In the plenitude of literature published about the Second World War, one might wonder if it is possible to create a list of books that wholly encompasses the greatest cataclysm in human history. What’s more, could such a comprehensive list be refined to just ten titles? The final judgement must be left up to the reader. However, the following literary lineup is a worthy attempt to accomplish just that: a ten book “complete guide” to World War II.
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 the Second World War were excluded because, while informative, this group tends to lack a greater sense of context.
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 that includes all the belligerents, both Axis and Allied, as well as the many non-combatant groups whose lives were forever changed by the war.
The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 – Roger Moorhouse
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 Moorhouse 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. Moreover, Moorhouse explores the myriad reasons Soviet dictator Josef Stalin entered into the agreement, going beyond the official party explanation to buy time in preperation for the war believed inevitable against Germany.
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 Soviet coverage to Germany’s eastern flank, the pact allowed the German war machine to first invade and occupy half of Poland, then to successfully invade Denmark and Norway, and finally onward to settling 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. The pact proved immensely rewarding for both parties tangibly. Important exchanges included, but were not limited to, highly prized Soviet raw materials in growing amounts for quality German manufactured products. Other appreciable reciprocity took the form of military technology and equipment. Yet the more striking bounty was secret logistic and operational cooperation aiding the German war against the West. Specifically, Stalin authorized the creation of a U-Boat outpost in Soviet territory just outside of Murmansk, Basis Nord. Further Soviet cooperation included an ice-breaker vessel aiding the voyage of a German raider through the Arctic Ocean to surprise attack unsuspecting Allied shipping in the Pacific.
The coup de grâs of their alliance however was the private assurance made by Stalin to perhaps intervene directly had Germany faltered in its war with France and Brittan. Despite the immense change in their official relations, it was always underpinned with enduring Nazi-Soviet animosity, and their rivaling sphere’s of influence.
On the surface, both totalitarian states attempted to overhaul their near decade of mutually antagonistic propaganda and project their newfound joint amiability – albeit through proverbial gritted teeth. The desired result was to gain political capital by projecting their detente to the rest of the world on the one hand, while subtly engaging each other in greater geopolitical brinkmanship in Eastern Europe and the Balkans with the other. However, the forced friendship could not last. The pact ended abruptly when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa on June 22nd, 1941.
Roger Moorhouse’s addition to the narrative of the war brings to light the least known, and otherwise shortest lived, alliance of the Second World War. One whose repercussions would 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
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 Nazi 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 remain unparalleled. When analyzing this amphibious landing on the coast of Northern France, few if any other military operations approach its degree of complexity and scope.
In his book, Beevor scrutinizes every detail of the mission with his notorious hawk-like observation. From the men landing on the invasion beaches to the crucial decisions taken by Gen. Eisenhower and onward down the chain of command, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy serves as one of the definitive texts on this critical engagement in military history.
Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945 – Andrew Roberts
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 a previously 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 celebrated “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. Roberts goes on to present brilliant and original insight into how these two nations learned to fight as allies, despite the difficulties of culture, economics, differing national self-interest, 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
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 the Royal Airforce (RAF) Bomber Command. Most notably Hastings 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. Specifically due to his steadfast belief that a nation could win a war through bombing alone, and his ongoing support for the policy of nighttime area bombing of German cities. Consequently, Harris is 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, combat 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
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 deeper 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 Imperial Japan. Among the greatest note is Hastings illustration of British decryption efforts against the vaunted German Enigma and Lorenz ciphering machines – ULTRA – at Bletchley Park.
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
Ben MaCIntyre – historian, journalist, and columnist for The Times of London 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 strategic deception. In doing so, Macintyre brings this classic story to life by focusing on the many human stories that drove this singular chapter in military 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 calculated disinformation 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, recounting one of the legendary Allied deceptions that saved countless lives, and played a critical role to ensure victory in the West over Nazi Germany.
Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman
Life and Fate is the epic first hand front line account of Soviet war correspondent 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
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
One could argue this choice violates the encyclopedic A-Z stipulation, 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 “new history of the Second World War” by any fair measure.
In classic Andrew Roberts form demonstrating his nose for significant yet overlooked details, in tandem with striking prose, 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 National Socialism. Naturally this methodology had a devastating effect on the German war effort, and the German people.
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 that directed the war for both sides. The Storm of War may be Andrew Roberts greatest published achievement to date, with its masterful scholarship only matched by its literary finesse.
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Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947 – D.M. Giangreco
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 for decades. Specifically, what if the US never used atomic bombs on Japan? What were the alternatives? Were the atomic bombs what pushed Emperor Hirohito to finally accept surrender? If the Allies had invaded mainland Japan, how would they have done it? What would have been the cost of a conventional invasion? These questions persist to this day with very little, if any, information to further 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 Allied amphibious invasion of Kyushu and Honshu.
By Giangreco’s own admission, Hell to Pay‘s research was quite difficult. All of the relevant 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
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 perspective of civil society in wartime Germany as few have prior – save William Shirer or Roger Moorhouse in Berlin at War (2010).
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.