51: Moving South


The establishment of the puppet state of Manchuria would not be the end of the adventures of the Japanese in China, and instead they would endeavor over the course of the next decade to extend their influence, and during that expansion they would eventually fall into a full scale war with China. This episode will first look at why the Japanese felt they had to constantly increase the territory under their control, before looking at the Marco Polo Bridge incident, which would ignite the Second Sino-Japanese War.



  • The Place of Chinese Disunity in Japanese Army Strategy During 1931 by Donald A. Jordan
  • Effects of Attrition on National War Effort: The Japanese Army Experience China, 1937-1938 by Alvin d. Coox (1968)
  • Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 by Rana Mitter
  • German Mediation in the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-38 by James T.C. Liu (1949)
  • Japan and the Axis, 1937-38: Recognition of the Franco Regime and Manchukuo by Florentino Rodao
  • Memory on Trial: Constructing and Contesting the ‘Rape of Nanking’ at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, 1946-1948 by James Burnham Sedgwick
  • The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography Edited by Joshua A. Fogel
  • Isolating Knowledge of the Unpleasant: The Rape of Nanking in Japanese High-School Textbooks by Christopher Barnard
  • Convergence or Divergence? Recent Historical Writings on the Rape of Nanjing by Daqing Yang (1999)
  • A Reconsideration of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident by James B. Crowley (1963)
  • Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze by Peter Harmsen
  • Shanghai and Nanjing 1937: Massacre on the Yangtze by Benjamin Lai
  • The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War by S.C.M. Paine
  • The Tokyo Judgment and the Rape of Nanking by Timothy Brook
  • The Tragedy of Wuhan, 1938 by Stephen MacKinnon
  • The 1934 Anglo-Japanese Nonaggression Pact by Chihiro Hosoya
  • Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919-1941 by Michael A. Barnhart
  • The Rape Of Nanking by Iris Chang
  • The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 Edited by Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, and Hans Van De Ven
  • The Nanking Atrocity 1937-38: Complicating the Picture Edited by Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi
  • China’s Wars: Rousing the Dragon 1894-1949 by Philip Jowett


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War episode 51, the Sino-Japanese War Part 2 - Moving South. This week a big thank you goes out to Tim for their support of the podcast on Patreon where they now get access to ad free versions of all of these episodes plus special Patreon only episodes released roughly every month. If that sounds interesting to you head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. Last episode we discussed why Japan was interested in establishing an area of control in China and why that area would be Manchuria. We of course know that the establishment of the puppet state of Manchuria would not be the end of the adventures of the Japanese in China, and instead they would endeavor over the course of the next decade to extend their influence, and during that expansion they would eventually fall into a full scale war with China. This episode will first look at why the Japanese felt they had to constantly increase the territory under their control, before looking at the Marco Polo Bridge incident, which would ignite the Second Sino-Japanese War. That will then set us up to discuss the Battle of Shanghai, which will occupy the next several episodes.

After Manchuria had been conquered, it was completely possible for the Japanese to simply stop and be satisfied with what they controlled, but they were not. Before we jump into the events of that expansion, lets first just talk about why the Japanese though they needed to expand and what they thought Chinese resistance would be like. The key to the early expansion into northern China was around security. The Japanese military hoped to create a kind of buffer zone between the Nationalist controlled areas and the new state of Manchukuo. They would prevent any Chinese incursions into Manchukuo, which grew ever more important as the contributions of Manchukuo to the Japanese economy continued to increase. Along with this they also felt that they had to gain greater control of those areas, because as they expanded into Northern China there were growing problems in the new Japanese controlled territories from local bandits and other groups of the Chinese resistance. They would attack and damage Japanese infrastructure throughout northern China using the aid provided to them from Chinese leaders within Chinese controlled territory. This would then prompt the Japanese to move further south to cut off those supplies and that support, where they would then repeat the same process. The hope was always that the next objective to be captured would cause Chiang and the Nationalists to come to the negotiating table, where the Japanese control of Northern China would be formalized. In the wide expanses of Northern China, most of these objectives were around territory. The constant need to capture the territory up to the next river, or the next province,or other “nexts” would be the reason for the constant expansion of Japanese territory up to 1944. Often this territorial expansion was combined with the goal of eliminating as many Chinese soldiers as possible, but beyond that there would be little in terms of additional operational level goals, or planning beyond the next objective. Follow on operations would be left to later planning after the first were accomplished. However, no matter how much territory they captured the Chinese just kept retreating. And no matter what was done the Nationalists would not participate in the negotiations, at least in the way that the Japanese wanted, as a defeated enemy. This general lack of understanding would be another consistency throughout most of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese military would have a very good, often near perfect, understanding of the Chinese military situation in terms of units, positioning, and movements. This was due to the fact that they broke the primary codes used by the Chinese military and they could read over 2/3rds of all communications sent by the Chinese military in northern China. Even with this very clear understanding of numbers of dispositions, they consistently misinterpreted the political situation. This would come into play in a much larger way after 1937, but even during the 1930s there was just a general misunderstanding about the resiliency of the Nationalist government when faced with the Japanese threat. It was, in general, much stronger than the Japanese assumed, which would be proven time and time again over the succeeding 8 years.

This complete underestimation of their enemy would result in the belief among the Japanese military in the mid 1930s that the territory in northern China could be maintained with a relatively small commitment of military resources. This low level of commitment was essential, because the entire purpose of controlling areas of China was to provide more resources for usage against other enemies, primarily the United States if you were speaking to the Japanese Navy or the Soviet Union if you were asking the Army. In fact the plans to expand production of raw and finished materials in China, and then also to expand the Japanese military as a whole was based on a five year plan to expand production, but to accomplish the goals set down in that plan they needed five years of peace. War is both expansive and a constant drain on resources and personnel, and war is exactly what the Japanese would continue to perpetuate. After 1936 this became problematic as it was clear that the Soviet military was growing in strength. The Japanese Army saw the Soviet Union as its greatest possible foe, and a war with the Soviet Union was the event for which the Army planned its expansion, and part of why they wanted territory in Northern China, a place to fight the Soviet Union. Oddly enough, these fears would cause the Army to devote more and more resources to fighting China, in the belief that an intact and powerful China was almost destined to take advantage of the situation in the event of a second Russo-Japanese War, and so first China had to be dealt with. There would be many small skirmishes with the Soviets, which will be covered in a later episode, but after the start of the Second World War they would sign the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact in early 1941. However, before that date the looming threat of a war with the Soviet Union would be an important driver of Japanese actions in all of their Chinese adventures.

In the early years of Japanese expansion they generally did not just send troops into another province without at least pretending there was a reason. For example, when they moved into the Jehol province they would claim that it was actually part of Manchukuo, and so they were just moving troops into Manchukuo’s legitimate territory. They were very successful in this movement partially because the local Chinese leader, who had been provided with foods to equip his troops, instead spent that money himself. In other areas the Japanese would bribe local commanders to allow them to take control, for example in the Hopei province where proper bribes to local commanders allowed for a somewhat peaceful transition of power. Eventually they would use these bribes on a wider scale that would allow for the negotiation of a demilitarized zone in northern Hopei, theoretically an arrangement that moved the area towards peace, but in this case just put all of the territory under Japanese control. Not every expansion was peaceful though, and there would be serious fighting, but it was not the Nationalist army that the Japanese were fighting, but instead local military leaders who often had far fewer resources and were far less prepared. By May 30, 1933 this advance had reached the Great Wall, and the Tanggu Truce would be signed the next day with the Nationalist leaders. This required the Japanese to retreat north of the Great Wall and to also give back some of the territory in eastern Hopei. Even if this represented a moment of reprieve from further Japanese advances, it still meant that the long series of Chinese withdrawal were in some way formalized, and it would not take long before they continued.

After the Tanguu truce was signed, instead of expanding their territory south the Japanese would spend the next few years expanding their power within the regions that they already controlled. They attempted to fully separate the northern provinces, everything north of the Great Wall, from the control of the Nationalist government in the south. All of these actions did nothing to help Chiang and his credibility with other Chinese leaders. Chiang believed that the Japanese goals were to turn the entirety of China into a Manchukuo like puppet state, and so there would have to come a point where this arrangements was either submitted to or the Chinese chose to resist. Until that time Chiang sought to buy time, he would continue to insure that there would not be a coalition of other leaders or factions that could threaten his leadership. This could only continue for a finite period, because as the Japanese continued to control more and more territory, they also reduced Nationalist economic power. For example, the customs income for the Nationalist government was reduced based on the loss of Northern China, which had been a considerable portion of the Nationalist total government income. During this period there were further attempts by the nationalists to begin some level of negotiations with the Japanese, if only to buy more time. Chiang personally expressed a willingness to come to the negotiating table with the Japanese, but this was often clocked by the Japanese Army. It is unlikely that such negotiations would have borne much fruit though, based on the mindset that both sides had about what the negotiations should be based on. Chiang wanted to sign a treaty that left the Chinese in control of northern China, but made other concessions to achieve that goal. The Japanese approached any negotiations under the idea that they would not accept anything less than the acceptance by Chiang and the Chinese of Japanese control of Northern China. Both sides thought that negotiations of some kind was an acceptable end game, but both sides approached those negotiations with incompatible goals.

Starting in the spring of 1936, and running for several months, a Committee was setup back in Tokyo to determine what Japan should be doing in China. The general policy involved four objectives that Japanese policy should push toward: the independence of Northern China from the government in Nanking; the economic development of both Manchuria and Northern China; continued attempts to engage the Nanking government in negotiations based on very favorable terms; and the support for Mongolian independence. Just a small note on that last one, which seems a bit out of place, the goal around Mongolian independence was aimed at weakening the power of the Soviet Union in the region, most of the Soviet and Japanese fighting would occur in Mongolia, both Inner and Outer, and so promotion of Mongolian independence was really just an attempt to create a buffer zone between Japanese and Soviet controlled territory. For the other three objectives which did center around northern China, the hope was to avoid further military conflict. This ties back into the push from the military leaders in Tokyo for an intensification of preparations for the planned war with the Soviet Union, which required far fewer resources to be spent fighting the Chinese. The avoidance of such entanglements would be the official policy of the Japanese Army General Staff during the rest of 1936 and 1937. They would even go so far as to declare in early 1937 that the Japanese army was no longer pursuing a policy that would fully separate Northern China from Nanking control, and instead they would accept a continued nationalist presence and control under certain conditions. This overall shift in Japanese policy towards a position that seemed more acceptable to the Chinese was simply happening too late. By the time that the Japanese were looking to pursue a political end to the fighting, they had already enflamed Chinese opinion to the point where the concessions that the Japanese would offer were simply not enough. Or to quote historian Mark Peattie “While Japan, for reasons that may have been entirely self-interested and delusional, was prepared now to moderate its near half century of aggression in China, its change of attitude was a half century too late.” The Japanese were trying to do the equivalent of breaking into someone’s home, taking control of the kitchen and the bathroom, but then wanting to negotiate giving just the bathroom back.

Whatever hopes that the Japanese leaders may have had in a peaceful result for their Chinese adventure would be dashed on July 7 1937. During the night a Japanese company would be doing night exercises southwest of Beijing near the Marco Polo bridge. One of their number would get separated from the unit and become lost in the night. The Japanese unit, believing that foul play was involved, insisted that the local Chinese units allow the Japanese to search their positions that they were occupying, which they of course refused to allow. Shots were then fired, and the situation quickly escalated, Japanese reinforcements were brought in and an assault was launched on the Chinese units, and then it was demanded that they withdraw. They would actually comply, but apparently not fast enough for the local Japanese officers, and so on July 9th they were hit with artillery. Oh, and by the way, that missing soldier returned completely unharmed and it turned out he really had just gotten lost and was not in some way captured or kidnapped by the Chinese. When news arrived back in Japan, the policy decided on by both the political and military leadership was one of non-escalation, they did not want this small clash to ripple out into larger fighting. Instead they would allow the local Japanese representatives to work on negotiating a settlement, which would then calm things down. This had worked before, but this time it wouldn’t and it was because the Chinese did not go along. Nationalist troops were moved into the region, and so instead of allowing local units to come to terms the Chinese escalated their commitment, making it clear that they were not going to allow events to just once again blow over. These troop movements were known to the Japanese, who had very good intelligence on all Chinese troop movements, and the decision was made in the evening of July 10 to request that three divisions be mobilized in Japan for possible dispatch to China. When this request was passed on to the cabinet there were not huge concerns with mobilizing the troops, but the cabinet would issue an official policy statement which made it clear to Nanking that it should not interfere with the ongoing local settlement attempts. The firm nature of this demand was intended to frighten the Chinese and push them closer to allowing such a settlement out of concern for a Japanese military response. But the leaders in Nanking, whose greatest fear was once again another local settlement which saw more territory given over completely to Japanese control, were unwilling to just allow such an action to happen again. Instead they would state that they were determined to allow a negotiation to happen, that was fine, but it had to be one that did not alter the control that the Nationalist government had over the area. The position of both sides, to use military force to force the other into a specific negotiating position, would end in war.

With the Chinese not backing down, the Japanese General Staff requested, once again, on the 26th for the three divisions to be mobilized. The initial plan was for these troops to go to China for 3 months, with a total mobilization and expedition cost of about 100 million yen. They would then secure the shipping on the 28th, both to initially transport the troops and then to carry their necessary supplies during their time in China. The 450,000 tons of shipping that this required would cause economic problems, as it was taken mostly from shipping that had been bringing raw materials back from Manchuria and Northern China to the home islands, but it was felt that it was necessary and would be at worst a short term problem for a long term gain. The idea of the troops being used for three months was actually on the pessimistic side of the estimates, with others like the Japanese War Minister estimating that they would be done in a month. There were many people who did not want to get involved in a long term struggle in China, but these concerns were drowned out by the overriding belief that there would be no long term serious Chinese resistance. Before we go any further, lets talk about the Japanese military at this point in time. I think there is a tendency to take the portrayal of the Japanese army as seen in the late stages of the Pacific War, where in comparison to the heavily modernized American military it looked backwards and quaint, and to sort of apply that image and that comparison to earlier fighting. IN fact, during the fighting in China, and especially during the early righting that we are about to discuss, the Japanese would bring the superior firepower and more modern equipment to the fighting. There was the same heavily belief in the offensive, the emphasis on night attacks, and just a general idea that shock actions against the enemy were the best way to proceed with an offensive. However, when that was joined with the technological superiority, it could be a devastating combination. Most of their larger weapons, like artillery and tanks, were light but that also made them mobile which was important because the Army was not heavily mechanized, with the number of automobiles produced in Japan paltry in comparison to other nations in the 1930s, this meant that they heavily relied on animal and human power for transport. Speaking of transport, I like this bit of information about how they managed their logistics from historian Edward Drea “According to logistics doctrine, Japanese maneuver units normally operated within a 120 to 180 mil radius of a railhead for purposed of resupply and reinforcement. A field train transport unit moved supplies daily from the railhead to a division control point for distribution. The division established a field depot to move supplies from field transport to company and lower-echelon units. At the depot, transport troops transferred supplies to a combat train that hauled the ammunition rations and equipment to the frontline units.” While they were truly a step above the Chinese troops in some ways, this advantage was lessened by assumptions made about the fighting quality of Chinese troops and Chinese soldiers, this caused a constant under estimation of their ability to withstand Japanese attacks, with occasionally disastrous consequences.

With that said, lets talk about the Chinese military forces that were available at this point. There were a few key problems that would really hold them back during this fighting. First, a lot of the equipment available to the Chinese forces was old, which meant that it was often less capable than the Japanese items that they were matched against. This caused, for example, their artillery to often be outranged. But far more damaging than its age, all of the equipment was also incredibly non-uniform. There were all kinds of not just heavy equipment like artillery and machine guns, but also rifles, which all created a logistical nightmare when it came to trying to supply the troops with what they needed, when what they needed could greatly vary from unit to unit. Second, there was simply not enough training either within the ranks or among the officers. Estimates vary on this, but only about half or so of the Chinese soldiers could be considered fully trained, and there was a shortage of officers at almost all levels. This meant that even those officers who were well trained were heavily overworked, especially in staff work, and those soldiers who were well trained often found themselves surrounded by those who were not. Third, and finally, not all of the forces that were nominally under the control of the government in Nanking were actually under their command, which comes back to the limits of Chiang’s and the government’s power that we discussed last episode. The result was that there was not one unified Chinese National Army, but instead a collection of armies of at times dubious loyalty. To try and offset some of these issues almost 2/3 of all government spending would go into the military in 1937, and the budgets in previous years were also very high. This did allow for the creation of some well trained and well equipped units, mostly with the help of German advisors and German equipment, and those units would be used in the battle of Shanghai that will be our topic for next week. There was a general realization from the Chinese leaders that in a straight up fight with the Japanese things probably would not go well, and so they became focused on drawing out the war. This was one of the operational goals of the Chinese military leadership, to create a scenario where they could maintain protracted resistance against the Japanese, in the belief that if they could do so they would eventually arrive at victory. Also, one small note that is very important as we move forward, the size of Chinese and Japanese military units were completely different, especially at the top end, with a Chinese corps having between 10,000 and 15,000 soldiers while a Japanese division was twice as large with between 24,000 and 28,000. This becomes very important when looking at military events, because when 10 Chinese corps attack five Japanese divisions, even though generally you could assume that the Chinese would have a massive numerical advantage, during this period 10 Chinese corps were pretty close in numbers to 5 Japanese divisions.

The Japanese would begin their attacks on July 26th, with an early focus on Beijing and Tianjin, which would both fall before the end of the month. There was never any real hope for the Nationalists to defend these northern areas, Chiang and the other Chinese leaders in fact held back most of their troops, and all of the best ones, for actions further south. This meant that the northern areas fell quickly, with the fighting continuing into August. In many areas the Japanese would use tactics that they had used in the north as well, throwing bribes at local commanders to get them to retreat instead of fighting, and this accelerated their advance. However, because the Chinese were not resisting as strongly as they maybe could have, there was nothing like a decisive blow against their forces, instead the Chinese defense just ended up quickly falling back. This went against the overall goal of the Japanese, who wanted to greatly reduce Chinese fighting capabilities, but to do so they needed to reduce the total Chinese forces, but they were denied these opportunities. Instead they would just keep expanding, the Kwantung Army would take control of the northern half of the Shanxi province while the newly created North China Area Army focused on moving south from Beijing. During these actions the General Staff had little precise influence on operations, the field commanders had been provided with the overall goal, an offensive campaign to annihilate Chinese forces. However, there was little precise guidance beyond that, this was left to the field commanders to make decisions, which were the post facto ratified by the General Staff. The end result was the capture of a lot of territory, meeting any territorial objectives set out at the beginning of the offensive, but a complete failure when it came to a reduction in Chinese fighting capabilities. Two important events would begin to shift the overall structure of the fighting in China, and provide the Japanese with new opportunities to achieve these goals of annihilation. First, Chiang would reach out to the Communists with the intention of making concessions to them if they would join in a United Front against the Japanese, with the concession being that the Communists would be allowed to form their own military and their own military units. This would work, and three Communist leaders, Zho Enlai, Zhu De, and Ye Jianying would begin to participate in the meetings of the Military Affairs Commission in Nanking. The second important change was the decision to defend Shanghai when the fighting erupted in the southern city, this would be the point where instead of continuing to retreat the Chinese would stand their ground, setting the stage for the largest battle of the early stages of the war.