The best books on naval battles in WW2

Walter R. Borneman Author Of The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King--The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea
By Walter R. Borneman

The Books I Picked & Why

Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II

By Jeffrey Cox

Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II

Why this book?

Perceptions of the first several months of World War II in the Pacific war usually focus on Douglas MacArthur’s actions in the Philippines. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy and its British, Dutch, and Australian allies waged a largely unsung and losing battle against the Japanese onslaught to control the natural resources of the Netherlands East Indies. Rising Sun, Falling Skies scrutinizes the learning curve of allied command, the hopelessness of facing numerical superiority, and the grim awakening that airpower plays a decisive role no matter how powerful the fleet. Cox’s portraits of admirals Thomas Hart and Karl Doorman beg a host of intriguing “what ifs.”


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Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway

By Anthony Tully, Jonathan Parshall

Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway

Why this book?

There is no dearth of literature about Midway. Parshall and Tully are at the top of the list and are both insightful masters of detail and thoroughly engaging writers. They draw heavily on primary sources for the Imperial Japanese Navy and scrutinize American operations from Nimitz’s overall carrier-centric strategy to the tactical shortcomings of individual air squadrons. When aviators from the American carriers put three Japanese carriers out of action within a few serendipitous minutes, Parshall and Tully make it seem as if the reader is in their cockpits with them.


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Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal

By James D. Hornfischer

Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal

Why this book?

All of Hornfischer’s histories deserve to be on this list, but Neptune’s Inferno is my personal favorite. Guadalcanal is justifiably thought of as the heroic struggle of Marines to take and hold the island, but they could not have done so without the sacrifices of thousands of sailors in the surrounding waters. Hornfischer’s smooth style guides one through multiple battles over a four-month campaign, including two of the darkest moments in U.S. naval history: the fiery nighttime battle of Savo Island that initially saved the beachhead and the opening round of the climatic battles of mid-November 1942 that numbered two admirals among the American dead.


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Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945

By Evan Thomas

Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945

Why this book?

The battles of Leyte Gulf have led to many books, but if one is interested in both the overarching sweep of strategy and the psyche of the individual men who implemented it, Sea of Thunder is definitely the place to begin. Laying out a multi-prong, last-ditch assault by the Imperial Japanese Navy, Thomas focuses on the perspectives and experiences of two commanders on each side, including Admiral Bill Halsey and Admiral Takeo Kurita. Both men would be second-guessed forever for decisions each made during the heat of battle. Ultimately, these running battles on multiple fronts would become the greatest naval battle ever fought.


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Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942

By Clay Blair

Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942

Why this book?

Yes, there was a naval war in the Atlantic, too. Had not the Allies defeated Hitler’s U-boats over a multi-year battle—the longest of the war—World War II would likely have been lost no matter the heroics in the Pacific. Hitler’s U-Boat War does for the Battle of the Atlantic what Blair did with Silent Victory for submarine actions in the Pacific. Hitler’s U-Boat War is exhaustive in detail—pick a boat or an engagement and Blair has chronicled it— but taken overall these volumes show the tenuous nature of the battle that was won in the aggregate by individual conflicts between hunter and hunted. Hitler’s U-Boat War makes a reliable desktop reference as well as a compelling read.


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