Cao Cao’s army of 200,000 was stationed on the north bank of the Yangtze. The combined forces of Wu and Shu were only 50,000. General Zhou Yu decided the best way of breaking the enemy was to launch a fire attack. But a fire attack would be effective only if his army was able to get close to the enemy.
Zhou Yu was pondering what to do when two cousins of Cai Mao, the former Wu officer executed by Cao Cao, came over and surrendered themselves. Zhou Yu had an idea. He welcomed the two men, rewarded them and let them stay in the army camp. That night he summoned an old general named Huang Gai for a confidential conversation.
At a meeting with his officers the following day, Zhou Yu said that they should prepare for a three-month hold-out with Cao Cao. But he was opposed by Huang Gai.
“Three months? What good is it even if we can hold out for thirty months? If we can’t win in a month, we might as well surrender to Cao Cao.”
Zhou Yu was enraged. “Our mission is to defeat Cao Cao,” he snarled. “How dare you talk about surrender?”
A heated argument followed and Zhou Yu ordered Huang Gai to be dragged out. Huang Gai became abusive. Zhou Yu was so provoked he ordered Huang Gai to be summarily executed. Many officers came forward to plead in behalf of Huang Gai who had served the country with utter devotion for many years. In the end Huang Gai was given fifty lashes. The beating was so severe that Huang Gai lost consciousness.
A few days later, a man claiming to be a friend of General Huang Gai’s brought Cao Cao a letter from Huang Gai in which he complained about his treatment under Zhou Yu and stated his intention to defect. He promised to bring over with him ships and equipment. Cao Cao was suspicious. It was not until he received a letter from the cousins of Cai Mao, who had been sent to Wu to collect intelligence, confirming the beating of General Huang Gai, that he was convinced.
On the eve of the winter solstice, a message from Huang Gai informed Cao Cao that he had been assigned to escort a shipment of grain and would direct the convoy to Cao Cao’s camp at midnight. Overjoyed, Cao Cao went aboard a large ship and stayed up waiting for him.
At midnight, an easterly wind rose. At about the same time, Huang Gai’s fleet appeared in the distance. As the ships drew nearer, Cao Cao became suspicious. Why were the ships moving so fast if they were loaded with grain?
In fact Huang Gai had prepared twenty ships loaded with combustibles, their prows studded with giant nails, their inside stacked with reeds and straws soaked in fish oil and overspread with sulfur and saltpeter. All were covered with black cloth.
Before Cao Cao could stop him, Huang Gai set the first row of his vessels on fire. Sped by the wind, the vessels dashed toward Cao Cao’s fleet like flying arrows. Cao Cao’s boats were chained together. When one caught fire, others could not flee. Tongues of fire rose; the sky was lit up. Huang Gai’s burning ships closed in from all sides. Cao Cao’s naval camp was turned into a raging inferno. His tents on land also caught fire. His entire army was thrown into a pandemonium. Under the attack of the joint forces of Wu and Shu, Cao Cao’s army suffered a devastating defeat.
Zhou Yu knew from the beginning that the defection of Cai Mao’s cousins was a hoax since they did not bring their families with them. He used them to pass misinformation to Cao Cao, which contributed to the victory of what is known as the Battle of the Red Cliff, one of the most famous battles in Chinese history.