Military history


Fifty Books on the Second World War

Bibliographies of the Second World War abound. None is comprehensive, nor is that surprising, since 15,000 titles in Russian alone had appeared by 1980. Excellent working bibliographies may be found, nonetheless, in most good general histories of the war, such as the revised edition of Total War by P. Calvocoressi, G. Wint and J. Pritchard (Lodon, 1989).

Rather than supply an equivalent of such bibliographies, I have decided to offer a list of fifty books available in English which together provide a comprehensive picture of the most important events and themes of the war, which are readable and from which the general reader can derive his own picture of the war as a guide to deeper reading. The list inevitably reflects my own interests and prejudices and is certainly not complete; it does not, for example, contain a title on the Polish campaign of 1939 or on the Scandinavian or Italian campaigns; it is thin on the war at sea in western waters and on the war in the air; and it is biased towards the fighting in Europe rather than in the Pacific. These distortions are, however, in most cases caused by gaps in the literature. There are still no books which meet the criteria I set myself on the Polish or Italian campaigns. If this judgement seems a depreciation of the remarkable work of the American, British and Commonwealth Official Historians, may it please be noted that I have nevertheless included several volumes which appear in those series, and have omitted others purely for reasons of space. I have included no books in foreign languages, though I would have dearly liked to include the war diary of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the daily record of Hitler’s operations staff. Its full title is: P. Schramm, Kriegstagebuch des OKW der Wehrmacht, vols 1-8, Munich, 1963. The place of publication of the titles cited is London, unless otherwise stated, and the edition, including those in English translation, is the most recent.

An indispensable guide to the campaigns is Colonel Vincent J. Esposito’s The West Point Atlas of American Wars, vol 2, New York, 1959; the atlas contains meticulous maps of the main theatres of fighting, whether American troops were engaged or not, complemented by clear narratives on the facing page.

The best biography of Hitler, whose personality stands at the centre of the Second World War, is still that of Alan Bullock: Hitler, a Study in Tyranny, 1965. Complementing it as a picture of how he directed Germany’s war effort is David Irving’s Hitler’s War,1977, which has been described as ‘the autobiography Hitler did not write’ and is certainly among the half-dozen most important books on 1939-45. Robert O’Neill’s The German Army and the Nazi Party, 1966, is an essential portrait of both institutions and their relationship in the pre-war years. Two books on the relationship between Hitler and German government and army in the war years which will always be read are: W. Warlimont, Inside Hitler’s Headquarters, 1962, by one of his operations officers, and A. Speer,Inside the Third Reich, 1970; Speer was Hitler’s armaments minister from 1942 and a technocrat of brilliant intelligence who nevertheless allowed himself to become a court favourite. H. Trevor-Roper is the author of two indispensable works: Hitler’s War Directives, 1964, and his eternally fascinating classic, The Last Days of Hitler, 1971.

Contentious though it is, A. J. P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War, 1963, cannot be bettered as an introduction to that subject. On the beginning of the war in the west an outstanding work of historical drama is Alistair Horne’s To Lose a Battle,1969; Guy Chapman’s Why France Fell, 1968, meticulously analyses that persisting conundrum. Some of the consequences are described in Robert Paxton’s too little known Parades and Politics at Vichy, Princeton, 1966, a study of ‘the French officer corps under Marshal Pétain’, which is also a brilliant dissection of the dilemmas of resistance and collaboration. The best account of the aftermath of Hitler’s victory in the west is Telford Taylor’s The Breaking Wave, 1967, which is also an account of his defeat in the Battle of Britain.

Whether or not Hitler had ever seriously contemplated invading Britain, by the autumn of 1940 his thoughts were turning eastwards. Martin van Creveld, in Hitler’s Strategy, the Balkan Clue, Cambridge, 1973, describes the stages through which his thinking proceeded and provides one of the most original of all analyses of strategy and foreign policy in the historiography of the war. A brilliant monograph on a critical aspect of the Balkan campaigns is The Struggle for Crete, 1955, by I. M. G. Stewart, the medical officer of one of the British battalions overwhelmed by the German airborne descent. The fighting in the Western Desert, for the Germans an appendix to their advance to the Mediterranean, has been much written of, but nowhere better than in Correlli Barnett’sThe Desert Generals, 1983.

The Balkans was the prelude to Hitler’s attack on Russia. Overtowering all other writers in English on the war in the east (probably in Russian also) is John Erickson, who has published three magisterial works: The Soviet High Command, 1962, The Road to Stalingrad, 1975 and The Road to Berlin, 1983; the last two are over-complex at the operational level but magnificent in their portrayal of the Red Army and the Soviet peoples at war. The reality of the war waged by the Germans, and of its self-defeating nature, is conveyed in A. Dallin’s scholarly German Rule in Russia, New York, 1957. A slight but vital monograph on how devastated Russia’s resistance was sustained is Joan Beaumont’s Comrades in Arms, 1980, which, though devoted to British aid to Russia, also tells much of the far greater American aid effort.

Hitler’s embroilment in Russia, together with America’s entry into the war which shortly followed it, cast the strategic initiative for the first time to the Allied side. Two key monographs which outline Britain’s efforts to make strategy on its own acount are Michael Howard’s The Continental Commitment, 1972, and The Mediterranean Strategy in the Second World War, 1968; the latter frankly acknowledges British reluctance to meet American enthusiasm for a direct assault on North-West Europe. Splendid documentary surveys of joint Anglo-American strategic decision-making from the moment of American entry are provided in two volumes of the great American Official History, E. Snell’s Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1941-2, Washington, 1953, and M. Matloff, same title but for 1943-4, Washington, 1959. An associated volume, investigating how particular strategic choices (not all Allied) were made, is Command Decisions, Washington, 1960, edited by K. R. Greenfield.

Because we now know that the making of Allied strategy – sometimes of tactics – was guided by Britain’s ability to read German secure communication (Ultra) and the Americans’ ability to read the Japanese (Magic), it is inevitable that this list should contain several titles on both activities. By far the most important is the first volume of the Official History, by F. H. Hinsley (and others), British Intelligence in the Second World War, 1979; it contains the essential information on the breaking of Enigma, the German cipher system, and on the establishment and early use of Ultra, the intelligence derived from it. Additional but vital technical details are supplied by Gordon Welchman, a pioneer at the cipher-breaking centre at Bletchley, in The Hut Six Story, 1982. Ronald Lewin provided broad but highly reliable accounts of the influence both of Ultra and Magic in Ultra Goes to War, 1978, and The American Magic, New York, 1982; the latter also explains how the Americans complemented Bletchley’s achievement by breaking the Japanese ciphers. Two detailed studies of Ultra in action are P. Beesly’s Very Special Intelligence, 1977, about the Battle of the Atlantic, and R. Bennett’s Ultra in the West, 1979, about the North-West Europe campaign.

American’s war in the Pacific has produced an enormous literature. The most illuminating introduction, for a westerner, is Richard Storry’s A History of Modern Japan, 1960, by a scholar who served as an intelligence officer with the British army in South-East Asia and had taught in Japan before its disastrous decision to make the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. H. P. Willmott’s Empires in the Balance, 1982, surveys the strengths and strategies of the Pacific antagonists before and during the first year of the war and is particularly well-informed on the Japanese side. The best general history of the war in the Pacific, which also finds room for accounts of events in China and Burma, is Ronald Spector’s Eagle against the Sun, 1988, enthrallingly written and brilliantly compressed. It would be unfair not to include a volume from Samuel Eliot Morison’s Official History of United States Naval Operations in World War II; in fact his fourth, Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Operations, Boston, 1949, provides superb and moving accounts of those two crucial battles and is a justification in itself of the official historiography programme. The most important survey of the politics of the Pacific War, which is also a monument of diplomatic history, is Christopher Thorne’s Allies of a Kind, 1978, subtitled ‘The United States, Britain and the War against Japan, 1941-5’ which exactly describes its content.

Japan’s defeat ultimately derived from the disparity between its economic resources and those that the United States could deploy, as Admiral Yamamoto had warned the Imperial government would be the case. An essential survey of the economic factors underlying the course of the war is Alan Milward’s War, Economy and Society, 1939-45, 1977, which encapsulates his many monographs on national wartime economies. A separate large monograph to which I frequently turn for illumination of how economies adapt to the particular needs of war-making is a volume in the British Official Histories, The Design and Development of Weapons, 1965, by M. M. Postan and others; it does not, however, deal with the British contribution to the atomic weapons programme, nor is there, indeed, any single book which satisfactorily covers the development and use of the atomic bomb in the Second World War. The effort to destroy economies by conventional bombing has produced an enormous literature; I particularly value Max Hastings’Bomber Command, 1987, for its study of the effects of the campaign both on the Germans and the crews who took part. Germany’s reciprocal effort to attack the Allied war economy through its U-boat campaign has also been amply recounted; Peter Padfield’s biography of the admiral who created and directed the U-boat fleet, Dönitz, The Last Führer, 1984, is an outstanding study, as well as a riveting ‘Portrait of a Nazi War Leader’.

I have chosen only one book among the thousands written on the North-West Europe campaign, Chester Wilmot’s The Struggle for Europe; I use the original 1952 edition, though there has been a re-issue. Wilmot, a war correspondent, effectively invented the modern method of writing contemporary military history, which combines political, economic and strategic analysis with eye-witness accounts of combat. Though many of his judgements have been challenged, and some demolished, his book remains for me the supreme achievement of Second World War historiography, combining a passionate interest in events with a cool dissection of the material realities which underlay them. It was the book which first awoke my interest in the war as history and which I come to admire more rather than less as time passes.

Wilmot correctly perceived that the war was one of ‘the big battalions’, an important corrective to the already burgeoning Anglo-Saxon interest in clandestine operations. That interest has swollen since, to a point where irregular and resistance campaigns assume a greater significance than Stalingrad or Normandy. Resistance forms, nevertheless, an essential ingredient of the story of the war. The best general survey is H. Michel’s The Shadow War, 1972, and the best particular study of the most important resistance campaign, that in Yugoslavia, is F. W. Deakin’s The Embattled Mountain, 1971. W. Rings has provided a highly original account of the other side of the story, the German effort to run a European empire, in Life with the Enemy, 1982. The horrors of the blackest side of that empire were first objectively obsessed by G. Reitlinger in The Final Solution, 1953; though the historiography of the Holocaust has since been greatly elaborated, and while his book is largely concerned with the Jews, rather than the many other groups systematically massacred by the Nazi extermination apparatus, it retains, for me at least, a power to shock, to instruct and to warn that later publications lack.

Finally there are the personal memoirs of the war. Among the thousands of soldiers’ stories, I am haunted by one from the Pacific War, With the Old Breed, Novato, California, 1981. E. B. Sledge, now a professor of biology, fought the campaign with the 1st Marine Division. His account of the struggle of a gently raised teenager to remain a civilised human being in circumstances which reduced comrades – whom he nevertheless loved – to ‘twentieth-century savages’ is one of the most arresting documents in war literature, all the more moving because of the painful difficulty someone who is not a natural writer found in re-creating his experience on paper. A brilliant literary achievement, by contrast, is Wartime, 1977, by M. Djilas, the Yugoslav intellectual who belonged to Tito’s entourage, negotiated with Stalin, fought as a Partisan but eventually fell out with his master and rejected the ‘heroic’ ethos which had driven so many men of passion and ability to create the tragedy of the Second World War. The last two books I have chosen relate the experience of women, that half of the wartime generation whose fate was to bear so much of the tragedy it brought. The Berlin Diaries of Marie Vassiltchikov, 1985, the memoirs of an Anglophile white Russian whom circumstances cast into the heart of Nazi Germany at the outbreak of the Second World War, present an extraordinary picture of human resilience under bombing attack, of the strange normalities that persisted even as the shadows drew in and of the high-spirited disdain for the clods of Nazi bureaucracy that a beautiful girl of noble birth could openly display throughout the wartime years. Christabel Bielenberg, an Englishwoman married to one of the July conspirators against Hitler, felt the same disdain; her account, inThe Past is Myself, first published in 1968, of her brave and eventually successful effort to rescue her husband from the Gestapo, shows how narrowly an enemy of the regime, even if a woman, had to measure disdain against deference in preserving her loved ones from destruction.

This list might have been decupled in length; but at fifty books I cut it short. With this extension: in Armed Truce, The Beginnings of the Cold War, 1945-6, 1986, Hugh Thomas has written what is not only an essential guide to the war’s aftermath but also a great work of modern history, meticulous in its use of sources and enthralling in the sweep of its narrative. No history of the war itself, and certainly not mine, can match it in quality or authority.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!