For people in Europe, the Second World War broke out in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, triggering a declaration of war from Britain and France. But for people in China, the war against Japan had already been going on for more than two years.
Throughout the 1930s – following Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in 1931 – there were a series of local skirmishes and face-offs in northern China between Chinese and Japanese troops, which never developed into full-scale war. But on July 7th 1937 a Japanese soldier taking part in military manoeuvres not far from Beijing went missing. When the local Chinese commander refused permission for the Japanese to search the near-by town for him, full-scale war began. This key turning-point took place near an ancient bridge named after the famous medieval Italian traveller to China, and so became known as “the Marco Polo incident”.
Within months the Japanese imperial army had swept down through eastern China, seizing big cities like Beijing and Tianjin; then attacking Shanghai and Nanjing, the Nationalist capital.
From the beginning this was total war, where civilians were not only caught up in the fighting, but were singled out as targets. In Nanjing, for example, over six horrific weeks, men, women and children were subjected to a reign of terror from the occupying Japanese troops, where murder, rape and mutilation became routine. Though the statistics of exactly how many people suffered are disputed, it is now thought that between 20,000 and 40,000 women and girls were raped, and official Chinese figures state that up to 300,000 people were killed. One survivor’s harrowing eye witness account is here.
By mid 1938 the Japanese advance towards the Nationalist military HQ at Wuhan seemed unstoppable. Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek determined on a desperate tactic to stem the Japanese advance: he would deliberately smash the dykes that held back the giant Yellow River and flood the land. Historian Liu Hai Yong records that Chiang agonised long and hard over this decision.
He explains what happened next: “The Japanese had cavalry, soldiers, tanks and artillery – all of which were caught in the flood. Hundreds died on the spot. The ones who were trapped in the water were captured by the National Army.”
Those who witnessed these apocalyptic events were permanently marked by what they saw. For, though it worked as a military tactic in the short run, the Yellow River rampaged across millions of square kilometres in three Chinese provinces. The cost for the people living there was appalling: 800,000 died in the floods or soon after from starvation and disease. The Henan famine of 1942-3 was in part the result of the damage the floods had caused – and cost the lives of another two to three million civilians. Wang Yanchun was a teenager, and remembers how families ate bark and leaves to survive. He even saw desperate parents exchanging their children for food: “ If a man wanted a bride, if he could offer some rice or noodles to the family, the parents would give their daughter to him. “ Hear more of his eye witness account here .
By the time war broke out in Europe, the Japanese and Chinese armies had reached a kind of stalemate on the ground in China. The Nationalist government had withdrawn to Chongqing, impregnable in mountainous Sichuan province. The Communists had taken refuge in their remote bases in Shaanxi. The Japanese were in control of the ports and the vast agricultural lands of eastern China. Communist and Nationalist troops harried the Japanese behind the lines with guerrilla-style operations, and millions of Chinese fled from the occupying armies and were now refugees in western China.
The war took a dramatic turn in December 1941 when Japanese planes bombed American ships in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The USA declared war on Japan and soon – for the first time in more than 4 years of full-scale war – the Chinese began to receive direct help from the Allies. This injection of equipment and other supplies in part enabled them to keep 600,000 Japanese troops, which might otherwise have been able to fight the Allies in south-east Asia and in the Pacific, busy in China.
Food and military supplies from the Allies to support the Chinese war effort began arriving into Kunming in south-west China via a perilous mountain route – known as the Burma road – that had been built by Chinese men, women and children in the late 30s. This road was China’s lifeline once the country’s seaports were all in the hands of the Japanese Imperial army.
Then, in 1942 the advancing Japanese Army cut the Burma road. The consequences for the war effort in China could have been dire, so the decision was made for the world’s biggest airlift to begin. Between 1942 and 1945, American air crew delivered 700,000 tons of essential guns, fuel and other supplies over the Himalayas – ‘the Hump” – to troops in China. The Americans joked that their planes were “flying coffins” – for they were ill-equipped for the task of flying over the highest mountain range on Earth and if anything went wrong, there was nowhere to land and no hope of rescue. As trainee pilot Dai Zhi Jin recalls: “What made the Hump flights dangerous was that you couldn’t make a mistake – or you would lose your life.” This airlift came at a high price: nearly 600 aircraft and 1500 lives were lost.
Even with supplies trickling in through the mountains, conditions in China were still desperate. The civilians of Chongqing, many of whom were refugees fleeing the fighting, were bombed relentlessly. In the parts of central China damaged by the Yellow River flooding millions were on the brink of starvation. Malnutrition and famine stalked the country.
It was essential for the Chinese war effort that the Burma road was reopened. So from 1943, Chinese troops attempted to drive the Japanese out of Yunnan as the first stage of that campaign. (Watch a shocking eyewitness account of this campaign here ). With limited support from the Allies, and fighting across difficult mountainous terrain, cut through by roaring rivers, the Chinese Expeditionary Force focused first on the border town of Tengchong, and then on the Japanese force holding Mount Song. Fighting was fierce and prolonged, and many men on both sides died in this bitter battle to control the Burma road. Eventually the vital life-line between India and China was reopened in January 1945.
As the Expeditionary Force was slowly driving Japanese troops out of south-west China and northern Burma, further east, the biggest single offensive of the entire war in China unfolded from April to December 1944. More than 700,000 soldiers – on both sides – fought a series of battles from the Yellow river to the border with Vietnam known collectively as the Ichigo campaign. The objective of the Imperial Army was to open a land route to Japanese-occupied Vietnam, and on the way destroy the air bases being used by American aircraft. The Japanese achieved their objective but it was not the victory they had hoped for. Though holding the towns and cities after Ichigo, the countryside was still in Chinese hands and Chinese troops could always withdraw, and harry the Japanese from a distance. With supply lines now over-extended, all attempts by the Japanese to capitalise on the success of Ichigo to take more territory to the west ended in failure. Yet again, the biggest losers were the ordinary Chinese civilians of the three provinces where battles raged – as many as 200,000 of them are believed to have died during Operation Ichigo.
The war ended abruptly with the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945 followed by the unconditional surrender of Japan to the Allies. Liliane Willens was a child refugee from Russia, living in Shanghai. She remembers the end of the war vividly: “There was euphoria. In the house and everywhere. We couldn’t believe that the war had ended….All night long people were excited; hugging each other in the streets – hugging everyone they could. And suddenly all the flags came out.” Hear her firsthand account of 7 years “Stateless in Shanghai” here .