The best books about naval battles in the Second World War

Daniel Allen Butler Author Of Pearl: December 7, 1941
By Daniel Allen Butler

Who am I?

I’ve been writing on maritime, naval, and military subjects for nearly a quarter-century, beginning with my first published work, “Unsinkable – The Full Story of RMS Titanic” in 1998. My fascination with ships and the sea originated with my father, who served in the US Merchant Marine in the Second World War. His experiences in the North Atlantic in 1943-44 gave me to understand that no matter how large and powerful – or small and fragile – a ship may be, it is her crewmen who brings her life, and sometimes go to their deaths with her. It’s their stories that matter most when recounting the naval battles of any war, and these five books are among the best at presenting them.


I wrote...

Pearl: December 7, 1941

By Daniel Allen Butler,

Book cover of Pearl: December 7, 1941

What is my book about?

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the "hinge of Fate" turned and the course of history was utterly changed. How – and why – did the Empire of Japan and the United States of America collide in blood and flames that Sunday morning when the sun rose and the bombs fell?

Pearl: December 7, 1941 recounts how America and Japan let peace slip away, so that on that "day which will live in infamy," more than 350 warplanes of the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a stunning attack on the United States Navy's Pacific Fleet no one in America thought was possible. Ultimately, it's a story of emperors and presidents, diplomats and politicians, admirals and generals – and the ordinary sailors, soldiers, and airmen who were caught up in the fire and fury of a war they never knew was coming.

The books I picked & why

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The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour

By James D. Hornfischer,

Book cover of The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour

Why this book?

The Battle of Samar Island, which is the subject of this book, is one of the most extraordinary naval battles in all human history. In October 1944 a massive Japanese battle fleet encountered a small US Navy task force just east of the Philippines. Woefully outnumbered and outgunned, the diminutive American escort vessels protecting a handful of light carriers charged headlong at their foes – 1,500-ton destroyers taking on 60,000-ton battleships – and forced the Japanese into a disorganized retreat.  The courage, determination, and self-sacrifice of the crews of the destroyers and destroyer escorts – the “Tin Can Sailors” of the title – would be unbelievable if they weren’t so well-documented.


Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunted: 1942-1945

By Clay Blair,

Book cover of Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunted: 1942-1945

Why this book?

The Battle of the Atlantic (or the Atlantic Campaign) was the longest and one of the deadliest battles of the Second World War. Of the 40,000 men who served in the German U-boats, 30,000 of them lie at the bottom of the ocean, while over 70,000 Allied naval and merchant marine personnel lost their lives. Blair, in what could have been a cold, impersonal recounting of facts and figures, puts a very human face on the confrontations between the U-boats and their prey – the Allied merchant ships and their naval escorts – in the battle that both sides desperately wanted to win, as whoever lost would lose the war.


Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway

By Anthony Tully, Jonathan Parshall,

Book cover of Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway

Why this book?

The “hinge of Fate” had turned at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, but in June 1942 it swung back again as the United States Navy soundly defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway.  Shattered Sword has become known as the definitive account of Midway, and in particular, is notable for how thoroughly – and fairly -- it tells the Japanese side of the battle.  While the tenacity of the US Navy pilots who flew to certain death has been repeatedly, and deservedly, lauded, Parshall and Tully show us that the Japanese were equally courageous.  It’s impossible to read Shattered Sword without coming away with awed respect for the sailors and aircrew of both navies.


Day of Infamy: The Classic Account of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor

By Walter Lord,

Book cover of Day of Infamy: The Classic Account of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Why this book?

Few authors have ever matched Walter Lord for his ability to put a reader inside a historical event as it was unfolding. In Day of Infamy he puts his readers vicariously on the ground, in the air, or aboard a ship during the Pearl Harbor attack, and through his use of eyewitness accounts draws the reader into what becomes an almost visceral experience.  While some details Lord recounts have been invalidated by more recent research (the book is over sixty years old yet is still in print!), that does nothing to detract from how convincingly he conveys the Americans’ feelings of shock and anger, or the Japanese’ sense of triumph and accomplishment.


Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Battleship Bismarck

By Ludovic Kennedy,

Book cover of Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Battleship Bismarck

Why this book?

The author, Ludovic Kennedy, was a very junior officer aboard one of the Royal Navy destroyers in the thick of the hunt for Bismarck, which lends a palpable “I was there” immediacy to his account of one of the most dramatic episodes in the naval war on the North Atlantic in World War II.  His presentation is well-balanced, and his writing style makes for an easy but thoroughly engaging read, while the vignettes of shipboard life and the naval service, in general, are by turns fascinating, gripping, and sometimes tragic.


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