Evaluation of the Japanese Armed Forces on the Basis of the Fighting in China since July 1937
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Evaluation of the Japanese Armed Forces on the Basis of the Fighting in China since July 1937

In June 2020, I read my first primary source from WW II in a language other than English. This is a Fremde Heere Ferner Osten “Evaluation of the Japanese Armed Forces on the basis of the fighting in China since July 1937” published in April 1938. Like many German texts from the National Socialist period, this is preserved in a Russian archive. The Soviets kept everything from caches of printed documents to bundles of soldiers’ letters, and many of these no longer exist in Germany, Hungary, Italy, or Romania. It is a clearly written and well-organized report which shows the high standard of thinking expected of officers in the Imperial German Army. The name of the author is not clear, but he states that he was active in the Great War and able to observe the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1910s. So he grew up and was educated long before the Nazi seisure of power, and had probably avoided the new regime by being stationed in East Asia. At one point he implies that he fought the Italians in the Great War, but he also compares the current state of the Imperial Japanese army to its state “25 years ago, when I had the opportunity to thoroughly study it for four years.” That might mean that he was an honoured prisoner of the Imperial Japanese Army after it occupied Germany’s Pacific possessions in 1914.

The author is in no way impressed by the Japanese armed forces. As far as he is concerned, the Japanese army is in no way up to the standards of a major European power and is achieving successes only because of its overwhelming advantage in war materiel over the Chinese (pp. 6, 8). Some of his complaints will be familiar to students of the Pacific War. He says that Japanese artillery are short-ranged and have trouble suppressing enemy artillery or closing roads and railways behind enemy lines. Japanese military planning is rigid and pedantic, and Japanese armour is effective on a small scale but lacks sufficient armour because local conditions only suit very light tanks weighing 3 to 8 tons. The large and small crimes and atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers have never been properly described in the reports which reach Europe.

Likewise, the tactical leadership is also schematic and not at the peak of modern combat leadership. It may be that it is adapted to the characteristics of the opponent, but I really question whether the Japanese know another kind of combat leadership.

Their tactic here consists in the assembly of all combat material in the smallest possible space and the launching of an almost wedge-like thrust (fast keilartiger Stoß), which by the correct disposition of fire against a deep zone must invariably break through. But after a successful breakthrough a quick exploitation and utilization does not just happen by itself, and begins only after tiresome preparations, at which time they naturally find a completely different situation and fail as a result. (pp. 6, 7)

My understanding is that by December 1941, the Japanese army had become much more active but still relied on concentrating its limited material in a sudden overwhelming barrage followed by a concentrated assault. And when Commonwealth and US forces started to learn to fight the Japanese, they found that if some Japanese units sent a platoon down a ravine an hour after sundown and everyone in it was killed, they would try the same thing the next night, and the next night, and the next night. On the other hand, I am surprised to hear that whole Japanese divisions of older conscripts have thrown down their rifles and run away if they do not have sufficient artillery, air, or armoured support!

It is sad to read this report as it warns how the “politicization” and lawlessness of the Japanese army are rotting it from within. Only three years later, the German army would be fully corrupted in the same way. And the report contains some Prussian arrogance:

The significance of the Japanese armed forces does not lie in their quality; measured by the European standard the Japanese army has not yet become anything close to equal to any European, except (on the basis of my experiences in the Great War) the Italian. It lies much more in the reality that the Japanese armed forces have at present no modernly organized and fully trained opponent in the Far East. I do not want to exaggerate, when I express my conviction, that with just two or three German divisions it would be a simple thing to throw the Japanese out of China in a short time. (p. 8)

Most of the Japanese army of 34 divisions was stationed in China and Manchuria, so to defeat them with two or three divisions would have been quite an achievement! Germany had not fought a war since 1918.

The Chinese Nationalist Army pioneered the use of large numbers of stocked pistols (Kolbenpistole), mostly based on the Mauser C96 “broomhandle” and FN Browning M1900 actions. For some reason, the Japanese did not adopt a similar weapon, even though these weapons would have been very useful in the jungles where they ended up fighting. I was surprised to see that the attached report on equipment in the Sino-Japanese War calls the Mausers “not without flaws” and “very inconvenient” and suggests replacing them with the Luger P08! There were versions of the Luger with a shoulder stock and a 32 round drum magazine, but they were inconvenient and unreliable too.

If we are not specialists in the Second World War, it is easy to forget that the alliance system in January 1942 was unguessable in January 1937. Germany armed and trained the government forces in China in the 1930s. Many German and Italian soldiers did not like each other very much. Germany, Italy, and Japan only became allies with the Pact of Steel in 1939, and the USSR only joined with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact later that year. The United Kingdom came very close to bombing the Soviet Union during the Winter War of 1940/1941. So it is a very good idea to read things written from 1937 to 1945 who did not know the outcome.

Two of the 60 original copies of this report are filed as Bestand 500 Findbuch 12451 Akte 231 by the DEUTSCH-RUSSISCHES PROJEKT ZUR DIGITALISIERUNG DEUTSCHER DOKUMENTE IN ARCHIVEN DER RUSSISCHEN FÖDERATION. I thank the anonymous Austrian vlogger of Military History Not Visualized (warning: YouTube) for linking to a different document in the same folder (“Erfahrungen und Betrachtungen aus dem japanisch-chinesischen Feldzeug 1937/1938,” 15. March 1938).

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(scheduled 16 June 2021)

7 thoughts on “Evaluation of the Japanese Armed Forces on the Basis of the Fighting in China since July 1937

  1. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Hi Sean,
    You have picked up very interesting theme. You know, that personally I want to learn and write about Russian-Japanese war in Mongolia 1938/39. Now are resurfacing sources from Japanese side, books based on their official documents, or memories of officers, pilots. I’m curious if somebody has acces to the archive of Japanese imperial army, their high command to document evolution of their doctrine. One foreign report about Japanese army is here https://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=87016 We still need solid book about cavalry in times of WWI (East and West together). Another book can be about cavalry between wars and in WWII (including China civil war). Cavalry, animals were still important during wars of 20th century! I wonder, why Japanese didn’t use soviet Tačanka for their cavalry units https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tachanka

    For context of evolution armies it would be great to know https://www.amazon.com/1929-Sino-Soviet-War-Nobody-Knew/dp/0700632603 Story of changes in Russian, Japanese, Chinese army in context, their tactical, strategy development according to European and mainly German school of thought. Do You plan something like this, or is it pure interest? At Chalkyn-Gol war, Soviets used rockets on air planes with big success. Soviet army was very innovative in 20’s, 30’s there are solid Polish and Czech works about it (like https://www.kosmas.cz/knihy/209376/ruske-raketove-zbrane-2.-svetove-valky/ https://www.databazeknih.cz/knihy/rudy-blitzkrieg-242585).

    I knew German thinking, but not all about other sides. Well known are massive Soviet paratroopers divisions, light fast tanks, but level of rocket weapons caught my eye, including projects like https://www.valka.cz/SOV-RBT-5-tank-s-raketami-TT-250-t41207 or rockets for tank KV-1 (which seemed well at tests, but didn’t enter mass production). Story of jet engine for planes is also theme for book, various states (including Italy, GB, etc.) could do it much sooner, not just Germans. We don’t have proper documents here (only fragments) about Czechoslovakia innovation from 30’s called TRUL. New device, anti-aircraft rocket launched from ground guided by sound of air motors. I guess Germans would be suprised… but Munich Agreement came and rest is history.

    1. admin says:

      I don’t know if it was you who shared the citation to John S. Harrel, Soviet Cavalry Operations During the Second World War: & the Genesis of the Operational Manoeuvre Group (Pen & Sword, 2019) Apparently cavalry doctrine is another area where the early USSR modeled itself on the USA (they also liked American industrial and management methods, and of course bought the Christie tank suspension).

      Finding people who can read Japanese, Classical Chinese, and modern standard Mandarin to write histories of the Chinese-Japanese war is hard.

  2. Pavel Vaverka says:

    I can’t remember (but I know the book) and recently there was monography about cavalry on Western front in WWI https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Horsemen-in-No-Mans-Land-Paperback/p/16738
    In USSR was company Ford (Nižnij Novgorod) during 20’s and maybe others from US, so Soviets could be inspired not just in industry. One funny story, on the beginning of WWII, American senators and high elite in army were considering what to do. We will build a new cavalry division! Prof. Budil was telling this not just for amusement, but for evidence of backwardness in land army high command. Yet I’m convinced that not all were living in old times, but simply want to get rich by selling their own horses to the army!

    I guess we have to wait patiently for history of Japan, Chinese army from 1918 till 1945, or at least from 30’s to 1945, in China case 1949. But for Russians You are well supplied. I want to point out something else, history as inspiration for pc games. Are you gaming geek?

    26 years ago https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Command_%26_Conquer_(1995_video_game) we saw first blood between GDI and Brotherhood of Nod. Units in the game were clearly created by somebody who was well acquainted with war projects of Third Reich and USSR. Mammoth Tank with two guns, rocket launchers on both sides of tower, motorcycle with twin rocket launchers (Soviets actually tried something similar for sidecar, it didn’t worked out as they wanted). For some reason German WII machines have appeal for scifi writters, movie makers, it’s like fetish, or effort to look mysterious, advanced. In one Marvel movie main badass is flying off on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horten_Ho_229

    1. admin says:

      I remember Command and Conquer! TIBERIUM! I guess the light tanks could have been inspired by the T-26?

      Even the USA had to bring back pack mules and pack horses in Italy and the Pacific.

  3. russell1200 says:

    This here seems more in line with my understanding with what the Japanese were up to. https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/Japan/IJA/HB/HB-7.html

    You can generally put down as enveloping attacks with a desire to close so that they can use their superior esprit de corps to prevail. Roughly WW1 German Stormtrooper tactics. One “unofficial” reason for closing quickly would be to “hug the enemy” so that they can’t use their artillery for fear of hitting their own troops. Reading German accounts of what happened when they were faced with Allied artillery in Europe, you can sort of see the point.

    In any case, their methods worked pretty well early on. Eventually, Allied troops improved, and gained more firepower. The greater weapon density would necessitate a change in tactics, the Japanese just didn’t have the material wealth to pull off.

    1. admin says:

      I think the Japanese army (like the German army!) was quite a bit different in 1944 than 1938. Apparently when the Germans looked back at the Battle of France, one thing they attributed their success to was spending the previous year training to avoid mistakes they had made in Poland.

      Julius Caesar would approve of the Japanese abbatis in Figure 132.

  4. Some Thoughts on “Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts” – Book and Sword says:

    […] division. I get the impression that a Soviet army is a German corps (a force of 2 to 4 divisions). That Fremde Heere Osten report from 1938 p. 2 says that the Imperial Japanese Army was also divided into divisions, armies, and fronts […]

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