Top 5 War Picks (fact or fiction) Of All Time

This is a genre that I’ve partly made up myself. A really good fictional war story should, of course, be entirely believable (especially to someone with military experience). And a good factual account of someone’s real life experiences should read like a well written novel. All this is distinct from War History (fact) which is a different beast altogether.

Someone said (Hemingway?) that it is impossible to write about war without glorifying it. Whoever it was certainly never read the first two offerings.

Alastair MacLean made his writing debut with “HMS Ulysses“, a (fictional)
story based on the experience of notorious Arctic Convoy PQ17 of which 23
of the original 34 ships were sunk by U Boats. “HMS Ulysses” also draws on
the author’s own experiences on the Arctic Convoys and, for a debut, it is
very impressive. It is also moving, relentless and bleak and it’s no
spoiler to say that, as with PQ17, there isn’t a happy ending.

HMS Ulysses (US)
HMS Ulysses (UK)

Campbell’s Review of HMS Ulysses

Len Deighton is well known for his spy thrillers, but “Bomber” is considered to be his true masterpiece. It is written from the opposing points of view of a the crew of “Creaking Door” – an RAF Lancaster bomber, the pilot of a Luftwaffe night fighter and of a number of German civilians who found themselves under the Door’s bombs. It is a lovingly crafted progenitor of the techno-thriller, yet is thoroughly human and profoundly antiwar.

Bomber (US)
Bomber (UK)

Campbell’s Review of Bomber

Sven Hassell wrote 14 war stories. He passed them off as autobiographically factual, but concensus is that he spent the war in his native Copenhagen collaborating with the puppet regime installed there by the Nazis and never saw the inside of a Tiger tank. Regardless of his dodgy (to put it very mildly) past, his fictional novels are brutal, cynical and bags of fun. The first of the bunch, “Legion of the Damned“, stands out, being both naiive and cynical and also far more believable than any of his rather fantastical later offerings.

Legion of the Damned (US)
Legion of the Damned (UK)

Robert Mason wrote “Chickenhawk” partly as a way of getting his life back on track after a punishing tour as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. It’s factual account of his time there and is a true modern classic. No politics, no frills or self justification, just helicopters and war, writ very well.

Chickenhawk (US)
Chickenhawk (UK)

Quartered Safe Out Here” is George MacDonald Fraser‘s war story. He wrote the notorious “Flashman” series about the eponymous cad – a latter day Jeremy Clarkson, if you will – from Tom Brown’s Schooldays. That series itself is more than worthy of inclusion in any list of fictional war stories, but Quartered Safe is a fascinating, entertaining and rather more factual account of Fraser’s service in Burma.

Quartered Safe out Here (US)
Quartered Safe out Here (UK)

So there you go… perhaps not a definitive list. But, fact or fiction, they are to my mind excellent examples of the War Story.

Honourable mention should go to Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front”, Paul Brickhill’s “The Dambusters” and “Reach For the Sky”, James Jones’ “The Thin Red Line” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” to name but a paltry few.