Shanghai 1937 - Stalingrad on the Yangtze

By Paul Robinson 10 Jul 2013 0

Confessions first; whilst being something of a World War Two buff my knowledge of the battles between China and Japan both during and in the lead up to that conflict are largely confined to references in broader works.  So it was with some trepidation that I dived into Peter Harmsen?s account of the campaign in and around Shanghai in 1937.

The Sino-Japanese confrontation (to put it euphemistically) in the mid to late 1930s was one of the harbingers of the Second World War as the conflicts in the Balkans in the early part of the twentieth century set the scene for the First World War.  In fact the author at one point suggests that in fact the Second World War had already begun in the late thirties, it was just that the rests of the world had not quite realised it.

My initial concerns about the subject matter were quickly laid to rest.  The book opens with a murder mystery (Chapter One, intriguingly titled ?Three Corpses?!) and then moves us swiftly into the mysterious colonial world of Shanghai in the 1930s. The city the author tells us was the ? ?Paris of the East? to some foreigners with a romantic bent ?Queen of the Orient? to others?.  As the second largest city in Asia after Tokyo, Shanghai was a place of great strategic and economic importance.  Also the presence of a large ?western? population, with people representing every European country from Norway to Greece as well as the United States and Canada, meant any conflict would be in the full glare of the international media (now why does that sound so familiar?).

The opening chapter covers a large amount of ground and does so very successfully.  It takes us on a brief historical tour of China in the first third of the twentieth century for those like me with only a shallow knowledge of that period.  This includes the conflicts to-date between Chinese forces and the troops of Imperial Japan, and the rise of tensions leading up to the subject of the book.  Then we have a review of the Chinese military, its strengths (some elite divisions, well equipped and well trained by German advisors) and weaknesses (a very poorly Italian trained air force and some poor generalship).

With the scene very ably set in the opening chapter the rest of the book deals with the action; which interestingly starts with the Chinese attacking the Japanese (colonial) garrison of Marines in Shanghai itself.  This opening action shows a couple of basic truths about the battle for Shanghai.  Firstly in the retrospect available to the modern reader it is a familiar account of urban conflict involving ?high tech? forces.  Secondly there is the somewhat unworldly element of the International Settlement and its impact on the course of the battle.  This area was where the westerners lived and became a sort of no mans land for both sides in the conflict.  Whilst off target bombs and naval shells caused numerous deaths, the western population of Shanghai could literally watch in (relative) safety as two armies attacked each other with tanks, planes, naval bombardment and all the paraphernalia of modern war!  Oh yes and there is also a cavalry charge; it doesn?t end well.

This opening action also highlighted some military differences between the two sides that would become more apparent as the conflict spread to the city?s hinterland.  Firstly the Japanese used their air power to neutralise the threat of the Chinese air force and eventually achieve air superiority and then supremacy.  Also they used their considerable naval forces anchored in the Yangtze to provide effective close support to their beleaguered forces in Shanghai, saving the day more than once.  Finally whilst the Japanese were making the best use of their available support the Chinese made very poor use of their artillery.  As well as the threat of Japanese airpower the Chinese regarded their artillery as too valuable an asset to lose.  Thus they barely used it so they didn?t risk it to enemy fire!  However there was one area that neither side lacked-raw courage.  The Chinese soldiers, in the main, were as brave and reckless in the attack as most westerners consider the Japanese to have been during the Second World War.  And in defence they were as stoic and courageous as the Japanese were seen to be during the closing stages of the Pacific Campaign.

The book then moves on to the Japanese counterattack.  This is via amphibious landings to the north of Shanghai; part of a general plan to encircle the elite divisions that the Chinese threw into the attack on the city itself.   This is where the action stays for most of the rest of the book.  And again we have some interesting issues thrown up.  Initial Japanese success and optimism wanes before strong Chinese defence.  More forces are drawn in from the home islands and the rest of China - these are often reservists wrenched from their civilian lives straight onto the battlefield.  Chinese forces are pulled in from all over China and swiftly thrown into the line.  Japanese tenacity, a greater utilisation of air power (and naval support again) and poor Chinese strategy and generalship (although the Japanese were not necessarily totally superior in that area) eventually lead to tactical withdrawals by the Chinese, then retreats and finally what amounted to a strategic rout.  We re-visit the action in central Shanghai to observe the Chinese withdrawal from there. Here we witness the odd situation of Chinese troops escaping, often under fire, from Japanese forces by scrambling into the International Settlement.  The Japanese clearly not wishing to cause international outrage by a ?hot pursuit? let these escapees go. 

I have to say that I was really impressed with this book.  Mr Harmsen is an excellent writer.  The book rattles along like a modern techno-thriller and moves gracefully between descriptions of the tactical battlefield and the impact on the company, platoon or individual to the strategic machinations of the ?top brass? and the movement of armies and divisions.  Whilst the book piqued my interest in the pre Second World War Sino-Japanese conflict it stands very successfully as an excellent piece of military writing in its own right.  One only has to be interested in warfare to appreciate this book.

It is supported as is usual by a centre of black and white pictures showing Shanghai in the thirties and scenes from the conflict. These of course were more interesting than usual due to my lack of familiarity with the conflict.  Also there are a number of maps to allow you to follow the general course of the action.

Overall this book is highly recommended.  For wargamers it has got all the makings of an excellent campaign or demonstration game - naval gunnery support, tanks, direct tactical air support, two evenly matched forces, Marines, the what if scenario of conflict spreading into the International Settlement (other colonial powers had troops and naval forces in Shanghai), German military advisors and of course a cavalry charge!  For military historians it is an interesting insight into the development of the tactical use of military technology in the lead up to the Second World War.  And, finally, it is damn good read!

Available now in paperback from Casemate Publishing, normal price £20.00/$32.95 (ISBN 9781612001678):



Review written by: Paul Robinson



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