The best less-well-known books about World War 2

Matthew Parker Author Of Monte Cassino: The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II
By Matthew Parker

Who am I?

As a Brit growing up in the 1970s, I was obsessed with the Second World War as a heroic narrative and my country’s ‘Finest Hour’. Then I went out on the road and interviewed hundreds of veterans of the Battle of Monte Cassino and learned a somewhat different story…


I wrote...

Monte Cassino: The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II

By Matthew Parker,

Book cover of Monte Cassino: The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II

What is my book about?

Monte Cassino was the hardest battle fought by the Western Allies against the Germans. Fought over terrible terrain and in appalling conditions, the four-month struggle saw men from all over the world ordered to attack the most perfect defensive position in Europe. This is the story of the battle from the point of view of the men, on both sides, who did the actual fighting.

The books I picked & why

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A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century

By Ben Shephard,

Book cover of A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century

Why this book?

It was working with the author on this book that first put me on to Monte Cassino – the whole place was one massive nervous breakdown. Compassionate but utterly unsentimental, Shephard tells the story of the very different diagnoses and treatments for what was called Shell Shock, then Battle Exhaustion, then PTSD. At its heart is the military doctor’s dilemma – the incompatibility of his role as healer and his obligation to get men back to the front. Nowhere else have I read such a vivid account of the effect of combat on the minds of soldiers.


Shrapnel

By William Wharton,

Book cover of Shrapnel

Why this book?

Another link is that the highly-acclaimed author fought at Cassino. In my book, I tell how US servicemen in waterlogged fox-holes suffered terribly from ‘Trench Foot’. Wharton lifts the lid on how he and his fellow GIs did everything they could to get it as it meant being withdrawn from combat! Utterly unheroic, Wharton tells of the muddle, confusion, boredom, and exhaustion of frontline infantrymen – an account much closer to the stories I heard from veterans than almost anything else I’ve read.


To Die in Spring

By Ralf Rothmann,

Book cover of To Die in Spring

Why this book?

German novelist Rothman tells the story of two young friends caught up in the death spiral of Nazism at the end of the war when they are forced to ‘volunteer’ for the Waffen-SS. Only recently translated into English, it is a masterpiece of precision and unsentimentality that packs a punch as brutal as almost any other war novel I know.


Four Soldiers

By Hubert Mingarelli,

Book cover of Four Soldiers

Why this book?

Not strictly speaking World War Two, this rather strange miniature masterpiece by a French author is set during the Russian Civil War and tells the story of the friendship of four very different soldiers. It is very short – it only takes about two hours to read – but its perfectly-drawn themes of life stripped bare, of comradeship, survival, and futility will stay with you for a very long time.


The Singapore Grip

By J.G. Farrell,

Book cover of The Singapore Grip

Why this book?

Something very different, and perhaps more familiar. Farrell is a master story-teller, one of the best of the twentieth century, and this book has it all – brilliantly-drawn characters, suspense, romance, action, and plenty of humour too, as it tells the story of the biggest military disaster in British history – the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. At the same time, he skewers British colonialism as well as anyone. A big, fat engrossing read – if you’ve not read it already, I’m jealous of the pleasure awaiting you.


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