Facing a number of external threats in the 1930’s, the Chinese began to procure weapons from abroad in order to modernize their army. One of the many vehicles that Chiang Kai-shek’s government obtained was the Panzer I Ausf.A from Germany. Fifteen arrived in June 1937, with barely enough time to train the Chinese crews for them to take part in the defense against the Japanese that began a month later. Outnumbered, outgunned, and out-performed, the Chinese Panzer I’s served at the Battle of Nanjing (Nanking) in December 1937, but were either destroyed or abandoned during the short battle.
Context: Arming the Chinese
The Chinese had an army that was inferior to foreign counterparts such as Japan, the UK, USSR, and USA for almost a century – it had needed modernization since the First Opium War (1839-1842). Following various attempts since then, in the 1930s, the Nationalists began a major military modernization campaign as they were beginning to see that a war with Japan was almost inevitable. One particular problem that China faced was its lack of AFV’s.
Provincial governments had some improvised AFV’s (some also had a handful imported from abroad), but the Nationalist’s National Revolutionary Army only had some Renault FT’s bought from France during the Northern Expedition, and some captured from the independent warlord Zhang Zuolin or, perhaps, inherited from his son, Zhang Xueliang, who secretly swore allegiance to the KMT after Zuolin’s assassination in 1928. The exact circumstances are unclear.
Some of these FT’s were armed with Manchurian 37 mm (1.46 in) guns which might have been able to destroy Japanese light tanks, but not the Type 89 Yi-Go medium tank, as used in the Battle of Shanghai. Essentially, these FT’s were outdated compared to Japanese tanks, and they were certainly not numerous enough (let alone potent enough) to defend against a possible Japanese onslaught.
As part of a broader military modernization campaign, the KMT hired German military advisors headed by General Hans von Seekt. These advisors convinced Chiang Kai-shek to buy as many arms as possible from Europe – no doubt, a money-making scheme by the German advisors, as China bought plenty of German-produced equipment including Panzer I’s, Sd.Kfz.221s and 222s, field guns and artillery pieces, and even large numbers of the Stalhelm helmet.
Fifteen Panzer I Ausf.A’s were sold to the Kuomintang in mid or late 1936, but they only arrived in June 1937 because the Chinese ordnance department was so poorly organized. The Chinese paid 1.03 million Reichsmarks for the tanks (about US$25 million in today’s money), but they were shipped poorly and were not protected from the elements.
The damage was reported by a Krupp representative, Herr Habermas, from Nanjing, 26th November, 1937:
- Water, 2-4cm deep, had collected in the hull of the tanks.
- Lots of parts had rusted, including the gun mounts, the telescopic gun sights, and steering brakes.
- The electrical components were heavily damaged by the warm and humid air.
- The cooling fans for the brakes were non-operational without serious cleaning.
- The batteries for the electrical components were ruined due to heavy oxidization. A representative from Bosch in Shanghai stated that the contact material on the magnetos and voltage regulators was not suitable for tropical environments.
- Some tool boxes, cloth components, and operation manuals were also partially ruined.
Japanese photo of Panzer I #312 showing the engine. Even from such a poor quality image, the state of disrepair of the tanks is obvious.
As a result, the KMT accused the Germans of selling used models, which is not what they agreed, but there was little time to dispute this, as war with Japan broke out only a month after the arrival of the Panzer I’s.
Regarding their paint schemes, the Panzer I’s were almost certainly pre-war three-tone as they would have been painted by the Germans, as opposed to the later Panzer gray scheme. Photos seem to show them to be a single color, but this is likely due to the paint fading / being worn, the tank being very dirty, or an inherent problem with black and white photos – especially poor quality prints or digital renderings of them.
A three-digit serial number was added on the front and rear of the hull.
A small KMT emblem is often depicted on the side rear of the vehicle, just below a viewport, but this might be a Japanese addition or an apocryphal post-war artist’s addition.
The tanks were highly unsuitable to the Chinese climate when they were operational. Herr Habermas also reports:
- The tanks were very prone to overheating, and temperatures inside the tank could get as high as 60 degrees Celsius in the summer, even with all hatches open.
- Hand and foot levers could hardly be operated as a result of the intense heat, making driving even more hazardous.
- On a march of any length, the front of the tank had to be ventilated by opening the brake adjustment hatch.
- Due to the threat of the electrical equipment overheating, the engine compartment had to be ventilated during long marches.
- Due to the overheating issue, after a long march the gunner could not fire the machine guns when the tank was buttoned-down (IE with all hatches closed).
- Off-road use of the tanks was unimaginable because the tracks were not wide enough for muddy rice fields (especially anywhere north of the Yangtze River). Essentially, the tracks got stuck in the mud, and the tank threw the track. Off-roading on completely dry fields was possible if the driver was careful.
- Even in suitable fields, often the dykes that separated rice fields were around 1.5 meters tall, and the Panzer I had trouble clearing those.
- The only positive for the Panzer I was that it was considered rather roomy when compared to the Vickers tanks sold from Britain 1933-1936.
According to some photos, some Panzer I’s were rearmed with Soviet DP-29 machine guns. Herr Habermas suggests that the Chinese felt that a tank weighing over 5 tons should have an armament consisting of a 20 mm (0.79 in) or 37 mm (1.46 in) gun, or, at very least, a powerful belt-fed machine gun (like the Vickers Mark E Type B and Vickers-Carden-Loyd Light Amphibious Tanks), which may go some way to explain this replacement. It may also be the case that the German machine guns were damaged beyond repair, or that the Chinese felt there was only sufficient ammunition to arm a handful of Panzer Is with German machine guns. In any case, photos seem to show more Panzer Is with DP-29s than any other gun.
Interior of a Chinese Panzer I after the Japanese had captured it, as viewed from the turret ring, following the turret’s removal. Various parts have been removed, including the original generator for the radio.
Context: The Battle of Nanjing, 1937
The Japanese had successfully taken Shanghai by late November 1937, and thus moved onto nearby Nanjing. Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Chinese government, decided that it would be better to try to defend Nanjing than performing a tactical retreat on the basis that if the Chinese could show that they could defend the city, then they might receive aid from the ‘great powers’ (France, UK, USA, etc). Thus, from 20th November, the Chinese began preparing the city’s defense by barricading and bolstering the city’s Ming-era wall, and preparing lines of defense outside the city.
On paper, the Chinese seemed to have an advantage, with an estimated 100,000-150,000 defenders, including three elite divisions which had been trained by the Germans, compared to only 50,000 Japanese attackers. However, the bulk of these defenders had just retreated from the Battle of Shanghai, and were exhausted, low on morale, and low on supplies. Worse still, the Japanese had tanks superior in quality and in number, and they had also enjoyed air superiority since September 1937.
The Japanese march on Nanjing started in late November, and they managed to reach the last line of defense before the city by 9th December. The Japanese were only slowed by overstretched supply lines. Similarly, as a result of the rapid Japanese advance, the Chinese defense was not properly prepared in time and could, therefore, be smashed with ease.
10th December saw fierce fighting at the Nanjing’s walls, and by the evening, Japanese engineers had breached a hole in the Guanghau Gate in the east of the city but were pinned down by Chinese counter-attacks which included tanks (which were, presumably, but not certainly, Panzer I’s).
On 11th December, Chiang Kai-shek ordered the city’s defense to be abandoned, unbeknownst to the Japanese.
Fate of the Panzer I’s
Most of the Panzer Is appear to have been destroyed in Nanjing, with some few being sent to Japan for testing or propaganda displays. Thanks to interviews with former soldiers, the story of vehicles in Nanjing has become somewhat less unclear.
Du Yuming’s account
The following is based on an interview with Du Yuming (Du Lu Ming), a KMT general who would later make a name for himself in the Burma Campaigns (1942-1945), and later in the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949). After the war, Du Yuming was captured in the Chinese Civil War, and released ten years later. He then found a position in the Communist government.
On November 9th, 1937, the Shanghai defense army suffered great losses on all fronts. My army only had one motorized unit, which was the Army Motorized Corps. Inside the Army Motorized Corps, we had three battalions consisting of tanks, recon vehicles, and armored cars. We were given the order to retreat to Hunan. The three battalions all fought at Shanghai, and now retreated to Nanking. At the time, we decided to follow the road from Nanking leading to Hunan. The AFVs were transported via trains to Changsha (the capital of Hunan).
However, Chang Kai-shek did not have a retreat plan. Therefore, there weren’t enough trains and fuel to transport the AFVs. As a result of this, all 3 battalions stayed in Nanking. Just before the Japanese army reached them, they managed to get a bit of fuel. They sent what they could away while the rest stayed. Some vehicles were disassembled and put onto the trains. While awaiting orders (approximately at 10PM on November 20th), He Ying Xing (another commander) suddenly told me: “It’s now decided that Tang Sheng Zhe [another commander] will stay in Nanking. The chairman [Chiang Kai-shek] orders that all German AFVs stay in Nanking to defend.”
Although the German AFVs were excellent, we had nearly no ammunition, and only had 15 vehicles [thus, these were presumably the 15 Panzer I’s]. So, I disagreed with the order. I believed that it would be better if we left the British amphibious vehicles and artillery vehicles in Nanking instead. I thought that because first, Nanking was near water; therefore the amphibious vehicles would have better use here, and if the battle here was lost, they can simply swim across the river and head to North. He Ying Xing said “Don’t even think about retreating to the North. You will defend Nanking to death.” He was adamant about the order to leave the Germany AFVs here instead. Seeing how angry he was, I wouldn’t dare speak out against him again. I was still pretty confused as to why we are using the German vehicles instead of the British.
The Defeated Armored Company
The armored car battalion sent out its last vehicles out of Nanking on December 4th [these were likely the Sd.Kfz.221s and 222s]. The other two companies that stayed in Nanking were all wiped out by the Japanese. On December 13th, Nanking completely fell to the Japanese. But what fate did the vehicles and men belonging to the two Companies meet?
It was only until the 20th December did we see some survivors of the two companies. They told us that from the 5th onward, their orders was to join in on the battle. They told us that most of the men were killed in the fight and that all the German AFVs were lost. It was only a few survivors that made it out of the city. [The following lines refer to events in Liushu Wan’s account – see below]. When the survivors made it to Xiaguan harbor, they saw that the 36th Group were about to leave. When they tried to board the boats, they were denied. Because of that, they tried to swim across the river. Most of the survivors died while trying to swim across, and that is the fate of the Armored Company.
Two True Heroes
The Chinese forces were ill-prepared for the Battle of Nanjing. They had no retreat plan so they were doomed. Knowing this, the morale and motivation of the Chinese forces reached the lowest point possible. One of the survivors [of the Battle of Nanjing, whom Du Yuming presumably met after the battle] told his story about Nanjing. He said that he and another soldier (he described himself and the other soldier as the sons of China) couldn’t handle the shame of losing the battle. [According to the soldier’s story, their] company commander already retreated from the front lines, so they had no leader. [Thus], they took it upon themselves to hide in a destroyed vehicle. They did so until 4PM, when the Japs came. Seeing the Japanese forces approach, they came out of the tank and threw grenades at the Japanese soldiers. The survivor recounted hearing his friend shout “Motherfuckers! I will trade my life for 10 of yours!” while throwing grenades. They then quickly scavenged the Japanese soldiers for their guns and held their positions for many hours. Around dusk, the two soldiers exhausted all their ammunition and decided to escape. One of the soldiers, unfortunately, died during the escape and the other soldier escaped successfully and told his story to me.
After I heard his story, I simply congratulated him. I was still doubting the authenticity of his story. However on November 15th, 1939, during the battle of Kunlun Pass, we wiped out an entire Japanese company headed by Zhongcun Zheng Xiong. While looting the defeated company, we found a Japanese war log. Inside the war logs, it accounted the details of the Battle of Nanjing. While I was reading the logs, I stumbled upon a detailed accounting of an ambush of Japanese troops by two Chinese soldiers hiding in a destroyed AFV. This was the time when I realized that these two soldiers were truly heroes of China [and that the survivor’s story was true]. I set out to look for the surviving soldier who told me the story. However, I learned that he had sacrificed himself in action during the Battle of Kunlun Pass while attacking an enemy position. These two heroes are truly the sons of China. With overwhelming odds, they held their grounds to fight the more well trained, well equipped Japanese forces. They are the roses and pride of the country and a true son to the people of China.
Liushu Wan’s account
Liushu Wan was a soldier serving with the Second Battalion.
On the afternoon of December 12th, 1937, I retreated with the armored company down the Xiaguan riverside. The right side of the pier was stacked with the armored company’s 5 gallon gas tanks along with other supplies. Because everyone had the “Ke Luo Mi” medal (unique to the company), they naturally stuck together. The platoon leader told me “We are currently negotiating with the ferry to let us cross.” Because of the fact that I was the highest ranking there, everyone was willing to be under my command.
Around 9PM, dozens of houses in Xiaguan were on fire. The only thing we could do was rally near the docks. Around this time, the ferry towed some smaller boats near the docks. We began negotiating with the owner of the ferry. What we did was we tied two of the smaller boats together and put planks of woods onto them. We then drove the armored vehicles onto the boat. Because the boats were so small, they were unbalanced, and thus they would tip over in the water when the armored vehicles drove on them. We tried many times, but weren’t able to get the tanks onto the boats. Not even the smaller vehicles would work.
It was about midnight when the tow ferry started to rush us. The only thing I could do now was to gather up the tankers and discuss how to get rid of the armored vehicles and cars. Some of the ideas included blowing them up or placing grenades under the motor (so when the enemy steps on the gas pedal, they would blow up). After a bit more discussing, we chose the second option. After we loaded what we could onto the boats, we all embarked. Before we disembarked, two drivers and two tankers approached me. They told me “We four have decided to stay and fight the Jap devils.” I replied with “Our mission from Command was to head to Puzhen.”
“No! We’re here to fight Jap devils! The enemy is here – we should fight them first.”, the driver insistently said. At the same time, the two tankers also said “We still have weapons on our armored vehicles. We might as well give the Japs a good fight if we’re going to destroy the vehicles.” “Where is your platoon leader? Go ask them. I cannot make this decision.” I replied. I wanted them to go with us, but the two drivers became impatient and said “We will take responsibility. We’re leaving.” I then said hastily “Alright. Choose your weapons, and enough ammo. But your main duty is to make sure all these vehicles get destroyed.” I then told my superiors to leave them 10 days worth of food, some money and two Mauser rifles. They then jumped off of the boat and disappeared into the dark.
According to a Japanese newspaper report, on 9th December, four Panzer I’s engaged four Japanese war correspondents from Ashahi News, but were rescued by the Japanese Army in a battle that lasted twenty minutes. Three of the Chinese tanks were destroyed, and one retreated.
As the memoirs tell us, and according to Benny Tsang (a Chinese armor historian), the remaining Panzer I’s (possibly around ten) were abandoned in Xiaguan District (in the south of Nanjing) at night time on 12th December. Crowds of civilians and soldiers went to Xiaguan’s harbor in order to escape the Japanese and abandon the city. They were blockaded by barrier troops (who were there to stop mass desertions), but a tank unit made up of Panzer Is burst through them and drove onto the harbor. When they arrived, they found that there were few ships in the harbor to escape in, and the tanks were subsequently abandoned.
Civilians and deserting military personnel alike tried to board the last ships, but these last few ships were so overcrowded that they sank in the Yangtze River. Japanese gunboats had been sailing up the river in order to surround the city as part of the Japanese invasion plan, and as a result, further river-borne retreats were made impossible.
After 9th December, there was little chance of escape for those left in Nanjing. Realising this, tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers left in the city began removing their uniforms and deserted en masse.
The Rape of Nanjing, also known as the Nanjing Massacre, commenced the following day.
Panzer I’s sent to Japan
From 8th to 15th of January 1939, a display of Japanese tanks and captured Chinese weapons was put on in Tokyo. Several Panzer I’s were put on display, but were recorded on plaques as being Soviet-made, for political reasons. These were presumably the ones abandoned in Nanjing, as opposed to any of the destroyed vehicles.
At least two Panzer I’s (possibly from the aforementioned three) were put on display at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Japan around February 1939. These are likely to have been also used for performance testing by the Japanese.
The Chinese Panzer Is were inevitably going to see a short service life. When they arrived, they were in poor condition, and regardless of their condition, their Chinese crews were poorly trained and facing a superior Japanese force at Nanjing. Some German-supplied vehicles (namely Sd.Kfz.221s and 222s) managed to escape the battle and went on to form part of the 200th Division in late 1937 (or, officially, January 1938) – the first formal mechanized division of the NRA. The KMT procured weapons from the USSR to replace their losses at Shanghai and Nanjing, and to fill up the ranks of the 200th Division (most of the AFVs were T-26s). In any case, Chiang Kai-shek’s flirtation with German military hardware had come to an end.
Panzer I Ausf.A in KMT service, Battle of Nanjing, 1937. The vehicles would have been sent in tri-color camouflage, but photos show that the paint appears to have faded.
Chinese Panzer I Ausf.A’s with DP machine guns, abandoned in Nanjing, December 1937.
Chinese Panzer I Ausf.A’s with DP machine guns, abandoned in Nanjing, December 1937. The soldiers do not seem to fit with the rest of the photo, meaning that this is likely to be a contemporary propaganda photo based on this original image.
Chinese Panzer I, reportedly captured on December 9th, 1937. According to one source, this tank, along with three others, engaged four Japanese war correspondents for Ashahi News, but these were rescued by the Japanese Army in a battle that lasted twenty minutes. Three of the Chinese tanks were destroyed, and one retreated. This particular tank is armed with Soviet DP-29 machine guns.
A Nationalist Renault FT, two Panzer I’s (armed with Soviet machine guns), two T-26s (missing their armaments and mantlets), and just in shot, a Vickers Mark E Type B on display in Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Japan, February 1939.
A photo taken by the US Army showing a Chinese Panzer I bogged down during training around June 1937.
Undated and unlocated image of a Chinese Panzer I, having been captured by the Japanese.
Different view of the Panzer I’s captured at the harbor, circa December 13th. Japanese flags have now been attached to the tanks.
Several Chinese Panzer I’s on display in Tokyo, January 1939.
Panzer I on display in Japan, January 1939. The KMT Sun on the hull is likely a Japanese addition to make it clear that the tank was captured and is not Japanese.
Panzer I during Japanese testing. Note the new Japanese Imperial star added next to the driver’s vision hatch.
Panzer I during Japanese testing. Note the new Japanese number plate.
A Japanese assessment of the Panzer I turret interior.
Different view of the above, showing the gun sights.
Different view of the above.
Different view of the above.
Japanese newspaper, showing an article regarding the Battle of Nanjing.
Benny Tsang provided many documents relating to Panzer I’s in China that can be reproduced upon request.
Correspondence with Guillem Martí Pujol regarding the camouflage scheme of exported Panzer I’s.
“Defense of Nanking – The Diary of the RoC’s Battle Against the Japanese (南京保衛戰—原國民黨將領抗日戰爭親歷記)” edited by the Committee of Historical Material of the People’s Republic of China (載中國人民政治協商會議全國委員會文史資料硏究委員會), 1987. Special thanks to Leo Guo for translating and interpreting the text.
“Panzer Tracts No.1-2 Panzerkampfwagen I” by Thomas L. Jentz.
“AFV Collection No. 1: Panzer I: Beginning of a Dynasty” by Lucas Molina Franco