Great Novels Set In WWII


It took a very clear-eyed and unsentimental author like Rex Warner to create such a perversely beautiful, horrific novel as ‘The aerodrome’. Taking a contrary position to the prevailing attitude of the time (1941), that the British Air Force pilot represented a pinnacle of pure order in a time of dark chaos, he tells the story of Roy (clearly Rex), a young man at first fascinated and later repelled by the airmen whose sinister outpost slowly absorbs a lowly country village. Roy admires the ill-mannered Flight-Lieutenant who casually offends villagers and steals his girl, because the pilots operate according to higher moral laws that place them far above the drunken, rowdy locals. But his respect proves misplaced; the Flight Lieutenant is a pen-pusher who has never flown, and as other secrets begin to tumble out, events are set in motion that lead to murder.

Mysteriously, the order of importance Warner chooses for the book’s sensational disclosures is very unusual, so that the shooting of a mother in a crowded church or the adulterous betrayal of a friend is of little consequence in the pilots’ minds, because they are merely an expedience on the path to higher glories. No wonder JG Ballard was such a fan.

Henry Green is another uncomfortable writer; in ‘Caught’, his greatest novel, he recounts the horrors of the Blitz seen through his old real-life job as an auxiliary fire officer. As the fire bombs cause a conflagration that threatens to engulf them, a painfully human story of rivalry unfolds. I must admit I find his prose a bit flat and bleak for my tastes.

Muriel Spark’s ‘The Girls of Slender Means’ takes place in a Kensington hostel for young ladies in 1945 when accommodation was scarce, and recounts the girls’ struggle to find men and money simply for survival, until tragedy changes their lives. It plays to all of Spark’s greatest strengths.

In ‘The Ministry of Fear’ Graham Greene goes a bit John Buchan and sets up a terrific wartime adventure involving a not-quite-innocent amnesiac dupe, a garden fete and spies trying to murder him – great fun.

Evelyn Waugh, an author in my 20th century top three, brings back the hapless Basil Seal from the disgraceful ‘Black Mischief’ in ‘Put Out More Flags’, in a plot involving evacuees, scandals and scams. But Waugh’s greatest war achievement is the ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy, in which the incompetent Guy Crouchback blunders his way through the red tape in a complex, poisonously funny and ultimately tragic examination of wartime betrayals.

In Elizabeth Bowen’s extraordinary ‘The Heat Of The Day’ a young woman discovers that her lover has been selling secrets to the enemy and must decide how far she will go to protect him. I’ve just spent half an hour looking for the book because I don’t remember how it ends!

And I think we should also include Lissa Evans’ ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’ (columns passim),  a tale of artistes attempting to make a morale-boosting low budget British film in 1941, where there’s a sense of wry amusement in even the darkest hours.

14 comments on “Great Novels Set In WWII”

  1. martin says:

    I would add Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson. A great mini series as well.

  2. Mike Campbell says:

    Always loved “The Aerodrome”. I have the same p/back edition as illustrated above by Admin, with an intro by Anthony Burgess. It’s really about an alternative (I refuse to say alternate….) WWII world, as it could have been imagined – or indeed be imagined, since Warner wrote this during the war.

    Remarkably – it would never happen now – the BBC did an adaptation of this in 1983 (probably as part of the Screen One or Screen Two strands) which I’m certain has never been repeated.

  3. Mike Campbell says:

    By the way – also love The Ministry of Fear.

  4. Theophylact says:

    I guess we’re only talking British novels here, and ones written during WWII. Otherwise you’d have to include Catch-22.

  5. Roger says:

    “Hapless” isn’t the word for Basil Seal. He’s amoral and unscrupulous. In Put Out More Flags he wangles a job billetting evacuees and does well out of a dysfunctional family, the Connollies, who he parks on unfortunate families until he is bribed to remove them.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    I’m rather fond of Dennis Wheatley’s ‘The Haunting Of Toby Jugg’ – oh, a word of warning; the TV adaptation made of this, ‘The Haunted Airman’, despite having a great cast, is utter rubbish. It is another of those adaptations where the person making it, doesn’t ‘get’ or like the source material, and does their own thing, which is never a good idea, especially here, where the premise is so good. The story of an R.A.F. pilot, rendered immobile by a crash, and sent to a sanitorium in Wales to undergo treatment, and who is terrified every night by a huge arachnid at his uncurtained bedroom window… And that’s just the start. It’s one of Wheatley’s best stories, full of detail like the stories of Ian Fleming. Wheatley once said, quite seriously: “I’m not much of a writer – but I can tell a story.” Yes, he could. He damn well could. I’ve read this several times, and it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Another one of his I’m very fond of, is the frankly barking mad ‘The Man Who Missed The War’. It starts off a war story – and ends as science fiction. It’s also one of the books that, amongst the action, are chunks of truth, that only someone high in the area of the secret service or government might know. I’ve mentioned this before, but, scattered throughout the books Wheatley wrote just prior to, and during the war period, are details of operations, and intelligence discoveries that, in context, seem outrageous, but since the war, are known to be fact. The best example is in the novel ‘The Black Baroness’, where it is full of the details of the fall of the low countries, and the activities of Vidkun Quisling in Norway. All these details would have been suppressed in the newspapers, as the facts would have been demoralising for the British public in the early war years. Presented as fiction, however… It’s almost as if maybe Churchill himself, who knew Wheatley well, thought that maybe the public NEEDED to know this stuff, and said to Wheatley: “Make it fiction. As outrageous as you like, but make it look like fiction.” ‘The Man Who Missed The War’ has plans for huge cargo rafts that were designed to sail, unmanned, via the various gulf streams that criss-cross the oceans, steered by an automatic helm. I have a feeling that this was an actual idea that was mooted to keep supplies flowing. The whole thing was too big to be torpedoed, and made of many flotation cells, and powered by sail. It was designed to be huge, but easily towable by tug.
    A series of books I loved as a child, were the ‘Mr Twiddle’ stories, by Enid Blyton; they concern the misadventures of a rather inept man (very similar to Count Arthur Strong, actually), and his harridan of a wife. These stories are set in wartime, as in one, he goes to the shops to get some powdered egg, and in another, his wife berates him for not closing the blackout curtains properly.

  7. snowy says:

    Snatch down flambeaus⁽ᵃ⁾, we will pick up faggots⁽ᵇ⁾ on the way – there is a dissenter about who questions the worth of the holy⁽ᶜ⁾ book.

    [It might help if I drew here a distinction betwixt ‘During’ and ‘About’.]

    During the period of conflict books may not have been as culturally significant as bibliophiles would like to claim. Very early on many people would have sacrificed their megre libraries to the various ‘paper drives’ to support the war effort. [If they felt it was necessary to destroy their pets, which tens of thousands did. Giving up a few old books was nothing to fuss about.]

    Stocks of suitable paper to print new books was in short supply, Munitions, Military and Government requirements came first, then would come what could be spared for Civilian uses, Newsprint was prioritised, as well as being a means of communication, even after reading it had a large variety of domestic uses, [don’t forget to scrunch it up a few times!]

    What books were published would be short, [because of paper rationing], relatively expensive, [not in absolute cost, but would you rather eat or read?] and rather hard to come by. In what little leisure time people had after a 12 hour day the Wireless dominated, closely followed by the Cinema. Both of which were closely monitored for content that might harm morale. While there might not have been overt attempts or pressure to produce propaganda, productions that were thought to be morale raising would find it easier to get the raw materials, film stock or paper they needed.

    One that was published, [and is on-topic, for a change!], is ‘The Last Enemy’ by Richard Hilary, [with a preface by J B Priestly]. It is not an easy or light read, the author was shot down during the Battle of Britain very severely injured, physically and mentally. [Americans will find it is called ‘Falling through Space’ over there.]

    [For those who have an interest in the books of the period bordering on mono-mania AND find having money much too troublesome; might want to look at ‘British Writing of the Second World War’ by Mark Rawlingson.]

    Now having neatly rendered you all catatonic with boredom, comes the piece that dismisses fiction as worthless.

    Why on earth would anybody read a fictional account of the period when in memoirs and histories one can find accounts of:

    All female bomber squadrons, exploding suicide dogs, specially trained incendiary bats, tanks made of rubber that worked provided you kept them properly inflated, decoy cities designed to attract bombs, to the slight annoyance of those that had to remain on site to operate the diversion, remotely piloted aircraft, that cost America a president and how Miss Shillings Orifice was appreciated by so many men.

    Those are just the sane ones!

    British Officers were expected to cut a dash on the battlefield armed with a revolver containing six bullets, encouraging their men.

    But Lt. Col. John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming “Mad Jack” Churchill, certainly had very clear ideas of his own.

    [I suspect Wheatley might have been privy to Project Habakkuk, Neville Shute certainly was.]

    ⁽ᵃ⁾ A torch as seen in most period based horror films, usually found in a sconce.
    ⁽ᵇ⁾ A loose collection of sticks bound together, popular at public burnings, since the priest would grant anybody that provided one with an ‘indulgence’. [Don’t make me footnote my footnotes! That way only madness lies!]
    ⁽ᶜ⁾ Note that this is the use of holy with a small aitch.

  8. Brooke says:

    Ian, thanks for recommendations.

  9. Helen says:

    CANNOT go past Connie Willis’s duo *Blackout* and *All Clear*, which are also part of her larger Oxford Time Travel series (which kicked off with short/novella *Fire Watch*.)

    I’ve read them all multiple times because they’re just so very very good.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Brooke – you’re most welcome. The writing of Dennis Wheatley, if you’ve not read any of his books, is definitely an acquired taste. He has very definite ideas about certain matters – not that these appear in all of his books, but you’ll know them when you see them. He’s very fond of detail, and place, and is very good at making characters likeable. The thing I really like about his books, is that, if a sequence of books contains a main character, then that character will age from book to book. In fact, all his recurring characters age – a character you like in one book, might have died by the next. His most enduring character, Gregory Sallust, appears in a pre war book, as a youngish man (his actual first appearance is in ‘Black August’, written in 1934, but set c.1960 – but that’s a ‘What If…’ book, and not canon), but appears in the 1935 novel ‘Contraband’, goes through the war years, does some proto ‘Indiana Jones’ adventuring post war, and eventually dies of old age, in 1963, in the 1968 novel ‘The White Witch Of The South Seas’. Got that? Good. It has been long suggested that James Bond was based, in part, on the character of Gregory Sallust. Fleming and Wheatley crossed paths very often, and it is more probable than not, that Ian Fleming had read some of Dennis Wheatley’s novels, as they were sold in vast quantities – the public couldn’t get enough of his work. The very best Gregory Sallust novel is 1964’s ‘They Used Dark Forces’. It’s a big book, but utterly engrossing, and carries an account of the salvaging of a faulty, and crashed, V2 rocket, from the muddy area by the River Bug, in Poland, by the Polish resistance, and the removal of the wreckage to the UK by a special R.A.F. operation. All true. Although written long after the war, it’s the sort of thing that would have been ‘hush hush’ during the war, and possibly for a long period after. It might even have been a mission that Wheatley had a hand in planning.

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Oh, and although to most people, Dennis Wheatley is the ‘Black Magic’ man, and yes, he did know Aleister Crowley (‘The wickedest etc.’), slightly, and also the Cleric and Occult writer Montague Summers, upon whom the evil Canon Copely-Syle, in ‘To The Devil – A Daughter’ (1953) is based. However, out of a run of 60+ novels, only NINE are explicitly ‘Black Magic.’
    Not in any particular order, they are:

    The Devil Rides Out.
    Strange Conflict.
    The Haunting Of Toby Jugg.
    The Ka Of Gifford Hillary.
    To The Devil – A Daughter.
    Gateway To Hell.
    The Satanist.
    They Used Dark Forces.
    The Irish Witch.
    Wheatley also wrote the fascinating, and disturbing non fiction book, ‘The Devil And All His Works’.

  12. Ken Mann says:

    Regarding The Aerodrome I seem to recall reading that in the build up to war all of the armed forces had to have officers with fascist sympathies removed with as little fuss as possible, and the RAF had more than most. I am curious as to why that should have been the case – perhaps something to do with the cult of the flier and the international technocratic dream of some of them (see the amazing Fliegerlied sequence in the German version of “FP1 Does Not Reply” – can’t remember if the English version has it).

  13. And some newer ones: Transcription by Kate Atkinson, Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, The Billy Boyle books by James Benn (nephew of Eisenhower investigates during WWII, Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood. This is a middle-grade novel about the sinking of the City of Benares. Absolutely amazing.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    I’ve only read one of the Billy Boyle books but enjoyed White Ghost. Somehow Billy is not a name for a grown man (Wasn’t there a song in Carousel about that?)

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