Purnell's History of the Second World War

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Purnell's History of the Second World War was a hugely successful weekly anthology or 'partwork' publication covering all aspects of World War II that was distributed throughout the English-speaking world. Produced shortly after the similarly accomplished 8-volume series on WW1, it was first published in 1966, being reprinted several times during the 1970s.[1]

The magazine was notable for its use of multiple writers – many of them well-known military figures – from all relevant nationalities in order to present a rounded view of the subject material. This was combined with high-quality original artwork of the military hardware used, maps and numerous previously unseen photographs, some of them quite gruesome.


Despite the name, Purnell's History of the Second World War was published by Phoebus Publishing Ltd in co-operation with the Imperial War Museum, which provided its research facilities, expert advice, official statistics and photographs. The now defunct Purnell & Sons, later British Printing Corporation, based in Paulton, Avon (Now Bath & North East Somerset), were the printers of the magazine. At the time, Purnell's were one of the largest and most advanced printing plants in Europe, and had developed a reputation for high quality printing, producing well-known titles such as the Observer Magazine and the TV Times.[2]

Editorial stance[edit]

The editor, Barrie Pitt, who had been involved in the production of the BBC Television series The Great War, together with the editor in chief, the renowned military theorist and historian Sir Basil Liddel Hart, wanted to create a definitive record of the conflict which would both hold up to academic scrutiny and be accessible to the general public. Each issue of the magazine contained several articles on differing topics but typically, important or contentious events were viewed from both sides (e.g. Stalingrad: The German View, followed by another article, Stalingrad: The Russian View) in order to allow the writers to counter long held myths and set the record straight rather than to merely recycle familiar themes. Numerous famous military figures and former senior staff officers contributed articles; because it was originally published just over twenty years after the end of the conflict, many of the surviving protagonists were still alive.

Former combatants who wrote for the magazine[edit]

General Walter Warlimont (survivor of the 20 July plot who received a long prison sentence at Nuremberg, but was later released) was commissioned to produce a piece on life in Hitler's inner circle, while Marshal G.K. Zhukov contributed an article on how he planned the Moscow counterattack. Marshal I.S. Konev also continued an article about the plan to invade Berlin

Other senior figures who contributed to the publication include;

Major General Eric Dorman O'Gowan, former Chief of Staff of General Auchinleck; Freiherr von der Heydte commander of Rommel's rearguard during the 2nd Battle of El Alemein; General Major Alfred Philippi who commanded an infantry division on the western front after D-Day; Lord Chalfont, former Minister for Disarmament writing on the morality of the atom bomb attacks on Japan; General Leutnant Walther Chales De Beaulieu, commander of a Panzer army at Leningrad; Major General JL Moulton; Brigadier Rt Hon Sir John Smith VC, MC former MP and minister under the Churchill and Eden governments; and Lieutenant-General Nikolay Kirillovick-Popel, who participated in the Stalingrad offensive.

Other contributors[edit]

Prominent historians such as John Keegan, Jerrard Tickell, W.H. Koch, Alvin D. Coox, Phyllis Auty, Martin Blumenson, Antony Brett-James, John Vader, Rudolf Bohmer, Raleigh Trevelyan produced articles, as well as AJP Taylor, who acted as editor in chief for later editions after the death of Sir Basil Liddel Hart.

Other well-known contributors to the publication included Alan Clark MP and the best-selling author Dudley Pope. Eyewitness accounts from otherwise anonymous individuals, such as a Japanese housewife telling of the horrors of life after the surrender and the testimony of a former Zero pilot, were also included.

John Batchelor contributed 1163 illustrations.[3]

Cold war[edit]

Despite the efforts to tell the story from alternative viewpoints, many of the events being discussed remained controversial and sensitive subjects, and there was still scope for Cold War propaganda and government censorship to find its way into print.

In issue 45, which covered the Katyn Massacre, the discovery of the bodies of several thousand captured Polish officers in 1943, which was widely believed to have been carried out by the Soviets, and which remained an unmentionable subject between the Allies after the war, the historian Jerrard Tickell attempted to reconstruct the events around the atrocity which took place at the Hill of Goats site. While pointing to the evidence, he left his conclusion open ended, finishing with the comment that it was up to the reader to form their own opinion. His article was followed by a piece by a Soviet scientist purporting to be a forensic re-examination of all the available evidence such as the conditions of the bodies, their levels of decomposition and the remaining artefacts in order to 'prove' that the Polish officers could have only been murdered during the period of the German occupation of the region. Using eye witness accounts, selective testimonies and the findings of the official Russian investigation into the affair, Doctor of Juridical Sciences Arkady Poltorak finished with the paragraph;

Thus was unmasked the provocative act of the Nazis, thus was established with complete clarity the fact of the monstrous killing by the Nazi authorities of Polish prisoners of war at Katyn Wood

During the Perestroika period in the early 1990s, the Russian authorities finally admitted that the killings had been carried out by the NKVD, the secret police organization used to enforce Stalin's rule.

Later editions[edit]

The series was so successful that although it was initially scheduled to run to six volumes of 16 issues each, a further two volumes were added, covering later themes such as the Chinese Civil War, the Arab–Israeli Conflict, Suez, Korean War, Vietnam War, and the rise of nationalism which led to the breakup of the European empires in the years after World War II. There were also discussions on the spread of communism, tactics and battle strategy, the post war reconstruction, the use of propaganda, the work of war correspondents and artists, profiles of the leading politicians, generals and ambassadors, and features on uniforms and medals.

While the editorial comment justified this move as important for the reader to gain a rounded view of all the inter-connected events, it could also be considered a sound business move to extract as much financial reward for the publishers as possible.

As well as the magazine itself, a series of higher quality 'specials' were also later produced which were themselves hugely successful, selling over 8 million copies world wide.[4] They centred on specific elements not only of World War II but also World War I, e.g., Battleships of the First World War, The Desert War, German Secret Weapons, D Day: Invasion of Hitler's Europe and German Tanks 1939–45. While popular, they included a great deal of material previously published in the main magazine.

Though the magazine is long out of print, it is remembered as largely achieving what it set out to do, and back issues remain sought after on internet auctions.



  1. ^ Purnell's History of the Second World War Archived 30 November 2010 at the Wayback Machine in 96 weekly issues, with 32 supplements, partworks.co.uk. Retrieved July 2011
  2. ^ Goodman, Terry, The History of Purnell & Sons Ltd and the British Printing Corporation, July 2004, ISBN 978-0-9547241-0-8. Retrieved July 2011
  3. ^ "Out of work for 44 minutes". Dorset Life - The Dorset Magazine. July 2016. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  4. ^ Purnell's History of the Second World War issue 100 – Back Page