The best books on the London Blitz

2 authors have picked their favorite books about the London Blitz and why they recommend each book.

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The London Journal of General Raymond E. Lee 1940-1941

By James Leutze (editor),

Book cover of The London Journal of General Raymond E. Lee 1940-1941

Lee was the popular, well-connected military attaché in the U.S. Embassy in London. A staunch supporter of U.S. aid for Britain, he played an important role in preparing for America’s entry into the war. During the Blitz, he castigated American correspondents who described London as “devastated” by the German bombing campaign. “London is not devastated, and if you want one soldier’s opinion, it will not be devastated,” he told them. His diary reflects his determination to counter the defeatist predictions of Joseph Kennedy, who had served as U.S. ambassador in London until 1940.

Who am I?

Award-winning journalist and historian Andrew Nagorski was born in Scotland to Polish parents, moved to the United States as an infant, and has rarely stopped moving since. During a long career at Newsweek, he served as the magazine's bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw, and Berlin. In 1982, he gained international notoriety when the Kremlin, angered by his enterprising reporting, expelled him from the Soviet Union. Nagorski is the author of seven books, including The Nazi Hunters and Hitlerland.


I wrote...

1941: The Year Germany Lost the War

By Andrew Nagorski,

Book cover of 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War

What is my book about?

By the end of 1940, Nazi Germany ruled most of Europe, but by the end of 1941 Hitler had already squandered his chances for victory in World War II. He repeatedly gambled on escalation: by invading the Soviet Union, by making mass murder and terror his weapons of choice, and by driving Churchill and Roosevelt into a de facto alliance even before the United States formally entered the war. All of which set the stage for Germany’s ultimate defeat.

But, as Nagorski explains in his fast-paced chronicle about this pivotal year, there was nothing inevitable about this sequence of events.

The Book Cat

By Polly Faber, Clara Vulliamy (illustrator),

Book cover of The Book Cat

This gorgeously illustrated book is the story of Morgan, who becomes the Book Cat at the real publisher Faber. I adored TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a child, and Morgan was a real cat who was one of the inspirations for the poems. These are his adventures during the London Blitz – in some ways a familiar story, but so moving from a cat’s point of view! 


Who am I?

My first animal story, Lost in the Snow, was based on stories that my mum and I invented together when I was very small, about our stray cat Rosie. She walked into my dad’s office and sat down in his chair when he was out at lunch! I loved imagining her adventures as a stray kitten, and those stories could be scary, sad, emotional as anything – because we knew she came home to live safe and happy with us. I’ve been creating stories about animals ever since. 


I wrote...

The Story Puppy

By Holly Webb, Sophy Williams (illustrator),

Book cover of The Story Puppy

What is my book about?

Jack is having a hard time at school, as he’s struggling with his reading. No one seems to understand how he feels – until he visits the animal shelter where his sister Mattie works and meets Daisy, a tiny white puppy who’s been abandoned by the roadside. Daisy is terrified of people, but she’s desperate to be loved too. When Jack practices his reading sitting by her pen, a bond begins to grow between them.

The Night Watch

By Sarah Waters,

Book cover of The Night Watch

It was interesting to read about life in London during the Blitz, and Kay, Helen and Viv’s stories are powerfully told. I’m fascinated by writers who experiment with form, and in telling the story backwards, in piecemeal fashion, Waters conveys a profound message about the messy and fragmented nature of life.


Who am I?

As a teacher, I spent forty years at the chalkface before finally achieving my ambition to be a published writer. My first novel was about a child migrant to Australia; my second about a little girl on the kinder transport. I wanted to write about strong women in world war two. All three of the mothers in my stories are separated from their children and have to make some tough decisions. I hope my readers will remember them for their courage and tenacity and that they’ll enjoy reading about them as much as I’ve enjoyed creating them. 


I wrote...

The Child on Platform One

By Gill Thompson,

Book cover of The Child on Platform One

What is my book about?

Prague 1939. Young mother Eva has a secret from her past. When the Nazis invade, Eva knows the only way to keep her daughter Miriam safe is to send her away - even if it means never seeing her again. But when Eva is taken to a concentration camp, her secret is at risk of being exposed.

In London, Pamela volunteers to help find places for the Jewish children who arrived from Europe. Befriending one unclaimed little girl, Pamela brings her home. Then when her son enlists in the RAF, Pamela realises how easily her own world could come crashing down…

The Secret History of the Blitz

By Joshua Levine,

Book cover of The Secret History of the Blitz

Today, it is almost impossible to imagine aircraft roaming freely over British cities, disgorging bombs onto the streets below. So, it’s vital for us to have access to the personal, unvarnished stories and contemporary accounts from those that actually lived through this particular horror. In The Secret History of the Blitz Levine pulls no punches as he documents the behaviour of ordinary people faced with extreme experiences. Some reacted with fortitude, uniting in neighbourhood solidarity and extending charity to strangers. Others exploited the chaos, breaking legal and moral codes for their own personal enrichment. To this day, the British psyche collectively benefits from the social concept of a Blitz Spirit. But we should remember it was always a two-sided coin.


Who am I?

I lived in London for eighteen years and acquired an abiding affection for my nation’s capital. I wanted to write a sequel to Bluebirds and jumped at the chance of giving Bryan Hale an adventure where he could walk the streets that I knew and loved. The scars caused on the fair face of London by sticks of Nazi bombs landing in ragged lines across the streets and terraces may still be discerned from the incongruity of the buildings that have since risen to fill the gaps. London heals and thrives. Ultimately, I believe every English writer harbours an ambition to write a London novel. I did, and I did.


I wrote...

Blackbirds: A London Blitz Novel

By Melvyn Fickling,

Book cover of Blackbirds: A London Blitz Novel

What is my book about?

It's October 1940, the Battle of Britain reaches a stalemate and the Luftwaffe begins the bombing of Britain’s cities. Bryan Hale’s chance encounter in a London pub with Jenny, an acquaintance from school, starts a relationship that neither wants nor can afford. But the daily dangers of London’s Blitz ignite a passion that neither can resist.

Bluebird Squadron rotates out of the front line and Bryan transfers to night-fighters, partly to sate his desire for combat, but also to stay close to Jenny. Struggling with fledgling radar technology, Bryan and his operator, Tommy Scott, eventually become calculating hunters of the night, stalking and slaying Nazi raiders in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse in England’s pitch-black winter skies. This is the second book of the Bluebird Series.

Under Fire

By Naomi Clifford,

Book cover of Under Fire: The Blitz diaries of a volunteer ambulance driver

June Spencer was a debutante. In 1938, she was presented to the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace. A year later, her life changed with the outbreak of war. Always independent, June became an ambulance driver, and later a WREN. At the same time, she continued to go to nightclubs and spend time with well-connected friends, and fall in love. She detailed everything in private diaries which Clifford was given access to by June’s daughter. June was an extraordinary ‘ordinary’ woman, another who lived through ‘history being made.’ This is a wonderful account of her life and times.


Who am I?

I often feel as if I live with one foot in the present, and one in the past. It’s always been the little-known stories that fascinate me the most, especially women’s history. Their lives can be harder to research, but more rewarding for that. As a writer and historian, it has been wonderful to discover the histories of intriguing but ‘overlooked’ women, and to share their tales. I hope you enjoy reading the books I have selected as much as I did!


I wrote...

A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History

By Joanne Major, Sarah Murden,

Book cover of A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History

What is my book about?

Have you ever heard the story of Sinnetta Lambourne, the Romany girl who was the wife of Queen Elizabeth II’s great-grandfather? Her husband, the Reverend Charles (Charley) Cavendish-Bentinck was a man ahead of his times in his outlook. He followed his heart, against the wishes of his family and titled relatives. A generation earlier, Charley’s parents had been at the centre of a Regency-era scandal. His mother, married to the ‘richest commoner’ in the country, was the Duke of Wellington’s niece. Just weeks after the Battle of Waterloo, she eloped with her lover…

Discover the untold story of the British royal family’s recent history.

The Postmistress

By Sarah Blake,

Book cover of The Postmistress

There are a lot of World War II books out there, and in truth, I was growing tired of them until I read Sarah Blake’s. Partially located on my home turf of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the brush against our local history pre-World War II fascinated me. But Blake doesn’t stay local; she leaves the postmistress to do—or not doher job and flies off to London with a female war correspondent. How their stories cleverly intertwine is part of my fascination with this tale. Blake has a habit of dropping unforgettable characters on my doorstep, where they tease and tantalize long after I’ve turned the last page. 


Who am I?

 I’ve always loved history, and especially those small stories, so often about women, that never made the history books. No big surprise then that as an author I eventually gravitated to historical fiction, and that all of my novels have featured strong, independent women. Women were wonderful sources for the kinds of stories I wished to tell – they kept journals and diaries; they wrote voluminous letters; they were excellent chroniclers of their time; they were clever and witty and brave, and they bared their souls. To be able to bring some of these women to life has been a most rewarding experience for me. I hope reading my books proves as rewarding for you.


I wrote...

Painting the Light

By Sally Cabot Gunning,

Book cover of Painting the Light

What is my book about?

A rising, well-to-do 19th century Boston artist runs away from family tragedy by leaping into an impulsive marriage that lands her on a sheep farm on Martha’s Vineyard, where she must re-invent herself while sorting truth from lies and what matters from what doesn’t. 

Noonday

By Pat Barker,

Book cover of Noonday

An accumulation of memories haunt and inform Noonday, a novel that stands alone as the third in a trilogy spanning both world wars. I particularly love Barker’s avoidance of sentimentality. She is an honest writer who digs deep and gives no easy solutions as she follows a cast of characters who originally met as students at the Slade School of Art in London. Elinor, who is central, still suffers from the death of her brother Toby in the Great War. Barker’s skillful evocation of the past gives weight and resonance to every word, reminding the reader of the increasing complexity of character formation with life’s most intense and sometimes tragic experiences. 


Who am I?

The writing of Mad Hatter (my 7th book), was fueled by curiosity about WW2 and about my absent father. I emigrated to Canada as a young woman and pursued a career in the Arts – theatre, painting, writing. But only when I embarked on this fictionalized family story did I begin to uncover shocking family secrets as I pulled together threads of childhood memory, woven in with research material, trying to make sense of it all. Writing has literally saved my life, and Mad Hatter has liberated me in a manner I could never have predicted. I am an intense, passionate workaholic, writing in many genres, exulting in life's surprises!


I wrote...

Mad Hatter, Volume 164

By Amanda Hale,

Book cover of Mad Hatter, Volume 164

What is my book about?

Mad Hatter is a WW2 novel, based on the story of my own father’s internment as a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. During Christopher Brooke’s absence, his family manages with the help of Maire Byrne, a young girl fresh from Ireland who works for Cynthia Brooke as nanny to her four young children, bringing love and levity into their childhood. Upon Christopher’s release there is a gradual unravelling of the marriage in the devastation of post-war England. As the story of the Brooke family moves inexorably to a tragic conclusion, a series of mysterious events unfold in which Maire Byrne is once again embraced by the family, but in a most surprising manner.

Britain's War

By Daniel Todman,

Book cover of Britain's War: Into Battle, 1937-1941

Book 1 of these 2 is perhaps a better read because it explains, as the young Jack Kennedy famously wrote, “Why England Slept,” and that topic is more intriguing than the tactics of the Second World War itself, treated in Book 2. Nevertheless, if you have time read both books. You’ll conclude that Kennedy (and his ghostwriter) didn’t know what was up, and you’ll wonder if the United States is now repeating Britain’s history as its status as a great power is put under pressure by the rise of China.


Who am I?

I wrote A Crisis Wasted precisely with the goal of changing the way government makes decisions at inflection points in history, when change is happening at a 10x scale. That was the situation between the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the inauguration of the new president in January 2009. I felt at the time and later that the way problems were analyzed, options created and decisions made were tragically disappointing, not because the people involved were badly motivated but because of the assumptions and convictions to which they were firmly bound before they approached the problems. I had no idea in 2019 that the next crisis would be the pandemic and only had only hope that the next Administration would include many of the same people involved in 2008-9. But as history unfolded the lessons of 2008-9, as I decoded them, applied with uncanny accuracy to the decisions made by the Biden team in 2020-21. So far at least, their ability to learn from history has served the country well.


I wrote...

A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama's Defining Decisions

By Reed Hundt,

Book cover of A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama's Defining Decisions

What is my book about?

Based on four dozen interviews done 2010-12, this book published in 2019 presciently captured the lessons of the Bush-Obama transition that informed and guided the incoming Biden Administration. We see that its rejection of neoliberalism, decisions to “go big,” and to press on all fronts simultaneously stemmed from the disappointment of contrary decisions made by the Obama Administration in its earliest days.

All Clear

By Connie Willis,

Book cover of All Clear

It’s too easy, in time travel fantasies, to imagine that you would feel a step above the people around you... that you alone know what’s coming, and just, in general, have your advanced-future-person perspective on the world. That’s not how history should feel. The All Clear series’s time-traveling historians arrive to observe the London Blitz and have that comforting certainty ripped out from underneath them. They’re left lost, alone, and isolated in a well-painted portrait of a world on the edge of collapse.


Who am I?

I’m a Virginia-based science fiction and fantasy writer who’s lived variously-enriching lives as a coroner’s assistant, customer service manager, university lecturer, secretary, factory technician, and clerk. I’ve bounced all around the Midwest, from Minnesota to Ohio to Colorado to Missouri and now out on the East Coast.


I wrote...

Quietus

By Tristan Palmgren,

Book cover of Quietus

What is my book about?

Quietus, a science fiction novel set in the midst of the Black Death. It features a transdimensional anthropologist who can’t keep herself from interfering with one of the darkest periods of Earth’s history, a young Carthusian monk who’s the only survivor of his monastery, and a worlds-spanning conspiracy to topple an empire larger than the human imagination can contain.

Quietus and its sequel, Terminus, were published in March and November of 2018 (the timing for books about a plague could have been better, could have been worse…). I also write prose novels for Marvel with Aconyte Books.

Human Voices

By Penelope Fitzgerald,

Book cover of Human Voices

An unsparing portrait of a cast of characters working for the BBC in London at the outset of the war, this novel is both funny and moving, though Fitzgerald’s keen sense of irony assures that the writing is never sentimental. Even the most minor characters come to life, as they adjust to both the bureaucracy of the wartime BBC and the realities of life during the Blitz. 


Who am I?

Growing up near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, I was aware that the city had historical significance but also that it wasn’t particularly famous, at least to people from outside the region. I’ve always been drawn to these sorts of overlooked stories from history, which are, not coincidentally, often women’s stories. Women made up the majority of workers in Oak Ridge during World War II, and for decades afterward, their stories were generally viewed as less important than male-dominated narratives of the war. But I’ve always believed that women’s stories are no less interesting than men’s. These books look at history’s worst conflict from unique perspectives that foreground the female experience. 


I wrote...

The Atomic City Girls

By Janet Beard,

Book cover of The Atomic City Girls

What is my book about?

In 1944, eighteen-year-old June boards an unmarked bus, destined for a city that doesn’t officially exist. Oak Ridge has sprung up in a matter of months, and June joins hundreds of other young girls there operating mysterious machines to help win the war. While June wants to know more and begins an affair with Sam, a young physicist who understands the end goal only too well, her beautiful roommate Cici simply wants to find a wealthy husband. Across town, African-American construction worker Joe knows nothing of the government’s plans, only that his new job pays enough to make it worth leaving his family. But a breach in security intertwines his fate with June’s, and the bombing of Hiroshima brings the truth into devastating focus.

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