The best books about the second world war

This summer will see the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Only, to call it a war is almost a misnomer; it was never just one war, but so many wars in one. Certainly, it was far too big, too vast and varied, to remember as a single event. The sheer volume of books about it are testament to that.

No war in history – rivalled only by the one that ended 20 years earlier – has inspired more literature. WW2 has been seemingly endlessly written about, pored over, interpreted and re-interpreted. Which can make knowing what to read on the matter a little daunting. Books need to be chosen like a sniper picks her targets.  

Mercifully, we’ve got the scope to help – and have rounded up the best non-fiction books ever written on the conflict. 

Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis by Ian Kershaw (1991)

To read this book is to ride shotgun through the mangled mind of a maniac – a mind so twisted, dark and terrifyingly pathetic that it demands a guide. Fortunately, Ian Kershaw has spent a lot of time there – and he knows the scenic route.

Far from the puffed-up political strongman that history remembers, Kershaw paints a portrait of an idle, tasteless, disillusioned loafer who got lucky. Kershaw’s examination of how a ‘spoilt child turned into the would-be macho man' is unrivalled, not only in its breadth and depth, but in its richness of character. Here was a man, plagued by paranoia, Parkinson’s Disease and arteriosclerosis who had no firm ideas beyond a gut-deep hatred of Bolsheviks, poor social skills and a quite chronic case of donkey breath. And yet he convinced a nation that a brutal genocidal war was a good idea, and that he had the chops to take on the world.

This is a heavyweight biography from a world-champion historian. It remains undefeated in its category.  

Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts (2018)

‘We are all worms,’ Winston Churchill once told a friend. ‘But I do believe that I am a glow worm.’

And glow he did. We all know the headlines – his rousing speeches play on a perpetual loop at the back of Britain’s national psyche (now more than ever!) – but Andrew Roberts’ exceptional biography gets further beneath the skin of the old bruiser than anyone – bar, perhaps, the man himself – has before.

The greatest challenge of writing a biography of Churchill is that Churchill has already done it inimitably (My Early LifeThe World CrisisThe Second World War). But Roberts never falls into the punji hole of trying to out-Churchill Churchill. He writes with supreme authority, brio and no small amount of panache of Churchill’s exhilarating life, from his birth in 1874, to his death ninety years later. Nor does he pull his punches when it comes to Churchill’s many mistakes, either. Which is why Roberts’ tome earned the reputation of ‘the best single-volume biography of Churchill yet written’.

If This Is a Man by Primo Levi (1947)

If you are to read one book about The Holocaust in your lifetime, let it be this. It is the most profound, haunting, and soul-churningly beautiful book I have ever read about the atrocity. I try to avoid bringing myself into these recommendations, but in this case I can’t help it: my copy reduced me to tears. Or, take it from Phillip Roth, who called it ‘one of the century's truly necessary books.’

Primo Levi was a Jewish-Italian chemist and member of Italy’s anti-fascist resistance when he was arrested and herded to Auschwitz in 1944. If This Is A Man relives the horror of his experience.

If you’re looking for a historical investigation into the rise and appeal of Nazism, or an inquiry into the origins and nature of evil, look elsewhere. This is a guidebook to Hell. It’s a story of collective madness, sheer evil, incredible stupidity and cruelty, but also humanity, spirit, grit and luck. Buy two copies - you may need a spare. 

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich (1985)

War is seldom told from a woman’s point of view. And yet, a million women fought for the Red Army during the Second World War. The Unwomanly Face of War tells their stories, in their words. Snipers, pilots, gunners, mothers and wives: Alexievich spoke to hundreds of former Soviet female fighters over a period of years in the 1970s and 1980s.

After decades of the war being remembered by 'men writing about men,' her goal was to give a voice to an ageing generation of women who’d been dismissed as storytellers and veterans, shattering the notion that war need be an ‘unwomanly’ affair.

In the author’s words, ‘“Women’s” war has its own colours, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. Its own words. There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.’ It is a challenging read, namely because it is difficult to swallow in one go, but it would be hard to think of any book that feels more important, immersive and original. It was also one part of a body of work that earned its author a Nobel Prize in 2015.

Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness by Sinclair McKay (2020)

On February 13th, 1945 at 10:03, British bombers unleashed a firestorm over Dresden. Some 25,000 people – mostly civilians – were incinerated or crushed by falling buildings. In some areas of the city, the fires sucked so much oxygen from the air that people suffocated to death.

Dresden, now, has become a byword for the immeasurable cruelty of war. But was it a legitimate military target, or was it a final, punitive act of mass murder in a war already won? McKay’s account of that awful day – and many on either side – is probably the most gripping and devastating of them all. It is certainly the most comprehensive.

He tells the human stories of survivors on the ground as well as the moral conflicts of the British and American attackers in the sky. But McKay is under no illusion: Dresden was an atrocity. Sizzling with heart, anger, and brooding intensity, this tells the story of a once-great city pulverised to ash. No other Dresden book beats it. 

First Light: The Story of the Boy Who Became a Man in the War-Torn Skies Above Britain by Geoffrey Wellum (2002)

It took Geoffrey Wellum 35 years to turn his notebooks into a narrative. And a further quarter-century to get them published. The result is best described as one of the most engaging personal accounts of aerial warfare ever written.

Wellum was 17 when he joined the RAF in 1939, and 18 when he was posted to 92 Squadron. That’s where he first encountered a Spitfire. At first, he was clueless about the ways of combat, ravaged by fear and self-doubt. He found himself flying several sorties a day. He fought the Battle of Britain, and against German bombers during the Blitz. He fought at day and at night, from the skies above Kent to those above France. By 21, he was a battle-hardened flying ace who’d shot down as many enemies as friends he’d lost. In the end, life-or-death stress of mortal combat began to take its toll, as he succumbed to battle fatigue.

It is a beautifully written story of fear and friendship, bravery, bullets and, ultimately, burn out. You can practically smell the oil and gun smoke in the ink. 

Stalingrad by Antony Beevor (1998)

Many terrible battles were fought during the Second World War, but none come close to the savage four-month German Soviet battle of Stalingrad. It was all shades of awful. For context, consider that the Allied death toll in Normandy reached an appalling 10,000. At Stalingrad, it was closer to a million.

The staggering scale, the megalomania, the depravity, the crushing absurdity, and the unspeakable carnage that took place across Stalingrad from August 1942 to February 1943 is exquisitely captured in Beevor’s definitive history of the event.

He magnificently combines a novelist’s verve with an academic’s rigor as he recounts, step by step, how the battle unfolded in all its miserable awfulness. In doing that, Beevor has created an unforgettable diorama of one of the most savage battlefields in history, one of wholesale death, indignity and waste.

The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan (1959) 

We have all heard of D-Day - many of us have Spielberg to thank for that. But few really know D-Day until they’ve read Cornelius Ryan’s (no relation to Private) blistering classic of narrative non-fiction. Written in 1959, it set the standard of how war books should be written.

This is not a dry military history, but a story of people that reads, at times, like a novel. ‘What I write about is not war but the courage of man,’ the war correspondent once said.

He interviewed everyone – from privates to generals; infantrymen, sailors, airmen, medics, drivers, paratroopers, glider crews and passengers. He puts the reader inside the headquarters of the German Field Marshal Rommel, tasked with repelling the invasion and Dwight Eisenhauer’s war room as he grapples with the quandary of whether to give the go-ahead despite stormy weather. The result is a thrilling tapestry of feeling and fear, bravery and uncertainty, by one of the greatest war correspondents in history.

Eagle Against the Sun by Ronald H Spector (1985)

There are many fine books on the Pacific War – the most visceral, on the whole, are the memoirs (EB Sledge’s With The Old Breed is sensational). But for a bomber’s eye view of that complex conflict, Eagle Against the Sun is a stone-cold classic.

It’s one of those books that no future foray into the subject will be written without paying due tribute to Eagle Against the Sun. It is a far more remarkable achievement that can be described here.

Blending forensic-level research with electrifying detail, Spector vividly recreates the major battles, barely known campaigns, and unfamiliar events of that brutal 44-month struggle. Unlike many books on the subject, he does not cast himself as a cheerleader of American greatness. He also covers aspects of the fight that are largely untouched by other historians of the field, such as women’s role in the conflict, as well as that of the many African American soldiers who took part. And he’s not afraid to address the Japanese motivations for its part in the theatre, nor the manifold failings on the part of American top brass. As well-oiled a dive into the cogs and sprockets of this brutal campaign as you could hope to find. 

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