Home Forums WWII Definative history of WW2 book suggestions

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 15 total)
  • Author
  • #41788

    I need help!

    Ain’t that the truth.

    But in this instance I specifically need help to learn more about WW2.

    I love history and my usual areas of interest are Ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Plantegenate and Tudor England.

    But now I want to get into WW2 and I want some recommendations for reading material. First I would love to read a book that will give me an overview of the whole conflict, covering Europe, Africa and Japan. Can anyone recommend a book that can provide this?

    Never put a sock in a toaster.

    John D Salt

    What do you need to know for?

    WW2 is the biggest event in human history, so aren’t going to get a “definitive” history of the whole bang-shoot in any number of volumes.

    To start off with a broad view of the whole thing, I would suggest one of the many Atlases of WW2 available, because it is very, very hard to understand the progress of military campaigns without maps, and most publishers provide wretchedly inadequate mapping. I like The Times Atlas of WW2 by John Keegan; I understand the Collins one is an update by the same author. There are many others. Although it is not primarily a map book, John Ellis’ “World War 2 Data Book” provides one section that gives good potted histories with clear b&w maps of major campaigns, and shows how the balance of forces changed over time. There is also a lot of orbat and technical data really only of interest to war nerds, but if you have a 21st century “big data” view of the world, it might be a good book to read second.

    For a deeply personal and partial account, with particular reference to the development of war art, I suggest James Jones’ “WW2”, a very short book, which will not tell you all about WW2, but will tell you a lot about being an infantryman in it.

    There are probably still lots of sets of the old Collins “The nth Year of the War In Pictures” books available, one for each year, which have the great virtue of being contemporary, although obviously they are from a British point of view and make no claim to be complete in any sense.

    Not a book, but the London Weekend TV series “The World at War” is probably one of the finest documentaries that will ever be made on this or any other subject — it was made long enough ago to have lots of talking head shots from original participants, as well as Sir Larry Olivier narrating. I picked up a complete box set for £20, and you can get it new for not much more on Amazon now.

    All the best,


    Not Connard Sage

    Not a book, but the London Weekend TV series “The World at War” is probably one of the finest documentaries that will ever be made on this or any other subject — it was made long enough ago to have lots of talking head shots from original participants, as well as Sir Larry Olivier narrating. I picked up a complete box set for £20, and you can get it new for not much more on Amazon now. All the best, John.


    But there was a book of the series by Mark Arnold Forster. 19 quid on Amazon.

    But yeah, you’re probably better off watching the TV series. And those 26 50 minute episodes hardly scratch the surface. It is well worth the time, I watched it on telly the first time around. It had to be good to make 18 year old me stay in to watch the box of an evening 🙂


    Obvious contrarian and passive aggressive old prat, who is taken far too seriously by some and not seriously enough by others.


    Thanks all.

    I remember being shown parts of The World at War during my history GCSE and being impressed with it. I will try and get hold of it.

    The maps thing is a great idea too so I will look into that too.

    If there is no one book how about some suggestions on any books on WW2 that are essential reading.

    Never put a sock in a toaster.

    Fredd Bloggs

    WW2 is a huge subject, so book recommendations depends on your area of interest. WW2 as a whole, economic, strategic or political, or the warfare itself which then breaks down into campaigns.



    Hmm. Probably political and warfare are my two main interests.

    Never put a sock in a toaster.

    Mr. Average

    Rise and fall of the Third Reich would be a basic starting point for the European war, I think.


    I need help! Ain’t that the truth.

    Firstly, it’s definitive.

    Next, Max Hasting’s “All Hell Let Loose” is an excellent overview. It runs to 768 pages.

    Finally, I have a hardback copy of Forster’s “The World At War” for sale if you’re interested. Just looking for a few quid plus postage.

    Martin Stephenson :: Work | Blog | Auctions

    Nathaniel Weber

    For a gritty operational history, I suggest Murray and Millett’s “A War to be Won,” http://www.amazon.com/War-To-Be-Won-Fighting/dp/0674006801

    Try and ignore the good general/bad general analysis (it gets tiresome in parts) and the bits where the authors argue that “X shouldn’t have bothered doing Y because it didn’t work”.  (I understand that was Murray’s influence on the book.)  Besides those weaknesses, it’s a great overview of the medium and high level strategy of the war, which still provides good information about important weapons and tactical innovations.

    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,



    For single volume histories of the war (in a fairly ordinary ‘history book’ style), John Keegans ‘The Second World War’ is OK, an older one but with better maps is Colonel Eddy Bauers ‘The Second World War’, and the one we all read back in the 1970s while playing Third Reich was ‘Total War’ by Calvacoressi and Wint.

    As noted above, there are lots and lots of personal memoirs of varying interest and scope. John has already mentioned many of the good ones but I would also chip in with a couple from the other side, particularly Guderians ‘Panzer Leader’, Hans Schmidts ‘With Rommel in the Desert’ and Adolf Gallands ‘The First and the Last’.

    "Mistakes in the initial deployment cannot be rectified" - Helmuth von Moltke


    Wow. Thanks all. Loads of great suggestions here. I appreciate it.

    I feel this area of history may keep me going for a very, very long time.

    Also, please ignore any spelling mistakes. I am dyslexic and my phone does not always pick up my many errors.

    Vexilla – thanks for the offer but I am going to get some books on my Kindle first as I travel a lot with work and I want lightweight options at the mo.

    Never put a sock in a toaster.

    Sane Max

    John Keegan is always readable, and I enjoyed it. and it’s shorter than ‘All Hell Let Loose’ too!

    On Kindle for a Tenner from Amazon.

    However, I really enjoyed Norman Davies ‘Europe at War’ even though it doesn’t cover the Pacific and best read AFTER you nhave decided what the war was about.

    Paul Cordell

    You could try “The History of the Second World War” by Basil Liddell Hart.

    Its available on kindle at 6.99pounds for only around 1000 pages!


    The Emperors Library - A World of Military History


    Richard Overy’s ‘Why the Allies Won’ gives the economic & industrial side of the conflict. Despite that, it’s not a dry tome. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/how_the_allies_won_01.shtml for a precis.


    Murray Williamson’s “Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe 1933-45” gives an overview of the European air war.

    Oooh – it’s officially online for free http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AAF/AAF-Luftwaffe/

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 15 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.