The best novels that show World War II as it was

William A. Glass Author Of As Good As Can Be
By William A. Glass

Who am I?

An unusual thing about me when it comes to historical fiction is that I write it but rarely read it. So, why should anyone care about my recommendations for historical fiction books? Perhaps because of what I do read, which is mainly non-fiction. On my bedside table right now, insistently beckoning me away from my laptop, is With The Old Breed, a harrowing memoir about the veteran Marines the author, E.B. Sledge, got to know while fighting the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa during World War II. My bookcase is filled with histories, memoirs, war diaries, and biographies. Only a few novels are present, and what sets them apart is their historical accuracy and realism. 

I wrote...

As Good As Can Be

By William A. Glass,

Book cover of As Good As Can Be

What is my book about?

As Good As Can Be is a sprawling family saga that plays out during the 1950s and 60s. The story centers on Dave Knight, the rebellious son of Colonel Knight, an alcoholic army officer. As Knight's career progresses, he drags his wife and five children from one army base to another. He has no use for his oldest son, Dave, who is thought to be retarded. As a child, Dave is bullied by his siblings and classmates. He learns to read at an early age and escapes into a world of books. In high school, he becomes the class clown and finds acceptance from other delinquents. Their reckless behavior provides much of the comic relief in the story.

Later, Dave is drafted into the army and gets into more trouble. Now it's touch and go if he will receive a dishonorable discharge.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Sharks and Little Fish: A Novel of German Submarine Warfare

By Wolfgang Ott, Ralph Manheim (translator),

Book cover of Sharks and Little Fish: A Novel of German Submarine Warfare

Why this book?

“War is hell,” said General William T. Sherman, and thanks to modern inventions, hell can be found in the air, on and under the ground, and in the depths of the ocean. I love Wolfgang Ott’s book because it presents a realistic picture of the latter. Too many World War II submarine books focus on the hunt, the chase, and the escape. All these elements are present in Sharks and Little Fish. However, the novel’s primary focus is on four German Navy cadets and their journey to manhood under the most grueling conditions imaginable.

Ott conveys the stench created by 80 unbathed men, crammed into a metal tube, along with their rotting food and too few toilets. The flickering lights, pinprick high-pressure leaks, groaning hull, and terrified faces under depth charge attack. The hopelessness of crewmembers as allied technological advances spell doom for one U-Boat after another. This novel struck a chord because it humanizes German boys and presents a rarely told side of the story.

War of the Rats

By David L. Robbins,

Book cover of War of the Rats

Why this book?

It is said that the history of warfare is about battlefields becoming such fraught places that soldiers have been forced to move underground. At Stalingrad, war moved into the cellars, sewers, trenches, and bomb craters as soldiers sought safety and respite from the brutal Russian winter. Because of snipers, safety was illusory, however, and the soldier’s hiding places often became their graves. Robbins spares no details about the horrendous conditions at Stalingrad, but that’s not the focus of his book. 

Instead, he dramatically tells the true story of a one against one battle between two snipers, each their country’s best.  It’s a gripping tale, one that held me at the edge of my seat long past time when I should have but couldn’t bring myself to go to bed.

King Rat

By James Clavell,

Book cover of King Rat

Why this book?

Another book with rat in the title. This one realistically depicts the drastic conditions faced by allied soldiers in Japanese prisoner of war camps. According to the Japanese military code of honor, soldiers never, under any circumstances, surrender. This meant that the Japanese considered allied prisoners to be a subhuman species. They were kept barely alive only to do heavy labor for their captors. In the camps, prisoners were given little or nothing to eat, no clothing, or medical care. Work parties comprised of skeletal men, covered with sores and clad in rags, left camp every morning. Upon return, several were always missing their bodies left to be scavenged by jungle animals. 

King Rat tells the story of a prisoner who does quite well for himself in the camp. It has a plot with many intriguing twists and turns. I loved the book because every time I thought I had sorted out the good guys from the bad, it turned out I was wrong.  

The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II

By Herman Wouk,

Book cover of The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II

Why this book?

It’s hard to believe that this realistic portrayal of life in the U.S. Navy during World War II was written by the same author who wrote the vainglorious Winds of War! Still, I have to include The Caine Mutiny on this list because it realistically depicts the everyday tedium endured by crews aboard fourth-class navy ships during the long, drawn-out Pacific war. Wouk served on such a ship, and that inspired this story about mediocrity, cowardice, and mendacity. Like the other books on this list, The Caine Mutiny is ultimately a character study. It focuses on the officers of an obsolete mine-sweeper, plying the backwaters of the war under the directions of an incompetent captain.

A series of incidents puts severe pressure on the ship’s crew and their response creates a dramatic but believable climax to the story. This novel has stuck with me because I served in the military and ran into many second-rate officers like the ones in this book.

The Thin Red Line

By James Jones,

Book cover of The Thin Red Line

Why this book?

You cannot make a list of realistic World War II novels without including The Thin Red Line. While it’s not popular to admit that Americans commit atrocities in war, James Jones goes there. Imagine that you are a Japanese soldier who has just been eviscerated by flying shrapnel. You see flies buzzing around your entrails now looped obscenely in the dirt but are too weak to shoo them away. A shadow falls across your face, and you look up to see a U.S. Marine holding a combat knife.  He uses it to pry open your mouth, then clinches pliers around one of your teeth and yanks. Mercifully darkness closes in, and you see no more.

Yes, American’s collected gold teeth from dead and dying Japanese. Why? Well, seeing what the Japanese did to captured Americans – they left the mutilated bodies to be found by advancing GIs – created a depth of hatred for the enemy hard for anyone to understand who wasn’t there. This novel’s brutal realism rubs your face in the horror of war, and that’s why I think it’s a must-read for anyone who tries to understand human nature. I read it while waiting to be drafted into the army during Vietnam and have never forgotten many of the scenes depicted in the book.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 2, the German occupation of Europe, and seas?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about World War 2, the German occupation of Europe, and seas.

World War 2 Explore 975 books about World War 2
The German Occupation Of Europe Explore 43 books about the German occupation of Europe
Seas Explore 15 books about seas

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The U-boat War, Iron Coffins, and Count Not the Dead if you like this list.