The best novels set in World War Two

We've compiled a selection of some of the best novels and fictional books about the Second World War, inspired by the tumultuous years of conflict in Europe and beyond.

28/09/2021
2 minutes to read
Covers of The Order of The Day, the Fifth Column and Jackdaws on a background showing WW2 fighter planes

World War Two was one of the most devastating modern conflicts in modern history, and the tragedies and triumphs of the war years have been inspiring novelists ever since. Readers seem to be equally fascinated by this period of history, whether it be the political machinations behind the rise of the Nazis, or the lives of women on the home front. So for fans of historical fiction, we’ve compiled a selection of some of the best novels about World War Two, set in Europe and beyond.

If you're looking for more inspiration for your next read, discover our edit of the best historical fiction novels of all time, here.

The Prince of the Skies

by Antonio Iturbe

Book cover for The Prince of the Skies

Writer, romantic, pilot, hero. Anthoine de Saint Exupéry has one dream, and that's to be a pilot. Despite his aristocratic origins, nothing can keep Anthoine grounded with his determination to take to the skies.

From the bestselling author of The Librarian of Auschwitz, Antonio Iturbe, comes an incredible novel based on the real life of Anthoine de Saint Exupéry and his mysterious death. Together with friends Jean and Henri, Anthoine pioneered new mail routes across the globe and changed aviation forever. At the same time, Anthoine began work on The Little Prince, a children's story that would go on to reach millions of readers around the world – despite the looming shadow of the Second World War. The Prince of the Skies is a tale of love and companionship, war and heroism, and the power of the written word. 

The Nightingale

by Kristin Hannah

Book cover for The Nightingale

Set in France during the Second World War, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is a story of two sisters, Viann and Isabelle. The pair are reunited after Viann’s husband is sent to fight, with Isabelle travelling from Paris to rural France to support her sister. Together, they face extraordinary hardships and heartbreak. A multi-million-copy bestseller, this heartbreaking historical romance is being adapted into a film starring Elle and Dakota Fanning, which is set to come to the silver screen in 2022.

The Most Precious of Cargoes

by Jean-Claude Grumberg

Book cover for The Most Precious of Cargoes

Told with a fairytale-like lyricism, this is a moving fable of family and redemption set against the horrors of the Holocaust. Once upon a time, a poor woodcutter and his wife lived in a forest. Despite their poverty and the war raging around them, the wife prays that they will be blessed with a child. 

A Jewish man rides on a train with his wife and twin babies. When his wife no longer has enough milk to feed them both, in desperation he throws his daughter into the forest, hoping that she’ll be saved. When the woodcutter’s wife finds the baby she takes her home, though she knows this act of kindness may lead to her death. This moving tale is a testament to our capacity for kindness in even the darkest times. 

The Yellow Bird Sings

by Jennifer Rosner

Book cover for The Yellow Bird Sings

In Poland, 1941, Róza and her five-year-old daughter, Shira, spend their days and nights hiding in a farmer's barn after escaping being rounded up with the other Jews in their town. Róza tells her daughter stories of a yellow bird, the only one who can sing the melodies Shira composes in her head. Róza would do anything to keep her daughter safe, but eventualy she is faced with an impossible choice – keep her close, or let her go and give her a chance to survive. 

The Fifth Column

by Andrew Gross

Book cover for The Fifth Column

On his release from prison following a deadly confrontation with a Nazi sympathiser, all Charles Mossman wants to do is make amends with his wife and daughter. But, as support for America to enter the war of the side of the Allied Forces grows, the Nazi sympathisers are driven underground and Charles realises there are sinister forces surrounding them that will bring about the downfall of his nation by any means.

Jackdaws

by Ken Follett

Book cover for Jackdaws

Set in France during the war, Jackdaws is a story of the French Resistance and a daring plan to help the Allied Forces. When a mission to destroy a telephone exchange vital to Nazi communications fails, British secret agent Flick Clairet takes an all-female team to infiltrate the exchange and finish the job. This is a gripping novel of love, courage and revenge.

The Order of the Day

by Eric Vuillard

Book cover for The Order of the Day

Winner of the 2017 Prix Goncourt, France’s most well-known and prestigious award, The Order of the Day is the gripping story of the pivotal meetings which took place between the European powers in the run-up to the Second World War. This darkly comic yet incredibly moving account shows how the actions of a few men brought the world to the brink of war.

Dear Mrs Bird

by AJ Pearce

Book cover for Dear Mrs Bird

The year is 1941, London is at war, and to say wartime spirit is alive and kicking is a radical understatement. The story centres on Emmeline Lake, who – contrary to her desire to become a ‘Lady War Correspondent’ – unwittingly takes up a position at the Woman’s Friend magazine, answering heartfelt letters from women seeking advice. The book is saturated in positivity but manages to steer clear of saccharine: a warmer, jollier, more uplifting book you will struggle to find.

The Morning Gift

by Eva Ibbotson

Book cover for The Morning Gift

This classic WW2 romance is a story of unexpected love, independence and belonging from award-winning author Iva Ibottson. Eighteen-year-old Ruth loves her life in Vienna until the Nazis invade and her family is forced to flee. A terrible misunderstanding means she is left behind, and her only hope of escape is the marriage of convenience offered by Quinn, a young English professor who offers to bring her back to London.

To Die in Spring

by Ralf Rothmann

Book cover for To Die in Spring

In 1945 it seems that the worst of the war is over, and Walter and Friedrich work together on a dairy farm in northern Germany. But then they are forced to ‘volunteer’ with the SS, and Friedrich is sent to the front where the senseless violence he experiences leads him to desert. When he is captured and sentenced to death, the friends are reunited in terrible circumstances.

The English Patient

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Book cover for The English Patient

As the Second World War draws to a close, four disparate characters shelter in a house in an abandoned Italian village. Hana, a nurse, grieves for her father as she tends her last remaining patient, an anonymous Englishman burned beyond all recognition. Caravaggio, a spy and former thief, slowly extracts the story of the Englishman’s past from him, while a touching relationship develops between Hana and Kip, a Sikh bomb disposal expert. This is a heartbreaking love story and a beautiful novel about the traumas of war.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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Book cover for The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2014, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the story of Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon living through the horrors of a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway. As he struggles to save the men under his command from starvation, beatings and cholera, he is haunted by an affair with his uncle’s wife years before.