In the great cornucopia of WWII books, it’s fair to ask, “Could there possibly be a comprehensive list of books that encompasses the greatest cataclysm in human history?” Never mind accomplishing such a feat with only ten books. The final decision must ultimately be left to the reader, but what follows is a credible assemblage of works worthy of being called “a complete guide” to the Second World War.
First, the ground rules guiding the title selection:
This collection does not contain any first person memoirs or accounts from major political figures (e.g. Winston Churchill’s The Second World War). Neither does it contain any biographies, nor what might be considered “traditional” choices on the subject (e.g. William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich). Finally, encyclopedic A-Z volumes of World War II have not been included because, while informative, this group tends to lack a greater sense of contextual focus.
Each title listed below is meant to examine a highly specific and very important aspect of the war. When taken as a whole, these 10 books will provide a vast and varied perspective of the war.
The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 – Roger Moorhouse
(Basic Books, R. Moorhouse, 2014. ISBN 0465030750)
By far one of the most important and overlooked events of the Second World War is the infamous non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in August 1939. Published in 2014, The Devils Alliance by Roger Moorehouse is one of the few texts that comprehensively analyzes all aspects of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Although nearly absent in the popular memory of the war, the pact had ramifications that rippled outward through both the eastern and western fronts in the European Theater.
The surprise agreement between the mutually antithetical powers of fascist Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union shook the foundation of the international structure. In providing cover to Germany’s eastern flank with a cooperative USSR, the pact allowed the German war machine to invade and occupy half of Poland, as well as ultimately settle their 20 years score with the West.
The term “non-aggression pact” is a devil of a detail; these two erstwhile blood enemies became allies in all but name for almost two years. In doing so, both totalitarian states attempted to overhaul their decade of antagonistic propaganda to project a genuine friendship – albeit through proverbial gritted teeth. The result was gaining political capital by projecting their cooperation to the world, while subtly engaging each other in greater geopolitical brinkmanship in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. However, the forced friendship could not last and ended abruptly when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa on June 22nd, 1941.
Roger Moorhouse’s addition to the World War II narrative brings to light the least known, and perhaps shortest lived, alliance of the Second World War. One whose ramifications could be felt on both sides of the East-West divide for decades to follow, but is often left in the shadows.
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy – Antony Beevor
(A. Beevor, Penguin Books, 2010. ISBN 0143118188)
When looking back upon the western Allies’ invasion of France on June 6th, 1944, many now consider it a historical fait accompli. The invasion of France was by no means a certain success and caused everyone involved incredible apprehension. Had it failed, the course of world history would have drastically changed, very likely leading to the two totalitarian juggernauts of Germany and the Soviet Union to battle it out in the East.
Operation OVERLORD was the greatest undertaking by the Western Allies during the Second World War. To date its intricate planning, grand strategy, logistics, manpower, war materials, and strategic deception are unparalleled. When analyzing this amphibious landing on the coast of Northern France, few come close to its complexity.
Every aspect of this monumental achievement is analyzed with Beevor’s reputational hawk-like observation. From the men landing on the invasion beaches, to the critical decisions from Eisenhower down the chain of command, this is one of the definitive texts on this major accomplishment in military history.
Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945 – Andrew Roberts
(A. Roberts, Harper Perennial, 2010. ISBN 0061228583)
No single nation was responsible for winning the war alone. Specifically in the west, the British Empire and the United States integrated their war effort to an unprecedented degree. Following December 7th, 1941, with the initiation of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, these two powers worked to come together in lock step. In essence, it was the genesis of what has become known as the “Special Relationship” between these two powers in the intervening years.
Masters and Commanders evaluates their colossal undertaking from the top down. In doing so, Roberts sheds light on two of the most important – however constantly overlooked – men in uniform that were most responsible for the war effort. Namely Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, and General George C. Marshall. Roberts details how these two top commanders forged a relationship, negotiated strategy, worked together with unflinching professionalism, and managed their respective political masters at the top of each government. He goes on to present brilliant and original insight into how these two nations learned to fight as allies, despite the difficulties of culture, economics, and political philosophy. Together these four men, all leaders in their own right, were indeed the architects of victory in the West and essential to any complete understanding of the war.
Bomber Command – Max Hastings
(M. Hastings, Zenith Press, 1979. ISBN 0760345201)
Sir Max Hastings undoubtedly provokes many a reaction from his voluminous works on the Second World War. In his first published title, Bomber Command, Hastings shines the bright light of day upon one of the most hotly debated aspects of the Western Allies war effort in Europe, the Strategic Bombing campaign, or Combined Bomber Offensive(CBO).
Published in 1979, Hastings had the opportunity to extensively interview many surviving veterans from RAF’s Bomber Command. Most notably he received the cooperation of Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris for many an interview. Harris, for all intents and purposes, is the most analyzed and note worthy figure in the debate of Allied strategic bombing. Given his steadfast belief that a nation could win a war through bombing alone, he has become a figure of long term interest after taking charge of RAF Bomber Command in 1942.
Bomber Command was not the book that those Hastings interviewed thought he would write. It is indeed a controversial look upon the doctrinal evolution, effectiveness and necessity of Britain’s area night bombing campaign in Europe. However, Bomber Command is also one of the most thorough and definitive texts on the subject. Undoubtedly, Bomber Command leaves the reader with much to consider, as it is a debate the continues to this day.
The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945 – Max Hastings
(M. Hastings, Harper, 2015. ISBN 006225927X)
Once again, Sir Max makes an appearance on this list. Credit where credit is due, The Secret War (2015) is written as a single volume account on the entirety of covert operations and espionage undertaken by all the major combatants during the war. It is a unique and singular contribution to the historical understanding of the war, and earns a place on this list.
Above all else, Hastings provides a greater look at Soviet espionage and their partisan warfare directed from Moscow on the Eastern front. As well as composing a detailed retelling of the famous Lucy Ring, and Red Orchestra. Despite a greater emphasis on the NKVD of the Soviet Union, Hastings also provides enormous detail on the espionage of the Western Allies and Japan. Of the greatest note is Hastings illustration of the British grappling with Enigma and the Lorenz code breaking of the Germans – ULTRA.
While The Secret War is not without error (namely confusing Joan Pujol Garcia – GARBO – for Dusko Popov -TRICYCLE- for spending time in the US under FBI control), it is by far the magnum opus regarding spies, cypher’s, and gorilla action during the Second World War.
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies – Ben Macintyre
(B. Macintyre, Broadway Books, 2013. ISBN 0307888770)
Ben MaCIntyre – historian, journalist, and columnist for the Times has become one of the most engaging storytellers of espionage during the Second World War, and the Cold War. In Double Cross, Macintyre writes an engrossing narrative that manages to pull together all of the threads of Britain’s famous Double Cross (XX) system, used for the great D-Day deception. In doing so, Macintyre brings this classic story to life by focusing on the many human stories that drove this chapter in history.
In what is perhaps the greatest strategic deception of all time, MI5 – the UK’s domestic security counter-intelligence agency – captured every German agent sent on an espionage mission to wartime Britain. Once apprehended, these individuals were evaluated for their suitability to act as double-agents for the Allies. Namely spying for the UK, while still pretending to work for the Germans. These individuals were given a choice: work for the Allies, or face the noose. For many, it was not a difficult decision.
Over the period of two years, MI5’s XX Committee (Double-Cross) used these turned agents, as well as other suitable recruits, to work as Allied double-agents. In doing so, MI5 embarked on Operation BODYGUARD – using their double agent assets to relay information that purposefully mislead the Germans to conclude the invasion of France – D-Day – would occur at the Pas-de-Calais, the shortest distance across the English Channel from Dover.
In doing so, MI5 wished to convey the false notion that the D-Day Normandy landings were diversionary. The result was ultimately limiting the inevitable German counter-attack in Normandy, as the Germans prepared elsewhere for the “main” attack that would never come, by armies that did not exist.
Double Cross is nothing less than a thoroughly pleasurable read, accounting one of the legendary Allied deceptions that saved countless lives.
Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman
(V. Grossman, NYRB Classics, 2006. ISBN 1590172018)
Life and Fate is the epic first hand account of the front line experience of Soviet journalist for Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), Vasily Grossman. Life and Fate follows the Frontovik – front line soldier – from day one of Operation BARBAROSSA, to the fall of Berlin. Vasily Grossman recounts in amazing detail the fighting on the Eastern Front at so many of its pivotal encounters. It is unlikely there has been a journalist before or since that has had a comparable embedded reporting experience. Life and Fate provides the bare and unvarnished truth of the carnage that was the Eastern Front.
Grossman’s title is modeled off of Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace, and Life and Fate is no less a master stroke. Due to Soviet censorship and systematic anti-semitism of the Soviet post-war period, Grossman never lived to see his novel published as it was officially banned. It was a genuine tragedy for a man who lived for years within the worst theater of war in history, and survived to write about it. While Grossman did not live to see its publishing, Life and Fate has critically shaped historical understanding of fighting during the German’s so-called pitiless ideology of “Vernichtungskrieg” – or war of annihilation.
With The Old Breed: At Peleiu and Okinawa – Eugene Sledge
(E. Sledge, Presidio Press, 2007. ISBN 0891419195)
What may be one of the most detailed and deeply human retelling’s of a US Marine fighting in the Pacific, Eugene Sledge in, With The Old Breed becomes indelible on the readers soul. Sledge’s memoir is the compilation of his notes and diary that Sledge kept – contrary to its prohibition in combat – and shares his life changing experience fighting in the Pacific.
With The Old Breed is a highly graphic, gritty, and at times overwhelming account of the slaughter on Peleliu, and Okinawa. The reader cannot help but relive some of these horrors themselves as they turn the page. As one cannot help but share his fear and tragedy as well. With the Old Breed was Eugene Sledge’s release from the terrors he relived for years following his return from service. Upon the encouragement of his wife, Sledge began to release his pain as the book took shape, and helped confront his personal demons. Excerpts of this memoir were featured in Ken Burns 2007 PBS documentary, “The War.”
The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War – Andrew Roberts
(A. Roberts, Harper, 2011. ISBN 0061228591)
One could argue this choice violates the single volume A-Z rule, however that is simply not so. The Storm of War may effectively begin in mid-August 1939 and follow to August 1945, but it is truly a “new history of the Second World War.”
In classic Andrew Roberts form demonstrating his nose for significant, yet overlooked details, in addition to prose that could cut diamonds, The Storm of War portrays the Second World War as it could have been, as well as the reasons it was not.
According to Roberts, Germany lost the war because each time a major decision came before Adolf Hitler regarding the well being of Germany – if it conflicted with the interests of the Nazi party – Hitler always chose the political well being of the Nazi party. Naturally this methodology had a devastating effect on the German war effort, and the German people as well.
Furthermore, Roberts weaves an expert thread when evaluating alternative Axis and Allied strategy throughout the war. By covering every major belligerent in detail, he proceeds to encapsulate the human personalities and relationships the drove the war for both sides. This may be Andrew Roberts greatest literary achievement to date, which is no small praise.
(Article Continues Below…)
Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947 – D.M. Giangreco
(D.M. Giangreco, Naval Institute Press, 2009. ISBN 1591143160)
The conclusion of the Second World War in the Pacific is wrought with questions that have plagued historians, history buffs, and intellects of all shapes and sizes. Specifically, what if the US never used atomic bombs on Japan? What was the alternative? Were the atomic bombs what pushed the Emperor to finally surrender? If the Allies had invaded, how would they have done it? What would have been the cost? These questions have persisted for decades, with very little information to substantiate the subject.
In a manner never before achieved in literary form, Hell to Pay tackles all of these questions in a truly engaging manner, outlining in supreme detail Operation DOWNFALL – the planned conventional Allied invasion of Japan.
By Giangreco’s own admission, Hell to Pay‘s research was quite difficult. All of the relevent information and primary source material was in various and disparate low profile archives. Hell to Pay finally documents considerable evidence used in planning DOWNFALL, material that has not seen the light of day in 70 years. With Giangreco’s titanic research effort, Hell to Pay outlines the realistic cost of a conventional Allied invasion.
These questions regarding the end of the war are still some of the greatest that still overwhelm even casual history watchers. Hell to Pay is by far the most complete and thorough evaluation of what the invasion and occupation of Japan would have likely cost. Giangreco leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions after a highly provocative presentation.
Operation DOWNFALL is a historical counter-factual, and no one can be sure what the outcome would have been if history had taken a different course. Though with a more informed understanding of its planning and circumstances, it aptly provides a focused look as to why history evolved as it did.
The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 – Nicholas Stargardt
(N. Stargardt, Basic Books, 2015. ISBN 0465018998)
As an honorable mention as the 11th selection on this compilation of 10 titles – due to its impressive sociological showing – Nicholas Stargardt provides a superior account of life in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. It is not unusual that in history the vanquished and their experience are often forgotten. This is precisely where The German War begins to fill in those gaps.
In using archived material, interviews, personal correspondence of citizens, and a strong historical approach: The German War opens up the details and the perspective of civil society in wartime Germany as few have – save William Shirer.
From years of enduring strategic bombing, the working life of industrial laborers, the strain of extreme wartime rationing, and nearly living hand to mouth, the reader see’s how the Germans viewed and lived their war. Without reservation or delicacy, Stargardt’s picture of civilian society comes to light.
If one is to best understand the Second World War, they must understand the experience of the enemy. In doing so, The German War does not disappoint.