By Dr Brian Laslie
S.P. MacKenzie, Flying Against Fate: Superstition and Allied Aircrews in World War II. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. viii + 256 pp.
I do not consider myself superstitious. Being a Historian is not a career field where one feels the need to be ‘lucky.’ That being said, I will admit to having more than a few sports shirts and hats that I consider lucky. I also admit to wearing a ‘rally cap’ from time to time, you know when I need the baseball gods to allow a game-winning hit. These instances, in reality, do not matter. I do not (nor should I) consider them life and death issues. However, I can think of instances where being superstitious seems completely warranted. S.P. MacKenzie’s new work Flying Against Fate: Superstition and Allied Aircrews in World War II is a concise and laser-focused study that delves into the steps taken by allied aircrews (British and American) to ensure their survival using methods that MacKenzie calls ‘magical thinking,’ what is recognised universally as superstition.
MacKenzie breaks his examination of aircrew superstition into asking for miracles (religion), Talismans and Mascots, Incantations and rituals, Jinxes and Jonahs, and Numbers and symbols. MacKenzie’s work goes a step further than many other works that look at the motivations of soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines. It is often said, aircrews and soldiers on the ground fought for each other, but what motivated them as individuals? What made them capable of climbing into their aircraft despite the overwhelming sense of fear or dread and the knowledge that the chance of death was weighted heavily against their survival? MacKenzie points to the belief that a ritual, charm, or item protected them from harm.
MacKenzie shows that between training accidents, accidents in theatre, and actual combat the chances for survival among allied aircrews was low.
In practice this meant tours in which statistically speaking, the chances of being killed, wounded, or taken prisoner usually exceeded those of emerging unscathed. (p. 6)
Over the course of hours flown or combat missions completed, ‘only 25 percent of heavy-bomber crewmen were emerging unscathed from their twenty-five mission combat tours.’ (p. 7) Though the number of tours increased throughout the war and with death so nearby, it was no wonder these men turned towards a power beyond their control. The logical fallacy of Post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) often played into the beginnings or creation of superstitious aspects of flying during the war. Perhaps a coin or photograph discovered in a pocket after a particularly harrowing mission or a gift of a lucky rabbit’s foot by a friend. It seems almost anything could take on special meaning to a flyer.
On the importance of religion, MacKenzie demonstrates that American crew members were more likely to attend either a service or speak with a religious figure than their British colleagues. Church attendance declined in England in the first half of the century (perhaps because of the impact of First World War) while it increased in America, but religious aspect aside both nation’s aircrews put plenty of stock in other aspects of ritual and talisman to ensure their safety. If not religion, then aircrews turned to items or rituals, anything they believed gave them against the death that was surely coming for them. Magical thinking was not limited to junior officers or line pilots. Towards the end of his work, MacKenzie also lists several very senior air commanders who each held their own superstitions. It seems rank or position provided no hindrance to the necessity of using magical thinking to protect one’s place on the Earth during the Second World War.
While MacKenzie adds that this magical thinking was not universal, it did play a role in many of the aircrew’s lives throughout the war. In the closing pages of Flying Against Fate, Mackenzie states:
The place of magical thinking in other professions where skill cannot fully substitute for luck – notably sports – continues to be subject to academic research and interpretation’ (p. 103).
Indeed, if there is a critique of this work, it is that the link between superstition and high-performance activities, war and sports should have been made earlier and with more emphasis. MacKenzie’s study partners well with Mark Wells’ Courage and Air Warfare. MacKenzie also admits to looking only at British and American aircrews and a study that the role of magical thinking and superstition played in the Axis powers, or other allied nations would undoubtedly bring further clarity to the roles and actions of airmen during the Second World War writ large.
Although a relatively short work, MacKenzie has created an indispensable book for those interested in the motivations of allied aircrews who looked for any means necessary to ensure their survival. The author mastered telling his story in a concise and yet heavily researched material that prevents both sources and a heavy dose of first-person accounts. This appeals not only to those interested in aviation history or air power in the Second World War but those interested in the mechanisms used to cope through Total War. As such historians and those interested in the psychology of the military and professionalism in the force will find much to consider.
Dr Brian Laslie is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is also a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: Squadron Leader T. Sweeney, the Roman Catholic chaplain of an RAF wing operating in Central Burma, conducting Mass in a wooden pagoda which has been made into a chapel. (Source: © IWM (CF 394))
 Mark K. Wells, Courage and Air Warfare: The Allied Aircrew Experience in the Second World War (London: Frank Cass, 1995).