Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Second World War Chinese National Army in 20mm

Depending on what perspective you take, the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 is considered by many as the starting point for the global conflict that was to become the Second World War. The Chinese were to fight the Japanese for many long and difficult years until 1945. For the Japanese Imperial Army it was the theatre that involved the largest commitment of men in the Pacific/Far East theatre. Yet it's a war that doesn't receive a lot of attention in English language histories and it's fair to say it is a greatly neglected part of the Second World War in terms of wargaming and miniatures.

In effect two different Chinese armies fought against Japan. The Nationalists and the Communists temporarily set aside their differences to confront the common enemy, but they did not fight as a single army. The communist People's Liberation Army fought most of the war from behind enemy lines in what was effectively a guerrilla campaign, albeit on a fairly grand scale. The Chinese National Army was the army of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party and was therefore the official army of the state. Known as the National Revolutionary Army or more simply as the National Army they had recruited German officers like Hans von Seekt and then Alexander von Falkenhausen to help them modernise and structure a new army. Recommendations were made for 80 modern divisions, however in practice this never happened. Nonetheless eight divisions were formed and trained to a high standard and are often referred to as the 'German-trained' divisions - easy to see why when you see images like the one below of the troops kitted out in M35 German steel helmets.

These divisions had the best available equipment, much of it purchased overseas or made under licence in Chinese factories. These are the units I have represented here and many fought in several of the critical battles against the Japanese including Shanghai and Nanjing.

This is a project I started many years ago when I first returned to miniature gaming. Originally I put together the Chinese force with three figures to a base with the intention of using them for Crossfire. 

Once my gaming shifted toward platoon level skirmish games with individually based figures the Chinese languished in boxes for many years. It's been only fairly recently that I went about rebasing them. While I was doing that the most obvious thing I've noticed was how much my style of painting has changed in the intervening years.

There is very little to choose from in 20mm or 1/72 to represent these Chinese units. The nicest figures that I found are Perry sculpts from the 20mm range produced by Wargames Foundry. Unfortunately, like many of the sets in that range, the choice of figures is very limited, often just repeats of the same pose and so it is with these. They don't come in German helmets but in kepi forage caps, something commonly worn by Chinese troops.

Caesar Miniatures produce a set of plastic figures specifically for the Chinese. They come wearing a variety of uniforms that represent both the National Army and People's Liberation Army and were very useful for this project. They have only a handful of figures wearing German style helmets, nonetheless they make a good place to start.

I decided the best solution was to engage in a bit of old-school converting, something I haven't done since my early teens. Most of this involved simple head swaps using the Airfix German Infantry set as the source of the heads. The figures don't stand up to close inspection and are nowhere the standard of the AB Figures that are my preference these days. Despite that, it seemed a shame not to use them after having put in all the effort to make them.

The bulk of the infantry are a mix of different conversions that fall into three categories:

  • Caesar Chinese army figures with Airfix German heads
  • HaT WWI Turkish infantry with Airfix German heads
  • Caesar WWII German infantry with obvious German equipment like gas mask cases and water bottles removed

I've tried to keep a degree of uniformity in their appearance and settled on keeping the webbing in a similar colour to the uniforms, as it often was. Who knows, maybe one day I'll find the time to go back and add the finishing touches to them? 

When I painted them initially I was using Army Painter dip for shading and while that's not something I would do now the thick varnish makes a very good protective coating for soft plastic figures and will prevent the paint from flaking.

The officers and NCOs come from a mix of sets.

Those of you familiar with Airfix figures might recognise the officer on the left from the Airfix German set. He has a new head and I removed his luger to look like he's pointing his finger instead.

All four of the figures below are based on existing German figures with very minor changes.

These two below are examples of some of the HaT WWI Turkish figures with Airfix heads.

You may have noticed a figure in one of the early pictures holding aloft a broadsword. This is the da-dao, a fearsome piece of kit issued to all Chinese soldiers. As the war progressed it tended to be phased out, but would still be much in evidence prior to 1940. The Chinese were always short of artillery and often felt out-gunned by the Japanese, however they considered themselves superior when it came to hand-to-hand combat and with swords like that I'm not surprised. The figure in the middle without the helmet is one of the original Caesar figures, the other two are the same figure but with Airfix heads. 

No doubt a posed propaganda shot but the picture below is from the Battle of Shanghai, so evidence that the swords were still around in 1937, although how much they were used is subject to much mythologising by the Chinese.

The structure of a platoon changed so many times between 1930 and 1942 it is almost impossible to keep track. Early platoon structures included a five squad platoon armed with rifles. In time and consistent with most armies a light machine gun was added to several of the squads. By 1937 the structure became more settled but was still subject to change, there were however a few key developments. I have found the book Kangzhan by Leland Ness with Bin Shih an invaluable reference source for this project and can't recommend it highly enough, the level of detail is incredible.

Platoons varied between three and four squads, but at least two would be equipped with a light machine gun. The structure being a team with the LMG (5 or so men) and a rifle team (6-7 men). The third or fourth squads would be armed with only rifles.

The Caesar set includes prone and standing figures armed with the Czech ZB26 LMG and I've added a rifleman to make up a two man crew for the weapon. The ZB26 was the most common LMG with the Chinese in the period 1937-41 and was manufactured in China.

One of the more notable developments came about as a result of the Chinese observing the impact of the Japanese use of grenade dischargers and rifle grenades. The Japanese had three or four of these in a single squad, always keeping them grouped together and firing at the same target. The effect of a shower of grenades on a single target impressed the Chinese who were always short of fire support and they soon copied the concept. The third squad in the platoon, the one without an LMG was given two grenade dischargers or rifle grenades, a move that was adopted widely throughout the army.

This is something that I need to address for this force and the most likely candidates for this will be conversions of Japanese figures. Italeri have a rifle grenadier in one of their sets that would make the basis for a simple conversion (you can see four of them in the front left of the picture below).

Alternatively I can look to convert either the Eureka Miniatures or Simon's Soldiers metal grenade discharger teams.

Much like the ZB26 light machine gun most weapons had been sourced from a range of overseas arms manufacturers and so I've made up a MMG team based on converting the old ESCI WWII British infantry Vickers team. The more I read it does appear the Maxim was probably the most common machine gun in the Chinese arsenal, but for now the Vickers will have to suffice.

The Chinese acquired and then made under licence the German Pak35/36 anti-tank gun.

The story of the 37mm anti-tank gun in China is a slightly unusual one. In 1930 the Soviets produced a version of the German 37mm/L45 to be horse drawn and known as the 37mm obr.30 anti-tank gun. In 1933 when production moved to the more powerful 45mm gun they disposed of the smaller calibre models and the vast majority were sold to China. The Beijing Military Museum has one of these and you can see the distinctive wooden spoked wheels. 

By a happy coincidence the ammunition for the Russian gun was compatible with the German guns they were copied from, which were also being made in China. This enabled a high degree of standardisation and the Chinese operated four different versions of the gun, only distinguishable by their wheels - either steel with rubber tyres (Rheinetall L/50 or the Pak36 L/45) or wooden spoked wheels (Type 30 L/50 and L/45 obr.30). Given the relative weakness of Japanese armour this calibre of gun, which was obsolete in Europe by 1941, remained a potent anti-tank weapon in the Chinese theatre and served until the end of the war.

The Chinese acquired a considerable array of artillery pieces in the interwar years and I've heard that by the war's end they had used as many as 700 different artillery types. However I find it hard to imagine that many existed, but I think you get the general idea. Many were of First World War vintage and so I've created a 'generic' gun to represent these based on the HaT WWI German 7.7cm Feldkanone 16.

The Beijing Military Museum has a large number of different pieces that this could represent.

Looking at the array of guns and mortars on display it's not that difficult to think the 700 number might not be too far wide of the mark.

Having said all this, artillery was not to play a prominent role in platoon or company level engagements, certainly not in the way we might understand its use in other theatres. Most signals were by telephone which meant forward observers had far less flexibility than those with radios. Signals equipment was limited and difficult to maintain without a full range of spare parts and as a result was unreliable. Regimental fire support came from attached 82mm mortars, with artillery being a divisional asset or higher. As a result most artillery support would be in the form of preliminary bombardments or where the fall of shot from indirect fire could be observed by someone in reasonably close proximity to the guns. Much of this explains why, at platoon level, the Chinese embraced the immediate fire support offered by grenade dischargers and rifle grenades.

The National Army invested in a number of different tanks from as far afield as France, Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union and Italy. Between them they make up a fairly representative slice of mid-war light tank designs. While there is evidence of all these tanks being acquired, actual evidence of their use in combat is much more sketchy. Chinese historians seem to have concluded that there are no accounts when they engaged Japanese tanks in any numbers. Chinese practice was to parcel out the armour to infantry divisions as support rather than to concentrate them in armoured divisions. Many of the initial purchases were used in the Battle of Shanghai where they were ill suited to urban warfare and were destroyed or captured.

The first tanks arrived shortly after the end of the First World War and these were French Renault FT-17. At the time civil war raged in China where the country was divided into regions under the control of warlords. The period is often referred to as the 'Warlord Era' and was one of considerable unrest until Chiang Kai Shek unified the country in 1928 under the rule of the National People's Party (Kuomintang, in Chinese). Most, if not all of those FT-17 had been imported by warlords and were used in their battles against rivals. These were eventually absorbed into the new National Army following unification. Already obsolete by 1930 they were generally used for training, although there is some evidence a few may have seen action against the Japanese. These two are from HaT and are armed with the 37mm gun, as opposed to a machine gun, however the Chinese operated both versions. 

If what I've seen in various museums is anything to go by then a surprising number of FT-17 appear to have survived. The Musee des Blindes in Saumur has one with a machine gun.

As does the one in the collection of the Tank Museum at Bovington.

The Musee de l'Armee in Paris has one mounting the Puteaux 37mm gun like the models above.

There is one in the collection of the Canadian War Museum but it appears to be missing its main armament which has been substituted with a pipe. It also has the eight sided riveted turret.

Worth noting that the Japanese also purchased both the FT-17 and Renault's up-armoured later version the NC27. The Japanese used FT-17s in China at the Mukden or Manchurian Incident in 1932 at Harbin, but it appears these were in fact captured from the Chinese after the occupation of Manchuria, not shipped in from Japan. The Chinese withdrew before the FT-17s could come into action and it appears the tanks were withdrawn from Japanese service shortly after.

Given the strong German influence it's not surprising to see a selection of their equipment. Much like the French tanks, the German equipment was not normally repainted from the original colours, all that was added were the Kuomintang sun symbol and any tactical markings.

A number of armoured cars were acquired although, to be honest, I'm not sure if the Adler Kfz 13 was one of them, but I'll use it to represent a range of possible vehicles. This kit is from S-models and the crew figure is repurposed from the old Airfix Sd.Kfz 234 armoured car (amazing what you can find in the spares box).

The Chinese bought a number of Leichter Panzersp√§hwagen armoured cars, including the Sd.Kfz 221 and 222 variants. This is the ICM Sd.Kfz 222, a lovely little kit that includes a very nice etched brass cage cover for the turret.

The only German tanks purchased were PzKpfw1a. Numbers vary as to how many were bought, with estimates between ten and thirty six. They were not suited to China's conditions, prone to overheating and throwing their tracks on soft ground. Most were lost in the battles around Nanjing, where Chiang Kai-Shek committed them against the advice of his German advisor von Falkenhausen. This is the S-models kit which even comes with decals for Chinese use (perhaps not entirely surprising given S-models is a Chinese company).

The Italian CV35 (L3/35) was also used in armoured units, with 101 of the tankettes purchased from Italy. By all accounts these saw heavy but intermittent combat through to 1942. The Chinese would often mix up AFV types in the same unit, so that one battalion was equipped with PzKpfwIa and the CV35. These diminutive tankettes are also from S-models.

The Military Museum in Beijing has a CV35 on display and while its history is not clear I suspect it may be one of the few surviving vehicles purchased in the 1930s.

The British company Vickers exported a number of tanks in the interwar years and had several designs manufactured under licence. The Vickers 6 ton or Vickers Mark E was a private project and was never purchased by the British Army. However the design proved popular in other markets and the Russians used it as the basis for the T-26. The Chinese bought at least twenty of them and I have seen photographs of them in action in Shanghai. This kit is from UM Models.

Talking of the T-26, 82 of these were acquired from the Soviet Union. There had been Soviet advisors in China from the 1920s and following a request from Japan to Germany in 1937 to remove their advisors from China the Chinese turned once again to the Soviet Union for assistance. After the Chinese lost a substantial part of their armour in 1938 they brought in T-26 as replacements. Reports indicate they were happy with these and their performance. Post battle reports said that if they held the field then damaged or knocked out T-26 could be recovered and very often repaired. This had not been the case with the Italian CV35 which were invariably beyond repair with the crews killed. The T-26, like the Vickers 6 ton, were classed as medium tanks by the Chinese and served in the same units.

These two T-26 are also from S-models.

There is a T-26 of a similar vintage in the Spanish Army Museum in Valencia, no doubt a survivor of the Spanish Civil War.

So with a Japanese force already painted all that remains is to come up with suitable scenarios and settings for games. Shanghai certainly appears to be a rich source of possible options and something well suited to platoon level actions in urban settings. I have the book below which is very informative, although the subtitle does amuse me, clearly someone trying to find an attractive hook to entice readers interested in military history, but honestly, 'Stalingrad on the Yangtze', what were they thinking? Perhaps we should start referring to the Battle of Stalingrad as 'Shanghai on the Volga'?


  1. Nice write up! I have 28mm Warlord era Chinese and plan on using them against the Japanese. I can hear the Eureka 28mm Chinese calling me though....I'll have to find a copy of Kangzhan. I agree that Stalingrad reference is weird. Shanghai is an interesting battle, but nothing like Stalingrad...

    1. Thanks, yes, I was very envious when I saw 28mm figures coming out and not a little surprised too. I think Shanghai offers great possibilities for scenarios and campaigns, but the comparison with Stalingrad isn't useful!

  2. Fabulous looking figures, I don't think I've ever seen WWII Chinese before? Didn't know they wore the German helmet either!

    1. Thanks. Yes, I think that surprises a lot of people. Often their first reaction is to assume the Nazis raised some sort of Chinese legion.

  3. A much over-looked theatre. It tied down the majority of the Japanese army greatly reducing the challenge faced by the Allies.

    1. Over a million IJA in China for much of the war, quite a commitment of resources.

  4. Quite the effort, what incredibly patient documentation!
    Thank you for sharing such interesting work on such a little known combatant in WW2.

  5. Fantastic post.



  6. Very interesting, a period/theatre I always mean to read more about but somehow never get around to...I await your future AARs with interest.
    Of course one of the great historical what-ifs is what would have happened had Hitler/Mussolini sought to align the Axis with China rather than the (with hindsight but I think even at the time) inexplicable decision to align the Axis with Japan in 1940.

    1. Interesting thought, although not sure how straightforward it would have been given the USA always thought it had a special relationship with China.

  7. What a great subject for an army..excellent work too.

    1. Thanks Jim, it's like Back of Beyond meets Spanish Civil War, lots of quirky unit types and equipment in places you wouldn't expect to see them.

  8. The HaT WW1 Italian artillery crews (Set 8259) work quiet well as WW2 Chinese if you need more crew figures. Waterloo 1815's WW1 Italian infantry (Set 043) would probably also work well, though I have my set painted up as WW2 Thais

  9. Very nice work on display....I have a passing interest at present, as I have several Warlord Chinese contingents (as well as Japanese) in the 1930's Pulp collection I have been working on in recent months.

  10. I feel like I just had a Master class on Chinese involvement in WW2 -- I've always been interested in the FLying Tigers so knew a little bit about the National Army but the rest was new to me -- that picture of Chinese troops with German helmets was shocking! Great work on the minis and thank you for the education!

  11. Great stuff mate, good to see a less used army on the table.