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Best books to learn about World War 2

Looking to discover some of the best books on World War 2? We’ve compiled a list of our favourites for readers of all ages and abilities. 

Young sailors continue their studies on active service. April 1944, on board HMS Guillemot, at Harwich. Three RNVR officers of the Guillemot who were all students before they joined the navy, continue their studies in the ship, and have started a play reading circle for the ship's company.

Young sailors continue their studies on active service. April 1944, on board HMS Guillemot, at Harwich. Three RNVR officers of the Guillemot who were all students before they joined the navy, continue their studies in the ship, and have started a play reading circle for the ship's company. © IWM (A 22933)

Best books on WW2 - what to look for

World War Two inspired an incredible number of stories – there’s something for everyone, you might even be a bit spoiled for choice.

The sheer scale of the war might be a bit intimidating at first. It might not be advisable for a novice reader to jump straight into one of the many epic histories of the war. Instead, it might be a good idea to pick a subject you’re curious about and read specifically about that, before moving on to the next topic.

All war books can contain mature themes that might not be suitable for all readers, but this is especially true of World War Two. Books about The Holocaust or about the conditions of prisoners of war in the Pacific theatre are important, but extra care and attention should be taken when choosing one to read.

We’ve made a list of some of our favourite fiction and nonfiction books on World War Two – hopefully it will inspire you to pick up something new.

Best books about World War Two for…

Children's books about WW2

Goodnight Mister Tom book coverGoodnight Mr Tom, Michelle Magorian

Many children’s books focussed on World War Two are set around the blitz and the evacuation of children from towns and cities.

One of the most famous novels of this kind is Goodnight Mister Tom, which follows the story of William Beech who is evacuated away from London and his abusive mother, to live with the stern, reclusive Mister Tom. What follows is a heart wrenching tale of a young boy coming to understand the world around him and struggling to deal with the changing relationships in his life.

Goodnight Mister Tom won multiple awards, including The Guardian Fiction Award and a Commendation for the Carnegie Medal, and was later adapted into a successful stage show and a film starring John Thaw. 

Going Solo, Roald Dahl 

Roald Dahl’s unique storytelling prowess is best known for tales of giants, witches and chocolate factories, but his talents extend to writing about his own experiences as well.

Going Solo is the second of Dahl’s autobiographies and recounts his experiences of living and working in Africa at the outbreak of World War Two and then joining the RAF, serving in the skies over Greece during the Battle of Athens.

Dahl’s writing is a superb introduction to the war for any young reader, finding humour throughout without shying away from the realities of the conflict. 

Books about WW2 for young adults

The Machine Gunners book coverThe Machine Gunners, Robert Westall

The Blitz brought the frontlines of the war to the towns and cities of Great Britain. In The Machine Gunners, Robert Westall explores what it was like for children growing up in a wartime environment with rationing and the constant threat of air raids.

When Chas McGill finds a crashed German bomber, he removes a machine gun from the wreckage, and along with some school friends, sets out to defend his hometown from the air raids. Faced with the realities of war, the children must learn to grow up fast, especially when an unexpected visitor joins their group. 

The Machine Gunners deals with themes of responsibility, loss and comradeship, and while it is set against a wartime backdrop, the lessons learned by the characters still remain important for any young reader today.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne

John Boyne’s novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is a heart-wrenching story set during the Holocaust that portrays the innocence of childhood in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

The story follows the unlikely friendship between two boys: Bruno, the son of a Nazi commander, and Shmuel, a Jewish boy imprisoned in a concentration camp. Through Bruno's innocent eyes, the reader is given a poignant view of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the immense loss and suffering endured by the victims of the Holocaust.

The book's strength lies in its ability to convey the enormity of the Holocaust through the innocence of childhood. Boyne's writing is simple yet powerful, and his vivid descriptions of the characters and settings draw the reader into the story and is a perfect way to introduce younger readers into a complex and harrowing topic.

WW2 fiction books

V2 Book coverV2, Robert Harris

War is often a catalyst for scientific development, and the unmanned, sound barrier breaking, ballistic missiles developed by Germany towards the end of the war are perhaps the most famous example.

These forefathers of NASA’s space rockets, named V2 – or Vergeltungswaffe, vengeance weapons – are the subject of this Robert Harris novel. V2 takes place near the end of the war, splitting the narrative between the Allies’ attempts to counter this new weapon, and a German scientist trying to balance his conscience with his desire for scientific development and discovery.

The conflict between duty, honour, conscience, and responsibility drives Harris’ story, balancing the technical aspects of rocketry with the drama of a world war thriller, creating an enthralling narrative to frame one of the most impactful chapters of the war.

The Bridge over the River Kwai, Pierre Boulle

It may surprise some to know that the famous film starring William Holden and Alec Guinness was based on the work of a French novelist.

Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, or The Bridge over the River Kwai, was released in the 1950s and is a fictional story set among the horrific and very real conditions experienced by Allied prisoners of war at the hands of their Japanese captors. Boulle tells the story of the building of the infamous death railway, built by POWs and local slave labour between Thailand and Burma under Japanese control. While based on a background of fact, the novel’s characters and the bridge they built are a fictional composite of the building of the railway.

Despite its vivid descriptions of the terrible conditions experienced by the prisoners, some critics argue that Boulle didn’t go far enough, and that in reality the treatment and conditions they experienced were much worse. Despite this, the novel shines an important light on one of the most horrific periods of the war, and one that should not be forgotten.

Non-fiction books about WW2

The Longest Day book coverThe Longest Day, Cornelius Ryan

The story of D-Day and the invasion of Normandy is one that even the most casual history fan will be familiar with. It is a story that has been told countless times across many mediums, but one of the most complete and well received is Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day.

Split into three sections – The Wait, The Night and The Day – The Longest Day endeavours to tell a complete history of one of the most impactful days in military history. Compiled from more than 4000 interviews with survivors of Operation Overlord from both sides, Ryan tells a straightforward, detailed story of D-Day, with a use of primary resources that will bring the reader close to knowing what it was like on the beaches of Normandy on 6 June 1944.

The Normandy invasion, with its monumental logistics, incomparable scale and countless tales of heroism and bravery, is a tale that will be told over and over again. The Longest Day is one of the best telling's of that story. 

The Second World War - Anthony Beevor

Charting the history of even a single theatre of war during World War Two is usually a mammoth task, worth a book of its own, and Antony Beevor has written many himself.

Creating a single history of the entire Second World War is a simply herculean task that must be applauded. Clocking in at well over 800 pages, Beevor’s The Second World War follows a mostly chronological narrative of the war, jumping between theatres to try and tell the entire story.

As you might expect, Beevor can’t be as in depth as he might for a standalone book on a given period of the war, but The Second World War is one of the most all-encompassing histories of the war. 

WW2 history books

All hell let loose book coverAll Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945, Max Hastings

Written by British historian Max Hastings, All Hell Let Loose is a comprehensive and compelling account of the Second World War. The book provides a detailed and vivid picture of the war on all fronts, from the perspectives of both military commanders and ordinary soldiers, as well as civilians caught in the conflict.

Hastings' writing is engaging and insightful, and he draws on a wide range of sources to present a nuanced and balanced view of the war. He explores the major events of the conflict, such as D-Day and the Battle of Stalingrad, but also delves into lesser-known aspects, such as the experiences of soldiers in the Italian campaign and the impact of the war on the home front.

The Second World War, Winston Churchill

A history of World War Two written by one of its major players is always going to be of incredible interest. Combining his first-hand experience at the heart of the British war effort, access to privileged information and backstage gossip, and his renowned talents with the English language, Churchill has the complete recipe for an engrossing history of the war.

The first of six volumes was published in 1948, with the world still reeling from the war and working to rebuild and as such, the series is not without its criticisms. Naturally, Churchill will have had access to sensitive or secret information that would not be included, and in fact the volumes were vetted by the then Cabinet Secretary before release. Critics also note that Churchill tends to focus less on the war in the Eastern Front and Pacific than he does on the battles in Western Europe and North Africa.

The Second World War is a unique among all World War Two books, and history books in general, through its author’s sheer proximately to the matter at hand. While it may not be the best option for those looking for an impartial overview of the war, this is still an incredible resource and sure to be of interest to anyone with a passion for history.

Famous books about WW2

Diary of Anne Frank book coverThe Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank 

Perhaps the most famous World War Two book, The Diary of a Young Girl is a book of writings compiled from the diary of Anne Frank, a Jewish Dutch teenage girl who, along with the rest of her family and family friends, went into hiding to avoid persecution by the Nazis. 

Anne and her fellow hideaways lived in a secret annex for more than two years, sharing only 450 square feet of living space, with no access to the outside world. Anne found solace in her diary, writing letters to ‘Kitty’ about her life as an ordinary girl growing up in extraordinary circumstances.

Anne died in 1945 at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but her diary, published by her father in 1947, remains as a powerful, emotional telling of a story that should not be forgotten. 

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Upon its release, Catch-22 received an underwhelming critical response. Despite this, it has grown in popularity and today is seen as one of the twentieth century’s most influential novels. 

The story follows an American US Army Air Force bomber squadron based on a fictional island in the Mediterranean as they take part in the Italian campaign and is a satirical take on life in the military establishment, with a maddening adherence to policy and procedure taking precedence over the facts one might see in front of them. In one chapter, a character is officially reported as dead as, according to paperwork, the plane he was flying on crashed. Despite the fact that he is still walking and talking, the character is unable to convince anyone he is still alive. 

Catch-22 became increasingly popular in the 1960s where the backdrop of the Vietnam war really emphasised the absurdity of the military in Heller’s novel, and today is repeatedly ranked in lists of the best novels of all time. 

Alternative WW2 books

Maus book coverMaus, Art Spiegelman

The first Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, Maus tells the brutal story of the holocaust through the words of Spiegelman’s father, a survivor of Auschwitz. The novel is unique in that the characters are depicted as different animals, with Jews portrayed as mice, Germans as cats, and Americans as dogs.

Maus is a remarkable work of art that combines storytelling and illustration to create a powerful and haunting narrative. The book is a testament to the human spirit and the resilience of the human soul in the face of unimaginable suffering. The use of different animals to represent different ethnic groups is both clever and thought-provoking, and the story itself is a powerful reminder of the atrocities of the Holocaust and the importance of remembering and honouring those who suffered and died during that time.

It is a powerful and moving work that will stay with you long after you've finished reading it.

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut 

While serving in the 106th Infantry Division of the American army during the Battle of the Bulge, 1944, Kurt Vonnegut was captured by the German army. As a prisoner of war, he was sent to a work camp, near Dresden, Germany, and was set to work in a factory. Vonnegut was a first-hand witness to the 1945 bombing of Dresden by the British and American air forces, which killed an estimated 25,000 people. 

In Slaughterhouse Five, the main character Billy Pilgrim’s experiences closely match Vonnegut’s own, and it is shown that his experiences during the war, and especially at Dresden, have a profound effect on Pilgrim. Published during the Vietnam war, the descriptions of the firestorms of Dresden are a clear analogy to the bombing of North Vietnam, use of napalm and the civilian casualties it caused. Slaughterhouse Five’s unusual structure and unusual style might be discouraging for some readers, but it remains one of the most enduring anti-war novels today. 

Best books on the Eastern Front WW2

Stalingrad book coverStalingrad, Antony Beevor

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest, most fiercely contested battles of the Second World War - estimated to have cost the lives of more than 2.2 million people. 

In his book, Stalingrad, Beevor balances the tactical details of the battle with the human stories of the soldiers and civilians who were caught up in the fighting. The reader is given a glimpse into the experiences of those on the front line, as well as those struggling to survive in the city.

Beevor's writing style is engaging and easy to follow, even for readers with no prior knowledge of the battle. He uses primary sources such as letters, diaries, and interviews with veterans to bring the story to life and provide a vivid portrayal of the events that took place.

His research and attention to detail make this book a must-read for anyone interested in World War II and the history of modern warfare. Its compelling narrative and insightful analysis make it an enjoyable and educational read for both history buffs and casual readers alike.

War on the Eastern Front: The German Soldier in Russia 1941-1945, James Lucas

The war on the Eastern Front was one of the cruellest, most ferocious theatres of the Second World War. As well as the constant threat of bomb, bullet and shell, soldiers on both sides were at unceasing battle with cold, sickness and starvation.

Between 1941 and 1945, the battle raged continuously. In War on the Eastern Front, James Lucas creates a compelling narrative history, following the plight of the average soldier from the onset of Operation Barbarossa through to the bloody Battle of Stalingrad and the grinding Russian advance towards Berlin.

The battle on the Eastern Front was one of the most harrowing of the war, and Lucas pulls no punches with his descriptions, many sourced from German survivors of the conflict. War on the Eastern Front is not one for the faint of heart but remains an important chronicle on the horrors of war.

Books published during WW2

Enemy Coast Ahead book coverEnemy Coast Ahead, Guy Gibson

The Dambusters raid has gone down in RAF Legend. The daring attack on the dams of the Ruhr Valley was carried out by 617 Squadron - a squadron formed of the best and brightest aircrew - under the command of Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

Enemy Coast Ahead is Gibson’s autobiography. Written during the war, Gibson provides a keen insight into the men and history of Bomber Command, from the early, ineffectual strikes against mainland Germany, to the squadrons of Lancaster bombers setting out each night to wreak havoc across Europe. 

Gibson provides an unrivalled account of his experiences in Bomber Command, placing the reader with him in the cockpit of a bombing run over enemy territory, with the very real threat of anti-air fire and the ever-present menace of German night-fighters, but also charting the banality of missions cancelled on the runway and of fruitless flights over empty oceans, searching for errant German battleships. Enemy Coast Ahead remains one of the most candid telling’s of war in the air.

Gibson died while returning from a bombing raid on Germany. He was acting as the Master Bomber, who would direct the raid from the skies above the target. Both Gibson and his navigator Squadron Leader Jim Warwick were killed when their Mosquito crashed near Steenburgen in the Netherlands, and are commemorated by the CWGC at Steenbergen-en-Kruisland Roman Catholic Cemetery.

A tree grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

One of the main enemies of the average soldier in any war is boredom. Away from the frontlines, your average soldier’s day is split between their duties, training and waiting around. To combat this in World War Two, mass produced, paper-back books were given out, often for free, to the armed services.

The books were devoured by the armed forces in books across the globe. One particular favourite was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Written by Betty Smith and published in 1943, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a coming-of-age novel that explores the life of a young girl named Francie Nolan as she grows up in the early 1900s in the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York. The novel is a poignant and vivid portrayal of poverty, family, and the struggles of growing up.

Popular on both sides of the Atlantic, among armed forces and civilians alike, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of the most notable books published during the Second World War, but its influence extends to the modern day, having been referenced in music and television by the likes of Jay-Z and Gossip Girl, proving a snapshot of life at the turn of century with themes that are still relevant today.

World War 2 books based on true stories

Band of Brothers book coverBand of Brothers, Stephen E Ambrose

Spawning a critically acclaimed HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers follows the exploits of Easy Company, of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st American airborne division from their initial training in America, through D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and into Germany and Hitler’s Eagles Nest.

The book is built on interviews with surviving members of Easy Company, telling one of the most compelling war stories committed to paper. The depth of the source material means the book is crammed with personal stories that provide a real feeling of personal connection to the men of Easy Company.

This connection, combined with the fact that Easy Company’s story intersects with most of the key moments of the war in Western Europe, means that Band of Brothers is a must read for beginners and history buffs alike.

Operation Mincemeat, Ben Macintyre 

Operation Mincemeat is the tale of one of the most extraordinary operations of the Second World War – a real life tale that is more astonishing and compelling than many fictional war stories.

Desperate to mislead the German defenders about the plans for the upcoming invasion of Sicily, a plan was hatched involving a secret identity, false papers and dead man – as well as a great deal of good fortune.

In Operation Mincemeat, Macintyre brings this astounding story to life, as he weaves together the many threads of the operation into a compelling narrative. The attention to detail and the research that has gone into the book is evident, and Macintyre brings to light many little-known facts about the operation.

What is the best history of World War 2?

The books listed above are just a small selection of what’s available. While we’ve picked out our favourites, the best history for you might be something completely different.

For some, the best history’s take a bird’s eye view of a topic, laying out the facts and figures. Others prefer a more personal history, reading stories about individuals to better understand what it means to go to war.

To us, the best history is one that prompts you to ask questions, inspire debate and to deepen understanding, which all of the books listed above can do.

What is the best way to learn about WW2?

One of the best ways to learn more about World War Two is to get started with a great book. The books we mention above are a great jumping off point for learning about World War Two.

You can also have a look at our collection of blogs, which cover a range of topics on both world wars as well as the work of the Commission in commemorating the fallen.

We’d also encourage you to join us at an event or tour near you, where you can learn more about our work and discover some of the world war history on your doorstep.

You can also use our website to search for WW2 war graves and plan a visit to one of our cemeteries or memorials. These stand as a lasting reminder of the war, and are sure to inspire a desire to learn more about the history of those we commemorate.