Eyewitness to the Battle (I)

The battle of Shanghai in the fall of 1937 played out in front of a huge foreign audience, and many wrote down their experiences in eloquent manner. One of them was Best Overend (1909-1977). At the age of twenty-seven, he was the Third Watch Officer on a steamer that left Sydney heading for China. There he worked as an architect for a British firm, Lester, Johnson and Morriss in Shanghai. Towards the end of 1937, when hostilities became too intense, he closed the practice and joined the Shanghai Volunteer Police Force. Overend is pictured in the photo in the uniform of the police force. (Photo courtesy of his son, Tronn Overend.)

What follows is the first of three installments of his dramatic recollections from the Shanghai battle. It is an edited extract from Tramp to Shanghai: a young man’s tale before the war, by Best Overend and Tronn Overend available as a free iBook from the iTunes store. The extract was first carried in the June, 2013 issue of Quadrant magazine (www.quadrant.org.au) and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Quadrant and Tronn Overend. The modern pinyin versions of place names are given in brackets.

Japan made the first move on the conquest of China and the ultimate domination of Asia. She also had in sight French Indo-China, the Dutch East Indies and India. This idea was flaunted by all the Japanese papers in China, let alone those in Japan. Japan wanted to fight then, because a recent tiff with Moscow, over the Amur River, had disclosed for the first time a Russian policy of conciliation – long thought of in these countries as the prerogative of the English. Conciliation is considered a weakness by Oriental people. Suddenly, Japan felt that Russia would not trouble her unduly along that frontier. There might be isolated clashes, yes, but those more in the spirit of sport than of national consequence. Japan wanted to fight then, because she knew that the nations of the Continent were concerned over the conflict in Spain – the maze of non-intervention pacts and the scrapping between communism and the various forms of fascism. She hoped that the Powers would pass over a small thing near Peiping. Her guess was good. Japan wanted to fight then, because for the second time in the history of her western imperialistic phase there was an integration of forces within her government. The army, the navy, the economists, the politicians and the industrialists had all been drawn together. Under the Premier, Prince Konoye, this was for the glory and protection of Japan and the defence of her Emperor.  And Japan wanted to fight then, because she knew damn well that if she didn’t, the harder it would be for her to retain any sphere of influence in China.

China sat along her yellow rivers and waited – some four hundred and fifty million people – more patient because of the yoke of the many invader pirates. But her younger bloods were almost hysterical. There were many societies for National Advancement and National Salvation, and there were many National Humiliation Days. China was reputed to maintain the largest standing army in the world, some two and a half million men. Although most of these were unarmed coolies, bugles blew in the school compounds around the cities, children drilled, young men paraded, and the great yellow country was slowly heaving and yeasting into a settled control. If only Japan had left her to rise alone, a little while longer.

Chiang Kai-shek – the welder, her ‘deliverer’ – had been having quite a lot of birthdays. Upon each anniversary, each of these enthusiastic societies presented him with a bomber, or a gun, or a pursuit plane. The boys in China were anxious to try these things out and were restive under the Japanese domination. They were becoming rather cocky. I had been to Japan a couple of times immediately before her decision to dominate China. Perhaps the most striking thing that permeated that lovely and delicate country was a tremendous regimentation. In an altercation with China it was that element which would determine the result. It might have been compared to the relative force of the one million ardent Fascists in Italy being able to dominate and sway the destinies of the forty million other residents. Ardent men will always control the indifferent. And Japan was a country controlled by men; for their ladies are as sweet and simple and affectionate as their country in cherry blossom time.

The 1937 play, “Celestial Fanfare”, opened to a capacity house. This was a theatre of war, fascinating, mesmeric on its audiences. It was also a free and magnificent show, and only a carping critic would complain of the relatively few casualties in the stalls. Shanghai is built along the banks of the Whangpoo (Huangpu), a river about 200 yards wide. The Bund follows this river, and along this magnificent boulevard are the main buildings of the business area. On this theatrical stage the river takes a sweep almost at right angles at the northern end, opposite the British Consulate. Here the Soochow Creek (Suzhou Creek), crossed by the Garden Bridge, separates the Settlement districts of Hongkew (Hongkou), Wayside, and Yanzepoo (Yangshupu) from the International Settlement. At the southern end lies the French Concession, and moored opposite the warships of the Outside Powers. From the GardenBridge, down to the confluence of the Whampoo (Huangpu) and the tremendous Yangsee Kiang (Yangtze River), the might of the Third Naval Arm of Japan is anchored. This is an almost an unbroken array – an armada of some eighty warships. These block exit and entrance, and protect the rear of the Japanese occupation of Hongkew, Wayside and Yangzepoo. The opposite bank to the Bund, a projecting point of land owing to the sweep of the Whampoo, was the Chinese territory of Pootung (Pudong). This river front was lined with junks, or ship-building yards. Within, was an area of godowns or river warehouses. Beyond, was countryside, all smelly in the sun. Chinese batteries and machine gun nests scattered Pootung at that time.  This was the stage. The fifth most important port of the world.

A gunfire engagement between the two forces always brought a nervous crowd to the streets entering the Bund. The boulevard was then closed to the public for their own sake. My office, a seat in the stalls on the second floor of a Japanese Bank building, had a grand view of the show. It was next door, but two, to the Palace and Cathay Hotels partially demolished by bombing with an enormous loss of life. Things usually opened with a spatter of machine guns from the Pootung shore. The bullets, rattling along the gunboats and warships, reached the wharves and Japanese buildings in Hongkew. You could see but little of the preliminaries. The Japanese ships lying along the wharf, opposite the Japanese Consulate building, soon spotted the position of the machine gun nest. With no warning there were suddenly enormous blinding flashes, and ear splitting sharp BANGS. This marked naval guns in action. They were firing at point blank range, about 250 yards. Fire, fury and destruction reigned for fifteen minutes, with the other destroyers and cruisers opening fire on the same spot from their close order downstream. Flashes marked, so to speak, the spots before the sound came. It seemed a miracle that the warships of America, Britain and France were not hit. Quickly, the flimsy buildings climbed in smoke and flame. It spread widely, sending gigantic volumes of smoke into the blue morning sky. With the slackening of fire, two Japanese patrol boats, with men crouched clearly behind the armoured machine gun deck emplacements, crept up under cover of the derelict ships tied off Pootung. Cautiously they began to investigate. The only sound was the roar of the fires. Suddenly, the shore machine guns, from what seemed like the middle of the fire, opened up again, but this time on the Japanese patrol boat. These sounded absurd after the large calibre naval guns. To the battleships they were as annoying as mosquitoes, well deserving the heavy hand. So, the enormous barrage, at point blank range, commenced again. Like bursting pomegranates, the larger more robust brick buildings behind broke open and burst into flame. Their precious contents now destroyed, it seemed impossible for anything to survive.

The first comic touch in this play was provided by the Japanese holing a high water tank. Standing amidst the flames, it was first hit near the top and then at the bottom, as though they were determined to empty the thing. Later, a different sort of sound impinged upon the observer’s ear. The Chinese had apparently brought up a big gun, or battery, within half a mile of the river. Because this was carried out overnight the Japanese spotter planes had missed it. The gun began by shelling the Japanese warships, the spouts and explosions wandering casually over the water. Some actually came close to their target. Then, at this juncture, a new actor walked on stage. A large Japanese transport ship came into view round the bend of the river. It was travelling at full speed. She seemed surprised at her reception, and dropped anchor with superlative coolness between the Japanese consulate and the one warship firing most rounds into Pootung. Because this point of the river was wider than the rest, most ships went there to turn. The transport proceeded to swing as quickly as I have ever seen ten thousand tons swing upon one anchor. Being under temporary cover from this craft, the Chinese machine guns started up again, with the shells landing really very close to the ship. But innocent as the transport ship appeared, no sooner had she turned she dropped ports fore and aft and opened up with large quickfirers. This further intensified the tremendous rolling thunder. She seemed hit lower down as she rested against the wharf.

With this screen removed the Japanese war vessels poured forth broadside after broadside, and the glass in the office window perceptibly hummed between the rattles. The Chinese shells climbed higher and higher until they found the Japanese Consulate building. The Chinese observer must have been in direct contact with his gunners, because they stayed there and began pounding the building. Great gouts and curtains of brick dust burst from the four storey walls, and up from the red tiled roof, as the shells fell and exploded. Here, for it was a Play you must remember, the comic waddled in. A tiny Blue Funnel tugboat, bearing a full cargo of sailors, together with coolies and minor baggage, was up for the day from the outlying ships. In common with the other English river boats, age and smoke made her flag entirely indistinguishable. But she steamed quite slowly and stolidly between the combatants, apparently blowing her whistle in the admonitory manner of a reproving old lady. I say apparently, because there were jets of white steam at her funnel. Naturally, the noise was drowned. Only could a hard boiled British skipper of the China coast do that and get away with it. Together with the other impertinence of the Chinese guns, this seemed incredible to the Japanese. Under the very muzzles of her naval guns was a Chinese battery precariously, if not efficiently, damaging their huge ConsulateBuilding and their main wharf. Then the spoilsports, the planes, came over. The show had already lasted for two hours. Flying low, they dive bombed in an effort to locate the Chinese. To no avail, these people had already packed up under their bamboos for the day. They had no desire to disclose their position. (To be continued.)

Categories: Battle

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