Conversations: Peter Harmsen on the Battle of Shanghai in 1937

Peter HarmsenFor a long time, the Battle of Shanghai (淞沪会战) was just a footnote in my layman’s knowledge of the Sino-Japanese war. Having read Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, Peter Harmsen’s thoroughly researched and riveting account of the conflict, I realized how wrong I was. Taking place in a matter of months, from August to November, the Japanese military’s victory in Shanghai had paved the way for the invasion of the capital Nanjing. The Battle of Shanghai was also the first instance of urban warfare, five years before Stalingrad, ensnaring a million Japanese and Chinese soldiers who thundered through a dense cosmopolitan city, leaving a trail of blood and rubble. Meanwhile, a largely untouched foreign community, cocooned in the safety of the concessions, watched the city collapse. Edgar Snow in 1941 contextualized it perfectly, “It was as though Verdun had happened on the Seine, in full view of a Right Bank Paris that was neutral; as though a Gettysburg was fought in Harlem, while the rest of Manhattan remained a non-belligerent observer.”

For someone who has photographed the city’s nooks and crannies for years, I relished Harmsen’s rich visual map of Japan’s stranglehold of a city that was unsuccessfully defended by an inferior Chinese army, “a contest of flesh against steel”. His book was livened by voices of the conflict’s leading players, Generals Chang Kaishek and Matsui Iwane, senior officers executing battle plans on the front lines to foot soldiers losing verve and sanity. I was determined to reach out to Harmsen for an interview to learn more about his experience writing the book, which I highly recommend to readers.

Website:  Book: English (UK) (US), 中文版, Românesc

[Cover photo above: Japanese soldiers engaged in battle in front of a large Coca-Cola ad on North Sichuan Road (四川北路) which Harmsen speculates to be during late summer 1937, evidenced by their olive-green summer uniforms. Read more about it here. Source: Wikimedia]

SAT: In your prologue, you noted that the Battle of Shanghai remains “a gaping hole in the historiography” of the 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese War, and remains under-explored or even unknown to a non-Chinese audience. Why do you think that is, given Shanghai’s cosmopolitan status in the 1930s, the global coverage the battle received in 1937, and that the Shanghai campaign had directly led to the Nanjing Massacre?

PH: I think there are multiple reasons. Perhaps the most important one is the language barrier. It’s true that a number of first-class western correspondents covered the war, and some of them even wrote books afterwards about their experiences. But to really get below the surface and understand the whats, whens, whos and especially whys of the 1937 battle, you need to be able to read the Chinese and Japanese sources. Almost as important, I think, is the fact that the battle has been almost completely overshadowed by what came just a couple of years afterwards – World War Two. We see a similar phenomenon in the writing of European history during the years just prior to World War One. Who, outside the narrow circles of specialized historians, remembers the First and Second Balkan War of 1912-1913 or the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912?


Japanese soldiers march into battle while curious civilians look on. One of the most remarkable aspects of the battle was how life just went on part of Shanghai not directly affected by the war. Source: Wikimedia

SAT: I read somewhere that you spent 15 years researching for the book. Is that true?

PH: On and off. I have been interested in China’s World War Two experience since the late 1990s, when I studied history at National Taiwan University. For example, I wrote a paper then about Deng Xiaoping’s role as a guerrilla commander during the war with Japan. Since then, I have used whatever opportunities that have turned up to dig deeper into this fascinating part of history. For example, I wrote a series of articles in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the war. Some were based on interviews of former American and Chinese pilots. Others were about Chinese academics who, as young idealistic students, had gone on the long dangerous journey to live and work in China’s wartime capital Chongqing.


Members of Japan’s elite Special Naval Landing, the “marines”, who held a narrow strip of land against a massive Chinese force in the last days of August. Source: Wikimedia

SAT: I liked how you wove in the complexities and uncertainties involved in tactical planning and the myriad of emotions experienced on the battlefield using memoirs of Chinese and Japanese generals like Zhang Fakui and Matsui Iwane, and front line soldiers. Did the battle strategies and outcomes all match up when you cross-referenced sources or did you observe a dissonance attributed to bias or retrospect?

PH: Different sources describing the same historical event indeed often produce a form of dissonance that you just can’t responsibly ignore. More specifically, when you are talking about military history, it’s also interesting that battles which one side depicts as major events sometimes barely turns up on the radar of the opposing side. But of course, the dissonance is a healthy reminder that no single source will ever contain the complete historical truth. And if you are lucky enough to have several sources at your disposal, there’s hope that you can at least achieve an approximation of past events by a sort of textual triangulation.


Chinese officers going over battle plans wearing German M35 helmets. The Chinese army was heavily German-influenced in 1937. Source: Wikimedia


Chinese soldiers form a machine gun nest during the battle in Shanghai. Source: Wikimedia

SAT: You also conducted interviews with war veterans including a survivor of the “Lost Battalion”, a “despite and militarily futile” defense of the remaining Chinese stronghold – a fortress-like Sihang warehouse (四行仓库) – in Zhabei that had largely fallen to Japanese hands. With decades of retrospect, did war veterans reveal anything in person that memoirs had failed to capture?

PH: Very often it’s the case that eyewitnesses say things they would never put to into writing, perhaps because they consider it irrelevant. For example, when I interviewed the survivor from the “Lost Battalion” he told me what happened to him after the Shanghai battle – a part of his story that most written sources overlook. He spent the four years after the battle inside the International Settlement until the Japanese took over that part of the city in December 1941. He ended up in captivity, and he and the other Chinese POWs were taken on a grueling trek across Chinese countryside. At one point the Japanese made them watch the decapitation of a prisoner. There was no attempt at justification, no explanation of what the prisoner had done to meet such a fate. It seems to have been pure terror tactics, and the constant meting out of violence to keep the enemy prisoners subdued. So very often you get a lot of extra information by interviewing veterans. But of course you have to be aware of the usual caveats of oral history. People forget details, or worse, they remember things that never happened. You have to use your instincts of what rings true and what doesn’t.


A bullet-ridden Sihang warehouse (四行仓库). Source: Shanghai Municipal Archives

SAT: It seemed that the Japanese stealth attack via Hangzhou Bay had been decisive in their victory in capturing Shanghai. The Chinese defense had been deemed weak, even Chiang admitted fault in not being able to predict the Hangzhou landing. Do you believe the Hangzhou landing could have been averted or was the overall “unstoppable” Japanese momentum in gaining ground all around Shanghai made Chinese defeat inevitable?

PH: It’s true that the Hangzhou Bay landing at the start of November beat all expectations, even among the Japanese. It made many of the field commanders think that they ought to exploit the sudden momentum and move beyond their immediate brief – to win the battle of Shanghai – and go for the big prize – the capital Nanjing. Could it have been avoided? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, the Japanese units put on shore in Hangzhou Bay were of pretty high standard, especially the 6th Division. Besides, the Japanese were at the cutting edge when it came to amphibious warfare in the 1930s. That being said, the landing in Hangzhou Bay met with unforeseen problems. Unloading heavy equipment took much longer than expected because the natural conditions weren’t suitable and the road network was virtually non-existent, and eventually part of the invasion force had to be redirected to Shanghai harbor and disembark there. So a strong and determined Chinese defense could probably have made some difference. But it’s a question if it could have done more than just delay the overall Japanese advance. I seriously doubt the Chinese side had any real chance of throwing the Japanese back into the sea. The Japanese superiority – especially in artillery and aircraft – was simply too overwhelming by early November.


Japanese landing in Hangzhou Bay, east of Zhejiang province, a move that brought them closer to securing full control of Shanghai. I question if this really was the landing in process due to the prominent presence of officers on the horizon, hardly the look of a stealth operation. Source: Wikimedia

Shanghai IJA soldiers enter by canals

Japanese army entering through canals as part of landings to enter Shanghai. Source:

SAT: Would you agree strongly that the Battle of Shanghai had been a neglected one in the wider international community? Despite Chiang’s efforts in propaganda, going as far as timing battles that sacrificed soldiers’ lives to gain support during the Brussels Conference in late 1937, no major Western power, not even the Soviet Union stepped in.

PH: At the time, the Shanghai battle was the subject of a quite substantial amount of reporting by the major western media. It was often on the front page of The New York Times. It’s easy to see why. Shanghai was a well-known city, and there were significant western commercial interests tied up in the area. It wasn’t like the western public was unaware of what was going on, the way that, say, many of us have only vague ideas about contemporary conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. The question was what to do about it. The general feeling in the west was it was better to stay away from the trouble. The British financier Vandeleur Grayburn was of course tongue-in-cheek when when he offered the following observation about the Sino-Japanese War: “It’s just the natives fighting,” but it does seem to reflect a certain sense of western aloofness.

Urban warefare in Shanghai

Urban warfare in Shanghai where buildings serve as targets, defense and navigation points. Building unknown. Source: Wikimedia

NYT Shanghai Battle 1937

Reportage of the Battle of Shanghai in the New York Times, August 14, 1937. Source:

As for the extent to which Chiang Kai-shek was waging the battle to attract foreign attention, and even lure foreign powers into the war on China’s side, it’s the subject of some debate among historians. Jay Taylor dismisses the idea in his biography of Chiang. I personally think that most people, most of the time, when caught up in rapidly changing situations, are guided by multiple motives. Or sometimes, they may be pushed by the circumstances into a certain course of action without even verbalizing the reasons for acting the way they do. The rationalizing only comes later.


Zhabei district on fire in Shanghai, October 1937. Source: Wikimedia

SAT: You’ve cultivated an impressive trove of archive photographs and maps, many of which are featured in your book. Can you share how you’ve built this collection and is there a particularly memorable one?

PH: They are from all kinds of sources. I bought some photos in second-hand book shops in Beijing. I think the luckiest find was a photo album that once belonged to a Japanese soldier. I bought it before I had developed a specific interest in the Shanghai battle, and only later did I realize that the photos were from that particular event.

SAT: Lastly, what made the book especially interesting for me was the visual navigation of the battle across Greater Shanghai including the intense conflict in Jiangwan Town, military scouting from Sheshan Basilica and the bombing of the Great World Amusement Center off now-Yanan Lu. Did you ever replicate battle treks from the Shanghai campaign?

PH: During my trips to Shanghai I have often, when time allowed, visited some of the old battle sites. But of course not much that existed in 1937 has survived to this day in a recognizable form. Probably the Bund is the most important exception.

Shanghai 1937 book

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1 Comment

  • Reply March 15, 2015


    Wonderful interview; how great that you reached the author!

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