The best books on World War 2 from several different perspectives

Peter Grose Author Of A Good Place to Hide: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives in World War II
By Peter Grose

The Books I Picked & Why

The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day

By Cornelius Ryan

Book cover of The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day

Why this book?

If Cornelius (or ‘Connie’) Ryan were ever to stumble across one of my war histories (too late, I fear… he died in November 1974.) then he might recognize it as an act of hero-worship. Certainly, he’s my hero. The Longest Day is history as it should be told:: exciting, detailed, clear-headed, and page-turning. It’s the story of the D-Day landings which marked the beginning of the end of World War 2 in Europe, told from both the Allied and the German perspectives.

It derives its title from a famous remark by Germany’s Field Marshal Erwin Rommel before the very risky Normandy landings had begun. June 21 is, of course, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. But Rommel warned before the battle was launched on 6 June 1944: “For the Allies, but also for the Germans, it will be the longest day.”

Bizarre fact: when the book was filmed in 1962, it was necessary to assemble a huge fleet of fighting ships to recreate the invasion force. On the day this scene was shot, the film’s producer Darryl F. Zanuck became the 20th most powerful nation in the world

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By Joseph Heller

Book cover of Catch-22

Why this book?

If Cornelius Ryan can become a best-seller by writing history as though it were a novel, why shouldn’t a novel as good as Joseph Heller’s be included in a mostly non-fiction list of great World War 2 books? Among its other virtues, Catch 22 contains one of the three great insights of the 20th century. They are (in alphabetical order by discoverer): “The observer is part of the event” (Albert Einstein); “You can’t know everything” (Werner Heisenberg) and “Your own officers are as interested in killing you as the enemy” (Joseph Heller). Einstein gave us the atom bomb, Heisenberg gave us lasers, and Joseph Heller gave us the best novel of the 20th century. I’ve now read it seven times, and it never disappoints.

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The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War

By Andrew Roberts

Book cover of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War

Why this book?

There’s an expression among investigative journalists: follow the money. That’s exactly what the historian Andrew Roberts has done in this highly original and brilliant history of World War 2, full of economic insights. How about this, for instance? “Hitler’s anti-Semitism  .. did nothing to aid Germany’s chances of winning the war, and possibly a great deal to retard them. The Holocaust was a mistake, tying up railway stocks … but above all denuding Germany of millions of potentially productive workers and potential soldiers.” In other words, if railway trucks heading east through Germany had been full of soldiers heading for the eastern front instead of hapless Jews heading for Auschwitz and death, then Hitler’s invasion of Russia might have stood a better chance of success. So if following the money strikes you as an essential way of getting to the truth, even when the subject is the economics of war, then this book is for you.

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Total War: Causes and Courses of The Second World War

By Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint, John Pritchard

Book cover of Total War: Causes and Courses of The Second World War

Why this book?

This book has appeared under various titles and guises since its first publication in 1972. It is now available as The Penguin History of the Second World War. It is a bit like three books in one, since each author tackles a different theatre of World War 2.

There is a wonderful and possibly apocryphal publishing story about the changes the book underwent over the years. Peter Calvocoressi was always a distinguished historian but at the time this book first appeared in 1972 ‘Calvo’ was CEO of Penguin Books, and they were the book’s publishers. At that time Penguin also boasted one of the most brilliant editors in British publishing, Dieter Pevsner. Dieter was (naturally) the right man to edit his boss’s book. Having read it through, Dieter had a question for the boss. “I just don’t understand,” Dieter told Calvo, “how we won the Atlantic submarine war.” Calvo snapped back: “We just did, and that’s that.” What Calvo couldn’t say was that he had spent his war in Bletchley Park, north of London, successfully decrypting German signal traffic. Even 27 years after the war ended the existence of Bletchley Park and the Enigma decrypts was still a secret. And, as Calvo well knew, that was how the Allies won the submarine war.

When this all came into the open in 1974 with the publication of F.W. Winterbotham’s book The Ultra Secret, Calvo shyly told Dieter that he might know a bit more about how the submarine war was won than he had previously admitted. He agreed to rewrite his part of the book, giving Bletchley Park the credit it was due. That’s the version in circulation now. Calvo’s section is worth a read if only to see if you can pick out the revisions.

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The Wooden Horse: The Classic World War II Story of Escape

By Eric Williams

Book cover of The Wooden Horse: The Classic World War II Story of Escape

Why this book?

This is, quite simply, the greatest escape story of all time. I’ve chosen this book because I’ve read it so often, at least five times, mostly when I was a teenager. It is brilliant story-telling, and it may just be the book that most got me hooked on World War 2 history. It tells the story of a tunnel dug from under a vaulting horse in the middle of an exercise yard in a German POW camp. The original plan was for a mass escape of prisoners through the tunnel, but in the end, only three prisoners made it back to England and freedom. All brilliantly told.

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