- The Chinese Communist troops who stormed Kinmen Island in October 1949 expected a quick victory.
- Instead, the Chinese nationalist forces defending the island routed the attackers.
- The battle illustrates some of the hurdles Beijing would face if it attempted to invade Taiwan.
At around 1:30 a.m. on October 25, 1949, about 9,000 Chinese Communist soldiers stormed ashore on Kinmen Island, barely 6 miles from the Chinese coast.
They were the first of a 20,000-strong People’s Liberation Army force dispatched to capture the island from Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalist forces, known as the KMT.
Fresh from a string of victories and with morale high, the PLA anticipated the battle would be their next triumph, bringing even more territory to the newly formed People’s Republic of China and bringing the PLA one step closer to their ultimate goal: the KMT Bastion from Taiwan.
PLA commanders believed the defense forces were weak with low morale and expected the fighting to be over within three days. The timing was the only thing the PLA got right.
Three days later, Kinmen was still in KMT hands, three PLA regiments had been effectively annihilated, and the Chinese communist forces had suffered the first grip on their seemingly unstoppable advance.
By the fall of 1949, the KMT was in a near-continuous retreat. The PLA, led by Mao Zedong, had crossed the Yangtze River in central China that spring and advanced southward in the following months, capturing almost all major cities and ports and suffering few defeats.
Soon all of mainland China was under communist control. Mao officially founded the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Chiang and the rest of the KMT, meanwhile, retreated to the islands off China’s coast. The largest, Taiwan, became the capital of the Republic of China.
With control of the mainland, the PLA set out to seize control of the islands, hoping to secure them before launching a final attack on Taiwan.
Kinmen Island, 59 square miles and home to about 40,000 people, was essential to this plan.
KMT forces on Kinmen were able to watch the waters around Xiamen, which the PLA had captured just days before, for the mobilization of forces to attack Taiwan.
To take the island, the 28th Corps of the PLA’s 10th Army would land approximately 20,000 troops in two groups. Three regiments of about 9,000 men landed on the beaches during the night, securing a beachhead for a second force of about 11,000 men to land the next day.
The PLA Navy was in its infancy with few ships or trained seamen, so troops could only be transported in motorless wooden fishing boats and junks commandeered by local fishermen. The PLA air force was also nascent, so the first group had to land at night to avoid the KMT’s navy and air force.
After the first group was dropped off under cover of darkness, the ships returned and picked up the second group.
The PLA estimated that the KMT had a poorly motivated and poorly trained garrison of about 20,000 soldiers from its 22nd Army on Kinmen.
In fact, Chiang was determined to defend and hold Kinmen. He sent another 20,000 men from the elite 18th Army and a battalion of 21 M5A1 Stuart tanks, operated by troops who had fought in World War II, to Kinmen. (The PLA invasion force had no armored units.)
The island itself was turned into a fortress. Hundreds of bunkers and trenches were built, thousands of mines laid and obstacles to ships erected on the beaches.
PLA troops began boarding their ships around 19:00 on October 24, but logistical problems and command missteps prevented them from leaving until after midnight. Everything went wrong almost immediately.
The communist troops arrived and disembarked unnoticed. They approached at high tide, but their late departure gave them little time before the tide receded. The anti-ship obstacles that were underwater upon their arrival eventually tied up all the PLA boats.
Coincidentally, a routine KMT patrol in the area accidentally set off a land mine, alerting nearby defenders. Searchlights and flares soon unmasked the PLA invasion force as they disembarked, sparking a massive two-hour firefight.
The KMT 18th Army happened to have completed its own landing on the other side of the island around the same time, and the PLA force was soon outnumbered five to one.
At dawn, KMT warships and B-25 aircraft joined the fight. They destroyed the stuck boats, trapping the invading force and holding off reinforcements.
Despite the chaos, some PLA units managed to advance inland. They captured the city of Guningtou and established a defensive belt. But the force, which consisted only of infantry, had no hope.
They were soon surrounded by KMT tanks, aircraft and soldiers. Guningtou was recaptured on October 27 after intense urban fighting. By the end of the day, the PLA troops had also surrendered and retreated to the beaches.
China’s growing reach
Of the roughly 9,000 PLA soldiers that landed on Kinmen, about 3,000 were killed and more than 5,000 captured, effectively wiping out three PLA regiments. KMT casualties included over 1,200 dead and nearly 2,000 wounded.
The PLA captured other islands from the KMT, but Chiang’s forces held on to Kinmen and several others including Taiwan. The loss forced Mao and the PLA to recognize that invading Taiwan would not be easy.
Subsequent plans for an invasion were delayed by the PLA’s involvement in the Korean War and eventually canceled altogether. Ultimately, the PLA admitted that it was not yet capable of such a large amphibious feat.
Kinmen itself became a central part of the PRC-Taiwan rivalry. Taiwan fortified it, and China shelled it intermittently – including two fairly intense episodes in 1954 and 1958 – until 1979, when the US officially recognized the People’s Republic of China.
Beijing has never really given up on its ultimate goal of taking over Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party calls “reunification,” though it has never controlled the island.
At the 20th party congress in October, President Xi Jinping said that while the PRC wishes for peaceful unification, “we will never promise to refrain from the use of force and reserve the option to take any measures necessary”.
China’s military has evolved considerably since 1949, with much of its modernization done with a Taiwan scenario in mind.
The PLA now has the largest navy in the world with more than 355 warships. It has a marine corps of around 40,000 men with modern armored amphibious vehicles. Its ground force also has six amphibious combined arms brigades with 30,000 personnel and 2,400 vehicles.
China’s large and modern missile arsenal, helicopter fleet and special forces pose a particular threat to Taiwan.
But the 100-mile or so strait, where conditions are often poor, and the PLA’s lack of real experience with amphibious assaults — not to mention Taiwan’s own increasingly robust defenses — are major obstacles for the PLA.
But after decades of military build-up and expansion, Xi might finally see what Mao could only achieve.
The Pentagon’s 2021 report on the Chinese military says an invasion of “a medium-sized, better-defended island” like Kinmen is “within the capabilities of the PLA.”