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Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze

av Peter Harmsen

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The New York Times bestseller that inspired the documentary Shanghai 1937: Where World War II Began on Public Television. At its height, the Battle of Shanghai involved nearly a million Chinese and Japanese soldiers while sucking in three million civilians as unwilling spectators--and often victims. It turned what had been a Japanese imperialist adventure in China into a general war between the two oldest and proudest civilizations of the Far East. Ultimately, it led to Pearl Harbor and to seven decades of tumultuous history in Asia. The Battle of Shanghai was a pivotal event that helped define and shape the modern world. In its sheer scale, the struggle for China's largest city was a sinister forewarning of what was in store only a few years later in theaters around the world. It demonstrated how technology had given rise to new forms of warfare and had made old forms even more lethal. Amphibious landings, tank assaults, aerial dogfights, and--most important--urban combat all happened in Shanghai in 1937. It was a dress rehearsal for World War II--or, perhaps more correctly, it was the inaugural act in the war, the first major battle in the global conflict. Actors from a variety of nations were present in Shanghai during the three fateful autumn months when the battle raged. The rich cast included China's ascetic Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his Japanese adversary, General Matsui Iwane, who wanted Asia to rise from disunity, but ultimately pushed the continent toward its deadliest conflict ever. Claire Chennault, later of "Flying Tiger" fame, was among the figures emerging in the course of the campaign, as was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In an ironic twist, Alexander von Falkenhausen, a stern German veteran of the Great War, abandoned his role as a mere advisor to the Chinese army and led it into battle against the Japanese invaders. Shanghai 1937 fills a gaping chasm in our understanding of the War of Resistance and the Second World War.… (mer)
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The parallels are pretty good in some respects, a stretch in others. The battle of Shanghai, in 1937, was part of a limited war that was not officially declared before the attack on Pearl Harbor, whereas Stalingrad was part of a total war. Tanks played no major role at Shanghai, as they did at Stalingrad, since the terrain around the city was cut by numerous streams and canals rather than being flat steppe. However, both battles involved considerable number of troops and centered on a highly urbanized area, and both were decided by lightning assaults on the wings.

Also, both were marked by enormous bloodshed and atrocities.

One significant difference was that the battle of Shanghai took place in front of numerous foreign observers in the International Settlement, the extraterritorial enclave that both sides avoided encroaching upon. This does not mean the International Settlement was entirely safe; some hundreds of civilians were killed by stray shells and bombs, most (but not all) Chinese. -- I mean that the bombs and shells were mostly Chinese. Actually, it works the other way, too.

The battle started with an incident that has all the hallmarks of being engineered; the question is by which side, since both were itching for a fight. On 8 August 1937, a certain Oyama Isao, a naval officer from the Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces, was shot dead near a Chinese-controlled airport outside Shanghai, along with his driver and an unidentified Chinese dressed as a Kuomintang soldier. The Chinese claimed that Oyama had attempted to force his way onto the airfield; the Japanese claimed that Oyama had been ambushed outside the airport. The Chinese victim was not groomed like a soldier and the bullet had gone into the back of his head at close range, suggesting he was a convict volunteered for his role in history. The Japanese had suffered exceptionally violent deaths, carried no arms, and Oyama's pistol was found back at his barracks. It seems likely that Chiang Kai-shek or one of his local flunkies engineered the incident in an attempt to force the Western powers to intervene on China's behalf.

In response to the Oyama incident, Chiang ordered 88 Division to Shanghai, and the Japanese began landing their own reinforcements on 11 August. According to the head of the Peace Preservation Corps, at around 0900 on 13 August, a group of SNLF soldiers in civilian clothing provoked an outpost of the PPC into firing warning shots, then opened fire on the Chinese. Chang Chih-chung gave a different version, claiming that the Japanese opened fire on Chinese troops near the Commercial Press building at the west edge of "Little Tokyo". However, the Japanese claimed that a Chinese machine gunner hidden in the Commercial Press building fired first. Just who fired the first shot will likely never be known, and it seems clear the PPC and the SNLF were both itching for a fight. Sporadic shooting continued throughout the day.

The first major engagement of the battle took place at about 1500 on 13 August 1939, around Eight Character Bridge. Chinese troops advancing on the bridge met Japanese troops who had just crossed the bridge and were setting up defenses. The Chinese briefly drove the Japanese back, but Japanese warships on the Whangpoo began providing gunfire support to the Japanese troops. The next day, 14 August 1947, "Black Saturday", the Chinese attempted to capture the SNLF headquarters at Hongkou with an unimaginative massed frontal assault. The headquarters was heavily fortified and the Japanese were supported by naval artillery, and the Chinese suffered heavy casualties, particularly among officers. Chinese aircraft attempted to bomb Japanese cruiser Izumo in the Whangpoo River. Met with a wall of antiaircraft fire, the aircraft dropped their bombs wide of their target, instead landing on the wharfs, the Cathay Hotel, the refugee-packed Great World Amusement Center, and the packed crowds on Nanking Road who were seeking refuge in the International Settlement, About 150 civilians were killed near the Cathay Hoel and another 675 were killed at Great World. Chiang ordered the Chinese attack called off, and appointed Feng Yu-hsiang, an old rival, to assume command of the Shanghai forces.

On 15 August, 1 Combined Air Group was ordered by 3 Fleet to strike Chinese airfields near Nanking, suffering four aircraft shot down to Chinese fighters. The SNLF were sufficiently hard-pressed that their commander committed his reserves, including his limited numbers of tanks, and the Japanese Navy dispatched an additional 2400 SNLF troops as reinforcements. The Japanese Government also ordered 3 and 11 Divisions to reinforce the SNLF at Shanghai, to operate under the newly activated Shanghai Expeditionary Army. This was commanded by Matsui Iwane, a staunch pan-Asianist and anti-Communist with long experience in China who had met Chiang Kai-shek, but was contemptuous of him for his nominal alliance with the Chinese Communists. Matsui told Sugiyama that the ultimate objective after taking Shanghai should be to take Nanking and overthrow Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang meanwhile ordered his forces to regroup and carry out a more careful attack on the Japanese, Operation IRON FIST. This was to be launched early on 17 August 1937 and to make use of the infiltration tactics used by the Germans in the late stages of the First World War in France. This reflected the influence of nearly 70 German advisors working with the Chinese Army. The objective was to advance through Hangkou to the Whangpoo river, cutting off the Japanese. However, the preparations were observed by Japanese naval aircraft operating off of ships and airstrips on Chongming Island, giving away surprise, and the Chinese suffered heavy casualties at each road intersection. Nevertheless, the advance was not stopped until it had reached Broadway, the last street before the river, where the Japanese had excellent cover behind the high wall protecting the wharfs. The Chinese found that even 150mm guns could not penetrate the wall or dislodge the Japanese. Chinese tanks committed to the battle piecemeal were wiped out. The Japanese in turn had strong naval artillery support, and that night, reinforcements arrived and brought the Japanese strength up to 6500 troops. The Chinese were forced to withdraw and go onto the defensive.

Meanwhile the Japanese suffered heavy losses in the air, including half the medium bombers of 1 Combined Air Group, but after 20 August had wrested almost complete control of the air over Shanghai. A series of raids on Nanking on September 19 force the Chinese to withdraw what little air power remained in the Shanghai area.

On 22 August, 3 Division landed at Wusong, at the mouth of the Whangpoo River. and 11 Division landed at Chuanshakou, twelve miles further up the Yangtze. The Chinese forces around Shanghai were now in danger of being cut off and destroyed. The Chinese commander, Chang Chih-chung, pulled half of 87 Division out of Shanghai to bolster the defense of Wusong and ordered 98 and 11 Divisions to cover Chuanshakou. A fierce battle erupted over the village of Luodien, but heavy naval gunfire support allowed 11 Division to take the town on 28 August.

By this time Chiang had lost confidence in Chang Chih-chung, and ordered Ch'en Ch'eng to take command at Shanghai. Ch'en was one of the most capable Kuomintang generals, but the change of command was unfortunate in its timing, coming at a crucial point in the campaign.

Civilian casualties continued to mount, and included the British ambassador to China, Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, who was badly wounded when his car was strafed fifty miles out of Shanghai.

The Japanese continued to batter their way inland, capturing Wusong fortress on 2 September and Baoshan on 5 September. The fall of Baoshan allowed 3 and 11 Divisions to finally link up in a single bridgehead. The next day, elements of 3 Division secured the Japanese golf club at Gongda and rapidly converted it to an airfield from which 2 Combined Air Group could operate. 9, 13, and 101 Divisions were ordered to Shanghai. On 11 September the Chinese were forced to pull back. The new positions were not strong, since the Chinese were deficient in even the most basic materials for fortification, such as concrete and barbed wire. They were forced to withdraw yet again on 25 September, just as the first elements of the new Japanese divisions sent as reinforcements began to land, and again on 1 October. These withdrawals were conducted skillfully and were not detected by the Japanese until almost complete.

The retreat on 1 October was to a strong position anchored by Wusong Creek, and the Japanese had considerable difficulty breaking through this new line. Their first attempt to cross, on 5 October, was successful in establishing a bridgehead, but this was successfully contained by the Chinese defenders, who made heavier use of their artillery than at any other time in the campaign. Fighting was particularly intense around Ch'enchiahang, where 173 Division suffered casualties of nearly 70% in its first day on the line. A Japanese diversion in the form of a amphibious feint further up the Yangtze had little discernible effect. However, a counterattack suggested by Pai Chung-hsi on October 21 proved overly ambitious and was anticipated by the Japanese, who easily crushed the counterattacking force.

The Japanese brought in two hundred new tanks and another hundred aircraft, but were stymied using them in the close-quarters fighting. However, the Chinese suffered huge casualties in in the defense of the Wusong line and in the failed counterattack. It was clear that the Chinese could not hold their position in northwest Shanghai much longer. Chiang now pinned his hopes to holding some corner of Shanghai long enough to influence the outcome of an international conference scheduled in to begin in Brussels late October. Chiang originally ordered 88 Division broken up into guerrilla bands to hold strong points in the city, but the local commanders changed the plan to leaving a single battalion, 1/524 Regiment, in the heavily constructed Four Banks' Warehouse. This was almost ideal, being a prominent structure near foreign observers in the International Settlement that could be easily fortified. On October 24 the Japanese made their final assault on Shanghai, only to find the Chinese had again pulled out ahead of them in an orderly retreat, setting fire to Chapei as they withdrew. The frustrated Japanese opened fire instead on civilian refugees attempting to flee across Jessfield Railway Bridge and other escape routes into the International Settlement.

The "Lost Battalion" succeeded in drawing international attention. The Japanese were reluctant to use their full air power so close to the International Settlement, but brought artillery to destroy the Four Banks' Warehouse with close range fire. The Chinese survivors slipped out of the warehouse on the night of 30 October and escaped to the International Settlement and internment by the British.

The Japanese continued to try to push the Chinese back from Shanghai, attacking at Nanhsiang on October 28, then crossing Suchow Creek on 31 October, but meeting continuing fierce resistance. However, the Japanese hard activated 10 Army on 9 October, consisting of 6, 19, 114, and a brigade from 5 Division. In the early hours of 5 November, 10 Army made an landing on Hangchow Bay, which the Chinese had assumed was unsuitable for amphibious assault because of its large tidal flats and hinterland crossed by numerous streams. The Chinese reaction was slow, due to a belief that the landings were only a diversion. 67 Division was deployed against the Japanese advance but disintegrated after its commander, Wu Keren, was assassinated by a group of men in civilian clothing. Resistance by scattered elements of 63 Division was negligible except at Sheshan, and this was quickly overcome. The advance by 10 Army threatened envelopment of the Chinese forces in Shanghai. Chinese morale was already close to the breaking point, but Chiang refused to authorize a retreat until 8 November 1937. The Chinese retreat disintegrated into a rout, and it proved impossible to regain command and control.

Japanese forces completed mopping up of the Nenshi quarter of Shanghai on 11 November.

The Chinese troops around Shanghai had fought tenaciously, astonishing foreign observers in the Settlement. However, air superiority hindered Chinese movements and restricted Chinese artillery support to a few minutes' firing each dusk, lest the guns be spotted from the air and destroyed by counterbattery fire. The battle for Shanghai destroyed the best German-trained Nationalist Chinese formations, leaving the Japanese virtually an open road up the Yangtze valley. Total casualties were high for both sides, as many as 200,000 Chinese and 40,000 Japanese. The Japanese commander, Matsui, apparently on his own initiative, pursued the Japanese all the way to Nanking, followed by the Rape of Nanking and an ultimate date with the gallows.

The campaign was brutal all around. Neither side bothered much with prisoners, captured enemy troops typically being shot or beheaded out of hand. The Japanese routinely strafed ambulances, which they claimed were being used to transport military supplies; maybe they were.

Some interesting oral history drawn from both sides. Recommended. ( )
  K.G.Budge | Aug 8, 2016 |
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Wikipedia på engelska (6)

The New York Times bestseller that inspired the documentary Shanghai 1937: Where World War II Began on Public Television. At its height, the Battle of Shanghai involved nearly a million Chinese and Japanese soldiers while sucking in three million civilians as unwilling spectators--and often victims. It turned what had been a Japanese imperialist adventure in China into a general war between the two oldest and proudest civilizations of the Far East. Ultimately, it led to Pearl Harbor and to seven decades of tumultuous history in Asia. The Battle of Shanghai was a pivotal event that helped define and shape the modern world. In its sheer scale, the struggle for China's largest city was a sinister forewarning of what was in store only a few years later in theaters around the world. It demonstrated how technology had given rise to new forms of warfare and had made old forms even more lethal. Amphibious landings, tank assaults, aerial dogfights, and--most important--urban combat all happened in Shanghai in 1937. It was a dress rehearsal for World War II--or, perhaps more correctly, it was the inaugural act in the war, the first major battle in the global conflict. Actors from a variety of nations were present in Shanghai during the three fateful autumn months when the battle raged. The rich cast included China's ascetic Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his Japanese adversary, General Matsui Iwane, who wanted Asia to rise from disunity, but ultimately pushed the continent toward its deadliest conflict ever. Claire Chennault, later of "Flying Tiger" fame, was among the figures emerging in the course of the campaign, as was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In an ironic twist, Alexander von Falkenhausen, a stern German veteran of the Great War, abandoned his role as a mere advisor to the Chinese army and led it into battle against the Japanese invaders. Shanghai 1937 fills a gaping chasm in our understanding of the War of Resistance and the Second World War.

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