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John D Salt

If you can’t be too precise about the aspects of the war that interest you, can you say which approach to history you prefer?

Narrative history — a recounting of what happened when — is the bulk of stuff you will find. A lot of it is written by journalists rather than historians (Hastings, Shriver, Morehead, Wilmot), who can certainly tell a story, although some of them (yes, I’m looking at you, Max Hastings) seem unable to contain their urge to be sensationalist. I suppose the natural framing for narratives is in terms of campaigns. Some campaigns are well provided for: the Fall of France, the Battle of Britain, the Western Desert, the Battle of the Atlantic, the strategic bombing of Germany, the naval war in the Pacific. Others are less well served. There is still no really good single-volume history of the Normandy campaign to replace Wilmot’s “The Struggle for Europe” that adequately covers both the British and the US contrinutions; the Russian front is still poorly covered; and though Louis Allen’s “Burma” is good, the Chinese continue to be left out of English-language accounts.

Descriptive history — what it was like to experience these things — is the sort of thing I find more congenial. There is a huge variety of quite splendid personal memoirs. I have already mentioned James Jones’ “WW2”. Other worthwhile memoirs by infantrymen include Sydney Jary’s “18 Platoon”, Alex Bowlby’s “The Recollections of Rifleman Bowlby”, and George Macdonald Fraser’s “Quartered Safe Out Here”, which as well as its historical value is a work of substantial literary merit. My favourites from the tank men are Ken Tout’s “Tank” and its sequels, the war poet Keith Douglas’ “Alamein to Zem Zem”, and John Foley’s “Mailed Fist”. These should all be available as cheap paperbacks, and none are long. The gunners are well represented by George Blackurn’s “Guns of Normandy” and Spike Milligan’s memoirs. From the naval war, though fictionalised, Nicholas Monsarrat’s stuff is good, and J P W Mallalieu’s “Very Ordinary Seaman” is excellent. There are memoirs of RN sub-killers, such as Peter Grettons’s “Convoy Escort Commander”, and memoirs or biogs of outstanding US and German submarine commanders. Sebastian O’Kelly’s “Amedeo” recounts the remarkable story of an Italian cavalryman in the Abyssinian campaign; Martine Poppel’s “Heaven and Hell” gives you an account from a German paratrooper; Nancy Wake’s “The White Mouse” recounts her astonishing exploits with the French Resistance, and Susan Travers’ “Tomorrow to be Brave” tells of her adventures with the French Foreign Legion, including the siege of Bir Hakiem. Fortunately, too, there are now more personal memoirs from the Russians, and I recommend especially Gavriil Temkin’s “My Just War”. Biographies or autobiographies of senior commanders obviously give you more of the big picture; I would recommend especially Bill Slim’s “Defeat into Victory”, George Patton’s “War as I knew it” and Brian Horroacks’ “Corps Commander”.

Analytic history is the hardest to do well, and a lot of it concentrates overmuch on the technology of war; Ellis’ “WW2 Data Book” is an example. His “The Sharp End of War” is more interesting, as it attempts to analyse the experience of combat, as does Richard Holmes’ “Firing Line”, and S L A Marshall’s controversial “Men Against Fire”. Probably the richest seam of analytic material are those works commissioned officially to record the experience of WW2, some of which were classified when released in the 1950s. Brigadier Pemberton’s “The Development of Artillery Tactics and Equipment” now available in facsimile, has provided much of the material for at least two of Shelford Bidwell’s books, and “The Defeat of the Enemy Attack on Shipping” was issued by the Naval Records Society some years ago.

All the best,