The best military books that resonate with me, or inspire me, in some personal way

Robert Widders Author Of Forged in Blood and Music: A story of friendship, courage, and survival.
By Robert Widders

The Books I Picked & Why

The Colonel of Tamarkan: Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai

By Julie Summers

Book cover of The Colonel of Tamarkan: Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai

Why this book?

This is a book about Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey, the man who commanded the POWs who built the "bridge over the River Kwai". Many people, possibly most, know about this bridge from the film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, starring Alec Guinness. I recall discussing the film with a friend – a man who helped build the real bridge – and to quote him referring to the film, ‘British officers just didn’t behave like that’.

Years later, whilst traveling and writing, I sat through the night, on a rickety wooden verandah, a few hundred yards from the Kwai bridge reading a copy of The Colonel of Tamarkan, drinking Chang beer, being bitten by mosquitoes, and thinking about my friend and his pals, the ones buried in the cemetery a mile or so away. That’s where this book has meaning to me…

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The Crowded Hours: The Story Of 'Sos' Cohen

By Anthony Richardson

Book cover of The Crowded Hours: The Story Of 'Sos' Cohen

Why this book?

The Crowded Hours tells the story of ‘Sos’ Cohen, whose eclectic military career began as an eighteen-year-old during the Matabele Wars of 1887, and then as a soldier in the Boer War. During the First World War, he first served with the Army and then transferred to the Royal Navy Air Service as a pilot. And in 1939, he joined the RAF at the age of 64, flying with RAF Coastal Command till the end of the Second World War.

Crowded Hours is a really interesting book in its own right, but in a more personal sense, it resonates with me because I’ve also served in the Army, the Navy, and the RAF, and I’m fascinated to read about the other men who’ve done this and try to understand what makes them tick.

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Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall

By Spike Milligan

Book cover of Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall

Why this book?

Many people will remember Spike Milligan as the anarchic comedian from the Goon Shows. But long before he became a radio and television celebrity, he served with the Royal Artillery in North Africa and then Italy, until he was physically wounded, psychologically traumatised, and then medically downgraded.

Milligan wrote a series of war memoirs beginning with Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall. Some of the humour may appear a little dated now, especially to younger generations. But to me the books are hilarious, full of satire, irony, and pathos, albeit written in tones – reflective of the times – that are, well, let’s just say, are not ‘politically correct’. Underneath the humour though, is a story of the unutterable sadness and personal tragedy of war. But leaving all these ‘big’ issues aside, in a personal sense, I’ve always like Milligan because he was different, an oddball, someone willing to go his own way.

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The British Sumatra Battalion

By A.A Apthorp

Book cover of The British Sumatra Battalion

Why this book?

Nearly all of the men that this book talks about have passed away now. They were captured, as the book title explains, in Sumatra, many of them after having escaped from Singapore when the garrison surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942. One of the men who eventually came together to form the [Prisoner of War] British Sumatra Battalion was my friend, G, who volunteered to remain behind and help man the escape lines running through Java and Sumatra. He gave up his own chance of getting evacuated from the island and in doing so sentenced himself to three-and-a-half years of brutality and slave labour as a POW. Men like this have earned remembrance…

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Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

By James B. Stockdale

Book cover of Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

Why this book?

James Stockdale was a fighter pilot who was shot down whilst flying over Vietnam in 1964. He had read, and absorbed, The Enchiridion, by Epictetus, and it was this knowledge of Stoicism that helped him to survive seven years of torture and captivity as a Prisoner of War. Fortunately, I’ve never been tested in a crucible akin to Stockdale’s laboratory of human behaviour. But Epictetus speaks to all of us still, and Stockdale’s book is fascinating both as an account of a POW’s survival and as an introduction to a philosophy that I’ve leaned on in my own life.

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