Since 1644, the people of China were ruled by the Qing Dynasty culminating in the ascendance to the throne of the two-year old Emperor Puyi in 1908. After two years on the throne, China was rocked by series of revolts and uprisings known collectively as the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 which saw the young Emperor’s abdication. In the years that followed, China’s political landscape was dominated by in-fighting and even warlordism coupled with an unsuccessful attempt to restore Puyi to the throne in 1917.
In 1919, the anti-monarchist and strongly nationalist party the Kuomintang was formed with the aim of unifying the country and defeating the warlords. The Kuomintang sought support from the western nations such as Britain, France and the United States all of whom had invested money, people and resources in China for their own economic gain. Their requests were largely ignored by the western nations and so they turned to the newly created Soviet Union for help.
The Soviets agreed but they also agreed to supply their ideological comrades in the Communist Party of China (CPC). The Soviet plan was to have both parties defeat the warlords and have them form two power blocks which could then be manipulated for their own gains due to their reliance on Soviet support. In 1924, with Soviet assistance the Kuomintang formed a military academy to train members of its own political army and despite a power sharing agreement signed in 1923, the CPC became displaced and its members had to join the Kuomintang if they wished to keep their political positions.
This influx of former CPC members saw the party divided along left- and right-wing ideologies which came to a head when its leader Sun Yan-sen died in 1925. After Sun’s death the CPC began to rise in prominence again thanks to the left-wing support it gained from within the Kuomintang. In early 1927, both sides of the divide decided to move their headquarters with the CPC and their left-wing supporters transferring from Guangzhou to Wuhan while the remainder of the Kuomintang moved to Jiangxi. The lines were drawn and after a Communist uprising in Nanchang in August of that year the fighting quickly spilled out across the country.
The British Empire was still a major force in Asia at this time and its own economic interests reached within China’s borders. Throughout the 19th century, Britain and several other European nations sought to dominate the export of Chinese products such as Chinese tea, silk, porcelain and even opium all of which was highly sought after in European markets. British efforts to trade with the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century saw the two powers clash in the infamous Opium Wars which resulted in China submitting to many British demands.
The conflicts also saw Hong Kong leased to Britain and British ships and exporters were given trading rights in major cities like Shanghai, Hankou and Canton. British influences in these cities was clear with foreign districts (known as concessions) springing up that were modelled along UK lines. Here, wealthy British businessmen and their families could live in a facade of Great Britain with homes that would not look out of place in the wealthy parts of London or Liverpool.
The British government viewed the internal politics of China in the 1920s primarily on the basis of how it would affect British interests in the region and unless these interests were threatened, Britain had little interest in getting involved. Such a threat emerged in January 1927 when the British concession in Hankou, a 116 acre stretch of land, was occupied by Kuomintang forces marching north. This sparked a political crisis that went beyond the loss of a piece of land. British interests were directly threatened which had the potential to effect the market for Chinese goods in Europe but it was also a snub against British authority; one that could very easily spread.
After the Kuomintang invaded Hankou, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s China Station, Vice-Admiral Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt, sought to establish a British military presence in Shanghai to protect British lives and property. This was agreed to and the Shanghai Defence Force was formed comprising of elements of all three British military services under the overall command of Major General John Duncan who formed a headquarters at King’s College in Hong Kong. The Royal Navy primarily concerned itself with protecting shipping in and out of Shanghai while the Royal Air Force provided logistical support and eventually conducted reconnaissance duties on behalf of the British Army stationed in Shanghai.
One unit of the Army dispatched to China was the 5th Armoured Car Company (ACC) that was equipped with the now legendary Rolls-Royce Armoured Car (Right). The 5th ACC had been formed in Ireland in 1920 from elements of the 17th Tank Battalion as the revolutionary violence began to reach its peak. The 5th ACC was then transferred to Scarborough following the partition of Ireland before moving on to Warrington in Cheshire. In January 1927, as the Shanghai Defence Force was being formed it was decided to send the 5th ACC to support them and the men along with their Rolls-Royces quickly sailed to the Far East arriving in March.
The 5th ACC had three primary roles in China;
- Keeping the peace within the British concessions by preventing Kuomintang or CPC forces fighting there.
- Patrolling land trade routes to protect them from attack by combatants or bandits.
- To man road blocks guarding British-controlled areas.
The British Army’s Armoured Car Companies had extensive experience at that time of such operations. As well as in Ireland they had operated extensively in India during the 1920s helping to police trouble spots in the North West Frontier. Any thoughts of them having to “retake” the British concession in Hankou if only to restore British pride were nullified by an agreement for joint British-Kuomintang administration in February before the 5th ACC arrived which some outside observers viewed as British imperial weakness.
Despite the tense atmosphere, the men of the 5th ACC were left relatively unmolested as the two Chinese powers fought for control of the country. They would sometimes encounter the odd rifle round being sent their way as they patrolled the roadways although whether it was from the Kuomintang, the CPC or just trigger happy bandits few could be certain. Operations in China saw the need to introduce modifications to the vehicles most notably the fitting of a protruding, front bumper bar to protect the wheels from being punctured in a collision with Shanghai’s often dense road traffic of bicycles, carts, lorries and of course people. Another modification saw the fitting of armoured covers for the tops of the turrets which raised the vehicles’ profile leading to them being referred to as “top hats” by their crews.
While the Chinese were more concerned with fighting each other than the British, the droves of poorly trained but heavily armed Chinese fighters particularly with the CPC who relied on a peasant army across the country meant that it was all but inevitable the 5th ACC would see action. It came during a patrol on Darroch Road (now renamed Doulon Road) in Shanghai led by Lieutenant T. P . Newman NC, DCM. A letter home from one of the men in the patrol which was reprinted in A Pictorial History – Royal Tank Regiment by George Forty describes the encounter;
We have all been seeing plenty of life in the way of work, patrols day and night, and have had one or two small shows. Newman’s was of course the biggest; he has his right arm smashed up.
He was caught in a narrow road at 15 yards range and got three bullets through the driver’s observation slit, one of which wounded him and what with the splash and the remaining two, the whole crew were hit and the car ditched. Newman got out to get the [Rolls-Royce] out and was hit by another bullet in the same arm, one inch above the first wound. This one broke the bone and put him right out of action.
His car was pulled out by the other car of the sub-section and taken back to camp. Wilcox carried on the show for the next six hours and then I went up with my sub-section and remained on the spot for four days. Things are very quiet now.
After the show we counted 91 bullet marks on Newman’s car.
Fortunately for the men of the 5th ACC, such incidents were the exception. As the year went on the Kuomintang began to wrestle control of the city away from the CPC reducing the risk to British interests and after August, British forces began to be withdrawn. The 5th ACC would be one of the longer lasting units however and would remain in China through 1928 before finally withdrawing to Egypt in January 1929. There they handed over their vehicles to the 12th Royal Lancers who were converting from horses to armoured vehicles.
One of the vehicles used by the 5th Armoured Car Company in China survives to this day at the Bovington Tank Museum.