PLA Amphibious Ops: EP2 - Battle of Dengbu Island
登步岛 - Deng1bu4 Dao3 - Dengbu Island
Kinmen | Dengbu | Hainan | Wanshan | Nanpeng | Dongshan | Yijiangshan | Dachen
November 3, 1949 – November 5, 1949 — Battle of Dengbu Island
March 5, 1950 – May 1, 1950 — Landing Operation on Hainan Island
May 25, 1950 – August 7, 1950 — Wanshan Archipelago Campaign
September 20, 1952 – October 20, 1952 — Battle of Nanpēng Archipelago
July 16, 1953 – July 18, 1953 — Dongshan Island Campaign
January 18, 1955 – January 20, 1955 — Battle of Yijiangshan Islands
January 19, 1955 – February 26, 1955 — Battle of Dachen Archipelago
The Battle of Dengbu (登步岛战役) marked the second critical moment in the development of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) amphibious operations and doctrine. Surprisingly, just three weeks after the Battle of Kinmen, PLA officers applied the lessons learned from Kinmen to the Dengbu campaign. Ultimately, hard-won experiences from Kinmen and Dengbu would lay the foundation for the future invasion of Hainan (which will be covered in Episode 3 of this series).
The Zhoushan Archipelago (舟山群岛, which includes Dengbu Island) is a collection of nearly 1,400 islands located at the mouth of Hangzhou Bay, located just south of Shanghai and just east of Ningbo. Zhoushan Island itself is 910 km north of Kinmen (about the distance from NYC to Myrtle Beach, SC) and 540 km north of Taipei (NYC to Richmond, VA). In the present day, the Zhoushan area is home to the Ningbo-Zhoushan Port, the world’s busiest port with an annual cargo throughput in excess of 1.25 billion tonnes. This key trade node functions as the main outlet for goods manufactured in Zhejiang province, one of the richest areas of China.
The War Continues
Shortly after Beijing’s defeat on Kinmen Island, the CCP reset and began preparing for an amphibious campaign against Dengbu in the Zhoushan Archipelago.
These islands were a thorn in Mao Zedong’s side as they were among the last bastions of Republic of China Armed Forces (ROCAF - Taiwan) resistance in southern mainland China. From the Zhoushan Archipelago ROC Navy vessels commonly conducted maritime interdiction of trade vessels traveling to Shanghai and Ningbo. For the Communists to restore trade routes to domestic ports in order to rejuvenate the economy, assert dominance over claimed territories as a newly established country, and to continue displacing and out-positioning the ROC threat on Taiwan, Beijing urgently desired to push the ROCAF out of this critical region.
Despite the ROCAF victory at Kinmen, the overall strategic situation from Taiwan’s perspective remained unchanged. Communist forces continued routing the ROCAF in effectively every major theater of the Civil War, although the ROC Navy (backstopped by the US Navy) still controlled the near seas within the First Island Chain. Chiang Kai-shek (the Generalissimo leading Taiwan’s civilian government and military) was still wrapped up in the massive logistics operation of evacuating ROCAF from mainland China. Control over the Zhoushan Archipelago allowed the ROC to continue this evacuation flow, sparing combat strength and adding future citizens to Taiwan. As part of this operation, the ROC navy inflicted pain on the coastal regions of southern China through persistent raiding. In addition to this, Chiang Kai-shek believed that control over some of these islands would provide a staging ground for the future ROC conquest of mainland China, a plan that was not officially abandoned until 1972.
During June 1949, the ROCAF evacuation from Zhejiang was in full swing as Communist forces rapidly marched towards the sea. In July, Mao spoke to the leadership of PLA 3rd Field Army, stating “In order to secure our coast, smash the planes and ships launching incursions on the Mainland, and facilitate the capture of Taiwan, first we must capture Dinghai [Zhoushan Island] and eliminate the enemies of the Zhoushan Islands.” The race to capture the archipelago had begun.
From July through late October 1949, the PLA faced relatively little resistance capturing several islands, most notably Daxie, Jintang, Xiazhi, and Liuheng. The battlefield situation as of November 1949 is depicted below.
By November, Communist forces in the Zhejiang coastal area numbered approximately 150,000 troops, outnumbering the roughly 60,000 ROCAF troops at a ratio of 2.5:1. However, similar to Kinmen, the PLA lacked official naval units and sufficient airpower to support the campaign.
Author’s note: It is important to keep in mind that sources for this battle are highly dubious. PLA and ROC accounts of troop numbers, timelines, and enemy situation are vastly different. For one example, the PLA has claimed launching the assault with 1,000 troops whereas the ROC claim his number was in excess of 10,000. In these situations we exercise historical judgment by corroborating official accounts against information such as possible and likely troop transport capacity, individual accounts, and local unit information.
The Dengbu Campaign started late in the afternoon of 3 November with concentrated artillery barrages on ROCAF island positions. In typical fashion, the PLA launched the amphibious assault at midnight (notably with 96% illumination versus the 14% illumination experienced during the Kinmen assault). PLA forces modified approximately 70 fishing boats with 60mm guns and a variety of streetcar and motorcycle motors to speed up the transport of 9 companies worth of combat troops across the strait. At the onset of the attack, PLA commanders were confident. The day before, Communist forces seized Taohua Island in 20 hours. This island is three times larger than Dengbu and the PLA believed that Dengbu could be captured in a similar timeframe. ROCAF troops seemed to break quickly and were generally low on ammunition.
PLA forces began immediate preparations for a follow-on amphibious assault of Dengbu Island from the recently captured Taohua Island. Within hours of crossing the line of departure, multiple landing ships ran aground while transiting the strait. To make matters worse, about 2 whole PLA companies drowned (likely 400-800 troops). As confusion began spreading across the fleet of ships, unexpectedly strong winds blew many of the transports off course, resulting in far more troops dispersion than was planned. The dispersion led to some companies becoming isolated from command elements.
Despite these challenges, 7 PLA companies established a beachhead on Denbgu. PLA infantry pushed northeast to secure the high ground, Paotai Mountain (炮台山). This limit of advance is demarcated by the northernmost PRC flag on the map below.
According to both PLA and ROC sources, the PLA’s first wave secured the high ground at Paotai Mountain by 1000 on 4 November. Once in position, the infantry immediately began establishing a hasty defensive perimeter. During PLA defensive priorities of work, ROCAF conducted multiple counterattacks throughout the day, but were repelled each time.
It is possible that PLA assessments of the ROCAF’s low ammunition and low morale were accurate considering that with approximately 8,000 troops (a numerical superiority of 4:1) the ROCAF were unable to push the PLA off Paotai. Whichever side controlled the high ground of Paotai would be in a superior position to attack downwards onto enemy forces, attempting to fold the defenders against their own beachhead.
Due to the ROCAF harassing actions, the PLA infantry defending Paotai ultimately culminated, running low on ammunition and requiring reinforcements to initiate an offensive push. However, communist forces still retained the high ground.
Similar to the battle of Kinmen, the PLA second wave was caught in reserve, relying on the exact same transport ships that the first wave employed during the initial assault. Many of these ships were lost and only 40 vessels returned to carry the second wave (compared to the original 70). This proved problematic for two reasons. Delays in recovering troop transports meant that the tides no longer favored landing operations. PLA reinforcements would not be able to reach Dengbu until the late evening of 5 November, giving the ROCAF time to regroup, reinforce, and counterattack. Additionally, the technical complications of reaching Dengbu had not changed. It was likely that more transports would be lost running aground in the second wave.
The ROCAF took full advantage of the PLA’s unforced error. Throughout the late afternoon and evening of 4 November, ROC Navy and Air Force combat elements bombarded PLA defensive positions while ROC Navy vessels (military ships more capable than the PLA’s fishing boats) ferried about four regiments of combat troops to Dengbu from Zhoushan Island. The ROCAF’s more capable ships and knowledge of the local bathymetry (underwater geography) allowed them to expeditiously move combat power without concern of losing significant portions of their own fleet.
The PLA were able to land second wave reinforcements in the late evening of 5 November, but this was too little and too late. The fresh ROCAF troops, enjoying 10:1 numerical superiority, pushed the PLA first wave off of Paotai mountain. In response to the frontal assault, PLA commanders split their force in a flanking attempt to split the ROCAF forward position from the ROCAF beachead. Due to stubborn ROCAF resistance, this effort failed.
PLA troops were now stuck in the same situation as at Kinmen. Communist forces were surrounded on three sides by the enemy with their backs to the sea. Without air or naval support, defeat was only a matter of time. By midday on 5 November, the ROCAF mopped up remaining PLA troops and secured victory.
As previously mentioned, numbers in this campaign are suspect. According to ROC official sources, the ROCAF killed more than 10,000 enemy troops and captured 5,000-6,000 combatants. Considering the number of ships involved in the assault, it is highly likely that these numbers are dramatically inflated for propaganda purposes. According to PRC official sources, the PLA only landed 1,000 troops and were able to kill 4 times as many ROCAF troops. While it is difficult to corroborate the number of ROCAF killed in action, based on the number of transports used it is likely that the PRC’s account of their own troop count is a significant understatement. The story of a heroic group of outnumbered Communist fighters was later used for propaganda purposes in China.
The ROC victory at Dengbu was another badly needed morale boost for all ROCAF forces. After this battle, the ROC used the slogan “南有金门，北有登步” (The South has Kinmen/Jinmen, the North has Dengbu) to encourage ROCAF troops to staunchly resist PLA attacks.
The ROCAF ultimately withdrew from Dengbu Island, but control over this key terrain allowed them to evacuate almost 150,000 combat troops out the region. This tipped the force ratio in favor of the ROC in a Taiwan contingency and forced PLA planners to further delay their invasion plans.
The loss at Dengbu was a turning point for Mao and PLA leadership. This defeat forced them to realize that China could not rely on commandeering fishing vessels alone. In order to be successful against the ROCAF, China would eventually require a navy. However, building one would require significant time and resources.
Some lessons learned from Kinmen were incorporated into the Dengbu campaign. First, PLA forces timed the night assault during a period of much higher moon illumination, likely making the embarkation and debarkation of communist troops much easier.
Second, the fishing boats impressed into PLA service were armed this time, with 60mm direct fire guns. The accuracy of these weapons is dubious, but deficiencies were clearly identified from the casualties suffered at the hands of the ROC Navy during the battle of Kinmen.
Third, unity of command was clearly better. As the ROCAF began pushing the spent PLA troops off the high ground, the local PLA commander had the command and control capacity to attempt a spoiling attack.
However, there are many other lessons that should have been learned which were underlined again by the PLA failures of Dengbu.
The assault force must have overwhelming quantitative superiority and outnumber the defender 3:1 at the absolute minimum.
While this may have been true during the early stages of the campaign, by the time the main body of forces clashed on Dengbu, it is not clear that PLA forces ever achieved the concentration of mass appropriate to the task at hand.
The objective must be isolated.
The PLA commander allowed the ROCAF to land huge amounts of reinforcements. The problem really began before the reinforcements, as the PLA became isolated themselves through a lack of reinforcements, instead of isolating Dengbu from sources of ROCAF strength.
Plan for the catastrophic loss of the first wave.
PLA planners still relied on using equipment and manpower from the first wave (modified fishing boats) in order to facilitate the movement of the second wave.
Have a marshaling plan.
PLA forces again suffered confusion and casualties during the sea transit portion of the amphibious assault. In both Kinmen and Dengbu, this almost certainly impacted PLA operational tempo from the first hour.
Land the heaviest weapons as early as practical.
It seems that PLA ground forces were still too lightly equipped. This is evident from the poor defenses conducted at Guningtou (Kinmen) and Paotai Mountain (Dengbu). If PLA forces were equipped with heavier weapons, they would have more effectiveness if capable of incorporating such weapons into the defense.
Amphibious operations require an extensive study of local hydrography, weather patterns, and terrain.
This information gap again took a considerable toll on PLA forces. The winds and shallow waters surrounding Denbu disorganized the PLA assault almost immediately once it crossed the line of departure.
The assaulting force must command the skies and the sea around landing zones and objectives.
Difficult for a PLA lacking serious naval and air assets, ROCAF superiority in these domains again proved decisive in forcing the PLA landing force into a defensive fetal position.
Planning estimates must be realistic.
Again, PLA planning staff seem to have underestimated the true ROCAF disposition. Instead of conducting a serious assessment of enemy strengths and weaknesses, it seems that key PLA leaders simply hand waved the enemy forces they planned to engage in battle, deriding them as low quality troops with low morale.
第三野战军战史 《History of the 3rd Field Army》Nanjing Area Army Library
Chinese Warfighting: The PLA Experience since 1949