A Sun Tzu Companion

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A Psychological

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The Baited Trap

Fire & Water

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Battle on the



Abreviations &

The Battle on the Yangtse River

Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy's unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.
- Sun Tzu

Hit him where he does not expect you.
- Ts'ao Ts'ao

This fascinating - though undoubtedly somewhat fictionalized - battle pits the genius of Chou Yü and K'ung-ming against the overwhelming numerical superiority of Ts'ao Ts'ao's army. It is a complex operation of land and naval forces that demonstrates the value of surprise and the superiority on the water of seafarers over landsmen. It involves, spies and traitors, fire ships, the weather, ambushes, the three greatest generals of the Three Kingdoms era, and poignantly - in the end - mercy.

Ambitious Ts'ao Ts'ao, virtual ruler of northern China, desired to cross the Yangtse River and gain the Kingdom of Wu to the south.

Camped along the north side of the Yangtse with vastly superior numbers (about 220,000 to 240,000 men, including 70,000 to 80,000 men of questionable loyalty, versus about 30,000 Wu troops, according to The Last of the Han), Ts'ao Ts'ao created a fleet to transport his army across the Yangtse. However, his northern men were not sailors. The southerners were.

The Wu general, Chou Yü, decided to attack Ts'ao Ts'ao's fleet and army with fire, but was concerned that the defeat he would inflict on the fleet would be indecisive. If he rammed flaming boats into Ts'ao Ts'ao's fleet, he was afraid many of his opponent's ships would escape.

Ts'ao Ts'ao, aware of his men's inability to handle ships, trained them constantly, and tried to determine the plans of Chou Yü by sending two brothers as spies to the Wu camp, posing as deserters.

Ts'ao Ts'ao was certain his spies would not be suspected because he had executed the brothers' father and consequently they had a strong grievance against him.

But Chou Yü, the general for the Kingdom of Wu, did suspect. "They have come without their families," he told one of his commanders, "and so I know their desertion is only pretence."

Chou Yü decided to use the pretenders for his own plans. As they requested, he assigned them to the vanguard, and he ordered its commander to treat them well, but guard them closely. Next he had an officer, Huang Kai, pretend to be dissatisfied and ready to desert to Ts'ao Ts'ao.

At a staff meeting Chou Yü told his commanders to prepare for a long campaign, at least three months. But at this Huang Kai pretended to scoff.

"Say not three months," he said, "be ready for 30 months, and even then it will not be ended." If the battle could not be won quickly, he added, it would be better to surrender.

Chou Yü pretended to be furious, and Huang Kai pretended to mock him in return, whereupon Chou Yü ordered him executed, but reduced the punishment to 100 lashes at the pleas of the other officers.

Huang Kai suffered the scourging, then had a friend write a letter to Ts'ao Ts'ao saying he wanted to desert. Then Huang Kai went to the commander of the vanguard, host of the two spies. To deceive the spies, he pretended to be furious with Chou Yü. The commander pretended to agreed that Chou Yü was worthless. Then the spies, listening in, revealed themselves, offering to help them desert.

Ts'ao Ts'ao, however, didn't immediately believe the offer to desert was genuine because Huang Kai didn't set a time when he would come over. Nevertheless, he was somewhat persuaded when Huang Kai's friend, who brought the letter, said it would be difficult to set an exact time when Huang Kai would be free to leave.

Then Ts'ao Ts'ao received a letter from the spies, telling both of Huang Kai's hatred of his commander and that the commander of the vanguard was also ready to defect. Ts'ao Ts'ao was almost convinced. But to make sure, he sent one more spy into the southerners camp, an old friend of his enemy Chou Yü.

But Chou Yü recognized the trick and accused his ex-friend of being a spy, then sent him to a guarded hut near the river outside of his camp.

By Chou Yü's arrangment the captured spy meet P'ang-T'ung, who was living in an adjacent hut and was noted throughout China for his military wisdom.

When they met, P'ang-T'ung (who was in on Chou Yü's plan) pretended to be angry about Chou Yü's conceit and inability to tolerate anyone of talent. Since it was true - and widely known - that Chou Yü was conceited, this was a convincing line. Hearing it, the spy talked P'ang-T'ung into defecting to Ts'ao Ts'ao, and P'ang-T'ung pretended to agree. The two slipped away (no doubt because the guards feigned negligence) and made their way to Ts'ao Ts'ao.

Ts'ao Ts'ao was ecstatic to have the famous P'ang-T'ung at his side, and asked him to inspect his military dispositions.

T'ung first inspected the army camp and found it excellent. Sun Tzu, the author of the military classic, Art of War, could do no better, he said.

Flattered, Ts'ao Ts'ao asked him to inspect his naval camp.

Here, T'ung made a suggestion. Ts'ao Ts'ao's northern men were getting sick from the climate and some were dying (Perhaps he was hinting to Ts'ao Ts'ao that he should take action soon as the longer his army waited the more men he would lose). Also, he said, they were prone to seasickness. As a remedy, he suggested lashing the boats together in groups of 30 or 50 to make more stable, land-like platforms. That way, he said, none of the men would fall sick.

Ts'ao Ts'ao, well aware of the seasickness problem, loved the idea and ordered it done. He mocked a warning that the southerners might use fire against his ship, saying the wind didn't blow in the right direction for a fire attack at that time of year.

With Ts'ao Ts'ao cooperating with his plans, Chou Yü prepared his forces. He ordered 20 ships to be filled with combustibles and studded with sharp metal spikes on their bows.

Then K'ung-ming, an advisor to an ally of the Kingdom of Wu, conjured up a favorable wind and Chou Yü ordered his ground units into position, presumably ferrying the small units across the Yangtse under cover of darkness, where necessary.

He commanded the vanguard (the unit with the two spies) to march along the river displaying Ts'ao Ts'ao's flag, as if it was going to desert. Then, once it was opposite Ts'ao Ts'ao's supply depot, it was to penetrate Ts'ao Ts'ao's formations along the river (apparently ferried across then guided on the north side of the river by the spies) and move as close as possible to Ts'ao Ts'ao's depot and camp.

He sent two units to the rear of Ts'ao Ts'ao's army to cut the road to the city of Hofei at two points. Apparently one unit was to prevent Ts'ao Ts'ao's from retreating along the road and the other was to prevent help from reaching him from the city.

Another unit was sent into hiding near Ts'ao Ts'ao's main camp, apparently on the opposite side of the camp from the vanguard unit.

Two additional units were positioned to attack an enemy position along the Yangtse River, though this is poorly described and it is unclear how they fit into the overall battle.

Chou Yü then sent a boat across the river, ostensibly from Huang Kai, the pretending deserter, to tell Ts'ao Ts'ao that Huang Kai was about to come over. The message said Huang Kai was commanding escort ships for a convoy of grain ships that would be coming along the river, and that he would bring them over to Ts'ao Ts'ao. The ships, said the message, would have notched dragon flags.

In the meantime, after conjuring up the wind for Chou Yü, K'ung-ming returned to his warlord, Yüan-te, and ordered the units of his army into place.

The first unit he put in ambush on a jungle road along which Ts'ao Ts'ao would have to retreat. He ordered it to start a fire and attack when half Ts'ao Ts'ao's force had passed by.

The second force he sent into hiding in a valley at a point where believed Ts'ao Ts'ao would need to stop to rest and eat. It had orders to attack when Ts'ao Ts'ao's men lit cooking fires.

The third group he sent with three squadrons of ships to pick up the weapons Ts'ao Ts'ao's troops would abandon along the river.

The fourth group he sent to sieze the strategic area of Wuch'ang.

The fifth group was placed in ambush on a road in a valley through the hills. This unit was ordered to light fires to entice Ts'ao Ts'ao along the road.

The dispositions of Chao Yü's ground units participating in the main battle were as follows:

The dispositions of K'ung-ming's units were as follows:

With the ground units in place and the wind favorable, Chou Yü sent his 20 fire-ships, supported by four fighting ships, toward Ts'ao Ts'ao's fleet. Out of sight to the rear were four squadrons of Wu ships, 1,200 in all.

When Ts'ao Ts'ao saw the fire ships and noticed the notched dragon flags, he thought they were the supply convoy commanded by Huang Kai and was glad to see them coming.

Only when it was too late did he realize his error. As the ships neared, their crews set them afire and they rammed into Ts'ao Ts'ao's ships, where they stuck fast, the spikes attaching them firmly. With the favorable wind, the fire raged among Ts'ao Ts'ao's ships, none of which could escape because they were all lashed together.

In the confusion the two units on either flank of Ts'ao Ts'ao's army lit fires and attacked his army camp.

With the fire blazing and a confused battle going on around him, pressed in front by the attacking troops carried by the Wu ships and from the flanks by two hidden Wu units, Ts'ao Ts'ao and his army fled, chased by the Wu troops swarming off their ships.

Seeing that the initial attack on the camp was a success, the two Wu units blocking the road to Hofei joined in attacking Ts'ao Ts'ao's forces.

With the road to Hofei blocked, Ts'ao Ts'ao's army retreated through the dense woods along the road to Iling. Soon it fell into K'ung-ming's fire-ambush. Ts'ao Ts'ao managed to break through but his troops suffering heavy losses to the fire and attacks.

Then, in a driving rain, Ts'ao Ts'ao faced a fork in the road, and took the shorter route. With his men and horses exhausted and starving, and being, he thought, a safe distance from the battle, he called a halt for the men to rest and cook food taken from nearby villagers.

But as soon as they removed their armor and the horses' saddles and lit cooking fires, K'ung-ming's second ambush group attacked. In the midst of the fires and attacks, Ts'ao Ts'ao again escaped, again suffering many casualties and abandoning much equipment.

At another fork, Ts'ao Ts'ao asked his commanders which direction to take. The high road, he was told, was 50 li (15.5 miles) longer, but level and easy, while the low road was narrow and pitted.

Looking from a vantage point, Ts'ao Ts'ao saw a trail of smoke coming up from the low road and decided to take it.

"Why go this way?" his officers asked. "Where smoke arises there are surely soldiers."

Ts'ao Ts'ao said that his opponent was very subtle and had lit the fire to give the impression there were soldiers along that route and thereby to trick him into following the other route and falling into an ambush.

So the wet, miserable, army struggled through cold mud with their bedraggled equipment. Already exhausted, they had to further exert themselves to fill pits in the road (apparently for wheeled carts). Many fell along the wayside.

Then, there in front of them was the last of K'ung-ming's ambushes, a unit commanded by the fierce Kuan Yü, mounted and holding his famous sword, Black Dragon.

With fewer than 300 ill-equipped, shivering, exhausted and frightened soldiers behind him, Ts'ao Ts'ao humbled himself before his opponent. He rode toward Kuan Yü, bowed low and said, "You see before you Ts'ao Ts'ao, defeated and weak. I have reached a sad pass and I trust you, O General, will not forget the kindness of former days."

Kuan Yü, remembering the generous way Ts'ao Ts'ao had treated him before, broke down and let his defeated former commander pass this last barrier to safety.

RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 486-525

© Copyright 2003, Brad Haugaard.

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