Brian D. Vlaun, Selling Schweinfurt: Targeting, Assessment, and Marketing in the Air Campaign Against German Industry. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2020. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xiii + 320 pp.
Reviewed by Bryant Macfarlane
With Selling Schweinfurt Brian D. Vlaun, a Colonel and command pilot in the United States Air Force offers readers a history of air intelligence development of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) with two mutually supporting goals. First, the American conception of a strategically-minded independent air power arm that ‘was well suited to the limitations of the political will, manpower pool, and military-industrial complex of the United States’ (pp. 5-6) required unquestionable battlefield impacts from bombing offensives to be politically viable. Second, providing such indisputable effects required an intellectual cadre (p. 6) of ‘academics, industrialists, lawyers, and wartime-civilian-turned-military officers who shaped the targeting decisions and air campaign assessments.’ Vlaun centres his analysis around Major General Ira C. Eaker’s US Eighth Air Force and the 1943 Allied Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) that was intended to cripple German industrial and economic systems and establish air superiority over Europe. Leveraging thousands of declassified American and British documents, Vlaun draws upon nearly forty primary and over one hundred secondary sources to present a well-researched and highly accessible work. Vlaun pulls back the curtain on how doctrine writers or a commander’s staff profoundly impact the conception of problems and possible solutions available to a commander – especially when those organisations are vying for influence.
Selling Schweinfurt is organised chronologically along five chapters. Chapter one focuses on the development of strategic air power doctrine and requirements in the interwar years. Here, Vlaun provides the backstory on how and why US air intelligence (A2) and doctrine developed organically before sending liaisons to Britain in 1941 to observe and shape American efforts to establish a robust and capable air intelligence capacity. With the realisation that the USAAF was the most mobilised portion of the American Army, and with aviation’s ability to operate from friendly territory while actively contributing to the war in Europe, the chapter concludes with the establishment of the Eighth Air Force and the initial combat development of ‘effective’ American bombing.
Chapter two begins with acknowledging USAAF leaders that the A2 enterprise they created was too young to provide the type of in-depth strategic analysis required to ensure that the bombing efforts of the Eighth Air Force were contributing effectively to the demise of the German war-industry. In Washington and Britain, USAAF leaders turned to lawyers, bankers, economists, and industrialists to serve as a bulwark for their intelligence gaps. However, as these groups worked independently of one another and mainly without oversight, their analysis focused on gaining influence in targeting decisions and building analyses that dovetailed the specific leaders’ perspective for whom they were working. While civilian analysts argued for industrial targets, the USAAF continued to bombard U-boat pens and provide coastal patrols in what would prove to be a very futile effort to stave off German anti-shipping capacity. The chapter concludes with the January 1943 Casablanca conference that maintained a parallel but independent USAAF command and shifted more responsibility for targeting decisions onto American A2.
Chapter three examines the targeting choices and the Eighth Air Forces’ demonstrated results supporting Operation POINTBLANK – the Allied campaign against the German industrial base – during the first trimester of 1943. Arguably, this period was essential to the foundational honing of aircrew skillsets; however, the period uncovered USAAF leaders’ inability to quantify results in attacking industrial targets in Germany. By the May 1943 Trident Conference, the CBO’s limited successes were doubled down upon by the Allied leadership as military and civil leaders concurred that Western European ‘air superiority was to be a joint problem and a necessary precondition for success.’ (p. 103) Trident approved a reallocation of the CBO towards German war-industries with a secondary focus on single-engine aircraft production. Air superiority was a way of preparing Western Europe for the upcoming OVERLORD invasion and pulling German air power away from the Eastern front to ease pressure on the Soviets.
Chapter four addresses the understanding that both the Americans and Germans were realising the limitations of manpower in their ability to mobilise continually, train, and deploy forces while maintaining industrial capacity. By mid-August 1943, the Americans had successfully targeted ball-bearing factories in Schweinfurt and V-weapons at Peenemünde. Despite the successful raid into Schweinfurt, scientists and political entities shifted Allied CBO priorities towards a continued focus on V-Weapons. Despite their distributed nature that limited their susceptibility to aerial bombardment, the ‘political objectives, public outrage, intelligence prestige, and strategic interaction’ colluded to darken ‘Allied airman’s hopes for victory through airpower alone.’ (p. 162)
Chapter five focuses on the successful recognition of an air-minded specialist intelligence organisation within the American War Department. While industrial raids such as Schweinfurt had proven the need for an independent A2 and G2, the Eighth Air Force’s lack of demonstratable progress led to questioning the capability of the commander of the Eighth. While the Allied CBO losses had proven the necessity of fighter escorts to the most devout adherents of the bomber’s supremacy, the intelligence analysts pinned their hopes to continued pressure on the German industry regardless of the operational realities of the CBO. In assessing the outcomes of 1943, the USAAF’s leadership chose to articulate the failure of the Eighth Air Force commander’s ‘lack of creativity and flexibility as he had underutilised and underperformed the forces he commanded’ (p. 198) instead of accepting an under-resourced and doctrinally unsound conception of the CBO from the outset.
Vlaun concludes with a compelling argument that ‘the growth of airpower cannot be thoroughly comprehended without an understanding of the maturation of its air intelligence component.’ (p. 207) While it is clear that air power proponents doggedly pursued a course to demonstrate the suasive power of strategic bombing, it is also clear that no conclusive evidence exists in the post-war analysis that industrial attacks created or exacerbated materiel bottlenecks. This is not to say that air power is without operative function.
As just one element of military power, airpower offers a means to fight at a lower cost to friendly forces along with potential for less political entanglement [however] the promise of airpower brings along with it a robust air intelligence requirement – one that starts well before bombing and continues after hostilities cease. (p. 210)
Vlaun cautions the reader against assuming that modernisation or technology is a panacea to creating an intelligence capacity for identifying the ‘perfect target.’ If Selling Schweinfurt has anything to convey, decisions are influenced by organisational determination of which data to impart. Vlaun is clear that commanders must retain perspective in targeting decisions and align intelligence roles and responsibilities with operational and strategic imperatives.
If Vlaun’s effort is to be found wanting, it is only that the narrative does not extend into the Allied CBO’s successes and the maturation of the A2 in 1944 and 1945. Selling Schweinfurt is the very best effort this reader has found to insight the staff work required of any useful command. Selling Schweinfurt’s truly accessible presentation alone is worthy of inclusion in every air power enthusiast’s bookshelf. While certainly not a biography, Vlaun presents a critique of key leaders in American air power development that fills a critical gap in the existing historiography. Specialists will particularly welcome Vlaun’s depiction of Eighth Air Force raids to Ploesti, Hüls, St. Nazaire, Regensburg, and Schweinfurt for their operational and tactical significance to the development of strategic air power. Generalist readers will appreciate Vlaun’s easy tone and accessible style in presenting the development of doctrine and intelligence organisation as the USAAF struggled to define itself as a critical element of American military power. However, Vlaun’s study’s real power is in the representation of the importance of a staff in the decision-making process of every commander. As Vlaun concludes:
It is clearly possible to launch aircraft and bomb something without solid intelligence, but without a refined sense of what to target or how to measure bombing effectiveness, airpower will be inefficient if not all together ineffective. (p. 208)
As such, Selling Schweinfurt is highly deserving of inclusion in the discussion of air power during the Second World War and beyond by specialists and generalists alike.
Bryant Macfarlane served in the United States Army from 1997 to 2019 and is a PhD student at Kansas State University studying the technological momentum of vertical flight and its effect on military culture. He can be found on Twitter @rotary_research.
Header image: On 13 May 1943, the B-17F ‘Hell’s Angels’ of the 303rd Bomb Group became the first heavy bomber to complete 25 combat missions over Europe, four days before the crew of the ‘Memphis Belle’s’. After flying 48 combat missions, ‘Hells Angels’ returned to the US for a war bond tour in 1944. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)