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At the same time visitors were voting on the Top Ten new books of 1998, we asked several authors of notable WWII-related titles to tell us about their five all-time favorite World War II books. Here are some of the replies we received:
I've cheated a little but I hope this is OK. I'm responding quickly because by tomorrow I could easily have changed my mind! Here goes, alphabetically:
Angus Calder: The People's War (Jonathan Cape, London 1969) A densely packed yet coherently organised insight into the home front in Britain, the world my parents grew up in. Here are the origins of the urban bomb sites, back garden air raid shelters, morale-boosting radio shows and popular songs that remained the backdrop of my fifties childhood; the conditions that led to the Welfare State, giving me and millions of others a decent chance in life.
Donald L. Caldwell: JG 26, Top Guns of the Luftwaffe (Orion Books, New York 1991) Behind an opportunist subtitle and a less than enticing dustjacket lies one of the most lucid, well-researched books about the Luftwaffe that I've read. An unbeatable combination of fascinating material and a gifted writer, offering an evocative account of a group of fallible human beings in an organisation prone to all the tensions that entails. Turned out to be the first book in an impressive series.
Robert J. Kershaw: It Never Snows In September (The Crowood Press, Ramsbury, England, 1990) Operation Market-Garden from the German side, a valuable compliment to the more familiar Anglo-American perspective. Kershaw does a remarkable job in retrieving "lost" history and making sense out of what were often actions by hastily improvised formations. For once a book with all the maps you could desire!
Martin Middlebrook: The Nuremburg Raid (Fontana/Collins, Glasgow 1973) A gripping account of one dreadful night, drawing on maybe hundreds of eyewitness accounts. No outsider can ever know what it was like but here you feel as close as any book could take you. I'm a devotee of this genre's immediacy and my "vote" could as easily have gone either to other works of Middlebrook's or Alfred Price's "Battle of Britain: The Hardest Day" (McDonald and Jane's, London 1979) with its vivid picture of war in and over familiar English towns and villages.
J. Richard Smith and Eddie J. Creek: Jet Planes of the Third Reich (Monogram Aviation Publications, Boylston, Mass. 1982) A revelation in its time, setting new standards for content, illustration (including lavish use of colour), layout design and physical bulk, not to mention delayed publication and price Ñ but it was worth it. It wasn't so long before this book that a photo of an operational Me 262 was practically unheard of. Seemingly the catalyst for the subsequent outpouring of works on the jets; exhibits all the authors' now familiar traits of extensive research and a judicious balance between developmental and operational material, allied to sheer readability.
After all that, it still seems invidious to have left out Chris Goss's Bloody Biscay, Carlo d'Este's Decision In Normandy and Fatal Decision, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, Max Hastings's Bomber Command and Das Reich, David Khan's Stealing Enigma, Roger A. Freeman's The Mighty Eighth; Francis K. Mason's Battle over Britain; Lorant and Frappe's Le Focke Wulf 190, the late Jeffrey L. Ethell's 32-page gem, Monogram Close Up 24: Ta 152 and many others.
A very, very difficult job! I had some 1,000 titles on my shelves to choose from, so in the end I decided to select those books which have impressed me over the years because of their scope and wide-ranging general research. You asked for my "favourite" titles; I must stress that that is what these are-- books which I go to time and time again, but, equally, there are countless other books which could have been listed, or which cover a much more focused period or specialist subject. It should also be borne in mind that since the underlisted books were published, much more material has been made available to the researcher and historian. For some reason, my selection is dominated by works from the 1970s. This in no way should be seen as an adverse reflection from the many superb works that have been published more recently, rather I have taken into consideration the merit of the books in relation to the date published.
1. Hitler's War -- David Irving (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1977) The serious student of military history, and in particular the Third Reich, must overlook Irving's ill-advised forays into Holocaust denial and view this book for what it is-- an eminent and candid study of Hitler as a war-lord, almost as seen through the Nazi leader's eyes. This book is magnificent and still unmatched in the English language. If Irving shows sympathy for his subject, then that has only served to resolve the author's dedication to his research. As John Keegan has recounted in The Battle for History: Re-Fighting World War Two: "No historian can afford to ignore Irving. His depiction of Hitler, by its relation of the war's development to the decisions and responses of Fuehrer HQ, is a key corrective to the Anglo-Saxon version, which relates the war's history solely in terms of Churchillian defiance and the growth of the Grand Alliance." Quite so.
2. The Russo-German War 1941-45 -- Albert Seaton (Arthur Barker, London, 1971) Despite the plethora of literature on the Eastern Front to have been published over the last thirty years, this book still stands as a magnum opus on the subject. Measured against more recent works, it no doubt contains many errors and shortcomings, but Seaton was one of the first western writers to make use of both official Soviet and German documents and war diaries and to use private accounts and diaries. It outshines many more recent attempts.
3. Warplanes of the Third Reich -- William Green (MacDonald & Janes, London 1970) This book was a revelation to me. As a twelve year old boy it cost a lot of pocket money, but it was worth every penny and is largely responsible for my continued interest in the Luftwaffe today. Pilloried by many modern critics for its technical errors and omissions, it is all to easy to forget that Green researched this book forty years ago and did a magnificent job. I would still recommend it to the seriously-minded individual approaching the subject for the first time. Significantly, it is the same photographs which crop up in more self-congratulatory later works.
4. Luftwaffe -- Williamson Murray (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1985) Still the best historical overview of the Luftwaffe, its development, strategy and defeat available. Williamson's strength lies in his ability to connect extremely lucidly and without complication, the military, political and economic strands which influenced the rise and downfall of the Luftwaffe.
5. The Last Chance: The Pilot's Plot Against Goering -- Johannes Steinhoff (Hutchinson & Co, London, 1977) As far as the "memoirs department" goes, this is another book which compelled me when it first appeared in English 21 years ago. Steinhoff was a 176 victory fighter ace and his melancholy and often damning prose combined with the almost surreal events surrounding the so-called "fighter pilot's mutiny" against Goering, served to enlighten me to the fact that there were, apparently, some good Germans. This was a world away from Clostermann etc.
I can add only two books, the magnificent works by John Erickson, The Road to Stalingrad and The Road to Berlin. Both are formidable stream-of-consciousness books whose contents are encyclopedic. The very complexity of the works reflects the immense complexity of the war itself and the book's contents have generally withstood the rigors of time and recent revelations. Although they must be studied to be understood thoroughly, one is advised to first read them through quickly and then return to them later for more careful reading with an atlas at hand.
My all-time favorite WWII book is the one that inspired me to begin writing on the subject, Walter Lord's Day of Infamy, which marked my course when I read it at age 12, in 1958. It's still the best unbiased study of the event.
Second is John Toland's But Not in Shame, which further inspired me to write what is now known as "popular" or "public" history involving individual, recognizable participants.
I would recommend Eric Larrabee's obscure but beautifully written Commander in Chief as an important, perhaps vital, study of Franklin Roosevelt in his role as warrior-in-chief.
That's a very hard question; there are so many excellent titles that one does not know where to begin. I'll just offer these five (it could easily have been fifty):
Louis Allen, Burma: The Longest War, 1941-45 (New York, 1984). The late Louis Allen wrote what I think is the model for integrating Japanese and Western accounts into a detailed history of a complicated campaign.
Richard Frank, Guadalcanal (New York, 1990). Rich, whom I'm pleased to say is a friend, did a fantastic job integrating ground, sea and air sources to produce what is by far the best history of the Guadalcanal campaign. Having worked over some of the same ground, I can realize the effort necessary for him to make his text so lucid and accurate.
Robert Kershaw, It Never Snows in September: German View of Market Garden (New York, 1994). I was amazed when I first read this wonderful book that offered such a detailed look at a famous battle from the other side. Aided by the superb maps and clear presentation, I think for the first time I understand what really happened at Arnhem and Nijmegen.
Lieutenant Frederick Mears. Carrier Combat (New York, 1944). This little gem by a USN torpedo plane pilot is my favorite aviation memoir of World War II. Mears, who was killed in 1943, provides what I think is the most authentic look at what life was like on the US carriers in 1942.
Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny (New York, 1951). This is my favorite novel of WWII. Its portrait of how a young naval officer matured is unsurpassed. The much-praised motion picture is but a hollow shell of the book, which goes far beyond the mutiny and the court-martial.
1. The Forgotten Soldier- because it gives a graphic account of the horrors and experiences of the war in Russia from the point of view of the ordinary German soldier.
The rest of my list is derived from the books that I use most frequently and thus are of great value.
2. Yerger's SS Division Commander, volume 1
3. Glantz's From the Don to the Dnepr
4. Vopersal's 5 volumes on "Totenkopf" Soldaten, Kampfer, Kameraden
5. Ziemke's two volumes on the eastern Front, Moscow to Stalingrad and Stalingrad to Berlin
Here is my list of favourite WWII books, they are a mixed bag. (All of them Italian, though translated into English.)
Alamein 1933-1962: An Italian Story by Paolo Caccia-Dominioni. This is one of the classic desert battle stories as told from an Italian point of view. Caccia-Dominioni was Count of Sillavengo and an officer in the 31st Combat Sappers attached to the famous Folgore parachute Division in North Africa. It tells in amazing details aspects of the El Alamein battle and the author's mission after WW2 of going back to his former battle grounds and recovering the bodies of Italian soldiers. Well worth reading.
No Picnic on Mount Kenya - A true story by Felice Benuzzi. The story of three Italians interned in a POW camp in Kenya, who out of boredom escape from the camp and climb the nearby 17,000 foot Mount Kenya, plant the Italian flag on it and return to their camp. A Truly dramatic story of human endurance.
Ninth Time Lucky by Elios Toschi. The Italian author was an officer in the Italian navy, the inventor of the human torpedoes which disabled the battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth in Alexander harbour in 1941. He is captured and taken prisoner, first in Egypt and eventually in India, where he makes a successful escape over the Himalayas into Portuguese territory. Another dramatic human drama story.
Kaputt by Cuzio Malaparte. The Italian officer gives an unusual account of his adventures in German occupied territories in the East. An interesting Italian point of view of the Russian front. Interesting for it's different perspective of life under German control.
Mark C. Yerger
Though an SS researcher, I read a variety of topics on the period so not all are related to my writing subject. Overall, I feel aerial historians are doing a more prolific job on covering various specific topics than other areas. Limiting to five is very difficult!!
1) William Green: Warplanes of the Third Reich: No doubt the most detailed single volume on the topic with incredible data and illustrations.
2) Peter Bowers: Fortress in the Sky: Ultimate book on B-17, a classic on development of my own favorite aircraft.
3) Anatomy of the SS: Three German authors combined for the best overall single academic volume to date on the origins of the SS, especially the non- combat facets.
4) Lehmann/Tiemann: Die Leibstandarte: Most detailed and objective day-to-day history of a Waffen-SS, or any other, WWII German ground unit available to date.
5) Francis K. Mason: Battle of Britain: a daily record of a critical battle that is still superior to newer books on the subject as far as its original research on individual combats, background and daily overall view of that aerial campaign.
Reviewed 10 January 1999
Copyright © 1999 by Bill Stone
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