quemoy, and concentrated massive forces ready to land from the north. They also had information of the Nationalist 12th AG on its way to the island from East Canton. Therefore, they had to take the island before the Nationalists reinforcements came. The PLA high command agreed with on the 24th as the day of the attack.28
However, several problems had been revealed during their preparation. First, since many junks were worn out in the previous battle on Amoy, they had to conscript new junks from neighboring provinces. These sailors were unfamiliar with the waters around Quemoy. It would need more time to train the sailors. However, there was no time to do so. Since the PLA lacked navy and air forces, they still had to rely on these illiterate fishermen to guide their armies in sea and ship them quickly into battle.
Second, the junks required calmer water for ocean moving, but the sea in October was usually violent and unpredictable. Junks also were too fragile to carry heavy weapons such as tanks and heavy guns. Thus, the PLA attacking forces would not have any superiority in terms of firepower. Only shelling from the mainland was available, but once their troops landed on the island, the shelling had to stop since the landing troops would mix with the enemy. Therefore, infantry with light weapons had to play the critical role in the battle. The sea to the north of Quemoy was shallow. This forced the PLA without choice but to wage the battle at night on the 24th, since at that time the sea tide was high enough to allow their ships to get closer to the shore. It became clear that they could not change the time and they could not delay, lest the chance be gone.
The Communists divided their fleet into three groups, aiming to land at the “central waist” of Quemoy. They expected that, after landing, all groups would penetrate into the west, then southward and turned the east of the island. The focus was on the west first. Meanwhile, the same junks would go back the mainland to carry second wave of the soldiers, plus food and ammunitions to come. As such, they could continue to crush the Nationalists until Quemoy surrendered. It was hoped that the battle would end at noon on the 25th.29
At midnight on the 24th, the PLA’s first invading forces, some 9,000 soldiers, sailed for the island. The trip was uncomfortable. The wind that night was too strong, and their fleet was blown to westward too much, changing the direction to land on the more northwest part of Quemoy, the Guningtou areas. Therefore, the impending landing would occur at only one point on the island, not the original three points in the central beach. Gone was their original plan to confuse the Nationalists with the landing! Surprisingly, the Communists did not accompany with a high-level commander-in-chief to lead the invading fleets. There was a missing link in the chain of high command, yet the Communists believed that the Nationalists would behave as they had been on the mainland, where they collapsed without serious fighting. They were, therefore, not concerned about their lack of full preparation and they remained in high spirits as they set sail.30
The distance between their boarding bases on the mainland to Quemoy was six to ten miles. Usually one hour was enough to cross the strait, but the violent waves that night took their journey longer than expected. The rough seas caused the PLA soldiers seasick. They were almost all northern Chinese, most from the Yellow River plain, very unused to be the climate that night. Fortunately, the Nationalists did not detect their movement. The night was so quiet and the PLA passed the first hour silently. One Nationalist soldier finally sighted the approaching PLA ships near the beach. He touched off a mine on the beach, causing a noisy explosion and waking up other Nationalists at the front. Upon investigating, the Nationalists discovered the PLA’s invading fleet approaching and it was only less than one mile away. They began to open fire on the PLA. The Communists, now understanding their sneak attack being sighted, fired their artillery from the mainland to shell Quemoy’s beach.31 Both sides began to cross fire.
Along the central beach were garrisoned two Nationalist regiments, the new recruits of youth from Taiwan, the 601st in the west and the 602nd in the east, for a total of some 5,000 soldiers. The Communists’ shelling drove them into their designated positions. Few people were hurt. Looking at the sea, they saw an unprecedented sight before them. One soldier recalled that “as we moved into the protection positions, it was unimaginable that hundreds of junks were approaching to us. We had never seen such a strange and magnificent sight. Instinctively, we fired the machine guns at them. Within half an hour, 5,000 bullets were run out. The junks were in chaos.”32
As it happened, the three tanks left on the beach to the east under the 602nd regiment’s command proved very useful in destroying the PLA’s fleets. The Communists never imagined they would meet with such a resistance and encounter such an intensive fire from the Nationalists. The casualty was heavy around this area. While their junks crowded together and protected by gun fire from the mainland, they could still continue advancing, but it had been no more an organized, effective and systematic approach for the landing.33
It was a fatal blow during the first 30 minutes. The Communists could not cross fire from their junks, but could only try to avoid the Nationalists’ intensive attack.34 Some of them had to get off the junks and swim with wooden boards or plastic tools from six hundred meters to the beach on Quemoy. The entire course prior to the landing was miserable. Near the 602nd regiment defensive line, the Communists could barely move ahead. The major part of the fleet was blown by wind and diverted to Gulingtou, the 601st regiment’s zone.

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