The battle of Shanghai in 1937 was not the only Japanese military conflict with the Chinese in that city. At the start of 1932, after years of prejudice and discrimination based tension and hostility between the two ethnic communities, the Japanese government decided to respond militarily against the discrimination that Japanese nationals faced and sent the navy and army support them. The battle involved the mass destruction of a city and a considerable number of both military and civilian casualties. The catastrophe that Shanghai faced in 1932 became a precursor to the battle between Japan and China in 1937. Both battles became indications of modern urban warfare and the mass destruction and devastation it was possible to inflict. In later years, the consequences of battles in Stalingrad, Manila, and Ortona would echo those of the two battles of Shanghai. Following an attack on Japanese Buddhist priests by Chinese workers who were members of the Anti-Japanese Association, Japanese General-Consul Murai demanded an apology from the mayor of Shanghai as well as the attackers’ arrest and suppression of all anti-Japanese organizations and activities in the city. While the mayor accepted and agreed to those demands, the Chinese military force in Shanghai, which consisted of the 19th Route Army and the 5th Army, was positioned in the city. The 19th Army was positioned in the Hongkew and Chapei (Zhabei) districts. Feeling threatened by that military presence, the Japanese decided to deploy a defensive naval landing based on the need for protection in the event of military action against the Japanese settlement. On January 28th, the initial skirmish took place in the Hongkew district following the arrival of the Japanese naval force. The 19th Army was also threatened by the Japanese troops as they entered the district and set up a defensive position, which ultimately led to a firefight between the two. The Japanese troops felt strongly that their involvement with the Chinese was an act of self-defense.
Chinese military police in combat
At the onset of the battle, only 3,000 Japanese troops faced 31,000 Chinese troops of the 19th Route Army. In an attempt to level the playing field, the Japanese Navy dispatched an aircraft carrier to launch an aerial assault against the Chinese positions in the Chapei district without endangering their Japanese nationals. The Japanese naval air force took the most effective measures. First, reconnaissance planes were sent to mark targets in advance of the bombers. Secondly, to ensure the accuracy of their bombing and guarantee that there would be no accidental bombing on the Japanese positions, the Japanese flew as close to the ground as permitted. Finally, targets that were marked for the most effectiveness included Chinese military positions, supply trains, and a mass gathering of Chinese troops, which seemed to be a possible position for an attack. Unfortunately, because the planes flew at a low altitude, they were vulnerable to ground fire. Following the bombing, a truce was proposed and established to provide a neutral zone in the Chapei district where peaceful Shanghai residents could be evacuated to avoid the battle. During the truce, however, the Chinese military attempted to reinforce their position which the Japanese felt was a violation of the truce. In response to the Chinese military build-up, the Japanese naval party called for reinforcements of their own, which recommenced the fighting in February.
January 28 incident
On February 6, the Japanese 9th Division, the 24th Mixed Brigade detachment from the 12th Division, and two squadrons were formed to organize an expeditionary force to reinforce the navy force. The Japanese reinforcements landed at Shanghai between February 13 and February 16. Following the arrival of the Japanese expeditionary force, Lieutenant-General Kenkichi Uyeda established around the Japanese community a safeguard against threats from the Chinese military. He met with the 19th Route Army’s Chief of Staff of to propose an end to hostilities between the Japanese and Chinese and to propose that both military forces withdraw 20 km from their positions by February 20 at 7 a.m., which would ensure that the Chinese military respected the proposal. While the Japanese remained in the Japanese district of Shanghai, upon ending the conflicts, they would not take any offensive actions against the Chinese and only act as a protective force. By February 20, the Chinese had not withdrawn their military. Lt. General Uyeda felt this was an act of defiance and a rejection of the proposal. At 7:30 in the morning, after the Chinese military had been scheduled to withdraw from their position, the Japanese 9th Division took offensive action, making multiple simultaneous assaults. The 9th Division and 24th Mixed Brigade pushed against the Chinese defenses at the Woosung (Wusong) and Kiangwan (Jianghan) districts at the port end. At the same time, the Japanese landing party cleared Chinese positions in Chapei, and the two groups hoped to meet in the middle and expel the Chinese military force from Shanghai. The Japanese also provided artillery and aerial support for their expeditionary force. Despite stubborn resistance at Kiangwan and Woosung, by the end of the next day, the Japanese had forced the Chinese troops to the edge of the districts. Concurrently, the Japanese Naval Landing Party had also pushed elements of the Chinese 19th Route Army out of Chapei and set up a defensive perimeter around their position.
Japanese troops burning residential districts
At midnight on the 22nd, the Chinese launched a series of counterattacks under artillery support, but every single one was repelled. By the third day of fighting, the Japanese 9th Division had begun to move against Miaohang to the left of the Kiangwan district. Like the Chinese positions at Kiangwan and Woosung, Miaohung also had a strong, organized defensive position with well-prepared defenses. To create an opening in the Chinese lines, on the night of the 21st to 22nd, the Japanese dispatched engineers and explosive squads to cut the wire emplacements under cover of darkness and smoke screens. Sergeant Umada gathered three parties of three men to be led by himself to set explosives and use wire cutters to exploit the Chinese defenses. Each party sent either was killed, disabled, or driven back due to heavy firing from the Chinese positions. After his entire group was incapacitated, Sergeant Umada ran into the lines lobbing hand grenades to cause confusion, which allowed him to cut the wire emplacements. That deed allowed Japanese troops to exploit the gap and capture that sector of Miaohang.
Guide: Battle of Shanghai: The Prequel to the Rape of Nanking
Shanghai, known as the Pearl of the Orient, had always been an international center in China. But the city was left in near total destruction during the Sino-Japanese War. Following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, the Japanese headed for its goal: the capital of China, Nanking. Shanghai was a key battleground before they were able to reach the capital of China, which brought on the “Stalingrad on the Yangtze.” As a leader of the Nationalist Government, Chiang Kai-Shek would lead the Kuomintang (“KMT”) Army into preparing the city to repel the oncoming smaller, yet technologically superior and more experienced Kwantung Army under the combat-experienced graduate of Japan’s elite war college, General Iwane Matsui.
Initially, the Imperial Japanese Army had estimated the battle to be over within three days due to their military superiority. However, the Japanese would be engaged in fighting for three months, one week, and six days against the KMT’s best-trained divisions in one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese would be forced into close combat urban warfare, alarmingly similar to the rat warfare between the Germans and Russians during the Battle of Stalingrad five years later, allowing many historians to name the Battle of Shanghai as “the Stalingrad of the Yangtze.” Special Japanese forces also used chemical weapons against the entrenched KMT soldiers. Only after the KMT military had run entirely out of ammunition, food, and water, were they forced to surrender or flee from the city which had been turned from a populated metropolitan center into a city of rubble and ashes.
The city of Shanghai also housed a large Jewish refugee and foreign expat population, which was comprised of mostly Americans and British civilians. During the battle, many lost their homes and were forcibly squeezed into small districts. Following the battle, many foreigners chose to stay and live among the Japanese as the Japanese also used their communities as military bases or headquarters. Due to the neutrality between Japan and the Western nations, the foreign communities did not face the same punishment as the Chinese civlians who were forced to remain in Shanghai after the defeat.