Soviet military aid to China, 1937--1939


Text by 1JMA member Skorzeny

Significant aspects of Soviet-Japanese rivalry in the late 1930s remain in shadow like the massive Soviet military aid to the Quomingtang government in China during the Sino-Japanese war, although it was precisely the Soviet involvement which strenghened Chinese defence capabilities significantly. Diplomatic relations between Quomintang government and the USSR were resumed on December 12, 1932, opening way for further cooperation after years of hostility and confrontation. After the non-agression pact between China and USSR was signed on the 21st of August 1937, a rapid intensification of the military cooperation followed, boosted by the unprecedented aid package of 250 mln USD spearheading the Soviet involvement into the raging war. The first negotiations of the high-ranked military experts of both sides took place in Moscow on September 9, 1937—October 4, 1937, where the Soviet side agreed to begin the immediate supply of the Chinese airforce with desperately needed hardware, namely with 225 fighter planes. It was rather unusual for contemporary international practice to begin deliveries before actual agreements on the military aid loan were signed: thus the first agreement on the initial aid packege of 50 mln USD was signed on March 1, 1938, and by that time 282 Soviet aircraft were delivered to the Chinese. As a matter of fact, by late 1937 only some 20 Chinese planes remained serviceable, compared with 500 available at the beginning of the year. This fact underlines the importance of Soviet engagement for the military planning of both sides.

In early 1930s the Chinese armed forces were aided by a group of German military experts, led by Generals Berger, Seekt and Falkenhausen, which until 1937 worked under individual contracts, and in May 1937 was officially recognized as a foreign Wehrmacht military mission of 70 representatives. However, following the development of cooperation between Germany and Japan the activities of German military mission in China faced a stalemate, especially after Germany recognized the Japanese puppet-state Manchoukuo in May 1938. In May 1938 the German mission was recalled under pretext of the arrival of Soviet military advisers. In early 1938 the group of Soviet military experts, officers and advisers replaced the German mission of General Falkenhausen aiding the Chinese High Command, all in all 300 experts and 5000 technical aides arriving on the rotation basis within 1937-1938 time span, including pilots, tankers, weapons experts, technicians, medical workers, staff officers. Among the most prominent names one finds future marshals of the Soviet Union, like P.S.Rybalko, K.P.Kazakov, V.I.Chuikov, P.F. Zhygariev and several future generals, among them the notorious A.Vlasov. The post of Chief Military Adviser at the Chinese High Command was given to Soviet General M.Dratvin, who in November 1937—August 1938 was also the Soviet military attache. Subsequently, the Chief Military Advisers were: general A.Cherepanov (August 1938—August 1939), General K.Kachanov (September 1939—February 1941), and General V.Chuikov (February 1941—February 1942). Throughout 1938—1940 the Soviet military attaches were General N.Ivanov and P.Rybalko, and in 1940—1942 the post was held by General V.Chuikov.

Moreover, massive amounts of military hardware have been shipped by sea via French Indochina, Burma and Chinese ports and by air via Alma-Ata(capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic), including 985 aircraft, 82 tanks (T-26 type), 1317 artillery pieces, 1550 trucks, 30 tractors, 14,025 machine-guns, 164,5 mln rifle cartidges, 1,9 mln artillery shells and 82300 bombs. However, some additional 265 aircraft were delivered prior to 1941, as well as other hardware. The supplies of hardware from the Soviet Union were vital for maintaining the fighting capabilities of all branches of Chinese armed forces, namely mechanized units and airforce. In August 1938 the arrival of 82 Soviet T-26 tanks enabled the formation of 1st Mechanized Division, in fact led by the Soviet adviser, Major Chesnokov. Later division was transformed into the 5th Mechanized army, reinforced by the Soviet-made BA-type armoured cars, and participating in combat since October 1938 under the guidance of Soviet Major P.Belov. Soviet instructors played an important role in improving the practical skills of the Chinese artillery officers and trained the Chinese infantry officer-cadets, and, moreover, participated in combat, mainly in armoured and artillery units.

Among the airplanes shipped to China with the Soviet crews in 1937 were the formidably maneuverable I-15 and I-16 fighter planes, high-speed bombers of the SB type, heavy TB-3 bombers and long-range DB-3 bomber planes, which allowed the Soviet command to counter massive Japanese air attacks with superb equipment and manpower, with the pilots having fought for several years in Spain and possessing combat experience the Japanese could hardly boast. In 1937—1940 the Soviet side delivered 563 fighter planes (I-15, I-15bis, I-16 and I-153) and 322 bomber planes (292 SB bombers, 24 DB-3 bombers and 6 heavy TB-3 bombers).

The Chief Soviet Airforce Military Advisers were: Colonels G.Thor, P.Rychagov and F.Polynin, all prominent airmen, especially P.Rychagov, who managed to make a very impressive, if only short-lived, career after returning from China. The first group of Soviet airmen arrived to Alma-Ata on October 21, 1937, en-route to China, consisting of 447 servicemen (pilots, techicians, engineers, mechanics, radio-operators, meteorologists, airbase service experts, decoders, military doctors, drivers, constructions specialists, etc.). By early February 1939 there were 712 Soviet airmen serving in China, nominally on voluntary basis. The flight to China from Alma-Ata was a formidable challenge since the route covered the desert and mountainous regions of the Northwestern China, and the improvised airfields situated along the route were unfit for heavy bombers of the SB type, lacked communication facilites and the meteorological services for the briefing of pilots. The Soviet aircraft were usually carrying excess number of servicemen, and the reserve quantities of fuel and ammunition. Once they arrived, the overloaded aircraft lacked the necessary repair facilities, technical service and command-and-control infrastructure. Chinese airfields lacked even the most necessary technical facilities: the DB-3 bombers, for instance, which needed 1500 litres of fuel, were filled up by 200-300 local peasants lined in a file, carrying metal cans of gasoline. Climate conditions also presented a challenge: during heavy rains the airfields, lacking elementary drainage facilities, were rapidly turning into swamps, and during snowstorms in the mountainous regions the snowdrifts prevented normal landing. The existing Chinese airbases with concrete air-strips, hangares, protected fuel-reservoirs and good repair workshops were generally well-known to the Japanese, and were heavily bombed throughout the war. On the other hand, the available labour resources enabled to erect effective defense bulwarks made of bags filled with sand and gravel, quite useful during Japanese air-raids targetting the airfields. The first group of Soviet fighter and bomber pilots included F.Dobysh, I.Kozlov, V.Kurdiumov, M.Machin and G.Prokofiev, who saw action on December 1, 1937, when 20 Japanese aircraft were overtaken by 7 Soviet I-16 planes over Nanking. After flying five combat sorties the Soviet airmen managed to shoot down, according to their reckoning, 2 Japanese bombers and one I-96 fighter. Soon afterwards a group of 9 Soviet SB bombers succesfully bombed Shanghai, attacking Japanese airfield and the vessels stationed in local harbour, claiming about a dozen of destroyed aircraft, 6 damaged ships and one auxilary cruiser sunk. In November 1937 the second group of 150 Soviet airmen flying SB bombers arrived from Transbaikal Military District, pioneering the new route Irkutsk—Lanchou—Hankou across the Mongolian steppes. In December 1937—February 1938 a Soviet fighter squadron of I-15 fighters (commander A.Blagoveshchensky) arrived in 3 groups. During the aerial engagement over Uchan on February 18, 1938 the Soviet fighters claimed 18 victories, mostly Japanese bombers, and on May 31 they shot down 14 enemy aircraft. The effectiveness of Soviet aerial support was proved by the official Japanese request to withdraw the pilots fighting for Chinese airforce, aired in April 1938, rejected by the USSR under pretext that the pilots serving in China were merely volunteers.

Typical Soviet combat missions included support of the ground troops, bomber raids against Japanese airfields, important railway stations, highways and shipping. The most ferocious fighting took place in the context of the so-called Uchan defensive operation in July—October 1938. Shortly before, a new squadron of SB bombers (66 pilots) arrived from USSR, led by Colonel G.Thor, who previously participated in the Spanish Civil war. The squadron specialized in disrupting the Japanese navigation on the Yangtze river, vital for the supply of the Japanese ground troops, claiming 16 Japanese transport vessels damaged and 92 sunk (including a hydroplane carrier). As a result, the Japanese were forced to establish serious anti-aircraft defence measures: deploying AA batteries at the piers, arming the transport vessels with machine-guns and building several new airfields along the Yangtze river. In July 1938 the large-scale aerial battle over Uchan took place, where 40 Soviet I-15 and I-16 fighters led by Captain E.Nikolaenko confronted 200 Japanese aircraft.

By the year of 1939, the Soviet airforce based in China has scored a number of impressive victories over the battlefield, and yet the numerically superior Japanese aircraft were able to deliver crushing airstrikes both against virtually undefended large Chinese cities and military installations, possessing a developed network of airfields and superior reconaissaince the Soviets desperately lacked, it was therefore decided to carry out a surprise air-raid over the Japanese territory to boost the morale of Chinese troops, inflict damage to the pride and self-confidence of Japanese airmen and to test the capabilities of the AA defence the Japan possessed at the moment. After the reconnaissance mission carried out on the 21st of February 1939, a group of the 28 Soviet SB bombers led by excellent bomber pilot F.P.Polynin attacked the Japanese air base near Taipei (Taiwan, also known as Formosa) on the 23rd of February, destroying up to 40 Japanese aircraft on the ground and demolishing the extensive fuel dumps, losing not a single bomber in the raid, with Japanese AA defence of the base left in ruins.

On the following day the smaller group of the Soviet aircraft returned to attack secondary targets, meeting sporadic resistance of Japanese fighter planes and AA artillery, which, however, did not prevent the Soviets from bombing Japanese islands on the 20th of May 1939, dropping bombs and safely returing to the Chinese mainland. In October and November 1939 Chungking became the scene of intensive aerial battles, where hundreds of aircraft were involved from both sides.

All in all, about 200 Soviet pilots were killed in China in 1937—1939, including Lieutenant A.Gubenko, who on May 31, 1938 committed the conscious ramming attack against Japanese A5M2 fighter, first in the Soviet airforce and second in the world history of aerial power. Of these 200 airmen 111 were killed in air-crashes caused by difficult weather conditions, weak navigation support and inexperience of younger pilots in the little-known theater. About 80 Japanese aircraft were shot down in aerial combat by the Soviet pilots, 14 of whom were awarded “Hero of the Soviet Union” order for outstanding performance either as combat pilots, military advisers and instructors, 400 servicemen were decorated with different awards. In Janury 1940 the majority of Soviet pilots left China, having trained a generation of Chinese airmen and providing them the remaining hardware, and the remaining personnel was evacuated in early 1942.


1. Y.Chudodeev “Defending Chinese Skies”// “On the Eve”, ed. by N.Yakovlev, O.Stepanova, E.Salynskaja, Moscow, 1991, pp.118--127.
2. “On the Chinese soil”, Moscow: “Nauka”, 1977.



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