Explainer: The Other Nationalist Chinese Army of World War II

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January 14, 2021 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: NationalistsKuomintangChinaImperial JapanNanking Nationalist Army

Explainer: The Other Nationalist Chinese Army of World War II

The story of the Nanking Nationalist Army is one your history books may have forgotten.

The situation in China during the Second World War can best be summed up in one word: complex. In addition to fighting the Japanese in the ongoing Second Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937, there were many Chinese elements that battled one another. The two largest factions were of course the Nationalist Chinese or Kuomintang and its National Revolutionary Army, and the Chinese Communist Party and its People’s Liberation Army.

But the forces of Imperial Japan set up a series of “puppet states” including a “Provisional Government” at the former Nationalist capital of Nanking (Nanjing) in eastern central China in March 1938. The Japanese were even able to persuade prominent Nationalist politician Wang Ching-wei to head up this new “reorganized government” in 1940.

Wang went so far as to present himself as the de facto successor of Sun Yat-sen, the former Republican revolutionary leader, and even used the same flags and insignia as the Kuomintang. He gathered together a military force by uniting local pro-Japanese regimes and formed the Nanking Nationalist Army. Some of the units were noted for their discipline and training—in no small part because many had served in the Kuomintang’s Nationalist Army—while others were little more than armed rabble. Morale and reliability of the forces depended almost entirely on where the units were stationed.

By 1945 the size of the force had grown to some 680,000 troops, and the best of the troops were stationed in central China and near the capital of Nanking. Those further from the capital were led by local commanders and at times it was little different from the Chinese “Warlord Era” of the 1920s.

The Japanese provided their puppet allies with the Type 94 light tanks, artillery and small arms. The troops used a mix of Japanese and Chinese Nationalist uniforms and equipment. One interesting item was the steel helmet—Nationalist China had been provided the Model 1935 steel helmet made in Germany during the period when the Nazis backed the Chinese before joining forces with Imperial Japan.

It is also worth noting that the Chinese soldiers were provided export models before the German Army was issued the helmets. The Nationalist forces under the Kuomintang wore these with the twelve-pointed Chinese star stenciled on the side. Photos show that the Nanking Nationalist Army used the same helmet with the same insignia, either stenciled or in some cases a cap badge was attached to the side. The only difference between the insignia of the Kuomintang version was that the Nanking star had a red border around the circumference.

The Nanking Nationalist government collapsed when Wang Ching-wei died of cancer in 1944, and seeing that it was unlikely Japan would win the war, many thousands of Nanking Army troops defected to the Kuomintang Nationalist Army or the People’s Liberation Army. The higher-ranking officers weren’t given such an option however, and many were summarily executed.

Wang’s Nanking forces were not the only pro-Japanese Chinese collaborationist force that was raised during the war. There was also the force raised in the separate puppet state of Manchukuo as well as the Inner Mongolian Army, which primarily operated in the Japanese puppet state of Mengjiang. In total more than 1.1 million Chinese troops supported the Japanese during World War II.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Image: Reuters.