These days I find myself questioning the teaching methods / teachers I had back in secondary school. I know I always liked to learn about history but back then it was a case of ‘the eight Henrys and two world wars’ and even then it was pretty dry stuff and mostly dates from what I recall.
Cut to a fair few years later and while my wife and I were dating we wanted a little getaway, drove up from Paris to Normandy to a little B&B we booked online only to discover that we were staying in Coleville-sur-Mer, just up the literal track from what had once been code-named Omaha Beach.
Coming face to face with the scene of the bloodiest of landings and standing where those German gun encampments once sat was a pretty strange sensation only matched by the cemetery up the road. It re-awakened my interest in that particularly tragic and yet inspiring periods of our history. Inspiring in terms of what ordinary people are capable of when placed into the most extraordinary of circumstance. It was this element that does and still interests me a lot more than sheer dates and stats ever could and there’s no interest from me in the “guys and glory” style or “we killed all those Jerry bastards from here to Berlin” approach – it’s the personal that counts.
As this part of history takes a good percentage of the non-fiction part of my library, second only to the ‘music’ section and already having done so for that section, I thought I’d list out (this one’s been in the making for a while) those 10 books I’ve found the most essential during my ‘re-education’. After all, if we ignore history and it’s lessons we’re doomed to repeat its mistakes.
Max Hastings – All Hell Let Loose
Finding one book that manages to convey the vast depth and sweep of a global conflict in one volume is never easy but Max Hastings was always gonna be a safe bet and All Hell Let Loose does a great job of while still managing to focus on individual accounts and the impact of the war on the personal levels rather than simply get lost in stats and dates.
Alan Deere – Nine Lives
Alan Deere was a New Zealander who joined the RAF in 1938. He flew Spitfires in both the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain and fought throughout the war – a fighter ace with 22 confirmed victories who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. His account of his time, Nine Lives, is written with a real warmth and charm while not flinching from the reality that faced the men – some little more than boys only a year or two out of school – during those dark times.
See also: First Light by Jeff Wellum and Stormbird by Hermann Buchner for a take from the ‘other side’ as it were.
Andrew Williams – D-Day to Berlin
A smaller focus than Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose but nonetheless detailed and with more insight as a result of the tighter arena, Andrew William’s D-Day to Berlin looks, as the title suggests, at the Allied arrival on the beaches, the fight for Normandy, the breakout and fight on to Berlin. It was one of the first I books on the subject I picked up and it remains an oft-referred to one. There was a BBC documentary based around it, though buggered if I can find it all these years later, and it’s written with both an eye to the overall campaign as well as the personal accounts and it’s always those that make these books worth reading to me.
Herbert Werner – Iron Coffins
Without a doubt one of the finest WW2 diaries and a real eye-opener. There weren’t many U-Boat commanders that made it through the war, such were the odds against them in the final half of the war when the tables were turned and the wolf packs became hunted with greater accuracy and techniques. Werner’s account is written with insight and with the use of his own diaries and records for accuracy and is a real eye-opener: in the space of those years Werner went from officer candidate in 1939, to the early victories the U-Boats scored in the Atlantic to fighting for survival and barely escaping the same fate that sent so many other crews to the seabed. Beyond the facts and figures, what makes Iron Coffins such a favourite on my shelves is the personal insights – while Werner is fighting for survival below, the war is destroying his home in Germany and the increasing – its important to remember the German Navy were not all Nazis – frustration in their orders and their direction.
Stephen E Ambrose – Band of Brothers
An obvious choice really but it doesn’t make it any less a great read. Of course I saw the series before reading the book, it was one of the first things I did on my return from France that summer and it spurned me on to find more hence the inclusion of this book and the next couple too. There’s so much more in Ambroses’ book than could ever be captured by HBO’s series (it’s always the way, there’s nothing new here) – such as how, in Bastogne, sat staring at the same tree line day after day, Darrel ‘Shifty’ Powers, was convinced there was a tree – a mile away – that hadn’t been the day before. Turned out it hadn’t – it was camouflage that the Germans had put up for their anti-aircraft battery, which was promptly taken out. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers is an essential read for all the obvious reasons – it’s the true story of those ordinary guys thrown into the most extraordinary of circumstances.
Major Dick Winters – Beyond Band of Brothers
Of course, reading or seeing Band of Brothers will leave you wanting more and appreciating what a damn fine leader of men Dick Winters was. His own Beyond of Brothers delivers more insights into both Winters as a man and leader as well as Easy Company’s campaign. A more personal account than Ambrose’s book and his guide to leadership is one I try to incorporate into my own life.
Robert Leckie – Helmet For My Pillow
Watching HBO’s The Pacific was a real eye-opener for me in much the same way as my recent watching of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War was – and identified the next area of history to read up on. The operations in the Pacific theatre were pretty unknown to me but I soon realised that was home to some of the grizzliest and barbaric fighting and conditions. Robert Leckie’s account served as part of the series’ source material and makes for a harrowing but vital and very well-written and detailed read that gives a real look at the impact of some of the most inhumane conditions coupled with the horror of intense fighting has on people.
See also: With The Old Breed by E.B Sledge
Stuart Hills – By Tank Into Normandy
My paternal grandfather served in a tank regiment during the Second World War though spoke precious little about it to me. Aside from the closeness of Stuart Hills’ surname, the fact that he came from just down the road in Tonbridge and found himself in fierce tank combat in European fields that, while geographically close, must have felt like a million miles away from the security of Kent made this a real connection for me. These personal and individual accounts of the war that are printed by smaller publishing houses and take a little finding are all the more interesting to me and reveal so much more than statistics on the number of tanks that “brewed up” ever could and gave me a real eye-opening look at just what my grandfather may have faced when his tank rolled across those fields.
Matthew Cobb – The Resistance
You know these days you’d be forgiven for thinking that every French person has relatives that fought as part of the Resistance movement and were involved in either hiding and ferrying allied airmen to safety or blowing up German trains… the truth is that only a very small percentage of the population were involved in the French Resistance movement and of those even less in such movie-style acts of sabotage. Cobb’s book is not only a great account of the movement but also of life in occupied France which appealed both the historian and Francophile in me.
See also: Americans in Paris by Charles Glass.
Ben Macintyre – Operation Mincemeat
After success in North Africa the allies needed to open a new front in the European theatre and liberate Europe. But where would and could they land first? In April of 1943 a fisherman found a corpse floating in the sea – the body was identified as that of the Royal Marines’Major William Martin and his attached case revealed to the Germans the Allied invasion plans.
Except this was Operation Mincemeat. The body that of a tramp and the documents all perfect fakes with one aim in mind – fooling Hitler and making him believe the Allied landing would take place somewhere other than Sicily.
Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat reads like one of the greatest spy novels but it’s all true – the level of detail involved in planning and carrying out the campaign, the now-available insight into how the Germans swallowed it and how it was handled their side make for real jaw-droppers. There were so many things that needed to work and so many details that could cause it all to fail.
But it worked: Hitler informed Mussolini that Greece, Sardinia and Corsica must be defended “at all costs” and transferred panzer regiments, planes and troops to that affect so that when the allies landed on Sicily it was comparatively unopposed – even hours later Hitler remained convinced it was a rouse. So much so that similar deception methods would be employed to dupe the Führer into believing Calais to be the landing point for D-Day.
See also: Double Cross by Ben Macintyre.