Five Best World War II Memoirs

1. Quartered Safe Out Here

By George MacDonald Fraser

Harvill Press, 1992

George MacDonald Fraser, British author of the Flashman series of novels, fought in the 17th (Black Cat) Indian Division of the 14th Army during the siege of Meiktila and the battle of Pyawbwe in Burma. He believed, probably correctly, that soldiering in Burma rivaled flying in the RAF’s Bomber Command as “the worst ticket you could draw in the lottery of active service.” This was so not just because of the Japanese enemy; there were also 15-inch poisonous centipedes, malaria, “spiders the size of plates,” typhus, jungle sores on the wrists and ankles, dysentery, and leeches. In terse, unsentimental language, Fraser’s superb war memoir, “Quartered Safe Out Here,” relates how the soldiers in his close-knit company fought their battles, mourned their friends and simply tried to survive from day to day.

2. Kaputt

By Curzio Malaparte

Dutton, 1946

The Italian journalist Curzio Malaparte was sent to Russia by the newspaper Corriere della Sera to cover Hitler’s glorious victory over the Bolsheviks, but instead he witnessed the drawn-out Nazi defeat on the Eastern Front. He recorded what he had seen in an autobiographical novel, “Kaputt,” which he had to keep hidden until after the war. He was sitting in the Europeiski Café in Warsaw, he writes, when he saw German troops returning from the front: “Suddenly I was struck with horror and realized that they had no eyelids. The ghastly cold of that winter had the strangest consequences. Thousands and thousands of soldiers had lost their limbs; thousands and thousands had their ears, their noses, their fingers and their sexual organs ripped off by the frost. Many had lost their hair. Singed by the cold, the eyelid drops off like a piece of dead skin. Their future was only lunacy.”

3. With the Old Breed

By E.B. Sledge

Presidio Press, 1981

Eugene B. “Sledgehammer” Sledge was a private in the U.S. Marines when he was sent to Okinawa in 1945 to help wrest the island from 135,000 well-armed and well-entrenched Japanese. The importance of comradeship under fire is common to most war memoirs but never more powerfully related than in Sledge’s down-to-earth, almost consciously unliterary memoir. This book has an uncanny ability to bring the reader close to what it must have been like to fight in World War II. Sledge’s Company K had already suffered 150 killed, wounded or missing while taking the island of Peleliu, and many more were to perish on Okinawa, but fortunately for the literature of the war, Sledge himself survived what he called “chance’s strange arithmetic.”

4. Life and Fate

By Vassily Grossman

Harper & Row, 1980

Between 1941 and 1945, Vassily Grossman was a reporter for the Soviet Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) newspaper who specialized in interviewing the “frontoviki” (front-line troops). He covered the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk and Berlin, and his interview subjects included Gen. Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, the Red Army’s battlefield commander at Stalingrad. The writer was also present at the liberation of the Treblinka concentration camp. Taking extensive notes throughout the war, Grossman—a Jew who felt deeply betrayed by the Bolsheviks’ growing anti-Semitism— incorporated the stories into his monumental autobiographical novel, “Life and Fate,” which has been likened to “War and Peace” in its scope and ambition. The book, and even the typewriter ribbon on which it was written, were confiscated by the KGB after the war, and Grossman was told that “Life and Fate” could not be published for 200 years. That wasn’t true—the book came out in the West in 1980 and in Russia eight years later. Its author had died of cancer in 1964.

5. Panzer Battles

By F.W. von Mellenthin

University of Oklahoma, 1956

The memoirs of the German panzer commander Maj. Gen. Friedrich von Mellenthin recount the greatest tank engagements of the war, at an astounding number of which he was personally present. Von Mellenthin fought in Poland in the north, Africa in the south, Kiev in the east and the Battle of the Bulge in the west. At one point he was arrested for authorizing a withdrawal without direct orders from the Führer but then was reinstated because his military skills were invaluable. About fighting the tenacious Red Army in 1943, von Mellenthin wrote: “We are in the position of a man who has seized a wolf by the ears and dares not let him go.”

Mr. Roberts is the author of “Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945.”


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