A National Revolutionary Army machine gun nest in Shanghai
THE IJA RENEWS THE OFFENSIVE
On 30 September, the IJA and IJN signed Memorandum 519,
which set down the agreed responsibilities of army and navy air forces. This
memorandum was crucial for attacking Japanese ground forces in gaining access
to air support from both the services. Under the terms of the agreement, the
2nd Combined Air Unit, a mixed formation in northern China consisting primarily
of IJN aircraft, was tasked to support the 3rd and 9th Infantry Divisions. The
1st Combined Air Unit halted raids against Nanjing and instead agreed to
coordinate with the IJA forces in Shanghai on a daily basis until 27 October or
whenever the Shanghai phase of the operation ended.
The same day the memorandum was signed, Matsui set in motion
an attack southward from Liuhang through Wusong Creek, toward Zoumaotang Creek.
He hoped the attackers would quickly seize two stone bridges west of Dachang
being defended by the Nationalist Chinese 33rd and 18th Divisions.
The Japanese employed the 101st, 3rd, and 9th Infantry
Divisions, with the 11th Infantry Division covering the right flank from
possible spoiling attacks by the Chinese 15th Army Group. The IJA 13th Infantry
Division was held in reserve. Chinese accounts also mention the presence of
Taiwanese and Manchu units intermingled with IJA reinforcements, totaling 100,000
troops including more than 300 artillery systems, 300 tanks, and 200 aircraft.
The Battles between the Creeks, 24 September–26 October 1937
On the receiving end of this juggernaut was the Nationalist
Chinese 9th Army Group, commanded by General Zhang Zhizhong, which was now
tasked with protecting the north side of Shanghai. At this point in the battle,
General Zhang’s troops were all that stood between the attacking Japanese and
the city of Shanghai.
The 9th Army Group had 4 infantry divisions and a separate
brigade, a force of 60,000 men. However, unlike other Chinese army groups, the
9th Army Group had substantially more artillery, around 400 guns, and even a
separate battalion of 50 light tanks, a unique formation in the Nationalist
Chinese Army. General Zhang also continued to command the German-trained 87th
and 88th Infantry Divisions, the best formations in the Nationalist Chinese
Japanese prime minister Konoe Fumimaro was unaware of
Chiang’s intentions and was totally reliant on the advice of Matsui and other
IJA commanders, with whom he had an uncomfortable relationship. To the extent
that he was able, Konoe restricted the IJA’s political influence. When he
agreed to integrate and escalate the combat in the north China and central
China theaters by launching an October offensive, he did so reluctantly. He was
skeptical that the operation would compel Chiang’s capitulation and bring the
conflict to a close.
By early October, the IJA’s strength in the Shanghai region
approached 250,000 men. After several days of fighting that was often hand to
hand, the IJA 9th Division broke through on 5 October and secured the far side
of Wusong Creek. Here, however, the Japanese attack broke down. The Chinese
defenders were waiting in carefully prepared trench works that utilized barbed
wire, mines, machine guns, and artillery. From 7 to 13 October, heavy rains
intervened to provide a respite from the fighting, which allowed time for both
sides to replenish supplies. Then the Japanese offensive continued with the
goal of eliminating all Chinese resistance north of Wusong Creek.
Chiang Kai-shek had another card to play: Nationalist
China’s Guangxi Army of roughly 70,000 to 80,000 soldiers. Given the success of
Zhang’s defense, Chiang judged the timing to be right for a Chinese
counteroffensive that might fully consolidate Chinese control of Dachang. With
the timely arrival of the Guangxi Army on 17 October, Chiang was certain that
Nationalist China’s Central Army would be strong enough to regain control of
the Yunzaobin River bank, the key to frustrating Japanese efforts to maneuver
Chinese forces out of Shanghai. With the combined strength of the 9th and 15th
Army Groups, the Nationalist Chinese would enjoy an advantage in personnel
numbers over the IJA and a slight advantage in the number of artillery systems
but would still labor under major handicaps in the number and quality of tanks.
The Chinese also had no real defense against Japanese air strikes.
While Chiang planned his counteroffensive, the Nationalist
Chinese 8th Army Group remained on the defense at Pudong, east of Shanghai city
and north of Hangzhou Bay, while the 10th Army Group stayed in its defensive
positions south of Hangzhou Bay. For reasons that have never been
satisfactorily explained, Chiang did not employ these formations to reinforce
the 9th Army Group’s flank in the north. Their mission was to simply defend
their assigned areas. As a result, nine divisions and four separate brigades
that could have joined the fight and diverted IJA forces from defending against
the Chinese counterattack did nothing. Whether these might have tipped the
balance in favor of the Chinese offensive is unknown, but the fact that they
were not massed to support it is peculiar.
The counteroffensive was not well coordinated, and as a
result the Chinese attackers were decimated by superior Japanese firepower. As
in previous operations, the lack of experience, poor communications, woefully
inadequate firepower, and incompetence in the senior Chinese ranks constrained
Chinese freedom of action. Chiang’s counteroffensive petered out.
On 25 October, the Japanese proceeded with their planned
assault on Dachang. This offensive is worthy of attention because it was
probably one of Matsui’s finest operations. The Japanese attack was supported
by 700 artillery systems of various calibers and 400 aircraft including 150
bombers. It was also spearheaded by just 20 tanks. In a rare event in Japanese
military history, the tanks were concentrated as envisioned by the Germans and,
as Ugaki always urged, not broken into small groups to operate as fire support
platforms for light infantry.
The Chinese 33rd and 18th Divisions sustained 90 percent
casualties and the bridges across the river were captured, but the 26 days of
fighting also cost the Japanese 25,000 casualties. When Dachang fell, the 9th
Army Group’s flank collapsed, and the door to Shanghai was flung wide open. The
operation General Matsui had hoped to complete in a week had instead lasted for
almost a month.
Chiang Kai-shek was despondent, writing, “I had hoped that
after the troops from Guangxi entered the fighting, we could hold out. The military
situation is shaky. It is very discouraging.” Chiang’s fight for Shanghai was
always a desperate gamble with an underequipped and inadequately trained force.
Now, he began to realize he would have to salvage what he could for a war that
would last for years.
THE FINAL ACT
Reeling from heavy losses, Chinese forces were totally
unprepared when Japanese troops forced their way across the Suzhou River on 30
October, putting Chiang Kai-shek’s remaining troops in grave danger. The
combination of the loss of Dachang on 26 October and the Japanese breakthrough
on 30 October meant Nationalist Chinese troops in Shanghai would have to
withdraw or face certain destruction through methodical Japanese encirclement.
If the Chinese army was going to survive to fight again, Chiang Kai-shek’s
troops would have to abandon Zhabei and Jiangwan along with other heavily
defended Chinese positions. On 30 October, the last remnants of the heroic 9th
Army Group, soldiers who had held the line against the IJA through seventy-five
days of unimaginable hardship, finally retreated. It was the end of the 9th
Chinese forces now outran the advancing Japanese. There was
little the Japanese could do to catch the retreating Chinese forces. The IJA
lacked the tracked armor to outpace them. When the Japanese 10th Army, composed
of units from northern China, landed in Chingshaweicheng on 5 November, they
encountered no real opposition. However, the retreating Chinese were able to
establish effective blocking positions with the 19th Army Group in the area
north of Taihu Lake and the 10th Army Group south of the lake. These forces
successfully covered the majority of retreating Chinese troops.
Within ten days, the IJA 6th Division would advance some
thirty miles west and capture Chiahsing in an attempt to cut off retreating
Chinese forces, while the 9th Division occupied the city of Suzhou and linked
up with the rest of the SEF on 19 November. Another landing by the IJA 16th
Division north of Paimaokou designed to cut off retreating Chinese forces came
too late to be effective. The operation failed, and the Chinese escaped yet
The battle for Shanghai was over. General Matsui Iwane
relinquished his command of the SEF and assumed command of a new, larger force,
Japan’s Central China Expeditionary Army, which included both the SEF and the
10th Army. The great offensive to smash remaining Chinese resistance was about
As the war moved inland and away from Shanghai, the Japanese
occupation authority in Shanghai restored order, repairing and reopening many
of Shanghai’s factories and administrative buildings. But 70 percent of
Shanghai’s productive capacity lay in ruins. Thousands of residential
buildings, factories, and workshops were damaged or completely demolished. Tens
of thousands of homeless Chinese swarmed the city’s streets, and hundreds of
thousands more slept in stockrooms, warehouses, temples, and parks. Before the
end of 1937, 101,000 corpses, mostly civilian, were recovered from the city’s
Shanghai’s banking community fared somewhat better. Though
Japanese occupation cut off Shanghai banks from economic interaction with the
rest of China, the banks still functioned without too much regulatory
interference from the occupying authorities. After December 1941, this situation
ended, and the Japanese imposed strict controls on all facets of life in
Shanghai from monetary policy to food.
The Arrival of the Japanese 10th Army and the Chinese Retreat
While Shanghai settled in for a long Japanese occupation,
the fight for control of Nanjing transformed an already bitter conflict into a
prolonged series of atrocities on a scale not seen since the days of Genghis
Khan. Almost nine years later, Matsui, the man who once befriended Sun Yat-sen,
would be tried and executed by the Allied Tokyo War Tribunal for war crimes
committed against the Chinese people by his troops in Nanjing.
After Nanjing, Japan’s war with China evolved into the bog
that Ishiwara had originally predicted—war without end. Chinese military
strategy methodically adhered to the formula described in a 1936 letter to Nishi
Haruhiko, who would be Japan’s foreign minister when the Japanese attacked
Pearl Harbor: “If war breaks out between Japan and China, the Nationalist
Government has made secret plans to resist to the bitter end. If their
Shanghai-Nanking [Nanjing] defense line is broken, they will withdraw to a
Nanchang-Kiukiang [Jiujiang] line. If that line cannot be defended, they will
retreat to Hankow [Hankou]. If the Wuhan defense collapses, they will shift to
With the fall of Nanjing, Japan’s military campaign to
subjugate China dragged on without result. In response, Japan’s political and
military leaders turned to airpower for an answer. Chinese cities were leveled
and millions of Chinese were killed, but the Chinese fought on. The Japanese
never seemed to comprehend the power of Chinese nationalism, which was as
fierce as their own.
In the history of China’s war with Japan, the fight for
Shanghai involved more Chinese soldiers and matériel and incurred higher human
losses than any other single engagement. Before it ended, the fight for the
city embroiled nearly a million soldiers in combat. For the Chinese Nationalist
forces, the outcome was catastrophic. An estimated 270,000 Chinese soldiers
were wounded or killed. The exact number of Chinese civilians killed in the
fighting is unknown, but numbers range from 250,000 to 450,000. Chiang
Kai-shek’s decision to commit his best units to fight for Shanghai devastated
China’s best military manpower. In 3 months of intense combat, Chiang Kai-shek
sacrificed thousands of his army’s most highly trained junior officers,
compelling his forces to fight for years without the competent tactical
leadership they desperately needed.
Japanese casualty figures were much lower, estimated to be
around 40,000. The disparity in Chinese and Japanese losses highlights the
impact of Ugaki’s modest modernization efforts and the high quality of Japanese
troops and their leadership, but the struggle for control of Shanghai was
harder and bloodier than it should have been.
Whereas Sir Richard Haldane succeeded in changing the
British army just enough to play its vital part in the opening battles of World
War I, the IJA failed to change enough to achieve a true margin of victory.
Rather than downsize the IJA and use the savings to invest in the war-winning
technologies of modern warfare—tanks, artillery, and aircraft—the Japanese
generals chose to rely on masses of manpower.
The Japanese generals’ preference for numbers in uniform
over capability produced the bloodbath at Shanghai and the “grinding mill of
flesh and blood” at Luodian. Their determination to retain the large, ponderous
World War I square division structures—ideal for the attritional character of
trench warfare but unsuited to rapid and decisive offensive operations—was a
costly mistake. In the months it took to seize Shanghai, the generals
compensated for the lack of offensive capability in their large infantry
formations by committing their entire arsenal of tanks and aircraft to move
forward and drive the Chinese defenders out of Shanghai.
Tokyo celebrated the fall of Shanghai as a great victory,
but the Japanese victory concealed the truth that the IJA was still critically
short of completing its transformation into a military force suitable to modern
warfare as practiced by the Germans and Soviets. The essential lesson that
decisive operations required large, mobile armored forces supported by
thousands of advanced fighters and bombers went unlearned. Japanese generals
such as Matsui were ferocious and courageous, commanding from the front
whenever and wherever conditions demanded decisive leadership. The Japanese
generals made use of the tanks and artillery they had, but the IJA still
remained organized for World War I until World War II ended.
Despite the gradual introduction of newer and better tanks
before war’s end in 1945, the IJA never fielded more than the equivalent of
three armored divisions in combat, a force woefully inadequate for operations
in the Chinese and southeast Asian theaters of war. Japanese tanks and
self-propelled guns never attained the quality and capability of comparable
equipment in the U.S., German, or Soviet arsenals. Serious weaknesses in mobile
armored firepower and logistics allowed the inexperienced and ill-equipped
Chinese armies to escape, regroup, and resume their attacks on Japanese
occupation forces time and again.
One reason the Japanese generals failed to learn from their
operations in Shanghai was the weakness of their opponents in the early stages
of World War II. In Malaya, where the British opponent could not melt away into
an expansive interior, the Japanese conducted a masterful campaign involving
the coordinated use of tanks, artillery, engineers, infantry, aircraft, and
ships, defeating a British army in February 1942 that was twice as large as the
attacking force. Against the British troops defending Singapore, the quality of
IJA training and aggressive leadership compensated for the IJA’s numerical
inferiority on the ground. The conquest of the U.S.-held Philippines in May
1942, though more challenging than the campaign to take Singapore, simply
reinforced Tokyo’s illusion of Japanese military superiority.
Japan’s modest military advantage did not last long. Two
years after the fall of Shanghai, Japan’s Kwantung Army was decisively defeated
by Soviet armed forces on the plains of Nomonhan. Japanese airpower fared
better than the ground forces; superb Japanese pilots fought their Soviet
opponents in the air to a draw, but airpower could not compensate for the IJA’s
acute weaknesses in mobility, armor, firepower, and organization. Soviet army
small arms, tanks, artillery, and organization were demonstrably superior to
anything the IJA could field. Japan sued for peace, releasing Soviet forces in
Siberia to move west in time to defend Moscow in the winter battles of 1941–42.
As American air and naval power closed the ring around Japan
in early 1945 and Japanese cities were incinerated from the air, 1 million of
the Imperial Japanese Army’s 5.9 million soldiers were still in China, and
another 780,000 were in Manchuria. Chiang Kai-shek’s decision to trade lives
for space exacted a high price from the IJA. The defenders of Shanghai
prevented the Japanese from striking directly into central China, slowing the
Japanese advance long enough for the Nationalist government to begin moving a
portion of its defense industries deeper into China, toward China’s new wartime
capital, Chongqing (Chung King).
Japan’s war with China not only delayed and disrupted the
IJA’s modernization, it also fatally crippled Japan’s northern strategy to
defeat the Soviet Union, while putting Japan on a collision course with Britain
and the United States. In August 1945, the calamity that Ugaki, Ishiwara, and
their supporters had feared the most struck the IJA in Manchuria, when Japanese
forces were annihilated in less than two weeks by Soviet armored and mechanized
units consisting of 5,556 tanks together with several thousand self-propelled
guns and supporting armored fighting vehicles.
The hard lesson that mass and athleticism do not equate with
real military capability was not lost on the postwar Japan Self Defense Forces
(JSDF). Less than twenty-five years after World War II ended, the much smaller
JSDF, only 4 percent of the size of the IJA at its height, already possessed
thirty times more firepower than its predecessor. Emperor Hirohito’s comment
that “our military leaders put too much emphasis on [fighting] spirit and
forgot the significance of science” still resonates in Japan. Technology, not
manpower, combined with superior organization and leadership, is now widely
recognized as Japan’s future margin of victory.
Ugaki Kazushige won his fight for change inside the IJA
after all, albeit at the cost of a lost war. Today, the Japan Ground
Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) fields significant armored forces and more tanks and
armored fighting vehicles than the British or French armies. Japanese soldiers
are highly educated, trained, and disciplined. At this writing, the JGSDF is
upgrading its armored force to the new Type 10 tanks while retiring the older
Type 74 tanks. It is also likely that production of the Type 89 Infantry Fighting
Vehicle will resume in the near future. The JGSDF is following a familiar
pattern: shed old equipment first, then modernize with initial low rate
production runs until the new equipment performs to expectation. In the West,
this process is called rapid prototyping, and it is something much discussed
but seldom seen in practice.
China’s emergence as a great power in the twenty-first
century must also be viewed through the lens of its war with Japan, especially
the battle of Shanghai. China’s inability to defend its near seas, great
rivers, and coastal cities, and its vulnerability to attack from Formosa
(Taiwan), Japan’s unsinkable aircraft carrier during the battle for Shanghai,
and the seizure of all of China’s coastal cities traumatized the Chinese people.
These experiences not only shape current Chinese military modernization
efforts, they also figure prominently in Chinese thinking about the potential
conflict with Japan and the United States, Asia’s two great maritime powers.
China’s recent demarcation of an air identification zone
that includes the Senkaku and Diaoyu Islands must also be seen as part of a
larger Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2AD) strategy with its roots in a
tragic, costly war against Japanese invasion that began with the battle of
Shanghai. Americans would do well to keep this history in mind before leaping
to conclusions about China’s alleged belligerence toward the United States and
its commercial interests in Asia.