The best books about the Asian theatre in the Second World War

Malcolm H. Murfett Author Of Naval Warfare 1919-45: An Operational History of the Volatile War at Sea
By Malcolm H. Murfett

Who am I?

I lived and taught in Asia for over 30 years and love the place to bits. Leaving Oxford for Singapore may have seemed like a daring adventure in 1980, but it complemented my doctoral research and introduced me to a wonderful set of students who have enriched my life ever since. Asia has a fascination for me that I can’t resist. I have written and edited 15 books on naval and defence themes, much of which have been set in the Asian continent. An associate editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for the past 25 years, I am also the editor for the series Cold War in Asia. 


I wrote...

Naval Warfare 1919-45: An Operational History of the Volatile War at Sea

By Malcolm H. Murfett,

Book cover of Naval Warfare 1919-45: An Operational History of the Volatile War at Sea

What is my book about?

Naval Warfare 1919-1945 is an analytical and interpretive study that examines why things happened at sea when they did. Vividly written, it ranges far and wide: sweeping across all naval theatres and those powers performing major, as well as minor, roles within them in these years of peace and war. 

Professor Murfett re-examines the naval past in a stimulating way and takes issue with those aspects of it that deserve closer attention. He demonstrates that superior equipment and the best intelligence, ominous power and systematic planning, vast finance and suitable training are often simply not enough to guarantee success at sea. Sometimes the narrow difference between victory and defeat hinges on those infinite variables: the individual’s performance under acute pressure and sheer luck.

The books I picked & why

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China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival

By Rana Mitter,

Book cover of China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival

Why this book?

In my opinion, you cannot fully understand the Pacific War without grasping the tragedy of the undeclared Sino-Japanese War which preceded Pearl Harbor by virtually four and a half years. Remarkably, however, the story is not well known. It’s often passed over as if it was of hardly any consequence at all. Far from being a minor item on the road to war, however, China’s horrendous struggle with Japan is pivotal because it managed to suck in arguably the best troops of the Imperial Japanese Army and kept them fighting throughout the duration of the Pacific War. This ensured that they couldn’t be released to go elsewhere because China refused to give in. Mitter’s excellent book reveals why this dramatic fight for survival influenced Chinese leaders both then and now.


The Defence and Fall of Singapore

By Brian Farrell,

Book cover of The Defence and Fall of Singapore

Why this book?

I have known Brian Farrell both as a colleague and friend for more than two decades but that isn’t the reason why his book on the fall of Malaya and Singapore appears on my book list. It does so because I believe it’s the best book on the subject that has been written thus far. I have read many and, in my opinion, none of them matches the quality and range of research, analysis, and insight that he brings to the subject. Moreover, he isn’t afraid to say it how it was. He doesn’t skulk about in the shadows but draws out where the problems were and who caused them. Anyone who knows Professor Farrell wouldn’t be surprised about that! He remains impressively scholarly and independent. 


Crucible of Hell: The Heroism and Tragedy of Okinawa, 1945

By Saul David,

Book cover of Crucible of Hell: The Heroism and Tragedy of Okinawa, 1945

Why this book?

If you know your Pacific War and are familiar with all the major land and sea battles, you may think there’s not much that’s new to discover about the campaign for Okinawa. And maybe there isn’t. But for those who aren’t specialists, this book will prove fascinating. It’s not a page-turner in the accepted sense of the term because most pages appall with the dreadful futility of it all. I couldn’t read more than a dozen pages at a time without feeling a sense of desperation at the almost casual sacrifice of lives on both sides in this war of attrition. No wonder many veterans of Okinawa found it difficult to talk about the horror of it afterward and carried dark memories of their tortured experiences to their graves.


The Japanese Merchant Marine in World War II

By Mark P. Parillo,

Book cover of The Japanese Merchant Marine in World War II

Why this book?

This book doesn’t have a catchy title and sounds rather pedestrian, but we are told never to judge a book by its cover and in this case it’s true about the title as well! Mark Parillo’s magisterial thesis taught me a great deal about why the Japanese lost the Pacific War. He explains why they stubbornly refused to convoy their merchant fleet even when, by failing to do so, they were aiding the enemy’s cause. Japan needed to import most of its war material, but once the US submarine campaign began to decimate the ships that were bringing in those vital supplies in 1944-45 the game was essentially up. Therefore, a case can be made that the war was effectively lost before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 


Pearl Harbor: Japan's Attack and America's Entry Into World War II

By Takuma Melber, Nick Somers,

Book cover of Pearl Harbor: Japan's Attack and America's Entry Into World War II

Why this book?

So much has been written on Operation Hawaii, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, that I doubted initially that Takuma Melber’s slim volume would be much different from the many accounts I have read on this iconic event in the past. But I was wrong! Melber’s authoritative and persuasive book brings another vital and welcome dimension into play by revealing the Japanese side of the narrative. Explaining the necessity for an attack that would unleash war with the US without guaranteeing victory thereafter, Tōjō Hideki remarked in October 1941: “Once in a lifetime, one must show courage, close one’s eyes and jump from the terrace of the Kiyomizu-dera.” In other words, a proverbial ‘leap into the unknown’ in the hope that one might survive it. Japan didn’t.


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