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? This article first appeared in the July 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
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.