Most people who stayed awake for at least half of their high school history class knows that the Axis Powers in World War II consisted of Germany, Italy and Japan. But few know that German tactics and weapons—not to mention some actual Germans—helped the Chinese Nationalists stall Imperial Japan’s conquest of China.
For about a decade, German soldiers advised Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek in his campaigns against Chinese Communists … and also against Germany’s future allies, the Japanese.
It’s one of history’s most unexpected—and frankly unknown—wartime partnerships. It all began in the aftermath of the Chinese revolution of 1911, as warlords carved up the country and battled each other for power.
European and American arms dealers, unable to find customers in the war-weary countries of the West in the years after World War I, found enthusiastic buyers in the Chinese. The warlords imported firearms and heavy weaponry and, in some cases, manufactured their own copies.
One of the most powerful, the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin had his own private air force of almost 100 of the latest aircraft, including light bombers . He also maintained close ties with Japan, in particular courting investment from the Japanese South Manchuria Railroad Company.
Some warlords hired foreign military instructors, many of them World War I veterans. The advisers made their way to China in both official and unofficial capacities. The influx of foreign soldiers would soon include Germans.
Rise of the Nationalists:
The greatest threat to the warlords were not each other, but revolutionaries under the banner of the Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang. Led by Sun Yat-Sen, a republican and educated medical doctor, the Kuomintang sought to unify China and transform it into a modern state.
The Kuomintang, aligned with the Chinese Communist Party and backed by Soviet advisers under the command of Vasily Blyukher, launched the Northern Expedition to defeat the warlords.
Under the military leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalist army scored victory after victory against the warlords. With the death of Sun Yat-Sen of liver failure, Chiang began to consolidate control of the movement. That put him at odds with the Communists, several of whom were themselves plotting to take control of the revolution.
When the army reached Shanghai in 1927, Chiang enlisted local crime syndicates, notably the powerful Green Gang, to crack down on labor unions and violently purge Communists from the ranks. He then expelled Blyukher and the other Soviet advisers, unceremoniously sending them back to Moscow.
The last major warlord was Marshal Zhang Zuolin. Failing to protect Japanese investments, Zhang had fallen out of favor with his backers in Tokyo.
On June 4, 1928, while traveling an SMR rail line, a bomb detonated underneath Zhang’s armored train, killing him. Most believe the Japanese Kwantung Army planted the explosive device.
Zhang was succeeded by his son Zhang Xueling, the Young Marshal. The Young Marshal, whom the Japanese expected to be a spineless puppet they could easily control, surprised everyone by quickly aligning himself with the Nationalists. The warlord era was fast ending.
But Chang realized he had a problem. Severing ties with the Soviets had left him without any significant foreign backer. There were still a few warlord holdouts—who often did have foreign backing—plus a growing Communist insurrection. Japan also loomed just across the China Seas.
On the advice of a German-educated friend, Chiang looked to Berlin to fill the void the Soviets had left. Germany was an attractive partner to Chiang. Berlin had lost all of its holdings in China after World War I and would be less likely to interfere in China’s politics than comparable Western powers.
And the forced downsizing of Germany’s once-mighty army also resulted in a wealth of highly experienced but unemployed German soldiers who’d be eager for work in China.
Here Come the Germans!:
Chiang sent an invitation to Gen. Erich Ludendorff to bring military and civil experts to China. Ludendorff declined the invitation, fearing his high profile would attract unwanted attention. Still, he saw potential in the offer, and recommended retired Col. Max Bauer—a logistics specialist with war experience—to lead a proposed German Advisory Group.
After a quick tour of China, Bauer returned to Berlin and handpicked a team of 25 advisers. Immediately upon arriving in November 1928, the advisers set to work training young Chinese officers.
Despite most of the advisers being retired—and technically civilians—in the employ of the Chinese government, the activities of German military men abroad was a touchy subject due to post-war limitations on what Germany could legally do.
As a result, Bauer gave strict orders to the group to avoid diplomats and journalists. Despite this, American military observers in 1929 reported seeing Chinese troops undergoing close-order drill under German supervision.
Bauer worked to standardize the acquisition of equipment and weapons, urging Chiang to cut out expensive middlemen and buy directly from manufacturers.