Photograph of Japanese troops near
        Hankow (Wuhan)

Wikimedia Commons

(114.290E 30.554N) Wuhan actually consisted of three neighboring cities surrounding the confluence of the Yangtze and Han Rivers: Hankow (Hankou), northwest of the Yangtze and north of the Han; Hanyang, northwest of the Yangtze and south of the Han; and Wuchang, southeast of the Yangtze. However, Hankow included 1.2 million of the total Wuhan population of 1.5 million people in 1938.  The population was further swelled with perhaps a million refugees. The three cities were linked only by ferry in 1941, and each had a distinctive character. Hankow, as the rail terminus, was the commercial center, while Wuchang was the political center, a role it had played since becoming the training center for the civil service under the Han dynasty, Hanyang was the industrial heart of China prior to the city's capture by the Japanese, with the steel works accounting for most of China's production (900,000 tons per year in 1943.)

Wuhan enjoys a pleasant temperate climate with ample rainfall during the main growing season.

Hankow had been leveled and rebuilt three times by the Taiping in the 1850s, and once by Qing troops in 1911, and was badly damaged in the revolution of 1926-1927 and by wartime bombing raids during the Pacific War. This had the paradoxical effect of keeping the city relatively modern and prosperous. The Kuomintang established Wuchang University in 1930, which later served as the temporary wartime seat of government.

Hankow was also a major river port on the Yangtze, and during the high-water season it was accessible to oceangoing vessels of up to 10,000 tons.  The middle and lower Yangtze had not been bridged in 1941 and Hankow was a major ferry point for traffic across the river. The main airfield was at Wuchang, and Russian volunteer pilots inflicted significant casualties on Japanese bombers over the city on 29 April and 29 May 1938. Fortifications were begun at Madang (116.660E 29.987N) and Tianchiachen downriver in December 1937.

Battle of Hankow. Following the loss of Nanking, the Chinese massed some 800,000 troops to defend Hankow, which had become the new military and political headquarters of China. The Japanese planned to move units of North China Area Army south from Tsinan along the railroad to Hsuchow, where they would meet elements of 11 Army moving up from Nanking. With Hsuchow secured, the Japanese would then execute a vast pincers movement against Wuhan, with the main thrust coming from Hsuchow, two additional columns advancing along the Yangtze River and south of the Yangtze, and a supporting column advancing south along the railroad from Shihchiachuang to converge on Wuhan. It was believed that this would destroy the Kuomintang and bring an end to the China Incident. The Japanese were confident of success in spite of the Chinese numerical advantage of six to one, which was more than offset by superiority in firepower and mobility.

Hsuchow proved to be a much harder nut for the Japanese to crack than they expected. The campaign against Hsuchow kicked off in late December 1937, but the city did not fall until 19 May. Japanese losses were at least 20,000 killed. The Chinese were able to retreat in fairly good order and take up defensive positions in the mountains further west.

The Japanese launched their campaign against Wuhan in early June 1938, supported by river gunboats and destroyers on the Yangtze, and by 24 June they had reached Madang, halfway from Nanking to Hankow. The most heavily fortified position on the river, Madang held out for three days under heavy bombardment by naval guns, but the Japanese easily forced their way past the defensive boom and the defenders panicked when attacked with poison gas (MacKinnon 2008). Further up the river, Hukou (116.226E 29.751N) was fiercely defended but fell before reinforcements (an entire army) could arrive. Kiukiang was abandoned by the Chinese on 26 July. By the end of July, the Japanese were approaching Wuhan from the north and northeast and Wuchang and Hanyang from the south and southeast. The morale of the Chinese defenders was already poor, due in part to rumors of Japanese atrocities at Kiukiang, an epidemic of malaria, and the flight of the Kuomintang government in early September.

The Japanese struck Juichang (115.976E 29.724N) south of the Yangtze on 20 August, capturing the city four days later, but encountered stiffening resistance further north. A bloody struggle continued south of Kiukiang and southeast of Hankow into October. The Japanese cut the railway south of Hankow on 28 October, threatening Hankow with encirclement. Along the river, Ma-t'ou-chen (115.578 29.832N) held out for two weeks, and it took the Japanese three more weeks to advance fifteen miles to T'ien-chia-chen behind it. The Ti'ein-chia-chen fortress held out for ten days, during which the Japanese are alleged to have resorted to the use of poison gas (Mitter 2013). When the fortress fell on 29 September, the enraged Japanese killed every Chinese survivor of the battle. North of the river, the Japanese advanced through the Tapieh mountains to the Pinghan railroad, cutting it north of Hankow on 12 October. Other Japanese divisions skirted the south slopes of the mountains and approached Hankow from the east. The Chinese garrison broke and fled the threatened encirclement, and Hankow fell to the Japanese on 25 October 1938.

Japanese casualties were 4567 killed and 17,380 wounded, while the Chinese casualties were reported by the Japanese as 143,493 killed and 9,581 captured. Passengers and crews of four American gunboats moored near the city later testified of seeing Japanese troops execute Chinese prisoners of war by throwing the victims into the river and shooting them when they reappeared at the surface. The exact number of victims was not established, but was estimated by witnesses as in the hundreds. It has also been alleged (Drea 2009) that the Japanese again used poison gas ("special smoke") to break the resistance of the more stubborn Chinese defenders.

Impressive as the Japanese victory was, it took longer than the Japanese had hoped. The Chinese had defended their new wartime capital for ten months, giving Chiang Kai-shek the time to evacuate the Kuomintang government to Chungking. The Japanese had intended to support their offensive with 2 Air Group, but this force was diverted to Manchuria on account of the border dispute at Changkufeng.

However, the orders issued by Chiang were vague and failed to spell out the responsibilities of the subordinate commanders, while denying any initiative to the few able commanders. An American observer (Dorn 1974) later expressed his opinion that perhaps seven out of more than sixty army and army group commanders were reliable military leaders.

Aftermath. The loss of the city ended the most intense phase of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and combat on this level of intensity would not occur again in China until the Ichi-go offensive of 1944. The Japanese, shocked at the resistance they continued to encounter from the Chinese, sought to implement a "peace and order first" policy based on the collaborationist Wang regime that emphasized consolidation of areas already under Japanese control.

When war broke out in the Pacific,  11 Army was based in the city, and 1 Air Brigade and 66 Squadron were based at the airfield.

Stilwell's strategic vision for the war in China called for Hankow to be encircled by Chinese forces striking out from Kiukiang after the restoration of China's supply line through Burma. However, the supply line was not reestablished until late 1944, far too late for any of Stilwell's plans to be carried out.

On 18 December 1944, on orders from the Joint Chiefs of Staff based on a recommendation by Albert Wedemeyer, LeMay's 20 Bomber Command raided Hankow with 94 B-29 Superfortresses carrying 511 tons of incendiary bombs. The resulting fires eliminated Hankow as a major Japanese base.

Rail/ferry connections




River connections




Climate Information:

Elevation: 121'

Temperatures: Jan 46/34, Apr 69/55, Jul 93/79, Oct 73/60, record 106/13

Rainfall: Jan 6/1.8, Apr 7/6.0, Jul 9/7.1, Oct 5/3.2 == 49.5" per annum  Peak Jun 10/9.6


Dorn (1974)
Drea (2009)

Frank (1999)

Goldman (2012)

Hsiung and Levine (1992)

MacKinnon (2008)

Mitter (2013)

Pearce and Smith (1990)

Peattie et al. (2011)

Romanus and Sunderland (1953)

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