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By mid-1937, Imperial Japan’s aggressive expansionist actions against its Asian neighbors had provoked a major war with China. The path to this conflict between the two East Asian powers dated back to at least 1894-95 during the First Sino-Japanese War, when emerging military powerhouse Japan wrested control of the Korean Peninsula from the crumbling empire of China (then ruled by the Qing dynasty). In 1931, under the sway of army and navy militarists, Japan seized Manchuria from China (which had become a republic in 1912) and created the puppet state of Manchukuo. Additional aggression by Japan led to it gaining control of several more of China’s northeast provinces. Finally, on July 7, 1937, the “Marco Polo Bridge Incident” north of Beijing sparked the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Although Japanese military commanders preferred to continue concentrating their combat operations in northeast China, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Chinese army and the most influential member of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) then ruling China, realized that fighting in the north gave Japan overwhelming military advantages. In August 1937, Chiang decided to shift the locus of the war to central China by targeting Shanghai, the country’s most important port city and its principal center of international economic commerce.

By luring the Japanese into fighting a costly battle in and around Shanghai and then withdrawing the Chinese army into central China’s interior, Chiang sought to prevent a rapid Japanese conquest of China and thereby prolong the war. The time he would gain would allow him to gather more forces and resources with which to strengthen his army and hopefully convince the Western powers to support China’s war effort.

Armchair General® takes you back to October 26, 1937, in battle-ravaged Shanghai, where you will play the role of Chinese Nationalist Army Lieutenant Colonel Xie Jinyuan, commander of 524th Infantry Regiment, 88th Division. With the Battle of Shanghai now more than two months old and Japanese forces close to completing their conquest of the city, your mission is to lead Chinese troops in a final defense of a sector of Shanghai’s Zhabei district.

By holding out for as long as possible against powerful Japanese attacks, your men can achieve important tactical and political goals. Tactically, they can cover the main Chinese army’s retreat from Shanghai as the force withdraws westward to re-establish defensive lines in China’s vast interior. Politically, by conducting a stout defense in full view of foreign observers and international news service reporters, they can demonstrate to the leaders of potential Western power allies China’s strong resolve to resist the Japanese invasion.

However, to accomplish these goals, your outnumbered troops must mount a strong defense against superior enemy forces for a period of at least several days to prevent a quick Japanese victory.


Located in the Yangtze River delta region on the coast of east-central China, Shanghai is known as “the Paris of the East,” as it is the country’s most cosmopolitan city. In addition to over 3 million Chinese citizens, Shanghai’s population includes 70,000 foreign residents – 20,000 of whom are Japanese – occupying “international concessions.” These separate, clearly defined enclaves are controlled by the respective foreign nations and are exempt from Chinese law.

In addition to Japan, countries holding international concessions in Shanghai include Britain, France and the United States. Although the Western powers are officially neutral in the undeclared war between China and Japan, Chiang is hopeful that a battle against Japanese forces in Shanghai will gain these countries’ sympathy and strong support for China.

The fighting in Shanghai erupted over two months ago, on August 13, when Chiang ordered several Chinese Nationalist Army divisions into the city to begin attacking the large Japanese troop garrison and the reinforcements that Japan had sent earlier that month. From August 13-22, the Battle of Shanghai was confined inside the city as Chiang’s soldiers attempted unsuccessfully to overrun and eliminate the Japanese forces. The enemy, however, was greatly aided by naval gunfire from numerous Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) warships positioned in nearby rivers and by Japanese warplanes that outnumbered Chinese aircraft 10-to-1.

While the urban combat still continues inside Shanghai, the battle has now expanded outside the city as both sides pour in more troops – eventually totaling 700,000 Chinese and 300,000 Japanese. However, as of today, October 26, the Japanese have inflicted nearly 300,000 Chinese casualties while suffering fewer than 100,000 of their own. Japanese forces have consistently outmaneuvered and outfought Chinese troops in the surrounding area, often by using amphibious landings, and are on the verge of completing their capture of Shanghai.

To prevent the main Chinese army from being encircled and annihilated, Chiang has ordered it to begin withdrawing westward into China’s central interior later tonight. To cover the withdrawal and to continue demonstrating China’s resolve to the Western powers, he has ordered 88th Division to mount a final defense of a portion of Shanghai’s Zhabei district.

Although 88th Division’s commander originally intended your entire 524th Regiment to mount the defense, it is ultimately decided that only the regiment’s 1st Battalion will stay behind. Upon being informed of this decision, you volunteer to lead the battalion’s defense.


Chiang’s Chinese Nationalist Army is one of three general categories of military forces in China, although it is by far the largest. The other two are Mao Zedong’s Communist army, which seeks to overthrow the Nationalist government, and the various independent private armies of Chinese warlords who control numerous regions throughout the country. While Chiang has had some success in convincing a few of the warlords to support the Nationalists, many others still operate beyond any central government control. Until the war erupted in August, the Nationalist Army’s main effort had been focused on attempts to eradicate Mao’s Communist forces. Thus, at this stage of the conflict, only Chiang’s Chinese army is opposing Japan’s invasion.

Despite Chiang’s best efforts over many years, his Nationalist Army still lacks adequate tanks, heavy weapons, motor transport and air support. It is an infantry army chiefly equipped with small arms that must travel primarily by foot. Other weaknesses include a lack of experienced leadership and deficiencies in training. However, since 1934 Chiang has engaged German military advisers led by General Alexander von Falkenhausen to train his Nationalist Army units and instruct their leaders. Although 88th Division is one of those German-trained units, it has suffered heavy casualties among its veteran soldiers in the fighting at Shanghai, leaving its depleted ranks manned largely by new recruits.

Major Yang Ruifu is the commander of 1st Battalion. However, since you are in overall command of the defense at Zhabei district, he answers to your orders. The 414- man battalion consists of a headquarters element (10 men), three rifle companies (125 men each), two heavy machine-gun platoons, and a five-man combat engineer squad. The riflemen are armed with bolt-action 7.92 mm German Mauser rifles and hand grenades, while each of the 27 rifle squads (each company has three platoons of three squads) has a 7.9 mm Czech Model 26 light machine gun (a design Britain later adopts as the “Bren gun”). Each heavy machine-gun platoon has two 7.92 mm Maxim water-cooled machine guns. The combat engineers carry small arms and explosive demolition satchel charges. Although you have no tank, artillery or air support, you have plenty of ammunition for all the battalion’s weapons.


The Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) does not suffer from the deficiencies that plague the Chinese Nationalist Army. It is a well-led force of superbly trained, highly motivated soldiers who unhesitatingly – and ruthlessly – execute all of their superiors’ orders, even if it means certain death. The IJA has significant technological advantages over the Chinese as well, particularly in tanks, heavy artillery, motor transport and air support. Furthermore, the IJA in the Shanghai area can count on naval gunfire from dozens of IJN warships.

The Japanese unit that your battalion must face consists primarily of a 3d IJA Division infantry regiment numbering well over 1,000 soldiers and able to bring in reinforcements if necessary. The Japanese infantrymen are armed with hand grenades and bolt-action 6.5 mm Type 38 Arisaka rifles tipped with 20-inch bayonets. Supporting weapons organic to the infantry companies include numerous 6.5 mm Type 11 light machine guns and several 50 mm Type 89 grenade launchers. Heavier supporting weapons within the regiment include 7.7 mm Type 92 heavy machine guns and 70 mm Type 92 artillery howitzers.

Additionally, the Japanese attackers can call in fire from the IJN’s 8-inch naval guns and the 75 mm to 150 mm guns in 3d IJA Division’s artillery regiment. Although vehicle movement is difficult in Shanghai’s narrow, rubble-strewn streets, the Japanese also can be reinforced by six Type 92 wheeled armored cars mounting 7.7 mm machine guns and a few Type 94 tankettes (small, lightly armored, fully tracked vehicles) mounting 6.5 mm machine guns.


The sector where you have been ordered to establish your defense consists mainly of one- to three-story industrial buildings and warehouses that are dominated by the six-story Sihang (“Four Banks”) warehouse. Built in 1931 by a consortium of four Chinese banks, the massive Sihang warehouse is solidly constructed with thick concrete walls and a flat roof from which there is an unobstructed view of the surrounding area for several blocks. Measuring 60 meters by 50 meters, the building features numerous windows on all four sides, although those on the ground floor are blocked by sandbags and some of the thousands of grain bags stored inside, leaving only small firing ports. Outside, a waist-high stone wall surrounds the warehouse.

Your battalion’s defense sector runs several hundred meters along the north bank of Suzhou Creek. Although this is mainly a built-up urban area, in the center of the sector, directly in front of the Sihang warehouse, a zone measuring 60 meters by 100 meters has been cleared of all buildings and filled with numerous anti-tank obstacles and sandbagged infantry fighting positions.

Suzhou Creek is also the boundary line of Britain’s international concession. Since the concession is officially neutral territory, Japanese attackers cannot approach your position from that direction. Moreover, since neither China nor Japan wants to antagonize the Western powers, both sides must exercise extreme caution to prevent small arms fire, artillery rounds or aerial bombs from landing inside any of the concessions. This fact works in your favor since the Japanese will be reluctant to capitalize on their great advantage in heavier weapons, lest they inadvertently hit one of these areas.

At 10 p.m. on October 26, you gather the battalion’s officers inside Sihang warehouse to brief them on three possible courses of action you have developed for your battalion’s defense. They already understand the mission and the odds they face, so you immediately lay out your plans.


“The first course of action I am considering,” you begin, “takes advantage of the strong construction and dominant location of Sihang warehouse. Under this plan, the entire battalion will occupy the warehouse to create a formidable strongpoint from which to defend against Japanese attacks. To provide early warning of the approaching enemy, each company will station a platoon along one of the three major axes of advance: a 1st Company platoon on the left flank, a 2d Company platoon in the center, and a 3d Company platoon on the right flank. Meanwhile, the combat engineer squad will emplace explosive demolition satchel charges along the axes of advance that can be detonated remotely. One heavy machine-gun platoon will be posted on the roof of the warehouse and the other will be stationed in second-story windows to cover the cleared zone.”

Your regimental executive officer, Major Shangguan Zhibiao, voices his objections. “Colonel,” he says, “this plan concentrates all of our defenses in a single building, giving the Japanese one vulnerable target to engage and destroy with their massive firepower and superior heavy weapons and air support.”

“Major,” you reply, “I don’t believe the enemy will risk such actions so close to the international concessions. Even a single misdirected artillery shell or aerial bomb landing inside one of them would be a political disaster for Japan.”


“The second plan I am considering,” you continue, “forces the enemy to fight through a series of defenses throughout the sector. With this option, each company will establish fighting positions in an assigned zone: 1st Company on the left flank, 2d Company in the center, and 3d Company on the right flank. Using the buildings and alleyways, as well as the sandbagged positions in the center, the companies will establish numerous strongpoints in their respective zones from which to disrupt enemy attacks and inflict as many casualties as possible. The heavy machine-gun platoons will set up in Sihang warehouse and fire in support of the infantry companies. The combat engineer squad will be in the warehouse under my command, prepared to support the infantry on my order.”

Major Yang, however, dislikes this course of action. “Colonel,” he complains, “I fear that by spreading the battalion across the entire sector, we unnecessarily fragment our defensive effort and make it impossible for the companies to provide mutual support. This plan gives the Japanese attackers the opportunity to overpower our numerous strongpoints one by one. Concentrating the entire battalion inside Sihang warehouse is a much better plan.”

Major Shangguan disagrees. “On the contrary, Major Yang,” he retorts. “By forcing the Japanese to attack throughout the entire sector, we fragment their forces. A defense in depth is the best way to draw out our defensive effort for the maximum amount of time.”


“The final option,” you conclude, “is based on the battalion defending from Sihang warehouse as described in COA One, but first we will strike the Japanese under cover of darkness to delay and disrupt their attack plans. Supported by the combat engineer squad, 2d Company will conduct a spoiling attack with the mission of killing as many enemy soldiers as possible and sowing confusion within their ranks. Once this is accomplished, the company will quickly withdraw and join the rest of the battalion inside the warehouse.”

Captain Deng Ying, 2d Company’s commander, enthusiastically supports this plan. “Colonel,” he replies, “my men are eager to strike a blow against the enemy! Beginning our defense with an attack will not only allow us to kill many of the invaders, it also will raise the morale of the entire battalion.”

You realize there is no time for further discussion. You announce the meeting is over, adding, “Thank you for your comments, as they have helped me reach my final decision. Listen closely as I go over the details of our defense plan.”

What is your decision, Lieutenant Colonel Xie?


Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Armchair General.