German Advisors at Shanghai 1937

Seeckt served as a member of parliament from 1930 to 1932. From 1933 to 1935 he was repeatedly in China as a military consultant to Chiang Kai-shek in his war against the Chinese Communists and was directly responsible for devising the Encirclement Campaigns, that resulted in a string of victories against the Chinese Red Army and forced Mao Zedong into a 9,000 km retreat, also known as the Long March.

Operation Iron Fist was the main German contribution in the initial stages of the Shanghai campaign, but it was far from the only one. German advisors were present both on the staffs and at the frontline. Their pivotal role was no secret, and even the newspapers regularly reported about them. Wearing the uniforms of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, the German advisors not only provided tactical input, but gave the Chinese troops an invaluable morale boost, showing them that they were not on their own in the struggle against the mighty and ruthless Japanese Empire. The “German War” was the name that some Japanese gave to the battle of Shanghai, and for good reason.

When war with Japan broke out in the summer of 1937, the German advisory corps consisted of nearly 70 officers, ranging from newly graduated second-lieutenants to five full generals. It was a major asset for the Chinese, and one that they were free to exploit. Even though most of the Germans were in China on short-term contracts and could have left once the shooting started, they felt an obligation to stay at a key moment when their host nation’s survival was at stake. “We all agreed that as private citizens in Chinese employment there could be no question of our leaving our Chinese friends to their fate,” Alexander von Falkenhausen, the top advisor, wrote later. “Therefore I assigned the German advisors wherever they were needed, and that was often in the frontlines.”

Alexander Ernst Alfred Hermann Freiherr von Falkenhausen (29 October 1878 – 31 July 1966) was a German General and military advisor to Chiang Kai-shek. Some 80,000 Chinese troops, in eight divisions, were trained and formed the elite of Chiang’s army. However, China was not ready to face Japan on equal terms, and Chiang’s decision to pit all of his new divisions in the Battle of Shanghai, despite objections from his both staff officers and von Falkenhausen, would cost him one-third of his best troops. Chiang switched his strategy to preserve strength for the eventual civil war.

The situation was the culmination of a relationship that had evolved over a period of several years. Germany had started playing a role in China’s military modernization in the late 1920s, with initial contacts facilitated by Chiang Kai-shek’s admiration for German efficiency. The German government’s decision to abandon all extraterritorial privileges in 1921, followed seven years later by the diplomatic recognition of Chiang’s government, also created a benevolent atmosphere. In addition, as a result of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was a relatively safe bet for China. It was, in the 1920s and early 1930s at least, the only major power unable to resume its imperialist policies of the years prior to 1914. Germany and China were in fact in similar situations, Chiang once mused. “They were oppressed by foreign powers,” he said, “and had to free themselves from those chains.”

Yet another factor behind the expanding Sino-German military ties was the lack of suitable employment for officers in Weimar Germany, whose military, the Reichswehr, was severely curtailed by the demands of the post-war Versailles Treaty. The shadow existence they led at home contrasted starkly with the prestige they enjoyed in China. By the mid-1930s, the Germans had a status among the Chinese that no other westerners had ever experienced. When Chiang met with his generals, his chief German advisor at the time, Hans von Seeckt, would sit at his desk, giving the signal that the foreign officer’s place in the hierarchy, while informal, was near the top. When Seeckt had to go by train to a north Chinese sea resort for health reasons, he traveled in Chiang’s personal saloon carriage and was saluted at every station by an honorary formation.

Seeckt visited China the first time in 1933, and immediately set about salvaging bilateral ties strained by German condescension towards the Chinese. As the host nation and employer, China was to be shown respect, was his order to the German officers stationed in the country, and being a traditional German, he expected to be obeyed. When he arrived in China for his second tour the year after, he was accompanied by Falkenhausen. No novice to Asia, Falkenhausen hit it off with Chiang Kai-shek almost immediately. It helped that both knew Japanese, the language of their soon-to-be enemy, and could converse freely without having to go through aninterpreter. It was an additional advantage that Falkenhausen’s wife was on superb terms with Madame Chiang. Falkenhausen’s break came when Seekt, suffering from poor health, returned to Germany in early 1935. From then on, he was the top German officer inside China.

It is likely that Falkenhausen felt a deep sense of relief to be posted abroad. His mission removed any immediate obligation to return to Germany and work with the Nazis. “In the 30s we could have in good conscience stayed in China,” one of Falkenhausen’s subordinates later rationalized. “China was in much greater danger than Germany.” Falkenhausen had a very personal reason to adopt that rationale. His younger brother, Hans Joachim von Falkenhausen, a war veteran and a member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary Sturm-Abteilung, was executed in a bloody showdown among rival factions inside the party’s ranks in the summer of 1934. He was 36 when he died.

Falkenhausen’s unhappy relationship with Berlin’s new rulers put him on one side of a political generation gap that divided most of the German advisors in China. Among conservative officers of his age and background, feelings about Hitler, a mere corporal in the Great War, ranged from skepticism to adoration; in between was quiet acceptance of an overlap of interests with Germany’s new Nazi rulers, who wanted rapid rearmament and the creation of a vast new army. The younger German officers serving in China were far less ambivalent. They were often ardent Nazis. The racist ideology the young Germans brought with them from home may have contributed to lingering tension with the Chinese. Since most of them expected to leave within no more than a few years, virtually none bothered to change their lifestyles in order to fit into their new surroundings. Rather, in the traditional way of Europeans in Asia, they lived in their own enclave in Nanjing, a small piece of Germany in the heart of China. If they paid any attention to local mores, it was with a shrug of the shoulder. Brought up on austere Prussian ideals, they considered, for example, the Chinese habit of elaborate banquets a costly waste of time and resources.

The Chinese, too, looked at the foreign advisors in mild bewilderment. The German habit of wearing monocles was a cause of wonder and led them to ask why so many were near-sighted on only one eye. A few Chinese did not just puzzle at the behaviour of the strange foreigners, but had attitudes bordering on hostile. Zhang Fakui, for one, appears to have had a particularly delicate relationship with the German advisors. He did not trust them, did not share any secrets with them, and did not take any advice from them. “I had always had a bad impression of the Germans,” he told an interviewer decades later.

Falkenhausen’s own outlook underwent profound change. At the time of his arrival, he had been somewhat indifferent to China, but he gradually grew fonder of the country, and in the end he was very close to accepting an offer of Chinese citizenship from Chiang. As time passed, he even showed signs of divided loyalties between his old and new masters, ignoring pleas from Germany to favor its weapon producers when carrying out arms procurements abroad. Instead, he bought the arms he thought would serve China best, regardless of where they had been manufactured. Finally, he developed a high degree of resentment of the Japanese foe. “It is sheer mockery to see this bestial machine pose as the vanguard of anti-Communism,” he wrote in a report to Oskar Trautmann, the German ambassador in Nanjing.

Once war broke out, Falkenhausen was in favor of an aggressive and all-encompassing strategy against the enemy. He advised that the Japanese garrison in Shanghai be attacked and wiped out, regardless of the fact that it was located inside the International Settlement. He even urged air attacks on western Korea and sabotage on the Japanese home islands. These steps went much further than almost any of his Chinese hosts was prepared to go. Perhaps they feared setting a task for themselves that they could not handle. Falkenhausen, on the other hand, never seemed to have harbored any serious doubts about China’s military prowess. Rather, its army’s willingness to make sacrifices appealed to his special German passion for absolutes. “The morale of the Chinese Army is high. It will fight back stubbornly,” he said. “It will be a struggle to the last extreme.”

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Baba Toraji, a 21-year-old employee of the exclusive department store Mag-asin Franco-Japonais, was growing more nervous for every minute that passed on the morning of August 18. A younger colleague of his, fellow Japanese Sakanichi Takaichi, had left earlier to buy bread for his colleagues, and he had not returned. In the end, Baba decided to go looking himself. It did not take long before he found Sakanichi, caught up in a Chinese crowd that had identified him as Japanese. Both men were mauled severely and left on the street. Baba was pronounced dead by the time medical personnel arrived. His younger colleague was sent to hospital with serious injuries.

Earlier in the month, a group of eight Japanese had unwisely shown up on the Bund, trying to push their way through a dense crowd. Jeers started. Someone picked up a discarded shoe and threw it at them. The Japanese broke into a run, and seven managed to escape. A huge brick went sailing through the air and hit the eighth in the back. He fell to the ground, and the mob was upon him. “Men could be seen jumping in the air to land with both feet on the unfortunate man’s body,” the North China Daily News reported. “Others, with stick and bricks that seemed to come from nowhere, belabored him from head to foot.” He was eventually rescued and hospitalized in a critical condition.

Being Japanese in Shanghai in August 1937 was dangerous. By contrast, Shanghai’s western residents only came into contact with the horrors around them in an indirect fashion. They watched the dense black smoke rising over Hongkou, and they saw the flotsam drifting down Suzhou Creek—cows, buffaloes, and a steady stream of uniformed corpses. The debris of war served as a warning that the battle was escalating and could soon engulf the foreign enclaves. It was time for the women and children to leave. A total of 1,300 British and American evacuees departed from Shanghai on August 17. The British left for Hong Kong on the Rajputana, while the Americans boarded the President Jefferson for Manila. On August 19, 1,400 more British citizens, mostly women and children, sailed on destroyers to board the Empress of Asia at Wusong.50 This was part of a scheme to evacuate a total of 3,000 British nationals, including 85 percent of the women and children in the city.

Staying on the fringe of a great battle, as the foreigners did, made life more dangerous. Even so, they were not deliberately targeted, and that made them the envy of the Chinese population. Shanghai shops saw brisk sales of the national flags of major non-belligerent nations, as Chinese residents hung them at their doorways in the hope that the sight of a Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes would ward off enemy fire, very much in the fashion that the images of guardian deities kept traditional Chinese homes safe from evil spirits. However, few had faith that anything they could do would make a difference, except running away. Desperate crowds, many uprooted from their homes in the north of the city, gathered in the International Settlement, clamoring for food. Looting soon became widespread. Crowds attacked trucks transporting rice, or smashed their way to shop supplies. The authorities were merciless in tackling the problem. On at least one occasion, French police opened fire on a crowd that had attacked a food hawker. Law enforcers in the International Settlement handed over dozens of looters to the Chinese police, knowing perfectly well they would be shot within hours.

Violence in many forms, often lethal, was meted out in liberal doses among the Chinese. An atmosphere of intense suspicion permeated the city, and everyone was a potential traitor. On the first day of fighting, six Chinese nationals were executed. All were sentenced to death for spying on behalf of the Japanese or for carrying out acts of sabotage in Zhabei and other areas under the control of the Shanghai municipal government. On another occasion, two women and seven men were decapitated for working for the Japanese. Their heads were placed on top of poles and put on display in the market square, as thousands of men, women and children watched with glee.

Following rumors published in the local press that the Japanese had bribed collaborators to poison the water supply, gangs armed with clubs and other primitive weapons raged through the streets, stopping suspicious-looking individuals. Anyone caught with a powdery substance, even medicine, was severely beaten. Fifteen innocent Chinese were killed and 40 injured that way, according to police. Even having the wrong appearance could be deadly. On the morning of August 17, an unregistered Portuguese man was beaten to death by a mob because he was thought to look Japanese. A Sikh police officer who came to his rescue was in turn badly mangled by the crowd.

One group of Shanghai residents was particularly unfortunate and unable to go anywhere, despite being directly in the middle of some of the worst fighting. They were the inmates of Ward Road Jail, Shanghai’s largest prison, located in Yangshupu. Thousands of them, along with their wardens, were trapped when the battle started. On the morning of August 17, a shell struck the prison, killing ten people and causing extensive damage to both the cells and the prison staff’s quarters. In the days that followed, the prison suffered several direct hits when Chinese artillery in Pudong or at the North Railway Station misfired.

By August 20, the penal authorities began evacuating the prisoners, starting with the criminally insane, who would pose the greatest danger if a chance grenade were to make escape possible. On August 22, a more comprehensive evacuation was planned to take place, but buses meant to bring 150 juvenile criminals to the Chinese district via the International Settlement were stopped by Japanese guards at the Garden Bridge. The juveniles were young and could be recruited for the Chinese war effort and they were returned to their prison. From then on, the evacuation drive nearly stopped, and weeks later, the Ward Road facility was still brimming with inmates, exposed to the deadly fire from both sides.

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The Japanese marine units dispatched from Manchuria on August 16, the day of crisis for their compatriots in Shanghai, arrived in the city during the morning of August 18 and were immediately thrown into the battle. A few hours later, the Japanese Cabinet announced the formal end of a policy of non-expansion in China, which by that time had been a hollow shell for several weeks anyway. “The empire, having reached the limit of its patience, has been forced to take resolute measures,” it said. “Henceforth it will punish the outrages of the Chinese Army, and thus spur the (Chinese) government to self-reflect.”

On the same day, the British charge d’affaires in Tokyo, James Dodds, suggested a peace proposal to Japanese Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Horinouchi Kensuke. The proposal, drafted two days earlier by the British, American and French ambassadors to Nanjing, called for the transformation of Shanghai into a neutral zone based on a commitment by both China and Japan to withdraw their forces from the city. Japan was not excited about the idea, and on August 19, Horinouchi presented the British diplomat with his government’s official refusal, stating that China would have to retreat to the boundaries outlined in the truce that ended hostilities in 1932. Japan was gaining confidence.

Meanwhile, there was a growing feeling on the Chinese side that important opportunities had been missed. On August 18, Chiang Kai-shek dispatched Deputy War Minister Chen Cheng, one of his main military aides, to the Shanghai front in order to confer with Zhang Zhizhong about how to carry the battle forward. The two generals reached the conclusion that rather than focusing the attacks on the heavily fortified Hongkou area, they should turn their attention to the Yangshupu district, seeking to push through to the Huangpu River and cut the Japanese forces in two. This was the decision the German advisers and the frontline commanders had been waiting for. The gloves had come off, and the self-defeating reluctance to attack Japanese troops inside the settlement borders was gone.

As the forces that had been in Shanghai since the start of hostilities were beginning to show signs of attrition, the generals decided to place the main responsibility for the attack with the 36th Infantry Division, which had only just arrived, and was being moved to the eastern side of the Hongkou salient. It was an obvious choice, as its soldiers were from the same German-trained elite as those of the 87th and 88th Divisions. Two of the division’s four regiments were ordered to attack straight south in the direction of the Huangpu, down streets running perpendicular to the river. In order to reach the wharf area, the soldiers would have to pass five heavily defended intersections. Severe casualties were expected.

The two regiments launched the attack almost immediately, moving out in the early hours of August 19. Sabotage and incendiary bombs resulted in a number of large fires that helped improve visibility during the night fighting. However, the intersections proved a problem. The Chinese soldiers, most of whom were seeing battle for the first time, became defenseless prey to Japanese infantry posted on the rooftops or in windows on the upper floors of buildings along their route. In the absence of any other cover, they often had to duck behind the bodies of those already killed. Even so, for a brief period of time, the Chinese believed they had finally managed to break the back of the hated Japanese. “I thought we could push the enemy into the river and chase them out of Shanghai,” said Zhang Fakui, watching the battle from the other side of the Huangpu.

Once they had reached Broadway, the last street running parallel with the Huangpu River, they faced the most formidable obstacle of them all. The Japanese defenders had taken up positions on top of high walls protecting the wharfs. Dislodging them was akin to storming a medieval castle. A large steel gate formed an entrance into the wharves, but it yielded to no weapon that the Chinese had brought; even the 150mm howitzers could not destroy it. Officers and soldiers tried to scale the gate, but were mowed down by enfilading Japanese machine gun fire. Also located near the river were Japanese-owned factories, many of which had been turned into veritable fortresses. One example was the Gong Da Cotton Mill at the eastern edge of the International Settlement. Again, the Chinese attackers did not possess weaponry powerful enough to penetrate the Japanese defenses there.

While the Chinese were short of large-caliber guns, the Japanese had plenty aboard the Third Fleet anchored in the Huangpu. The 36th Infantry Division was subjected to merciless bombardment, which threw several of its units into disarray. The following night, between August 19 and 20, the 88th Infantry Division for the first time showed that its ability to wage war had been so severely compromised it was, temporarily at least, unable to carry out meaningful offensive action. When ordered to attack, it moved in a belated and reluctant fashion, and got nowhere. While the Chinese were getting weaker, the Japanese were growing stronger. The marines dispatched from Sasebo arrived in Shanghai on that same night, boosting the number of marines inside the garrison to 6,300 well-armed men.

Despite a propensity to husband expensive equipment, the Chinese decided at this point to throw major parts of their new tank force into the battle. As was the case with the German-trained divisions and the air force, this was another key asset that had taken years to build up. Following the 1932 incident, when Japan had used its armor to some effect, the Nationalist government had decided to acquire its own tank arm, purchasing tanks from a variety of European nations, including Germany, Britain and Italy. As a result of these efforts, by the outbreak of hostilities in 1937, China was able to deploy the British-built, 6-ton, single-turret Vickers model in Shanghai.

The 87th Infantry Division was given disposal of two armored companies, and it lost everything. Some of the tanks had just arrived from Nanjing, and their crews had not had any time to undertake training in coordinated attacks, or even simply to establish rapport with the local troops. As a result, the tank companies were mostly left to their own devices without infantry support. The Chinese also often neglected to seal off adjacent streets when deploying their tanks, allowing Japanese armor to outflank them and knock them out. To be sure, the Japanese, too, lacked experience in coordination between armor and infantry and frequently saw their tanks annihilated by Chinese anti-tank weapons.

On August 20, Zhang Zhizhong was inspecting the Yangshupu front when he met one of his former students from the Central Military Academy, who was in charge of a tank company that was about to attack the wharves. Some of the tanks under his command had been under repair and hastily pulled out of the workshop. “The vehicles are no good,” the young officer complained. “The enemy fire is fierce, and our infantry will have trouble keeping up.” Zhang was relentless, telling the young officer that the attack had to be carried through to the end nonetheless. A few moments later the tank company started its assault. The young officer and his entire unit were wiped out in a hail of shells, many of them fired from vessels anchored in the Huangpu River. “It saddens me even today when I think about it,” Zhang wrote many years later in his memoirs.

In this battle, modern tank warfare mixed with scenes more reminiscent of earlier centuries. Wu Yujun, an officer of the Peace Preservation Corps, was manning a position in the streets of Yangshupu on the morning of August 18 when a detachment of Japanese cavalry attacked. The raid was over almost instantly, and left numerous dead and injured Chinese in its wake. The Japanese repeated the assault two more times. The third time, Wu Yujun prepared an elaborate ambush, posting machine guns on both sides of the street. As the riders galloped past, they and their horses were chopped to pieces. Apart from four prisoners, all Japanese lost their lives. The 20th century had met the 19th century on the battlefield, and won. It was a typical incident, and yet in one respect also very atypical. In the streets of Shanghai in August 1937, Chinese soldiers were far likelier to confront a technologically superior enemy than the other way around.

Many of the Chinese units arriving in Shanghai had never tasted battle before, and in the first crucial days of fighting, their lack of experience proved costly. Fang Jing, a brigade commander of the 98th Division, one of the units to arrive early in Shanghai, noticed how his soldiers often set up inadequate fortifications that were no match for the artillery rolled out by the Japanese. “Often, the positions they built were too weak and couldn’t withstand the enemy’s 150mm howitzers,” he said. “The upshot was that men and materiel were buried inside the positions they had built for themselves.”

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No one was surprised that the Japanese soldiers put up a determined fight in Shanghai. Since their 1904–1905 triumph over the Russian Empire, the legend of the “brave little Jap” had become firmly established in the mind of the global public. So widespread was this view that if Japanese soldiers did not fight to the death, it was a source of genuine surprise. However, at moments of absolute frankness, the Japanese themselves could feel a need to add nuance to foreign stereotypes about their countrymen’s behavior in battle. “Our soldiers would prefer death to surrender,” a Japanese diplomat was quoted as saying, “but the majority secretly hope that they will return honorably to their own country, either wounded or unscathed.”

Foreign journalists noticed to their astonishment that there seemed to be little in the Japanese code of honor that prevented them from fleeing from a hopeless situation. One of them remembered seeing a number of Japanese soldiers run back from a failed attack during the battle of Shanghai, with the Chinese in hot pursuit. There were even rare instances of Japanese soldiers raising the white flag. The same correspondent witnessed a party of about 50 Japanese motorcyclists who had become bogged down in a rice paddy near the city and were surrounded by Chinese. They surrendered immediately without making any effort to resist.

These were minority cases. Most Japanese soldiers lived up to the high expectations placed on their shoulders at home and abroad. Physically, they tended to be short by western standards, but they were strong and capable of enduring immense hardship. This was as a result of rigorous training combined with draconian discipline, underpinned by the threat and liberal use of corporal punishment. The training was so efficient that a Japanese soldier entering the reserve never ceased to be a soldier again. In the early months of the war, American correspondent John Goette met a Japanese private in his late 30s who had just been called up from his civilian occupation as a dentist. “Hundreds of thousands like him had made a swift change from civilian life to the handling of a rifle on foreign soil,” he wrote. “Twenty years after his conscript training, this dentist was again a soldier.”

An added element in the training of Japanese soldiers was indoctrination, which came in the form of repetition of the virtues—self-sacrifice, obedience and loyalty to the emperor—which the soldiers had learned since childhood. The result was mechanic obedience on the battlefield. “Even though his officers appear to have an ardor which might be called fanaticism,” a U.S. military handbook remarked later in the war, “the private soldier is characterized more by blind and unquestioning subservience to authority.” The downside was that soldiers and junior officers were not encouraged to think independently or take the initiative themselves. They expected to be issued detailed orders and would follow them slavishly. When the situation changed in ways that had not been foreseen by their commanders—which was the norm rather than the exception in battle—they were often left perplexed and unable to act.

It could be argued that the Japanese military had few other options than to train its soldiers in this way, since to a large extent it drew its recruits from agricultural areas where there was limited access to education. It was said that for every 100 men in a Japanese unit, 80 were farm boys, ten were clerks, five factory workers, and five students. Nevertheless, reading was a favorite pastime among Japanese soldiers. Military trains were littered with books and magazines, mostly simple pulp fiction. When the trains stopped at stations, even the locomotive’s engineer could be observed reading behind the throttle. Some of them were prolific writers, too. A large number of Japanese in the Shanghai area had brought diaries and wrote down their impressions with great perception and eloquence. Some officers even composed poems in the notoriously difficult classical style.

Many Japanese soldiers grew large beards while in China, but in a twist that was not easy to understand for foreigners, they could sometimes mix a fierce martial exterior with an almost feminine inner appreciation of natural beauty. Trainloads of Japanese soldiers would flock to the windows to admire a particularly striking sunset. It was not unusual to see a Japanese soldier holding his rifle and bayonet in one hand, and a single white daisy in the other. “Missionaries have found,” wrote U.S. correspondent Haldore Hanson, “that when bloodstained Japanese soldiers break into their compounds during a ‘mopping up’ campaign, the easiest way to pacify them is to present each man with a flower.”

Many Japanese soldiers also carried cameras into battle, and as was the case with the Germans on the Eastern Front, their snapshots came to constitute a comprehensive photographic record of their own war crimes. Journalist John Powell remembered his revulsion when he saw a photo of two Japanese soldiers standing next to the body of a Chinese woman they had just raped. He had obtained the image from a Korean photo shop in Shanghai where it had been handed in to be developed. “The soldiers apparently wanted the prints to send to their friends at home in Japan,” he wrote. “Japanese soldiers seemingly had no feelings whatsoever that their inhuman actions transgressed the tenets of modern warfare or common everyday morals.”

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On August 20, five Chinese aircraft were returning after another fruitless attack on the Izumo, which was still moored in the middle of the Huangpu, when they encountered two Japanese seaplanes over western Zhabei. A Chinese plane broke formation, went into a steep dive and fired a short machine gun salvo at one of the Japanese. It did not have a chance. It burst into flames and plunged to the ground. The other Japanese plane disappeared in the clouds. The entire encounter had only taken a few seconds. It was one of a series of hits that the Chinese Air Force scored during a brief period in August before it was completely subdued by its Japanese adversary.

Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber

In particular, it posed a threat to Japanese bombers, such as the highly flammable Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber aircraft assigned to striking targets in Shanghai and other cities in central China. Japan’s First Combined Air Group lost half of its medium attack planes in the first three days of the battle for Shanghai, some missing, some confirmed shot down and others heavily damaged. Their crews were particularly vulnerable, since they did not bring parachutes on their missions. From late August, the air group’s bombers were escorted by Type 95 Nakajima A4N fighter biplanes. This action amounted to a humiliating admission that China’s nascent air force was a force to be reckoned with.

Nakajima A4N

“In view of the pressing situation in the Shanghai area,” said the First Combined Air Group’s commander, “our air raids reminded me of that famous, costly assault against the 203-Meter Hill.” The battle for 203-Meter Hill had been one of the bloodiest episodes of the entire Russo-Japanese War, claiming thousands of casualties on both sides. The Chinese performance was significant enough that even foreign military observers paid attention. British intelligence, in a report summarizing military events in the middle of August, noted Chinese claims of having downed 32 Japanese aircraft. “This statement appears well-founded,” the report’s writer added.

Even so, the Chinese airmen had been mostly untested and only partly trained when the war started. Their inferiority, especially against Japanese fighters, began to tell, and they gradually disappeared from the skies over Shanghai. Their compatriots on the ground expressed frustration over the lack of air cover. “We occasionally spotted two or three of our own airplanes, but the moment they encountered enemy anti-aircraft fire, they disappeared,” said Fang Jing, a regimental commander of the 98th Infantry Division. “They were no use at all. After August 20, I never saw our planes again.”

That may have been hyperbole, but it was undeniable that the evolving Japanese air superiority proved a major handicap for the Chinese. The Chinese commanders soon realized that they had to carry out major troop movements under the cover of darkness. Japan’s domination of the skies affected everything the Chinese soldiers did and even determined when they could get food. “We didn’t eat until at night,” said Fang Zhendong, a soldier of the 36th Infantry Division. “That was the only time we could get anything. In the daytime, it was impossible to transport provisions to the frontline.”

Without fighter protection the troops on the ground were dangerously exposed. They had very little in the way of anti-aircraft weaponry, mostly 20mm Solothurn guns produced in Switzerland. However, even these weapons made next to no difference as they were primarily deployed against enemy infantry. Also, the Chinese officers were reluctant to use their anti-aircraft guns lest they reveal their positions to the Japanese aircraft. In late August when Japanese Admiral Hasegawa was asked by a Reuters journalist visiting his flagship if he was in control of the air, his reply was prompt: “Yes,” he said. “I believe so.”

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