The best WW2 books about living undercover in constant danger

Why am I passionate about this?

Hodder and IVP had already published two of my earlier books—during my three decades as a Royal Air Force pilot and another one leading a conflict resolution NGO—when my journey as a WW2 author began. It all started with my wife's book about her German mother and British Intelligence Corps father (The Bride's Trunk). That got me interested in the links between 'the Corps' and the Special Operations Executive. Three SOE books later, I’m following the organisation into Austria. I've barely scratched the surface of undercover operations and I’m always finding new niches to discover.


I wrote...

Return to Vienna: The Special Operations Executive and the Rebirth of Austria

By Peter Dixon,

Book cover of Return to Vienna: The Special Operations Executive and the Rebirth of Austria

What is my book about?

Captain Charles Kennedy' parachuted into a moonlit Austrian forest and searched frantically for his lost radio set. His real name was Leo Hillman, and he was a Jewish refugee from Vienna. He was going home.

Meet the men and women of Churchill’s secret Special Operations Executive who worked to free Austria from Hitler's grip. Many were Austrians who had fled Nazi persecution. Trained and equipped by SOE, they courageously returned to their homeland. Some died in the attempt. Their moving stories are part of the history of how Austria recovered her sovereignty.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

Peter Dixon Why did I love this book?

I was deeply inspired by this biography of Virginia Hall, an American undercover agent of the British Special Operations Executive. Posing as a journalist in Vichy France, she supplied the Resistance, trained guerrillas, and freed prisoners from Nazi captivity, becoming the Gestapo's most wanted ‘criminal’. When the danger of capture became too great, she escaped on foot across the frozen Pyrenees into Spain, but later returned as an agent for the American Office of Strategic Services. And all this with a wooden leg!

By Sonia Purnell,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked A Woman of No Importance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Chosen as a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by NPR, the New York Public Library, Amazon, the Seattle Times, the Washington Independent Review of Books, PopSugar, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, BookBrowse, the Spectator, and the Times of London

Winner of the Plutarch Award for Best Biography

"Excellent...This book is as riveting as any thriller, and as hard to put down." -- The New York Times Book Review

"A compelling biography of a masterful spy, and a reminder of what can be done with a few brave people -- and a little resistance." - NPR

"A…


Book cover of Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory

Peter Dixon Why did I love this book?

I hope to get close to Ben Macintyre’s style, while still keeping the accuracy that my researcher background demands. Many of us know the story, and have even seen the film, of how a dead, fictitious Royal Marines officer, dropped from a submarine off the Spanish coast, fooled the Nazis into thinking Greece would be invaded instead of Sicily. But Macintyre tells it with such drama that the book is a must-read.

By Ben Macintyre,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Operation Mincemeat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NOW A NETFLIX FILM STARRING COLIN FIRTH • The “brilliant and almost absurdly entertaining” (Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker) true story of the most successful—and certainly the strangest—deception carried out in World War II, from the acclaimed author of The Spy and the Traitor

“Pure catnip to fans of World War II thrillers and a lot of fun for everyone else.”—Joseph Kanon, The Washington Post Book World

Near the end of World War II, two British naval officers came up with a brilliant and slightly mad scheme to mislead the Nazi armies about where the…


Book cover of Game of Spies

Peter Dixon Why did I love this book?

Apart from viewing the late Paddy Ashdown as perhaps the best Prime Minister Britain never had, I also know him as an under-recognised author of gripping Second World War books. The community of WW2 researchers is mutually supportive; knowledgeable colleagues have been immensely helpful to me over the years, and I recall helping Paddy with some information for one of his books. Several of them are worth reading, but here he tells the true stories of three men who pitted their wits against each other in the treacherous milieu of wartime France. The stakes were measured in lives, betrayals, and deaths.

By Paddy Ashdown,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Spies, bed-hopping, treachery and executions - this story of espionage in wartime Bordeaux is told for the first time.

Game of Spies uncovers a lethal spy triangle at work during the Second World War. The story centres on three men - on British, one French and one German - and the duels they fought out in an atmosphere of collaboration, betrayal and assassination, in which comrades sold fellow comrades, Allied agents and downed pilots to the Germans, as casually as they would a bottle of wine.

In this thrilling history of how ordinary, untrained people in occupied Europe faced the…


Book cover of Saturday at M.I.9: The Classic Account of the WW2 Allied Escape Organisation

Peter Dixon Why did I love this book?

I am sure that the authenticity of someone who has ‘been there and done it’ is unchallengeable. Airey Neave, who tragically died in 1979 at the hands of the Irish National Liberation Army, was one such. After successfully escaping from the PoW camp at Colditz, he joined MI9, the War Office section that supported escaping PoWs and downed aircrew. This strikes a chord with me as a former pilot. In this book, he tells the stories of French men and women of all ages and backgrounds, who, at great personal danger, formed the backbone of secret escape lines. The narrative is not over-dramatised and the matter-of-fact style is one I respect, but the courage of those who harboured escapees or acted as couriers comes through clearly. 

By Airey Neave,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Saturday at M.I.9 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Saturday at M.I.9 is the inside story of the underground escape lines in occupied North-West Europe which brought back to Britain over 4,000 Allied servicemen during World War Two.Airey Neave, who in the last two years of the war was the chief organiser at M.I.9 gives his own unique account. He describes how the escape lines began in the first dark days of German occupation and how, until the end of the war, thousands of ordinary men and women made their own contribution to the Allied victory by hiding and feeding men and guiding them to safety.There isn't a page…


Book cover of Target: Italy: The Secret War Against Mussolini 1940-1943

Peter Dixon Why did I love this book?

Oxford academic Dr. Roderick Bailey is an expert on the Special Operations Executive who made helpful comments to improve my first WW2 book. I love the little-known stories of Italian and British secret agents that populate this book, which is the official history of SOE’s undercover war against Mussolini's Italy. I enjoy tracing the strategic impact of relatively minor actions. Some efforts succeeded, many failed. There were the attempts to make common cause with the Sicilian Mafia. There was the agent paid and supplied by SOE who was really working for Italian Counter-Intelligence. And there was the SOE agent who parachuted into Lake Como, was immediately captured and expected execution, but survived to provide the secret radio link that enabled Italy to surrender and change sides. 

By Roderick Bailey,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Drawing on long-classified documents, Target: Italy is the official history of the war waged by Britain's Special Operations Executive on Benito Mussolini's Fascist Italy. It is the first full account of SOE's clandestine efforts to strike at Italy and sever its alliance with Nazi Germany, uncovering missions as remarkable as a plot to assassinate Mussolini and plans to arm the Mafia. It is also the first in-depth history of SOE's attempts at causing trouble inside an enemy country as opposed to an enemy-occupied one, issuing a sobering reminder of the terrible dangers that foreign agencies can encounter when trying to…


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The Woman at the Wheel

By Penny Haw,

Book cover of The Woman at the Wheel

Penny Haw Author Of The Invincible Miss Cust

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Storyteller Dog walker Dreamer Runner Reader

Penny's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Inspiring historical fiction based on the real life of Bertha Benz, whose husband built the first prototype automobile, which eventually evolved into the Mercedes-Benz marque.

"Unfortunately, only a girl again."

From a young age, Cäcilie Bertha Ringer is fascinated by her father's work as a master builder in Pforzheim, Germany. But those five words, which he wrote next to her name in the family Bible, haunt Bertha.

Years later, Bertha meets Carl Benz and falls in love—with him and his extraordinary dream of building a horseless carriage. Bertha has such faith in him that she invests her dowry in his plans, a dicey move since they alone believe in the machine. When Carl's partners threaten to withdraw their support, he's ready to cut ties. Bertha knows the decision would ruin everything. Ignoring the cynics, she takes matters into her own hands, secretly planning a scheme that will either hasten the family's passage to absolute derision or prove their genius. What Bertha doesn't know is that Carl is on the cusp of making a deal with their nemesis. She's not only risking her marriage and their life's work, but is also up against the patriarchy, Carl's own self-doubt, and the clock.

Like so many other women, Bertha lived largely in her husband's shadow, but her contributions are now celebrated in this inspiring story of perseverance, resilience, and love.

The Woman at the Wheel

By Penny Haw,

What is this book about?

Inspiring historical fiction based on the real life of Bertha Benz, whose husband built the first prototype automobile, which eventually evolved into the Mercedes-Benz marque.

"Unfortunately, only a girl again."

From a young age, Cacilie Bertha Ringer is fascinated by her father's work as a master builder in Pforzheim, Germany. But those five words, which he wrote next to her name in the family Bible, haunt Bertha.

Years later, Bertha meets Carl Benz and falls in love-with him and his extraordinary dream of building a horseless carriage. Bertha has such faith in him that she invests her dowry in his…


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