Nanjing 1937 - Battle for a Doomed City, Peter Harmsen

Nanjing 1937 - Battle for a Doomed City, Peter Harmsen

The sack of Nanjing was one of the most brutal and sustained Japanese war crimes of the Sino-Japanese War, a conflict that was marked by the extreme brutality with which it was fought. It came at the end of a campaign that had seen the Japanese Army in China slip out of the control of the leaders back in Japan and drag its country into a war of attrition in the vast Chinese countryside that Japan was unable to win. 

The book starts after the end of the battle of Shanghai, which had seen the Japanese capture the city after an unexpectedly hard battle against the best of the Chinese army. We follow the debate on both sides about what to do next, and in particular on the arguments within the Japanese army about the way to end the war. The army command in China was generally in favour of an attack on the inland city of Nanjing, at that time the capital of China, while the political leadership in Japan was split, with many concerned about the danger of being dragged into a war of attrition in the depths of the Chinese countryside. At this point the Japanese command structure was in a dreadful state, and policy ended up being set by the comparatively junior officers in China, many of whom had no intention of obeying any orders not to advance inland. The high command was slowly worn down, and the advance on Nanjing authorised. The Japanese advance caused a debate within the Chinese leadership on the wisdom of defending Nanjing, before the decision was made to make more than a token defence, without committing too much of the surviving part of the army to the battle.

The campaign itself is traced in some detail, using eyewitness accounts from both sides to document the progress of the battle. The scene also swaps back to the city, where fear of the advancing Japanese caused increasing chaos, and also triggered efforts by the international community in the city to create a ‘safe zone’. After some hard fighting on the road to Nanjing we follow the short siege, which was followed by weeks of Japanese atrocities. Most of the eyewitness accounts from this period come from the Europeans and Americans in the city, manly because they were the ones who survived.

This is a compelling but somewhat depressing look at one of the most vicious campaigns of the period, one that led to scenes that would be replayed many times across Europe and Asian over the next few years as the German and Japanese war machines briefly conquered vast empires.

1 - A New Battle Begins
2 - 'Moving Out!'
3 - The Line is Crossed
4 - Battle at Lake Tai
5 - Winter
6 - Enemy at the Gates
7 - Decisive Days
8 - The Fall
9 - Terror
10 - Aftermath

Author: Peter Harmsen
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 320
Publisher: Casemate
Year: 2015

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