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James Holland's Favourite Reads of 2020

Posted on 26th November 2020 by Anna Orhanen

A renowned military historian and broadcaster specialising on the Second World War, James Holland is the bestselling author of books such as Sicily ‘43, Normandy ‘44 and Dam Busters. We are delighted to have Holland share with us his favourite reads of this year.

Crucible of Hell by Saul David

As the war in the Pacific progressed and Japan’s continuation of the war became ever-more desperate, so each of the battles got progressively harder and bloodier, not easier, for the Americans.  Pellelieu was followed by Iwo Jima and in turn followed by the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.  This became the single bloodiest battle of the Second World War and quite apart from the military casualties, it saw more than 200,000 Okinawans killed as well.  No matter that Japan was by this time spending 87% of its GDP on defence; on Okinawa, the defenders simply refused to surrender, which meant the Americans were forced to kill almost every man to win the island. It is a truly epic and terrible tragedy and its horrors played a big part in the US decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.  Saul David is a brilliant historian and writer and with an empathetic approach to the poor souls caught up in the carnage.  In shocking and jaw-dropping detail, he brings a battle that deserves far greater prominence and understanding vividly back to life.

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Detailed and unflinching, Crucible of Hell explores the 1945 battle of Okinawa – one of the most destructive battles in modern memory and a crucial turning point in the war with Japan.

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War in the Shadows by Patrick Marnham

So many books have been written about the secret war waged in France during the occupation years of 1940 to 1944, but I can’t think of a better one than this.  Patrick Marnham begins his book with two anonymous letters by a former spy who appears to hold the secret to one of the greatest mysteries of the Resistance: who, exactly, betrayed Jean Moulin and the PROSPER circuit in the summer of 1943. Painstakingly drawing together clues and pieces of evidence and finding himself drawn back to a family in the Sologne area of France that he visited as a student in the 1960s, Marnham sets out his tale of wartime deception, betrayal, bungling, bravery and double-dealing with all the pace and panache of finely crafted spy thriller.  His research is exemplary and involves not only the Special Operations Executive – about which so much is now known – but also the activities of the British Secret Intelligence Service – MI6 – and the American intelligence services too, about which far less has been written, and which is utterly fascinating.  All that is best and worst in the human character are laid bare in this brilliant page-turner of a book that I found utterly gripping from start to finish.  

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In this revisionist work of historical investigation, Marnham presents an impeccable analysis of the French Resistance and the double-dealings of the Secret War in masterfully gripping prose.
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The Last Hundred Years (Give or Take) and All That by Al Murray

I suppose this isn’t strictly speaking military history but since the 20th century was riddled with wars and not least two global conflicts, I reckon this counts. Al Murray is my partner in crime on a weekly Second World War podcast so I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of this book.  He’s not a hugely successful comedian for nothing and needless to say, this is frequently hilarious and written in the same irreverent spirit as the iconic 1066 And All That.  However, Al is also a very serious historian and his research and deep knowledge of his subject are very clearly on display here. Potentially difficult episodes – the Easter Rising, the Nazis and the Holocaust, for example – are dealt with deft skill and wisdom and he has an uncanny knack of explaining complicated historical facts and situations with both charm and extreme clarity.  He’s also brilliant on the sixties from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Civil Rights Movment to the Beatles.  I learned loads, laughed out loud a lot – the footnote asides are a particular joy – and absolutely loved it from start to finish.

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Al Murray takes his readers on an uproarious tour of Britain in the last hundred years, focusing on the stories that don’t make it to the history books.
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Britain’s War: A New World 1942-1947 by Daniel Todman

A quiet revolution has been going on in academia in the way in which we study the Second World War.  The old narrative historians, with their ongoing theses of Allied – and especially British – ineptitude, squabbles at the top and lack of tactical chutzpah, have been firmly kicked into touch by a new, younger breed, and Daniel Todman is one such academic leading the charge with a far more nuanced appreciation. In this second of his new two-volume history, he takes far greater account of the operation level of war – that is, the nuts and bolts, and how and why Britain fought the war in the way it did.  The result is a completely fresh take.  This volume extends to 1947 in order to demonstrate the enormous impact the conflict had on the country, and is, together with the first, both a brilliant piece of scholarship but also beautifully written. Yes, it’s big, but it’s massive subject and Todman is a master, weaving facts, stats, and long-forgotten nuggets with astonishing skill.  

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Drawing from the latest historical research and testimonies from the various conflicts, the second part of Todman’s chronicle of the Second World War offers a striking account of the years 1942-1947, both on the global frontlines and on British soil.
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Harrier 809 by Rowland White

I always eagerly devour any book by Rowland White ever since reading his first, Vulcan 609.  In this new book he returns to the Falklands War but instead of following long-range Vulcan bombers, he turns to the Harriers of the hastily re-formed 809 Naval Air Squadron. I absolutely love White’s writing style, which combines phenomenal and painstaking research with the pacey read-on factor of a Tom Clancy thriller. He’s never afraid to go into minute detail about the machinery and weaponry he’s describing and the famous jump-jet Harrier is certainly a worthy hero of the book; but he also understands that it is human drama and a cast of colourful characters that really drives the narrative. What is so amazing about this story is the high level of adrenalin-charged air combat in the Falklands War – far more than I’d appreciated - and which makes for a hugely entertaining and compelling romp. I loved this book – it’s narrative, popular history at its very, very best.

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Narrating the incredible exploits of this powerful aircraft and the men who flew it in battle, Harrier 809 tells a thrilling true story of courage and resourcefulness in the heart of the Falklands War.
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