Spiritual air defence

Part of my PhD thesis involved conceptualising the various forms of defence against aerial bombardment put forward during the thirty-odd years before the Second World War: things like anti-aircraft guns, air-raid shelters, an international air force, and so on. Something I didn't include was what we might call spiritual air defence. Partly because I didn't come across much like that in my sources, and probably partly because of my own rationalistic bent. This may have been unfortunate.

What do I mean by spiritual air defence? Here's what got me thinking about it: Padre Pio, Italy's flying monk. (Technically, bilocating, but that doesn't scan as well.) Here's a sober, historical account by Claudia Baldoli:

With the intensification of bombing after the armistice in September 1943, a rumour spread across Italy that God had granted Padre Pio could fly and intercept the enemy's bombs [...] it seemed plausible that Padre Pio could fly and intercept the enemy's bombs. With the exception of Foggia, which was repeatedly bombed between May and September 1943, the area of Apulia where he lived in Gargano received no raids, and this convinced many that the rumour must be true. For decades after 1944, the supporters of his case for beatification were even able to find RAF pilots who were willing to confirm that it was indeed an apparition of a flying apparition of a flying Padre Pio which had stared at them so directly that they abandoned the mission and returned to their bases without dropping bombs.1

As might be expected, there are a number of accounts on the web which add more details but somehow don't add plausibility. One of the better ones is an article by Malcolm Day from the September 2002 Fortean Times. This doesn't mention the rumours circulating among the Italian population, only to the claims (or claims of claims) made by Allied pilots:

In their approach to the town [San Giovanni], several pilots reported seeing an apparition in the sky in the form of a monk with upheld hands. They also described some sort of 'force-field' that prevented them flying over the target rendering them unable to drop their bombs.

Supposedly this happened repeatedly, and was verified by 'Bernardo Rosini, general of the Aeronautica Italiana, and part of the United Air Command at the time' (presumably this means the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force, which flew on the Allied side, though not over Italian soil) and an unnamed 'US Commanding General'. Some posts on the ArmyAirForces forum provide some further (albeit conflicting) details, suggesting that the first raid took place on 16 July 1943, carried out by 5th Bombardment Wing, XII Bomber Command. An example of an eye-witness account (though written more than half a century after the event) can also be found there:

I almost killed Padre Pio.....the enclosed flight record of bombing raids, shows that Villa San Giovanni was scheduled to be wiped out with 150,000 pounds of bombs. Allied Intelligence had information (erroneous) that German troops had occupied the hospital, friary and town of San Giovanni. Two minutes from dropping the bombs, the Colonel in the lead aircraft saw an apparition of a Monk, 30,000 feet tall, and broke off the bomb-run and proceeded to the secondary target. The Colonel was a Protestant, and when he was later shown a photo of Padre Pio said that was the apparition.

A 30,000-foot tall monk would certainly seem enough to scare off anyone, but I am worried that more reliable accounts are not available. In any case, I'm more interested in the wartime rumours than the postwar stories which, as Baldoli notes, were used to argue for Pio's beatification. (I guess it helped: he was beatified in 1999 and canonised in 2002.)

This being history, there are always other examples. For example, the yogic flyers who, it was promised, would obviate the need for an anti-ballistic missile shield by jumping around on crash mats. This, they claimed, would reduce hostility throughout the world and so prevent an attack from taking place in the first place. (They scheduled a press conference in Washington DC to announce their plans on the morning of 11 September 2001. I don't know how it went.) Which itself is reminiscent of the efforts of Dion Fortune's Fraternity of the Inner Light, which between 1939 and 1942 used the combined psychic efforts of its members to influence the war in Britain's favour. Another British occultist, Gerald Gardner (a key figure in the founding of Wicca), also used magic to fight for Britain, performing a rite at the Rufus Stone on 31 July 1940, designed to prevent the coming German invasion.2 Later claims that yet another famous magician used his powers in an MI5 operation designed to lure Rudolf Hess to Britain, appear to be unfounded: Aleister Crowley's diaries show that the Great Beast did no such thing, though in February 1941 he did have an idea for 'a union of magicians to beat the Nazis' which he didn't follow through with.3

Again, though, these are the efforts of (self-appointed, magical) elites. And we're drifting away from the air war too. What about popular beliefs in spiritual air defence? How about the vision of Christ seen by people in the village of Firle, near Lewes in Sussex, in November 1940:

The shepherd, Mr. Fowler, of Firle, told how he saw a white line spread across the sky and from it appeared a vision of Christ crucified on the Cross.

Then six angels took form, he said. They had long, white wings and one was playing a harp.

The vision lasted for two minutes then faded.

[...] he was not the only one who had seen the angels.

A Newhaven evacuee, Mrs. Steer, of The Street, Firle, and her sister, Mrs. Evans, said:

"We could see the nail in the crossed feet of Christ."4

But although the vision was seen in the sky, it apparently was not specifically related to the air war in any way by those who saw it. Steer said that 'The village is taking the vision as a sign for a British victory'. A Daily Mirror reporter who interviewed Fowler found the shepherd wondering if 'it really was Christ come to help put our world straight again'.5 It's not quite what I'm after.

Perhaps A. E. Cook was inspired by the Firle visions. He was a munitions worker who saw believed that he saw angels 'all in white' converging on the cross on top of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral in London:

Those angels... were loved ones that had been taken away from us, but who, nevertheless, are still with us; yes, they and thousands of others... are still with us, watching over London, watching over Coventry, watching over Plymouth, watching over Bristol; watching over all those towns of ours that have felt the ruthlessness of German bombing.6

The angels of St Paul's are more clearly related to the bomber war than the Jesus of Firle (though 'watching over' blitzed towns is still much more passive than flying overhead and intercepting bombers or erecting a force field). Vanessa Chambers quotes Cook's vision as an example of resorting to the supernatural in order to cope with the psychological stresses of the Blitz. But she argues that this was a rare response. Much more characteristic was the dramatic increase in interest in superstitions, charms and astrology, particularly in the form of newspaper horoscopes. The latter seems to have replaced the spiritualism of the First World War as the dominant esoteric response of the British people to war.

In fact, Chambers suggests that this supernatural turn can be likened to the fatalistic attitude of soldiers on the battlefield: if there's a bullet out there with your name on it, there's nothing you can do about it but accept what happens.7 Again, this is a passive, internal form of air defence (which I'm relieved to note is covered in my thesis's schema in the first section of chapter three). It may well be that the British people felt that their active defences were well enough provided for by the government, in the form of Fighter Command, Bomber Command, and Anti-Aircraft Command, whereas Italians felt entirely undefended and so had greater need of supernatural assistance. Or perhaps, as they say, more research is required.


  1. Claudia Baldoli, 'Religion and bombing in Italy, 1940-1945', in Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp and Richard Overy, eds, Bombing, States and Peoples in Western Europe 1940-1945 (London: Continuum, 2011), 147. 

  2. On Fortune and Gardner, see another, and much better article in Fortean Times, September 2010, by Dave Evans and David Sutton. 

  3. Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Page Witchcraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 209. 

  4. Daily Mirror, 7 November 1940, 1. 

  5. Ibid., 8 November 1940, 3. 

  6. A. E. Cook, A Munition Worker's Visit to London After the Blitz of 1940-1941: His Impressions and Resolution and a Revelation (London: Arthur H. Stockwell, 1943); quoted in Vanessa Chambers, '"Defend us from all perils and dangers of this night": coping with bombing in Britain during the Second World War', in Baldoli, Knapp and Overy, eds, Bombing, States and Peoples, 159. 

  7. Ibid., 164. 

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4 thoughts on “Spiritual air defence

  1. Although mostly real rather than supernatural apparitions in the air war, there's a kind of parallel in the myth of 'Faith Hope and Charity' among the mostly Catholic Maltese (and the British garrison). Sorting the facts from the myth is hard enough there, even without Poolman's jingoistic book on the topic, let alone trying to quantify who believed what and when. However it does seem reasonable that the Sea Gladiators and pilots were prayed for with requests for divine protection as they themselves were protecting the island.

  2. Well, when you put it like that...

    I meant to add that it's a thought provoking post, and looks a fascinating area of study, but tricky. Really tricky!

  3. Post author

    I don't really see it as any trickier than say, phantom airships... it's just another form of belief. And it's not something I'm planning to research... though I do notice that I wrote about some of the same things here three years ago. I'm beginning to repeat myself!

    PS: I've found a discussion of the Firle visions in David Clarke, The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2004), 220-4. He found one sceptical witness who claimed they were due to the vapour trails so prominent in the sky that summer.

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