Updated: Mar 18
I have always been fascinated by World War II. I remember doing a project on the subject in primary school and I got seriously involved. As you can imagine, that won me MANY cool points with the other kids ;) I can't really put my finger on why I find it so interesting, but I think it has something to do with the commaraderie of the time, the resourcefulness and creativity people displayed and the fact that gin was your go-to drink.
So I guess it's no surprise that I've read a great many books and watched quite a few films set in / about WWII. And there are still so many I haven't yet consumed - I do believe WWII is one of the greatest sources of material for writers and filmmakers. There's always another angle, another unbelievable true story that needs to be told. So, as always, this list is not exhaustive, it's just a round-up of some of my favourites. I hope you enjoy!
Requiem For a Wren - Nevil Shute
This is such a moving story of love and loss. Bit of a slow-burner, but well worth it. The mysterious death of a young woman on an Australian farm reveals a heartrending story of doomed wartime romance. Alan Duncan returns to his family home in Australia after the war and several years of study in England. But his homecoming is marred by the mysterious suicide of his parents' quiet and reliable parlour-maid. A search through her belongings in search of clues leads to heartbreaking revelations about the woman's identity, the death of Alan's brother Bill, and, above all, the disappearance of his brother's fiancee, Janet.
Noonday - Pat Barker
If you haven't read anything by Pat Barker then please do, so that we can be friends again. There's a crispness to her writing that I absolutely love. This novel is the third in a trilogy, but you don't really need to have read the other two first in order to enjoy it. London, the Blitz, autumn1940. As the bombs fall on the blacked-out city, ambulance driver Elinor Brooke races from bomb sites to hospitals trying to save the lives of injured survivors, working alongside former friend Kit Neville, while her husband Paul works as an air-raid warden. As the bombing intensifies, the constant risk of death makes all three of them reach out for quick consolation. Old loves and obsessions re-surface until Elinor is brought face to face with an almost impossible choice.
All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doer
This was incredibly hard to put down. It's so intricate and the many strands of the story are woven with expert skill. For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth.
Spitfire Women of World War II - Giles Whittell
This is the incredible true story of a wartime sisterhood of women pilots: a group of courageous pioneers who took exceptional risks to fly Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters to the frontlines of World War II. The women pilots of Air Transport Auxiliary came from all countries and backgrounds. Although not allowed into combat, they demonstrated astonishing bravery in their supporting role: flying unarmed, without radios or instruments, and at the mercy of the weather and enemy aircraft, they delivered battle-ready planes to their male counterparts, the fighter pilots of the RAF.
WATCH - Spitfire Women on BBC iPlayer
The National Gallery in Wartime - Suzanne Bosman (Non-Fiction)
On August 23,1939, with World War II looming, the National Gallery, London, was forced temporarily to close its doors to the public to evacuate the bulk of its collection to secret locations in Wales for safe-keeping. By May 1940, the collection had been transferred to Manod Quarry, a slate mine in the mountains, beneath 200 feet of solid rock. The Gallery, meanwhile, remained "open for business" -- despite being bombed several times during the Blitz.
Half Blood Blues - Esi Edugyan
The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero's bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there's more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero's fate was settled.
Lee Miller's War: Beyond D-Day - Anthony Penrose (Non-Fiction)
Lee Miller's work for Vogue from 1941-1945 sets her apart as a photographer and writer of extraordinary ability. The quality of her photography from the period has long been recognized as outstanding, and its full range is shown here, accompanied by her brilliant despatches. Starting with her first report from a field hospital soon after D-Day, the despatches and nearly 160 photographs show war-ravaged cities, buildings and landscapes, but above all they portray the war-resilient people - soldiers, leaders, medics, evacuees, prisoners of war, the wounded, the villains and the heroes.
WATCH - Lee Miller: A Life on the Front Line on BBC iPlayer
The Glass Room - Simon Mawer
One of my closest friends and I disagree quite strongly over this book - he thought it was boring tosh whereas I would probably list it in my Top 10 reads. One man's meat and all that. I was enthralled by the rich layers of plot and history and shifting perspectives. High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass and onyx built specially for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. But the radiant honesty of 1930 that the house, with its unique Glass Room, seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of WW2 gather, and eventually the family must flee, accompanied by Viktor's lover and her child. But the house's story is far from over, and as it passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian, both the best and the worst of the history of Eastern Europe becomes somehow embodied and perhaps emboldened within the beautiful and austere surfaces and planes so carefully designed, until events become full-circle.
In the course of writing this blog post I discovered that there had been a film adaptation of Mawer's book made last year. It was a Czech production, directed by Julius Ševčík, and stars the sensational Carice von Houten. I haven't actually had a chance to watch it yet as I haven't found it on any streaming networks, but I wait eagerly for its release. If anyone knows where I might be able to find it, please let me know!
Operation Mincemeat - Ben Macintyre (Non-Fiction)
If you're not much of a non-fiction reader, don't despair! Macintyre writes with such flair and energy that this book sucks you in from the first page and takes you on a fantastic journey. Operation Mincemeat was the most successful wartime deception ever attempted, and certainly the strangest. It hoodwinked the Nazi espionage chiefs, sent German troops hurtling in the wrong direction, and saved thousands of lives by deploying a secret agent who was different, in one crucial respect, from any spy before or since: he was dead. Using fraud, imagination and seduction, Churchill's team of spies spun a web of deceit so elaborate and so convincing that they began to believe it themselves. The deception started in a windowless basement beneath Whitehall. It travelled from London to Scotland to Spain to Germany. And it ended up on Hitler's desk.
WATCH - Operation Mincemeat on BBC iPlayer
Everyone Brave is Forgiven - Chris Cleave
London, 1939. Young, bright, and brave, Mary is certain she’d be a marvelous spy. When she is—bewilderingly—made a teacher, she finds herself defying prejudice to protect the children her country would rather forget. Tom, meanwhile, finds that he will do anything for Mary. And when Mary and Alistair meet, it is love, as well as war, that will test them in ways they could not have imagined. Three lives entangled in violence and passion, friendship and deception, all inexorably shaping their hopes, dreams and futures.
FILMS & TV
Black Book (Zwartboek)
One of my all time favourite films, starring one of my all time favourite actors, Carice van Houten. Rachel joins the Dutch resistance after her farmhouse is destroyed. While she tries to flee to South Netherlands, along with a local man, Rob, she finds herself entangled in a web of betrayal.
[Dutch with subtitles]
Watch on Amazon Prime
This mini-series simply blew me away. It is the story of five young friends who meet in Berlin in the summer of 1941 to say their farewells and then head off to war full of spirit. They have no idea how war will change them and test their friendship. It is gut-wrenching at times, gritty and powerful, with excellent acting from the five leads.
[German with subtitles]
Watch on Amazon Prime
Her husband away at war, a lonely Frenchwoman begins a tentative romance with the refined German soldier who has taken up residence in her mother-in-law's house. It is based on the second part of Irène Némirovsky's 2004 novel of the same name.
[English, French and German, with subtitles]
The Round Up (La Rafle)
This is a particularly upsetting and emotional film so do NOT watch this if you are feeling down. During World War II, France's Vichy government takes part in the collection of 13,000 French Jews and holds them in various venues, including an indoor cycling stadium, before shipping them off to their deaths.
[French with subtitles]
The tension in this film is palpable. I felt it really captured the desperation of the soldiers and other-worldliness of those days stranded on the beach. During World War II, soldiers from the British Empire, Belgium and France try to evacuate from the town of Dunkirk during a arduous battle with German forces.
Taika Waititi is a master filmmaker and this film is simply fantastic. He manages to ride that tricky balance between hilarity and gut-wreching realism. Jojo is a lonely German boy who discovers that his single mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. Aided only by his imaginary friend -- Adolf Hitler -- Jojo must confront his blind nationalism as World War II continues to rage on.
As the Allied forces get closer to the Nazi capital, Hitler and his comrades barricade themselves in the Fuhrerbunker. Many vow to stand by Hitler, but Traudl, his personal secretary, tries to escape.
[German with subtitles]
Watch on Amazon Prime
The Imitation Game
Benedict Cucumber leads a stellar cast in telling the story of Alan Turing, a British mathematician, who joined the cryptography team to decipher the German enigma code. With the help of his fellow mathematicians, he built a machine to crack the codes.
Charité at War
A German hospital in 1943 has to deal with the effects of World War Two and the cruel policies of the Nazi regime. The series is the follow up to the 2017 Netflix drama Charité, which was set during 1888 in the same hospital.
[German with subtitles]
Watch on Netflix