As well as gaming I also enjoy reading. From a young age that’s usually been fantasy and science fiction, and occasionally true crime.
Just over a year ago I started reading history books, largely fueled by my interest in getting back into WW2 gaming.
This page will let you in on what’s currently keeping me awake at night – be that on Kindle, or old school paperback and hardback.
The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939 – 1945 by Nicholas Stargardt
The German War @ Amazon
This book was a bit of a departure from my usual Second World War reading, which usually centres around analysis of key battles. In The German War, Nicholas Stargardt looks at the impact of the war on German civilians as well as serving soldiers. It attempts to understand the thoughts and feelings of the population as they entered a war they did not want. Stargardt undertook extensive research using first hand accounts, to tell the stories of soldiers and particularly their families at home, through their letters and journals. Many of the accounts are deeply personal, offering an insight to how individuals thoughts and feelings changed as the war continued.
Some of the accounts are particularly harrowing, as soldiers describe the atrocities they witness on the Eastern Front. The German civilian knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust is also covered as pieces of information reach people back home and they try to make sense of what they are hearing from friends and family. As a sense of guilt descends, events such as the Dresden bombings by the allies are seen as retribution for the atrocities against the Jews.
The book is a fascinating insight into an area of the Second World War which has not been widely covered, that of the German home front. But rather than merely a historical account, it looks understand the social and psychological aspects of a country taken into a war on a wave of victories, to then become abandoned by their leaders as they are taken into a conflict which Goebbels termed “total war”.
Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble by Antony Beevor
Antony Beevor is a well respected military historian, and with this book he has provided a very balanced account of the various battles in the Ardennes as Hitler threw all his Western Front resources at the advancing allies. For me what stood out in the account is the personal accounts from both the allied and German soldiers, highlighting the desperation felt on both sides with battles fought in worsening winter conditions. All of these accounts are played out against the wider backdrop of the military and political manoeuvrings taking place at high command levels in the UK, US and Germany.
A well written and well paced account, and I would say pretty unbiased as well. There’s an element of “warts and all” with the descriptions of events, particular the strained relationships between all the Allied players, from military commanders through to Churchill and Roosevelt.
One minor criticism is the lack of detailed maps in the Kindle version of the book. Although there are maps (and they’re more readable in the paperback version), there could have been more references from the text to the maps. I found a number of times that keeping track of the various towns and villages in relation to what was happening was tricky.
Overall another engaging, detailed analysis of a key point in World War 2, written at a level that will keep occasional history readers turning the page.
Destiny in the Desert by Jonathan Dimbleby
Destiny In The Desert @ Amazon
Coming into this book straight after reading Dimblebys Battle for the Atlantic was probably a wise move. Some of the material there provides additional backdrop to the escalation of the conflict in North Africa, and the difficulties in supplying both the British and German forces with men and weapons.
Like the Atlantic book, Dimbleby provides plenty of detail of the political wrangling going on in the background with Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt. He also continues to paint a picture of Churchill as someone who continually felt the need to interfere in the decisions of his military commanders. In some cases to the point of obsession; piling additional pressure on to an already difficult situation. Parallels with Hitler and his meddling and over-riding of his military leaders were difficult to avoid.
The book has been written with first hand accounts and diary entries from commanders on both sides of the conflict. This presents a well balanced view from both sides of the battlefield whether in victory or defeat.
Another excellent read for any World War 2 history reader.
The Battle of the Atlantic by Jonathan Dimbleby
My current reading material for the train journey and at night, and we’re back with World War 2. Although I’ve read a number of books covering the land battles of WW2, I’ve only ever seen the odd TV program about the sea battles.
This book presents a narrative of the key battles in the Atlantic from 1939 to 1945. Interestingly, Dimbleby has woven diary entries, quotes, letters, and eye witness accounts into the narrative, against a backdrop of the decision making processes that were taking place back in London, Berlin and Washington. He also details the tensions within each countries armed forces as the respective navies attempt to get support and funding.
I’m only a quarter of the way through, but am enjoying the balance Dimbleby has between British and German accounts of each other’s tactics and encounters.
I look forward to reading the rest of this and then moving on to Dimbleby’s other book, Destiny in the Desert: The Road to El Alamein.
Kennedy: An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek
An in depth and thoroughly researched biography of President John F Kennedy. The story takes us through his childhood, upbringing and sibling relationships in a successful family where the pressure was always on to be a high achiever.
Despite health issues which plagued JFK throughout his life, he continually pushed himself. In many cases, particularly during his presidency, hid the true extent of his health issues and pain from all but his closest staff.
There is very little insight into JFKs life outside of his politics, and the relationship with his wife Jackie is only mentioned in passing. And this is probably the only criticism of such a detailed account.
However, what does come through in the book, is his humanity in making some of the most difficult decisions any world leader could make. The Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam, all play a huge part in the book. The detailed account of the political discussions of the Missile Crisis, the pressure JFK was under from different areas of the government, military and CIA all make for a riveting read. And it all drives home just how close the world was to a nuclear confrontation.
Overall, an enjoyable read, particularly of a period that I had passing knowledge of, but now have a much better understanding.
Scotland: The Story of a Nation by Magnus Magnusson
As a Scotsman, it’s a poor reflection of my education in the 1970’s that I don’t know more about the history of my home country. Of course, Macbeth, William Wallace and Robert Bruce are larger than life figures (and that was before Hollywood) with stories often embellished by members of the family from what they learned at school.
But what about the real Scotland? How did we get to where we are today?
Magnus Magnussons book is probably the definitive chronology of Scottish history, particularly when it comes to the monarchs and the idea of a Scottish nation. The book begins with a brief look at the original people around 7,000 BC – 3,000 BC and on to the Romans. The real “meat” of the book begins with Macbeth (reign: 1040 – 1057) – that is, the real Macbeth, not the Shakespeare version.
From then on, it’s a rollercoaster ride of squabbling, political intrigue, royal plotting, murder, and of course, fighting with the Southern Men – the English. It’s a story to match Game of Thrones, with some truly colourful characters.
The ride effectively ends with the signing of the Act of the Union in 1707 and the first parliament of Great Britain. Although from 1708 to 1746 there were the various Jacobite uprisings and the attempts to restore the Stewart dynasty to the throne of Great Britain, before ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie, after defeat at the Battle of Culloden, flees to France. Magnusson ends the story with the newly devolved Scottish parliament in 1999.
Magnussons writing is engaging, and overall this is a very well written book. The history itself provides the plot twists and excitement, without the need for embellishment.
Quantum by Manjit Kumar
The book takes the reader through the journey to define and understand the quantum world from 1900 to around 1950. For anyone with a passing interest in physics, most of the names will be familiar. It’s a who’s who of the most talented physics theorists and scientists of the early 20th century. However, the author focuses on the work of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, and in particular how they wrestled with, and disagreed on the nature of reality.
Kumar does a great job of keeping the book readable and understandable for The casual reader and armchair scientist. It would be easy to get seriously bogged down in the mathematics of the physics. But in this case the focus is on defining reality.
Prepare to have your mind blown. I’ve attempted to get my head round quantum mechanics in the past. Whether through Open University courses or casual reading. But usually failed (given up!). With this book, things actually started to make some sense. And with the bigger questions like what is reality, it certainly leaves the reader with a lot to ponder.
The Devils Birthday – The Bridges to Arnhem by Geoffrey Powell
Continuing my reading for operation Market Garden, I’ve moved straight into The Devils Birthday.
Major Geoffrey Powell commanded C Company 156 Parachute Battalion at Arnhem. He led multiple attacks against well armed German troops in tough defensive positions; commanded the battalion when his CO and 2nd in command were killed, and after a week of hellish fighting, led the evacuation of the battalion survivors.
The book gives an excellent walkthrough of the planning of Market Garden, the differences of opinion between the various allied commanders and the logistical challenges of mounting a massive airborne operation. Powell also covers the intelligence information from Bletchley Park and the Dutch resistance, which was available in the weeks leading up to the operation.
So far, a different read to Arnhem, focused on the tactical decisions being made within the wider planning of the whole operation. I’m looking forward to reading more.
Arnhem by John Nichol, Tony Rennel
A narrative on the allies drop behind German lines and the attempt to take the bridge at Arnhem. The book is filled with first hand accounts from survivors, including civilians caught up in the fighting who believed they would finally be liberated.
The book reads very well, gripping moments of heroism coupled with touching accounts from Dutch civilians who took great risk to help the troops parachuted in and those wounded during the fighting. The writing conveys the chaos, uncertainty, and ever present danger of the troops and civilians engaged in and around Arnhem. Most of the wider account of operation Market Garden is left to other books to cover. These are very personal and at times, moving accounts.
Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell
Since Christmas I’ve been reading Waterloo
I haven’t read any of Cornwell’s fiction, but found that he has made this military history book thoroughly enjoyable. So much so, I’m now tempted to have a look at his Sharpe novels.
From reviews, it appears the book may not meet the depth of detail required by hardcore Napoleonic readers, but as an introduction to the period, and what was a critical turning point for Europe, it’s very accessible.
Thoroughly recommended as an introduction to the Napoleonic period.