What has China Learned from Past Amphibious Assaults?

What has China Learned from Past Amphibious Assaults?
photo credit: Reuters/達志影像
Why you need to know

The PLA's successes and failures in assaulting Xiamen, Kinmen and Hainan in 1949 and 1950 hold lessons for a potential invasion of Taiwan.

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Amphibious operations are important components of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) doctrinal writings and exercises. With no recent experience in amphibious warfare, PLA military science examines foreign and historical operations for guiding principles.

PLA histories highlight amphibious operations against Xiamen, Kinmen and Hainan in 1949 and 1950, the last of which the PLA views as its first large-scale sea crossing experience. These nascent amphibious operations provided amphibious warfare experience and lessons learned for the intended invasion of Taiwan, as well as the PLA’s first joint operation to seize the Yijiangshan Islands in 1954-55.

Xiamen and Kinmen

The PLA initiated operations to capture Fujian Province in July 1949, in part as a base for future operations against Taiwan. The PLA had hoped to keep Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) forces from escaping the mainland, but some Nationalist forces retreated to islands off the coast, specifically the island of Xiamen – which makes up the bulk of the present-day PRC city of the same name – and the island of Kinmen a mile to the east, as well as several smaller islands.

Kinmen_guningtouarch
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Kinmen Island.

Initial sorties to seize several small islands on Oct. 10-13 by the PLA’s 10th Corps secured the crossing corridors for the subsequent landing on Kinmen. The Xiamen amphibious operation followed soon thereafter. The PLA began the assault on the island itself the evening of Oct. 15, shelling the smaller, nearby island of Gulangyu to deceive the enemy while the main attack launched against the north of Xiamen. At 21:00 the 29th Army landed at two beachheads on the northern coast, broke through the enemy defenses, and defeated several counterattacks. After consolidating the beachheads, forces began to move south through the island. By noon on Oct. 16, northern Xiamen had been secured, and KMT troops in the south sought to escape by ship. Shortly before noon the next day Xiamen was captured.

The KMT was therefore determined to defend Kinmen, as it protects the Penghu archipelago and Taiwan, and controls the approach to Xiamen. The defenders improved fortifications and reinforcements arrived to raise the military personnel from 20,000 to 30,000. PLA intelligence failed to detect these KMT preparations and reinforcements.

On the evening of Oct. 24, the PLA landed two regiments on Kinmen’s northwest coast. Another began the crossing at midnight, but a northwest wind left the fleet in disorder with poor communications. The 82nd Division command post did not cross with the first echelon to take command of on-island operations. Close to the shore the assault force met fierce enemy fire and suffered heavy casualties. By the wee hours on Oct. 25 assault forces had begun to break through the enemy defenses, but loss of unified command adversely impacted the operation. Adding to the problems, the wooden junks had become grounded by the ebb tide and underwater obstacles, unable to return to embark the second echelon. KMT aircraft and naval forces destroyed the stranded fleet.

On the morning of Oct. 25, two KMT divisions launched a counterattack supported by aircraft, warships and tanks inflicting heavy losses on the PLA, and initiating two days of back-and-forth combat. Contact with the invasion force was lost on Oct. 27, although some fire could be seen on the beach. All was silent by the afternoon of Oct. 28. The PLA had inflicted heavy casualties on the island defenders, but the invasion force was lost. There would not be another; Kinmen remains part of Taiwan today.

The Hainan amphibious campaign

Lessons learned from the Xiamen and failed Kinmen landings were incorporated into planning for the Hainan operations. After the PLA captured Guangdong Province, KMT forces retreated to Hainan. The KMT considered Hainan important for conducting operations against the mainland, and planned to use bases on Hainan for naval construction, maintenance and repair. The KMT force on Hainan appeared considerable on paper, with four route armies under the command of Xue Yue (薛岳), regarded as an effective Nationalist general. However, the long island coastline and internal front tended to negate the KMT’s numerical advantage, as well as make coordination between the defenders difficult.

A meeting was held on Feb. 1, 1950 in Guangzhou to assess the situation and plan the campaign. While there was concern over the KMT naval and air forces, Nationalist morale and capabilities were considered low. The PLA had a small number of aircraft – fighters, bombers, and transports – supported by Soviet personnel, but they apparently played no role in the amphibious landing. The PLA assessed their troops’ capability as high, but were concerned about the limited experience in amphibious operations. The PLA assembled more than 2,000 ships, and conducted intensive amphibious training. The sea crossing distances from planned embarkation points on the Leizhou Peninsula to beaches in northern Hainan ranged from 19 to 115 miles. Sea crossings were planned at night to mitigate the KMT’s air and maritime superiority.

General Xue had reorganized and improved the Hainan defenses in face of the invasion threat. The KMT Navy attempted to establish a blockade of the strait separating Hainan from the mainland, while its Air Force attacked fishing ports and concentrations of shipping, disrupt training and lines of communication, and conducted harassment bombing of key cities. These proved ineffective in halting the PLA’s invasion operation, which began on the night of April 16, with PLA landings at two locations on the north coast. The westernmost landing included the 40th Army command post, and a division and a half-worth of troops The other landing to the east comprised a 43rd Army command element, and the equivalent of two regiments. These units began attacking inland in coordination with CCP-affiliated guerilla forces already present on the island. A second phase began on the night of April 23 on the northeast coast, with a command element of the 43rd Army, and the equivalent of over four regiments. The PLA conducted another landing down the western coast as the KMT forces retreated towards the southern end of Hainan. The Nationalist forces finally evacuated by sea.

Lessons learned

The Xiamen landings displayed careful planning, preparation and intelligence collection. Xiamen’s terrain and defenses were closely analyzed, and a suitable transit time, crossing routes, and landing areas chosen. Further, the PLA mobilized the requisite number of transports, and conducted repeated exercises to prepare the amphibious assault force. Some deception was employed to confuse the KMT as to the main landing area. According to later PLA amphibious doctrine, the main landings on the northern beaches first defeated counterattacks and quickly consolidated the beachheads before transitioning to onshore combat. The PLA recognized it had to seize enemy-held satellite islands, to eliminate interference with the crossing operations.

In contrast, the Kinmen operation appeared to be haphazardly planned. Sailors were not familiar with the area, training was inadequate, and information on the tides and weather conditions at the landing beaches not known. PLA analysis identified another problem with the operation: in clearing the coast and seizing Zhangzhou and Xiamen, the PLA had the dual missions of combat as well as support in establishing control in the newly captured areas.

The PLA had difficulty balancing the complex requirements of the two missions. The implication was that the military’s role in establishing political control negatively impacted attention to the details of the amphibious operation against Kinmen. The conclusion appeared to be that completion of combat missions took priority over establishment of local control by the military. This has important implications for a Taiwan invasion scenario, where exerting control over captured territory, maintaining public order, and restoring and repairing needed infrastructure would be important requirements that could impact combat operations. Provisions for civilian control and reconstruction, supported by the employment of People’s Armed Police national-level units, would need careful advanced planning.

Lessons learned from the Hainan landing campaign reinforced those from Xiamen and Kinmen. Careful preparation, intelligence collection, and intensive pre-battle training were keys to a successful operation. While not surprising, these factors were particularly critical in a situation where air, sea and information dominance were not possible. Additionally, a strong escort group was required to protect the troop transports, especially with the threat of enemy naval and air forces in the Hainan campaign. Training of ship crews and pilots was particularly important. Once landed, the troops needed to move inland from the beachhead quickly. In the Hainan campaign, the PLA had the advantage of a second front operating on the island to support the landings. The KMT was never able to mount a strong counterattack against the Hainan or Xiamen landings as they did during the successful defense of Kinmen.

The PLA learned from the careful preparation, pre-battle training, operation timing, selection of landing sites, and intelligence preparation evidenced in the Xiamen and Hainan campaigns, but absent in the failed Kinmen operation. While deception did not appear to have a major role in these historical campaigns, it could in a future landing campaign against Taiwan. While tactical surprise might be achieved, strategic or even campaign-level surprise would be difficult due to the indicators that would be evident in an operation on this scale. However, indicators that an operation was imminent would cause Taiwan to mobilize. The extensive mobilization of reservists and civilian equipment – required to man units and equip engineer and logistics forces – could adversely impact Taiwan’s economy without firing a shot. The counterattack at Kinmen is an important lesson for Taiwan; short of defeating the invasion force during the embarkation or transit phases, the ability to conduct strong counterattacks prior to the establishment of a lodgment is critical to defeating the island landing campaign.

A major counterintelligence concern for Taiwan is the level of Communist penetration of the military leading to debilitating internal sabotage during a crisis, a concern reinforced by a spate of recent espionage cases, some of which have included military personnel. Such sabotage could debilitate command as well as situational awareness at a critical time, causing paralysis. Taiwan would do well to heed the lessons of history, as they will surely inform the PLA’s invasion plans.

Read next: On the Front Lines of Taiwan's History in Kinmen

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief. China Brief is a primary source of timely information and cutting-edge analysis for policy-makers, intelligence and military personnel, academics, journalists, and business leaders.

Editor: Morley J Weston

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