For many future historians, an interest in the story of World War II begins with a good book.
Through the years a number of people have asked me how I became interested in military history and particularly in World War II. The answer is quite simple. My interest started with a few good books.
Roughly 30 years ago a wave of World War II nostalgia was evident, just as it is today. I remember very clearly the day the Reader’s Digest Illustrated Story Of World War II arrived at my front door, ordered for me by my mother. The Reader’s Digest volume heads the list of books that awakened my interest in World War II, followed by five other works. Each of them fueled an avocation that has become lifelong.
These books are not on my short list because of an attempt to be “all-inclusive,” nor would they all necessarily be labeled classics by anyone in particular. However, what they do deliver is excitement, readability and compelling points of view. For what it is worth, the only standard required is that each of them has meant something to me. Here they are:
*The Reader’s Digest Illustrated Story of World War II. Fifty-seven stories of struggle in the air and on land and sea make up this work, and the authors include William L. Shirer, Edward R. Murrow, Samuel Eliot Morison, Cornelius Ryan, Ernie Pyle, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. I used it as source material for reports throughout my school days and still find it contains some of the most fascinating reading around. My dogeared copy, complete with 35 maps and a number of well-known photographs, is dated 1969. It would make a good start for any library and will always have an honored place in mine.
*The Military History of World War II. Authored by retired U.S. Army Colonel Trevor Nevitt Dupuy, this series of 18 thin, red-colored volumes was readily accessible at the McBrien Elementary School library. My third-grade teacher realized just how often one of them left the building under my arm. At the end of the school year she presented me with Volume 1, European Land Battles, 1939-1943. It had belonged to her father, and I promptly wrote my name inside it with a blue magic marker. Years later, a long-time friend presented me with copies of volumes 1-16. Now that’s a present. In some dusty bookstore one day, I’ll run across the last two. Nicely illustrated, concise and to the point, it would be hard to beat this series for painting the big picture.
*The Longest Day. Cornelius Ryan’s masterpiece brings home the courage and chaos of the Normandy invasion, June 6, 1944. The vignettes of individual incidents and personal experiences provide interesting perspectives on the greatest single military event of our age. Ryan included an appendix of D-Day veterans from both sides and their postwar occupations.
*With Rommel in the Desert. Written by Heinz W. Schmidt, this work details the war in the desert from the German perspective. Schmidt served as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s aide de camp during some of the most significant fighting of the North African campaign. This book gave me my earliest exposure to the “face of the enemy.” Understanding that the enemy has a human side is a major step toward the realization that war is the greatest of tragedies. Schmidt relates the story of an encounter with an American lieutenant who was temporarily his prisoner. “As we left the archway the lieutenant from Brooklyn called out in a laughing whisper: ‘Goo’-bye, bud–see ya in Berlin!’ His gay mockery was not unpleasant. I called back softly: ‘Auf Wiedersehen–in Brooklyn, when the war is over.'”
*Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Battleship Bismarck. Author Ludovic Kennedy relates with vivid detail what is perhaps the greatest wartime naval epic in history. The story reads like a great work of fiction, but it is factual. In my humble opinion, this alone ranks it above any fantasy story ever written. These men were flesh and blood. These ships were steel. Few things compare to such a saga of real action.
*1942: The Year That Doomed the Axis. This work by Henry H. Adams, a former captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve and a professor of naval history at the U.S. Naval Academy, describes the global events that ultimately shaped the outcome of World War II. From Stalingrad to Guadalcanal and from El Alamein to Midway, it becomes apparent to the reader that the Allied victory in the war was a near-run thing. Seconds counted at Midway. The tenacity of the Red Army turned the tide on the Eastern Front at Stalingrad. Montgomery was the hero in the desperate hours at El Alamein. The dogged determination of American soldiers, sailors and Marines made all the difference at Guadalcanal.
Many other books are certainly well worth reading, some of which are more suitable for young readers than others. A few more of my perennial favorites are The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Berlin Diary and The Nightmare Years, all by William L. Shirer; Adolf Hitler, by John Toland; Inside the Third Reich, by Albert Speer; Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; Patton: Ordeal and Triumph, by Ladislas Farago; At Dawn We Slept and Miracle at Midway, by Gordon W. Prange; Six Armies in Normandy, by John Keegan; Here is Your War, by Ernie Pyle; Eagle Against the Sun, by Ronald Spector; Crusade in Europe, by Dwight D. Eisenhower; The Two-Ocean War, by Samuel Eliot Morison; and The Second World War, by Winston Churchill.
There are more, but a complete list would be a book of its own. Suffice it to say that each one mentioned here has contributed to my understanding and appreciation of history.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor,World War II