Selling Schweinfurt: Targeting, Assessment, and Marketing in the Air Campaign against German Industry

  • Published

Selling Schweinfurt: Targeting, Assessment, and Marketing in the Air Campaign against German Industry by Brian D. Vlaun. Naval Institute Press, 2020, 303 pp.

Intelligence, in particular air intelligence, is an art and a science; when you combine that with politics, international relations, and human nature, you will get an idea of the magnitude of the difficulties that confronted US and British air intelligence agencies during World War II.

In his book, Brian D. Vlaun “argues that various air intelligence organizations vied for influence in ways that stimulated quarrels rather than understanding among commanders” (p. 7). Vlaun is eminently qualified to present his case. He is a US Air Force (USAF) colonel and pilot who commanded the B-1B Formal Training Unit and was a vice commander of a nuclear bomb wing. Holding a doctorate in military strategy from the USAF’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Vlaun has also served as an airpower strategist at USAF Headquarters.

Vlaun begins by discussing the Air Corps Tactical School and its search for a viable doctrine in the years between the wars. Thus, the early chapters vividly describe the birth pangs of an organizational split conceived more than 20 years earlier with the formation of the Air Service. Unfortunately, the formation of a cadre of air intelligence officers started in earnest only with the beginning of World War II.


The rest of the book is a chronological description of the struggle to develop suitable target lists for heavy bombers. In this struggle, Vlaun highlights the conflicts between General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the US Army Air Forces (USAAF), and his adherents on one side, and Lieutenant General Ira Eaker, commander of the Eighth Air Force, and his subordinates on the other. In the mix were the often-competing air intelligence organizations based in the United States and in England, including American, British, and joint organizations.

Vlaun adequately supports his argument by discussing the myriad reports issued by the various analysis organizations. These reports covered a postmission assessment as well as predictive and prescriptive approaches for further attacks. While Vlaun’s analysis of these reports shows a struggle for influence, at times Vlaun appears to be hypercritical.

We get the impression that almost all the analyst groups’ utterances were bathed in self-justification and self-interest to the exclusion of honest, helpful analysis. Yet as Vlaun himself admits, “These planners and analysts were undoubtedly patriotic, honorable, and talented. But they were human; they brought with them their own experiences, inclinations, and postwar expectations” (p. 7).

Vlaun identifies a foundational problem of USAAF air intelligence during the war. An entire intelligence apparatus had to be constructed in an extraordinarily short period of time. Air staff officers had to identify and recruit or assign civilians and military officers to man these crucial positions. Officers had to create some type of training that reflected the imperfect doctrine tentatively hammered out in the 1920s and 1930s.

The analysis groups were a mix of civilian economists, bankers, lawyers, business executives, and military officers with varying experience. Some groups worked directly for Arnold while others worked for Eaker in England. Thus, it is no wonder that there were competing interests and ideas. In truth, it is probably a wonder that air intelligence performed as well as it did during the war.

That there should be differences of opinion and contradictory reports and assessments was inevitable. The relative newness of the field of air intelligence coupled with the differing views of doctrine among the services, not to mention between the two nations, ensured a variety of opinions would bubble in the cauldron. As Vlaun notes, “The ways various analytical constituencies dealt with uncertainty, especially for intangible effects, were easy targets for opposing viewpoints” (p. 193).

Indeed, the author uses terms that reflect his view of the process of air intelligence during the war: salesmanship, marketing, socializing, and so forth. This might surprise some readers, but at its core, that is what intelligence is: taking a position and convincing others that it is a correct position—basically, marketing and selling.

Vlaun outlines how analysts waded through postmission debriefing reports to justify or scale down their attacks on so-called bottleneck industries, mostly ball bearing factories. Other targets were considered and hit: oil-related industries, aircraft industries, and submarine-related industries. Even grinding-wheel plants were on the list of targets. Each group of analysts seemingly had their own ideas about how to prioritize industries, and all this had to be done against the backdrop of the struggle for air superiority and how best to achieve that goal.

Vlaun identifies a major flaw in the work of assessors: “Both photo interpreters and operations researchers tended to simplify their problems by assuming that damage to structures correlated to damaged contents” (p. 136). For example, when analyzing damage to buildings, “interpreters paid little mind to the machine tools they could not see” (p. 187). This oversight led to exaggerated claims of destruction of German industries.

Also, analysts often could not predict ways the Germans might react to destruction and damage inflicted by the bombers. According to Vlaun, “The enemy found ways to negate the effects of bombing, yet Arnold’s analysts did not seem to help him anticipate or understand this through the conclusion of the war” (p. 206). Assessment difficulties even fed the debate about the proper role of the USAAF:

Without an assessment process credible enough to demonstrate the successes of strategic bombing, its appreciation was falling victim in the minds of senior commanders who could see the benefits of air support and interdiction with their own eyes (p. 166).

The book is a thorough discussion of the conflicting parochial interests of the various intelligence agencies, US, British, and joint, and how those interests played out in the search for a useful, impactful target list. Vlaun skillfully uses a wide array of primary and secondary sources, including memoirs, histories, biographies, and important archival materials. He also cites several sources relating to the study of organizational behavior, applicable yet overlooked in histories of military staff operations.

Vlaun did not intend his book to be a full history of Allied air intelligence during the war. Instead, he focuses on the air campaign against German industry and that mostly in 1943 and 1944. Selling Schweinfurt is an important addition to the historiography of the air war and air intelligence; it will appeal to anyone interested in those topics.

Peter L. Belmonte

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."