56: Sinking Deeper


After the fall of Nanking, there was still no end in sight for the fighting in China.



  • 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 56 - The Second Sino-Japanese War Part 7 - Sinking Deeper. This week a big thank you goes out to Cale, Vasiliu, and Gruck for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon, if you would like to find out more information about supporting the show head over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. When 1937 ended the overall territory controlled by Japan within China had massively expanded when compared to the beginning of the year. Shanghai and Nanking, and all of the territory in between had fallen into their hands. In Northern China they had taken control of 5 of the most northern provinces. They would then create the Chinese People’s Federated Government, which much like the government in Manchukuo was technically a Chinese government, but one wholly controlled by the Japanese. As new territory was brought under the control of Tokyo there were plans put in place to begin to take advantage of that territory as quickly as possible. The natural resources were very valuable to the ongoing preparations for war, although they came at a large and growing price. Japanese expansion was based around the idea that eventually the Chinese would be forced to come to the negotiating table and to end the war. At that point, at least in theory, the war would be over and the Japanese would be able to fully devote the resources of the new territories to prepare for future wars, especially those that were just kind of expected to occur against the Soviet Union or the United States. But what if the Chinese did not surrender, did not want to begin negotiations? That is a very good question and one that Tokyo did not have a great answer to. During this episode we will discuss the Japanese campaigns after the capture of Nanking, as well as the future course of the fighting in China. This future course will be revisited in later episodes, but a brief discussion now is warranted due to its effects on other Japanese decision making. This will also be our final episode on events in China at least for awhile, and it also marks the last episode of Season 1 of the podcast. We will do a bit of a season overview today, and then talk about what comes next.

After the fall of Nanking the Japanese military was presented with a problem. Chiang, and the Nationalist government, and a good portion of the troops that had been defending against them in Shanghai and Nanking had been able to successfully retreat before Nanking fell. They were then joined by fresh formations that had not been involved in the earlier fighting. They were also ready for the fight to continue. Japan, in growing political isolation due to the events that were happening in China had few options available to them. They could in some ways give up, retreat from some or all of the territory they had gained during 1937 and then try to make peace. This was unacceptable and did not solve one of the major problems that the Japanese thought they had, which was that in the coming war with the Soviet Union an independent and strong China would be a serious threat. With that option rejected the only other real option was simply to continue the attack, to go deeper into Chinese territory, to capture more of it, and hope that this would be able to greatly shift the overall structure of the war. Maybe it would result in the collapse of the Chiang government which would be replaced by one more open to negotiations, maybe it would cause infighting among the Chinese, maybe a breakdown in the United Front that was being presented by the Nationalists and Communists. But for any of that to happen they needed to find a way to put more pressure on the Chinese government and military. This was seen as the only real option, and so the planning began. When their next efforts were started they would come from a few different directions. Starting with Northern China, the North China Army would begin to once again move south. In March 1938 they would launch another offensive from Shandong province with the goal of pushing all the way south to the Yellow River, with the capture of Hsuchow in the far north of the Kiangsu province. They would advance on this objective in three different columns against roughly 200,000 Chinese defenders who were in the area. They would then encounter a serious roadblock in teh city of Taierzhuang. In Taierzhuang the attacking Japanese troops would come head to head with some of the best units that were still in the Chinese Army. Over the course of two weeks of fighting the Japanese 5th and 10th division and the Chinese 20th and 2nd Army Groups would slug it out. The Japanese would suffer thousands of casualties, and it would be one of the few instances during this early stage of the war where a Japanese attack was stopped completely by Chinese troops over a lengthy period of time. Even this resolute and successful defend could only slow down the Japanese advances though, and on other areas of the front their advances would be successful and Hsuchow would then fall into Japanese hands. After this attack, even though it had not been completely successful, the North China Army would set its sights even higher. During the first week of April they would launch a campaign designed to trap and destroy 50 Chinese divisions by attacking on two axes which would meet at Xuzhou. They would capture Xuzhou, but they would not achieve their greater goal of trapping the Chinese troops, who were able to escape. This pattern would later repeat itself several times. The Japanese would launch an attack designed to surround a group of Chiense units, they would capture their objectives but the Chinese units would be able to escape. At the same time the Japanese, in pushing their troops forward for the encirclement would very rapidly outpace their ability to supply their troops, and those at the front of the encirclement efforts would suffer casualties not just from enemy action but also from just a simple lack of logistical support and supplies.

While the attacks were happening to the north, the Nationalist government which had fled Nanking set up the new area of government in Wuhan. They would have two million troops available in the province to be used both for the defense of Wuhan itself and to mount a large counterattack if an opportunity presented itself. Japanese attacks in the north had been designed to eventually put greater pressure on Wuhan from the north, and after they crossed the Yellow river they would begin to push west in the hopes of capturing Zhengzhou, an important rail center which would be the staging point for the attack into Wuhan. It was in the face of these advances that Chiang would order the Yellow River dikes to be breached. The Yellow River had been flooding since the beginning of time, and they were often incredibly destructive. The dikes had helped to control the river but now they were being purposefully destroyed. This move would cause massive flooding along the river, flooding that would eventually spread to three different provinces. The consequences would be disastrous, with up to 900,000 Chinese civilians dying due to the flooding and its aftermath. Almost 4 million would be forced to become refugees due to the loss of thei rhomes. It was a desperate move that was designed to halt the Japanese attacks towards Wuhan, and it was mostly a failure. It did delay the planned Japanese attacks for a short period of time, but it in no way stopped then, and in fact the overextended Japanese units were probably going to have to pause for a bit anyway to allow them to rest and resupply. While the battle of Shanghai had been the site of sacrifice for some of the best trained and equipped Chiense units, the defense of Wuhan would be the place where a huge portion of the Nationalist forces would meet their end. Over the course of 10 months of fighting in the defense of Wuhan and its surrounding areas the Chinese would suffer a million casualties, a million. They would be more than the losses for the next several years of the Second Sino-Japanese war….combined. Even with this sacrifice they would eventually be defeated, and the government would be forced to once again evacuate, this time to Chongqing in the Sichuan province. Japanese casualties would also be very high, so high that it would force them to make changes to how they were prosecuting the war. Most importantly they would give up on chasing down the Nationalist government and when Chiang and the Nationalists escaped to Sichuan they would not follow. ON the Chinese side it would also force some serious changes. Beyond the staggering loss of life the defense of Wuhan would also see a shift in the views of the Communists, with some of the leadeing Communist voices who had advocated for the United Front to work with Chiang being usurped by Mao Zedong and the more hardline anti-collaborationists. The Nationalists would also be forced to shift strategies and would start to avoid large battles and tests of strength with the Japanese in the hopes of prolonging the war at a far lighter cost. They would reduce the number troops they had in the field as well, while pulling back about a 1/3 of their troops for further training.

While the Japanese attacks were occurring in and around Wuhan, another amphibious operation would be launched against Guangzhou in southern China near Hong Kong. This landing, combined with several other amphibious operations along the China coast were designed to cut off the Chinese from the sea, and any help or supplies that may be received from overseas. Guangzhou would be captured on October 21st. Looking further ahead, to events we will revisit in the future, during 1939 the Japanese would continue to expand the areas under their control. They would take over several major cities like Nanchang, the island of Hainan, various provinces, and they would also launch an operation against Changsha the capital of Hunan. Some of these efforts were designed to weaken the Chinese directly, while others were launched to reduce the ability of the Chinese to continue the war into the future. For example, along with the landings on the coast there was a push into the southern province of Kwangsi in the hopes of cutting off supplies that were being imported from French Indochina. While many of these attacks were successful, they carried with them consequences for the Japanese military, consequences that would be felt far into the future years of the war.

When looking at the effects of the war in China on the Japanese military, we first need to revisit what the expectations were when the fighting started. During July 1937 when the fighting had started in Northern China and then spread to Shanghai the general assumption in Tokyo was that they would need to commit about 3 extra divisions of troops from the home islands, and they would need those troops in China for around 3 months. Just 6 months later they were still deep in the fighting, even though vast swaths of territory including Shanghai, Nanking, and several north capitals had been captured. 16 additional divisions had been sent to China, about 700,000 troops, and there was also no real end in sight. Because the war was still not won, additional preparations were being made during 1938, with 20 more divisions preparing to join the fight All of this ballooned the cost of the Chinese adventure from the first appropriation of 100 million yen up to 2.5 billion. Even this vastly larger army would prove to be insufficient and by 1939 the Japanese had taken over hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of territory, most of it being rural with some large cities as well. Because of these large tracts of territory and their garrison requirements, for the large attacks during 1938 the Japanese would never be able to bring together enough troops with enough mobility to allow them to strike any truly decisive blows. It is perhaps debatable whether or not such decisive blows were even possible, at least as long as Chiang and the Chinese leaders accepted that their best course of action was to retreat and survive in the face of continued Japanese aggression.

While the Chinese campaigns were quickly consuming men an dmoney, it was also starting to have drastic effects on the wider Japanese rearmament efforts. For many Japanese officers the real threat was not China, China was a threat and had to be handled but this was strictly to remove them as a participant in a future war with the Soviet Union or the United States. When it came to planning for that future war, the actually important war, the war in China was a disaster. The Japanese economy woul dhave had issues meeting the ambitious military expansion goals that were in place in the late 1930s under the best of circumstances. During 1937 there would very quickly be munitions shortages in China and additional production had to be allocated to munitions instead of other items. The first area to be sacrificed was consumer production, and the military would request the activation of the 1918 Munitions Mobilization Law. This gave the military absolute priority when it came to imported goods, and any other times, especially anything that would be used for civilian goods, were greatly deprioritized in favor of the necessary raw materials for military production. There was an understanding that such control and such restrictions were not a long answers, but the belief was that these would only be short term sacrifices until the war was won. Certain foreign imports were expanded, especially around oil from the United States. Units in China were already running out of available fuel during 1937, and it would only get worse as operations expanded and so the only real option was to increase oil imports. But this also greatly strained available currency reserves, and with so many items needing to be imported in greater numbers, and the curtailment of any production outside of military goods, foreign exchange resvers were rapidly depleted. There was also the potential political reaction from the United States, with the worst case being an oil embarge which might bring the Japanese military to a rapid halt, but that was just a necessary risk. In regards to the possible war with the Soviet Union, the Sino-Japanese War was seen to greatly reduce the ability of the Japanese Army to meet any Soviet aggression, or to launch any offensive campaigns should they be required. Rearmament and resupply of the forces in Manchuria was greatly curtailed and many of the best air units were sent south. By the end of 1937 there were just 6 divisions in Manchuria, with many more Soviet divisions just across the border. The vast gulf between Soviet and Japanese military capabilities was not really appreciated in Tokyo, and the events of 1939 and the fighting around Nomonhan, which would turn into a complete debacle for the Japanese Army, would come as a rude awakening.

During 1939 there would be a subtle shift in Japanese policies in China which would persist for the next several years. There would no longer be massive offensives, if only because they were far too costly in terms of men and material. Instead the focus would be on solidifying Japanese control over the areas that they had already captured. Part of this meant dealing with the various armed groups in and around that territory which would continue to pester and harass the Japanese for years. This would lead to several punitive expeditions which were sent out into Community and Nationalist controlled territory not to actually capture that territory but instead to simply kill and destroy everything in their path. Along with this would be a bombing campaign targetted at various areas of Nationalist strength with both the Japanese Army and Navy combining to bomb a variety of topics. These targetted Chinese areas in Northern China as well as areas in Sichuan where the Nationalist government had retreated to. These policies were designed to try and reduce the drain on the Japanese army and economy to allow them to properly prepare for the coming war with the Soviet which the Army believed would happen soon. All of this would of course change with the German invasion of the Soviet Union and then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but of course those stories will be for another day.

And with that, we arrive at the end of Season 1. The goal of the season was to start laying the groundwork for Season 2 and the approach of the war. the 1930s was a period of escalating tension around Europe and the world. The post war period of peace as shattered by the economic difficulties of the eaerly 1930s. This, when combined with the rise of more radical political groups around the world, caused the postwar structures of peace to rapidly fall apart. The League of Nations would prove powerless to hinder Italian aggression in Ethiopia. The rise of Hitler and the Nazi party would presage their rejection of the Versailles treaty, with both rearmament started and the reoccupation of the Rhineland. The Spanish Civil War, a conflict revolving around the same political disagreements that were also happeing at the national level around Europe, had started and was ongoing, with the support from other nations for both sides. In China, the Japanese attacks were pushing them deeper and deeper into fighting china, pushing their economy and military to the limit. This would make the Japanese economy incredibly sensitive to any economic restrictions from abroad, and forced Japanese military and political leaders into finding ways to solve their economic problems, with the only solution being expansion. So we should end today with a discussion about what is coming up in Season 2, which will start in late July, about 5 weeks from now. Season 2 will pull us back onto what might be considered the “typical” track toward the Second World War. We will start with the Anchluss, then a discussion of 1930s France, followed by the Munich Crisis and the fighting in Nomonhan between the Soviet Union and Japan. Then we will spend some number of episodes just looking at more general military topics from around Europe and the world, what did people expect a war to look like, how were they preparing both technologically and theoretically, what was the overall state of the various militaries that would very rapidly find themselves in conflict. This will set us up to discuss the last months of peace before finally making out way into Poland in September 1939. The plan is to end Season 2 with the Polish campaign which will probably take more than a few episodes. As always thank you for listening.