Flying against Fate

Superstition and Allied Aircrews in World War II

S. P. MacKenzie

During World War II, Allied casualty rates in the air were high. Of the roughly 125,000 who served as aircrew with Bomber Command, 59,423 were killed or missing and presumed killed—a fatality rate of 45.5%. With odds like that, it would be no surprise if there were as few atheists in cockpits as there were in foxholes; and indeed, many airmen faced their dangerous missions with beliefs and rituals ranging from the traditional to the outlandish. Military historian S. P. MacKenzie considers this phenomenon in Flying against Fate, a pioneering study of the important role that superstition played in combat flier morale among the Allies in World War II.

Mining a wealth of documents as well as a trove of published and unpublished memoirs and diaries, MacKenzie examines the myriad forms combat fliers’ superstitions assumed, from jinxes to premonitions. Most commonly, airmen carried amulets or talismans—lucky boots or a stuffed toy; a coin whose year numbers added up to thirteen; counterintuitively, a boomerang. Some performed rituals or avoided other acts, e.g., having a photo taken before a flight. Whatever seemed to work was worth sticking with, and a heightened risk often meant an upsurge in superstitious thought and behavior. MacKenzie delves into behavior analysis studies to help explain the psychology behind much of the behavior he documents—not slighting the large cohort of crew members and commanders who demurred. He also looks into the ways in which superstitious behavior was tolerated or even encouraged by those in command who saw it as a means of buttressing morale.

“There are many ways that warriors have dealt with the immense stress of combat through the ages. S.P. MacKenzie has dug deeply and thoroughly into the accounts of World War II airmen to paint a kaleidoscopic portrait of their unique coping mechanisms. This is more than just a book about war in the air, it is a lively narrative about spiritual and psychological methods to deal with omnipresent danger and death. With the increasing lethality of future high-technology battlefields, such behaviors can be expected to persist, and might indeed be necessary.”

—Conrad C. Crane, author of American Airpower Strategy in World War II:Bombs, Cities, Civilians, and Oil

“Allied airmen in World War II fully understood that they were on the “razor’s edge” in all air operations, facing extreme peril, high attrition, and the haunting sense that they might not return safely to base. This widely shared angst spawned every sort of superstition, talisman, good luck charm, and ritual, all aimed at assuring personal and crew survival. S. P. Mackenzie inFlying Against Fate chronicles this wartime phenomenon in compelling detail. His exhaustive research sheds new light on how airmen contended with the uncertain fate that awaited them on every sortie.”

—Von Hardesty, coauthor of Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II

The first in-depth exploration of just how varied and deeply felt superstitious beliefs were to tens of thousands of combat fliers, Flying against Fate expands our understanding of a major aspect of the psychology of war in the air and of World War II.

About the Author

S. P. MacKenzie is Caroline McKissick Dial Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. His many books include The Battle of Britain on Screen: “The Few” in British Film and Television Drama, The Colditz Myth: British and Commonwealth Prisoners of War in Nazi Germany, and The Second World War in Europe.