54: Failure and Retreat


With the Japanese landings from Hangzou Bay the Chinese positions in and around Shanghai become completely untenable.



  • 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 54 - The Second Sino-Japanese War part 5 - Failure and Retreat. This week a big thank you goes out to Gary for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon where they now get access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Member only episodes released once a month. If that sounds interesting to you head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. Over the last two episodes we have discussed the growth of the fighting around Shanghai as it transitioned from a small skirmish inside the city involving troops that were already present, to the focal point of both Chinese and Japanese efforts in China. During that transition the fighting had spilled out of the city when the Japanese landed to the north of the city in a large amphibious operation. After that landing their focus had shifted to expanding the beachhead while trying to compromise the entire Chinese position in and around the city. These efforts had been both successful and unsuccessful at kind of the same time. Sure, they had captured some territory and they had pushed the Chinese back to their last real line of defense on Suzhou Creek, but the gains had been far more costly and far more time consuming than what was originally hoped. To try and resolve the situation the Japanese began planning on yet another large amphibious operation, this time to the southeast of the city in Hangzou Bay. By executing these new landings, if they were even moderately successful, the Japanese planned to once and for all force the Chines to retreat, because even a small area of territory near Hangzou Bay in Japanese hands would make the city untenable for the Chinese. These landings would be successful, and the question which both sides would ask themselves was what next. While the Chinese had given up on Shanghai, their army was far from decisively defeated, and not for the first or the last time the Japanese would begin to chase them as they retreated away, in this case first to Nanking and then beyond. We will cover the Nanking campaign up until the Japanese reach the city in this episode, and then next episode we will discuss the horrifying events that would occur when the Japanese managed to capture the city.

As with any amphibious operation, surprise was very important to the Japanese changes of success, and they would achieve it almost perfectly. The Chinese had not really had any aerial reconnaissance over the Bay during the build up to the landings, and they would be caught completely off guard. To compound this problem the troops around the Bay, the units that would be tasked with meeting the Japanese attack, had been drained of men and equipment over the previous weeks and months to support Chinese efforts in other areas around the city. Because of these two Chinese mistakes the Japanese achieved everything they could have hoped for with the initial landings. They would be able to transport thousands of troops right up to the beaches without being detected and when those troops landed they experienced little resistance. The first news of the landings that arrived for Chinese units was the sound of the bombing attacks that were launched from Japanese naval aircraft. There were some small Chinese counter attacks but they were generally minor and quickly set aside by the landing troops. The landings would begin early in the morning of November 5th and just under a day later they were already 3 miles inland from the beaches. They carried with them enough food for a week and as much ammunition as they could take with them in the hopes of minimizing the supply issues that had plagued the earlier Japanese landings north of Shanghai. After the first few hours, with such a large chunk of territory being under their control in such a small space of time, there was little real danger that the landings would be in any way a failure. After news of these new landings arrived back at the Third War Zone command, they initially believed that it was just a distraction, an attempt by the Japanese to trick the Chinese into weakening their lines around Shanghai to meet a feint. It would take some effort from the Chinese officers near the landings, and from the German advisors that were at Third War Zone headquarters, before the landings were really taken seriously. Albert Newiger, one of those advisors, would later write that he felt that the Chinese generals had already mentally accepted that they would soon have to move into a full scale retreat and so they had essentially given up. After they were convinced that the landings were the serious threat, they would do everything they could to stop them, but what everything meant in this case was pretty meagre. A total of 7 divisions and an independent brigade would be sent, and while on paper this was more than 7 divisions worth of troops, in fact they were far less than that because they fell into two categories. The first category, which was the majority, were units that had been involved in heavy fighting during the previous weeks, and they had been withdrawn into reserve for rest and replacements. The other category were units that had just arrived in Shanghai, after doing some substantial amounts of marching to even get there, and they were now being thrown into the battle. They were being sent to meet the landings with little time to prepare or to properly ready themselves, or to even really rest. There were two division from the Henan province for example that had just arrived and did not even really have great information about the lay of the land. Their orders were to defend the city of Songjiang and the areas around it until at least November 11th, or three days after they arrived. In fact they would be able to hold it for less than a day as the Japanese were also putting serious effort into capturing the city. Given the delayed response, with reinforcements not sent until days after the landing, and the lack of available resources to be added to the defense, there was never any real hope of a Chinese success, and it spelled doom for the Chinese in and around Shanghai.

While they were eventually able to be convinced to mount a response to the landings, the success of the new Japanese attack just accelerated the already growing feelings that the Chinese had already lost the battle for Shanghai. Even Chiang Kai-shek, who had insisted on a constant and continual defense of the city was broken of this viewpoint when the full extent of the Japanese forces in Hangzou Bay were made known to him. Late on November 8th, while the units were being marshalled to be sent to assist in defending against the landings, the decision was also made to start withdrawing from the areas in and around Shanghai. The new goal was to establish a new defensive line to the west of the city and the move to this new line would begin late in the morning of November 9th as troops that were within Shanghai began to move out of the city. In the early moments of the withdrawal it was carried out in an orderly fashion, but as more and more troops were brought out that discipline began to erode. The one benefit that they had in those early hours was that the Japanese did know what was happening, but as soon as they did realize that the Chinese were pulling out Japanese air power began to really go to work. Because of the limited number of roads in and out of the city, there were only so many routes that could be taken by the large numbers of Chinese troops that were trying to evacuate and they made for perfect targets for Japanese air attacks. This then caused the retreating units to panic, and chaos would as usual ensue. All of this was made even worse by the thousands and thousands of Chinese civilian refugees who were also trying to get out of the city, especially once it became clear what was happening. Within the city itself there was a mad dash by civilians to make it into the International Settlement, with the French police having to resort to some pretty serious violence, here is a quote from the report filed by a New York Times correspondent “Old and young and mothers carrying infants were ruthlessly clubbed or beaten back with long bamboo poles.” By the middle of the afternoon the Japanese were in full control of the city and the battle for Shanghai was over after months of fighting. On December 3rd there would be a victory parade that would move through the International settlement. When this parade moved past some of the sites that had featured in the fighting some interesting events would occur. For example, when it moved past the place where the Chinese bombs had fallen all the way back on Black Saturday a Chinese man jumped from a building to his death. Then on the Nanjing Road a grenade was thrown into the parade, injuring four Japanese soldiers. These events were just a preview of what was to come, and over the next several months, all around Shanghai the countryside would see constant simmering resistance from armed groups of Chinese. Shooting could still be heard within the city somewhat frequently during this time due to clashes between the two groups. These suppression attempts would not be completely successful, and into 1939 there was still a real threat to any Japanese troops moving outside the city, eventually resulting in the creation of several small fortified areas where troops could be stationed to try and provide better security. After the Chinese retreat there was a lot of blame thrown around Chinese high command for the failure, much of it emanating from Chiang himself, although in the years that followed these criticisms would mellow out a bit, and he would instead begin to place most of the blame for the failure of the battle to the decisions made to not properly prepare for a possible Japanese invasion from Hangzhou Bay. All told the battle had been very costly for the Chinese army, numbers are as usual all over the place, the Chinese would report that they suffered 187,200 casualties, the Japanese estimated them at around 250,000, and it is possible that they are higher than both of those numbers. But more important than just the raw numbers was how those numbers were distributed among the Chinese divisions. The heaviest casualties were suffered by the divisions that had been committed early, often German trained and German equipped divisions that were so important to the overall strength of the Chinese military. Some of the these divisions, like the 87th and 88th had been used in the early days of the battle in late August, and they would essentially cease to be effective divisions by the time they were removed from the battle. Along with the men who were killed or wounded, priceless, and what would prove to be almost irreplaceable armor, aircraft, and artillery would also be lost during the fighting. This equipment had been built up over the years before 1937 and would be very challenging to replace as the Japanese control of all areas of China continued to increase in the following months and years. On the other side the Japanese casualties were reported at around 40,000, which was obviously far below the Chinese numbers, but also far greater than even the most pessimistic Japanese expectations from the start of the fighting. What they thought would be a quick victory that would only require a few divisions for a few weeks, had instead demanded the attention of over 100,000 Japanese servicemen and months of heavy fighting. This was just the beginning of the Japanese commitment to the fighting in Central China, and even though they had pushed the Chinese army back from Shanghai the ability of the Chinese to resist had in no way been destroyed, and they would still have to treat it as a threat, which meant that the troops that were in Shanghai were now committed to at the very least staying to defend it.

The defense of Shanghai had consumed a huge amount of military supplies and material, and even before the battle was over a new source of those supplies and equipment would be secured. While the fighting as still occurring, on August 29th there would be a diplomatic development with the Chinese government in Nanking announced that it had signed a non-aggression treaty with the Soviet Union. This was important, because much of the hopes that China had in the long war with Japan came from abroad, and they hoped that any serious fighting within China would eventually result in either the Soviet Union or the United States entering into a war with Japan. The basis for this idea was that neither the Soviet Union or the United States would want Japan to continue to grow in strength, as it would threaten both of their interests. So if the Japanese started to take over too much territory they would see the threat and decide to intervene before all of that new territory, population, and resources, could be properly used to bolster Japanese military strength. During the fighting after 1937 the Soviet Union would prove to be a critical source of weapons and material, especially after support from German began to greatly diminish. However, it would still take a lot of time for the amount of equipment used in Shanghai, and destroyed there, to be made good, but eventually the total contribution of the Soviet Union to the Chinese war effort between 1937 and 1941 would be over 1,200 aircraft, 2,000 pilots, 1,600 pieces of artillery, thousands of technical experts, and then a whole host of other bits and bobs that were necessary to fight a war. While the Chinese were trying to improve their international relations the Japanese were doing the same. During the mid 1930s they had greatly benefitted from events in Spain because the Spanish Civil War diverted the attention of every European power to Western Europe instead of China. This was most important when it came to the British and the Soviets, with Soviet military aid being sent to Spain which might have instead gone to China. Germany had provided a large amount of military aid and assistance to China during the 1930s, but this began to change in the late 1930s. They would become closer with Japan, especially after the creation of the anti-comintern pact in November 1936. At that point the German military advisors were not instantly removed from China, almost entirely due to concerns that if they were to just pack of and leave they would be quickly replaced by Soviet military advisors. Or as the German Foreign Minister would say to the German Ambassador in Tokyo “The Japanese cannot reprimand us for the fact that the Chinese bought arms from us in a limited amount. The deal developed on a purely economic basis. […] Withdrawal of our military advisers in China would at the present moment mean that we are taking sides against Nanking and is therefore out of question. A withdrawal of the advisors could possibly lead to the vacated positions being occupied by the Russians; that is a consequence which is also undesirable for the Japanese.” There were even some attempts by the German government to mediate between the two sides in China, with little success. Eventually the exact fear of the Germans would come to pass with Soviet aid being sent to help Nanking, but by that point German attention was firmly focused on events far closer to home.

While the fighting had been ongoing in Shanghai, elsewhere in China Japanese controlled territory continued to expand with several provincial capitals in various areas of northern China falling during the last four months of 1937, including the capitals of Hebei, Shandon, and Shanxi. In all of these areas the resistance from Chinese units was less than fantastic, to put it kindly. There was a wide mix of armies and units involved in these efforts, with many groups that there technically aligned with Nanking, but not really under their control and then also local warlords who were not aligned with Nanking, and then finally the Communists were thrown into the mix. The result was complete confusion, and for civilians in the path of the fighting an impossible choice, to try and stay at home to weather the storm or to take to the roads in the hope of finding safety. This choice was hardest for the poorest, with many wealthier Chinese able to pick up and leave pretty quickly. Many would choose to become refugees to escape the Japanese advances, which would place incredible strain on Chinese roads and rails, as well as local economies as these large groups moved through. In total somewhere between 80 million to 100 million people, a fifth of the population in many areas were on the move. Those numbers are also possibly quite low, because getting a real number if very difficult as there was just no way for the Chinese government to gain accurate statistics given the state of the war. In the countryside there were often also large bands of armed guerrillas, or bandits depending on how you look at it. Some were motivated by ideological beliefs, like with many of the Communist groups, but others were just driven by the goal of surviving in a totally hostile environment. For those that would stick around, especially in the cities, they would be forced to endure a Japanese occupation that was often a violent and oppressive experience.

After the Chinese retreated from Shanghai the plans in Tokyo were to pause for a bit to consolidate their positions while the future path was determined, at the time this did not necessarily include a move deeper into China. However, within Shanghai many of the Japanese commanders wanted to almost immediately start expanding the conflict, with the number one target of this expansion being the capture of Nanking. Nanking had been the capital of Chiang’s Nationalist government and the hope was that capturing it would bring a quick end of the war. On November 15th Lieutenant General Yanagawa Heisuki, commander of the 10th Army, would demand that the offensive to capture the capital. On November 22nd, Matsui, the commander of the Central China Area Army, Yanagawa’s commanding officer, relayed the request to Tokyo and then also relayed back the approval for the operation. Among all of these leaders the theory was that the capture of Nanking would have a decisive effect on the war. But there was one problem with this plan, Chiang and the Nationalist government were very aware that an attack on Nanking could be launched and they had started their preparations to such an attack in October. In this case those preparations were not to try and bolster the defense of the capital but to instead abandon it. The Nationalist government would move to Wuhan, and while Nanking would still be defended it would no longer hold anything of real strategic value. It still certainly had the symbolic value of being the capital of the government, but symbolic losses would not be fatal. Regardless of what was happening in Nanking, on December 1st the official orders would be given for the offensive against the capital to begin, although the initial attacks and pursuit of the retreating Chinese forces had begun a week earlier. In their movements toward Nanking the Japanese would move in three separate columns, and as they moved through the countryside they left destruction in their wake. While traditionally the stories of Japanese atrocities do not really get goin until after they reach the city, in actuality they began during their march between Shanghai and the capital. There were many reasons for this, a general racism, a lack of properly logistical support that forced units to live off the land, and just no regard for human life. In December they would reach the outskirts of the capital. Chaing would fly out on December 7th with the last of the Nationalist government, most of the foreigners who had been in the city were also already gone out of fear that it would turn into another lengthy battle like in Shanghai. Economic activity in and out of the city essentially stopped completely, which was a serious problem as the city was also forced to absorb massive numbers of refugees from the surrounding areas. Food would soon begin to run short along with almost every other essential good. The city itself had rivers surrounding it on two sides, and the Japanese would take up positions to the southeast to block any traffic into or out of the city, they were now ready for their assault.