The mass aerial bombing that so characterized World War II and the wars that followed didn’t start with the blitz, Dresden or Tokyo, but was instead prefigured by the lethal bombing of Shanghai on 14 August 1937, preceded only by the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War earlier that year.
Paul French writes in Bloody Saturday: Shanghai’s Darkest Day—now available in a Southeast Asian edition of the original Penguin Australia “short”—of Japan’s bombing of Shanghai and the Chinese retaliation. Japan had bombed Shanghai back in 1932, but there had seemed to be some stability until Bloody Saturday in 1937.
French is a master storyteller and Bloody Saturday stands out not just for the story he tells but also for the everyday people he highlights. People like Claire Chennault and Victor Sassoon are household names and French includes both—or rather Sir Victor’s Cathay Hotel and Broadway Mansions to be more specific—in his narrative. He also writes about other, lesser-known people, who witnessed, recorded, and helped save lives after bombings in front of the Cathay and Palace Hotels and the Great World amusement center.
Vanya Oakes was an American librarian who moved to Shanghai in 1933 to escape the Great Depression back home. She ended up writing for the China Press and covered the bombings. She knew that tensions were brewing with the Japanese and witnessed the growing numbers of Japanese gunboats along the Whangpoo River. After the bombing started near Bund, between the Palace and Cathay Hotels, she became trapped on the Garden Bridge, only to retreat later that day to the tea house at Yu Yuan Gardens when bombing occurred near the Great World.
Another lesser known figure in the book was Lucien Ovadia, a cousin of Victor Sassoon who worked in the family business. French describes him as a quintessential Shanghailander:
Born in Egypt, he was of Spanish nationality, educated in France, had lived in London and travelled extensively throughout the Far East. It was often said of him that he was, almost, as cosmopolitan as Shanghai itself.
Ovadia worked alongside the Cathay Hotel management to evacuate more than 150 hotel guests and diners, including Eleanor B Roosevelt, the daughter-in-law of Teddy Roosevelt, after the bombing started that day.
Since Shanghai was administered by different countries because of the foreign concessions, groups that could make up a mini League of Nations came together to defend the city. In the International Settlement, the Shanghai Volunteer Corps were called in fortify that concession the night before the bombings—and the war—began. The preparations almost read like social club gatherings.
All members were volunteers recalled from their day jobs at times of emergency and were spread out across the Settlement. One and a half thousand SVC members were present in the city to muster themselves immediately. The Shanghai Scottish and Jewish companies were billeted in the Rowing Club adjacent to Soochow Creek, just across the road from the sprawling British Consulate’s compound. The SVC’s Air Defence detachment was stationed close by in the gardens of the Union Church.
Besides these companies, the SVC also included Chinese, White Russians, Americans, Filipinos, Portuguese, and Japanese. Thanks to the wide array of entertainment in the city, it wasn’t too difficult to send messages to the SVC members.
White Russian refugee Boris Ivanovich was watching a movie that evening at the Metropole Cinema on Thibet Road in the French Concession. Halfway through the night’s main feature—Hollywood’s Cowboy, a Wild West adventure with George O’Brien—a slide flashed on the screen ordering all members of the SVC to immediately report to their companies for mobilization orders. Boris felt a chill run down his spine. He was just seventeen years old and had lied about his age to get into the corps.
When the bombings were over that day, there was disagreement over whether the Chinese air fleet had accidentally bombed the International Settlement or whether their planes were damaged by Japanese air fire and the bomb racks were disabled, thereby releasing the bombs unintentionally. Madame Chiang Kai-shek wrote to Eleanor B Roosevelt about the latter while Claire Chennault witnessed Chinese bombers firing into a British vessel on the river.
Thousands of civilians lost their lives on Bloody Saturday and, as war raged on for the next decade, Shanghai would never be the same freewheeling city that attracted people from all over the world.