A similar problem befalls H.W. von Mellenthin's otherwise excellent Panzer Battles, University of Oklahoma Press, 1956. Mellenthin, a high-ranking Wehrmacht staff officer, doesn't think much of his Soviet opponents, and regards the German defense in the East as a struggle to save European civilization from the Bolshevik hordes, ignoring the fact that the Germans invaded Russia in the first place.
Both generals also blame their defeats on Hitler, a convenient scapegoat. However, neither book should be missed.
The commander of the Luftwaffe's fighters tells his story in The First And the Last, by Adolf Galland, Holt, 1954. Galland led German fighters into battle over Britain in 1940 and headed the air defense of the Reich. His best efforts failed to stop the bombers, so he was fired, and wound up leading a group of fellow aces in a jet fighter unit. Galland blames the Luftwaffe's defeat, as expected, on his bosses, Hitler and Goering, for not pursuing development of the Me-262 as a fighter. This popular argument flies in the face of industrial realities - Messerschmidt had great problems with the jet engines and the metallurgy - but the book is still worth reading for a top fighter pilot's view.
Galland's chief opponent, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, gets his biography in The Man Who Won the Battle of Britain, by Robert Wright, Scribner's, New York, 1969. This book fills in an important gap in the history of the Battle of Britain and the RAF, as Dowding was brutally treated by his rivals and superiors after his 1940 victory.
Dowding's chief subordinate, Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park, gets his story told in Park: The Hero of the Battle of Britain, by Vincent Orange, Grub Street, London, 2001. This book is long-overdue, as Park was ousted by his rivals after defeating the Luftwaffe, and denied the credit he deserved. However, he returned to war to lead the defense of Malta and the Allied air forces in Southeast Asia. His story deserves to be lifted out of obscurity.
Germany's best-known general remains as enigmatic and elusive today as he was during the war, earning his nickname, "The Desert Fox." He gained British admiration for his grasp of mobile warfare in North Africa and then when he was linked to the plots to kill Adolf Hitler. However, the exact extent of his involvement remains controversial today.
However, his generalship is a good deal less controversial. The earliest biography, Desmond Young's Rommel, Collins, 1950, still stands up. A more modern study by a British general, David Fraser's Knight's Cross, Harper Collins, 1987, assesses his generalship and role in the anti-Hitler plot with scholarship and fairness.
Rommel's rival and counterpart in the Mediterranean, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, gets a good treatment in Kenneth Mackesy's Kesselring: The Making of the Luftwaffe, David McKay and Company, 1978. Smiling Albert was an unusual officer: a pilot and airman, he conducted a brilliant defensive ground war in Italy, earning the respect of friends and foes alike.
One of the few senior Japanese officers to leave behind a memoir is Rear Adm. Matome Ugaki, whose diary, Fading Victory, University of Pittsburgh, 1991, is invaluable. A battleship officer and Yamamoto confidant, he was directly involved in all of the Combined Fleet's planning and operations from Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki. In his diary, Ugaki was relatively honest about the causes of Japan's failures at Midway and other battles. Through the cool analysis one can see the pain of an admiral watching his beloved fleet and nation get crushed, victims of its own folly.
Claire Lee Chennault gets an admiring biography from one of his own pilots in Chennault of China, by Robert Scott, Doubleday, 1959. It should be taken in context as being written by one of his supporters in the battles with Joseph Stilwell, but gives a good picture of the man and his views.
Beneath the army and fleet commanders come the corps and wing commanders, and their stories reveal much about how the top brass' plans were put into action.
I have always had a special liking for the ebullient Brian Horrocks, who gained fame after the war by hosting BBC shows on the great campaigns. A Full Life, Collins, 1966, is Horrocks' autobiography, and it admires Montgomery (his patron) while occasionally admitting failure (to cut-off the retreat at Antwerp, for example). His follow-up book, Corps Commander, co-written with Eversly Belfield and Brig. Hubert Essame, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1977, gives more detail on his handling of 30 Corps in Europe.
Philip Warner's Horrocks, Sphere Books, 1982, gives a serviceable and objective picture of this general.
Joy Packer's Deep as the Sea is an unusual biography, a wife's story of her career British naval officer's life and career. It mixes his letters, her diaries, and her memories, to give life to Admiral Edwin Packer's career.
Rear Adm. G.W.G. Simpson's Periscope View is the memoir of a senior Royal Navy submarine officer during the war, and gives some sense of what it took to keep the Royal Navy's Mediterranean submarines running and victorious.
An unusual and highly recommended dual biography of two field officers is Tony Foster's Meeting of Generals, Methuen, 1986. The subjects are two generals, Canada's Harry Foster (the author's father) and Germany's Kurt Meyer, whose parallel lives clashed on the Normandy battlefield in 1944 and again in a courtroom in Canada's only war crimes in 1945. Meyer stood charged with murdering Canadian POWs from Foster's division. Foster found Meyer guilty, sentenced him to death, and then recommended clemency. The book is a fascinating character study as well as an indictment of war crimes trials in general.
Bernard Freyberg, VC, by Peter Singleton-Gates, Michael Joseph, 1963, is a fine treatment of New Zealand's top fighting soldier. Wounded many times, brave in battle, this bluff and straightforward general comes off as a skilled fighter against the Germans in the field and for his division's rights as New Zealand's expeditionary force.
Freyberg's chief subordinate, Brig. Howard Kippenberger, fought in all the battles from Greece until his feet were blasted off by mines at Cassino. His memoir, Infantry Brigadier, Oxford University Press, 1949, is one of the best accounts of battalion and brigade-level leadership we have.
American, German, and British divisional commanders have not done as well in biographies, although Terrible Terry Allen (which I do not have) is a fresh and needed addition to the field.
In the Rough Rider's Shadow, by H. Paul Jeffers, Presidio Press, 2002, tells the tale of Allen's top subordinate, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who earned a Medal of Honor for his leadership at Utah Beach on D-Day. Roosevelt would have achieved greater fame had he not died of a heart attack just before he was to take command of the ill-starred 90th Infantry Division in Normandy.
Maj. Gen. James M. Gavin was 37 years old when he became the youngest man to command a US Army division, taking over the 82nd Airborne Division after Normandy. On To Berlin, Viking, 1978, is a highly readable memoir of this brave general's numerous battles and campaigns. It provides one of the best pictures of the little-known but extremely vital feats of the 82nd Airborne at St. Vith during the Battle of the Bulge.
Lord Lovat led British commandos into battle in Norway, Dieppe, and Normandy. March Past, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1978, is a sturdy memoir of both his role as a Scottish clan leader and a British commando leader. It should be read with Peter Young's Storm From the Sea, Kimber, London, 1958. Young was another senior commando officer, who fought in Norway, Dieppe, and Normandy.
Wing Leader, by Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson, Chatto and Windus, 1956, is the memoir of Britain's top fighter ace, and is a fairly gripping tale of air combat from the Channel to Berlin. Saburo Sakai's Samurai, Bantam Books, 1975, depends heavily on the skill of his co-writer, Martin Caidin, to convey the drama and suffering of this Japanese fighter ace's wartime career. Sakai lost an eye in battle and suffered numerous wounds, yet returned to fight again and again.
Aviators in general tend to provide fascinating memoirs, with help from their ghosts and co-writers. Baa Baa Black Sheep, by Col. Gregg "Pappy" Boyington, Putnam, 1958, is far better than the TV series it spun off. Readers who know the series will be surprised to discover there really was a "Colonel Lard," and that Boyington was shot down and spent the last year of World War II as a Japanese POW.
New Zealand's top fighter ace, Alan Deere, told his tale in the serviceable Nine Lives, Hodder & Stoughton, 1959. That inspired his countryman, Wing Commander Christopher Shores, to write Spitfire Leader, Grub Street, 1999, with help from Max Avery. Read along with Tempest Pilot, C.J. Sheddan, Grub Street, 1993, one gets a fine picture of the British aerial effort in Europe.
Another useful British pilots' autobiography is Night Fighter, Collins, 1957, by C.F. Rawnsley and Robert Wright. Rawnsley's story is different from most tales, as he coped with the Night Blitz on London, which makes his book unique.
The Americans have also produced plenty of aviators' memoirs. The best known is probably God is My Co-Pilot, by Robert Scott, Ballantine Books, 1945. While lacking in detail from postwar sources, it maintains strong immediacy.
The ubiquitous Martin Caidin appears again as a co-writer for Robert S. Johnson's Thunderbolt, Ballantine Books, 1958. Johnson was America's top P-47 ace in Europe, and his story is also an account of how this ungainly-appearing fighter became a mortal terror to the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht.
Another fighter pilot story worth reading is The Big Show, by France's Pierre Clostermann, Chatto and Windus, 1952. Clostermann flew with a Free French Squadron over Europe, which gives a different perspective on what is too often seen as purely an Anglo-American war.
They Gave Me A Seafire by R. Mike Crosley, Airlife, 1986, is the autobiography of a Royal Navy aviator who flew the carrier version of the famous Spitfire. In a similar vein, War in A Stringbag, by Edward Lamb, is a solid autobiography of a Swordfish pilot who was captured and returned to action.
Bomber pilots also have fascinating stories to tell. Jackson Granholm's The Day We Bombed Switzerland, Airlife, 2000, is part memoir of the air war and part analysis of one of the Army Air Force's greatest errors.
Brig. Gen. Charles Sweeney's War's End, Avon, 1997, tells the often forgotten story of the "other" atomic attack, the bombing of Nagasaki. His mission was harrowing and difficult, and his story gripping.
The Day of the Typhoon, by John Golley, Wrens Park, 1986, gives the often-missed story of the British Typhoon squadrons that hammered the Germans in the Falaise Gap.
The German side of the dive-bombing story is told in the scary Stuka Pilot (In Spite of It All), by Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Ballantine, 1958. Rudel was an unrepentant Nazi, and he's not subtle about it, even sneering at photographs his American captors show him of concentration camps. He comes over as a most unpleasant character, but a skilled pilot.
Another unpleasant Nazi whose biography is worth reading is that of Jurgen Stroop's. This arrogant SS Brigadefuhrer oversaw the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, the murder of American aviators, and the liquidation of Field Marshal Gunther Von Kluge.
While held in a Polish prison pending execution, Stroop told his tale, with little deception, to a fellow prisoner, Polish journalist Kazimerz Moczarski. The resulting Conversations With an Executioner, Prentice-Hall, 1981, is a no-holds barred account of Stroop's life. With nothing left to lose, Stroop was very open about his misdeeds, and Moczarski, who was knowledgeable about the Polish resistance, did a superb job of turning their two years in a cell into a nonstop interview. The book that results gives as good a portrait as one can have of the actual practitioners of the Holocaust.
Moving light-years from a Warsaw Prison but still in keeping with the theme of imprisonment, Stephen Bower Young's Trapped At Pearl Harbor, Bluejacket Books, 1991, is the memoir of a deck sailor on the battleship USS Oklahoma. He was trapped below decks with his shipmates when that ship was capsized at Pearl Harbor. The book is a gripping account of this amazing escape.
Other sea stories of Pearl Harbor are equally riveting. Battleship Sailor by Theodore S. Mason, Bluejacket Books, 1982, is the memoir of life on the USS California immediately before Pearl Harbor and of that ship's ordeal during and after the attack. Mason is powerful when he describes the social structure of the pre-war Navy with its vast class divisions, and the attack on Hawaii.
Mason's following book, "We Will Stand By You," Bluejacket Books, 1990, describes his post-Pearl Harbor career as a radioman on the salvage tug USS Pawnee, which saved badly damaged ships under heavy enemy fire throughout the war. It points up that not all battles are won and lost by combatant ships: the supporting players are critical as well.
In that vein is Walter Raymer's Descent Into Darkness, Presidio Press, 1996. Raymer was a salvage diver sent to Pearl Harbor after the attacks. He and his teammates had to dive into sunken battleships and remove and defuse live ammunition. Diving through wrecks, filled with live ammo, dangerous gases, and unrecovered bodies, created an astonishing story of salvage and survival, thousands of miles from the battlefields. The book also tells much about Hawaii at war and even the racial tension there.
Pacific War Diary is a minor classic, the diary of a very ordinary American sailor, James J. Fahey, Zebra Books, 1963, which naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison helped get published. Fahey served on the cruiser USS Montpelier from 1943 to 1945, and few books that I have read have conveyed the atmosphere of the naval war from the deckplates as this book. It covers the tension of approaching invasions, the menace of Kamikaze attacks, and the endurance of men far from home, at the end of a thin supply line.
Ship captains had their stories, too. Destroyer Captain by Roger Hill, Granada, 1975, should be read in comparison with Japanese Destroyer Captain, by Tameichi Hara, Random House, 1961. It is interesting to compare the parallel lives of two opposing warship captains of the same type of ship in their autobiographies. Both faced similar life-and-death decisions and challenges.
Another ship captain with a gripping story to tell is Oliver Gordon's Fight It Out, Kimber, 1957. Gordon commanded HMS Exeter at the Battle of the Java Sea, and suffered the humiliation of having his ship sunk and spending three years in Japanese captivity.
Prince Valerio Borghese was one of Italy's great heroes of World War II, leading the Decima Mas flotilla of midget submarines and speedboats in daring attacks on British shipping in the Mediterranean. His account, Sea Devils, Arrow Books, 1952, gives a unique perspective to an interesting sidelight to the war. Sadly, it's hard to find good Italian accounts of World War II in English.
Two British submarine skippers gave their tales, Rear Adm. Ben Bryant in Submarine Commander (One-Man Band), Kimber, 1958, and Cdr. Edward Young in One of Our Submarines, Penguin, 1952. The latter book has an interesting chapter on the tactics of British submarines.
A less exalted Royal Navy sailor's tale is told in The Man Who Hit the Scharnhorst, by John Austin, Corgi Books, 1973. Leading Seaman Nick Carter, one of the few survivors of HMS Glorious's encounter with two German battleships, fired a key torpedo that hit the German dreadnought Scharnhorst and force the German task group to flee. A good thing, too, as if they had held their course, they would have ambushed the carrier HMS Ark Royal and the cruiser HMS Devonshire, which was carrying King Haakon VII of Norway to England. Carter survived the sinking of his destroyer and then had to prove that his feat happened to postwar historians, which was a struggle in itself. It is an interesting microcosm of the war, which shows the importance of one man in the right place at the right time.
Other submarine captains have told their stories, and all have fascinating tales. Zenji Orita teamed up with Joseph Harrington for Japanese I-Boat Captain, Major Books, 1976, which is both an overview of the Japanese submarine war and a memoir. Dick O'Kane earned a Medal of Honor for his exploits as a submariner in the Pacific. His autobiography, Clear the Bridge, Rand McNally, 1977, is a detailed recounting of his deeds. Capt. Ned Beach assembled his articles on submarine warfare in the Pacific into Submarine, Holt, 1952, which gives a well-written account of a fairly typical submarine officer's career rise. The fact that Beach's submarine, USS Trigger, was sunk after he transferred off of it, adds to the author's emotional ordeal.
The German side of the U-boat war is told in Iron Coffins, by Herbert Werner, Holt, 1965. Werner wound up in New Jersey after the war, and his account is riveting.
To get the view of the convoy escorts, one should start with Walker, R.N. (Escort Commander), by Terence Robertson, Evans Brothers, 1956, which tells the life of the legendary Capt. Johnnie Walker, Britain's greatest U-boat hunter. A deckplate view of the convoy struggle comes from Hal Lawrence's A Bloody War, MacMillan of Canada, 1979.
John Holm's No Place to Linger, Holmsworth, 1985, is the memoir of a Royal New Zealand Navy officer who served on convoy escorting duties in the North Atlantic, and is also an immediate view of this struggle.
Another interesting U-boat biography is Night Raider of the Atlantic (The Golden Horseshoe), by Terence Robertson, Evans Brothers, 1955. This tells the life of German U-boat ace Otto Kretschmer, who survived his U-boat's sinking to finish the war as a POW in Canada.
A completely different submarine tale is told by Yutaka Yokota and Joseph Harrington in Kamikaze Submarine, Nordon, 1962. Yokota was trained for and trained others in operating suicide midget submarines. His book tells of the development of these weapons of despair and the mind-sets of the men who built and operated them.
An important Japanese naval aviator, to round out the naval biographies, is Cdr. Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the attack on Pearl Harbor. Historian Gordon Prange tells his story in God's Samurai, Brassey's, 1990. Fuchida survived Pearl Harbor, Midway, and the atomic attack on Hiroshima, to become a Christian evangelist.
The land war has generated vast tracts of biographies and memoirs, some of which I simply have not been able to purchase, like Charles MacDonald's Company Commander and Audie Murphy's To Hell and Back. As I am only listing books I have, I won't review the aforementioned.
Memoirs of ground troops have become more than a cottage industry, spewed out by varied sources. Even the famous British comedian Spike Milligan, an artilleryman in North Africa and Italy, wrote five volumes on his wartime experiences, which involved a good deal of fighting and a great deal of hilarity (as one would expect).
I am sure I am leaving out many favorite and excellent works, such as Donald Burgett's superb series of memoirs on his service as a paratrooper in the 506th Parachute Regiment, but the books I discuss below are a good starting point and certainly microcosmic of the war.
Jim Henderson's Gunner Inglorious, Hodder and Stoughton, 1984, is the memoir of one of New Zealand's best writers. After losing a leg in North Africa and surviving POW captivity, he became one of New Zealand's official war historians and best-known and best-loved writers.
Mark of the Lion, by Kenneth Sandford, Hutchinson, 1962, is the biography of the British Empire's greatest field soldier, Capt. Charles Hazlitt Upham, Victoria Cross and Bar. A modest man of enormous stamina, honor, and valor, he yielded his story with fascinating results.
Jack Hinton, V.C., by Gabrielle McDonald, David Ling, 1996, told the story of New Zealand's last living VC recipient, and was published shortly before his death.
Both men served in the same unit, 20th Battalion, and were captured, Hinton in Greece, Upham in North Africa. They made their captors' lives hell, and lived modestly after the war.
A Connecticut Yankee in the 8th Gurkha Rifles, by Scott Gilmore with Pat Davis, Brassey's, 1993, is an unusual book. Gilmore was an American who gained a commission with the 8th Gurkhas, and fought in North Africa and Burma, meeting his wife in India. His war was certainly unique.
Equally intriguing is Tales From the King's African Rifles, by John Nunalley, Cassell, 1998. Nunalley served in a regiment that no longer exists, fighting the Japanese in Burma. The values of bravery and the horrors of combat are juxtaposed with the colonial African world: the eternal mixed with the lost.
New Zealander Keith Elliott gained a Victoria Cross in North Africa, and came home to tell the tale in From Cow-Shed to Dog Collar, with Rhona Adshead, Reed, 1967. Elliott became a clergyman after the war. More than a war record, it is also one man's spiritual journey.
Maj. Gen. Sir John Frost saw a great deal of action: he led the Bruneval Raid, the first paradrop into Tunisia, the airborne assault on Sicily's Primasole Bridge, and the incredible stand at Arnhem Bridge. A Drop Too Many, Sphere, 1983, which includes added chapters on his postwar career, paints a vivid picture of the development and use of the British airborne by one of its great leaders.
The Memoirs of an American Soldier, by Werner von Rosenstiel, is also a unique tale. Von Rosenstiel spent time in the Wehrmacht as a draftee, then fled to America before Pearl Harbor. He went in the US Army, but was initially distrusted for his German connections. He ultimately gained a commission and worked in counterintelligence and in rounding up and interrogating the Nuremberg war criminals. A more distinctive military career is hard to imagine.
However, David Kenyon Webster's career might come close. A Harvard student, he joined the 506th Parachute Infantry and fought with it from Normandy to Berchtesgaden, serving in Easy Company in Holland and Germany. A keen writer and observer, he avoided promotion so that he could write from the foxhole perspective. Parachute Infantry, Delta, 1994, was reprinted after the fame of Band of Brothers, which should be read with Webster's book. However, several of Webster's surviving members of Easy Company say that it is not wholly accurate, and should be read with care.
Brig. George Clifton's The Happy Hunted, Cassell, 1952, gives another interesting story, that of a New Zealand brigadier who had the misfortune to be captured in North Africa and escape captivity. It should be read in tandem with Farewell Campo 12, by Brig. James Hargest, Harborough, 1957, who was also captured in North Africa. However, Hargest was transferred to Italy, and he escaped from there, the highest-ranking British POW to do so from Europe. Hargest wound up as New Zealand's observer in Normandy, where he was killed just as he was leaving France and Europe for good, a horrid irony.
The two books are both escape stories as well as command stories.
Returning to the battlefield, Flame Thrower by Andrew Wilson, Kimber, 1982, is the memoir of a young British officer who commanded Churchill Crocodile flame-throwing tanks in Normandy and Europe. His experience is also different, and made moving by the emotional strain of using such a weapon had on him.
More prosaic but entertaining is J.M. Garvey's D-Day Dodger, the memoir of a British soldier in the 8th Army in Italy. This book derives its interest from the fact that the Italian campaign lost the world's attention 48 hours after Rome was liberated. Yet the advances, battles, and suffering continued for nearly a year after that. Garvey's book tells what it was like.
Gordon Slatter's One More River, Ling, 1995, tells the story of the 2nd New Zealand Division's final advance in Italy, the breakthrough to Trieste, and offers revealing views of the division's leadership.
Another Italian front story comes from Harold L. Bond in Return to Cassino, Doubleday, 1964. This is a cathartic memoir for an American infantryman gravely wounded at Cassino, who re-visits the scene of vicious fighting with his family in 1963.
Back in France, Tank Tracks, by Peter Beale, Sutton, 1995, tells the story of the 9th Royal Tank Regiment, which supported infantry attacks across Europe.
My Brother, Hail and Farewell, by Dr. Edward Zebrowski, Woodstock Books, 1994, is the memoir of an infantryman with the 71st Infantry Division in Europe, and is typical of many infantryman's memoirs.
The other side of the hill is well-seen in Panzer Commander, by Hans Von Luck, Dell, 1989. Von Luck led armored and reconnaissance units in Poland, North Africa, Russia, and France. He played a key role in the defeat of British armor in Normandy and was a POW in Russia for years. His story is highly revealing as to the life of the German Army and its field leaders, including Rommel.