The War Nobody Knew!

In 1929 the Soviet Red Army and Chinese forces clashed in the Sino-Soviet War, described as the war nobody knew!

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I knew the basic background to this war, but bought this book earlier this year – not only does it outline the course of the war in detail, but it presents a good historical perspective that covers the Boxer Rebellion and Chinese Warlord period that took place in the years leading up to the war.  Those are both conflicts that I’ve got 20mm wargames armies for, so it’s a useful reference book for me.  Basically, in 1929 the Chinese decided to take over the Chinese Eastern Railway, something that had been up until that point a joint Russian-Chinese-operated venture.  The railway ran through Manchuria and provided a much shorter route to the Russian port of Vladivostok than the more northerly rail link that ran through Russian territory.  The Soviets, however, were having none of it and resolved to use force to address the situation!

The fighting lasted through the late summer and autumn of 1929, finishing at the end of November, so this week’s wargame was near enough a 90th anniversary game.  Given that this is a little-known conflict, it was more by good luck than good management that I actually had 20mm troops available.  Russian Civil War Red Army figures are spot on for the Russians, and for the opposition I’ve got Chinese 1920s troops and WW2 figures in winter clothing.  The only items I specifically bought for this conflict were two 3D-printed Russian T-18 tanks (painted earlier this year).

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For the wargame, the action hinged around the fictional rail halt of Ukphup Junction (shown above).  The Red Army’s objective was to capture the train and rolling stock shown top centre of the picture.  This had to be achieved in eight moves, or the Chinese would manage to get up steam and back the train up the line to safety (up and out of the picture above).

The Russians had received reasonable intelligence info from their spies in the town up until two days before the attack, at which point the Chinese had rounded up any remaining Russian nationals and shipped them out until tensions died down.  This info indicated that three companies of infantry garrisoned the town around the station building, machine guns and barbed wire covered approaches from the east (right of picture), a bunker covered the approach of the railway itself from the south (the bunker is smack in the middle of the picture) and a heavy mortar position had been completed near the coaling station at the north end of the town (top of picture).  The Chinese commander had billeted himself away from his troops in the comfortable villa to the west of the picture (top left) and rarely seemed to tour any of his garrison’s positions.  The Chinese forces available for the game are shown below.

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The Red Army decided to attack shortly after dawn.  Their tactical reconnaissance was good and they identified most of the Chinese forces.  Unfortunately, in the two days between the Russian spies being rounded up and the attack starting, the Chinese commander had taken delivery of a tank platoon (one FT-17 tank), which he “deployed” in the outbuildings of his villa and which remained hidden from prying eyes!  In addition, a brand new 20mm anti-tank gun had been delivered and stored in the arsenal building in the middle of the town, again unseen by the Russians or their agents.

The Russians allocated three infantry companies to the operation, supported by a machine gun platoon, an artillery section (one horse-drawn 76.2mm gun), a cavalry troop for scouting and a light tank platoon (two T-18 tanks, made available because the Russians knew the Chinese army possessed tanks).  Although the numbers of infantry appear similar, the Red Army companies were at full strength and contained integral light machine gun sections, giving the Red Army a 50% advantage in numbers but with twice the firepower of the Chinese infantry.  The Red Army forces available for the game are shown below.

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The Russians were allowed start their attack from anywhere to the east and south of the town.  The Russian commander elected to deploy all of his forces along the left hand half of the lower table edge, with the artillery and tanks deployed on his left flank and most of the infantry on the right flank facing the Chinese centre.


The attack caught the Chinese completely off guard and two Soviet infantry companies fought their way into the buildings on the south side of the muddy track through the town, eliminating one of the Chinese companies without taking heavy casualties themselves.  Recovering from their shock, the Chinese moved an infantry company from the station building across to the makeshift barricade running from the villa to the small shrine, but machine gun fire from the two Soviet T-18s inflicted casualties on this unit.


The Chinese FT-17 moved out of the villa to engage the T-18s and failed miserably, but the Chinese heavy mortar crew managed to bring fire right down on the two Russian tanks, riddling them both with heavy splinters, destroying the engine in one and causing the other to suddenly explode after its punctured fuel tank ignited!


The Chinese anti-tank gun crew deployed in the town but were cut down by fire from the buildings occupied by the Russians.  As the Chinese infantry facing the eastern side of the town started to move to the station building to support their comrades at the shrine, the Soviets overran that position completely and eliminated the defending infantry.  The Chinese reaching the station were quick to take action however, and the Russian infantry at the shrine were cut down in the open.  At this point, even with severely depleted forces, the Chinese managed to slow the Soviet advance, with the remaining infantry and machine gun crew trading shots with the Soviets as the heavy mortar team brought down effective fire on the 76.2mm gun.


However, the Russians were now managing to flank the Chinese from the west, occupying the villa and engaging the last Chinese infantry around the station building.  The Chinese FT-17 and immobilised T-18 traded shots with little effect until the Soviet 76.2mm gun managed to hit the FT-17 on its side and blow it to pieces!  As the Chinese commander made good his escape to the north on foot, the Russians managed to eliminate the last of the Chinese defenders and capture the train (on Move 8 – just in time)!

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It was a good game that moved along quickly, but with ups and downs along the way!  I commanded the Chinese and so lost this time round, but didn’t mind.  My mate John led the Red Army to victory, defeating the Chinese in spite of mounting casualties!  I’d made some adjustments to my rules, mainly with the aim of simplifying things and speeding the game up, and that worked well.  The game seemed fast and bloody (and, appropriately, had a very pulp-fiction-era combat feel to it) but that’s because we got the same result in two hours that would normally have take at least twice that time.  For all that, though, it seemed to go as might be expected, but with enough hiccups along the way to not make it a walkover for the victors.  I also wanted rules that would work reasonably well for both WW1 and WW2 and what better than try them out on a war that took place mid-way between those two conflicts!


    • Thanks Pete, glad you enjoyed it! The rules are my own, bits from everywhere, frequently modified, although the tank versus tank bits are just modified from rules my dad made up in the early 70s!

      The book has a lot in it, since there’s a lot of political stuff mixed in. But it covered some things like the Russian operations during the Boxer Rebellion, which I’d never read in detail before, so has a lot of background material!

      Liked by 4 people

  1. A nice-looking battle and a neat scenario. Fun-looking book too. You know, I’ve met a lot of gamers and a lot of model railroad guys, but very few who do both at once — so far only one who I know of. Looking at your pictures really made me think about the possibilities of that.

    I had a question as well. In a nutshell, what was the dominant thinking in real life concerning how to employ tanks during this battle? I have been led to believe by my reading over the years and from my tanker boyfriend, who I dated for about a year back in the 1980’s, that pre-WWII they were conceived mostly in terms of infantry support. Was this the case with the Russians in general in 1929 and during this battle?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Ann, glad you liked it! Back in the 90s I ran a series of Boxer Rebellion linked games that broadly followed the operations of the Allied Powers against the Chinese. Since this involved trying to get to Peking by train in the initial stages, I made some track pieces up along with other bits and pieces. Since I also wargame the Russian Civil War, having railway stuff is useful there, since it featured prominently.

      Your question is a good one when related to this conflict specifically. I think in 1929 (and I’m not an expert on this) most tanks were employed in an infantry support role by those armies that had them, although Britain had started looking at more mobile operations. The Russians developed the concept of “deep operations” in the early 30s (i.e. mobile operations) and started to build their tank force around that. But in 1929 tanks were primarily infantry support weapons.

      However, the Sino-Soviet War had a bit of a twist to it! The Chinese warlord Chang Tso Lin, assassinated in 1928, had a small force of French FT-17 tanks and they were available to the Chinese forces in Manchuria in 1929 commanded by his son. But weapons such as tanks and artillery were very much prestige weapons in Chinese warlord eyes, so although you had them you maybe didn’t want to risk losing them in action to someone else. From other sources I’ve read, the Soviets knew the Chinese had tanks, so they deployed a small quantity of the new T-18 tanks in-theatre to counter the threat, although in the end no tank-versus-tank combat took place. Both FT-17s and T-18s would be vulnerable to field artillery used in a direct fire mode in an emergency, and tanks were just as likely to become bogged down or fail mechanically. The basic design of both of these tanks is that of a small, slow vehicle designed to accompany and support infantry and that’s how the Russians used the T-18 in 1929.

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    • Cheers mate! Wikipedia does have an entry for the Sino-Soviet War (I should really have copied the link)! Changing the rules worked quite well I think, and it meant we got a fast-paced game with a lot going on – much like your games I would imagine! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Dave! I should have got more pictures, but the game moved long at quite a pace so I missed a few chances there! I’m glad you like the train, but it’s maybe less impressive close up! I had to scratchbuild the wagons back in the 90s because I couldn’t really find anything that might look right for the Boxer Rebellion, so they’re just very small and simplified. The loco is a Thomas The Tank Engine toy with the face removed from the front and some gubbins added to the cab roof, alongside a complete re-paint!

      Liked by 3 people

    • Cheers mate! You can probably assume a war was going on somewhere in China between 1911 and 1949 and not be wrong! I’ve got a handful of books on the subject and even after re-reading them I’ll still not be exactly sure of everything that went on!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This was an excellent read my friend. I’m a big fan of adjusting rules to speed up games. I’m all for big campaigns but the action/story needs to have a good pace to it. The minis and terrain pieces look great. This isn’t a complaint at all but I’d suggest looking at the battle mats from The green works well but the battle mats are actually really cool and, for me, give the whole look a significant lift. Great work mate. PS I knew nothing about this war and have added it to my list of engagements to research.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks IRO, glad you liked it! Good point about mats – I do have battle mats, but for more specific settings such as WW1 trench games, WW2 beach landings and naval games, plus a couple of smaller mats for skirmish games. I like the the plain green felt mat ’cause it matches scatter grass features and figure bases nicely and is convenient and easy to set up and use in any setting. But I haven’t heard of so I’ll check them out – Christmas is coming after all.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Great stuff. Love to see little known conflicts like this brought to life and that book has piqued my interest. Are the soviets the Red Army figures made by Strelets? I’ve got a box of those somewhere which have been on the long-term to do list… Your Chinese 1920s troops look good too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Marvin! Glad you liked it! The Red Army troops are a mix – the LMG teams plus some others are Strelets RCW Red Army in summer dress (I think) but there are quite a few metal B&B Miniatures and IT Miniatures in there as well, along with some metal Stonewall Miniatures. I think the Chinese are mainly metal Stonewall Miniatures, with some Caesar Miniatures plastics in there (and some of the gunners are from the old Airfix WW1 RHA set)!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. A tour de force John, on the gaming level, the hobbyist level, and the historical level. I was aware that there was a conflict, but there were so many post 1917 its easy to forget the details. Nicely done.

    I echo IRO’s comments on the mats – they have a lot of cool stuff worthy of a look.

    Liked by 2 people

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