Book Review – Selling Schweinfurt, by Brian Vlaun

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Brian Vlaun’s Selling Schweinfurt is an insightful examination of the American contribution to the Second World War’s Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) through its relationship with air intelligence. By exploring the fledging US Army Air Force’s (USAAF) intelligence and targeting enterprise, Vlaun addresses the question: how did air intelligence affect the performance of General Eaker’s Eighth Air Force?

The book forges a deeper understanding of the holistic system that generates and enables air power, from training and doctrine to organisational interests and dynamics. In this, Selling Schweinfurt is a fascinating exploration of the challenges faced by American air intelligence during the CBO.

Airpower and air intelligence

A key theme is the intrinsic connection between airpower and air intelligence. Vlaun addresses this by writing “airpower may not be efficient, even toward goals for which it is well suited, if decision makers do not have the requisite information… the promise of airpower brings with it a robust air intelligence requirement – one that starts well before bombing begins and continues after hostilities cease.”

In this, Vlaun highlights that intelligence for airpower must be understood through the lens of airpower. This includes targeting decisions and plans, which are significant determinants for how air campaigns evolve. Vlaun demonstrates that this requirement was undermined by the fraught relationship between the G-2 and A-2 within the US Army as well as through the roles of the targeting committees that were created to support American airpower.

The holistic relationship between airpower and air intelligence creates a requirement for persistent campaign assessment to evaluate operational performance and intelligence quality. Vlaun identifies the tendency for American air intelligence to over-estimate bombing effectiveness and under-estimate Germany’s resilience.  These intelligence flaws undermined a more coherent and dynamic USAAF approach to effective targeting due to the lack of systems thinking and on-going assessment throughout the CBO.

Training and identity

Many of the air intelligence failures Vlaun identifies lie with failures in training. Prior to the war, the USAAF lacked a true air intelligence infrastructure. As the war began, the rapid expansion of the USAAF created the need for a professional air intelligence corps, which caused several issues. In the early days, this included poor leadership, poor selection and coordination of classes, and unbalanced curriculum.

Alongside these issues was the lack of professional identity for the air intelligence corps. This failure meant that air intelligence officers were confused about their roles and responsibilities. This was compounded by marginalisation by the aviation fraternity to the point of creating a subservient mentality among air intelligence officers towards aircrew. This meant commanders would hear what they expected, rather than what they needed to hear.

The attempt to create an air intelligence corps overnight meant the quality of officers suffered, particularly as the expectations on them grew beyond reason. To meet short-term requirements, several organisations were formed to support air intelligence and generate targeting plans, including General Arnold’s Committee of Operations Analysts (COA) and Eaker’s Operational Research Section (ORS). These organisations and others significantly influenced the direction of the CBO through their targeting priorities.

Fixed beliefs and doctrine

Like the lack of air intelligence infrastructure, the USAAF lacked tested doctrine entering the war.  Pre-war doctrine centred on the supremacy of the bomber. This was premised on two beliefs: that the bomber would always get through and that airpower alone could bring decisive victory quickly. Vlaun emphasises the USAAF’s failure to adjust this doctrine throughout the CBO despite operational evidence undermining the American approach, noting that “taking the [USAAF] as a single entity, it appeared to be applying its interwar doctrine with very little adjustment or acknowledgement of its faulty preconceptions.”

Fixed beliefs and an inability to adapt also affected targeting plans. Organisations, such as the COA and the ORS, developed their own plans then clung to them and pushed them towards commanders. Their belief was that German economic collapse could cause defeat, and that targeting industrial bottlenecks would achieve this.

In practice, bombers took heavy losses throughout war, particularly prior to the introduction of effective escorts. Further, Vlaun suggests “there is not enough evidence to conclude whether airpower alone might have brought about German economic collapse or whether a true bottleneck even existed.” While Arnold himself concluded, in late 1944, that “the air campaign had not met his expectations, but…was not ready to accept that the assumptions behind his bombing doctrine or the concepts behind the targeting plans had been problematic as well.”

Organisational dynamics

While the CBO was plagued by dogmatic beliefs, it was further impeded by the organisational interests and dynamics behind those beliefs. In this, Vlaun identifies that the organisations behind targeting decisions were “concerned about maintaining their credibility, validating their target selections, and maximising post-war prestige”. This caused air intelligence to focus on marketing over effectiveness. Similarly, commanders clung to pre-war doctrine to fight the war and secure an independent air force. The danger of these organisational goals was that they subverted other aims. In many ways, the story of Selling Schweinfurt reflects this flaw: that the CBO became about demonstrating and defending airpower over winning the war.

To this end, Vlaun comments on how certain symbols, notably the bomber (embodied by the B-17) and the bottleneck (embodied by the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt) came to be marketing tools for the USAAF and air intelligence, respectively. Vlaun writes that “when unchecked, organisations may adopt symbols and exaggerate claims to justify their goals and preferences… Unfortunately, both [the USAAF and air intelligence] clung to their symbols in ways that stifled their objectivity and creativity.”

The CBO was also hindered by the conflict over responsibility for air intelligence, targeting, and assessment. The tensions between the G-2 and A-2 over air intelligence meant a failure to develop any air intelligence enterprise. The plethora of organisations involved in air intelligence and targeting caused unproductive competition as they “fervently pushed their recommendations… [without] earnestly acknowledging their own limitations.” Further, Arnold and Eaker failed to understand each other’s perspective and continually pushed responsibilities on the other. Vlaun notes these conflicting organisational dynamics significantly affected the efficiency and effectiveness of the CBO.


Selling Schweinfurt is ultimately a story about how the USAAF failed to understand the relationship between air intelligence and targeting with airpower and how this affected the success of the air campaign. Using the CBO as a centrepiece, Vlaun highlights and analyses several of the challenges and failures faced by the USAAF and that these factors significantly degraded the performance of the Eighth Air Force. Vlaun’s insights provide a deeper understanding of airpower holistically. Many of these lessons can be applied across a diverse range of fields, from space power to logistics.

This book is well worth reading for anyone interested in the CBO or the Second World War’s air campaigns as well as by those interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the system that generates and enables military power. Overall, Selling Schweinfurt by Brian Vlaun was a thoroughly enjoyable and insightful read.

About the author: Chris Wooding is a Trainee Officer at the Royal Military College Duntroon. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy and a Contributing Author for Grounded Curiosity. You can continue the discussion with him on Twitter @cr_wood1.