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

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 1919-1945: An Operational History of the Volatile War at Sea

By Malcolm H. Murfett,

Book cover of Naval Warfare 1919-1945: 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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Malcolm H. Murfett Why did I love 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.

By Rana Mitter,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked China’s War with Japan 1937-1945 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Duke of Westminster Medal for Military Literature

Different countries give different opening dates for the period of the Second World War, but perhaps the most compelling is 1937, when the 'Marco Polo Bridge Incident' plunged China and Japan into a conflict of extraordinary duration and ferocity - a war which would result in many millions of deaths and completely reshape East Asia in ways which we continue to confront today.

With great vividness and narrative drive Rana Mitter's book draws on a huge range of new sources to recreate this terrible conflict. He writes both about the…


Book cover of The Defence and Fall of Singapore

Malcolm H. Murfett Why did I love 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. 

By Brian Farrell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Defence and Fall of Singapore as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shortly after midnight on 8 December 1941, two divisions of crack troops of the Imperial Japanese Army began a seaborne invasion of southern Thailand and northern Malaya. Their assault developed into a full-blown advance towards Singapore, the main defensive position of the British Empire in the Far East. The defending British, Indian, Australian and Malayan forces were outmanoeuvred on the ground, overwhelmed in the air and scattered on the sea. By the end of January 1942, British Empire forces were driven back onto the island of Singapore itself, cut off from further outside help. When the Japanese stormed the island…


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

Malcolm H. Murfett Why did I love 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.

By Saul David,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Crucible of Hell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the award-winning historian, Saul David, the riveting narrative of the heroic US troops, bonded by the brotherhood and sacrifice of war, who overcame enormous casualties to pull off the toughest invasion of WWII's Pacific Theater -- and the Japanese forces who fought with tragic desperation to stop them.

With Allied forces sweeping across Europe and into Germany in the spring of 1945, one enormous challenge threatened to derail America's audacious drive to win the world back from the Nazis: Japan, the empire that had extended its reach southward across the Pacific and was renowned for the fanaticism and brutality…


Book cover of The Japanese Merchant Marine in World War II

Malcolm H. Murfett Why did I love 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. 

By Mark P. Parillo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Japanese Merchant Marine in World War II as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Making extensive use of Japanese and U.S. sources, including wartime intelligence reports from the National Defense Archives in Tokyo and recently declassified U.S. documents, this book examines the reasons for Japan's failure to protect its merchant fleet.


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

Malcolm H. Murfett Why did I love 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.

By Takuma Melber, Nick Somers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pearl Harbor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hawaii, 7th December 1941, shortly before 8 in the morning: Japanese torpedo bombers launch a surprise attack on the US Pacific fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor. The devastating attack claims the lives of over 2,400 American soldiers, sinks or damages 18 ships and destroys nearly 350 aircraft. The US Congress declares war on Japan the following day.

In this vivid and lively book, Takuma Melber breathes new life into the dramatic events that unfolded before, during and after Pearl Harbor by putting the perspective of the Japanese attackers at the centre of his account. This is the dimension commonly missing…


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Book cover of The Twenty: One Woman's Trek Across Corsica on the GR20 Trail

Marianne C. Bohr Author Of The Twenty: One Woman's Trek Across Corsica on the GR20 Trail

New book alert!

Who am I?

I married my high school sweetheart and travel partner, and followed my own advice to do graduate work, and started my career working for the French National Railroad in New York City, mapping itineraries for travelers to Europe. Travel means the world to me and if I don’t have a trip on the horizon, I feel aimless and untethered. I worked in book publishing for 30 years and dropped out of the corporate rat race to take a gap year abroad. I wrote about our “Senior year abroad” in my first book Gap Year Girl. I returned to the US to teach middle school French and organize student trips to France. 

Marianne's book list on by women about outdoor adventure

What is my book about?

Marianne Bohr and her husband, about to turn sixty, are restless for adventure. They decide on an extended, desolate trek across the French island of Corsica — the GR20, Europe’s toughest long-distance footpath — to challenge what it means to grow old. Part travelogue, part buddy story, part memoir, The Twenty is a journey across a rugged island of stunning beauty little known outside Europe.

From a chubby, non-athletic child, Bohr grew into a fit, athletic person with an “I’ll show them” attitude. But hiking GR20 forces her to transform a lifetime of hard-won achievements into acceptance of her body and its limitations.

The difficult journey across a remote island provides the crucible for exploring what it means to be an aging woman in a youth-focused culture, a physically fit person whose limitations are getting the best of her, and the partner of a husband who is growing old with her. More than a hiking tale, this is a moving story infused with humor about hiking, aging, accepting life’s finite journey, and the intimacy of a long-term marriage—set against the breathtaking beauty of Corsica’s rugged countryside.

By Marianne C. Bohr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Twenty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Great for fans of: Suzanne Roberts's Almost Somewhere, Juliana Buhring's This Road I Ride.


Marianne Bohr and her husband, about to turn sixty, are restless for adventure. They decide on an extended, desolate trek across the French island of Corsica-the GR20, Europe's toughest long-distance footpath-to challenge what it means to grow old. Part travelogue, part buddy story, part memoir, The Twenty is a journey across a rugged island of stunning beauty little known outside Europe.


From a chubby, non-athletic child, Bohr grew into a fit, athletic person with an "I'll show them" attitude. But hiking The Twenty forces her to…


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