Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City

Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City

by Peter Harmsen


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The infamous Rape of Nanjing looms like a dark shadow over the history of Asia in the 20th century, and is among the most widely recognized chapters of World War II in China. By contrast, the story of the month-long campaign before this notorious massacre has never been told in its entirety. Nanjing 1937 by Peter Harmsen fills this gap.

This is the follow-up to Harmsen's best-selling Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, and begins where that book left off. In stirring prose, it describes how the Japanese Army, having invaded the mainland and emerging victorious from the Battle of Shanghai, pushed on toward the capital Nanjing in a crushing advance that confirmed its reputation for bravery and savagery in equal measure.

While much of the struggle over Shanghai had carried echoes of the grueling war in the trenches two decades earlier, the Nanjing campaign was a fast-paced mobile operation in which armor and air power played mayor roles. It was blitzkrieg two years before Hitler's invasion of Poland. Facing the full might of modern, mechanized warfare, China's resistance was heroic, but ultimately futile.

As in Shanghai, the battle for Nanjing was more than a clash between Chinese and Japanese. Soldiers and citizens of a variety of nations witnessed or took part in the hostilities. German advisors, American journalists and British diplomats all played important parts in this vast drama. And a new power appeared on the scene: Soviet pilots dispatched by Stalin to challenge Japan's control of the skies.

This epic tale is told with verve and attention to detail by Harmsen, a veteran East Asia correspondent who consolidates his status as the foremost chronicler of World War II in China with this path-breaking work of narrative history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612002842
Publisher: Casemate Publishers
Publication date: 11/09/2015
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Peter Harmsen, a foreign correspondent in East Asia for two decades, has worked for Bloomberg, the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the Financial Times. He is also the former bureau chief in Taiwan for French news agency AFP. His books have been translated into Chinese, Danish, and Romanian.

Read an Excerpt

Nanjing 1937

Battle for a Doomed City

By Peter Harmsen

Casemate Publishing

Copyright © 2015 Peter Harmsen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2624-6


A New Battle Begins

November 11, 1937

The three Chinese attack bombers rolled down the run way as night was reluctantly releasing its chilly grip over the airfield. Each of the American-built Northrop Gamma 2E monoplanes carried a pilot and a rear gunner and was armed with a 1,600-pound bomb. The angry wasp-like hum of the Cyclone 9 engines filled the air as they took off. Soaring rapidly into the starless sky the aviators could make out the familiar contour of the capital Nanjing, dark and brooding in the wartime blackout. A little beyond was the metallic gray of the Yangtze, moving relentlessly east towards the ocean. The planes were also heading east. Their objective that autumn morning: to search for Japanese vessels in the East China Sea and attack them.

At the controls of Northrop Gamma No. 1402 was Second Lieutenant Peng Deming of the 2nd Bomber Group's 14th Squadron. Aged 24, he was already a veteran of the air battles that had raged over east China since full-scale hostilities with Japan had broken out that summer. Sitting behind him was his rear gunner, Li Hengjie, who was of the same rank but one year older. Both men knew the war wasn't going well for China. After three months of intense fighting in and around the nation's largest city, Shanghai, it was now only a question of time before the Japanese Army would break out and swarm across the nation's prosperous and densely populated heartland.

They also knew what was at stake. It was right there below them. As the planes steered towards the thin sliver of dawn forming over the horizon, the faint light unveiled a never-ending patchwork of small, well-kept rice paddies, watered by intricate networks of irrigation channels. Villages formed tiny dots, spaced out at a distance of no more than a mile from each other. There were also larger commercial towns, many of them ringed by ancient city walls. It was a part of China that had been inhabited for centuries, and this early morning it looked as tranquil as ever. That peace would soon be shattered and serenity replaced by the turmoil of the battlefield.

It wasn't long before the aviators saw the first signs of war. As they got closer to the front line near Shanghai, the country roads started filling with soldiers. They were dressed in the gray, khaki and blue uniforms of the loosely coordinated divisions and brigades that made up the Chinese Army. There were tens of thousands of them, and they were in full retreat. While they were withdrawing from Shanghai, a small number of their comrades-in-arms manned a thin defensive line to keep the Japanese at bay. It was the end of a battle that had consumed tens of thousands of lives over the past three months, and even as the Chinese tried to disentangle themselves, the killing continued. Columns of black smoke lined the roads where Japanese airplanes had swept down and dropped their deadly loads.

For Second Lieutenant Peng, the war was a very personal thing. All through his childhood, China's escalating rivalry with Japan had rumbled in the background. In his late teens, while he had attended vocational high school in Shanghai, he had seen with his own eyes how frictions had intensified as Japan had tried to impose its economic and military might on China with growing boldness. Five years earlier, the situation had spiraled out of control and triggered the first major armed clash between the two nations, laying waste to large parts of Shanghai. Peng had wept bitterly when the fighting had ended in a draw, and not, as many Chinese had hoped, with the ousting of the hated Japanese.

Now a new conflict had begun, and this time a far larger number of Chinese were prepared for a fight to the death. They included Peng and his rear gunner Li, who had both graduated with Class 6 from the Central Aviation School in the east Chinese city of Hangzhou in the summer of 1937, just in time to be sent into battle when the war began. Hostilities had started in the north of China and then spread to Shanghai. Peng had been sent on sortie after sortie, mostly targeting Japanese vessels bringing troops and supplies to the Shanghai front.

Despite the daily horrors he had to endure, the young man had enjoyed himself during the first dramatic stages of the Sino-Japanese War. "It's an amazing feeling when you have completed a mission to return to base and be greeted by a cheering crowd," he wrote in a letter to his parents. Those heady days were now well in the past. By late fall, the Chinese Air Force, which had only been set up a few years earlier and had suffered from having a succession of foreign advisors of inconsistent capability and commitment, had been wiped almost clean out of the sky. The 2nd Bomber Group consisted of a mere five planes and Peng and Li had lost many friends.

These losses were a source of great sadness, but they couldn't allow emotions to compromise their ability to carry out their duty. That November morning they were focused on their mission. It had been raining for a week, but the forecasters had promised fine flying weather. For the first part of the mission, overland, they had been proven right, but when the formation approached the East China Sea, the sky became overcast. That was both good and bad. It greatly diminished the risk that Peng, Li and the two other crews would be discovered and hunted down by faster and nimbler Japanese planes. On the other hand, their own hunt for targets would also be more complicated.

Putting the coastline behind them, they steered their light bombers towards the Zhoushan islands, a small archipelago about ten miles from the mainland. Flying in a loose formation, the aviators constantly scoured the almost uninterrupted cloud carpet below, looking for holes where the dark blue ocean showed and where a trained eye might spot a potential target. By mid-morning, they were in luck. Three and a half hours after take-off they eyed a narrow opening in the clouds, and in the middle of it, an enemy aircraft carrier. There was no doubt that this was the opportunity they had been hoping for.

Peng positioned his airplane for a dive attack against the vessel. Coming in at an angle of slightly more than 30 degrees, the Gamma accelerated to close to 250 miles an hour. Tracer bullets sailed through the air towards it, as Japanese sailors opened fire in a desperate attempt to take him out before he could do any harm. It didn't affect Peng, and he stayed on course. With the rapidly increasing outline of the ship in his targeting sight, he was waiting for the exact right moment to let go of the bomb. It was an immensely difficult task, requiring him to allow for not just the course and speed of the ship, but also for his own speed and approach angle and the direction and strength of the wind. Praying for the gods of fortune to be on his side, he released the bomb, feeling the airplane lift abruptly as it was relieved of the heavy load it had been carrying since the start of the mission. He pulled away fast to escape the dense small-arms fire from the ship. The two other Gamma 2Es performed the same maneuver.

At a safe distance, the crews of the three aircraft tried to get an idea of the effect of their attack. With only three bombs among them, they would consider the attack a success if just one had struck the target. It had. Flames licked the stern of the ship, and a cloud of smoke was rising from the aft deck, as small figures in white sailors' uniforms darted around in apparent confusion like ants from a suddenly exposed anthill. The sight set off triumphant cheers in the cockpits. Satisfied that they had been able to inflict a serious blow on the enemy, they soared above the clouds and set course for the Nanjing base.

The three bombers were making their way back at a cruise speed of slightly above 200 miles an hour when the airmen's greatest fear materialized in the shape of two Japanese A5M monoplanes, which suddenly appeared out of the clouds. The Northrop Gamma had shown time and again in recent months that it was no match for the new generation of faster, more maneuverable Japanese fighters. The three Chinese aircraft had no hope of winning in a dogfight, and they could also not outfly their adversaries.

What happened next took mere seconds. One of Peng's fellow Northrop Gamma pilots performed the only maneuver feasible at that point, carrying out a steep dive into the clouds before disappearing. The other Gamma was hit by Japanese bullets and plunged towards the ocean, wrapped in a coat of brightly colored flame. Neither of the two Chinese on board managed to bail out before the aircraft collided against the surface of the sea.

Then the Japanese pilots turned on Peng's plane. Their bullets tore into the fuselage, causing dense, thick smoke to come pouring out. The burning aircraft rapidly lost height, and struggling to escape, Peng and his rear gunner managed to push back the canopy. They jumped out, releasing their parachutes. Floating slowly down towards the blue expanse below them, they watched their plane crash into the ocean. The only thing that could have saved them would have been a fast and efficient search-and-rescue operation. China didn't have those capabilities in late 1937. The two were never seen again.

* * *

Thursday, November 11 was a busy day in the skies over eastern China. As Second Lieutenant Peng Deming was descending in his parachute towards a watery grave, Japanese ground crews at Matsuyama Aerodrome, just north of Taiwan's capital Taihoku, were fitting a squadron of nine two-engine Mitsubishi GMS for a bombing mission against the Chinese mainland. Their primary objective was Nanjing's Dajiaochang Airfield, but if bad weather put that target out of reach, they were to bombard industrial areas in the city of Suzhou, midway between Shanghai and Nanjing.

The nine bombers, each carrying a sizable crew of seven aviators, were arranged into three flights — the Lead, 1st, and 4th Flights. Overall responsibility for the mission was in the hands of Lieutenant Commander Suda Keizou, who flew in Plane No. 1 of the Lead Flight as the observer. This distribution of duties was not an oddity: in accordance with normal Japanese practice, he left the attention-consuming task of piloting the plane to his deputy so he could concentrate on the mission itself. At 10:20 a.m. the squadron took off, organizing itself into three small 'V' formations.

Within minutes, they were over the narrow strait separating the island of Taiwan — which had by this time been a Japanese colony for more than four decades — from the Chinese mainland. The crews on the nine bombers were from the Kanoya Air Group, an elite outfit of the Imperial Navy's aviation arm. They had received the GMS earlier that year, and they had been practicing feverishly throughout the summer to become fully conversant with the new aircraft. For all the training, the first few weeks of the war with China had exacted a heavy toll. Their aircraft had been too slow and too fragile when pitted against the Chinese fighters. Many valuable crews had been lost. After much bloodletting, Japanese commanders had finally agreed to provide the bombers with robust fighter escorts.

With most of the Chinese Air Force then swept from the sky, the tide had turned once more, but that changed nothing for the Japanese Naval Air Force commanders. They still didn't feel comfortable leaving the bombers to their own devices so each mission had a strong escort guiding it through mostly empty skies. Thus, at 1:15 p.m., after crossing the Chinese coastline into the airspace near Shanghai, the bomber squadron linked up with nine Nakajima A4N fighter biplanes of the 2nd Combined Air Group. With the sun shining in a bright sky, it was decided that they should head directly for Nanjing instead of the alternative industrial target at Suzhou.

Many of the Japanese aviators knew Dajiaochang airfield from previous raids. A couple of miles southeast of Nanjing's ancient city wall, it had been targeted repeatedly by Japanese planes over the preceding two months. Despite this, reconnaissance showed that it was still in operational condition, able to serve the Chinese Air Force as a forward base for attacks on Japanese forces fighting near Shanghai. While most Chinese aircraft had been evacuated further inland, some planes remained on the airfield. To secure complete Japanese air superiority, they would have to be taken out.

Shortly before 2:30 p.m., the nine bombers approached Dajiaochang. Although there was no sign of enemy fighters in the air, they could not let their guard down as the Chinese antiaircraft defenses were as dangerous as ever. As flak exploded among the bombers, sending red-hot shrapnel flying through the air, the formation was seriously disrupted. One of the aircraft in the 1st Flight, piloted by Petty Officer Kanno Heikichi, was isolated from the rest and was unable to take part in the attack with the other bombers.

Led by Lieutenant Commander Suda, the eight remaining planes in the formation spotted their predetermined targets, neat rows of Chinese airplanes lined up inside revetments — low U-shaped walls of sandbags. The G3MS began the attack, using their crude targeting devices to release their loads roughly above their objective. This was not precision bombing, and relied on the laws of probability to achieve success: if enough bombs were dropped over a specific area, some were bound to hit something.

The tactic worked. The lead flight of three bombers, flying at a height of 8,500 feet, dropped their combined load of 36 sixty-kilogram bombs over a row of revetments along the southern edge of the airfield. They noticed with satisfaction four large fires developing. The two other flights targeted the eastern edge, with somewhat less success, causing only two blazes.

As the squadron prepared to return to their home base, Kanno's aircraft, still cut off from the rest with a full load of bombs on board, made a daring decision, and attempted a lone sweep over the airfield. His G3M immediately became the focus of the combined efforts of all antiaircraft batteries on the ground. The plane fell victim to its one fatal design flaw — when a fuel tank was hit, it was only a matter of seconds before the flames reached the entire fuselage, making it a flying death trap for the seven on board.

As the G3M, engulfed in a ball of fire, rapidly lost altitude, some witnesses on the ground saw two crewmembers bail out and plunge to their deaths. Others were convinced there were three. Some said their parachutes failed to open. Others stated that they did open, but were set ablaze by flying sparks from the bomber. Only one of the original seven on board managed to land on the ground. He was never heard from again. Chinese soldiers and civilians bent on revenge after months of bombing raids were known to mete out swift rough justice to captured Japanese aviators.

* * *

Two miles northwest of the airfield, inside Nanjing's ancient city wall, John Rabe was watching the death throes of the Japanese bomber. Balding and chubby, the 54-year-old German businessman was standing at the entrance of the spacious shelter he had built in his garden as protection from the air raids that had become, during the course of the autumn months, a nearly daily routine for the capital's people. Like the other spectators next to him, Rabe was struck by the rapidity of the action in the air. "Within 20 seconds, there's nothing left of the proud bomber but debris and corpses," he wrote in his diary.

The shelter was crammed with people on that November day — not just with Rabe's own Chinese servants, but also with their families and their friends and their friends' friends. It emptied immediately after a "whoop of joy" from just outside the entrance had alerted the Chinese to the downing of the Japanese aircraft. Rabe himself never derived any pleasure from watching Japanese planes shot out of the sky. Once, on a similar occasion, the occupants of his shelter had been cheering wildly at the sight of an enemy aircraft plunging to the ground, jumping about and dancing around in a frenzy. He himself had kept to his seat, mumbling quietly, more to himself than to those around him, "Hush! Three men are dying!"

Respect for the value of human life, on all sides in any conflict, was part of the complex mix of motivations that had kept Rabe in Nanjing at a time of growing danger, when most other foreigners had chosen to leave. Even though Rabe had lived in China for 30 years and identified with its plight, the rights and wrongs of the war that was raging on his doorstep seemed to matter little to him. Compassion was a much stronger factor preventing him from following his most natural urge to flee while there was still time. "Anyone who has ever sat in a dugout and held a trembling Chinese child in each hand through the long hours of an air raid can understand what I feel," he wrote in his diary.

What mattered most, perhaps, was his deep sense of duty. It might have been the result of a traditional North German Lutheran upbringing, which had emphasized the need to fulfill one's obligations to the community. The community, in Rabe's particular case, was the company Siemens, which he represented in Nanjing, its employees and their families. He understood his responsibilities as leader and knew that if he left, everything would fall apart. "Where you stay, I stay too," Rabe's Chinese assistant had told him. "If you go, I go along!"

Everyone was aware that the dreaded Japanese Army would soon be standing at Nanjing's gates. In Shanghai, a mere daytrip away, a fierce battle had raged since August, with the Chinese putting up a much better fight than many had expected. However, even the censored news reporting that was allowed from the front could not disguise the fact that Shanghai was lost, and that China had squandered its best troops in an ultimately futile struggle. With Chinese resistance broken, it was just a matter of time — weeks or even days rather than months — before Japanese soldiers would be parading down the streets of Nanjing.

Rabe could have abandoned his post easily. In the summer of that year, when war had broken out between China and Japan, he and his wife had escaped the extreme heat of Nanjing by going north to the Beidaihe beach-side resort near the old imperial capital Beijing. Once there, he had watched the massive Japanese troop movements along the railways and realized just how serious and all-encompassing the hostilities had already become.


Excerpted from Nanjing 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.

Table of Contents

Author’s note

1 A new battle begins
2 “Moving out!”
3 The line is crossed
4 Battle at lake tai
5 Winter
6 Enemy at the gates
7 Decisive days
8 The fall
9 Terror
10 Aftermath

Appendix: orders of battle


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