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

By Brian D. Vlaun

Reviewed by Dr Ian Gooderson, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2020. Pp. xiii + 303, 16 illus., notes, biblio., index. ISBN 9781682475362 (hardback)

The History of Military Aviation series by the Naval Institute Press illuminates little known or ignored aspects of air power history. This volume by Brian D. Vlaun, a serving Colonel and command pilot in the United States Air Force (USAF) and a graduate of the USAF’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, meets this remit admirably. Selling Schweinfurt is a work of solid historical research and analysis that provides valuable insight into the targeting and bombing assessment organizations and processes behind the United States Army Air Force’s strategic bombing of Germany in the Second World War. As such, the book contributes significantly to our knowledge of the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive and to our understanding of its effectiveness. Vlaun writes in an engaging and forthright style and pulls no punches with regard to the challenges faced by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in achieving optimum target selection and accurate interpretation of bomb damage, and why it proved difficult to reconcile these with operational realities. His principal theme, reflecting the terms ‘selling’ and ‘marketing’ in the book title, is that the various air intelligence organizations that were created to support the USAAF bombing offensive ‘vied for influence in ways that stimulated quarrels rather than understanding among commanders’. That while these air commanders struggled to wage their bombing campaign despite resource limitations, unanticipated operational conditions, and enemy action, the air intelligence organizations ‘often pursued aims of their own.’ (p.7)

This emerges convincingly in a detailed study encompassing the USAAF’s nascent pre-war approach to air intelligence and bomb damage assessment (BDA), the wartime creation of the Committee of Operations Analysts (COA) and the Eighth Air Force’s own Operational Research Section (ORS), and thorough examination of key raids, their target selection and post-bombing assessment. It is a most interesting and informative charting of what for the USAAF was a complex and often frustrating journey, the causes, and consequences of which are effectively interwoven. One significant factor was the imperative to prove the efficacy of bombing not only to justify the investment of resources and to validate doctrine but also to prepare the way for eventual USAAF independence from the Army. This had implications for BDA that reached back to how it had been taught at the pre-war Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) where, observes Vlaun, instructors ‘shaped their course material more toward the ways that poststrike images might demonstrate an attack’s success to an external audience than to stimulate objective analysis for an internal one.’ It was in this course material that what Vlaun refers to as a ‘dangerous sentiment’ germinated, that ‘a marketing role of air intelligence might be more important than learning.’ (14) War necessitated the rapid expansion of air intelligence and BDA personnel and facilities, severely testing the USAAF’s existing structures and the adequacy of its approach to air intelligence and BDA training. Vlaun describes the extent to which the USAAF was influenced by, and to an extent initially drew upon, British air intelligence experience and methods, including US observers noting how women successfully fulfilled specialised and technical roles, which eventually opened the way for American women to assume similar roles with the USAAF in England.

Vlaun skilfully marshals his research data to provide insight into the contribution of civilian experts recruited to form the COA tasked with target system analysis of German industry and the ORS tasked with analysing bombing operations. Economists and lawyers brought particular strengths to these organisations despite being individualists and, in some cases, difficult personalities; the ‘egocentric personality traits that made them tough to keep on the team’ writes Vlaun, ‘were the same traits that gave them the personal confidence and self-driven focus to accomplish research others could not.’ (55) Nevertheless, to fulfil these roles at a time when a bombing offensive, from which political and military leaders anticipated decisive results, was straining to make headway placed immense pressure and responsibility on them, not least to prove themselves and establish their own credibility as well as that of the bombing campaign itself. The book’s strength is in depicting how ideas and assumptions about target systems and their importance to the German war effort, some of them flawed, were generated and ‘marketed’ and how air intelligence fed into the politics behind the bombing campaign. Thus, readers are enabled to view raids such as those mounted against the ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt in 1943 that were so costly to the USAAF bomber forces, and the subsequent suspension of deep raids until sufficient numbers of long-range fighters were available to accompany them, in the full context of a dissonance between target system analysis and the operational limitations and tactical circumstances that the bomber forces actually had to face. Parallel themes are the interplay of civilian experts and military commanders, the power dynamics and rivalries between differing air intelligence organisations, and the differing perceptions of the campaign and how it should be conducted between General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, overall commander of the Army Air Forces in Washington, and Lieutenant General Ira Eaker commanding the Eighth Air Force in England. As readers will discover, the factors undermining rigorous assessment of the effects of bombing, and of the German responses to it, were varied and powerful.

‘Selling Schweinfurt’ is an important addition to the historiography of the Combined Bomber Offensive and of the USAAF’s campaign against German industry, and one that scholars will gain considerable benefit from. Brian D. Vlaun is to be commended for not only comprehensively filling a gap in coverage with this study of air intelligence during the bombing offensive, but also for providing a well sourced example of the consequences when an air campaign’s targeting decisions and BDA are unduly shaped by organisational biases. In that regard, the USAAF’s experience has an enduring relevance for, as he rightly observes, ‘without a refined sense of what to target or how to measure bombing effectiveness, airpower will be inefficient if not altogether ineffective.’ (208)

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