Flying against Fate

Flying against Fate

Superstitions and Allied Aircrews in World War II

Sam Willis

S. P. MacKenzie, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2017, 264 pages

Book Review published on: November 3, 2017

It is not entirely unheard of, but certainly unusual, when the page count of appendices, endnotes, bibliography, and index outnumber the body of a book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as these “extras” can add richness and clarity to text that presents itself a little dryly. In this case, the extras add not only richness and clarity but also contribute significantly to coherence. In all fairness, S. P. MacKenzie has taken on a challenging task. Flying against Fate: Superstitions and Allied Aircrews in World War II highlights and attempts to explain the enormous variety of behaviors adopted or employed by aircrews to survive in an incredibly hostile environment. It is only recently that popular media has acknowledged the carnage in the skies during World War II, especially over Europe. Casualties were high, not only in terms of gross numbers but also in terms of percentages. During the war, and for many years following, specific air battles (e.g., Schweinfurt, Regensburg, and Ploesti) were highlighted as costly but courageous. However, the sense that the campaign overall was a deadly, grinding war of attrition has not been fully acknowledged until recently.

MacKenzie sets the stage for his book well, pointing out that the Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command losses amounted to 59,243 out of approximately 125,000 crewmembers (a 45.5 percent loss rate overall). The losses skewed in time, with higher rates earlier in the war. At the time, these losses were not public knowledge, of course, but the crewmembers could see with their own eyes that aircraft were being shot out of the sky, bunks were empty at the end of the day, and, when new faces appeared, they quickly disappeared. They were clever enough to develop their own trend lines and probability calculations, and then conclude that the odds of surviving were grim. Through the end of chapter 1, MacKenzie lays out a masterful argument for why crewmembers might turn to superstitious behavior to improve their odds of survival. Other than training to master their craft, there was little done to influence their fate, and no matter how well they trained, deadly experiences could await them.

Sadly, MacKenzie’s narrative loses coherence beyond that. He looks at the phenomenon through six different lenses: religious faith, good-luck charms, ritualistic behavior, jinxes, numerology and symbology, and premonitions. Even acknowledging that many may take offense to religious observance and prayer being lumped in with superstition, MacKenzie’s organization of the subject matter leaves much desired. Other than the chapter headings, there is no further apparent organization of the subject matter. Consequently, the narrative reads very much like stream of consciousness, jumping from the RAF to the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), from Pacific to European theaters, from squadron to squadron, and from aircraft type to aircraft type.

He does recognize the distinct contexts of the different periods of the war, the different environments of bomber crews in the RAF and the USAAF, and the difference between bombers crews and fighter pilots. In MacKenzie’s defense, that is a complex tapestry. Still, the coherence of the book would be greatly improved by subchapter headings and organization that would enable the reader to place context and pattern around an otherwise rambling narrative. The book is not without merit, but the best parts are in the introductory chapters, the conclusion, and the appendices.

Book Review written by: Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas