Taiwan's Tanks Managed to Do What Hitler's Mighty Panzers Failed to Do at Normandy
When the Allies launched the amphibious landing in Normandy in 1944, one of their chief fears was that German Panzers would roll down to the beach within twenty-four hours and crush sodden Allied infantry under their tracks. To protect against such an outcome, the Allied airpower ruthlessly scourged road and rail links leading to Normandy, and airborne operations preceding the landing had as a chief objective impeding a German armored counterattack.
Ultimately, though, it was Hitler himself who did the most to prevent that scenario from unfolding: convinced that the real Allied landing was going to come at Calais, he refused to release the Panzer Lehr and Twelfth SS Panzer Divisions in reserve to counterattack the Normandy beachhead until too late. After a harrowing battle to overcome German beach defenses, the Allied infantry managed to clamber off the beaches and establish a firm foothold on shore.
Though tanks would seem the ideal mobile weapon for countering such risky operations as amphibious landings, they rarely succeeded in doing so during World War II. German armor did come came closer to unraveling earlier Allied landings in Sicily, Salerno and Anzio. In Sicily, German Panzers actually made it so far down the beach that they engaged in a gun duel with Allied destroyers. (For the curious: the destroyers won.) At Anzio, an armored counterattack managed to contain the Allied landing zone, preventing U.S. troops from breaking out. But none of the German tank attacks actually drove the Allies back into the sea. A counterattack by seventeen Japanese tanks against a U.S. Marine beachhead at Peleliu was even more ill-fated.
The problem was that operations as risky as amphibious landings were usually only attempted when one side had overwhelming superiority over the other. But, four years after World War II ended, Chinese tanks did finally succeed in crushing an amphibious invasion—and they did it with arguably the worst U.S. tank to see extensive service in World War II.
The People’s Liberation Army secured control of mainland China by the end of 1949. Its Nationalist opponents in the Kuomintang, reeling from defeat after defeat, retreated to various islands on the coast, most notably Taiwan and Hainan. At that time, the PLA disposed of only modest air and sea assets, but it was determined to seize the islands while the Nationalists were in retreat and disarray.
Standing directly in between the mainland and Taiwan were two islands a short distance off the coast of Fujian province, Kinmen and Matsu. These had been heavily fortified by the Nationalists, and the PLA considered their capture prerequisites to any serious attempt to take Taiwan itself. Kinmen—which means “Golden Gate,” and measures roughly one hundred square miles—was located a short distance away from the major mainland city of Xiamen, well positioned to intervene against an invasion of Taiwan.
Troops of the PLA’s Tenth Army had captured three islands off of Xiamen in October in the face of ineffectual Nationalist resistance. Calculating that the Republic of China forces had only eleven thousand troops on Kinmen island, the PLA assembled nineteen thousand troops on the mainland and Dadeng Island for the assault. These included the three regiments of the Eighty-Second Division, and three more regiments detached from the Eighty-Fourth, Eighty-Fifth and Eighty-Seventh. The light infantry boarded hundreds of civilian boats on the morning of October 24 and were ready to depart by 6:00 p.m. that evening, aiming for the beach at Longkou. However, the PLA troops and their transports lacked radio communication, and many of the boats became lost during the night and landed westward.
The Tenth Army’s intelligence section, which lacked informants on the island, had badly miscalculated—there were seventeen thousand Nationalist troops of the Twelfth Army on Kinmen and another three thousand on nearby Lesser Kinmen. They had prepared the beaches on northwest Kinmen with over seven thousand land mines, two hundred bunkers and hundreds of beach obstacles to counter landing boats. The experienced 201st Youth Division manned the beach defenses, while the exhausted 118th and Eighteenth Divisions waited in reserve, along with the First Tank Battalion, with twenty-two Stuart light tanks in its inventory.
You can check out a map showing the disposition of the opposing forces here.
The M3 and M5 Stuart Light tanks had boasted only barely adequate armament and armor when the United States entered World War II in 1941, and only grew more obsolescent from there on. Their thirty-seven-millimeter “pop guns” had only a slender chance of penetrating the standard German Panzer IV tank, and no chance at all against heavier Panthers and Tigers. The best that can be said is that they performed acceptably when their opponents had few antitank weapons to fire back with, which was sometimes true in the Pacific theater of World War II. As it happened, the veteran tankers in the First Battalion had served alongside American troops in Burma, during the conflict there.
Nonetheless, the PLA attack might have had more success if Nationalist troops were not graced by a series of lucky breaks, all of which must have seemed like minor misfortunes at the time. Lucky break number one: an hour after midnight on October 25, Nationalists troops accidentally set off their own land mines. This caused the beach defenses to go on alert and shoot flares into the night—upon which they realized they were about to be swamped by nearly eight thousand PLA infantry, approaching on wooden sampans.