#BookReview – Flying Against Fate: Superstition and Allied Aircrews in World War II

#BookReview – Flying Against Fate: Superstition and Allied Aircrews in World War II

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.

9780700624690

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.

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Major J.A. Goodson, the so-called ‘King of the Strafers,’ never flew without a signet ring talisman. (Source: © IWM FRE 2761)

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.[1] 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))

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[1] Mark K. Wells, Courage and Air Warfare: The Allied Aircrew Experience in the Second World War (London: Frank Cass, 1995).

#BookReview – The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II

#BookReview – The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

Robert S. Ehlers Jr., The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2015. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 536 pp.

9780700620753

The Second World War’s Mediterranean Theatre of Operations was a sideshow, right? The road to defeating Nazi Germany where the Western Allies were concerned lay through Normandy, not North Africa. The Allies launched their great Combined Bomber Offensive from the United Kingdom as this incredible animation from the American Air Museum shows. Other efforts were relatively unimportant and sapped resources from where the real air battle took place. Alternatively, were they?

Robert S. Ehlers Jr.’s The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II offers a valuable counter-narrative. The Mediterranean was not a sideshow. In fact, it was a critical theatre for Allied victory. Adolf Hitler committed the Wehrmacht to the Mediterranean in 1941 to support Benito Mussolini’s faltering armies in Greece and North Africa. Four years later the consequence of this simple plan was 400,000 Italian and 730,000 German casualties. However, human casualties only tell part of the tale. The European Axis lost 42 percent of its merchant shipping in the Mediterranean. The Allies all but destroyed the Regia Aeronautica by mid-1943 while the Luftwaffe lost 17,750 aircraft in the Mediterranean throughout the war. By comparison, the Germans lost 20,419 aircraft on the Western Front while losing only 11,000 on the Eastern Front.

This is just the strategic picture. Ehlers’s work also talks logistics. Historians have often highlighted the importance of tank strength in the Western Desert. The side that could field the most tanks had the advantage. Since both sides had to maintain their forces across long supply chains the ability to retrieve and repair damaged battlefield equipment was crucial. The same was true for aircraft. The Royal Air Force created an efficient system for repair and salvage early in the campaign. Air Vice-Marshal Graham Dawson, the RAF’s Chief Maintenance Officer in the Mediterranean, organized the effort. Dawson was a Battle of Britain veteran who received a Mention in Dispatches for superb engine repair efforts in 1940. He coordinated his crews’ efforts with local Egyptian shops that could repair and manufacturer parts. Dawson’s command was innovative. It created modifications that allowed Hurricane fighters to engage high-flying Junkers Ju 86P photo reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft’s service ceiling was 36,000 feet, yet the modified version achieved its first victory over the Nile at 49,000 feet.

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Air Vice-Marshal Graham Dawson, Director of Maintenance and Supply, Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, is presented with the American Legion of Merit in the degree of Commander, by Brigadier-General Harold A. Barton, Commanding General of the USAAF Service Command, Mediterranean Theatre of Operations, during a parade at Algiers. (Source: © IWM (CNA 2721))

The Mediterranean was ultimately a battle for sea lines of communication or SLOCs. Air superiority was essential to winning this and other battles. With the war in North Africa won, Ehlers argues that the Western Allies were right to take the war to Sicily and then on to mainland Italy. After securing air superiority, the Allied air forces were free to expand their cooperation with Allied armies. The Allies produced great results when the services coordinated their efforts. In the first half of 1944, Operations STRANGLE and DIADEM sought to defeat German forces barring the way to Rome. STRANGLE was an air campaign aimed at depriving the Germans of supplies while DIADEM was a large-scale ground offensive with air support. On its own, air power’s effectiveness was limited. The Germans lost 20 trucks per day during STRANGLE, but that number rose to 100 per day during DIADEM. Pressure from the army kept enemy transports on the road in large numbers, making them easier prey for prowling fighter-bombers. Together these operations cost the Germans Rome and 80,000 casualties.

Ehlers convincingly argues that the final air campaigns flown from bases in Italy shortened the war and saved lives. Targets included the Luftwaffe, the German oil industry, and German lines of communication to the Eastern Front. Instructors who seek to offer their students a fresh perspective on the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations will do well to include this book on their reading lists.

This post first appeared at Fighter-Bomber’s Blog.

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black completed his MA thesis, ‘Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943,’ with The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, University of New Brunswick in 2014. He is in the process of turning this work into a manuscript for publication with Helion & Company. Alex lives with his wife in Moncton, Canada. He operates his own blog at alexfitzblack.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.

Header Image: A formation of five Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 14 Squadron RAF in flight over the Western Desert. A Curtiss Kittyhawk, one of the escorting fighters, can be seen on the far right (Source: © IWM (CM 3108))