However, such deployment was carefully planned out of necessity for a reason Cao Cao could not publicize: as a brilliant strategist, Cao Cao and many his subjects were well aware that his territory was not as secure as it appeared, and the possibility of rebellion was everywhere and could erupt anytime. The crack troops of the northern thrust strategically placed some distance away in the north from the main battlefield along the Yangtze River would be readily available for quick redeployment to return to north should rebellion arise, and for other possible rebellions near the main battlefield, the northern thrust would also act as reserve when needed. Surely enough, rebellions did indeed occur just as Cao Cao had exactly predicted as things developed. The commander and the deputy commander were Zhao Yan and Cheng Yu respectively, and generals served in the force of northern thrust included Zhang Liao, Yu Jin, Yue Jin, Zhu Ling, Wen Pin, Zhang Yong, Lu Zhao and Feng Kai. Contrary to what was depicted in the Romance of Three Kingdoms, Zhang Liao and Wen Pin never participated in the major naval battle at Wulin (乌林, located within modern day Honghu), because they were never there, but in the north through out the campaign instead.
The southern thrust would strike southeastward in three columns in parallel. The central column was the navy sailing in Yangtze River, consisted of entirely Jingzhou troops totaling around seventy thousands, commanded by Cao Cao’s naval commander-in-chief Cai Mao and Zhang Yun, the deputy naval commander-in-chief. Cao Cao also traveled with the central column in his flagship, from which he personally commanded the entire southern thrust. The remaining force of the southern thrust was divided evenly among the northern and southern columns. The northern column of the southern thrust was consisted of mostly Cao Cao’s troop from the north, traveling on the northern bank of the Yangtze River. The southern column traveling on the southern bank of the Yangtze River was a mixed force evenly split between Cao Cao’s troops from north and the remaining Jingzhou force that surrendered to Cao Cao. Unlike the overconfident warlord depicted in the literary works, as a brilliant strategist, Cao Cao was prudent as his forces first ventured into the enemy’s turf. Plagued by disease and low morale due to the series of forced marches they had undertaken on the prolonged Southern Campaign, Cao Cao’s men was weak so Cao Cao ordered them to march behind the Jingzhou troops, who had fought with Sun Quan’s troops and more familiarize the local terrain. However, such prudence did not pay off as shown later.
Despite his prudence, Cao Cao was nonetheless overconfident, albeit not as overconfident as depicted in many literary works. Expecting another quick victory like the Battle of Changban with his numerical superiority, Cao Cao’s force was not prepared for the upcoming battle fought in the region to the southwest of Xiakou, when the enemy had their back against the wall and thus fought fiercely with everything they got. The resulting defeat caused Cao Cao to withdraw his force on the southern shore of the Yangtze River to the northern shore, and retreated to Wulin for regrouping. The stalemate reached provided the enemy valuable time and space to breath, preparing for the main battle at Wulin in the Battle of Red Cliffs.Eastern Wu was to fight a multi fronts (multi theaters) war to repel the invasion. Contrary to what is depicted by most historical and literary works, this was not a single major battle in the real life. Instead, the strategy would unfold in three stages at different places. The initial plan was to have Zhou Yu lead a thirty-thousand strong navy to join forces with Liu Bei, and fought an initial battle to check the advance of the enemy. Once the enemy was stopped, then a counterattack would be launched to defeat the main force of the enemy in Chibi region. During these stages, the tasks would be carefully divided, with Zhou Yu’s force handling the naval battles, and Liu Bei’s forces handling the land battles, so that they could perform what they were good at. However, defeating the enemy was not enough because they were still at your doorstep, so a continuous attack must be launched to drive the enemy further away to provide enough space for the allies to breath, and this would be the third stage of the campaign.
The third stage of the offensive would be fought simultaneously at two theaters. In the west, the main target was Jiangling (江陵, located in modern day Jingjiang 荆江, not to be confused with modern day Jiangling) and its adjacent regions, and taking these places was to be completed by Zhou Yu’s thirty-thousand strong force, with the help of that of Liu Bei. In the east where enemy was significantly weaker and thus taking a defensive posture, a diversion attack would be launched by Sun Quan’s twenty-thousand strong forces. The main target in the east was Hefei, and the main purposes was to tie down local enemy troops, and at least a portion of enemy force of the northern thrust, preventing them from sending too much reinforcement in the west. The secondary goal was to take the Hefei and surrounding regions if possible. The important first step to carryout the allies’ plan was in its first battle, in which allies hoped for a victory that would at least slow if not completely check the advance of Cao Cao, particularly the southern column of his southern thrust on the southern bank of the Yangtze River, to ensure the safety of allies’ rear and flank.
Contrary to most literary works, the brilliance of Liu Bei’s military talent was gravely understated. Knowing it was a matter of survival or death, Liu Bei demonstrated his capability by assigning Zhang Fei and Zhao Yun a thousand cavalries each to take Lu (鲁) Mountain on the northern shore of the Yangtze River. The strategically located mountain was a critical choke point that was a force multiplier via providing the an excellent geographic advantage for the two thousand cavalries: it was easy for the cavalries to defend their positions and easy to strike the enemy at the same time, thus always threatens the right flank of Cao Cao’s northern thrust, whose numerical advantage was effectively neutralized by the terrain.
Zhou Yu was worried that Liu Bei only had six thousand troops and only half of them were originally his, the rest being the Jingzhou troops under Liu Qi. Compounding the problem, the memory of Liu Bei’s defeat at the Battle of Changban was still fresh and Zhou Yu was not sure on how Liu Bei’s force would perform. This doubt inevitably effect Zhou Yu’s initial attitude toward Liu Bei and as Zhou Yu led his force met with Liu Bei at Fankou, he politely refused Liu Bei’s request to meet on land. Liu Bei’s request to see Lu Su was also refused, under the excuse of both being busy and could not spare the time and formality to leave their jobs. Instead, Liu Bei was invited to meet Zhou Yu on his flagship. As Liu Bei worried that the thirty thousand strong navy was too few to face Cao Cao’s force, Zhou Yu confidently answered it was enough and Liu Bei would just have to observe the victory. Liu Bei was well aware of his position and volunteered to be Zhou Yu’s vanguard. The two commanders made a decision to first press forward and then make a stand at Chibi, to at least slow down if not completely check the enemy’s advance.
The allies’ battle plan was that Zhou Yu would be responsible for naval battles and Liu Bei would be responsible for land battles. Liu Bei only wanted Zhou Yu to cover his right flank and if possible provide more troops. Zhou Yu not only promised to provide the cover, but also sent his five thousand crack troops to Liu Bei’s command to support Liu Bei. Zhuge Liang, who was with Zhou Yu as they were on their way to Fankou from Chaisang returned with Liu Bei to help him to prepare for the battle and afterward, returned to Zhou Yu’s flagship and remained onboard for the duration of the battle as the liaison officer. Both Zhou Yu and Liu Bei decided to maximize the geographic advantage for them to negate enemy’s numerical advantage.Cao Cao’s force at 240,000+ while the allied force 50,000+. However, this was incorrect, because such numbers were obtained by only counting troops fighting the single largest battle at Wulin (乌林) in the central (Chibi) theater of the war. These numbers would be indeed correct for that Cao Cao’s southern thrust included nearly a quarter million troops, facing an opposing force of 50,000+. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, because in actuality, the battle of Chibi was a comprehensive campaign fought on multiple fronts / theaters, and the actual forces deployed by both sides were higher than what most commonly but erroneously believed. The most obvious example is that Cao Cao’s troops deployed in the northern thrust were excluded, while in reality, they were the integral part of the battle and viewed as such by both sides fighting the war.
Southern Trust (Totaling near 250,000) in the central (Chibi) theater:
Western (Jiangling – Yiling) theater:
The following forces were also deployed, but they were not viewed as part of the battle, and their strength was not included, but Cao Cao had specifically mobilized them to support the campaign:
Zhou Yu selected a spot of ambush where Yangtze River made a sharp turn northward because it could easily control both the northern and southern bank from the spot. Furthermore, when enemy fleet going downstream at this narrow spot, its flank would be dangerously exposed and when attacked, the rapid current and wind would make it nearly impossible to turn around to engage the attackers and rescue their own ships under attack. However, Cao Cao’s naval commanders-in-chief Cai Mao and Zhang Yun were also capable naval commanders and well aware the situation, and refused to be lured into the trap. Instead, they ordered every ship to lower all sails and stopped. As the opposing navies both anchored and camped along the shore, the decisive blow would be left for the ground forces. Zhou Yu readied his force to preparing three thousand troops to land at a moment of notice, so that if Liu Bei had won, they would join the pursuit, and if Liu Bei had lost, they would cover the evacuation of the ground force to ships. However, the overconfident Cao Cao and his commanders had made a grave miscalculation in failing to inform the southern column on the southern bank of the Yangtze River that the navy had stopped, because they were certain that the infantry would defeat any enemy attempting to stop them, so the infantries on land continued to march forward.
As the vanguard of Cao Cao’s southern column of the southern thrust consisted of confident Jingzhou troops approached the enemy formation, they were suddenly shocked to see that instead of Sun Quan's troops they had expected, the enemy facing them were in fact Liu Bei’s troops. The psychological effect was so huge that when Liu Bei’s infantry begun its probing attack by banging their sabers against their shields in rhythm as charge forward in unison, the morale of Cao Cao’s vanguard collapsed and everyone turnaround and attempted to escape without even trying to make a stand. Historians have debated until this day on this baffling event of why Cao Cao’s vanguard of the southern column of the southern thrust had collapsed so rapidly without a fight and there are no clear answers. Some have claimed that despite earlier defeat, Liu Bei did won many victories against Cao Cao, and was able to frequently rise again after catastrophic defeats, so Jingzhou troops were afraid to engage Liu Bei’s force. Other historians argued that Liu Bei’s force was far more tenacious than that of Cao Cao and Zhou Yu, because they had their backs against the wall, so they must fight to survive. Another suggestion was that Liu Qi’s troops under Liu Bei had higher morale than those Jingzhou troops under Cao Cao, because in the struggle of Liu Biao’s succession, the former was on the right side according to traditional Confucian ethics / values as the result of primogeniture. Yet there are others suggesting that most Jingzhou troops were reluctant to fight Liu Bei at all due to his fame: earlier, many of the civilians, including the relatives and friends would rather follow Liu Bei as refugees instead of joining Liu Cong, and Liu Bei would rather (and did) suffer a catastrophic defeat than abandoning civilians following him and run for his own life. Whatever the explanation, Cao Cao’s vanguard on the southern bank of Yangtze had completely collapsed.
An experienced veteran, Liu Bei was able to immediately capture the critical moment and turn into his advantage by quickly changing the original plan as the retreating vanguard of Cao Cao’s force disrupted the formation of the troops behind them. First, Liu Bei ordered an all out infantry attack, causing further disarray in the rear formation of the enemy. Zhou Yu was both shocked and baffled by the surprising victory at this early stage, shocked in that Liu Bei’s such token force would be able to defeat an enemy fifteen times of its size, even before committing the five thousand troops he provided, but at the same time, he was also baffled that how could such capable force suffered such catastrophic defeat and how could this be the same force that was nearly wiped out in the earlier Battle of Changban? Instead of dwelling on these questions, Zhou Yu was equally quick in taking advantage of the situation by ordering the three thousand troops he readied earlier to land quickly to attack the enemy in support of Liu Bei. The enemy was driven toward the Yangtze River exactly as Liu Bei and Zhou Yu had hoped, and Cao Cao would have a heavy price to pay for his failure to notify the land force that the navy had stopped. Expecting their own navy to be there for evacuation, the fleeing troops of Cao Cao’s vanguard got another nasty surprise: it was the enemy’s navy. The fleeing vanguards had no choice but run backward toward the rear, where Cao Cao’s own troops from the north was under the attack of Liu Bei’s cavalry.
The rearguard of Cao Cao’s force on the southern bank of Yangtze River was facing a problem of its own: the usual defense against the enemy's cavalry charge, archers and lance array, could not be established because the formation in the rear was completely disrupted by the retreating vanguards so the ideal density of arrows and lance array could not be formed to deter the enemy’s cavalry. Pressed by the enemy cavalry, blocked by the mountain on the right, enemy infantry in front and enemy marines on the left, there was no choice but to retreat backward. Cao Cao’s navy saved the day by deploying all available boats to evacuate the retreating force some distance in the back, and due to Cao Cao’s force’s strength in numbers, the allied force could not prevent most of the retreating Cao force being successfully evacuated to the northern bank of the Yangtze River, despite scoring a victory. Had Cao Cao panicked as depicted in most literary works, history would be completely different.
As Cao Cao’s southern column of the southern thrust retreated to the northern shore of the Yangtze River, the loss was rather relatively light, only around ten thousand. However, the first land battle of Chibi was important - despite being rarely mentioned by many historical works and most literary works - because it had turned the tide of the war: it caused Cao Cao to decide to withdraw all of his forces on the southern banks of the Yangtze River to Wulin base camp on the northern shore, a stalemate was reached, and Cao Wei had lost the initiative. The victory also had another unexpected result: In addition to Sun Ce, Zhou Yu has another person to admire, but at the same time, he also feared that Liu Bei would be another difficult adversary of Eastern Wu and history would prove that Zhou Yu’s concern was correct.
As Cao Cao withdrew his force from the southern bank of the Yangtze River, there were no more chances for land forces of both sides to clash, and the only opportunity of confrontation would be naval ones. To probe the possible weakness of Cao Cao’s navy that would help to allies to overcome Cao Cao’s numerical advantage in ships, Zhou Yu sent Huang Gai to lead twenty capital ships each with 100 soldiers as vanguard before his main fleet to attack Cao Cao’s base in Wulin. An experienced naval commander, Cai Mao accurately pointed out to Cao Cao enemy’s plan, and suggested instead of engaging the enemy and fight a battle the enemy was good at, Cao Cao’s navy should avoid direct confrontation first, and as the enemy retreated, gave a chase to attack enemy the vulnerable rear to achieve a maximum victory with minimum cost. Cao Cao, however, rejected Cai Mao’s advice by claiming that he wanted to do exactly what Zhou Yu did: find out the enemy’s strength by fighting a battle. Cai Mao realized Cao Cao was attempting to test out the new tactic, as well as his loyalty, and no longer insisted on his original advice and immediately begun the deployment of his ships: At the western side of the naval base upstream, twenty ships were tasked to lure the enemy to sail pass the naval base, and behind the twenty ships further upstream, an array of chained capital ships (连环舟) would be waiting. Once the enemy had sailed passed most of stretch of the naval base, two arrays of chained capital ships would be deployed directly behind the enemy from the eastern side of naval base downstream. One array of chained capital ships was tasked to fight off any enemy reinforcement, while the other array of chained capital ships was tasked to cut off the enemy’s escaping route. Once the enemy was cut off, the array of chained capital ships upstream would join the fight to annihilate the surrounded enemy. Zhang Yu would be onboard to direct the fight while Cai Mao would command onshore at the base.
In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, this first naval engagement was fought by Zhou Tai and Han Dang on Zhou Yu’s side, and Yuan Shao’s and Liu Biao’s generals who surrendered to Cao Cao. In reality, the generals were only limited to Cai Mao, Zhang Yu and Huang Gai instead, and the battle was far less dramatic as depicted in the novel, because scenes of boarding enemy ships described in the novel did not happen in real life. As Huang Gai led his force approaching the enemy, he realized that the enemy was luring him into a trap because contrary to the usual practice of shooting arrows to prevent enemy from approaching and boarding as before, the arrows shot by Cao Cao’s sailors were not dense at all. Though unable to guess the Cai Mao’s entire plan, Huang Gai was prudent enough to disengage, and both sides shot arrows at each other, without much damages being done. Meanwhile, Cai Mao’s twenty ships first sailed southward and then sailed in parallel with Huang Gai’s twenty ships in eastward direction, placing themselves between the southern shore and Huang Gai’s ship. As Zhou Yu’s vanguard prepared to approach the opposing side for the second time, Huang Gai received the signal from Zhou Yu’s main fleet to retreat, and he soon realized why: the scout ships of Zhou Yu’s main fleet had discovered Cao Cao’s deployment of chained capital ships. It was obvious to everyone that the Zhou Yu’s vanguard was to be surrounded, but as Huang Gai ordered his ship to retreat eastward downstream, the enemy was closing on three sides. It appeared that the vanguard of Zhou Yu's navy was to be wiped out.
Huang Gai, in desperation, suddenly made a surprising move by directing his twenty ships to turn northward, directly toward Cao Cao’s naval base on the northern shore, and his intension was to go around the array of capital ships chained together in front him, before the encirclement was complete. This unexpected move exposed the flaws of chained capital ships: it would take time for sailors of ten ships to work in unison to turn the ships ninety degrees, and the delay provided the valuable time for Huang Gai’s ships to escape, since single ships could turn much faster. As Cai Mao scrambled more ships to go out of the naval base to face the approaching enemy, Huang Gai ordered his ships to turn eastward to the right, as the chained capital ships downstream blocking were slowly turning northward, which was not fast enough, and further delayed by the need to make another turn to eastward. Huang Gai tactic proved to be successful, and most of the ships escaped to rejoin Zhou Yu’s main fleet, but the last two ships were intercepted by Cao Cao’s navy and sunk when rammed by the chained capital ships. Most of the two hundred Eastern Wu’s sailor lost, however, was not due to enemy action but to weather: as they jumped into water and tried to swim back, most were frozen to death by the chilling water of the winter. Contrary to the Romance of Three Kingdoms in which Zhou Yu was depicted as the winner of this first major naval battle, tactically, Cao Cao was actually the victor. However, Zhou Yu was satisfied with the result because he had discovered the weakness of the Cao Cao’s navy and was planning to make his next move. After this first battle, both sides took a defensive posture and naval engagements were reduced to few minor skirmishes between patrol boats.
One thing remains to be debated until today is the locations of the land and naval engagements. Just as in the Battle of Red Cliffs, the precise location of these engagements are also undetermined, with several potential site, though modern day Honghu was one of the generally accepted location for Wulin (乌林) by most. If modern day Jiayu County is indeed the actual location of the Battle of Red Cliffs as believed by many, then the location of the land engagement would be the modern day Paizhouwan (牌州湾) Township of the Jiayu County. Despite the fact that the local geography matches the descriptions of the historical works perfectly, there are many who challenges the idea, arguing that over eighteen centuries, the course of the Yangtze River might have changed and the perfect match of modern day geography might not necessarily be the case eighteen centuries ago.