In 2019, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Ministry of Defence reported there are over 2.5 million people living in the UK who have served in one or other of our armed services. Military novels, military auto-biographies, stories of military battles and campaigns, all remain immensely popular subjects. And it’s not only those huge numbers of veterans who devour every word written on the subject, readers across all demographics have a deep and lasting fascination with the mysterious and exciting world of our armed services.

Choosing a shortlist of favourites from such a huge range proved to be quite a challenge. One thing I soon realised, however, is that no list of this kind could fail to mention and give credit to the two books that have done more to boost the popularity of this genre in the UK than any other. When Andy McNab’s account of the ill-fated Bravo Two Zero mission in Iraq first hit the shelves in 1993, it did so in the aftermath of a highly-publicised legal battle and debate about the probity of former special-forces soldiers being allowed to tell their stories. For clear reasons concerning operational security, those against had a strong argument. Those in favour, however, had the precedent of Peter de la Billière’s published autobiography, some of which covered the same topics as McNab. A court decided and the book was published. Bravo Two Zero had its detractors but it proved to be hugely popular and, in 1995, it was followed by Chris Ryan’s The One that got Away, his incredible account of the same SAS patrol and his subsequent solo escape from Iraq. The genre was created, a bar was set and stories that followed needed to reach it.

Since then, UK involvement in conflicts and campaigns around the world has resulted in a continuing stream of material and authors. To my mind, 3 Days in June is one of the best. Using the words of those who were there, this describes the 1983 attack by 3rd battalion, the Parachute Regiment on Mount Longdon during the Falklands War. Written by James O’Connell in 2021, we waited a long time to read this incredible tale. It was worth the wait.

Of the books that emerged from the Iraq war, two of the best have to be the accounts by Damien Lewis (Bravo Three Zero and Zero Six Bravo), both of which provide edge-of-the seat accounts told in an exciting narrative style. Another is Double Crossed, the account by military cross recipient Brian Wood, whose experience in a battle where he was commended for bravery and then falsely accused of murder made for a harrowing and gripping read.

Moving to Afghanistan, Mark Urban’s Task Force Black gave the reader the inside track description on secretive SAS operations but, for me, the best books to emerge from that theatre were less dramatic and more focussed on the men and women putting their lives on the line, how they were affected and what they saw and experienced. The Junior Officers’ Reading Club by Patrick Hennessy was the first such account that I was able to personally relate to. Boredom, routine, life in the Officer’s Mess, it was all very familiar. Hennessy describes the reality of military life with skill. When, finally, he is posted to Helmand and experiences the reality of war, this book accelerates the reader into a world few of us will hopefully experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Soldiers on the front line are often indebted to the skill and bravery of the helicopter pilots who deliver them to conflict zones, who extract them when an operation is concluded and who, when needed, fly in to rescue the wounded. One such pilot was Alex ‘Frenchie’ Duncan DFC who told his story to Antony Loveless and which became Sweating the Metal, Duncan’s blistering account of life, death and dust in Afghanistan. Other memoirs that take us into the minds of the soldiers include We were Warriors, the moving story of courage under fire penned by Johnny Mercer and No Easy Day, Mark Owen’s account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, organiser and funder of the 9/11 attacks in the US. All are excellent reads.

Thinking back to a time before B20, a favourite read, although less well known nowadays is Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser. Fraser’s skill as a writer had been demonstrated throughout his excellent Flashman series of novels and his autobiography did not disappoint. His memoir depicting his experiences in Burma during WWII was, to my mind, even better than his novels.

There are many memoirs written by senior military figures from Richard Dannatt through to Peter de la Billière. All are worthy reads. A personal favourite of mine carries the straightforward title Soldier. This is General Sir Mike Jackson’s honest and candid account of his career, the conflicts he was involved in and the personalities he met along the way. Jackson always struck me as very straight-talking in interviews and reading his book confirmed that. He writes as well as he speaks.

Keep scrolling to explore our full list of military memoirs. If your looking to dive into something fictional, check out our Modern Military Thrillers collection featuring characters with former military or intelligence skills.