The Battle of Shanghai, also called the Battle of Songhu, was the first major battle between the Chinese National Republican Army and the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese war in 1937. One thing that may surprise many is the disparity in training, air power and number of combat troops between China and Japan, with the latter far superior in all areas. China had to make a big stand in Shanghai to stop the Japanese from quickly making it to the capital and completely overrunning it.
China was no match for the Japanese army – which had been making incursions since 1932 into Chinese territory – and they knew it. Many important industries had to be moved to the interior if the Chinese were to stand a chance. By standing strong in Shanghai, they could buy time to relocate their industries as well as try to get Western powers on their side.
The three-month battle was fought in three areas: downtown Shanghai, outlying towns, and the beaches of the Jiangsu coast which the Japanese had used for amphibious landings.
In contrast to Japan's mastery of air, naval and armored power, the Chinese forces had little but small caliber weapons to fight with. That they managed to last three months is testament to their determination.
Shanghai finally fell, and with it a huge portion of its best trained troops. However, morale on the Japanese side was greatly reduced by the shock of the resistance, as they had believed fully in their superiority and expected a short battle.
The immense battle was divided into three phases, and by the end had involved nearly a million troops. The first stage, from August 13 to August 22, was the fight for downtown Shanghai.
The second phase lasted from August 23 to October 26. In this phase the Japanese launched landings at the Jiangsu beaches, and the battle was fought from house to house, with Japan trying to take control of both the city and surrounding lands.
The third stage ran from October 27 to the end of November. It involved the retreat of the Chinese and combat involving the troops left on the road to the provincial capital, Nanjing.
During the first phase of the battle, the Chinese initially planned to take over the Japanese fortifications by sheer weight of numbers. The Japanese had already started incursions into the center of the city, and the Chinese plan ran into trouble right away, as they only had one heavy weapon – 150mm howitzers that were not able to penetrate the Japanese fortifications.
The only option for the Chinese troops was to try and get close enough to lob hand grenades in and kill as many as possible that way, but of course it also ensured there was no element of surprise.
The Japanese also used their air force against the Chinese, which was vastly superior not just in quality but in terms of numbers. Nevertheless, the Chinese used all of their planes and did a fair bit of damage.
On August 14, the Chinese launched a bombing raid, supposedly on the Japanese cruiser Izumo. The ship was berthed near the International Settlement, an area loosely run by British and other powers but which contained a lot of Chinese citizens as well.
During the raid, four wayward bombs landed on the settlement, killing 700 outright and 3000 from injuries received in the attack. Two bombs exploded in Nanjing Road and two in front of the Great World Amusement Center on Avenue Edward VII, killing an estimated 2,000 shoppers and passers-by.
China managed to dent Japan's air force but was not able to compete properly because it used every plane it had. Some of these planes were second hand and ran out of parts, and the Chinese were also unable to manufacture any to replace those they had lost. China shot down a large number of the enemy planes but had lost about half of its own air force by the end of the Battle of Shanghai.
The second phase of the Battle brought the most intense and bloodiest fighting. The Japanese kept landing in waves, while the Chinese doggedly fought them back in metropolitan Shanghai. The combat was laid out along a 40 km line from downtown Shanghai to the village of Liuhe where the Japanese landed, with thousands upon thousands left dead.
In the third phase, the Chinese started to withdraw from the metropolitan center, including those areas they had held for 75 days.
Chinese General Chiang Kai-shek's decision to send all of his best divisions to Shanghai caused the elite units to suffer 60% losses in the carnage as well as 10,000 of the 25,000 junior officers it had trained. The army never recovered from these losses.
One of the issues, according to General Chen Cheng, was that much of the battle planning's "sound military strategy was often supplanted by political strategy," particularly the hope that by fighting to the death for the city foreign intervention would arrive.
As much as help never materialized and the Chinese were devastated by casualties suffered by hundreds of thousands of troops, the overall strategy of space for time did have some value.
The strategy cost the Japanese untold losses as well, enabled the government to move the industries it needed into the interior, and delayed the fall of Nanjing by a few months. More importantly, it said that China would no longer just back down when incursions on its territories were made by the Japanese as had happened in the past.
Unfortunately, this battle, like any full scale battle, saw the death of hundreds of thousands of both innocent civilians and military personnel.