My top 10 military fiction books
1. The Happy Return, CS Forester
Forester manages to convey more about a character in fewer words than just about any other writer I know. This book is a brilliant example, and brings to life one of the best-known yet most elusive characters of this genre: Horatio Hornblower, a man tormented by duty.
2. HMS Surprise, Patrick, O’Brian
The third, and probably the most well-rounded of the 20-book ‘Master & Commander’ Aubrey/Maturin series, but best read in the context of the having just finished the first two books: Master and Commander and Post Captain.
3. Flashman, George McDonald Fraser
One of the funniest, yet most historically accurate series about a much-neglected period of history. In this first book, McDonald Fraser sets up a character who remains perfectly consistent throughout the next dozen books of The Flashman Papers.
4. Sharpe’s Eagle, Bernard Cornwell
This was Cornwell’s first Sharpe novel, although it’s sixth in the series chronologically. Many people reckon it’s the best, but it’s a tough call to pick the best in this series of 24 books (Sharpe’s Company is another favourite of mine).
5. The Eagle Has Landed, Jack Higgins
An absolute classic from the 1970s, this is one of those rare books that translated well into film. A plot to assassinate Winston Churchill by dropping disguised paratroopers into the heart of England – what could possibly go wrong?
6. The Kindly Ones, Jonathon Littell
This is a seriously gut-wrenching book about an SS officer who spends some time on the Eastern Front, including Stalingrad, but it’s best aspect is the personal insight it gives into the machinery and people behind the Nazi death camps. A very disturbing book.
7. The Guns of Navarone, Alastair Maclean
Possibly the best-known war story of all, mainly due to the huge success of the film, The Guns is just one of many excellent stories from Maclean, who is truly un-put-downable.
Despite a rather awkward (and possibly unnecessary) framework of switching between past and present, this book tells the story of the miners who tunnelled under German lines and blew up Hill 60 at the Battle of Messines in 1916. This is of particular interest to me because my grandfather was there when it happened, but it’s a beautifully-written book.
9. Biggles in the Orient, Captain WE Johns
“Biggles! Are you kidding?” I hear you say. Yes, Biggles. This enormous series of books may have been written with children in mind, and has unfortunately been sanitised with that market in mind, but when I was twelve, Biggles was the real deal, and Johns’s depictions of WW1 aerial combat left me in no doubt how frequent was the sudden death of novice pilots, sent out with just a few hours’ training.
This book is set in Burma in WW2 and has Biggles uncovering a devilish plot that is leading pilots to their deaths out over the endless jungle…
10. Death’s Head, Leo Kessler (Charles Whiting)
Part of another series aimed at teenage boys, this book sees the SS Wotan panzer regiment invading Russia. It’s fast-paced and some might find the writing style juvenile in a way, but it pulls no punches: scenes of men being crushed to bloody pulp in trenches by tanks, and Russian commissars being castrated with blunt knives abound. Not for the faint-hearted, but perfect for 13-year old boys.
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Thanks for this list. I’ve been meaning to pick up The Guns of Navarone for a while now and you’ve given me the nudge I needed. I would add a recent book from Bennett R. Coles called ‘Casualties of War’. It’s military science fiction with great character writing and focuses on the PTSD related issues of three space war veterans. Coles is a former Canadian Navy officer so a lot of what he writes is drawn from personal experience. I think this book is a great read for fans of military fiction and science fiction lovers alike.
Yes, a friend of mine has strongly recommended ‘Casualties of War’, thanks for the reminder!