** World War II-- Japanese invasion of China initial campaign 1937-38

Japanese Invasion of China: Initial Campaign (1937-38)

Chinese Army boy soldier Shanghai
Figure 1.--This Chinese boy soldier was photographed in Shanghai sometime before October 27, 1937. This was shortly before the Chinese units in the city were forced to withdraw to avoid being cut off. The wire service caption read, "This Chinese boy soldier, age 16, is doing centry dutyin the Pootung district of Shanghai. Boys of this age are common in the Chinese Army fighting the Japs."

The Japanese after the incident of the Marco Polo Bridge quickly seized Tianjin and then drove for the key port of Sghanghai. Chzang did not want to commit his army, but for Shanhhai he had no choice. He knew his forces were not capable of ctopping the Japanese, but he also knew that the Chinese people would not accept acquiesence to the Japanese advances. The Chinese fought a series of set piece battles with the Japanese. The Japanese were shocked at the level of Chinese resistance, but brought in added forces. The Japanese committed terrible attrocities both on Chinese soldiers and civilins. This proved to be the conventional phase of the War. The Chinese would never again challenge the Japanese in conventionsl operations. The best divisions in the Nationalist Army were shattered, but the Japanese were unable to destroy Chinese resistance. After suffering a series of defeats, the Chinese adopted the strategy of trading of "space for time". The Nationalist Army refused to engage the Japanese in pitched battles in which it could be cut off and destroyed. Rather they engaged in delaying actions around important northeastern cities. The objective was to allow to allow important professionals and officials to flee west into safe interior cities. There was also an attempt to move key industries.


The Marco Polo Bridge Incidebt occured a few miles north of Bejing, the Chinese capital. Chaing had been preparing for war since the Japanese seizue of Mannchuria, but he did not want to fight on the flat plain around Beijing. This terraine was advnatageous to the more mechanized and better equipped Japanese Asmy. Instraed he decided to make a stand in shangahi. Fifgrung in an urbab envirioment played more to Chinese strengths. (The ame was true of the Stalingrad battkle vis a ni the Germans and Soviets.

Wanping (July 1937)

The Japanese 1st Division in northern China, demanded to enter the city of Wanping (July 7). It was an old imperial fortress west of Shanghai. They insisted they were searching for missing Japanese soldiers. Chinese authorities refused permission. Japanese artillery shelled the city until it submitted.

Tianjin/Tientsin (July 1937)

The main city in the Heibi city of northern China was Tianjin. It included both the city of Tianjin and the port of Tanggu. It was formerly called Tientsin. It is an industrial and commercial center, known for handmade silk and wool carpets. The Dagang oilfield is close by. Tianjin was opened to foreign trade in 1860 and foreign contries were awarded concessions there. Given its location in norther China, it was one of the first Chinese cities occupied by invading Japanese troops (July 30, 1937). The Japanese respected the foreign concessions for several years. This was interupted by the Tientsin Incident (April-August 1939). This could have resulted in an Anglo-Japanese naval war, except the British facing NAZI Germany moving toward war could not move the main battle fleet to the Pacific. The Japanese seized the foreign concessions until the outbreak of the Pacific War (December 1941). The Japanese after surrendering to the Allies (August 1945), withdrew from China and the city reverted to Chinese control.

Shanghai: Bursting with Refugees (July 1937)

Many Chinese cities have histories dating back centuries if not millennia. Shanghai's in contrast has a very short history. It began when the British founded a concession in Shanghai after the first Opium War (1842). This ignited the growth of one of the world's great cities. For centuries it was an insignificant fishing village on the edge of the muddy Huang Pu River--a Yangtze tributary. Shanghai became a great city and its location on Yangtze. This provided merchants access into the Chinese interior. Shanghai became the most important port in Asia. The world's largest trading and banking firms established presences along the Bund. The trade in tea, silk, and porcelain helped buid a great city. A huge Chinese city grew up around the international settlement, attracted by the jobs and industry generated by the Internatiinal Sttlement. It was also a refuge for the disorder and war that swept China in the 20th century with the fall of the Imperial Regime. Refugees poured into Shangahai when the Japanese seized Manchuria (1931). Shangahi was Japan's primary target when the Japanese invaded China proper. And the refugee influx reached crisis proprtions when the Japanese invaded China proper (July 1937). Tragically Shanghai was also a priority target for the Japanese.

Shanghai (August-November 1937)

Nationalist soldiers resisted the Japanese at the Marco Polo Bridge. Thery were not acting on Chiang Kai-shek who favored a moderate approach to the Japanese. Japan launched, however, a major response which would become a full invasion of China proper-the Second Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese seized Peiking (July 29, 1937). Shanghai was China's principal port and its location close to the capital of Peiking made it stategically the most important city in China. The war for Shanghai began about 10 years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The importance of Shanghai meant that it would be the scene of major combat. Chiang who refused to commit the Nationalist Army to defend Manchuria, realized that he could not refuse to resist an invasion of China proper and maintain his position. He thus ordered the Nationalist forces to resist. Chang had been preparing for just such am attack. He had been training men under the disguise of police training. The Chinese were preparing defensesive lines between Nanking and Shanghai with German military assistance. A junior Japanese officer, First Lieutenant Isao Oyama of the Japanese Naval Special Landing Forces, attempted to take control of Hungchiao Airport (August 9). This was a violation of the ceasefire after the 1932 battle. Chinese policemen resisted the Japanese and killed Oyama. THe Japanese consul general in Shanghai apologized for Oyama's action, but demanded the Chinese police force, the Peace Preservation Corps, to disarm. Japanese troops were moving toward Shanghai as part of the already planned seizure of Shanghai and were using the Oyama incident as a pretext. Chiang also broke the ceasfire agreement by moving troops into Shanghai (August 11). He committed the 87th and 88th divisions, two of the best in his army, to seize and hold Shanghai. Both had bbeen trained by German officers. The battle for Shanghai became the first battle of the War. The struggle for Shanghai, called the Battle of Songhu by the Chinese, would be the first of 22 battle battles in the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese for diplomatic reasons did not want to refer to it as a war and instread referred to it as the China Incident. The small and poorly trained Chinese Air Force attempted to support the soldirts defending Shaghai. They attacked Japanese ships in the Shanghai harbor (August 13, 1937). They targeted the light cruiser Idzumo. As a crowd of civilians cheered, bombs missed the cruiser and fell on the Palace Hotel and in the street full of civilians. The carnage became known as "Bloody Saturday". They put up a major fight for the city which lasted 3 months. Whole districts of Shanghai were destroyed in the fighting. The Japanese mobilized over 200,000 troops supported by naval vessels and aircraft to seize Shanghai. . The Japanese bombed the city which had no air denses [Jing-hui, pp. 109-11] There arecreports that the Japanese Army used chemical weapons in the battle for Shanghai. They eventualy drove the Chinese out, but were shocked at the intensity of the Chinese fighting and the scale of their own losses. The Japanese victory was in part as a result of naval artillery fire and aerial bombing. Chiang eventually was forced to order a fighting withdrawal into the interior. The Japanese army marched into the city, seizing assets and carting away anything of value. They conducted wide spread attacks on Chinese civilians when the army entered the city. The stuborn fighting in Shanghai was one reason the Japanese acted so brutally when they took Nanking. The Japanese respected the European enclaves.

Nanking (December 1937)

The Nationalists moved ther capital to Nanking/Nanjing, TheJapanese moved up the Yanghtze River Valley from Shanaghai. They seized Nanjing and Northern Shanxi. The Japanese Army consisted of a well-equiped force of about 200,000 men. The Nationalist Army was substantially larger, but poorly equipped and led. When reaching Nanjing the Japanese conducted an orgy of killing virtually unrivaled in modern history--the Rape of Nanking. Nationalist soldiers who surrendered and civilians were killed in mass, men, wome, and children. No one knows the total number of victims. Some historians believe that 300,000 people may have been killed.

Panay Incident (December 1937)

American involvement in China did not begin with the Japanese invasion and the Roosevelt Administration. American naval vessels began cruises on the Yangtze River in 1854. The mission of these early cruises was to show the flag and support American consular officers. The naval mission grew ever more complex as the authority of the Imperial Government deteriorated in the late 19th century and became an important instrument of American foreign policy. Operations included putting landing parties ashore on occassion to protect U.S. interests. The U.S. Navy after the turn of the 20th century began to conduct the patrols in a more organized fashion. The Navy deployed purpose-built gunboats and began coordinting operations with the Britidsh Royal Navy. The U.S. Navy was also deployed in anti-piracy patrols off the Chinese coast. Japanese forces were moving up the Yangtze River toward the Chinese capital which had been evacuated from Peeking to Nanking. Two U.S. Navy gunboats were at Nanking, the U.S.S. Luzon and the U.S.S. Panay. Chinese officials notified the American Embassy on November 27, 1937 that it must evacuate. The Ambassador and most of the Embasy personnel departed the net day on the U.S.S. Luzon. The rest of the Embassy staff remained another week. Ambassador Grew notified the Japanese government on December 1 that the U.S.S. Panay would be departing. Panay took on Embassy officials and some civilians and began upriver. It escortied three Standard Oil barges. Two Royal Navy gunboats and some other British boats followed. A Japanese artillery position commanded by a Colonel Hashimoto fired on the ships, hoping that it might precipatate a war with America and end civilian influence in the Japanese Government--finalizing the "Showa Restoration." Panay flew an American flag as well as had Americn flags painted on the awnings and topsides. December 12 was a clear, sunny day with perfect visability. At about 1330, three Japanese Navy bombmers attacked Panay followed by 12 more planes that dive-bombed and 9 fighters that strafed. The attack was deliberate lasting over 20 minutes. As Panay began sinking, the Japanese sraffed the lifeboats and river bank. Two sailors and civilian were killed. there were 11 sailors seriously wounded. passenger died of their wounds; eleven officers and men were seriously wounded. [Morrison, pp. 16-18] There was no outcry in America for war. The Japanese Government which had not ordered the attack, promtly appolgized and offered compensation. The attack was, however, coordinated by military officers. Both the American public and the Roosevelt Administration were releaved that war could be overted. [Freidel, pp. 290-291.] The Japanese when they arrived in Nanking proceeded to conduct one of the greatest attrocities in their campaign in China--known to history as the Rape of Nanking". The Panay was also involved in intelligence collection. The Admistration for a while considered economic sanctions against the Japanese. The Navy gunboats missions continued through 1941 until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese carfully avoided any further incidents. The Japanese officers responsible, however, got what they so ardently desired nearly 4 years later.

Yellow River Dykes (June 1938)

The Yellow River was Cradel of Chinese civilization -- one of the great River Valleys. It became a wapon of wae (1938). The Japanese were stunned at Chinese resistance in Shanghai, but then captured Kaifeng and Nanjing, China’s capital. When the Japanese threatened Wuhan, the temporary new capital that the government had fled to after the fall of Nanjing, the Chinese realized the desperation of their situation. Not only were the Japanese moving up the Yantze, but another pincer was approaching Wuhan from the north. Nationalist leader Chiang-Kai-Shek ordered that Yellow River dam resrvoir by Zhengzhou be opened. The dykes were breached at Huayuankou (Flower Grden Mouth). This was at an important juncture of the River and sne with the advancing apanese forces only some 30 miles away. The Nationalists didn’t inform the populace of this plan, as this bwould have alerted the Japanese. The Yellow River reaches its peak during the summer, making it the perfect time time to order the breach. The goal was to slow the Japanese advance. This would give the Chinese forces time to escape from Zhengzhou and Wuhan southwest into the interior of China. The effects of the breach were disastrous for the Chinese people living in the flood plain. Estimates suggesr ghat at leasr half a nillion peiple died nd millions of more became homeless. [Lary] A huge area of fertile labd was made unilable bcause of all the silt. The flood did emporarily slow the Japanese advance. It was only a temmporary inconvenienc, but the Nationalist plan did suceeded in allowing their forces to escape.

Hankow/Wuhan (October 1938)

Hankow is now known as Wuhan. It was one of the Yangtze River cities first opened up to foreign trade by the Treaty of Tienstin (1858). It was a city of major commercial importance. Hankow was also a major river port on the Yangtze River. The famous China clipper shipss, such as the British Cutty Sark, loaded tea at Hankow in the late 1860s and early 1870s. During the Yangtze high-water season oceangoing vessels even during the early 20th century could reach the port. The middle and lower Yangtze had not been bridged and Hankow was a major ferry point for north-south commerce across the wide Yangtze River. Hankow at the time of the battle was a city of 1.2 million Chines and 0.3 million foreigners. It was the industrial heart of China. Steel works at Hanyang accounting for most of China's steel production. After the horific fall of Nanking, the Chinese government moved to Hankow. Hankow thus became the war-time capital of China and thus s Japanese military objective. The Communists and the Kuomintang briefly formed a united front against the Japanese agressor. The Chinese Goverment operated in Hankow for 10 months. One historian writes, "While it lasted, Hankow became a world center for the democratic struggle against fascism,and became almost a tourist stopoff for writers and demi-diplomats who swooped through to visit the front." [Hayford] The Chinese were not equipped or prepared to fight a modern war. Thus the general practice was to retreat in the face of a Japanese offensive. For Hankow, the Chinese fought. The Battle of Wuhan longest and one of the most importabt of the War. It largest four and half months (June-October 1938). Hankow finally fell to the Japanese (October25, 1938).


Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Rendezuous with Destiny (Little Brown: Boston, 1990), 710p.

Lart, Diana. Diana. "Drowned earth: The strategic breaching of the Yellow River Dyke, 1938." War in History, vol. 8, no. 2 (Sage Publications, Ltd., 2001), pp. 191–207.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. "The Rising Sun in the Pacific" History of United States Naval Operations in World War II Vol. 3.


Navigate the CIH World ar II Section:
[Return to Main Japanese invasion page]
[Return to Main World War II Chinese city page]
[Return to Main World War II Chinese-Japanese War page]
[Return to Main military style page]
[About Us]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]

Created: 12:12 AM 6/7/2010
Last updated: 2:36 AM 1/7/2022