Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtzeby Peter Harmsen
This deeply researched book describes one of the great forgotten battles of the 20th century. At its height it 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 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 for the rest of mankind only a few years hence, in theaters around the world. It demonstrated how technology had given rise to new forms of warfare, or had made old forms even more lethal. Amphibious landings, tank assaults, aerial dogfights and most importantly, 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.
Written by Peter Harmsen, a foreign correspondent in East Asia for two decades, and currently bureau chief in Taiwan for the French news agency AFP, Shanghai 1937 fills a gaping chasm in our understanding of the Second World War.
“…enhances the bare facts with material gleaned from multiple diaries, reports, newspaper and magazine articles, books, and other accounts from combatants and civilians of all nationalities. In addition to on-the-spot impressions from a surprising number of Chinese and Japanese foot soldiers, the book also features eyewitness reports from and about foreigners living and working in the cosmopolitan city at the time. As the author notes, the battle of Shanghai was front page news throughout much of the world, and numbers of journalists from around the globe covered the fighting from both sides of the line while crossing in and out of the safety and comfort of the international concessions. Besides using many contemporary documents as sources, Harmsen has chosen to illustrate the book with an especially noteworthy selection of very striking wartime photographs. …engaging account of a little-known battle. …practically nothing else in English tackles this topic at this level. ..
Stone and Stone
Largely ignored in the West, Japan and China fought a horrible large-scale battle for the city of Shanghai from July to November 1937... Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze relates the story of this awful months-long battle and its effect on later events... This book is meticulously researched, and vignettes are included from generals and privates alike. Civilian accounts, the bulk of them from residents of the International Settlement, abound. Most of the sources are translated Chinese works. The author weaves them together in a way that gives a sense of the battle's breadth and horror. Readers interested in the history of the Sino-Japanese fighting of the 1930s will find this book a valuable addition to their libraries."
...presents a gripping chronology of two sides locked in a horrific death dance…genuinely shines by interlacing the chronology with plenty of personal anecdotes and quotidian details… an important reminder between Champagne brunches, art openings and fashion shows—rivers of blood once flowed beneath our feet.
City Weekend Shanghai
Harmsen, a two-decade veteran of east Asia, demonstrates a breathtaking command of the battle itself—from the 10,000 meter, panoramic view of the terrain and history, down to the platoon level—Japanese and Chinese grunts fighting, bleeding, starving and dying, and the types of knots that the Japanese used to tie their helmets on.
Asian Review of Books
“In the voluminous literature on World War II, few books treat the Sino-Japanese War, and few of those are accessible to non-specialists. Thankfully, seasoned East Asian correspondent Peter Harmsen has written an engrossing study that goes far to fill the gap in the historiography of a neglected theater of operations and the first large-scale urban battle of the war. Historians of this battle do have certain advantages. Since Shanghai was a cosmopolitan city with a large contingent of foreign residents that stayed for the duration, scholars possess an additional source of primary documents and valuable eyewitness accounts. Harmsen takes full advantage of these. … a compelling, quite detailed…narrative history of an understudied war. … gives easy entry into the secondary literature on the Sino-Japanese War.
Michigan War Studies
"One of the most sobering things about reading history is realizing the ease with which the deaths of a millions can be forgotten in only a few decades. I am currently reading Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen. I recommend it heartily. Even if you thought you knew all there was to know about the Second World War, if you haven’t read up on the Sino-Japanese conflict, you’ve missed one of its principal roots… The Japanese were in real danger of losing the Battle of Shanghai, in part because the Chinese Army was advised by German officers, some of whom were Jewish and fleeing from Hitler."
The Belmont Club
“… 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. … 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!”
“…has all the elements of a fabulous historical novel. …Yet from another angle it is a historical minefield…he seamless way in which Harmsen weaves Chiang’s international political maneuvering into battlefield strategy, combining the perspectives of regular privates and commanding generals, along with civilians and combatants, suggests his narrative was of long gestation…one of the really remarkable features of “Shanghai 1937” is the huge collection of high-quality photographs, all of them in-period and directly relevant to the action, in three 16-page inserts. Also, one cannot help noticing that many of them are credited to the “author’s collection.”.. few who have read the book have failed to be gripped by the narrative.”Taiwan Today
What’s special about this book is its comprehensiveness, shifting between Chinese, Japanese and foreign points of view to describe the causes of the battle, Chiang Kai-shek’s strategy, the Chinese army’s attack, the stalemate and the fall of Shanghai. The photos selected for the book also illustrate the operations on the two sides as well as the conditions endured by the people of Shanghai. …. In addition to accounts by participants on both the Chinese and Japanese side as well as contemporary newspaper reports, the book also uses the memoirs of numerous foreigners. In this respect it is richer than a lot of works in the Chinese language.
Shenzhen Special Zone Daily
”This is not traditional war history, but an extremely dramatic documentary thriller. It’s based on facts, collected in meticulous and time-consuming fashion from diaries, newspaper articles, books and memoirs, but in contrast to much other war literature, you get so close to the actors, from generals to Chinese and Japanese privates and civilians, that as a reader you have to constantly remind yourself that this was real, involved a million soldiers, and was to lead to the global changes of the next ten years… Peter Harmsen has written a book that has many qualities and extremely high information and entertainment value. It’s about time that we reach a better understanding of the causes of World War Two, a chain of events where the battle of Shanghai had a much bigger impact than military historians in the west have realized so far. Shanghai 1937… is not only an invaluable piece of military history, but also a book with formidable powers of empathy that at times make the reader feel like an actual participant in the bloody events.”
”All through the 1930s an extremely bloody war was fought in China. It was a war that involved great power interests, clashing ideologies and local interests. This entire complex and bloody jigsaw is the topic of China expert Peter Harmsen's book on the battle of Shanghai in 1937. There are not very many books on this topic and this period, which has been a neglected chapter in western history writing. Therefore, Peter Harmsen has written an important book. It’s about events that happened more than 70 years ago, but it’s relevant for the present age because the same great power interests are at work today… The book is extremely readable and deserves praise for telling the story of a forgotten aspect of the global showdown of the 1930s.”
“…an arrow straight account of the pyrrhic battle for much of the city.…challenges the notion that the Second World War began in 1939 and he has a point. I am pleased to have read it.…If you are looking to expand your world knowledge to the Middle Kingdom, have a look at this book. If the advance of the Japanese interests you it might make a nice change not to read about endless embarrassing retreats of colonial armies for a while.”
War in History Online
“The author has processed a huge number of original Chinese and Japanese sources, interviewed survivors and collected an impressive number of photos and a large array of useful maps. This gives the narrative substance and credibility. At the same time, it’s also a very objective and nuanced account… With his book, Peter Harmsen fills a huge historiographical void. The story is told in a highly riveting manner. Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze is almost impossible to put aside once you have started, and even harder to put aside after you have finished the last page.”
“There is no doubt that one of the most important historical accounts of the year is Peter Harmsen’s book about the war between China and Japan. It’s an original and thorough work which turns the prevailing consensus of the past generations upside down and questions what many historians have so far taken for granted… It’s impossible not to become more knowledgeable from reading Harmsen’s book... The complicated strategic material is reinforced with contemporary testimony and anecdotes throughout.”
Kristeligt Dagblad (Denmark)
“It is not often that one discovers a great significant event in history that is both overlooked and underwritten. The battle of Shanghai in the summer and fall 1937 is one such event. In “Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangzte,” by Peter Harmsen, he takes the casual reader as well as the avid military history enthusiast on a horrific journey down the blood-soaked alleys and war-ravaged suburbs of one of China’s greatest cities…. well-written. It has a treasure trove of rare photos of the battle and is exhaustively researched. Harmsen has earned his stripes in uncovering this event from an academic military standpoint. Along with accurately placing units in their order of battle, he also succeeds in humanizing these units with individual stories… “Shanghai 1937” is a must-read for anyone interested in military history or a genuine fascination of the nationalist era in Chinese history. “
Sampan (New England)
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Stalingrad on the Yangtze
By Peter Harmsen
Casemate PublishingCopyright © 2015 Peter Harmsen
All rights reserved.
JULY 7 — AUGUST 12
The bullet-riddled sedan had screeched to an abrupt halt at the entrance of the airfield. Nearby, the two men who had been inside lay sprawled on the ground. Their blood-soaked uniforms identified them as members of the Japanese Navy's elite Special Landing Force. The brains splashed across the dashboard showed that one of them had died inside the car. He had then been dragged out to be slashed, kicked and pounded into a pulp. Half his face was missing and his stomach had been cut open, the sickly pallor of his intestines gleaming faintly in the night. The other man had escaped the vehicle but had only managed a few paces before being gunned down. A little distance away lay a third body, dressed in a Chinese uniform.
It was several hours before dawn on Tuesday, August 10, 1937. Darkness still engulfed Hongqiao Aerodrome eight miles west of Shanghai, and the investigators had to work under automobile headlights and using electric torches. They were a diverse group. There were Chinese, of course, but there were also Japanese, British, French and American detectives — representatives of foreign powers that felt quite at home in China's largest and most prosperous city after nearly a century there. Also present was a group of reporters from the cutthroat world of Shanghai's English-and Chinese-language press. Despite the antisocial hour, they had to be here. This could be big, very big.
The investigators quickly determined that the badly mangled body belonged to 27-year-old Sub-Lieutenant Oyama Isao, while the other dead Japanese was his driver, First Class Seaman Saito Yozo. The identity of the Chinese fatality was a mystery. The scene looked like the result of a simple shoot-out. However, too many questions remained unanswered: What were the Japanese doing at a military airfield miles away from their barracks? Who had opened fire first and why had he decided to shoot? The Chinese investigators and their Japanese counterparts didn't see eye to eye on the answers to any of these questions. As they paced up and down the scene of the incident, scouring the ground for evidence, loud arguments erupted again and again. Shortly before sunrise, they wound up their work having reached no agreement on what had actually happened. They got into their cars and headed back to the city.
The acrimony that the Chinese and the Japanese detectives displayed towards each other surprised no one. Tensions between the two nations had risen dramatically over the preceding five weeks, in Shanghai and beyond. These tensions were the result of distant events as hundreds of miles to the north an undeclared war was raging. It had started in early July, when a series of misunderstandings had caused Japanese and Chinese soldiers to clash near Beijing in a hectic night of confused skirmishing. Very soon events had taken on a seemingly unstoppable momentum of their own, as more and more areas around the old imperial capital were sucked into a conflict that still had no name. So far Shanghai, in the middle of China's economic heartland, had successfully avoided any hostilities, but everyone knew that the peace might not last.
China's future was uncertain. What were the intentions of the Chinese government in Nanjing, the Yangtze River city from which it had ruled the vast country for the past decade? What plans were being prepared by military and political decision makers in Tokyo? Would the Beijing turmoil expand into a general war engulfing all of China? The answers to these questions would also affect thousands of Japanese — soldiers, diplomats and businessmen — who were residing in Shanghai and other large cities along the Yangtze River. They knew that if war were to break out there, deep inside what would then be enemy territory, they would all be in great danger, surrounded by millions of hostile Chinese. In the present circumstances, all that was needed was a single spark. The incident at the aerodrome might be just that spark.
The investigators were keenly aware of the consequences if they failed to handle their delicate task with the necessary finesse. But even if they were hoping for peace, it was clear that Shanghai was a city preparing for war. As they drove through the still dark suburbs on their way from Hongqiao back to their downtown offices, their car headlights fell on whitewashed trees, interspersed with sandbag positions and the silhouettes of lone Chinese sentries. Officially, these sentries were members of the Peace Preservation Corps, a paramilitary outfit that, due to an international agreement brokered a few years earlier, was the only Chinese force allowed to stay in the Shanghai area. However, rumors were circulating that they were in fact disguised members of the 88th Division, one of the best-trained units of the entire Chinese Army.
Having entered the city, the vehicles passed first the French Concession and then the International Settlement, both parts of Shanghai where foreigners lived in comfortable isolation away from the din and dirt of the Chinese neighborhoods. Some districts were indistinguishable from London, Paris or Boston. The maple-lined streets housed businesses with names such as Ambassador Cinema, Vienna Ballroom and Café Bonheur. Surroundings such as these seemed almost designed to give a false sense of security. This was not Europe or America, but very much Asia. The deceptively peaceful veneer could dissolve any time and unveil an uglier and much more violent reality underneath, as had happened only too recently.
The incident took place in Zhabei, a rough working-class neighborhood not far north of the Art Deco facades of the International Settlement. Since the start of the boom years early in the century, Zhabei had attracted tens of thousands of migrants from the countryside with its promise of work, food and shelter. This had led to overcrowding with many people living in too little space, and Zhabei had become a leprosy-ridden slum area normally shunned by Shanghai's expatriates. They could mostly afford to pretend it did not even exist. Mostly, but not always. Five years earlier Zhabei had been the scene of fierce, house-to-house fighting between Chinese and Japanese soldiers who had been killing each other with gusto in a brief unofficial war. For five weeks in early 1932, the constant, unsettling sound of battle had been carried by the wind into the International Settlement, while swarms of refugees had tried desperately, and mostly in vain, to gain entry into the safety of the foreign quarters.
In the end, the Japanese had scored a Pyrrhic victory, while China, despite its defeat, had arguably gained more. It had won confidence. After nearly a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign imperialists, it now knew that it could strike back and hit hard, even at the most aggressive and merciless of all the hated colonial powers that were encroaching on its territory. Important as it was, this was not the only lesson that China drew from the 1932 war. It was abundantly clear that any new conflict with Japan was likely to be costly. Even five years after the fighting, despite years of busy reconstruction efforts, Zhabei still carried the physical scars of that short, sharp flash of violence. With the threat of conflict now in the air again, the stakes were, therefore, high as the investigators returned to their offices while the day dawned over Shanghai. Mismanage this crisis, and there was no telling what bloodshed might ensue and at what cost to millions of innocent civilians.
In the hours that followed, both sides released their respective versions of the events. According to the Chinese, the Japanese vehicle had tried to force its way through the gate of the airport. When Peace Preservation Corps members posted at the entrance had motioned to Saito, the driver, to stop, he had abruptly turned the car around, while Sub-Lieutenant Oyama had shot at the Chinese guards with an automatic pistol. Only then had the Chinese opened fire, killing Oyama in a hail of bullets. Saito had managed to jump out before he, too, had been gunned down. It was not the first time someone Japanese had tried to enter the airport, the commander of the Chinese guards told a western reporter. It had happened repeatedly in the past two months, and they "obviously were undertaking espionage."
The Japanese account, unsurprisingly, blamed the entire incident on China. It stated that Oyama had been riding along a road skirting the airfield, with no intention of entering. Suddenly, the vehicle had been stopped and surrounded by Peace Preservation Corps troops who, without warning, had opened up a barrage of rifle and machine gun fire. Oyama had not had the slightest chance to shoot back. The two Japanese had every right to drive on the road, the property of the International Settlement, a Japanese statement argued, before labeling the incident as a clear violation of the 1932 peace agreement. "We demand that the Chinese bear responsibility for this illegal act," the statement concluded.
One crucial question remained: who was the dead man in the Chinese uniform and how could he have lost his life if Oyama had not been able to return fire? A Japanese doctor, who had been among the first to arrive at the scene, took special note of the man's appearance, stating that he had rather long hair, and he had allowed his finger nails to grow to almost feminine lengths. This was odd, because neither was permitted in the Chinese military. Even stranger was the fact that the lethal bullet had entered the back of the man's skull. He had been shot from behind, execution-style. The conclusion seemed inevitable: he was not a soldier, and he had not been killed in a shoot-out.
* * *
Shanghai — "Paris of the East" to some foreigners with a romantic bent, "Queen of the Orient" to others — was a prize worth fighting for. With about 3.5 million residents in 1937, it was Asia's largest city after Tokyo, the fifth-largest in the world, and the key to the riches of an entire continent. A popular guidebook proudly stated that Shanghai was home to 48 different nationalities. The vast majority of the inhabitants were Chinese, while about 70,000 permanent residents were foreigners. Japanese, citizens of a young and hungry empire undergoing rapid expansion, formed the largest segment and numbered about 20,000. British and Russians, the latter mainly émigrés who had fled the 1917 revolution, accounted for just below 10,000 residents each. The United States and Canada were also represented, as was every European country from Greece and Czechoslovakia to Norway and Poland.
The various nationalities had been drawn to Shanghai by one thing — trade. Commerce was the driving force behind the city's seemingly miraculous transformation. This transformation saw a cluster of poor villages gathered around a small walled town expand into a sprawling modern metropolis in less than 100 years. In 1842, the ailing Chinese Empire had lost the First Opium War to Great Britain, and as a concession to the victors it had declared Shanghai open for foreign trade. In the decades that followed the city prospered as a result of its unique location near the Yangtze estuary. On the one hand, this connected Shanghai to some of the most vital areas of China, situated along its longest river, and on the other it provided direct access to the ocean and global shipping routes. Shanghai got a cut as the produce of China — cotton, wood oil and animal hides — passed through its docks on the way to the world markets. In the other direction flowed mainly one commodity, opium.
Still, Shanghai owed its rapid progress to more than just geography. It was built on the toil of hundreds of thousands of destitute Chinese peasants. Unlike the foreign residents, they had not entered the city from the ocean side transported by comfortable steamers, but overland, mostly walking on foot while carrying their only possessions on their backs. They came to man the factories and workshops that were transforming Shanghai into an industrial powerhouse. Many had no choice. Nothing was worse than the rural squalor the migrants had left behind. However, by every conceivable measure, life at the bottom of Shanghai society was as bleak and brutal as anything European capitalism had produced in its darkest Dickensian hour. Days spent at exhausting and often dangerous work were followed by nights in cramped and unsafe apartment buildings. The hopelessness of it all turned Shanghai into a fertile recruiting ground for China's nascent labor movement.
Not all new arrivals ended up in industry. The young and the pretty were just as likely to be channeled into the biggest sex industry the world had ever seen. It was a profession capable of catering to every taste, every perversion, and every wallet. At the top were women of immaculate beauty and refined manners, highly skilled in the Oriental art of love, and capable, too, of cultured talk if that was what their customers wanted. At the bottom, one found the "nailers," offering their quick services against dark alley walls. Soldiers and sailors from all corners of the globe formed a considerable portion of the clientele, with the Japanese showing a particular talent for efficiency. "We assemble the men in squads of thirty," an admiral of the Imperial Navy explained, "give them each a bath and a change of underclothing, then march them as units to the comfort headquarters."
Prostitution was inextricably linked to Shanghai's sprawling criminal scene, as were gambling and extortion. It was no surprise that a big city would give rise to organized crime, but Shanghai made "the Chicago of Al Capone appear a staid, almost pious, provincial town," as the Chinese writer Han Suyin remarked. The sinister Green Gang dominated the Shanghai underworld, allowing its members to roam virtually at will. They were the untouchables after they had penetrated deep into the police force. In that capacity, they worked quickly and efficiently to solve all crimes targeting expatriates, prompting the foreign authorities to tolerate their presence, however grudgingly.
On top of all the other hardship that they had to endure, Shanghai's faceless poverty-stricken masses also experienced the violent political storms that swept across China in the first quarter of the 20th century. In 1911, the last dynasty collapsed with startling speed, bringing to an end the two-millennia-old imperial system and setting the stage for long years of chaos. The revolutionaries who brought down the emperor had hoped for a republic in the European mold, but instead the country was plunged into internecine strife by rival warlords. They were the power holders in a corrupt new oligarchy fueled by greed and based on violence, and they coveted Shanghai because of its lucrative opium trade. Consequently, the city changed hands among them several times.
It clearly was not a sustainable situation, neither for Shanghai nor for China. The endless fratricidal wars gave rise in the 1920s to frustrated calls for unification, and as the decade entered its second half, the movement to bring all of China under one government finally gained traction. It found an efficient leader in an ambitious and ruthless officer, who had been educated in Japan but was fiercely patriotic. His name was Chiang Kai-shek. Born in 1887, he exhibited the youth and dynamism that was called for in those turbulent and dangerous times. In 1926, he set out from the south Chinese province of Guangdong at the head of a vast Nationalist army. He headed north with the aim of successively bringing all the provinces under his control as he went along. Shanghai was in his path, and in the spring of 1927 his troops reached the city.
The undisciplined warlord forces holding Shanghai were no real match for Chiang, and they knew it, so they melted away before any serious fighting had even taken place. The Communists were another matter. Despite a tenuous alliance with Chiang, they signaled their intention of taking over Shanghai, using their existing organization in the city to arrange strikes and dispatch armed gangs to patrol the streets. Chiang struck decisively and fiercely, with the help of the feared Green Gang. Labor activists taken prisoner were beheaded or thrown alive into the furnaces of locomotives. One union leader was beaten only half to death, before being thrown into a pit and buried alive. The crackdown was so brutally complete that Communism would not gain a serious foothold in Shanghai again until the late 1940s. The criminal underworld, on the other hand, was as strong as ever.
Excerpted from Shanghai 1937 by Peter Harmsen. Copyright © 2015 Peter Harmsen. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Peter Harmsen, a foreign correspondent in East Asia for two decades, is the former bureau chief in Taiwan for the French news agency AFP.
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An action-packed historical about the forgotten battle of Shanghai before the US was even drawn into what became WW2. Filled with eyewitness accounts from both the Japanese and Chinese camps, the author describes the campaign and the strategies as they are executed throughout the three-month battle and the atrocities committed by the Japanese during and after the fall of Shanghai. Personally I can't help but compare this book to Enemy At The Gates by William Craig and the battle of Stalingrad, which I thought was more thorough and a little more appealing to a true historian. Shanghai 1937 could have had not only more back story and cultural explanation about this iconic region admittedly less familiar to the occident, but a more thorough post-analysis epilogue summarizing the entire conflict and its aftermath. Though this narrative was a little short, however, I found it to be an enjoyable read and I am grateful for the account elucidating the little-known struggle between two Asian superpowers, the enmity of which is still felt between the two to this day.
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