Nonfiction as a category has exploded over the past ten years and the military history genre has become increasingly important. As a student of history and a lover of language, I tend to have a relatively low tolerance for mediocrity in writing. For anyone interested in serious history, well written with great attention to details but not so technical, here are five books worth picking up.
Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy is an outstanding account of the Second World War. The initial installment, entitled "An Army At Dawn" chronicles the allied landings in North Africa in 1942 while the second "The Day of Battle" covers the fighting in Sicily and then up the Italian coastline. Atkinson effectively combines an acute understanding of the stratego-political considerations that influenced Allied and Axis decision making with an amazingly well-researched recounting of the personal stories of the men in the field. An excerpt from Book 2 can be found here.
Anthony Beevor is a Visiting Professor at the University of London and has produced two of the best battle accounts ever written: Stalingrad, published in 1998 and Berlin - The Downfall, 1945 published in 2002. Stalingrad recounts the terrible siege of the southwest Russian city that began in July 1942, ended in early 1943 and produced nearly 2.3 million casualties. Beevor uses primary source materials, including previously unpublished and untranslated documents from the Soviet archives, to portray the scope of suffering of both the besieged population and combatants. He also provides a good overview of the political and strategic context within which decisions were made. The Battle of Stalingrad was the first major defeat of Hitler's Wehrmacht and marked, in the view of many historians, the turning point of the Second World War in the European theater. Berlin - The Downfall, 1945 recounts the Gotterdammerung that was the final push into the heart of the Third Reich by Soviet forces under the command of Georgy Zhukov. Using first hand accounts of soldiers who took part in the fighting while effectively weaving in the overarching strategic forces at work, Beevor paints a horrifying picture of a full scale armored conflict taking place among a densely populated urban center.
Max Hastings' Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45 is an excellent complement to Beevor's work on Berlin. Exploring the 18 months leading up to the fall of Berlin in May 1945, Armageddon provides a detailed overview of the Allied advance on both the Western and Eastern fronts. Hitler concentrated most of Germany's dwindling military resources in the east to slow the Soviet advance and Hastings does an outstanding job telling the harrowing stories of Russian and German units engaged in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Hastings also provides a good geo-political overview, particularly as it relates to Great Britain's prospective loss of prestige in an re-ordered post-war world that was foreshadowed by the increasing dominance of the American and Soviet General Staffs beginning in 1944 and continuing through war's end.
Dreadnought was the term used to describe a battleship prior to and during the First World War. Robert Massie's excellent history of the naval arms race leading up to the start of that conflict is also worthwhile. Massie uses an effective device of alternating personal histories of the politicians and military figures of Britain and Germany to explore the factors that led to the outbreak of war in August 1914. It is a story of tragic human failure. Castles of Steel is Massie's sequel that covers the actual naval battles of the War. These are fascinating to read, particularly as many of the figures so prominent in the naval build up, played an important role in the actual deployment of materiel.