In one of history's most remarkable deliberate scuttlings, the Chinese sink dozens of their own ships to block important rivers like the Yangtze as the Battle for Shanghai rages. Some of the Chinese Fleet are among them. (Peter Chen)

The IJN Destroys China's Fleet - August-September 1937

© 2012 By Anthony Tully, Peter Chen, Bob Hackett and Sander Kingsepp

August 1937:
Even as the Battle of Shanghai ratches up its tempo, the Chinese Navy begins looking ahead, and seeking a means to thwart the Japanese from moving further upriver into mainland China. Particularly on the agenda was establishing some protection for Nanking's approaches.

7 August 1937:
Plans are drawn up to blockade the mouth of the Yangtze River at Jiangsu Province.

11 August 1937:
Chinese trawlers GANLU, AORI, and QINGTIAN with assistence from gunboats SUINING and WEINING deploy teams to begin the first stage of the task. Working furiously, they systematically destroy lighthouses, bouys, and any other perceived navigations aids at the mouth of the Yangtze River. It is hoped this will impair and otherwise complicate the anticipated advance by the Japanese Navy. These measures continue despite Japanese air attacks on Jiangyin area.

12 August 1937:
The bulk of the main Chinese Central Naval Force, or First Fleet, comprising cruisers HAIRONG, PING HAI, NING HAI, HAICHOU and YIXIAN along with training cruiser YINGRUI (western YING JUI or YING SWEI) gather at the mouth of the Yangtze to guard against Japanese naval incursions while the grand blockship operations begin. The warships stand guard while eight older warships, twenty merchant ships, and eight barges are all deliberately scuttled and sunk in the river to serve as blockships.

16 August 1937:
A large Japanese air attack strikes Jiangyin, Jiangsu Province area. The Chinese Fleet suffers no notable damage, but with the blockships in place, it is prudent to move further upstream.

31 August 1937:
A group of warships moves up to the next blockade line at Koin (Jiangyin - Chiang Yin in western) on Yangtze River downstream from Nanking to defend the capital. Among them are flagship PING HAI with sister-ship NING HAI, YIXIAN, and YINGRUI. In the weeks that follow other Chinese warships encounter and engage units of the Japanese fleet.

14 September 1937:
Japanese light cruiser YUBARI is standing into the Pearl River estuary with destroyers HAYATE and OITE. They encounter two Chinese warships leaving Fort Ta Chiao for patrol andattack. The result is what might be the only surface action between the Chinese and Imperial Japanese Navy in the whole war. [1]

The Japanese also engage shore batteries and the Chinese cruiser CHAO HO and revenue cutter HAI CHOU of the Canton (Guangzhou) Navy. Both Chinese ships are damaged and HAI CHOU is hit three times and loses steering control. This causes her for a short time to be heading directly at the Japanese fleet, as if on a charge. Just as it seems the cutter will be blown out of the water, three Chinese planes arrive and attack, and HAI CHOU regains control. The more powerful CHAO HO inexplicably fights only intermittently, and her captain soon orders a retreat. HAI CHOU manages to escape upriver as well. Ironically, CHAO HO's leaving the battle does her little good: she runs aground after a short time. Though she is later freed, her skipper Fiang Nianzu is tried and shot for ordering the retreat. Though the Japanese warships are not hit, other than a dud that bounces off YUBARIís stack, AMA MARU (2,450 tons) is hit by some shells when attempting to disembark troops to capture Fort Humen. AMA MARU weighs anchor and retreats, pursued by four Chinese torpedo boats which attack it but miss. With torpedo boats and Chinese planes arriving, the Japanese ships retire. This skirmish, brisk while it lasts, does not long hold the attention of the Japanese. Their focus zeroes in instead on the main Chinese squadron. Japanese air recon has not missed the concentration of First Fleet vessels at the JiangYin blockade line.

20 September 1937:
Vice Admiral (later Admiral) Oikawa Koshiro, CinC, Third Fleet orders carrier KAGA (CarDiv 2 Rear Admiral Horie Rokuro) and land-based air of Rear Admiral Mitsunami Teizo's 2nd Combined Air Flotilla to destroy the Chinese fleet. Oikawa particulary calls for the destruction of PING HAI and NING HAI. The combined attack is tobe launched in two days.

22 September 1937:
In the morning the combined Japanese assault to destroy the Chinese fleet begins with KAGA launching her strikes from a position off Hangchou Bay. At 1030 the first of three raids by by 2nd Combined Air Flotilla's 12th Air Group (Captain Imamura Osamu) falls upon the ships. Twelve Type 92 escorted by six Type 95 attack first. They make bomb runs, concentrating on the two big cruisers; but only score one hit on each and one near-miss with 60kg bombs. Flagship PING HAI is hit forward on the starboard side, causing slight flooding, but her captain Gao Xianshen is badly wounded in the waist and left arm, but continues to fight his ship until relieved. NING HAI receives one hit in the bow. YIXIAN is also hit.

At noon, another wave of Japanese bombers comes in from the west and drops bombs from moderate altitude. This causes minor damage to PING HAI. But during the afternoon seven Type 96 from KAGA attack, scoring near-misses on both cruisers and one direct hit on PING HAI at 1630. One hour later the last attack of the day is made by six Type 92 and three type 95 of the 12th Air Group, which driven away by NING HAI's gunfire, concentrate instead on YING RUI, scoring four hits. Five Japanese a/c are hit by AA-fire. Despite six hours of combat, PING HAI's casualties are light; 5 killed and 23 wounded. In this action, PING HAI fires 265 8-cm rounds and more than 4,000 mg bullets. PING HAI claims five Japanese aircraft shot down. The attacks for the day are over, and the Chinese Fleet survives the first round of attacks. But none can doubt that the next day would bring another. [2]

23 September 1937:
The Japanese follow-up raid takes its time in coming. Morning brought no air raid, but at 1100 two Japanese recon planes are sighted overflying the Chinese fleet. They depart after about a half-hour. It is obvious that a large scale Japanese air attack will be inbound at last. All hands clear for action.

At 1400, the expected attack arrives overhead in the form of nine Type 92 escorted by three Type 95 from 12th Air Group. However, they did not attack the ships, but instead descended upon Jiangyin, bombing to draw fire of the defenses while the second wave hit the ships. This was comprised of twelve Type 94 of the 12th Air Group and now joined by fourteen Type 96 of the 13th Air Group (Captain Senda Sadatochi.) These score two hits each and several near-misses on both PING HAI and NING HAI. A last attack is made by eight type 94 bombers and eight Type 96 carrier attack bombers escorted by four Type 96 fighters from KAGA. These attack in two waves and went after the primary target, the First Fleet flagship PING HAI. They scored three hits with 60kg bombs in the engine room and magazine. This was more than the modest vessel could withstand; PING HAI settles by the bow, and heeling over, bottoms with steep 45 degree port list and forecastle awash. Reportedly just 5 were killed, with 50 wounded (remark: but suspiciously, NING HAI also lists 5 killed). Four Japanese aircraft are claimed shot down in turn.

With PING HAI down, the Japanese swarm over her cousin ship NING HAI. At 1400, as many as thirty-eight planes pounce on the small cruiser from three directions. She receives two hits on the bow and observation post, and several near-misses. Captain Chen Hongtai is wounded in the legs, but remains at post, and gets his ship underway despite a magazine flooded. NING HAI moves upstream away from her stranded sister, but she doesn't get very far before has to halt. NING HAI had suffered 62 casualties of dead and injured, and had fired more than 700 rounds of her 8-cm and 5,000 rounds of mg bullets. Following the loss of PING HAI, the injured CinC transfers his flag to YIXIAN (western YI HSIEN or YAT SEN)

PING HAI, flagship of Gao Xianshen and Chinese First Fleet, was first damaged by air attacks on 22 Sep '37, then sunk in shallow water on 23 Sep '37 by planes from KAGA. View from starboard quarter. Sister NING HAI outlived her by only two more days.(Axis History)

25 September 1937:
The hapless NING HAI outlasts her sister by only forty-eight hours. Six Type 92 carrier attack bombers with three Type 95 fighters from the 12th Air Group make another attack on the Koin area. Barely afloat, NING HAI is helpless and unable to move. Two 60kg direct hits and two near-misses are scored on the cruiser. This does for her, and listing slightly to starboard, she settles by the stern 'til she bottoms upright near Bawei Harbor with after deck submerged to the mainmast and base of the stack. Her starboard beam parallels the nearby shore. Fortunately only five were wounded. Attacked by sixteen planes from KAGA, Chenís new flagship, YIXIAN also goes down. Beached in very shallow water, YIXIAN flops onto her port side and settles with stern submerged and prow raised with a loss of 14 killed and 8 wounded. But the Japanese carrier lost two aircraft in exchange.

The Japanese had all but wiped out the Chinese fleet, but it was the Chinese themselves that complete the destruction. The same day NING HAI is finished off, four old cruisers are scuttled in the river: HAI CHI, HAI RONG, HAI CHOU and HAI CHEN. It had not been intended to sacrifice all four cruisers; however, incredibly, two of these had become blockships unwillingly. Considering the fierce fight he had put up personally and losing his best ships, First Fleet commander Chen Shaokuan demands that the other two cruisers not belonging to the Min be scuttled as well! This is reluctantly agreed upon and carried out. Before the ships are scuttled, some attempt is made that morning to remove some of HAI RONG and HAI CHIís guns. Even hulks are put to use; at Humen, cruiser CHAO HO, its guns having been stripped to arm the Shajiao Fortress, is scuttled and capsizes onto her starboard side in shallow water. With this, the fleet perished.

It was true that some isolated units yet remained in operation, but most of these were hunted down by the Japanese in the days that followed with numbing thoroughness. Chinese gunboat CHU YU at Jiangyin, damaged by air attack on the 28th is put down for good by Japanese aircraft on 29 September. Near the end of the following month, on 23 October Japanese air account for the last holdout, the venerable training cruiser YINGRUI also at Jiangyin, Jiangsu Province. 20 killed and 40 are wounded in this parthian sinking. Two months later, the Japanese army capture the city.

NING HAI's wreck as found by the Japanese in December 1937. Crippled by bombing on the 23rd when her sister went down, NING HAI crawled up river to off Bawei Harbor, only to be sunk there on 25 September.(Author)

5 December 1937:
In a strange aftermath, the two Chinese cruisers both see new lives resurrected to serve their opponents. The Japanese army advancing on Nanking takes possession of the bottomed Chinese cruisers NING HAI and PING HAI, both sunk in shallow waters on the Yangtze near Koin. Both are subsequently closely inspected and deemed salvageable.

2 March 1938:
PING HAI is first brought upright and then refloated by the Japanese. Afterward, with the top portion of her bridge and director removed, she is convoyed to Shanghai. Subsequently the partly stripped cruiser is towed to Sasebo. The following month the Japanese made the first attempt to refloat her sister, NING HAI. However two divers are killed working on the wreck, and work delayed. Salvage soon resumes.

5 May 1938:
The wreck of NING HAI is successfully refloated; and when pumped out is found there is minimal water damage to her vitals. She is taken downstream to Shanghai's Kiangnan yard. Unlike PING HAI, the Japanese and Chinese work crews manage to make NING HAI seaworthy to steam on her own power.

3 June 1938:
NING HAI arrives at Aioi, Japan with a Japanese crew. There in Japan she remains idle with her sister for five years. NING HAI and PING HAI Hai are now formally classified for Japanese service as coastal defense vessels, being re-named MIKURA and MISHIMA respectively; however, they remain idle at Aioi and Sasebo respectively 'til the changed war situation in 1943 compels their refitting as escorts YASOJIMA and ISOJIMA.

For more details of their careers in the Imperial Japanese Navy and their final fates, see: ISOJIMA and YASOJIMA

Last flagship of the First Fleet Chinese Navy, YIXIAN was sunk on the same day as NING HAI. Here she lies capsized near Jiangyin.(Axis History)

Authors' Notes:
[1] An encounter is also claimed for July 14, 1938.

[2] LaCroix & Wells' Japanese Cruisers of the Pacific War assigns this expenditure to both the 22nd and 23rd, but the Chinese sources strongly indicate this refers only to Sept 22nd, placing it in the narrative at the end of this day and before the events of the 23rd.

Special thanks go to Peter Chen for his translation of Chinese sources and clarifications of nomenclature used therein.

Further Reading: An excellent website and link to Chinese Navy threads is found at the following (particularly the thread "Actions of the Chinese Nationalist Navy"):
Axis History

Bob Hackett, Sander Kingsepp and Anthony Tully

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