The Second World War was life changing for millions of people and it inspired some writers to create powerful novels that offer a new perspective on what it was like to live in such uncertain times.

IWM has selected four such novels from its extensive literary archive and is publishing them as the first in a new series, IWM Wartime Classics.

To launch the series, IWM staff searched for novels which covered wide-ranging fronts and experiences – from the Far East to Blitzed London, via Albania and the beaches of Normandy, the chosen books are moving and evocative accounts inspired by the real life experiences of each writer.

Learn more about the authors and their fascinating wartime experiences below.

D-Day

Portrait of Alexander Baron
© The Estate of Alexander Baron

During the Second World War, Alexander Baron served with the Pioneer Corps in Sicily, mainland Italy and France. It is this experience on which his first novel, From the City, From the Plough (1948) is based.

The novel authentically describes the long periods of training and waiting inherent in soldiering, as well as the realities of such groups of individuals sharing such close quarters. The title aims to evoke the men’s differing origins, with their urban and rural backgrounds and poignant descriptions of camaraderie and humour abound.

Yet the true dramatic focus of the book comes several chapters in, as the fictional battalion embarks for the beaches of Normandy.

The D-Day landings of 6 June 1944 play a huge role in the national memory of Britain, Canada and the United States. Due to the complex nature of such operations, the long planning and training – as described in the novel – was essential.

Alexander Baron was one of the men who crossed to France – his Pioneer company landed in one of the earliest waves, immediately after the first assault. Baron witnessed, though didn’t participate in, the fiercest fighting.

Later, he wrote, ‘in two of my novels there are accounts of the landing in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. These are based on my memories but I read them today as if they were somebody else’s story’.  What his short, masterful novel conveys – in the way that feature films cannot – is this realism of the war experience. After all, Baron was there.

The novel doesn’t end with the D-Day landings, but goes on to describe the push into Northern France, with unflinching realism and an emotional impact that lives long in the mind of the reader.

Jungle warfare

Portrait of David Piper

Like Alexander Baron, David Piper saw active service and his novel Trial by Battle (1959) brilliantly conveys the claustrophobia and terror of the jungle fighting he experienced in Malaya during the Second World War. Piper served with the Indian Army, training as an officer in Bangalore before joining the 4th Battalion, 9th Jat Regiment. His battalion arrived in Malaya in January 1942.

As with From the City, From the Plough, the opening chapters of this novel set the scene for its young protagonist – a thinly disguised David Piper himself – as the author deals with some of the mundanities of Army life alongside some of its more light-hearted moments. But events soon take a different turn when the men arrive in Malaya.

From December 1941 to May 1942, the British Empire suffered the most humiliating series of defeats in its history, as Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo, Singapore and Burma fell in rapid succession to the Imperial Japanese Army.

The Fall of Singapore in February 1942 was considered by the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, ‘the worst and largest capitulation in history’. The Japanese overran the numerically superior Commonwealth forces in Malaya in just over two months, resulting in more than 130,000 troops entering captivity.

Into this arena the young David Piper’s battalion was sent, and the book’s supreme strength lies in its depictions of jungle warfare once the men arrive. The evocation of the claustrophobia, the heat, the fear, and the tension can only be drawn from direct experience, and the novel’s dramatic denouement stays with the reader for a very long time. 

After the surrender at Singapore, David Piper became a prisoner of war in Changi and then Taiwan. After the war, he returned to Britain and forged a successful career as an art historian and museum director.

Secret operations

Anthony Quayle

Anthony Quayle was a successful British actor and theatre director, well known for his roles in classic plays on the stage as well as his film career. Perhaps less well known is Quayle’s war service, part of which is described vividly in his novel Eight Hours From England, originally published in 1945.

During the war Quayle served in the Royal Artillery, and in 1943 joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Quayle was deployed to Albania on 31st December that year, exactly the same date that the novel’s protagonist, John Overton is sent. Indeed, Quayle’s time in Albania is so closely reflected in Eight Hours from England that the book almost acts as a memoir, merely with the names slightly altered.

The book was one of the earliest accounts to be published by any ex-SOE officer, and it remains a powerful study of the dilemmas faced by occupied populations, and the challenges faced by outsiders inclined to help. Overton’s mission is muddied by competing local factions and tensions between the Allies themselves, not to mention geographical and logistical obstacles. The novel paints a fascinating portrait not just of derring-do and bravery, but also of some of the frustration of life as an SOE operative.

Quayle was in Albania for just over 3 months, but described his joy at leaving as ‘so great that it was almost pain. I jolted along in the back of the truck sobbing with happiness’.

Life in London

Portrait of Kathleen Hewitt

Kathleen Hewitt’s novel of wartime London and the black market paints a vivid picture of the privations and strains of wartime. During the Second World War, Hewitt lived in a flat in Marylebone. She set her 1943 whodunit Plenty Under the Counter in the city she knew well.

The action takes place after the London Blitz – a period of 72 consecutive nights (excluding two nights of bad weather) where there were 354 attacks on London, with a corresponding casualty count of almost 20,000 civilians.

In this period, civilians were the front line and Londoners faced privation, disruption and loss of homes and loved ones.

The Blitz undoubtedly brought out the best in thousands of Londoners – the famous Blitz spirit – but it also had a darker undertone in the illicit black market. It is this which drives the plot in Hewitt’s novel – it is ultimately a detective story featuring murder and gangsters.

For a minority of Londoners, wartime, the black out and the Blitz presented opportunities to continue – or even begin – a life of crime. For many more people, the advent of so many new rules and regulations governing everyday life made it so much more tempting to cheat the system, and claw back some sense of pre-war normality.

Looting during the Blitz was a major problem, as was the black market – if you knew who to ask and could afford the prices charged. The biggest trade was in selling and buying coupons for petrol or clothing, but pretty much anything was available on the black market for a price, from fur coats to underwear. This is the world in which some of Hewitt’s characters become embroiled, and the world which the protagonist must attempt to navigate in order to solve the mystery.

In very different ways then, all four of these classic novels illuminate diverse aspects of the Second World War.

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  • From the City, From the Plough book cover

    From the City, From the Plough

    by Alexander Baron – A vivid and moving account of preparations for D-Day and the advance into Normandy.

  • Trial by Battle book cover

    Trial by Battle

    by David Piper – A quietly shattering and searingly authentic depiction of the claustrophobia of jungle warfare in Malaya 

  • Eight Hours From England book cover

    Eight Hours from England

    by Anthony Quayle – A candid account of SOE operations in occupied Europe from the renowned Shakespearean actor, director and film star.

  • Plenty Under the Counter book cover

    Plenty Under the Counter

    by Kathleen Hewitt – a murder mystery about opportunism and the black market set against the backdrop of London during the Blitz.