When did the Second World War begin? The conventional date is September 1, 1939, with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and the subsequent declarations of war by France and the United Kingdom on the third of the month. However, with a growing appreciation for China’s important wartime role, historians are increasingly looking to the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) as the real beginning of the global conflict.

Japanese encroachment into China was a gradual series of “incidents,” each followed by Chinese concessions, until one such episode, the “Marco Polo Bridge Incident,” on July 7, 1937, led to a prolonged full-scale war between Japan and China. In August of that year, war came to Shanghai. Paul French’s Bloody Saturday: Shanghai’s Darkest Day focuses on one remarkable day of the desperate three-month Battle of Shanghai: August Fourteenth, or Bloody Saturday. On that day the city suffered the deadliest ever air attack until that time. Previously the most lethal aerial bombardment had been on the Spanish town of Guernica in April 1937.

Over one thousand civilians were killed at Guernica; at Shanghai, over two thousand lives were lost and many more were injured. ‘Bloody Saturday’, as it quickly became known, was a portent of what was to come to other cities including Chungking, London, Manchester, Liverpool, Antwerp, Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, and so many others in the Second World War.

The deaths and injuries were made even more tragic by the fact that the bombs were off-target Chinese ones. Two days earlier the Japanese had moved troops into and begun shelling the Chinese portions of Shanghai from their fleet anchored on the Huangpu River. The Chinese response, an air raid on the Japanese flagship Idzumo, went badly wrong. The bombs missed the Idzumo and landed in the nearby International Settlement at the intersection of Nanjing Road and the Bund. The Peace and Cathay Hotels were hit. A second group of bombs landed outside the landmark Great World Amusement Palace in the French Concession.

Bloody Saturday contains a stunning cast of characters and great period detail. French’s mastery of the era makes for an engaging read. He seems to have an inexhaustible supply of stories and a knack for condensing them in a pithy manner. I’ve read his other books and Bloody Saturday isn’t just an exercise in recycling material. For example, I’d not before come across intrepid American journalist Vanya Oakes. Oakes had arrived in Shanghai in 1933, landing a job with one of the local English-language papers. French recounts how, unable to get across a dangerously crowded bridge.

She took off her high heels and started ‘sampan hopping’, jumping from one flimsy craft to another in the hope of making it to the other side.

More bombs fell as Oakes jumped from one boat to another, high heels and purse in hand, much to the amusement of the boat owners. She made it to the northern bank just as the 11.20 a.m. planes screeched in overhead. She quickly found shelter with a friendly boatman under the canvas awning of his sampan. Bombs fell towards Pootung and shrapnel from the Japanese anti-aircraft guns rained down, killing the occupants of one boat just fifty feet away.

Of the numerous cameo appearances in the book, one of the most memorable is George Battey’s. An American living in an area of heavy fighting between Japanese and Chinese troops, he hoisted the Stars and Stripes outside his house and “clambered into his five-foot iron bathtub with a loaf of bread and a tin of salmon when the shooting started.”

Although bullets passed through the plaster walls of his house and pinged off his iron bathtub, he avidly maintained that both sides had avoided deliberately shooting at his house and his flag. But when the firing quietened in the evening, he pumped up the tyres on his bicycle, strapped his typewriter, shaving kit and some personal belongings to the back, and stuck Old Glory on a pole attached to the back wheel. He then rode four miles through the skirmishing soldiers in northern Shanghai to the American Consulate, cutting a rather bizarre figure clad only in a bathing costume and khaki shorts.

The downside of the abundance of anecdotes and characters is that the book occasionally lacks forward narrative drive and a wider context; but part of that is also the result of concentrating on a single day and the limitations of the length – it’s a Penguin Special so only twenty thousand or so words.

Still, Bloody Saturday is not only a good book, but better than it needs to be. Why so much research, why cast such a wide and deep net for a Penguin Special? As well as drawing on his many years living in and writing about the city, French is using recent research for his forthcoming book, City of Devils, which describes true crime stories in Shanghai from the period between Bloody Saturday and Pearl Harbor.

Yes, there’s no getting away from it: Paul French is an annoyingly prolific author. He’s written a whole bookshelf of works on twentieth-century China, including the international bestseller Midnight in Peking (2011), which is the true crime mystery of the murder of a nineteen-year-old Englishwoman in January 1937. (There’s that special year again.) When it comes to especially productive academic authors, it’s easy to suspect that their graduate students have done most of the drudgery, but what dark secrets does French’s writing den hold? I can picture him – through a haze of incense or is it opium smoke – comfortably reclined in one of those wonderful colonial planter’s chairs. Between sips of a gin sling he’s dictating to a bevy of Chinese secretaries, young qipao-clad beauties who seem to have sprung forth from old Shanghai advertising posters.

Bloody Saturday: Shanghai’s Darkest Day is published by Penguin. It’s also available from Amazon, where you can have a look at his many other titles, including Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China.

Paul French posts regularly on his excellent China Rhyming blog.

You may also be interested in reading my review of Paul French’s Through the Looking Glass: China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to Mao.