ONLY THE AMERICAN Civil War has generated an English-language literature of military history that can compare with the wealth of books about the Second World War in Europe. And obviously, the writing about the war against the Fuehrer Adolf Hitler and his minions has blossomed with 80 years' less time than the 1861-1865 literature, surpassing by a wide margin the quality of the books about the Civil War that were available 40 years after Appomattox, and thus suggesting that the feast is only beginning.

It has to be mentioned that the World War II literature has benefited, as was to be expected, from a far larger infusion of British contributions than have enriched our libraries of Civil War books. Moreover, British military historians often write with verve and persuasiveness as well as stylistic grace beyond the customary standards of American historical writing.

In fact, to suggest an overview of the entire Second World War, though with emphasis on Europe, to be recommended above all other books as the one with which the newcomer to the subject ought to begin, I must turn to a British work, Basil H. Liddell Hart's History of the Second World War (1971). This choice seems necessary, but it is not altogether wholehearted. The book suffers from its author's conspicuous idiosyncrasies. Liddell Hart so disapproved of the Allies' unconditional surrender policy, for example, that protests against it sometimes seem about to run away with the whole book. The history is also suffused with the author's preening vanity; Liddell Hart came to imagine that he was the fountainhead of virtually the whole system and practice of modern mechanized war, and he reminds his readers too often of his excessive valuation of his genuine but self-exaggerated contributions. Nevertheless, Liddell Hart's is the best relatively brief summary of the military events of the war that we have. Its peculiarities are often stimulating as well as irritating -- and Liddell Hart always wrote well.

Not surprisingly, British writers also offer most of the best coverage in English of the events preceding American entry into the war, including the fall of France. The best single volume on that disaster, in its balance of the political, diplomatic and social background with insightful military coverage, is Alistair Horne'sTo Lose a Battle: France 1940 (1969). It might well be supplemented with a more specifically military work, excellent on the prewar background of the French army, and also by a British writer: Guy Chapman, Why France Fell: The Defeat of the French Army in 1940 (1968). Grave as were France's political, economic and social weaknesses, her military defeat was not inevitable and was a defeat of her army on the battleground; Chapman reminds us of these facts.

The turning-point Battle of Britain naturally has generated almost a surfeit of British writing (although the Germans, in contrast, sometimes scarcely acknowledge that any such event took place). A synthesis of much other study rather than a work breaking new ground, but an exceptionally able synthesis balancing strategy, operations and aircraft and electronics technology, is a nonfiction work by the novelist Len Deighton: Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain (1977). The Battle of Britain is also the subject of a skillfully written synopsis within a book covering the entire history of the Royal Air Force in the war against Hitler, with a good deal on the pre-1939 formative years of the RAF as well: John Terraine, A Time for Courage: The Royal Air Force in the European War, 1939-1945 (1985).

The combination of cogency and literary grace customary in British historical writing has elevated the war in North Africa to a prominence probably greater than it deserves. The stakes were certainly large enough in the North African campaigns; it was the oil of the Middle East that was in contest -- so that these campaigns have the added fascination of their close relationship to some of the plagues of the present. Nevertheless, the battles in North Africa were small affairs in numbers of men engaged, and much of their prominence derives from British glorification of them as the last great military victories of the British Empire. The best of the many British books on the subject -- largely because it is anything but a glorification, offering rather a penetrating analysis of the shortcomings of the British army and of their deep roots in British history -- is Correlli Barnett's The Desert Generals (1982). Barnett's heroes, because they triumphed at least partially over the deficiencies of their own army as well as sometimes over the enemy, are General Sir Claude Auchinleck and Lieutenant General Richard N. O'Connor. The latter commanded against the Italians in 1940; as a connoisseur of generalship, Barnett sighs for the confrontation between O'Connor and Generalleutnant (Major General) Erwin Rommel that never quite occurred, because O'Connor was captured almost immediately after Rommel arrived on the scene. Barnett's second edition takes into account the Ultra secret, the British decrypting of German and Italian wireless communications.

IN THE END, not even the North African triumphs were entirely British, because the final battles followed the combined Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa. This invasion grew out of the most important Allied strategic decision of the European war, and it therefore demands consideration of the literature on strategic decisions. Choosing to mount TORCH, the assault on French North Africa, was so critical because it assured that the real Second Front -- the Anglo-American invasion of northwest Europe -- would not be opened until at least 1944, that the United States would be at war with Germany for more than two years before American soldiers came to grips with a major share of the German army. In spite of the entry of the United States, therefore, for more than two years the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would have to bear the brunt of the power of the Wehrmacht and to suffer most of the casualties of the anti-Hitler coalition. No other single factor so much assured the perpetuation of Soviet suspicions of the West and thus the later coming of the Cold War as this long postponement of the Second Front. Conversely, if the Cold War had to come anyway, then the long postponement of the Second Front helped assure that the Soviets would penetrate deep into Europe; an earlier Anglo-American invasion of France would probably have led to a deeper Anglo-American penetration eastward. These consequences and many more hinged on the decision for TORCH, because invading North Africa late in 1942 decreed that Allied troops and shipping would be so much concentrated in the Mediterranean so long into 1943 that a shift to northern Europe during the good campaigning weather of that year was out of the question.

Britain's Mediterranean strategy that inveigled the Americans into TORCH is dressed up with ex post facto arguments that it was all foresightedly intended to save southeastern Europe from the Soviets by the most elegant prose stylist of all the eloquent British writers about the war, Winston S. Churchill himself, in the six volumes of his The Second World War (1948-1953). Churchill's history was published so early that because it thus first staked out much of the historical ground, as well as because of its hypnotic cadences and the stature of its author as wartime prime minister, its influence has been difficult to resist. Nevertheless, resistence is essential.

A good place to begin the resistance to Churchill's interpretations is in a concise British argument that Churchillian strategy was based not so much on clear-eyed anti- communism as simply on the vicissitudes of military expediency: Michael Howard, The Mediterranean Strategy in the Second World War (1968). On a canvas almost as broad as Churchill's, two American official historians review Anglo-American strategic planning in detail and vigorously defend the wisdom of the American preference for a direct as opposed to a peripheral strategy, that is, for a cross-Channel assault against Germany as early as possible: Maurice Matloff and Edwin M. Snell, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1941-1942 (1951) and Maurice Matloff, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1943-1944 (1959), both volumes in the Army's official historical series, United States Army in World War II.

The hard-pressed Soviets, whose suspicions of the West were so much aggravated by TORCH and the consequent long postponement of the cross-Channel invasion, fought a war that we in the West do not know as well as we might like -- our ignorance stemming mainly from the Soviets' mania for secrecy. Because the Soviets have been less than forthcoming in releasing source material, because their own histories and the memoirs of their military commanders vary so much with the shifting of political winds, and it must be admitted because of limited knowledge of the Russian language among Western historians of the war, our knowledge of the Eastern Front is still disproportionately dependent on German documents, histories and memoirs.

Under these circumstances, older books about the Eastern Front have not become outdated as early as they otherwise might have. The most readable account -- by another of those eloquent British writers -- remains Alan Clark, Barbarossa: The Russian- German Conflict, 1941-45 (1965). Clark emphasizes key battles; more comprehensive in its chronological coverage of the Russian experience of war, and tending to sweep up the reader in its author's passionate admiration for Soviet resistance to the Nazis, is Alexander Werth's Russia at War, 1941-1945 (1964). Perhaps not quite so readable, but likely to remain the most reliable account in English for a long time to come because of its author's unparalleled diligence in finding his way into the Soviet sources, is John Erickson's Stalin's War With Germany: The Road to Stalingrad (1975) and The Road To Berlin: Continuing the History of Stalin's War with Germany (1983).

Erickson's histories of the war itself ought to be read in conjunction with his equally first-rate study of the Red Army's evolution before the war, The Soviet High Command: A Military-Political History, 1918-41 (1962). Such an approach through the prewar background is also especially valuable for understanding Germany's part in the war, because one of the foremost themes that emerges from the military history of the Second World War in Europe is the surpassing skill, resourcefulness and resilience of the German armed forces, particularly the army, that permitted Germany for the second time in the century to fend off for years on end the bulk of the military strength of the remainder of the world in league against her.

More successful in its depiction of German military skills than in its efforts to explain why those skills were so finely honed, but nevertheless an invaluable approach to comprehending German military power, is Trevor N. Dupuy's A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945 (1977). A challenging comparison of German and American military skills, to the detriment of the Americans, is Martin van Creveld, Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (1982). It is probably time, however, for historians to essay similarly well-researched and well-reasoned efforts to understand the combat virtues of Germany's opponents, to halt a tendency to go to extremes in praise of German fighting power. For the growing skill as well as the growing material power of the Anglo-American armed forces shaped decisively the final years of the European war.

Before that skill and power could be fully brought to bear on the Continent, the British and Americans had to win control of the Atlantic sea lanes from German submarines. An excellent overview of the struggle to do so is Terry Hughes and John Costello, The Battle of the Atlantic (1977). This generously illustrated volume is especially useful because it includes consideration of the impact of Ultra. German naval communications were much more difficult to decrypt than those of the air force and considerably more resistant also than those of the army, yet final Allied suppression of the submarines proved to depend on reading the Germans' messages.

For an introduction to the role of Ultra in the entire war against Germany, the best brief work probably remains Ronald Lewin's Ultra Goes to War: The First Account of World War II's Greatest Secret Based on Official Documents (1978). A witty as well as exceptionally informative memoir by a British scientist involved in this and related matters is Reginald V. Jones, The Wizard War (1978).

BUT LET US TURN to the American battles on the European Continent, and mainly to American writers free from the persisting propensity of too many of the British to condescend to the new superpower from across the Atlantic. For a knowledgeable survey, including the American battles in North African and Italy, there is Charles B. MacDonald, The Mighty Endeavor: American Armed Forces in the European Theater in World War II (1969). MacDonald had established his credentials with his personal recollections of combat, a classic of its kind, Company Commander (1947).

Another volume of official history surveys best the Western Allies' high command against Germany, including the relationships among personalities as well as the conduct of strategy and operations: Forrest C. Pogue, The Supreme Command (1954).

The many frustrations as well as the ultimate triumph of the Italian campaign are epitomized by another veteran World War II historian -- like MacDonald and Pogue a veteran in the sense of personal experience as well as of numerous historical works: Martin Blumenson, Anzio: The Gamble That Failed (1963).

The preparations for the great cross- Channel invasion, the Normandy landings on the 6th of June 1944, and the subsequent bitter battles in Normandy can best be explored in two recent books, the first by a British journalist, the second by a retired American army officer: Max Hastings, OVERLORD: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy (1984), and Carlo D'Este, Decision in Normandy (1983). The latter is especially valuable for its demolition of the myth fostered by General (from September 1, 1944, field marshal) Sir Bernard Law Montgomery that the battle of Normandy was fought altogether according to the plans he had conceived beforehand.

Another book by Martin Blumenson, The Duel for France, 1944 (1963), also surveys the Normandy campaign but carries the action across France to the frontier of Germany and the Low Countries. Cornelius Ryan's method of building a battle narrative upon hundreds of interviews with participants -- as well as skillfully using documentary and printed sources -- flourished at its best in his account of Montgomery's airborne effort to prevent the pursuit across France from degenerating into a deadlock as it approached Germany: A Bridge Too Far (1974). This writer disagrees, however, with Ryan's implication that attempting to capture the bridge over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, thereby outflanking Germany's Westwall defenses, was reaching for one bridge too far. The plan to take Arnhem was sound enough in conception; the failure was in tactical execution.

The failure to take and hold a bridgehead across the Rhine at Arnhem in any event helped assure an autumn deadlock along the Westwall, or as the Allies called the German frontier defenses, the Siegfried Line. The autumn deadlock in turn permitted the Germans to husband their last remaining reserves of strength for the Ardennes counteroffensive, launched on December 16, 1944. Of all the American battles of the war, those of the Ardennes have been most fully chronicled. While the adjective in the subtitle is objectionable in its ignoring a host of other good books, the most recent full account is probably the best: another book by Charles B. MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge (1984). Desperate as the struggle in the Ardennes came to be, the Germans did the Allies a handsome favor by coming out from their defenses for the counteroffensive; their expenditure of their last appreciable strength assured that the land battles fought after the Ardennes were anticlimactic, their outcome altogether a foregone conclusion.

Some airmen had always maintained that proper use of Allied air power could have precluded the necessity for land battles at all. While such a conclusion now seems even more dubious than it did at the time, thanks to postwar findings about the resiliency of the German economy and German morale, it is nevertheless true that by the spring of 1945 bombing of Germany's synthetic petroleum industry, mainly by American daylight attacks, had virtually paralyzed the Reich. Germany was about to become helpless to wage modern war whether or not the ground campaigns overran her territory. The Combined Bomber Offensive lacks the wealth of literature generated by the ground campaigns; the best recent single volume about it concerns mainly the British part in it and the immense cost -- to both sides -- as well as the strategic dubiety of British area bombing of German cities: another book by Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979). The best balanced brief assessment of the accomplishments and limitations of the strategic bombing of Germany is to be found in a volume mainly concerned with postwar strategy, Bernard Brodie's Strategy in the Missile Age (1959).

I HAVE RESERVED memoirs and biographies until the last. Such works could readily make up a separate essay, and this review can mention only a select few. Among memoirists, two of the best American combat commanders demonstrated after the war that the often intuitive talents of a battle captain are not incompatible with a thoughtful approach to the history of war. If an additional American field army had been created during the European war, it would probably have gone to Major General J. Lawton Collins of the VII Corps, later -- as a full general -- Army chief of staff during the Korean War; Collins would have fully deserved an army command in combat. His Lightning Joe: An Autobiography (1979) helps reveal why. The feel of combat and, in a general's memoirs, a not-altogether-customary feel for the trials of the ordinary soldier are combined with a perceptive account of command responsibilities by the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in its battles from Operation MARKET-GARDEN, the struggle for Arnhem, onward. Brigadier General (from October 1944 major general, and later lieutenant general) James M. Gavin wrote On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander, 1943-1946 (1978).

Among biographies, priority of place must go to the definitive study of General of the Army George C. Marshall, who while he did not fight in Europe was the most steadfast champion of the cross-Channel invasion and the primary organizer of the American army: Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall (three volumes to date, 1963-). For General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, all other biographies have been superseded by Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower (two volumes, 1983- 1984). To be read with caution because of their tendency to acept Monty's version of every military event, but nevertheless full of insight, are the two volumes thus far published of Nigel Hamilton's biography of Montgomery: Monty: The Making of a General, 1887-1942 and Master of the Battlefield: Monty's War Years, 1942-1944 (1981, 1983). For the colorful General George S. Patton Jr., Martin Blumenson blends biography with a generous sampling from the general's letters and diaries in The Patton Papers (two volumes, 1972-1974).

While thus we have a hearty bill of fare, and while in the English-language literature American writers have been eroding the tendency for all of us to perceive the war from a British perspective, one salient flaw still tends to weaken historical writing about the Second World War against Germany. The flaw springs in part from the natural circumstance that such writing has by and large remained the province of participants in the war or at least of those who as children during the war viewed it from complete or relative safety as a great adventure. Both groups have felt possessive toward the war, and both have been reluctant to criticize or to tolerate criticism of their own part in the war and their own favored leaders in it. It was their war, in its purposes certainly it was a just and satisfactory war, and writing about it has tended to invest it with an aura of romance. Military history in general may be more inclined to cling to a romantic view of the past than other branches of history; that has surely been true of the writing of the history of World War II. Even praise of the Allies' German opponents for their military skill -- perhaps the one conspicuous critical theme -- has its romantic aspect, for to have overcome an enemy of exceptional formidability ennobles one's own cause.

Except for a very few -- Hasting's OVERLORD and Bomber Command, D'Este's Decision in Normandy, for example -- the works listed above tend not to grapple with their subjects with the critical incisiveness that we have long come to expect from political histories of World War II. Plentiful though the books on World War II military history have been, the critical assessments of the military conduct of the war against Germany by the Allies are largely yet to be written.