Category Archives: military

Shanghai, 1937: Taking No Prisoners

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2993-3008:

The maltreatment of prisoners was mutual. Accounts of Japanese prisoners being kept for long by the Chinese were virtually non-existent. Frequently, this was due to circumstances at the front, whether in the urban areas or the surrounding countryside. Under confusing and dangerous battlefield conditions, there was simply nowhere to place captives. Officers saved themselves endless trouble by simply ordering prisoners killed. However, even when facilities were available, nothing was done to accommodate enemy POWs. Dutchman de Fremery never saw or heard about a single instance of any Japanese troops being among the 20,000 injured soldiers being treated at Chinese hospitals in the Shanghai area.

Especially at the start of the Sino-Japanese war, the treatment of Japanese prisoners at the hands of the Chinese “beggared belief” and marked a throw-back to a less-civilized past, according to the German war correspondent Lily Abegg. Often civilians took part in the maltreatment of captured Japanese. Abegg mentioned an example of two Japanese pilots who were shot down during a raid of Nanjing. They were “torn to pieces” by a furious mob, and when military police arrived they could not find a single trace of them remaining on the scene.

The killing of Japanese prisoners, often in a horrific fashion, was a source of concern for the Chinese command. It wanted to be able to show off well-treated prisoners for propaganda purposes, and doubtless, it also wanted to exploit the captives for their intelligence value. In the end, it offered a money prize for any Chinese, soldier or civilian, who was able to hand over a living Japanese prisoner to the authorities. However, this had little effect. “The soldier’s hatred toward the Japanese,” a Chinese general said a little later in the war, “is enormous. It’s impossible to have a prisoner delivered to headquarters although we pay from 50 to 100 yuan upon delivery, and there are severe punishments for not doing so. The soldiers say that the prisoners die along the way.”

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Qualities of Japanese Soldiers in China, 1930s

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1427-1458:

Most Japanese soldiers lived up to the high expectations placed on their shoulders at home and abroad. Physically, they tended to be short by western standards, but they were strong and capable of enduring immense hardship. This was as a result of rigorous training combined with draconian discipline, underpinned by the threat and liberal use of corporal punishment. The training was so efficient that a Japanese soldier entering the reserve never ceased to be a soldier again. In the early months of the war, American correspondent John Goette met a Japanese private in his late 30s who had just been called up from his civilian occupation as a dentist. “Hundreds of thousands like him had made a swift change from civilian life to the handling of a rifle on foreign soil,” he wrote. “Twenty years after his conscript training, this dentist was again a soldier.”

An added element in the training of Japanese soldiers was indoctrination, which came in the form of repetition of the virtues—self-sacrifice, obedience and loyalty to the emperor—which the soldiers had learned since childhood. The result was mechanic obedience on the battlefield. “Even though his officers appear to have an ardor which might be called fanaticism,” a U.S. military handbook remarked later in the war, “the private soldier is characterized more by blind and unquestioning subservience to authority.” The downside was that soldiers and junior officers were not encouraged to think independently or take the initiative themselves. They expected to be issued detailed orders and would follow them slavishly. When the situation changed in ways that had not been foreseen by their commanders—which was the norm rather than the exception in battle—they were often left perplexed and unable to act.

It could be argued that the Japanese military had few other options than to train its soldiers in this way, since to a large extent it drew its recruits from agricultural areas where there was limited access to education. It was said that for every 100 men in a Japanese unit, 80 were farm boys, ten were clerks, five factory workers, and five students. Nevertheless, reading was a favorite pastime among Japanese soldiers. Military trains were littered with books and magazines, mostly simple pulp fiction. When the trains stopped at stations, even the locomotive’s engineer could be observed reading behind the throttle. Some of them were prolific writers, too. A large number of Japanese in the Shanghai area had brought diaries and wrote down their impressions with great perception and eloquence. Some officers even composed poems in the notoriously difficult classical style.

Many Japanese soldiers grew large beards while in China, but in a twist that was not easy to understand for foreigners, they could sometimes mix a fierce martial exterior with an almost feminine inner appreciation of natural beauty. Trainloads of Japanese soldiers would flock to the windows to admire a particularly striking sunset. It was not unusual to see a Japanese soldier holding his rifle and bayonet in one hand, and a single white daisy in the other. “Missionaries have found,” wrote U.S. correspondent Haldore Hanson, “that when bloodstained Japanese soldiers break into their compounds during a ‘mopping up’ campaign, the easiest way to pacify them is to present each man with a flower.”

Many Japanese soldiers also carried cameras into battle, and as was the case with the Germans on the Eastern Front, their snapshots came to constitute a comprehensive photographic record of their own war crimes. Journalist John Powell remembered his revulsion when he saw a photo of two Japanese soldiers standing next to the body of a Chinese woman they had just raped. He had obtained the image from a Korean photo shop in Shanghai where it had been handed in to be developed. “The soldiers apparently wanted the prints to send to their friends at home in Japan,” he wrote. “Japanese soldiers seemingly had no feelings whatsoever that their inhuman actions transgressed the tenets of modern warfare or common everyday morals.”

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Reputation of the Chinese Army at Shanghai, 1937

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 743-755, 2386-2403:

Chinese officers died in large numbers from day one. One regiment lost seven company commanders in the same short attack. There were several explanations for the high incidence of death among the senior ranks. One was an ethos among some officers to lead from the front in an attempt to instill courage into their men. However, even leading from the rear could be highly risky in urban combat, where the opposing sides were often just yards removed from each other and where the maze-like surroundings provided by multi-story buildings and narrow alleys could lead to a highly fluid situation, so that the enemy was just as likely to be behind as in front. In addition, soldiers on both sides deliberately targeted enemy officers, perhaps more so than in other conflicts, because stiff leadership hierarchies placed a premium on being able to decapitate the opposing unit.

First and foremost, however, the massive fatality rates among officers and, to an even larger extent, the rank and file were the result of Chinese forces employing frontal attacks against a well-armed entrenched enemy. The men who, as a result, were dying by the hundreds were China’s elite soldiers, the product of years of effort to build up a modern military. They formed the nation’s best hope of being able to resist Japan in a protracted war. Nevertheless, on the very first day of battle, they were being squandered at an alarming, unsustainable rate. After just a few hours of offensive operations with very little gain to show for them, Chiang Kai-shek decided to cut his losses. “Do not carry out attacks this evening,” he commanded Zhang Zhizhong in a telegram. “Await further orders.”

The Chinese Army’s performance during the initial stage of the fighting in Shanghai changed the world’s perception of the nation’s military capabilities. China, which had lost every war for the past century, invariably to nations much smaller than itself, had suddenly taken a stand. “There is most emphatically no resemblance whatever discernable between the Chinese army of yesterday and the confident, well-disciplined men whom I saw,” wrote Hubert Hessell Tiltman, after his visit to the Chinese frontline. “They are facing incredible hardships with a courage which deserves the most flattering tribute that a pen can write.”

At Shanghai, the Chinese Army had seen more bitter fighting than anyone could have anticipated, and it had lost manpower that had taken years to build up. However, it had won prestige and respect, even among its Japanese adversaries. “The era of timid and despicable Chinese is gone,” a Japanese soldier told his compatriots back home. “Some of them are quite courageous.” Even the withdrawal on September 12 was greeted with sympathy and admiration in capitals around the world. The feeling was that the Chinese Army had distinguished itself with its “magnificent . . . resistance against the overwhelming weight of Japanese metal,” Reuters reported from London.

The Chinese Army was a riddle to many of the foreigners who saw it in action. Its soldiers often did not live up at all to western ideas about what hardened veterans ought to be like. “They looked as though a high wind would blow them away,” wrote a foreign correspondent after seeing members of the elite 88th Division from up close. “A few carried oiled-paper umbrellas. One actually carried a canary in a cage. Many walked hand in hand. It seemed preposterous that these thin, tattered boys . . . were heroes of the Chinese Republic!” Nevertheless, these boys with their paper umbrellas were able to carry out amazing feats in battle.

Perhaps it was their stoicism and ability to endure hardship that made the difference.

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German Military Advisors in China, 1930s

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1225-1291:

Operation Iron Fist was the main German contribution in the initial stages of the Shanghai campaign, but it was far from the only one. German advisors were present both on the staffs and at the frontline. Their pivotal role was no secret, and even the newspapers regularly reported about them. Wearing the uniforms of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, the German advisors not only provided tactical input, but gave the Chinese troops an invaluable morale boost, showing them that they were not on their own in the struggle against the mighty and ruthless Japanese Empire. The “German War” was the name that some Japanese gave to the battle of Shanghai, and for good reason.

When war with Japan broke out in the summer of 1937, the German advisory corps consisted of nearly 70 officers, ranging from newly graduated second-lieutenants to five full generals. It was a major asset for the Chinese, and one that they were free to exploit. Even though most of the Germans were in China on short-term contracts and could have left once the shooting started, they felt an obligation to stay at a key moment when their host nation’s survival was at stake. “We all agreed that as private citizens in Chinese employment there could be no question of our leaving our Chinese friends to their fate,” Alexander von Falkenhausen, the top advisor, wrote later. “Therefore I assigned the German advisors wherever they were needed, and that was often in the frontlines.”

The situation was the culmination of a relationship that had evolved over a period of several years. Germany had started playing a role in China’s military modernization in the late 1920s, with initial contacts facilitated by Chiang Kai-shek’s admiration for German efficiency. The German government’s decision to abandon all extraterritorial privileges in 1921, followed seven years later by the diplomatic recognition of Chiang’s government, also created a benevolent atmosphere. In addition, as a result of its defeat in the Great War, Germany was a relatively safe bet for China. It was, in the 1920s and early 1930s at least, the only major power unable to resume its imperialist policies of the years prior to 1914. Germany and China were in fact in similar situations, Chiang once mused. “They were oppressed by foreign powers,” he said, “and had to free themselves from those chains.”

Yet another factor behind the expanding Sino-German military ties was the lack of suitable employment for officers in Weimar Germany, whose military, the Reichswehr, was severely curtailed by the demands of the post-war Versailles Treaty. The shadow existence they led at home contrasted starkly with the prestige they enjoyed in China. By the mid-1930s, the Germans had a status among the Chinese that no other westerners had ever experienced. When Chiang met with his generals, his chief German advisor at the time, Hans von Seeckt, would sit at his desk, giving the signal that the foreign officer’s place in the hierarchy, while informal, was near the top. When Seeckt had to go by train to a north Chinese sea resort for health reasons, he traveled in Chiang’s personal saloon carriage and was saluted at every station by an honorary formation.

Seeckt visited China the first time in 1933, and immediately set about salvaging bilateral ties strained by German condescension towards the Chinese. As the host nation and employer, China was to be shown respect, was his order to the German officers stationed in the country, and being a traditional German, he expected to be obeyed. When he arrived in China for his second tour the year after, he was accompanied by Falkenhausen. No novice to Asia, Falkenhausen hit it off with Chiang Kai-shek almost immediately. It helped that both knew Japanese, the language of their soon-to-be enemy, and could converse freely without having to go through aninterpreter. It was an additional advantage that Falkenhausen’s wife was on superb terms with Madame Chiang. Falkenhausen’s break came when Seekt, suffering from poor health, returned to Germany in early 1935. From then on, he was the top German officer inside China.

It is likely that Falkenhausen felt a deep sense of relief to be posted abroad. His mission removed any immediate obligation to return to Germany and work with the Nazis. “In the 30s we could have in good conscience stayed in China,” one of Falkenhausen’s subordinates later rationalized. “China was in much greater danger than Germany.” Falkenhausen had a very personal reason to adopt that rationale. His younger brother, Hans Joachim von Falkenhausen, a war veteran and a member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary Sturm-Abteilung, was executed in a bloody showdown among rival factions inside the party’s ranks in the summer of 1934. He was 36 when he died.

Falkenhausen’s unhappy relationship with Berlin’s new rulers put him on one side of a political generation gap that divided most of the German advisors in China. Among conservative officers of his age and background, feelings about Hitler, a mere corporal in the Great War, ranged from skepticism to adoration; in between was quiet acceptance of an overlap of interests with Germany’s new Nazi rulers, who wanted rapid rearmament and the creation of a vast new army. The younger German officers serving in China were far less ambivalent. They were often ardent Nazis. The racist ideology the young Germans brought with them from home may have contributed to lingering tension with the Chinese. Since most of them expected to leave within no more than a few years, virtually none bothered to change their lifestyles in order to fit into their new surroundings. Rather, in the traditional way of Europeans in Asia, they lived in their own enclave in Nanjing, a small piece of Germany in the heart of China. If they paid any attention to local mores, it was with a shrug of the shoulder. Brought up on austere Prussian ideals, they considered, for example, the Chinese habit of elaborate banquets a costly waste of time and resources.

The Chinese, too, looked at the foreign advisors in mild bewilderment. The German habit of wearing monocles was a cause of wonder and led them to ask why so many were near-sighted on only one eye. A few Chinese did not just puzzle at the behaviour of the strange foreigners, but had attitudes bordering on hostile. Zhang Fakui, for one, appears to have had a particularly delicate relationship with the German advisors. He did not trust them, did not share any secrets with them, and did not take any advice from them. “I had always had a bad impression of the Germans,” he told an interviewer decades later.

Falkenhausen’s own outlook underwent profound change. At the time of his arrival, he had been somewhat indifferent to China, but he gradually grew fonder of the country, and in the end he was very close to accepting an offer of Chinese citizenship from Chiang. As time passed, he even showed signs of divided loyalties between his old and new masters, ignoring pleas from Germany to favor its weapon producers when carrying out arms procurements abroad. Instead, he bought the arms he thought would serve China best, regardless of where they had been manufactured. Finally, he developed a high degree of resentment of the Japanese foe. “It is sheer mockery to see this bestial machine pose as the vanguard of anti-Communism,” he wrote in a report to Oskar Trautmann, the German ambassador in Nanjing.

Once war broke out, Falkenhausen was in favor of an aggressive and all-encompassing strategy against the enemy. He advised that the Japanese garrison in Shanghai be attacked and wiped out, regardless of the fact that it was located inside the International Settlement. He even urged air attacks on western Korea and sabotage on the Japanese home islands. These steps went much further than almost any of his Chinese hosts was prepared to go. Perhaps they feared setting a task for themselves that they could not handle. Falkenhausen, on the other hand, never seemed to have harbored any serious doubts about China’s military prowess. Rather, its army’s willingness to make sacrifices appealed to his special German passion for absolutes. “The morale of the Chinese Army is high. It will fight back stubbornly,” he said. “It will be a struggle to the last extreme.”

I was quite surprised to see photographs in this book of Chinese soldiers wearing German steel helmets and belts with stick grenades. Other Chinese units wore the British-style helmet called Salatschüssel (‘salad bowl’) by the Germans.

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China’s Hopes for U.S. or Soviet Intervention, 1937

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2002-2015:

At a deep cognitive level, there was a reason why Chiang Kai-shek and others around him wanted to believe that not just Soviet aid, but also direct Soviet participation in the hostilities was imminent. This was how they expected a war with Japan to pan out. The Chinese General Staff’s War Plan A, drafted in 1937, was based on the premise that a conflict with Japan would soon set off a larger conflict between Japan and either the Soviet Union or the United States. Therefore, the key aim for China was to hold out against the superior Japanese until it could be relieved by the arrival of a much more powerful ally, whether Russian or American. This plan was not as naive as it might seem, but was based on the calculation that neither Moscow nor Washington would want to see Japanese power grow too strong on the Asian mainland.

Some of Chiang’s commanders believed that it was partly in order to hasten outside intervention that the Chinese leader decided to make Shanghai a battlefield. It was true that Shanghai offered tactical advantages that the north Chinese plain did not, an argument that had been decisive in getting Chiang’s own generals to accept opening a new front there. However, these advantages would seem to be a small reward considering the risk involved in luring the enemy to occupy China’s most prosperous region. Much more crucially perhaps, Shanghai was an international city and a key asset for the world’s most powerful economies, who would not allow it to become Japanese territory, or so he believed. According to Li Zongren, one of China’s top generals, Chiang expanded the war to Shanghai because the importance of the city might lead to “mediation on the part of the European powers and the United States or even to their armed intervention.”

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Reassessing Admiral Yamamoto

From Japanese Destroyer Captain, by Tameichi Hara (Naval Institute Press, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2317-2344:

The great Han Dynasty of China was founded by General Liu Pang in 202 B.C. after he had emerged victorious from a series of many battles in a great civil war. One day, after gaining the throne, Generalissimo Liu was chatting with his chief of staff, General Han Tsin:

Liu: “How do you rate me as a general?”

Han: “I think Your Majesty can command, at most, an army of a few divisions.”

Liu: “And what is your own ability?”

Han: “The more armies of as many possible divisions I command the better I work.”

Liu: “How does it happen that I am an emperor while you remain a general?”

Han: “You are a born leader of leaders.”

Liu was one of the greatest emperors and Han one of the greatest generals in history. Few admirals have enjoyed such high reputation as did Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in World War II. He had great ability, but I feel that his reputation as a naval leader was greater than he deserved. I do not mean to compare Yamamoto categorically with Liu, but in respect of their actual abilities, they are comparable.

Despite Japan’s miserable defeat in the Pacific War, the nation is still inclined to regard Yamamoto as a hero. Postwar writings have criticized other military and naval leaders, but not Yamamoto. If my remarks on Yamamoto seem severe it is not that I have any personal feelings against him; this is just the first writing by a Japanese military man to be at all critical of him.

To me Admiral Yamamoto was a born leader of leaders and for that he deserved the almost religious respect accorded him. But he was not qualified to command a million tons of ships and their crews. It was tragic that he was chosen to head the Combined Fleet.

Many of my colleagues believe that Yamamoto would have been an ideal Navy Minister, and there was a movement under way among certain Naval officers to have him named to this post. Their idea was that Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai should command the Combined Fleet. That move collapsed when Yonai, who strongly opposed war, refused, saying, “I am not a fighting admiral, and would only make things worse with the Army. Furthermore, if such a stiff-necked man as Yamamoto becomes Navy Minister he will surely be assassinated by Army hotheads.”

The real trouble was the Army. When the war began the cabinet was headed by General Hideki Tojo. Admiral Shigetaro Shimada, the Navy Minister, was known to be a Tojo stooge. The Navy chief of staff, Admiral Osami Nagano, was not strong enough to oppose Army plans. In criticizing Yamamoto, his actions and inaction, consideration must be given to all these factors which served to hamstring him.

Throughout his career Yamamoto was known to be a superb gambler. He was skilled in all games of chance, especially poker. His decision to attack Pearl Harbor was a gamble which paid tremendous odds. It is strange, therefore, that Yamamoto never again played his cards for all they were worth, as a gambler should. The lessons of the Coral Sea battle were not applied to Midway, where Yamamoto split his forces—to his detriment—between his prime objective and the Aleutians. Yamamoto was undoubtedly preoccupied with preserving his forces.

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Japanese Naval Academy Brutality, 1918

From Japanese Destroyer Captain, by Tameichi Hara (Naval Institute Press, 2013), Kindle Loc. 321-346:

Eta Jima is a small island facing the spacious harbor of the naval port of Kure, near Hiroshima, in the Inland Sea. Our course of studies at the Academy lasted four years. Except for summer vacations and a few short days of home leave, we lived on this island in complete isolation from the outer world.

Three days after my enrollment, as I was about to enter my dormitory, a third-year man shouted harshly at me, “Halt!” When I did, he hurried over and demanded angrily, “Why did you fail to salute me?”

I did not know what to answer, as I had not even seen him until after his command.

“Attention!” he roared. “Stand with your feet apart and be prepared. I’m going to knock out some of your laxity.”

He hit me in the face with his fist a dozen times. If I had been standing at attention, his first blow would have knocked me to the ground. This treatment came as a great shock to me. I trudged into my billet bruised and bleeding.

The next day at breakfast a senior discovered that my uniform was improperly buttoned, and I received another dozen blows on my swollen face. My second assailant was stronger than the first. My left ear kept ringing all the rest of the day.

When a plebe was singled out for discipline, all other students in his platoon were lined up and given one blow. All plebes were subjected to this unique system of discipline, from which there was no respite. Each Sunday the 180 freshmen were assembled on the parade ground and made to stand at attention for four or five hours under the broiling sun. Instructors and their upper classmen “assistants” kept watching and ordering us. The hours of this Sunday lesson were punctuated by almost continuous fist beatings.

After a few months of such treatment the newcomers became sheeplike in their obedience. Every man’s face bore evidence of the brutality we endured. My ear trouble became chronic, and I suffer from it to this day.

For some of the boys the rigors of this discipline did not seem to be too much of a shock. They had perhaps grown up in a similar environment. In some Japanese homes a stern father chastised his children liberally. In many provincial schools the boys were treated tyrannically by their teachers.

For me it was different. I was the proud son of a samurai family. No member of my family had ever tried to hit me. In my schooling harsh methods of discipline were never employed.

Perhaps I was spoiled to some extent. Perhaps I was not ready for a military career. At any rate, the Eta Jima discipline outraged and embittered me. Even today I remember those early days in the Academy with a bad taste in my mouth.

Certain of my seniors were sadistic brutes. They took singular delight in terrorizing freshmen. To this day I feel a revulsion at seeing these men, even though we have since shared the labors and miseries of war, and the same luck in surviving it.

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