Battle of Shanghai

Battle of Shanghai

The fight for Shanghai in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) Province during August–December 1937 between Japanese and Chinese Guomindang (GMD, Nationalist) troops was the first important battle of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–1945. Some scholars contend that it was the first important battle of World War II (1939–1945).

Japanese leaders were determined to take advantage of European and U.S. weakness occasioned by the world economic depression to secure the natural resource of East Asia. On the night of September 18, 1931, Japanese staff officers of the elite Guandong (Kwantung) Army in southern Manchuria set off an explosion near the main line of the South Manchurian Railway near Mukden (Shenyang) in Liaoning Province. They subsequently blamed the act on nearby Chinese soldiers and used this as a pretext to seize control of Mukden and begin the conquest of all Manchuria. Tokyo, presented with a fait accompli by its own military, supported the action and refused demands of the League of Nations that it withdraw from the territory it had occupied. In February 1932 Japan proclaimed the alleged independence of Manchuria in the new state of Manzhouguo (Manchukuo).

Manzhouguo was larger than France and Germany combined, but in March 1932 Japanese troops added to it the province of Rehe (Jehol, the old province comprising parts of today’s Inner Mongolia and Hebei [Hopeh] and Liaoning provinces). Early in April they also moved against Chinese forces south of the Great Wall to within a few miles of Beijing (Peking) and Tianjin (Tienstin) in in Hebei Province. In May Chinese forces evacuated Beijing, then under the authority of pro-Japanese Chinese leaders. These latter concluded a truce with Japan, which required Chinese troops to be withdrawn south and west of a line running roughly from Tianjin to Beijing. Japanese troops withdrew north of the Great Wall, creating a demilitarized zone administered by Chinese friendly to Japan.

Japan asserted its right to control China and continued to push its influence in the northern provinces. The Chinese government at Nanjing (Nanking) in Jiangsu, headed by Generalissimo Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), initially pursued a policy of appeasement. Jiang was more interested in pursuing his military campaign against the Chinese communists, but students and the Chinese military demanded action against the Japanese.

In the Sian (Xi’an) Incident of December 1936, a coup staged by two Nationalist generals forced Jiang to accept a United Front against Japan and helped focus Chinese Nationalist fervor against the Japanese. Japanese leaders found the rapid growth of anti-Japanese sentiments in China and the increasing military strength of the Nationalists disturbing and tried to establish a pro-Japanese regime in China’s five northern provinces.

On the night of July 7, 1937, in the so-called Marco Polo Bridge Incident, an unexpected clash occurred west of Beijing between Japanese and Chinese troops near the historic Lugouqiao (Lu-kou-ch’iao) Marco Polo Bridge, a major railroad artery 10 miles from Beijing. Later that month after the Chinese government in Nanjing rejected Tokyo’s ultimatum, Japanese troops invaded the coveted northern provinces. In a few days they had occupied both Tianjin and Beijing, and by the end of the year Japan had extended its control into all five Chinese provinces north of the Huang He (Huang Ho, Hwang Ho, Yellow River). In mid-December the Japanese installed a new government in Beijing.

Fighting was not confined to northern China, though; in August 1937 it engulfed the great port and commercial city of Shanghai. On August 7 Jiang ordered GMD forces to attack Japanese troops in their settlement there. Jiang hoped that urban warfare might negate Japanese superiority in heavy weapons. He also hoped that drawing attention to central China would allow his troops in the north time to reorganize.

On August 9 Chinese soldiers killed two Japanese marines in Shanghai. On August 11 Jiang ordered his troops to positions within the greater Shanghai area, carefully avoiding the foreign sections of the city. Jiang committed some of the best units of his army to Shanghai, including the German-trained 87th and 88th divisions. General Zhang Fakui (Chang Fa-kuei) commanded the GMD Eighth Army Group fighting in the city.

The Japanese rushed reinforcements to Shanghai, but when the battle began on August 13, some 80,000 Chinese troops faced only 12,000 Japanese. Heavy fighting continued for almost three months. On August 14 Chinese Air Force planes attacked Japanese warships moored in the harbor, but most of the bombs missed their targets and hit civilian areas in the city instead. Japanese warships in the Changjiang (Yangtze) and Huangpu rivers responded by shelling Nationalist positions at point-blank range. For a week the battle hung in the balance, and the Chinese almost drove the Japanese into the Huangpu (Whampoa) River.

From August 20, large numbers of Japanese reinforcements began arriving by sea. They landed on the banks of the Changjiang River and initiated a siege of Shanghai. Ultimately the Japanese committed a total of 15 divisions under General Matsui Iwane, commander of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force. Jiang ordered Shanghai’s defenders to hold out, and for several weeks of bitter house-to-house fighting they did. The fighting was ferocious, and casualties were heavy. Between August and November 1937, 270,000 Chinese troops were killed or wounded in the Battle of Shanghai, along with many thousands of civilians, while the Japanese sustained some 40,000 casualties. Much of the city was devastated, although both sides left the foreign settlements largely undisturbed.

In early November a Japanese amphibious force landed at Hangzhou (Hangchow) Bay, some 50 miles south of Shanghai, outflanking the Chinese forces and threatening the city from the rear. In what swiftly became a disorganized rout, the Chinese forces evacuated Shanghai. Unfortunately for the Nationalists, the Battle of Shanghai consumed many of their best troops. Instead of withdrawing to newly built fortifications along the Shanghai-Nanjing (Nanking) railway line at Wuxi (Wu-hsi), the Nationalists fell back on their capital of Nanjing, which became the next Japanese target. Japanese forces swiftly advanced up the Changjiang, and in December they took Nanjing, where they committed wide-scale atrocities in what became known as the Rape of Nanjing.


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