This is an article dedicated to covering the top World War 2 history books that form such an important part of the general body of work focused on WWII. Covering a wide array subjects from military and tactical specifics of both the allies and the axis powers to the unimaginable horrors of the holocaust, these top WWII history books will provide readers with a more enriched understanding of many aspects of the conflict written from a variety of perspectives ranging from that of top historians to the accounts and autobiographical recollections of those that experienced WWII first-hand.
D DAY Through German Eyes - The Hidden Story of June 6th 1944 (Kindle Only)
The majority of D-Day accounts are told either through the eyes of historians or from soldiers on the allied side. This book flips the perspective and allows us a viewing window from the other side of the conflict. In the book you’ll bear witness to accounts of soldiers fighting on the beach and in the gun nests of Normandy as the allies launched what was to develop into a pivotal assault from land, air, and sea.
The book takes its place on this list because of the fascinating insight it gives into many aspects of the German defense of Normandy, from the personal motivation of the German soldiers to the experiences of those in what were thought of as the impenetrable coastal fortresses of the Atlantic Wall.
The Diary of a Young Girl: Definitive Edition
Perhaps one of the most important, and certainly the most well-known personal accounts of German occupation through the eyes of a young Jewish, Diary of a Young Girl is a haunting yet informative read. Though not a historical textbook by any means, Frank’s two years spent hiding from Nazi patrols in an Amsterdam warehouse provides a vivid window into not only into her mindset, but the hopes, fears, and frustrations of those living in hiding as well as the living situation of many Jewish citizens throughout the Nazi occupation of Europe.
The tragically abrupt ending- the result of a betrayal and subsequent discovering of those in hiding - is what usually gets remembered about this text, made even more tragic by the fact that Frank and her sister Margot likely died at Bergen-Belsen just weeks before its liberation.
If This Is a Man / The Truce
Levi, an Italian-Jewish chemist and survivor of the Holocaust, puts forth a stunningly-written account of his time at a labour camp in Auschwitz in If this is a Man, followed by the sobering tale of his journey home to Turin, Italy in The Truce. What differentiates Levi’s writing from other accounts of the Holocaust is the sober, relatively calm, and collected manner in which he recalls and writes of such horrific experiences. His experience as a Chemist saved him from the fate of death, but his scientific background lends a vividly objective tone to the narrative here, making it a unique source for those learning about the Holocaust aspects of WWII.
The content of this double-bladed recounting of the horrors and inhumanity of Auschwitz and the many other labour camps undoubtedly makes it one of the most essential reads for those looking to gain a deeper perspective of the impact of the Holocaust and its wider context in WWII.
Saving Bletchley Park: How #socialmedia saved the home of the WWII codebreakers
Though a great deal of the content of this book looks at the saving of Bletchley Park in the modern day, it is still an essential read for those looking to inform themselves about the historical significance of what was the nerve centre for Britain’s codebreakers during WWII. This book’s telling of the story of Bletchley Park takes place through the description of Dr. Black’s efforts in saving the site. We get an interesting perspective from this book, then, that tells of the site’s fate 70 years after its opening, as well as the intricacies and tide-turning events that took place here during the war.
The most useful aspect of this book from a historical point of view are its many accounts from the codebreakers that worked at Bletchley Park during war, and for this reason alone it is a worthwhile text.
The memoirs of the Holocaust contained within Night are in stark contrast to the relatively impartial, clinical accounts of Primo Levi. In Night, you will find Elie Wiesel’s telling of the horrific events leading up to and following the arrival of Nazi forces in Sighet. The memoirs take us from Sighet’s occupation to Wiesel’s experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau. His harrowing experience at the camp began with the murder of his sister and mother soon after arrival, and the memoirs that resulted are quite simply astounding to read, though even more so when you consider that Wiesel was just 15 when the Nazis came to Sighet in May 1944.
This is one of the most harrowing tales of the holocaust available, beginning with tragedy that led to death march upon the camp’s evacuation. Wiesel was one of the few survivors when the camp was liberated in 1945, and he felt his memoir was, as he puts it in his foreword: “to bear witness for the dead and for the living”.
The Secret War
Max Hastings’ notable title quite brilliantly presents the “hidden” side to WWII, namely the codebreakers and intelligence aspects of the conflict that get forgotten, left to wither in the shadow of the guns, tanks, planes, and seaborne vessels tending to dominate the narrative of the war. The book covers a wide range of subject matter, though notable events such as the Battle of the Atlantic and its success due to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park.
Hastings’ main argument, that intelligence, counter-intelligence, and technological/guerrilla warfare bore no match for all-out battle on the ground, is largely irrelevant. In fact, the argument is merely a vehicle for Hastings to pack the book full of thrilling stories of spying and espionage, which he does very well.
The Hut Six Story: Breaking the Enigma Codes
A slightly different take on Bletchley Park than Sue Black’s offering, The Hut Six Story offers a personal account Bletchley Park’s de-ciphering efforts during WWII as its main narrative. This is a terrific insight onto the day-to-day workings of the staff at Bletchley Park, which is of course where the famous Enigma Codes were broken in order to gain the upper hand for Britain and the allies during the conflict.
There is a great deal of technical information in the book regarding the machines, their functions, and eve their construction, but this information and be taken or left as the reader wishes. The Bletchley Park aspect of the book is likely to be the draw for most, though Welchman (as a mathematician himself) offers up a great deal of technical insight into the machines and methods of codebreaking that should also appeal to the more technically minded.
The Nazi Hunters
Much is written in WWII historical literature about the lead-up to and brunt of the war and its battles, but texts covering the tail end of the rapidly-dissolving Reich are less common. The Nazi Hunters is an informative work from Lewis, detailing the apparent dissolution and actual continued existence of the SAS and its efforts to bring members of the Third Reich to justice.
The book covers the clandestine happenings of post-reich Germany in some detail, though its main focus is the involvement of the SAS in making those that escaped justice after the fall of the Reich accountable for their actions. This isn’t a classic historical text, but it contains some interesting and at times shocking information on the actions and consequences of the decisions made by those in power during the time of the Third Reich.
Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman: The Most Notorious Double Agent of World War II
Though one can see the sensationalist aspects of the book from its very title, Ben Macintyre’s Agent ZigZag is in fact a thoroughly entertaining and informative read. The book draws from Macintre’s research into notorious double agent Eddie Chapman, who was captured early in the war and sent to prison in Paris, released in order to work for the Abwehr, only to parachute back to England where he surrendered himself to work as a double agent.
As one can imagine, there’s a bit of dramatic license involved with this book, but there is also much to learn from a historical perspective, including the methods and inner workings of the Abwehr as well as that of British intelligence services.
The Last Panther
The issue of the brutality displayed by the soviet Red Army in the closing chapters of the war is one scarcely covered in detail by many of the books on this list. It is tackled head on, however, in Wolfgang Faust’s The Last Panther. Just south of Berlin in 1945, the soviets (victorious by this point) surrounded around 80,000 German men, women and children, leading to an intense battle that involved the German forces attempting to break out to the West where they could surrender to comparative safety.
Faust, a commander of one of the few Panther tanks remaining at the tail end of the Battle of Halbe, recalls a dwindling German force in their desperate attempts to make it westwards. Harrowing stories of soviet brutality are to be found here, as is a unique insight into the very last hours of the Third Reich.
You'll Die in Singapore: The True Account of One of the Most Amazing POW Escapes in WWII
The efforts of Charles McCormack and his fellow POWs in their escape from a camp in Singapore, which was occupied by the Japanese forces at the time, are tense and fascinating. This book covers the details of their courageous escape as well as the journey of these POWs through Singapore, to Indonesia, and eventually to Australia.
It’s pretty difficult to describe just how impressive a feat it must have been to pull off a 5-month escape from a POW camp, but McCormack’s skills of writing and recollection have resulted in this thrilling tale of courage, humanity, and horror, as well as in one of the greatest first-hand accounts of the Pacific theatre during WWII.
The Second World War
Anthony Beevor’s wide-view account of WWII is one of the few books on this list that manages to capture the expansive breadth of the conflict. In contrast to Beevor’s previous work on the Battle of Stalingrad (a book comprised largely of first-hand accounts from men on the ground, providing a personal touch to the narrative), The Second World War takes panoramic view of the conflict, though the lack of substantial personal accounts and viewpoints from men on the ground will be noticeable to those who have read Beevor’s Stalingrad.
This book manages to frame WWII in its true context however. It reiterates the now commonly-made assertion that it was a truly global conflict, highlighting the dangerous expansionism of Germany and also Japan in the pacific. The book covers not only the major battles, but also lesser-known conflicts that he argues fanned the infant flames of the conflict such as the Soviet-Japanese conflict in Mongolia in 1939. An altogether less decisive read than many general WWII histories, but its relatively objective, matter-of-fact style makes it perfect for readers looking for impartial knowledge on the conflict.
The Complete MAUS
Under ordinary circumstances, one would struggle to believe that subject matter as harrowing and as heavy as the atrocities committed by the Nazis during WWII could be effectively portrayed in cartoon form. This is what Art Spiegelman has achieved in his MAUS cartoon series, however, and The Complete MAUS stitches together Maus I and Maus II to make for seamless reading.
Quite ingeniously, Art Spiegelman utilises the classic cat-mouse conflict to represent the relationship between the Nazis and the Jews respectively. Maus I covers Poland in the 1940s, detailing Vladek Spiegelman’s time at Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as the invasion and many events prior, while Maus II flashes to 1980s New York and tells of the extensive impact the holocaust had on Art Spiegelman’s father.
Ardennes 1944: Hitler's Last Gamble
The Battle of the Bulge in 1944 is a conflict that has gone down in history has one of the most memorable, and Anthony Beevor’s account has certainly managed to reflect the physical scale as well as the historical importance of it. This is a detailed military history of the battle and the circumstances surrounding it, and Beevor frames it well in the opening sections, going on in great detail to explain the military tactics, losses, outcomes, and significance of the battle. After all, this conflict was effectively Hitler’s final push, and the initial assault took the allies by surprise.
Beevor also covers, with his trademark engaging style, the turning point the Battle, the US resistance in the west, and of course the dwindling forces on the Eastern Front. Beevor also manages to orchestrate a complete military perspective of the battle by weaving together accounts and viewpoints from all levels such as officers, infantrymen, and generals, making Hitler’s Last Gamble one of the most engaging and informative works on the Battle of the Bulge to date.
The Battle of the Atlantic: How the Allies Won the War
Dimbleby is another historian whose name carries with it a certain gravitas in historians’ circles, and his The Battle of the Atlantic serves only to add to the weight that his name bears. Though WWII was comprised a great number of battles that varied in length, losses, and importance, The Battle of the Atlantic still remains as the single longest military campaign that was fought during WWII. It was a battle that effectively spanned the entire length of the war, beginning in 1939 and never ceasing until Germany’s defeat in 1945.
It is only fitting, then, that an historian with such a substantial amount of knowledge should cover the battle’s ebb and flow. Dimbleby covers the advances and retreats of both sides, detailing what were often the horrific circumstances under which many of the men lived and died. I can comfortably assert that this is an absolute must-read text for anyone learning about the Battle of the Atlantic.
KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps
“Arbeit Macht Frei”, a sign seen by all who entered any of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps, stretched ominously over the gates of Bergen Belsen, Buchenwald, Dauchu, and Auschwitz. “Work Sets You Free” is the translation, and it is a phrase that barely manages to scratch the surface of the fear, terror, and tragedy that took place within the gates this mantra stoop atop. The KL (Konzentrationslager) is a subject matter covered with incredible skill by Wachsmann, who manages to give a frank and detailed account of Germany’s concentration camps during the 12 years in which they were operational.
One striking and important line of separation is laid down by the author, between the definition and resulting function of the KL; he distinguishes these from the dedicated extermination camps. This book is at once a startling, informative, and horrifying account of the entire concentration camp system, reflecting the ever-widening scope of discrimination and hatred displayed by Himmler and his SS towards minorities perceived as impure and not of the master race. Personal accounts of the camps from those who were put to work there sit side-by-side with impressive descriptions of the camps that manage to convey their scale as well as their wider impact on German society and the normalisation of increasingly cruel and inhumane attitudes towards perceived enemies.
The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945
This extensive collection of records pertaining to the damage sustained by the streets of London is quite a startling thing for people to view. Though there were unquestionably many atrocities carried out by Germany in WWII, the impact of the war on London is recorded well here, and the photographs contained within this book are one of the most useful tools for conveying the level of destruction and damage that London sustained during the conflict.
The damage maps – you should supplement these with online resources like http://bombsight.org/ - are accompanied by photographs as well as an introduction by Laurence Ward and a collection of statistics that hammer home the already-sobering reality of destruction and devastation seen in London during the war.
Alan Turing: The Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film The Imitation Game
Turing’s direct contribution to a project that went on to become one of the crucial deciding factors in the outcome of WWII is not covered as often as it should be. Forget the tie-ins with the film The Imitation Game here – this book covers a great deal about Turing’s early years, as well as presents a number of complex mathematical theories and ties them in with the ongoing project of breaking the Enigma machine code.
This is a fascinating read for those interesting in Turing’s life and times, though it may be overly complex for some due to the high level of technical detail contained within.
Churchill's Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII
Though this book certainly isn’t shy about its sensationalist, overly-dramatic title, Lewis’ work is quite a gripping tale based on the allies’ defeat in Europe in 1939 and Churchill’s commissioning of a clandestine service to perform today’s equivalent of black-ops missions to help the war effort. The events are told largely through a narrative of Danish volunteer Anders Lassen, whose dramatic life and demeanour led to him being known as “The Viking”. This is an exciting tale told largely through focus on Lassen, and takes us through the formation and at time disastrous missions that contributed to the formation of the SAS.
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy
Beevor yet again demonstrates both a deep historical knowledge as well as a penchant for dramatic and engaging writing (likely down to his previous novel-based work) in D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. What you have here is a series of episodes that take the reader through the many aspects of D-Day, with a massive quantity of quotation and emphasis on the personal accounts from those who were there.
Expect to follow the action through the eyes of heroic and remarkable men, reminding us of the sense of inevitability these men felt about their fate, as well as the many perspectives – land, sea, and air to name a few – that this historic battle must be viewed from in order to get a complete picture.
Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich
Shirer was in a unique position to document the comprehensive history of the Third Reich, arguably one of the most disastrous and horrific 12-year period of human history to date and certainly one of the most terrifying. Shirer’s experience as a war correspondent certainly lends this book credence, but what he produces in its pages is something quite spectacular, documenting the formative years of formative years of the Reich, from Hitler’s rise through the political ranks to chancellor, the formation of the NSDAP, Nazification, Hitler’s tactical use of Italy and Japan, and eventually US involvement and the fall of the Reich. This is regarded as one of the most important historical works of recent times, and it rightfully takes its place here.
All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939
Hastings’ skill as a historian really makes this book a worthwhile read, though one doesn’t come to this book just for the prowess of its author. Inferno manages to maintain a wide breadth, covering in impressive detail many aspects of a war in which the events of any single year could yield hundreds of books on a myriad of subjects. The wide scope of the work doesn’t drown out the voices of those who fought, however: it is packed full of detailed personal accounts, even digging up some lesser-known conflicts of the war including the Soviet-Finland conflict.
Stalingrad is considered by many to be Beevor’s finest work. The reason for this is Beevor’s ability to maintain focus on what is a weighty historical subject, whilst possessing razor-sharp focus on the personal stories and accounts of those who fought and were involved in the Battle of Stalingrad. Everyone knows this battle as the crippling blow to Hitler’s 6th army that led to Germany losing its grip on the Eastern Front, but Beevor weaves together a stunningly skilled narrative with the kind of understanding that can only be attained from a soldier’s perspective.
Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor's True Story of Auschwitz
Olga Lengyel’s harrowing and accurate retelling of the horrors of German labour/extermination camps during WWII is as much of a must-read as Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. What makes this even more of a sobering literary journey is that it was written very soon after her experiences. Expect to encounter some tough-to-read passages here, as well as the number of haunting photographs included at the book’s conclusion.
First Light (Penguin World War II Collection)
The author’s credentials here precede themselves, since Wellum was one of the most notorious Spitfire pilots of WWII, joining at minimum age of just-under-18 and becoming a member of the formidable 92nd squadron. This book details his experience from a young age, including his training and first flight, as well as the terrifying realities of living as a Spitfire pilot during the war. To have a boy’s transition from trainee to battle-hardened flying documented in this fashion is impressive enough, but write about it so thrillingly is equally as impressive.
The Reich Intruders: RAF Light Bomber Raids in World War II
This book adds a valuable dimension to the usual RAF Bomber narrative so dominated by the Spitfire and Lancaster stories that have become so famous over the years. This book details the story of 2-Group RAF during the war, carrying out surprise, low-flying bomber raids requiring the utmost bravery and courage that most cannot even comprehend.
Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45
Max Hastings puts forward a comprehensive work with Armageddon, a book that manages to cover both the Eastern and Western fronts in the closing years of the war. His focus on the personal accounts is as effective as ever, while his ability to convey the personal and wider societal impact of such a gruelling series of battles in a war that was thought to be coming to an end is nothing less than impressive.
Millions Like Us: Women's Lives During the Second World War
The female contribute to the war effort is sadly underplayed, even to this day, by a relative lack of focus on the subject. This makes Nicholson’s Millions Like Us all the more impactful, therefore, and its documentation not only of the women’s effort during the war but also the transition to peacetime and the lasting impact the war would have, is simply mesmerising.
Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account (Penguin Modern Classics)
The absence of humanity and hope seen at the many concentration camps in WWII Germany is covered extensively in the literature surrounding it, but Dr. Miklos Nyiszli’s account is one that should be studied by anyone learning about the holocaust. A Jewish doctor spared the fate of death, Nyiszli was made to perform medical experiments under the guise of research, becoming the personal pathologist of Josef Mengele. This unique perspective makes Auschwitz a vital historical document and an essential educational read.