China’s forgotten Second World War
China was embroiled in the Second World War for four years longer than the USA, lost 14 million lives and suffered atrocities to match anything in Europe. So, says Rana Mitter, isn't it time the west acknowledged its contribution to victory?
Well before it battered London, a Blitz devastated the south-western Chinese city of Chongqing, China’s temporary wartime capital. At noon on 3 May 1939, Zhang Xiluo, a reporter for a local newspaper, was getting ready for lunch. Suddenly, he heard a sound whose terrifying significance he knew well. “At about noon, we heard a short alarm signal,” he recalled. “I didn’t even finish my meal, but got ready to go and hide away in the air-raid shelter in the newspaper office in Jintang Street.” Half an hour later, an even more urgent siren began howling in short, continuous bursts. The last few people left in the newspaper office ran down into the shelter. They were lucky; many of the city’s poorer inhabitants had only makeshift shelters much less able to withstand a powerful blast from the sky. One man later wrote that in his household, “when the air-raid siren sounded, our whole family of more than 10 people just hid under our table.”
At 12.45pm, 36 Japanese bombers appeared in the sky. From inside the shelter Zhang heard the noise of aircraft engines. The deafening sounds of bombing continued for an hour before the all-clear finally sounded. When Zhang went out, he saw that all across the city, from the docks to the residential districts, buildings had been gutted, bombed into hollow wrecks. Even hours later, as darkness fell, the city was filled with the sounds of moaning and screams for help. The journalist interviewed the wounded and relatives of the dead before rushing back to the office to file his report.
But the city had not escaped yet. The next afternoon the sirens sounded once more. At 5.17pm, 27 Japanese aircraft began to bomb Chongqing again. “It was like being in a tiny boat, constantly shaking,” recalled one survivor. “Outside, bomb shrapnel was flying, window glass was shattering and falling to the floor… and there were the sounds of the enemy planes buzzing and machine-guns firing.” When the all-clear signal sounded, just after 7pm, Zhang Xiluo’s newspaper office was still standing, but the buildings all around had been destroyed.
China must resist
Nine key moments in China’s war with Japan, 1937–45
7 July 1937
Japanese and Chinese troops clash at the Marco Polo bridge outside Beijing, leading to all-out war
August – November 1937
Last desperate stand by Nationalist Chinese troops at Shanghai. The writer WH Auden describes the scene as a “charnel-house”
December 1937 – January 1938
Japanese troops capture the Chinese capital of Nanjing, and commit horrific massacres and sexual assaults
A rare moment of Chinese joy as Nationalist troops defeat the Japanese at Taierzhuang in eastern China
In desperation to stop the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek orders the destruction of dykes on the Yellow river. The floods halt the Japanese advance but drown and starve tens of thousands of Chinese
Late 1940 – early 1941
The uneasy co-operation between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists begins to fall apart as both sides jockey for power
8 December 1941
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brings the US and Britain into the war on China’s side, but relations between the three partners remain uneasy
The Cairo Conference on a postwar settlement sees Chiang Kai-shek participating as an equal Allied partner with Roosevelt and Churchill
Spring 1944 – January 1945
Operation Ichig¯o, a Japanese campaign involving half a million troops, devastates large parts of central China