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Now all but forgotten, Changsha was one of the most bitterly contested cities of the Pacific War.

The city of Changsha is today, as it was in the 1930s, a bustling urban space amid the bountiful rice fields of China’s Hunan Province. Its name has all but disappeared from the published histories of the Second World War, especially in the West. Even most of the people living there now probably have little idea of what their city went through during the war, as there are no war memorials left to remind them. But the repeated battles for Changsha changed the course of the war and determined the fate of many of the most pivotal leaders in East Asia. On a strategic level, Changsha was as important a place as any on the globe from 1939 to 1944, as the Chinese, the Japanese, and even the Americans clearly recognized.

Located in a fertile valley in southeastern China, the city has attracted armies over the centuries. Archeological excavations in the early 1970s uncovered a second-century BC tomb containing manuscripts, charts, texts, and a map analyzing the military value of the city. Its granaries, capable of storing tons of rice before transport down Hunan’s many rivers, made Changsha an attractive target for invading armies in more modern times as well. The city resisted a siege by the powerful Taiping army during its rebellion in the 19th century, a rebellion that may have killed as many as 20 million people throughout China; the Taiping failure to capture Changsha marked an important moment in the rebellion’s eventual defeat.

During the Second World War, Changsha was the scene of four major and three minor battles between the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) and the invading Imperial Japanese Army. Both sides understood that whoever controlled Changsha and its critical road and rail connections would control southern China, including the rice fields, rail lines, and approaches to India and Burma. Its long history, too, had invested Changsha with the image of the city as a keystone to victory. As a result, Hunan Province and the western districts of neighboring Jiangxi Province saw some of the largest concentrations of troops in the Asian theater. All sides invested Changsha with a nearly mythic importance, believing that if it fell to Japanese control, then Japanese victory in the war would shortly follow. The city thus became a high priority for the leadership of both the Chinese Nationalists and the Japanese.

For the Nationalists, Changsha held symbolic value. In 1911, in the wake of the revolution that ended the ruling Qing Dynasty, Changsha became the scene of bitter fighting between rival warlords from northern and southern China. Emerging victorious, a loose alliance of the warlords nominally loyal to Chiang Kai-shek began to target the region’s Communists. In 1927 the Nationalists killed 10,000 Communists in Changsha in what became known as the Horse Day Incident. Changsha thus stood in Nationalist minds as the scene of a great triumph over their most pernicious domestic foes. Keeping control of Changsha had prevented the south from falling into Mao Zedong’s hands.

With the onset of World War II in Asia, Changsha’s population swelled to almost 500,000 people. The city owed its growth largely to the junction of the Changsha- Wuhan Railroad and the Hunan- Guangxi-Guangzhou rail connection, both of which brought rice and other grains from the interior to the country’s large eastern cities. The railroads had such an obvious strategic value that much of Changsha was burned to the ground in 1938 in order to deny the Japanese benefit of the city’s transportation potential, should they ever control the area.

After a period of stalemate in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the Japanese decided to try to take Changsha in September 1939. Japanese leaders hoped that the outbreak of war in Europe would keep the Soviet Union, whose forces had recently defeated the Japanese in a clash on the Mongolian-Manchurian border, on the sidelines. The Japanese could not risk attacking more deeply into China if the Soviets appeared likely to intervene, but with German forces invading Poland, the Japanese guessed the Soviets would be unlikely to move additional troops from Europe to Asia.

The Japanese dedicated some 100,000 men to the capture of Changsha, while the Chinese had 30 divisions (almost 365,000 men) in the region, but these were spread out and had to cover a wide area from Hunan Province to western Jiangxi Province. Gambling that they could win a quick victory if they moved decisively, Japanese forces attacked Changsha on September 17, 1939. The Chinese government alleged that in order to compensate for their inferior numbers, the Japanese used poison gas on a wide scale. The Chinese had numbers on their side, as well as one of the most talented Chinese commanders, Xue Yue, in charge of forces in the city.

A member of the first class to graduate from the Whampoa Military Academy, the 42-year-old Xue had a reputation for fearless leadership in battle and a colorful personality that made his men fiercely loyal to him. American major general Claire Chennault called Xue the George Patton of Asia for his flamboyance and his tactical acumen. Xue had cordial relations with Chiang Kai-shek, whose orders he normally obeyed—although at one point he had threatened to arrest Chiang if he did not stop the civil war against the Communists and instead focus his nation’s military energies against the invading Japanese. Chiang and the Nationalists had control of Hunan Province at the time of the Japanese invasion, and he and Xue had worked out a functional command relationship.

Xue hated the Chinese Communists and had played a leading role in forcing Mao and his allies to undertake the famous Long March out of southern China in 1933. But he hated the Japanese even more and burned for the chance to drive them from his homeland. He would not shrink from taking whatever steps he saw necessary to hold Changsha, so after the Japanese chased Chinese forces across the Xiang River in the battle for the city, Xue ordered a series of bloody human wave attacks that took advantage of Chinese superiority in manpower. The attacks cost an estimated 44,000 soldiers, but they damaged the Japanese enough to halt them short of the vital Changsha-Wuhan Railroad. With the railroad still under their control, the Chinese held the logistical advantage and, with it, the city. The Chinese had bent but not broken in what became known later as the First Battle of Changsha.

The Japanese tried again in April 1941, although military requirements elsewhere limited the number of men they could spare. Still, they experienced a stunning early success, crushing one of the best Chinese divisions in the area and temporarily taking Changsha. The Chinese counterattacked with 15 divisions of their own, again using human wave tactics. Although they suffered an estimated 54,000 casualties to Japan’s 1,670 men killed in action, the Chinese retook the shattered remnants of the city. More than 1.4 million Chinese soldiers were deployed in southern China capable of moving into the Changsha region if necessary. The Japanese lacked the manpower to continue their offensive and retreated from the area.

Both sides reinforced in the region and Xue Yue, now elevated to the status of national hero, decided on a new strategy. Unable to match the Japanese in artillery and air power and reluctant to continue the costly human wave tactics, he opted for street fighting, hoping to negate the power of Japanese weaponry and channel Japanese troops into a city with which they were unfamiliar. Xue also had the advantage of new links between the Soviet Union and the Chinese Nationalists that intensified around the summer of 1941. Although the Soviet Union and Japan had a nonaggression treaty that served the strategic needs of both, the Soviets had a vested interest in preventing the Japanese from conquering more of China. The Soviets thus rushed advisers and heavy equipment into China, funneling it through Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists rather than the Chinese Communists with whom they had more in common ideologically. Despite the similarities of their global outlooks, Joseph Stalin and his Soviet leadership did not see Mao as an effective or reliable strategic partner. Even with Chiang’s obvious flaws, the Soviets saw the Nationalists as more likely than the Communists to defeat the Japanese. Thus the bulk of Soviet aid went to Chiang.

In September 1941, the Japanese tried to take Changsha once more, even though they were again massively outnumbered. This time, Xue ordered his Chinese troops to avoid a pitched battle in the open ground outside the city, where the enemy could bring to bear its advantage in firepower. Instead, the Nationalists were to outflank the Japanese and force them to come closer to the city. Xue hoped to pin the Japanese into a smaller space where they could not use their artillery as effectively. The Japanese tried a ruse of their own, sending plain-clothes agents to infiltrate the city before the arrival of their main force. When that plan failed, the Japanese withdrew rather than risk a street battle.

Like Stalingrad, Changsha became a symbol that neither side could easily abandon. For Chinese Nationalists and their American supporters, Changsha stood as a rare victory over the rapidly expanding Japanese Empire. It proved that the Japanese were not invincible and that the Nationalists had the potential to become a viable fighting force. Chinese success at Changsha helped convince the United States that, Chiang Kai-shek’s corruption notwithstanding, his regime deserved further financial and military support. For the Japanese, Changsha became the key to the conquest of China. If they could only capture it, they reasoned, all of southern China might fall into their hands.

By the end of 1941 it had become obvious that the Japanese would try again to take Changsha. Much of the city lay in ruins, but the strategic railroads remained. Xue Yue ordered all civilians out of the battered and beleaguered city, only allowing a handful of zealous volunteers to stay and help in its defense. His garrison there had fallen to just 300,000; the Japanese force, though it had grown, still numbered less than half that—120,000 men—but it was backed up by 600 artillery pieces and 200 airplanes.

Those weapons represented the strongest force Japan had yet concentrated in the Hunan region, but its objectives were limited. Japanese forces to the south were preparing for a major offensive to take Hong Kong, so the attack in Hunan, planned for December 1941, aimed only to tie down Chinese forces in and around Changsha and prevent them from contesting the advance to the south.

When Hong Kong fell more quickly than expected, however, the Japanese grew bolder. Knowing that momentum was on their side and that the British could no longer disrupt their movements, the Japanese launched a full attack on Changsha from a new direction, the southeast. When they did, Xue Yue was ready for them. Specially trained Nationalist guerrilla troops came down from the mountains and raided Japanese supply lines, cutting their communications and leaving them vulnerable to Chinese counterattacks. The Japanese reported more than 55,000 men killed in the fighting, easily the highest total yet in the long struggle over Changsha. More important, Chiang Kai-shek, Xue Yue, and the Chinese Nationalists could claim a decisive victory just when the Japanese had humiliated the Americans and the British at Pearl Harbor and Hong Kong. While Japanese forces ran roughshod elsewhere in Asia, in Hunan the Chinese had stopped them in their tracks. Both Chiang and Xue rose in the eyes of their American patrons, at least temporarily.

Changsha thus became an even more important symbol to both sides—and of course, it had lost none of its strategic importance. In fact, assuming that the Chinese could hold it indefinitely against any future Japanese attacks, American planners had begun to think of new strategic purposes for it. In spring 1944 American strategists envisioned using Changsha as an air base for B-29 bombardment groups. From Changsha, the B-29s could easily strike industrial targets inside Japan and return to base without having to fly far over water.

The Japanese had other ideas. In April they launched the massive Operation Ichi-Go with the goal of linking up the disparate Japanese-controlled areas in China and denying the Americans the use of eastern China for air bases. One of the largest military operations in Asian history, Ichi-Go was an attempt to turn the tide of the war in China permanently in Japan’s favor. The capture of Changsha, and with it control over southern China, was a critical part of Ichi-Go.

Accordingly, in June 1944 the Japanese amassed 360,000 men for an attack on Changsha and Hengyang (to Changsha’s south). It amounted to the largest concentration of Japanese manpower in China for any single operation in the war. The first Japanese target was the Hunan-Hengyang rail line, control of which would secure the lines of communications needed for a further advance into Hunan Province. If successful, the operation would also allow the Japanese to target the few existing United States air bases in the region. Planes flying from those bases had harassed Japanese ground forces, targeted their supply lines, and limited their movement.

By the end of May the Japanese had come within striking range of Changsha. With five divisions in their first wave and three divisions in the second, they cut the railroads that linked Hunan to the cities of Wuhan (to the north) and Guangzhou (to the south). Having more troops at their disposal, Japanese commanders opted for a broad-front approach in order to avoid being flanked and channeled by larger numbers of Chinese troops, as in previous battles for the city. They used a model similar to the one the Russians used to recapture Stalingrad: Several divisions pinned down the Chinese defenders of the central city, while elite troops moved around and behind the city to cut off supply routes. That maneuver set off a panic inside Changsha and among the stunned Chinese defenders.

Two of the best Japanese divisions then attacked the high ground of Mount Yuelu, where the Chinese had placed a heavy concentration of precious artillery. On June 18 Japanese troops took the heights, neutralizing significant Chinese combat power and making Japanese dominance over the approaches to Changsha frighteningly visible to all those in the city below. Panic turned to terror as the Chinese realized the weakness of their position. Farther to the south, the Chinese were still holding on at Hengyang, despite repeated assaults, but if Hengyang fell, then the Japanese would be in a position to attack Changsha from two directions, dooming it to certain capture.

Xue, in overall command of the Ninth Military Front covering Hengyang and Changsha, gave explicit orders to hold both cities at all costs. He forbade the commander in Changsha, Major General Zhang Deneng, to retreat. But seeing no other option, Zhang disobeyed, opting for a chaotic retreat that left thousands of Chinese prisoners in Japanese hands. When Xue found Zhang, he had him arrested and court-martialed. With Changsha then in Japanese hands, the battle turned to Hengyang. The Chinese forces there held off the enemy for almost two months, but on August 8, the city fell. That final victory notwithstanding, the costly Japanese failure to take both cities as quickly as promised had led directly to the fall of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s cabinet on July 18. It also led to a temporary eclipse of Xue’s rising star, although he later led Nationalist armies in the ongoing Chinese Civil War.

The fall of Changsha had ramifications far beyond the careers of Tojo and Xue. With Changsha no longer a possible location for American air bases, the Americans moved their B-29s to the newly captured base on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands. Saipan was safe from Japanese attacks, but it necessitated a long perilous flight over open water to reach the desired industrial targets in Japan. As an indirect effect of the fall of Changsha, therefore, the United States decided to invade the more conveniently situated Iwo Jima as a way of solving the logistical problems that Saipan presented. That battle in early 1945 cost 26,000 American casualties and might not have been necessary if the Chinese had held Changsha.

Those final battles for Changsha proved to be defeats for all involved. The Japanese could claim an operational victory and control of the railroads, which were their immediate objectives. They could also claim to have kept the airfields of Changsha out of American hands. But the capture of Saipan and later Iwo Jima had rendered Changsha less important to the Americans. Thus, the Japanese had spent precious resources on a campaign that did not materially improve their strategic position. In losing Changsha, the Chinese had lost more than a city. The final surrender of Changsha in chaotic circumstances forfeited much of the limited goodwill that Chiang and his regime had acquired. The Americans had grudgingly looked the other way at the regime’s notorious corruption as long as it could deliver on the battlefield and keep strategic locations like Changsha out of enemy hands. If it could not, the Americans had less incentive to continue the difficult relationship with Chiang. The humiliating collapse of Chinese forces at Changsha led American lieutenant general Joseph Stilwell, whose relationship with Chiang had been particularly tense, to demand command of the Chinese armed forces. When Chiang predictably refused, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled Stilwell and replaced him with General Albert Wedemeyer. Sino-American relations, already on life support, never fully recovered.

Ironically, Chinese forces did recover. They established a defensive line in western Hunan Province strong enough to block Japanese attempts to move west toward Chongqing and Sichuan Province. In April 1945 the Japanese forces based in Hunan attempted to seize Zhijiang in western Hunan as a step toward an offensive into Sichuan. The Chinese were waiting for them and sprang a well-designed ambush that did serious damage to the Japanese force.

The battles for Changsha had important consequences for American relations with China in the critical years of 1944 and 1945, for American strategy in the Pacific theater, and for the overall war in Asia. What happened in Hunan’s capital city thus shaped the world we live in as much as many better known battles of World War II.


Michael Neiberg is the author of The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris in 1944 and the forthcoming TERMINAL: The Potsdam Conference and the End of the Age of Total War in Europe, 1914–1945 (Basic Books, 2015).

Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.