A Brief History
On August 14, 1937, the Japanese invasion of China that started July 7, 1937, at the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, saw the first air to air combat of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War and arguably the first air to air combat of World War II (presuming you consider the start of the war between Japan and China as the start of World War II). While Japanese aviation and aviators are often given accolades as the best trained and equipped air forces in the Pacific theater early in World War II, this first aerial combat resulted in a resounding victory for the Chinese aviators.
Equipped with quaint, and already obsolete fighters despite only being in service a few years, the Chinese fighter pilots were flying American bi-plane fighters, the Curtiss F11C Goshawk (Hawk II), introduced in 1932 and the Curtiss BF2C Goshawk (Hawk III), introduced in 1933. Despite the later model being the most common Chinese fighter at the time, its performance was already laughable by European standards. The Hawk III had a top speed of 255 mph and was armed with only a single .30 caliber and a single .50 caliber machine gun. (Compared to the German Bf-109, introduced in February of 1937, capable of well over 300 mph and armed with 2 X 7.92mm machine guns and a single 20mm cannon, and the British Spitfire and Hurricane, both capable of well over 300 mph and armed with 8 X .303 caliber machine guns, both introduced in 1937, the American bi-planes were grossly outdated.)
Japanese aircraft were not yet the highly regarded Zero and Oscar fighters the US would soon be facing, but the Japanese planes were still somewhat more advanced for the time, mainly the Mitsubishi G3M twin engine bomber (that the US would later call the “Nell”), which was a monoplane capable of a top speed of 233 mph and a load of almost a ton of bombs. The G3M was well protected for the time with defensive guns, including a 20mm cannon in the tail and an additional 4 X 7.7mm machine guns. Japan built over a thousand of the G3M type, and it served throughout World War II.
Prior to World War II, advocates of bomber aircraft equipped with defensive armament believed the bombers would be able to defend themselves against enemy interceptors, making escort fighter aircraft unnecessary. They were wrong! The Japanese sent 2 separate flights of 9 G3M’s each in an attack against Jianqiao Airfield in Hangzhou and Guangde Airfield in Anhui respectively. The Chinese challenged the Japanese bombers with their Hawk III fighters, hastily scrambled since they had just arrived from another airfield. Of the total of 18 Japanese bombers in this first air to air battle of World War II, 4 were shot down by Chinese fighters and another 2 were shot down by anti-aircraft fire from the ground. The Chinese had not lost a single plane!
The loss of a third of a bombing force is an unacceptable and unsustainable rate, forcing a change in tactics. Unfortunately for the Japanese bomber pilots, the lesson had not been learned fast enough! On August 15, 1937, Chinese fighters downed another 8 Japanese bombers, this time out of a flight of 12 Type 89 torpedo bombers and later that same day a flight of 20 G3M’s was intercepted by Chinese fighters (including American made Boeing P-26 monoplane fighters) which shot down 4 of the bombers and damaged another 6. The Chinese did not lose any fighters until they suffered the loss of 3 fighters shot down on August 16, 1937, in the course of shooting down 3 more Japanese bombers.
The Japanese air warfare commanders were not going to remain stubborn for long. After losing 24 aircraft and claiming only 11 Chinese aircraft destroyed in the initial days of aerial combat, the balance of power began to even up, and after combat lasting until November of 1937 the tally was 131 Chinese aircraft destroyed against 94 Japanese aircraft shot down, with an additional 54 Japanese aircraft destroyed or damaged on the ground. The Chinese were unable to rapidly replace pilots lost in combat and had a supply chain of various aircraft from several countries, including the Soviet Union, making supply and maintenance a nightmare for air support forces. (Some of the Soviet supplied aircraft were flown by Soviet “volunteer” pilots.) The Japanese were able to produce more pilots and introduced newer models of aircraft to the fight, turning the tide in favor of the Japanese air forces.
In 1941, Soviet pilots stopped flying for China, but the US created the American Volunteer Group (AVG), known more famously as “The Flying Tigers.” Flying the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk/Tomahawk fighter plane, a more modern model on par with and in some way superior to Japanese aircraft, the Tigers made a considerable difference in the air war over China until the US disbanded the AVG in 1942 after the US had entered the war. The Americans took over most of the aerial operations against Japan in China and the entire Pacific theater, with a notable contribution from the British Empire. By 1943, the fortunes of war had turned against Japanese aviators and the Allies increased their qualitative and especially quantitative edge in airplanes and pilots over the Japanese, creating a clear air superiority situation in China and the Pacific, culminating in the debilitating bombing of the Japanese home islands.
China was on the winning side of World War II but did not really gain much by the defeat of Japan, with the Chinese communists taking over the country in 1949. By then, the memory of the heady first days of success in the aerial war against Japan in August of 1937 was a distant memory indeed.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you consider the Japanese war with China in 1937 or the German invasion of Poland in 1939 as the start of World War II? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Bergin, Bob. Black Saturday at Shanghai: August 14, 1937, the Air War in China Begins. Banana Tree Press, 2013.
Mitter, Rana. Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945. Mariner Books, 2013.
Wetterhahn, Ralph. The Early Air War in the Pacific: Ten Months That Changed the Course of World War II. McFarland, 2019.
The featured image in this article, an aerial photograph of Marco Polo Bridge from “Shina Jihen Kinen Shashincho”(memorial photograph collection on Sino-Japanese War for the period between July, 1937 and January, 1940 by photograph squad of military unit headquarters), is in the public domain in Japan because its copyright has expired according to Article 23 of the 1899 Copyright Act of Japan (English translation) and Article 2 of Supplemental Provisions of Copyright Act of 1970. This is when the photograph meets one of the following conditions:
- It was published before January 1, 1957.
- It was photographed before January 1, 1947.