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

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Matthew Parker Why did I love 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.

By Ben Shephard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A War of Nerves as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A War of Nerves is a history of military psychiatry in the twentieth century-an authoritative, accessible account drawing on a vast range of diaries, interviews, medical papers, and official records, from doctors as well as ordinary soldiers. It reaches back to the moment when the technologies of modern warfare and the disciplines of psychological medicine first confronted each other on the Western Front, and traces their uneasy relationship through the eras of shell-shock, combat fatigue, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

At once absorbing historical narrative and intellectual detective story, A War of Nerves weaves together the literary, medical, and military lore…


Book cover of Shrapnel

Matthew Parker Why did I love 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.

By William Wharton,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Author of such classic wartime novels as Birdy and A Midnight Clear, William Wharton was one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation. However, he was also a very private man—he wrote under a pseudonym and rarely gave interviews—so fans and critics could only speculate how much of his work was autobiographical and how much was fiction.

Now, for the first time, we are able to read the author's own account of his experiences during World War II—events that went on to influence some of his greatest works.

These are the tales that Wharton never wanted to tell his…


Book cover of To Die in Spring

Matthew Parker Why did I love 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.

By Ralf Rothmann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To Die in Spring as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The lunacy of the final months of World War II, as experienced by a young German soldier

Distant, silent, often drunk, Walter Urban is a difficult man to have as a father. But his son―the narrator of this slim, harrowing novel―is curious about Walter’s experiences during World War II, and so makes him a present of a blank notebook in which to write down his memories. Walter dies, however, leaving nothing but the barest skeleton of a story on those pages, leading his son to fill in the gaps himself, rightly or wrongly, with what he can piece together of…


Book cover of Four Soldiers

Matthew Parker Why did I love 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.

By Hubert Mingarelli,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

LONGLISTED FOR THE INTERNATIONAL MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2019

'I am astonished by Four Soldiers. I have never read anything like it, yet it is one of those books you feel must always have existed, a classic of writing about the human condition... A small miracle' Hilary Mantel

1919. The Russian Civil War. It is the harsh dead of winter, as four soldiers set up camp in a forest somewhere near the Romanian front line. There is a lull in the fighting, so their days are filled with precious hours of freedom, enjoying the tranquillity of a nearby pond and trying…


Book cover of The Singapore Grip

Matthew Parker Why did I love 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.

By J. G. Farrell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Singapore Grip as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NOW A MAJOR ITV DRAMA, THE SINGAPORE GRIP IS A MODERN CLASSIC FROM THE BOOKER-PRIZE WINNING J.G. FARRELL

'Brilliant, richly absurd, melancholy' Observer

'Enjoyable on many different levels' Sunday Times

'One of the most outstanding novelists of his generation' Spectator

Singapore, 1939: Walter Blackett, ruthless rubber merchant, is head of British Singapore's oldest and most powerful firm. And his family's prosperous world of tennis parties, cocktails and deferential servants seems unchanging. No one suspects it - but this world is poised on the edge of the abyss. This is the eve of the Fall of Singapore.

A love story and…


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


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