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A Brief History of WWII

Recommended Books for Further Reading

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Despite its age, Charles B. MacDonald's The Mighty Endeavor: American Armed Forces in the European Theater in World War II (1969) remains a sound, informative, and highly readable survey of the American role in the war in Europe.

For the interwar Army, I. B. Holley, Jr.'s General John M. Palmer, Citizen Soldiers and the Army of a Democracy (1982) is good for the early years. Palmer was the architect of the National Defense Act of 1920.

D. Clayton James' The Years of MacArthur: Volume 1, 1880-1941 (1970), looks at the interwar Army in terms of the man who dominated it in the 1930s, while Forrest Pogue's George C. Marshall, Volume 1: Education of a General, 1880-1939 (1963), focuses on the man who oversaw its transformation into a powerful, modern mass army. Volume 2: Ordeal and Hope, 1939-1945 (1986), and Volume 3: Organizer of Victory, 1943-1945 (1973), are the best sources on the War Department and the General Staff and cover an enormous range of topics from strategy and logistics to personalities.

Len Deighton's Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk (1980) is a popular, semijournalistic account that places German tactical and operational innovations in the context of interwar German Army politics and the Nazi rise to power and also discusses the relationship between tactics, equipment, and organization in a nontechnical way.

Fire-Power: British Army Weapons and Theories of War, 1904-1945 (1982), by Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham, is a seminal and important book, tracing changes in military doctrine from the perspective of the artillery arm from World War I through World War II. Bidwell and Graham analyze the origins of Blitzkrieg tactics and panzer organizations and the evolution of indirect artillery fire and their impact on war.

W. G. F. Jackson's Battle for North Africa, 1940-1943 (1975), is reliable, and Martin Blumenson's Kasserine Pass (1967) can be supplemented by Ralph Ingersoll's The Battle Is the Pay-off (1943).

Written in the immediate aftermath of the Kasserine Pass debacle by a journalist-captain who accompanied the Rangers on their raid against the Italian-held pass at El Guettar, it has the gritty immediacy of a contemporary first-person account and ends with an impassioned plea for tougher physical conditioning and more realistic training.

A useful antidote to grand theoretical speculations about the nature of war is John Ellis' The Sharp End: The Fighting Man in World War II (1980). Using a vast array of first-person accounts, Ellis focuses on the experience of frontline combat in both theaters. Ellis has also written Cassino: Hollow Victory (1984), a gripping and critical account of Allied attempts to break through the mountains of central Italy, an effort which, the author believes, was crippled by a self-serving and inept Allied high command.

Useful companions are Wyford Vaughan-Thomas' Anzio (1961) and Martin Blumenson's Anzio: The Gamble That Failed (1963).

Max Hastings' Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy (1984) is among the best of the new books on the invasion. A careful and skilled journalist, Hastings asks why it took so long for the Allies to break out of the beachhead. He finds the flawed performance of the citizen armies of Britain and the United States at fault, when compared to the skill and proficiency of the Germans.

Russell F. Weigley, in Eisenhower's Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945 (1986), asks similar questions about American combat performance and advances a provocative thesis, suggesting that the U.S. Army never reconciled its two conflicting heritages -- that of the frontier constabulary, with its emphasis on mobility, and that of U. S. Grant's direct power drive in the Civil War. Thus, U.S. combat formations in World War II were structured for mobility, while American strategy and operations called for head-on confrontations with the center of enemy strength.

Ralph F. Bennett's ULTRA in the West: The Normandy Campaign, 1944-1945 (1980), heavily based on the original, declassified decrypts, is sound on ULTRA'S impact on the land campaign.

Charles B. MacDonald's A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge (1985) updates earlier accounts of the German Ardennes offensive with the latest available information about the Allied intelligence failure, while his Company Commander (1978) is still one of the most moving and honest first-person accounts of small-unit command responsibility available. (MacDonald was one of the youngest captains in the Army in 1944 when his company was hit and overrun in the first hours of the German offensive.)

Stephen Ambrose's Supreme Commander: The War Years of General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1970) is a judicious and balanced assessment of Eisenhower from his arrival in Washington in December 1941 through the German surrender in May 1945.

Omar N. Bradley's and Clay Blair's A General's Life (1983) is a far more partisan biography of the so-called G.I. General, which provides a sometimes disconcerting glimpse of the internal tensions and disagreements within the Allied high command in Europe.

It should be balanced with Nigel Hamilton's exhaustive, but also pugnaciously partisan three-volume biography, Monty: The Making of a General, 1887-1942 (1981), Monty: Master of the Battlefield, 1942-1944 (1983), and Monty: Final Years of the Field-Marshal, 1944-1976 (1987), and all can be supplemented by the fairly reliable official histories produced by the American and British military services in the postwar period.

Two general histories provide excellent surveys of the Pacific war, from the causes to the conclusion. John Toland's The Rising Sun, 1936-1945 (1971), views the war from the Japanese perspective and focuses on the war's causes, Japanese war plans, and the early victorious campaigns from the vantage point of Japan's military leadership.

A counterpart volume is Eagle Against the Sun (1985) by Ronald H. Spector. Like Toland, Spector covers the entire conflict but views the war from the American perspective. Eagle Against the Sun may be the best single-volume survey of the Pacific war yet written.

The historical literature on Pearl Harbor and the first six months of the war in the Pacific is voluminous -- so vast that readers must be especially careful in their selections. Perhaps the best picture of life in the prewar army is found in James Jones' fictional From Here to Eternity (1985).

The subject of Pearl Harbor has produced countless pages of description and analysis, but much is of interest only to professional historians and specialists in the subject. Two books of special value to the general reader are Walter Lord's Day of Infamy (1957) and Gordon Prange's At Dawn We Slept (1982).

Day of Infamy begins in the predawn hours and details the fascinating, dramatic events of the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The book is short, and Lord writes in a clear, journalistic style. At Dawn We Slept is a more complete and exhaustive book on the attack, the events leading to it, and the surrounding controversies. Although the book is over 700 pages long, the style is readable, the story interesting, and the treatment complete. If a student can read only one book on Pearl Harbor, Prange's work is the logical choice.

The best single-volume survey of the first six months in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor is John Toland's But Not in Shame (1961), which relates the story of defeat in the Pacific with a true sense of heroism and tragedy. Included are the American defeats at Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Corregidor, and Wake Island, and the Allied failures in the Dutch East Indies and Singapore.

Stanley Falk's Bataan: March of Death (1984) is a moving and unbiased account of one of the most emotional subjects in American military history.

The battles for Guadalcanal and for Buna went on simultaneously, but Guadalcanal received far more attention from the American press at the time and from historians since that date. However, the quality of the works on Guadalcanal varies greatly. An older but reliable account is The Battle for Guadalcanal (1979) by Samuel B. Griffith II, which can be supplemented by Richard Tregaskis' Guadalcanal Diary (1984), a classic in war reporting that came out of the fighting on Guadalcanal.

For the Papua Campaign, Lida Mayo's Bloody Buna (1979) not only chronicles the battles but also effectively conveys the nightmarish qualities of fighting in New Guinea -- the constant rain, the disease, the lack of proper food and equipment, and the constant threat of death from the Japanese or from the jungle.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of books have been written on the campaigns that produced victory over Japan in the Pacific war. They range from very detailed volumes in the official histories of the United States Army, Navy, and Marine Corps to highly romanticized books on specific actions, people, weapons, and so forth.

The following three books are accurate, balanced, and interesting accounts of the subject. Two sound works covering the offensive period are D. Clayton James' The Years of MacArthur, 1941-1945 (1975), for the offensives in the Southwest Pacific and the Philippines, and James and William Belote's Titans of the Seas (1974), an account of the carrier battles in the Pacific. But no work better describes combat in the Pacific war at the squad and platoon level than Island Victory (1983) by S. L. A. Marshall.

During World War II as a combat historian he gathered material for Island Victory by interviewing infantrymen of the 7th Infantry Division who had just cleared two small islands in the Kwajalein Atoll. The book tells the stories of squad and platoon fights with holed-up Japanese on islands no more than 250 yards wide. There are no generals or colonels here, no high-level planning or strategy. This is the story of ground combat from the vantage point of the individual infantryman, and, like MacDonald's Company Commander, the work is a testimony to the determination and heroism of the individual GI.

Note: The publication dates are shown for the most recent editions listed in Books in Print. Many of these books were originally published years earlier.


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This text has been converted from "A Brief History of the U.S. Army in World War II" published by the U.S. Army Center for Military History.

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