Military Wiki
Battle of Nanking
Part of the Second Sino-Japanese War
Iwane Matsui rides into Nanjing.jpg
Japanese general Iwane Matsui rides into Nanking,
13 December 1937
Date9 December 1937 – 31 January 1938
LocationNanjing and surrounding areas
Result Japanese Victory, Fall of Nanking, Nanking Massacre
Taiwan China
Republic of China Army Flag.svg National Revolutionary Army
Flag of the Republic of China Military Police.jpg Republic of China Military Police
Soviet Union Soviet Volunteer Group
 Empire of Japan
Central China Theater Army
Commanders and leaders
Taiwan Tang Shengzhi Japan Matsui Iwane
Japan Prince Asaka Yasuhiko
100,000 men (estimate by Ikuhiko Hata)[1]
60,000–70,000 men (estimate by Kaikosha)[2]
8 divisions
240,000 men
Casualties and losses
50,000 killed in battle (estimate by Ikuhiko Hata)[1]
30,000 killed in battle (estimate by Kaikosha)[2]
6,000 soldiers killed[3]
Thousands more wounded[4]
300,000 civilians killed

The Battle of Nanking (simplified Chinese: 南京保卫战; traditional Chinese: 南京保衛戰; pinyin: Nánjīng Bǎowèi Zhàn; Wade–Giles: Nan-ching Pao-wei Chan) began after the Japanese capture of Shanghai on October 9, 1937, and ended with the fall of the capital city of Nanking on December 13, 1937 to Japanese troops, a few days after the Republic of China Government had evacuated the city and relocated to Wuhan. The Nanking Massacre followed the fall of the city.

Documentary film made in 1940s, recording the Chinese anti-Japanese war. (1)Battle of Nanking (2) Massacre of Nanking (3) Space For Time

Strategic context

Following the Mukden Incident in 1931, Japan began its invasion of Manchuria, China. Because the Communists and the Kuomintang (KMT) were engaged in the Chinese Civil War they were distracted from mounting a concerted defence against the Japanese who swiftly captured major Chinese cities in the northeast. In 1937, however, the Chinese communists and nationalists agreed to form a united front. The KMT then formally started an all-out defence against the Japanese threat. It is likely that China fielded the largest army in the world at the time in terms of troop numbers. However, the Chinese army was poorly trained and equipped: some regiments were armed primarily with swords and hand grenades and few had anti-tank weaponry.

Defensive lines

In 1933, three military zones, Nanking, Nanking-Hangzhou, and Nanking-Shanghai, had been established to coordinate defenses in the Yangtze Delta. In 1934, with German assistance, the construction of the so-called "Chinese Hindenburg Line" began, with a series of fortifications to facilitate defence in depth. Two such lines, the Wufu Line (吳福線) between Suzhou and Fushan, and the Xicheng Line (錫澄線) between Wuxi and Jiangyin, were built to protect the road to Nanking, in case Shanghai should fall into enemy hands. In spring 1937, just barely months before the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the two defensive lines were finally completed. However, the necessary training of personnel to man these positions and coordinate the defence had not yet been completed when the war broke out.

Battle of Shanghai

In a major strategic gamble, Chiang Kai-shek decided to divert Japanese attacks in northern China by attacking Shanghai, which the Japanese had occupied earlier in 1937. Initially, Chinese forces surrounding Shanghai included the bulk of Chiang's best-trained forces. The Chinese armies surrounding Shanghai outnumbered the Japanese forces stationed there by more than 10 to 1.

In August 14, 1937, Chiang ordered his troops to take Shanghai at all costs, but initial attempts to break through the Japanese perimeter defences failed. An initial attempt to bomb the Japanese navy docked at Shanghai also failed when the Japanese decoded a secret telegram, and when the Chinese planes missed their targets and hit Shanghai instead, killing hundreds of civilians. In late August and throughout September and October 1937, the Chinese forces were bombarded continuously by the guns of the Japanese navy, by carrier-based bombers, by land-based bombers operating from Japanese-occupied Taiwan, and by armoured units of the Japanese marines and army. The Chinese were mostly restricted to the use of small arms throughout the battle. The Chinese suffered 250,000 casualties, 60% of Chiang's most elite soldiers, while the Japanese took 40,000 or more casualties.

The Japanese finally broke through the Chinese lines by making an amphibious assault at Hangzhou Bay, south of Shanghai, encircling the Chinese army from the rear. On November 11, 1937, the Chinese forces began to retreat, but in such a disorganized manner that they failed to secure their carefully constructed series of defences around Wuxi. As the Chinese army units streamed back into Nanjing, they invited the advances of the Japanese army, which pursued them.[5]

Aerial bombardment of Nanking

Major general Naruhiko Higashikuni

On September 21, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service, commanded by Prince Naruhiko Higashikuni, began aerial bombardment of Nanking. The aerial bombardment campaign consisted of more than 100 fly-overs. Most of the bombs fell on non-military targets. Southern Nanking, the most lively and densely populated area of the city, suffered from the worst bombings. The single most devastating bombing attack occurred on 25 September. From 9:30 am until about 4:30 pm, Japanese planes made five fly-overs, a total of ninety-five sorties, and dropped about 500 bombs, resulting in more than 600 civilian casualties. A refugee camp at Xiaguan [a neighborhood in Nanking adjacent to the Yangtze River] was hit, resulting in more than 100 deaths. In addition to bombing infrastructure targets such as power plants, water works and a radio station, the Japanese also dropped bombs on the Central Hospital despite the fact that there was a large red cross painted on its rooftop.

The bombing campaigns on Nanking and on Guangzhou evoked protests from the Western powers culminating in a resolution by the Far Eastern Advisory Committee of the League of Nations. An example of the many expressions of indignation came from Lord Cranborne, the British Under-Secretary of State For Foreign Affairs:

Words cannot express the feelings of profound horror with which the news of these raids had been received by the whole civilized world. They are often directed against places far from the actual area of hostilities. The military objective, where it exists, seems to take a completely second place. The main object seems to be to inspire terror by the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians...[6]

Nine Power Treaty Conference

By mid-October, Chinese situation in Shanghai had become increasingly dire and the Japanese had made significant gains. The vital town of Dachang fell on October 26 and the Chinese withdrew from metropolitan Shanghai. However, because the Nine Power Treaty Conference was scheduled to begin in early November, Chiang Kai-shek ordered his troops to stay in the Shanghai battlefield, instead of retreating to the Wufu and Xicheng Lines to protect Nanking. Because Shanghai was the most important Chinese city in western eyes, the troops had to fight and hold onto the city as long as possible, rather than moving toward the defense lines along nameless towns en route to Nanking. On November 3, the Conference finally convened in Brussels. While the western powers were in session to mediate the situation, the Chinese troops were making their final stand in Shanghai and had all hopes for a western intervention that would save China from collapse.

However, the Conference dragged on with little progress. Japan was invited to the Conference twice but declined, thus a mediation effort directly involving Japan was out of the question. Similar to what had transpired in the League of Nations conference, the western powers, including the United States, were still dominated by isolationism and appeasement. Thus, nothing effective was formulated.

Fall of Shanghai

On November 5, the Japanese made amphibious landings at Jinshanwei to surround the Chinese troops still fighting in the Shanghai warzone. Chiang was still waiting for the Conference to produce a favorable response and ordered the troops to continue fighting, even though the worn-out troops were in danger of encirclement from the Jinshanwei landings. It was not until three days later on November 8 that the Chinese central command ordered the troops to retire from the entire Shanghai front to protect Nanking. This three day delay was enough to cause a breakdown in Chinese command as the units were devastated by continued fighting, and this directly caused the failure to coordinate the defense around the Chinese Hindenburg Lines guarding Nanking. Japanese troops broke Chinese defenses at Kunshan on November 10, broke through the Wufu Line on the 19th, and Xicheng Line on the 26th.

Chinese strategy for the defense of Nanking

Chinese retreat from Shanghai

Japanese landings at Jinshanwei forced the Chinese army to retire from the Shanghai front and attempt a breakout. However, Chiang Kai-shek still placed some hope that the Nine-Power Treaty would result in a sanction against Japan by Western Powers. It was not until November 8 that the Chinese central command issued a general retreat to withdraw from the entire Shanghai front. All Chinese units were ordered to move toward western towns such as Kunshan, and then from there enter the final defense lines to stop the Japanese from reaching Nanking. By then, the Chinese army was utterly exhausted, and with a severe shortage of ammunition and supplies, the defense was faltering. Kunshan was lost in only two days, and the remaining troops began moving toward the Wufu Line fortifications on November 13. The Chinese army was fighting with the last of its strength and the frontline was on the verge of collapse.

In the chaos that ensued many Chinese units were broken up and lost contact with their communications officers who had the maps and layouts to the fortifications. In addition, once they arrived at Wufu Line, the Chinese troops discovered that some of the civilian officials were not there to receive them as they had already fled and had taken the keys with them. The battered Chinese troops, who had just emerged from the bloodbath in Shanghai and were hoping to enter the defense lines, found that they were not able to utilize these fortifications. The Wufu Line was penetrated on November 19, and the Chinese troops then moved toward Xicheng Line, which they were forced to give up on November 26 in the midst of the onslaught. The "Chinese Hindenberg Line," which the government had spent millions to construct and was the final line of defense between Shanghai and Nanking, collapsed in only two weeks.

Decision to move the capital to Wuhan

By mid-November, the Japanese had captured Shanghai. After losing the Battle of Shanghai, Chiang Kai-shek knew the fall of Nanking would be simply a matter of time. Chiang Kai-shek and his staff such as Chen Cheng realized that he could not risk annihilation of their elite troops in a symbolic but hopeless defense of the capital; therefore, in order to preserve these forces for future battles, most of them were withdrawn. Chiang's strategy was to follow the suggestion of his German advisers to draw the Japanese army deep into China utilizing China's vast territory as a defensive strength. He therefore moved his capital to Wuhan until the Japanese captured this city as well following the Battle of Wuhan. Chiang's plan was to fight a protracted war of attrition by wearing down the Japanese in the hinterland of China.[7]

Chiang made his decision on November 16, ordering government ministries and agencies to depart from Nanking within three days.[8] However, the relocation of the Nationalist government was not publicly announced until noon on November 20.

Evacuation of civilians from Nanking

In mid-November, as the Japanese air raids on Nanking intensified, many wealthy Chinese and Westerners began leaving the city. After Chiang Kai-shek announced that the Nationalist government of China would eventually transfer the capital from Nanking to Chungking and its military headquarters would be shifted to the transitional capital of Hankow on November 20, the scale of evacuation became much larger.[9]

A week later, on November 27, Commander-in-Chief Tang Shengzhi issued a bulletin to foreign residents of Nanking, urging them to leave, and warning that he could not guarantee the safety of anyone in the city, not even foreigners.

As the Japanese army drew closer to Nanking, Chinese civilians fled the city in droves. The people of Nanking fled in panic not only because of the dangers of the anticipated battle but also because they feared the deprivation inherent in the scorched earth strategy that the Chinese troops had implemented in the area surrounding the city.[10]

The decision to defend Nanking

Despite the realization that he could not risk annihilation of the Chinese army in a futile defense of the capital, Chiang was also well aware of the political damage he would suffer if he abandoned Nanking without a fight. Nanking was not only the capital, but also the location of the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Kuomintang. What Chiang needed was someone who would accept the responsibility for conducting the defense of the city, however hopeless such an effort might be. The search for a willing volunteer was problematic because most of the senior officers were aware of the futility of the effort and the public blame that would be placed upon anyone who attempted to defend Nanking and failed.

Eventually, Tang Shengzhi expressed his willingness to take on the assignment and Chiang Kai-shek named him commander of the Nanking Garrison. There are two somewhat differing accounts of how this assignment came about. The first account indicates that Chiang had to plead with Tang several times in order to get him to agree to accept the assignment.

The second account, related by Li Zongren in his memoirs, reports that Chiang Kai-shek held a conference in Nanking with his senior commanders and staff to discuss how to deal with the oncoming onslaught of the Japanese army. In attendance were Li Zongren, Bai Chongxi, He Yingqin, Xu Yongchang, Tang Shengzhi and Alexander von Falkenhausen. Li relates that he opposed the defense of Nanking because of the strategically disadvantageous geography and the low morale of the Chinese troops, especially after the heavy losses that they had sustained in the Battle of Shanghai. General Bai Chongxi supported Li's stance. Li also proposed declaring Nanking an "open city" to avoid unnecessary destruction.

Chiang expressed exasperation at these attitudes and pointed out that a failure to defend the capital would have severe consequences to the morale of the troops and China's international prestige. He asserted his opinion that Nanking should be defended to the death.

After this pronouncement, He Yingqin (Chief of Staff) and Xu Yongchang (Chief of the Naval General Staff) indicated that they would defer to Chiang's judgment on the matter. General Alexander von Falkenhausen, leader of Chiang's second team of German military advisors, indicated that he supported Li's proposal to abandon Nanking and urged Chiang to avoid sacrificing his troops and materiel uselessly. At this point, Tang Shengzhi expressed fervent support for Chiang's position that Nanking should be defended to the death based on its symbolic importance to the nation. Chiang eagerly accepted Tang's support for the defense of Nanking and promised to name him commander of the Nanking Garrison.[11]

Leaving General Tang Shengzhi in charge of the city for the Battle of Nanking, many of Chiang's advisors left Nanking on December 1, and the president himself left on December 7. The civilian administration of the city was left to an International Committee led by John Rabe.

Tang Shengzhi was a Kuomintang politician and former warlord. Chiang's faith in Tang was due largely to Tang's participation in the Central Plains War in 1927, in which he led his forces into Hunan in support of the Nationalists. One of Tang's most distinguished advisors was a Buddhist spiritual teacher, who Tang had used to indoctrinate his troops in the ways of loyalty, and to whom he had deferred for various career decisions. Tang's decision to accept the task of Nanjing's defense, after the rout of Chinese forces from Shanghai was imminent and ongoing, was based largely on the advice of this spiritual advisor.[12]

Plans for the defense of Nanking

Once installed as commander-in-chief of the Nanking Defense Corps, Tang Shengzhi reiterated, this time publicly, his pledge to cast his lot with Nanking. In a press release to foreign reporters, he announced the city would not surrender and would fight to the death.

Nanking was a walled city with 19 gates, two of which were railway gates. The city is bounded by the Yangtze River to the north and to the west. The walls of Nanking were about 15–20 meters high and 10 meters thick. Machine gun emplacements were positioned at the top of the walls. Tang Shengzhi devised a two-stage defense: a defense of the outlying suburbs followed by a last-ditch defense of the city walls and gates. Tang pressed both soldiers and civilians into service in his frantic rush to bolster the city's fortifications. Directed by army officers, a thousand Chinese civilians reinforced existing gun emplacements, concrete pillboxes and dugouts with a trench network extending thirty miles from the city in seven semicircular rings ending at the Yangtze River.[13] The trenches were about 30 to 130 meters wide, about 3 meters deep.

Tang was able to muster a defense force of about 100,000 soldiers, mostly untrained conscripts, including some troops who had come from the Shanghai battlefield. In defense of the areas surrounding Nanking, Yu Jishi's two divisions of 74th Corps guarded Banqiao-Chunhua, Xu Yuanquan's 2nd Corps-group (41st & 48th Divisions) guarded Mengtang-Longtan, and Ye Zhao's 66th Corps & Deng Longguang's 83rd Corps [Yue-jun] guarded east and west sides of Mt Tangshan. At Nanking, Song Xilian's 36th Division of 78th Corps guarded north gate, Sun Yuanliang's 88th Division of 72nd Corps and Shen Fazao's 87th Division (under Wang Jingjiu's 71st Corps) guarded south gate, and Gu Zhenglun/Gui Yongqing's Central Lecturing Echelon guarded three peaks of Purple Mountain. Tang Shengzhi retained a company of 6 ground-to-air cannons, commanded by regiment chief Miao Fan. On December 2, Hu Zongnan was ordered to Nanking to assist Tang Shengzhi. However, Hu Zongnan went back to Pukou on December 5 when news broke that Japanese had already deployed along the north bank of the Yangtze.

"Scorched-earth" strategy

On July 31, the Kuomintang had issued a statement that they were determined to turn every Chinese national and every piece of their soil into ash, rather than turn them over to the opponent.[14]

The Nanking garrison force set fire to buildings and houses in the areas close to Xiakuan to the north as well as in the environs of the eastern and southern city gates.[14] Chinese troops blocked roads, scuttled boats and set fire to nearly every city, town, and village on the outskirts of the city. They burned down structures within the grounds of the Zhongshan Mausoleum, as well as the stately Ministry of Communications building. They incinerated nearly all of the Xiaguan district. Targets within and outside of the city walls—such as military barracks, private homes, the aforementioned Chinese Ministry of Communication, forests and even entire villages—were burnt to cinders, at an estimated value of 20 to 30 million (1937) US dollars.[15][16][17]

On December 7, 1937, correspondent Tillman Durdin sent the following special dispatch to The New York Times.

Between Tangshan and Nanking barricades were ready along the highway every mile or so, and nearer the capital there raged huge fires set by the Chinese in the course of clearing the countryside of buildings that might protect the invaders from gunfire. In one valley a whole village was ablaze.

One consequence of these "scorched-earth" strategy operations was that many citizens were hindered in their efforts to flee the city due to the destruction of the transportation infrastructure. It's not clear whether this consequence was intentional or not. According to one source, Tang placed the 35th and 72nd divisions at the port to prevent people from fleeing Nanking in accordance with instructions from Chiang Kai-shek's general headquarters at Wuhan.

Road to Nanking

Changes in the Japanese command structure

In October, the Shanghai Expeditionary Force (SEF) was reinforced by the Japanese 10th Army commanded by Lieutenant General Heisuke Yanagawa. On 7 November, Japanese Central China Area Army (CCAA) was created by combining the SEF and the 10th Army, with Matsui appointed as its commander-in-chief concurrently with that of the SEF. The newly formed Central China Area Army was composed of the Shanghai Expeditionary Army (the nucleus of which was the 16th, 9th, 13th, 3rd, 11th, and 101st Divisions) and the Tenth Army (6th, 18th, and 114th Divisions).[18]

On December 2, Emperor Showa nominated one of his uncles, Prince Asaka, as commander of the invasion. It is difficult to establish if, as a member of the imperial family, Asaka had a superior status to general Iwane Matsui, who was officially the commander in chief, but it is clear that, as the top-ranking officer, he had authority over division commanders, lieutenant-generals Kesago Nakajima and Heisuke Yanagawa.

Japanese decision to take Nanking

Matsui had long felt that it was imperative to capture Nanking. On August 15, while leaving the Imperial Palace in Tokyo after being appointed to the command of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force, Matsui had remarked to War Minister Hajime Sugiyama that: "There's no solution except to break the power of Chiang Kai-shek by capturing Nanking. That is what I must do.":[19]

Being increasingly concerned about the heavy casualties sustained in taking Shanghai combined with the concomitant exhaustion of the troops and deteriorating military discipline, the General Staff Headquarters in Tokyo decided not to expand the war front any further.

However, on November 19, the 10th Army led by Lieutenant General Yanagawa Heisuke cabled to the Headquarters, "The group [the 10th Army] commanded [its troops] to put on a spurt in pursuit [of the retreating Chinese] to Nanking." The second in command of General Staff, Lieutenant General Tada Shun, received the message with surprise and concern. He immediately ordered a stop to the unilateral and unauthorized advance; however, the order was not complied with.

Three days later, the Central China Area Army (CCAA) that supervised the 10th Army also sent a report that emphasized the necessity to attack Nanking. On December 1, 1937, the Imperial Headquarters, which had just been established as the highest authority on strategic matters in the "China Incident" in late November, finally ordered the CCAA to capture "the capital of the enemy state."

Japanese advance toward Nanking

In anticipation of the attack on Nanking, Matsui issued orders to his armies that read:

Nanking is the capital of China and the capture thereof is an international affair; therefore, careful study should be made so as to exhibit the honor and glory of Japan and augment the trust of the Chinese people, and that the battle in the vicinity of Shanghai is aimed at the subjugation of the Chinese Army, therefore protect and patronize Chinese officials and people, as afar as possible; the Army should always bear in mind not to involve foreign residents and armies in trouble and maintain close liaison with foreign authorities in order to avoid misunderstandings.

The Japanese army began its advance towards Nanking on November 11, 1937, approaching the city from different directions. The pace of the Japanese advance to Nanking was such that it could be characterized as a "forced march". Almost all units covered the distance of nearly 400 kilometers in about a month. Assuming that capture of the Chinese capital would be the decisive turning point in the war, there was an eagerness to be among the first to claim the honor of victory.[7]

The Japanese army was engaged by Chinese soldiers on a number of occasions on the way to Nanking. As a general rule, the Japanese units were heavily outnumbered. As the Japanese came closer to Nanking, the fighting grew in both frequency and severity.[7]

The Wufu defensive line had collapsed by 19 Nov, and the Xicheng Line was overrun on 26 Nov.

By the time the official order to take Nanking arrived from Imperial Headquarters on December 1, both the 10th Army and the Shanghai Expeditionary Force had been marching westward for almost 3 weeks.

Prince Asaka appointed as commander of the SEF

Prince Yasuhiko Asaka in 1940

In a memorandum for the palace rolls, Hirohito had singled Prince Asaka (Yasuhiko) out for censure as the one imperial kinsman whose attitude was "not good." He assigned Asaka to Nanking as an opportunity to make amends.[20]

On December 5, Asaka left Tokyo by plane and arrived at the front three days later. The CCAA was reorganized and Prince Asaka was appointed as the commander of the SEF, while Matsui stayed as the commander of CCAA overseeing both the SEF and the 10th Army. The real nature of Matsui's authority is however difficult to establish as he was confronted with a member of the imperial family directly appointed by the Emperor. Asaka met with General Nakajima who informed him that the Japanese troops had almost completely surrounded three hundred thousand Chinese troops in the vicinity of Nanking and that preliminary negotiations suggested that the Chinese were ready to surrender.[20]

Prince Asaka allegedly issued an order to "kill all captives," thus providing official sanction for the atrocities which took place during and after the battle.[21] Some authors record that Prince Asaka signed the order for Japanese soldiers in Nanking to "kill all captives".[20]

Isamu Cho

Others claim that lieutenant colonel Isamu Chō, Asaka's aide-de-camp, sent this order under the Prince's sign manual with the Prince's knowledge or assent.[22] However, even if Chō took the initiative on his own, Prince Asaka, who was nominally the officer in charge, gave no orders to stop the carnage. General Matsui did not arrive in the city until well after the killing had begun but also gave no orders to end the atrocities.

While Prince Asaka's responsibility for the Nanking Massacre remains a matter of debate, the ultimate sanction for the massacre and the crimes committed during the invasion of China might be found in the ratification, made on August 5, 1937 by Emperor Hirohito, of the proposition of the Japanese army to remove the constraints of international law on the treatment of Chinese prisoners.[23]

The official order to take Nanking

By early December, the Japanese troops had reached the outskirts of Nanking. On December 1, Japan’s Central Front Army received Continental Order No. 8 which directed it to attack and occupy Nanking. The Tenth Army (Imperial Japanese Army) was ordered to move the 114th and 6th divisions along Liyang-Lishui Highway and Guangde-Honglanbu Highway on December 3 for the Lishui area, with two additional contingents to penetrate westward to Wuhu and Dangtu for Anhui Province segment of the Yangtze River. The Shanghai Expeditionary Force was ordered to have the 16th and 9th Divisions move along Danyang-Jurong-Tangshan Highway and Jintan-Tianwangshi-Chunhuazhen Highway, with two additional contingents to cross the Yangtze at Jiangyin and Zhenjiang for an enveloping attack at the Canal and Peking-Pukou Railway in the north.

From December 3 to 6, Japanese 16th and 9th Divisions punched into the cordon lines of the Chinese 83rd and 66th Corps, took over Jurong on 4th, and pushed to the area of Huangmei, Tuqiao and Hushuzhen. The 10th Brigade of the 11th Division attacked Zhenjiang, while the 13th Division crossed Yangtze at Jiangyin to attack Jingjiang. Separately, the 114th Division, followed by the 6th Division, burst through the cordon lines of the Chinese 88th Division and 74th Corps and took over Lishui and Molingguan by December 4, and pushed to the area of Lulangzhen and Jiangningzhen. Kunizaki Shitai and the 8th Division attacked Dangtu and Xuancheng, respectively.


On December 7, Matsui Iwane ordered the siege of Nanking.

Collapse of the defense

The defense of Nanking did not play out at all according to the plan formulated by Chiang and Tang. Their defense plan began to fall from the very start partly because the defenders were overwhelmed by Chinese troops who were fleeing from battles in the area surrounding Nanking and who just wanted to escape to safer ground. In their panic, military discipline had broken down to the point where troops were refusing to obey any orders. In some case, regimental commanders of units defending the capital were shot and killed by the company commanders of units in flight simply because the regimental commanders refused to move out of the way so that the fleeing units would have a more direct route to escape further from the Japanese.[citation needed] In other cases, Chinese troops fleeing the Battle of Shanghai killed and robbed the people of Nanjing in order to obtain civilian clothing so that they could more easily escape the city.[12] Chiang Kai-shek, who had already left for Wuhan, granted Tang the right to shoot anyone who disobeyed his order on the spot, but Tang could not carry out this directive because there were hundreds of thousands of troops in open flight. In order to carry out Chiang's directive, Tang would have had to have the Nanking Garrison wage battle against the fleeing Nationalist troops before facing the Japanese assault on the city.

As it became obvious that the plan was falling apart because the total collapse of discipline among the troops in flight, Tang realized the city could not be defended. Given the grim circumstances, Chiang's staff and even Chiang himself also resigned themselves to this reality. However, Chiang was extremely reluctant to give up the capital without a fight and nobody else would dare to make such decision and accept the wrath of the angry Chinese public either. For this reason, Chiang was also extremely grateful to Tang for assuming command of the Nanking Garrison and thus allowing Chiang to avoid the dilemma posed by the situation. Chiang Kai-shek ordered Tang to continue the hopeless defense at least long enough to save face by being able to assert that Nanking had been defended before being abandoned. After that, Tang would have the prerogative to decide to withdraw. Tang was now in the very difficult position of trying to conduct a defense which he knew was futile and which he knew he would abandon in the near future. The tension was palpably obvious at a press conference that Tang held to boost morale prior to the siege of Nanking; it was noted by reporters that Tang was extremely agitated. He sweated so profusely that someone handed him a hot towel to dry his brow.

After abandoning the Xicheng line on November 26, the Supervisory Unit, the 36th and 88th divisions, and the 10th, 66th, 74th, and 83rd armies were ordered to assist in the defense of Nanking. Since all of these units had been engaged in combat for quite some time, their members were exhausted. They withdrew from the banks of the Suzhou River, and headed for Nanking. However, on their way there, they became involved in several conflicts, and were unable to regroup. The majority of 10th Army soldiers were raw recruits lacking combat skills, a factor that significantly reduced the effectiveness of that unit. Beginning on December 5, battles were fought at Tangshan and Chunhuazhen.[24]

Siege of the city

On December 7, the Japanese army issued a command to all troops, advising that because occupying a foreign capital was an unprecedented event for the Japanese military, those soldiers who "[commit] any illegal acts", "dishonor the Japanese Army", "loot", or "cause a fire to break out, even because of their carelessness" would be severely punished.[25]

On December 8, Tangshan fell to the enemy. Forced to abandon their position at Fukuo, [the Chinese troops] were pursued relentlessly by the enemy.[24]

The Japanese military continued to move forward, breaching the last lines of Chinese resistance, and arriving outside the walled city of Nanking on December 9. At noon on that day, the military dropped leaflets into the city, urging the surrender of Nanking within 24 hours:[26]

"The Japanese Army, one million strong, has already conquered Changshu. We have surrounded the city of Nanking… The Japanese Army shall show no mercy toward those who offer resistance, treating them with extreme severity, but shall harm neither innocent civilians nor Chinese military [personnel] who manifest no hostility. It is our earnest desire to preserve the East Asian culture. If your troops continue to fight, war in Nanking is inevitable. The culture that has endured for a millennium will be reduced to ashes, and the government that has lasted for a decade will vanish into thin air. This commander-in-chief issues [b]ills to your troops on behalf of the Japanese Army. Open the gates to Nanking in a peaceful manner, and obey the [f]ollowing instructions."[25]

When the Japanese army began dropping leaflets ordering the city to capitulate, Tang had publicly expressed his outrage. Privately, however, Tang negotiated for a truce. Despite his original promise to fight to the last man, he seemed eager to do anything to avoid a showdown in the city in order to save the capital and its inhabitants. While he was negotiating the truce, he still had to carry on the hopeless defense of the capital in order for the Chinese government to maintain face with the Chinese public.

Members of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone contacted Tang and suggested a plan for three-day cease-fire, during which the Chinese troops could withdraw without fighting while the Japanese troops would stay in their present position. Tang agreed with this proposal if the International Committee could acquire permission of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who had already fled to Hankow to which he had temporarily shifted the military headquarters two days earlier. A German businessman and the chairman of the International Committee, John Rabe, boarded the U.S. gunboat Panay on December 9 and sent two telegrams, one to Chiang Kai-shek by way of the American ambassador in Hankow, and one to the Japanese military authority in Shanghai. The next day he was informed that Chiang Kai-shek, who had ordered that Nanking be defended "to the last man," had refused to accept the proposal.

Assault on the city

The Japanese awaited an answer to their demand for surrender. When no Chinese envoy had arrived by 1:00 p.m. on December 10, General Matsui Iwane issued the command to take Nanking by force. Gen. Matsui gathered his subordinates and conveyed the following instructions: "The entrance of the Imperial Army into the capital of a foreign nation is a historic event. The attention of the world will be focused on you. You are to observe military regulations to the letter, to set an example for the future." He ensured that all his men received a map of Nanking and vicinity, with the Zhongshan Tomb (where Sun Yatsen is interred), the Ming Xiao Tomb, foreign legations, and other places where they were prohibited from entering clearly marked, and ordered sentries to be posted at each one of them. He added, "Anyone who loots or starts a fire, even accidentally, will be severely punished."

Rushing to Zhongshan Gate

The Japanese army mounted its assault on the Nanking walls from multiple directions. The gates were the first obstacles, and they were formidable ones. There were 19 of them in Nanking, including two railway gates. The gates facing south from the east became the arenas for the heavy fighting that ensued. The first gate reached by Japanese troops was Guanghua Gate, situated between Zhongshan Gate (East Gate) and Zhonghua Gate (South Gate).

The SEF’s 16th Division attacked three gates on the eastern side, the 6th Division of the 10A launched its offensive on the western walls, and the SEF’s 9th Division advanced into the area in-between.[7]

The assault on Guanghua Gate

At dawn on December 9, the 36th Infantry Regiment, attached to the 9th Division from Kanazawa, fought its way to Guanghua Gate after a forced march lasting several days and nights. The wall in which Guanghua Gate was situated was approximately 13 meters high. In front of the wall was the outer moat, approximately 135 meters wide. Guanghua Gate was actually a double gate, with outer and inner archways, and iron doors. The two archways were about 20 meters apart. Anti-tank trenches and five rows of chevaux-de-frise blocked the road leading to the gate. The muzzles of machine guns protruding from loopholes on top of the walls were aimed directly at Japanese positions.

The attack on Guanghua Gate commenced at 2:00 p.m., after the deadline for surrender had passed. But the gate was so solidly built that they could make little headway. Soldiers made desperate charges against the wall, only to be killed, one after the other.

Blast at the Gate of China, December 12, 1937

Japanese troops began firing their mountain guns, and finally succeeded in demolishing part of the gate. Portions of the wall crumbled, the debris forming a steep hill. The 1st Battalion ascended that hill and, at last, broke through and seized the outer gate. By the time the Japanese flag had been raised amidst the rubble, night had fallen.

Guanghua Gate was defended by Chiang Kai-shek's elite supervisory unit. The day after the gate had been partially destroyed, Chinese forces were doubled in size, to 1,000. Barricades of sandbags covered with barbed-wire entanglements had already been erected on the periphery of the gate. Furthermore, machine guns were aimed at the Japanese by Chinese soldiers protected by concrete pillboxes.

Outside the city, at Zijinshan (紫金山) (northeast of Guanghua Gate) and Yuhuatai( 雨花台) (south of Zhonghua Gate), Japanese and Chinese troops were locked in a desperate struggle. The Nanking Defense Corps was aware that if Guanghua Gate fell to the Japanese then hostilities outside the city would become pointless within a short period of time. Knowing this they were motivated to fight even harder.

The Chinese brought in tanks, from which they fired on Japanese soldiers inside the outer gate which immobilized them. Then the Nanking Defense Corps began strafing the Japanese from the top of the gate. Next came an incendiary attack: the Chinese threw lumber down on the Japanese, and poured petroleum on it, which they then ignited. The Japanese 1st Company was trapped inside the outer gate. There 88 Japanese soldiers fell, one after another, till only eight remained. They were saved from total annihilation by Japanese heavy artillery which began firing on the morning of December 12. Gradually, the Japanese gained the upper hand. Finally, at 6:00 a.m. on December 13, the Sabae Regiment occupied Guanghua Gate.

Japanese sinking of the USS Panay

USS Panay sinking after Japanese air attack.jpg

On December 12, American gunboat USS Panay and three tankers were moored in the Yangtze River, upstream from Nanking. Although the Panay was flying the American flag, the convoy came under attack at 1:27pm by three B4Y Type 96 bombers and nine A4N Type 95 fighters. The Panay sank at 3:54pm. There were three deaths resulting from the attack. The sinking of the Panay had no material effect on the outcome of the battle for Nanking.

The Panay incident caused some tension in Japanese-American relations. The matter was officially settled on December 24 when the Japanese government apologized and paid over US$2,000,000 although it claimed the attack was an accident resulting from mis-identification. It claimed that the pilots did not see the American flags.

The decision to order a general retreat

After two days of defending against an enemy which had an overwhelming numerical superiority, while enduring heavy artillery fire and aerial bombardment, and with many of his troops in open flight, it became obvious to Tang that a general retreat was inevitable. The problem was that whoever gave the order to retreat would be blamed for losing the capital and face harsh criticism from the Chinese public. Tang was very reluctant to bear this responsibility and the consequent blame alone. So he called a meeting of all of his senior commanders at Tang's headquarters. He showed his senior commanders Chiang Kai-shek's orders which gave them permission to retreat when needed. Tang asked everyone's opinion and got the answer he was looking for. The answer was a unanimous decision to retreat. Tang then insisted that everyone sign their names on Chiang's order before giving out the command to sound a general retreat.

That evening, on December 12, 1937, Tang Shengzhi escaped from the city through the Yijiang Gate on the northern side of the city walls. This gate was the only available as an escape route that was not held by the Japanese. Tang, however, did not officially announce to the Japanese military authorities any intention of surrendering the city. Since he had publicly vowed to defend Nanking to the death, he had made no plans for an orderly evacuation of the units stationed in and around the city. His sudden departure worsened the state of military confusion suffered by the Chinese units that remained.[12]

The general retreat turns into a rout

Just as the defensive battle had not played out according to the plan, the general retreat did not occur as planned either. What ensued was nothing short of chaos. What was supposed to be an organized retreat rapidly turned into a confusing and panicked flight. By late evening the unorganized retreat had turned into a complete rout. Many commanders simply abandoned their troops and fled on their own, without giving their men any orders to retreat.[27]

Of the 100,000 defenders of the capital, and thousands more Chinese troops fleeing back to the capital from the battles in the areas around Nanking, only two regiments managed to successfully retreat according to the original plan. They both survived intact. While the other units that did not follow the original plan fell victim to the enemy.

Frank Tillman Durdin of the New York Times and Archibald Steele of the Chicago Daily News saw many of the Chinese troops loot shops for food and other supplies, cast away their arms and shed their uniforms in the street. Some soldiers donned civilian clothes, sometimes by robbing civilians of their garments, and others ran away in their underwear.[15] "Streets became covered with guns, grenades, swords, knapsacks, coats, shoes, and helmets," wrote Durdin.[28]

Panic at the Yijiang Gate

The 36th Division of the Chinese Army was positioned at the Yijiang Gate, the northwest gate of the city leading to the riverfront, with orders to stop any retreat. Apparently, those orders were never countermanded because the soldiers of the 36th Division confronted those who tried to go through the tiny openings of the gate.

The streets toward the Yijiang Gate became congested with thousands of retreating Chinese soldiers and civilians. Soon panic followed as the crowd fought to squeeze through the only path to the wharf. Some of them headed north on Zhongshan North Road for Yijiang Gate (North Gate), which led to Xiaguan on the banks of the Yangtze. Yijiang Gate was the only open gate and, therefore, the only possible escape route. On the night of December 12, multitudes of Chinese soldiers rushed to Yijiang Gate, which had been fortified with timbers and sandbags.

According to the Nanking Defense Corps Battle Report, the responsibility of the 36th Division was to use force to prevent units from retreating. According to the Memoirs of Li Zongren, the supervisory unit shot at waves of fleeing Chinese soldiers from behind. Many of them were wounded or killed.

The following is an excerpt from the memoirs of Staff Officer Cheng Kuilang in Source Material Relating to the Battle of Nanking, Vol. 2.

In front of the Ministry of the Navy on Zhongshan North Road, I saw units from the 36th Division standing on the road, having laid down their machine guns, and blocking traffic. They would not allow other units coming from the south to pass. ... Zhongshan North Road was soon filled with vehicles and soldiers, which stormed Yijiang Gate. In the desperate competition to escape from the city, they lunged forward in waves, only to be pushed back. Some of them were trampled, and I could hear them yelling, 'Grandfather! Grandmother!' The sentries with the 36th division had placed machine guns on the parapets on the wall, and were shouting, 'Don't push! We'll shoot if you push!' But the pushing and shoving continued.

Attack on SEF headquarters

On the afternoon of December 13, the Shanghai Expeditionary Force Headquarters at Tangshuizhen was ambushed by Chinese stragglers. The Japanese repelled them, but they attacked again around 5:00 p.m. Then, according to Major-General Iinuma's war journal, "a free-for-all ensued."

Fall of Nanking

On December 13, the Japanese Army completed the encirclement of the city. The 6th and 114th Divisions of the Japanese Army were the first to enter the city. At the same time, the 9th Division entered via the nearby Guanghua Gate, and the 16th Division entered via the Zhongshan and the Taiping Gate. That same afternoon, two small Japanese Navy fleets arrived on both sides of the Yangtze River. Nanking had fallen to the Japanese by nightfall.

Despite Chiang Kai-shek's support and protection, Tang was blamed for the failure to defend Nanking which resulted in the consequent Nanking Massacre.

Pursuit and "mopping-up" operations

Japanese troops pursued the retreating Chinese army units, primarily in the Xiakuan area to the north of the city walls and around the Zijin Mountain in the east. Although the popular narrative suggests that the final phase of the battle consisted of a one-sided slaughter of Chinese troops by the Japanese, some Japanese historians maintain that the remaining Chinese military posed a serious threat to the Japanese. Prince Asaka told a war correspondent later that he was in a very perilous position when his headquarters was ambushed by Chinese forces that were in the process of retreating from Nanking east of the city. On the other side of the city, the 11th Company of the 45th Regiment encountered some 20,000 Chinese troops who were making their way from Xiakuan.[7]

The Japanese army conducted its mopping-up operations both inside and outside the Nanking Safety Zone. Since the area outside the safety zone had been almost completely evacuated, the mopping-up effort was concentrated in the safety zone. The safety zone, an area of 3.85 square kilometers, was literally packed with the remaining population of Nanking. A number of Chinese soldiers in civilian clothes were hiding among the civilians in the Safety Zone; the Japanese military leadership estimated the number of such soldiers at about 20,000. They learned that anti-aircraft artillery positions remained intact within the safety zone, and that numerous plain-clothed soldiers were found concealing their weapons.

Some Japanese historians argue that, if the soldiers inside the Safety Zone had found an opportunity to assault the Japanese, the Safety Zone would have become a battlefield and endangered the safety of innocent civilians. For this reason, the Japanese army leadership assigned some units to separate the plain-clothed soldiers from the civilians, working through the Safety Zone section by section.[29]

Nanking Massacre

Over the following six weeks, the Japanese troops committed the Nanking Massacre, commonly known as the Rape of Nanking. The duration of the massacre is not clearly defined, although the violence lasted at least until early February 1938. Estimates of the death count vary, with most reliable sources holding that 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians were massacred in this period.[30][31]

During the occupation of Nanking, the Japanese army committed numerous atrocities, such as rape, looting, arson and the execution of prisoners of war and civilians. The executions began under the pretext of eliminating Chinese soldiers disguised as civilians, and a large number of innocent men were intentionally misidentified as enemy combatants and executed as the massacre gathered momentum. A large number of women and children were also killed, as rape and murder became more widespread.[32]


Several cities, including Xuzhou and Wuhan soon fell after this battle. The government also tried to slow down the advancing Japanese by causing the 1938 Huang He flood, which covered three provinces.


F.Tillman Durdin of the New York Times was extremely critical of the Chinese defending army, writing that the loss of the city “was the most overwhelming defeat suffered by the Chinese and one of the most tragic debacles in the history of modern warfare. In attempting to defend Nanking, the Chinese allowed themselves to be surrounded and then systematically slaughtered. After noting that Chiang Kai-shek bore much of the responsibility, Durdin also stated that “General Tang Sheng-chih and associated division commanders who deserted their troops and fled” were also at fault.[33]


  • Askew, David (2003). Defending Nanking: An Examination of the Capital Garrison Forces. Sino Japanese Studies Vol. 15 pp. 148–173. 

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1
  2. 2.0 2.1 Shudo Higashinakano, The Nanking Massacre: Fact Versus Fiction (Tokyo: Sekai Shuppan Inc, 2005), 54.
  3. Askew, Defending Nanking: An Examination of the Capital Garrison Forces, p.158.
  4. Article about the Defense of Nanjing
  5. Spence, Jonathan D. (1999) The Search for Modern China, W.W. Norton and Company. pp. 422-423. ISBN 0-393-97351-4.
  6. The Illustrated London News, Marching to War 1933–1939. Doubleday. 1989. p. 135. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Higashinakano Shudo, Kobayashi Susumu & Fukunaga Shainjiro (2005). "Analyzing the "Photographic Evidence" of the Nanking Massacre (originally published as Nankin Jiken: "Shokoshashin" wo Kenshosuru)". Tokyo, Japan: Soshisha. 
  8. The Current Situation in China (published by Toa Dobunkai),
  9. Kasahara, Tokushi (1995). Nanking Nanminku no Hyakunichi [One Hundred Days in the Nanking Safety Zone]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten. pp. 60. 
  10. "The Nanking Incident". Archived from the original on 2006-02-13. Retrieved 2006-04-19. 
  11. Li, Zongren. Memoirs of Li Zongren. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Spence, Jonathan D. (1999) The Search for Modern China, W.W. Norton and Company. p. 423. ISBN 0-393-97351-4.
  13. Eyewitness Accounts of the Battle of Nanking, Vol. 3. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Higashinakano Shudo, Kobayashi Susumu & Fukunaga Shainjiro (2005). "Analyzing the "Photographic Evidence" of the Nanking Massacre (originally published as Nankin Jiken: "Shokoshashin" wo Kenshosuru)". Tokyo, Japan: Soshisha. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Five Western Journalists in the Doomed City". Archived from the original on 2005-03-25. Retrieved 2006-04-19. 
  16. "Chinese Fight Foe Outside Nanking; See Seeks's Stand". Retrieved 2006-04-19. 
  17. "Japan Lays Gain to Massing of Foe". Retrieved 2006-04-19. 
  18. Askew, David. "Defending Nanking: An Examination of the Capital Garrison Forces". Retrieved 2009-04-26. 
  19. Yoshida, Hiroshi (1998). 'Tennō no guntai to Nankin jiken. Aoki shoten. p. 71. ISBN 4-250-98019-7. 
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Bergamini, David. Japan's Imperial Conspiracy. pp. 23–24. 
  21. Chen, World War II Database
  22. Chang, Iris (1997). p. 40. 
  23. Fujiwara, Akira (1995). Kikan Sensô Sekinin Kenkyû 9. p. 22. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 He, Yingqin (1948). Wu Xiangxiang. ed. Modern Chinese History: The Conflict With Japan. Taipei: Wenxing Shudian. p. 82.. 
  25. 25.0 25.1 "Alleged 'Nanking Massacre', Japan's rebuttal to China's forged claims". Retrieved 2006-04-19. [dead link]
  26. "Battle of Shanghai". Archived from the original on 2006-02-05. Retrieved 2006-04-19. 
  27. Tillman Durdin in a dispatch to the New York Times (December 18, 1937)
  28. Durdin, Frank. "All Captives Slain". 
  29. Higashinakano Shudo, Kobayashi Susumu & Fukunaga Shainjiro (2005). "Analyzing the "Photographic Evidence" of the Nanking Massacre (originally published as Nankin Jiken: "Shokoshashin" o Kensho Suru)". Tokyo, Japan: Soshisha. 
  30. Fogel, Joshua A. The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography. 2000, page 46-8
  31. Dillon, Dana R. The China Challenge. 2007, page 9-10
  32. "Scarred by history: The Rape of Nanjing". BBC News. 2005-04-11. Retrieved 2010-01-01.  While Matsui himself was not present during the beginning of the atrocities (he was ill at the time), he was aware of what his men were doing in the city, as were members of the Japanese foreign service who had followed the army into the city. Word began to trickle out of Nanking, and growing pressure was placed on the Imperial government to recall the SEF's officers.
  33. Askew, David. "The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone: An Introduction". 

External links

The Japanese news media also made a documentary movie named "Nanking" that recorded Nanking just after its fall. The film covers various scenes inside and outside the walls of Nanking during December 14, 1937 – January 4, 1938, and was first released in 1938. For many years the film had been thought to be lost, but later was found in Beijing in 1995, although it is said that a 10 minute segment is missing.

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