To call the Second World War merely 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 – except possibly the one that ended 20 years earlier – has inspired more literature. WWII 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.
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.
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.