By the irony of alphabetical order by author, one of the least interesting books comes first. This purports to be investigative journalism about the exploits of Edward VIII (Duke of Windsor) during the early months of the war. The author’s central claim is that the ex-king was in league with the Nazis and was trying to negotiate a deal under which Hitler would help restore him to the British throne. The book is poorly written and riddled with spelling and other mistakes, and is ruined by a mistaken sense of its own importance. When the details are dodgy you begin to suspect the reliability of the ideas. Even so, I was struck by the fact that the Windsors appear to have stayed for several weeks in a place I myself have visited: an area of the Portuguese coastline to the west of Lisbon known as the Mouth of Hell. This minor coincidence gave me a location for a key scene in the book.
This book describes what was for British people one of the most significant events of the war: the destruction of two German dams, and the damaging of several more, by the use of a revolutionary kind of aerial mine. Post-war research has shown that the military and strategic impact of the raids was much less than claimed at the time, and the loss of life much worse, but the positive effect on morale in a period when the war was going badly for Britain cannot be overstated. The dams raid occupies only the first half of Brickhill’s book; the rest is a history of 617 Squadron throughout the rest of the war. It’s a competent, well-researched book, and it charged the imagination and excitement of this particular 14-year-old like few other books of its time.
Calder’s long book is about the ‘Home Front’ in wartime Britain: rationing, air-raid shelters, Blitz spirit, the blackout, ITMA, barrage balloons, Vera Lynn, invasion fears, the Home Guard … all the stuff that children of my generation grew up hearing about from their parents, usually to the point of tedium. The People’s War is definitive. It is also remarkable for one unexpected quality, at least as far as this reader was concerned: Calder loathes Winston Churchill and uses words like ‘egregious’ to describe him. In 1971 I was still close enough to the influence of my parents to be shocked by this: for many ordinary people Churchill could do, and did do, no wrong. It was Calder who sparked my interest in Churchill, and who was therefore indirectly responsible for my own deeply ambivalent feelings about him.
‘Cato’ was the pseudonym of three journalists: Michael Foot, Peter Howard and Frank Owen. The book was published in the summer of 1940, between the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain, and was a polemical account of the pre-war years of ‘appeasement’, naming those politicians the authors felt were responsible. To be honest, my sympathies have recently come around to the appeasers, but even so I admired the sheer sensationalism of the writing, a classic piece of naked pamphleteering.
Probably the only works on this list which for a full understanding of the war are irreplaceable. Of course the books are from one man’s point of view, but Churchill was at the centre of most of the important world events. Uniquely, he was also a brilliant writer (later, he became a Nobel Literature Prize laureate, partly on the strength of this work). The final volumes lose a certain amount of momentum as the war begins to go the Allies’ way and politics and negotiations dominate Churchill’s experiences, but the first three volumes constitute one of the best reads in the English language. Quite apart from the main text, Churchill adds a vast amount of supplementary material: maps, charts, memoranda, lists. These alone are a goldmine for the researcher, and a gift to a greedy novelist.
A lighthearted but well researched account of what was going on in Britain during the period when a German invasion was expected on an almost daily basis. Fleming’s amused style often reminded me of Richard Cowper’s writing.
A short and not particularly distinctive history of RAF Bomber Command in the war years.
The best all-round history of RAF Bomber Command, brilliantly researched and compellingly written, with many asides and unexpected detours into personal narratives. I found it memorable for two passages in particular. The first was the account of Air Marshall Arthur Harris’s daily routines in his headquarters, totally isolated from the men who had to carry out his decisions, and almost determinedly blinding himself to the pointlessness and barbarity of the bombing policy he was pursuing. The second is Hastings’s description of the bombing of the German town of Darmstadt towards the end of the war, a sequence I found shocking and upsetting.
9. Challenge of Conscience by Denis Hayes (Allen & Unwin, 1949; 1st edition).
An account of what it meant to be a conscientious objector in Britain during WW2. It’s not a particularly good or interesting book, but because I was researching the life of a man who became a C.O. it was an invaluable source of factual information.
Probably the best single-volume general history of WW2. Keegan is a recent discovery for me: his writing about war and military history frequently transcends the subject-matter. I find much of his work inspiring and even sometimes moving.
Remarks about Keegan, above, apply. The Introduction to this book (a four-page meditation on what it means to be a soldier, by a man prevented by polio from ever becoming one) is by any standards a brilliant and illuminating essay.
12. Roosevelt & Churchill: 1939-1941 by Joseph P. Lash (Andre Deutsch, 1977; first published in the USA, 1976).
The correspondence between the two Allied leaders and much information, from the U.S. point of view, of the surrounding circumstances. I found this fresh angle on familiar events useful.
13. Battle in the Skies over the Isle of Wight by H.J.T. Leal (Isle of Wight County Press, 1993; first published 1988).
Er, this is the sort of book you buy when you’re on holiday. It’s a rather garbled account of things that went on over the Island during the war. I thought it might come in handy – in the event, it gave me a tiny scene near the beginning of the novel.
14. Bennett and the Pathfinders by John Maynard (Arms and Armour, 1996; 1st edition).
The story of Donald Bennett, who led the RAF ‘pathfinder’ force during the war. Although Bennett was obviously a brave man and an inspirational leader, this book in his name is only adequate by the standards of war writing.
When you first take a serious interest in a fresh genre of writing, you encounter a large number of writers whose names are unfamiliar, yet you soon realize that some of them are in a class of their own. So it was with Martin Middlebrook, a writer whose name was completely unknown to me before I began researching The Separation, but who rapidly became an author whose books I now always look for. His approach to war history is refreshingly different: he contacted a large number of surviving WW2 participants and asked them to describe their own experiences. He then wove these first-hand accounts into skilfully researched general histories of relatively small raids or campaigns in the war. Gradually, a whole picture emerges. (I have listed only his bombing books; he has written on other types of campaign.) You see the events not only from the point of view of the main participants (the aircrew, the senior officers), but also from the people who were caught up in other ways: the air-traffic controllers, the men firing the anti-aircraft guns, the civilian victims on the ground, the night fighter pilots. Len Deighton attempted something of the sort in his crudely written novel Bomber, but Middlebrook’s books are the real thing. The results are gripping and often horrifying, as you start to realize that many of the described incidents are the same ones seen from different points of view. In The Separation I have a fictional character who has made a successful career writing similar kinds of books to Middlebrook’s. Unfortunately, Middlebrook himself began working relatively late, so that by now few WW2 participants are still alive – it doesn’t seem likely that many more of these books can be written. If you have even the slightest interest in what war experiences are really like, Middlebrook’s the man to read.
A long general history in two volumes, but written in mandarin style and not offering many fresh insights. I never got around to the second volume.
A long and conscientious history of RAF Bomber Command, concentrating on the experiences of the men. Most of the RAF personnel who performed acts of bravery or self-sacrifice have their stories told in full. The book is clearly intended as a tribute to the aircrews.
Sansom is one of my favourite writers, so when I came across this book in a secondhand shop I leapt on it with little cries of glee. He was one of those young writers whose careers were severely disrupted by the outbreak of war and whose reputation never really recovered afterwards. He worked as an auxiliary fireman in the London Blitz, producing several short stories and essays which, although little known these days, are amongst the best first-hand accounts we have of the Luftwaffe raids. His story The Wall (1944) is one of the finest I have ever read (of any kind) – in under four pages of stark narrative he captures not only the essence of war but of humanity too. Westminster in War reads like a commissioned work; by its narrowness of focus it was intended perhaps as a book of record for the City of Westminster. Although in this sense it is workmanlike, the sheer skill and individuality of the writing sets it apart from other accounts of the Blitz. It informs many of the short Blitz descriptions in The Separation.
23. Air Bombardment by Sir Robert Saundby (Chatto & Windus, 1961; 1st edition).
The history of aerial bombing from the First World war until the 1950s. Saundby spent much of WW2 working as one of Arthur Harris’s adjutants at Bomber Command headquarters.
A routine squadron history, in this case that of 105 Squadron, Bomber Command, in 1940 and 1941. My interest in this book reflects a line of plot that I later discarded, but a ghost of its impression remains in the novel.
I have much more to say about Hugh Thomas’s fascinating books later in this bibliography, but this one is not his best. In fact, it’s a mostly disappointing work, with a less than convincing argument and evidence that’s little more than circumstantial. On the strength of Thomas’s other books, which are written well and argued lucidly, I also sense the intrusion of some ‘creative editing’. In the middle of the book there is a description of the several unsuccessful attempts by Britain and Germany to make peace while the war was still going on (a subject of prime interest to me). The research here was excellent.
It is a brave author who can publish a book about WW2 at the end of the 1980s, with the claim that there is still an ‘untold’ story. Philip Warner might be brave but he is wrong: there is almost nothing new in this book, to anyone who has read the standard works. There was one small story I had not heard before: twelve soldiers from the Royal Signals were present in Poland at the outbreak of war. During an air raid a German plane released an unidentified white gas, which drifted around the men (who protected themselves with their gas masks). They therefore became the first British servicemen to see action in the war, and the first (and last) to suffer an attack of poison gas.
I was put on to this book by a reference to it in John Keegan’s The Battle for History (which itself gains an entry in this list, in one of the other categories). Keegan points out that Wilmot wrote the first independent history of WW2, one using original research and which did not accept at face value the accounts of Churchill and his allies. Although fairly limited in its scope (as the title says, it is almost exclusively about the European war, and that mostly about the Western front) it is an exhilarating read, still not redundant, even though half a century has passed since it was published and historians today have access to a vast amount of material unavailable to Wilmot. This was Wilmot’s only book, incidentally: soon after it was published he was killed in the first crash of the Comet airliner, over the Mediterranean.