357th FG Gun Film
By Jon Guttman
The 357th Fighter Group, also known as the “Yoxford Boys” because its airbase at Leiston was near the town of Yoxford, England, had the distinction of being the first unit of the Eighth Air Force to be fully equipped with the North American P-51 Mustang. It also held a record within the Mighty Eighth for the greatest number of enemy aircraft shot down in a single day. The group’s total of 595.5 aerial victories included 18 1/2 Messerschmitt Me-262s—the most jets downed by an American fighter group during the war—along with 106 enemy planes destroyed on the ground. Although its aces were not among the highest-scoring on its roster, the 357th produced more of them than any other Eighth Air Force group: 42, including Leonard K. Carson with 18.5, John B. England with 17.5, Clarence E. Anderson, Jr., with 16.25, Richard A. Peterson with 15.5, Robert W. Foy with 15, Donald H. Bochkay with 13.833, John A. Kirla with 11.5, Charles E. Yeager—whose 11.5 victories included five in one day and an Me-262, a record that he later eclipsed when he became the first pilot to exceed the speed of sound in level flight (and live to tell about it) in 1947—and John A. Storch with 10.5. Among the many “lesser lights” who contributed to the 357th’s outstanding record was Robert P. Winks, a relative late arrival whose 5.5 victories included an enemy jet fighter.
“I was born in Sumner, Iowa on December 6, 1923,” said Winks. “I was in Notre Dame when I enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, to stay in college. I was called up in March 1943. I trained in Texas—Primary at Corsicana, on the Fairchild PT-19, Basic at Greenville, in the Vultee BT-13, and Advanced at Eagle Pass on the Rio Grande, in the North American AT-6, finally graduating on January 6, 1944. After that I flew Transition in single-seat fighters at Pinellas, Florida, in the Curtiss P-40. From there I was sent to England as a replacement in May, aboard the SS Louis Pasteur. Because she was the third fastest liner on the Atlantic, Louis Pasteur went without a convoy, but I remember us sitting dead in the water in the Irish Sea on June 6, 1944, so they’d know where all the ships were while the landings in Normandy were going on. We sat there for a day or two, then docked in Liverpool. From there I went to Goxhill, for 15 hours of transition flying in the P-51 Mustang. Later in June I was assigned to the 364th Squadron of the 357th Fighter Group, as a replacement pilot.”
Winks arrived at the 364th on July 14, 1944. “My first combat flight was a sweep over France on July 18,” he said. “We got into a fight over there with Focke-Wulf Fw-190s with yellow noses, who we called the ‘Abbeville Boys.’ They were flying through us and suddenly my leader was gone. I saw a guy on my tail. I made a close tight turn, spun down and recovered at 15,000 feet. When I went back up, nobody was there, so I went on home. I was just lucky. I was a hot shot until then—after that I didn’t think so.”
The only double loss to the 364th Fighter Squadron that matches Winks’ description occurred northeast of Maastricht in the Netherlands on September 18, 1944, during Operation Market Garden, when Captain Bernard K. Setzinger was brought down and taken prisoner and 1st Lt. Robert J. Fandry was killed. They were possibly credited to Major Kurt Bühlingen, commander of Jagdgeschwader 2 (JG.2) “Richthofen,” who would survive the war with 112 victories.
“There was nobody who taught us how to fight,” Winks continued. “I was told, ‘If anybody gets on your tail, go into a tight turn.’ I was also told that it cost $27,000 to train a fighter pilot. If you survived five flights, you paid for the $27,000. I flew 69 missions, totaling 300 flying
hours—that’s what made the mission.
Bob Winks with MKVIII Goggles
“When I originally started flying combat, new pilots were not assigned a specific plane,” Winks said, but he was later assigned his own P-51D-5, bearing the call letters C5-W that he nicknamed “Trusty Rusty,” and apparently flew as late as January 15, 1945, when he scored his jet victory. “I had a great crew chief,” he explained. “I never had a mechanical problem and never had an abort.
“During another sweep on November 18,” Winks said, “I was attacked by a Messerschmitt Me-109, but I found myself on his tail instead of him being on my tail. I chased him through the valleys, finally hit him with some bullets and he just jumped out. I was lucky in having the greatest aircraft ever flown up to that time.”
Winks’ first victory fell near Neuhausen airfield and a description by a German fighter pilot, Unteroffizier Karl Weitzel of the 5th Staffel of JG.53, of being shot down in the vicinity, at Speyer, bears an intriguing similarity to Winks’ perception of the action.
“We took off in a scramble,” Weitzel recalled. “[Leutnant Herbert] Rollwage led the Gruppe, [Feldwebel Kurt] Opitz 5 Staffel. Three of the aircraft in our Schwarm had high-altitude superchargers, while I had only methanol injection. Near Speyer we ran into Mustangs. Our Schwarm tried to outclimb them. Above 6,000 meters I could not keep up and tried to stay with the Schwarm at a lower altitude. The Mustangs came nearer and nearer. Not a cloud in the sky (8,000 meters). I called over the radio, ‘I’m flying straight and level, please turn!’
“The Mustang behind me held its fire until it was very close. I tried to stall my machine, but I took a full burst in the engine and cockpit. My machine immediately went into a dive, the cockpit was full of oil and the controls no longer responded. I unloaded my straps, jettisoned the canopy, and raised my hands. My fur-lined boots caught on something and I was stuck in the machine as it went down. After the slipstream pulled me out of my boots I struck both of my legs against the tail section, but I fell free of the aircraft. My parachute opened and for a long time I was over the Rhine. I was shot down on the left side of the Rhine and came down in a plowed field on the right side of the Rhine. My left lower leg was pointing in the wrong direction, but as yet I felt no pain. A civilian doctor put me in his Opel P4 and we set off, first to Speyer, but then we were turned back at the bridge and sent to the university clinic in Heidelberg. My left leg was broken in four places below the knee.”
Weitzel’s Me-109G-14, Werke Nr. 462 973 “Black 8,” was destroyed and his fighting days were over. Allied troops later found him in the hospital in Burgstädt, Saxony, and took him prisoner. Oberfeldwebel Heinz Grüber of 5/JG.53 was also wounded and belly landed his crippled Me-109G-14 in at Echterdingen airfield to the north-northwest; he was probably credited to the 364th Squadron’s leading ace, Captain Richard A. Peterson, who also claimed an Me-109 in the fight.
By the end of December Winks was a first lieutenant and a flight leader. “There was a natural attrition in war for the flight leaders,” he explained. “We lost about 100 pilots. That attrition was what promoted guys very quickly.”
In order to reduce enemy air attacks on U.S. Army soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge, 2,000 bombers and 800 fighters of the Eighth Air Force staged pre-emptive strikes on 11 Luftwaffe fighter bases west of the Rhine. Accompanying the 3rd Bomber Division, the 357th Fighter Group was divided in two, with Colonel Irwin Dregne leading “A Group” to the Koblenz area and Major Richard Peterson leading “B Group” to Fulda. Both elements ran into opposition from JG.300, a “Wilde Sau” unit whose heavily armed and armored fighters staged non-radar-assisted attacks on British bombers by night and made head-on, point-blank passes at American bombers by day.
Winks was leading one of Peterson’s flights over Fulda area when he recalled: “We saw a bunch of guys down below. I took my flight down. An Fw-190 dove straight down and I followed him. They could outdive us, but I didn’t know that then. I was closing on him, I started shooting at a distance. I hit him a few times and he jumped out. At that point, I hit compression. My stick was out of control. I cut back the throttle, but I didn’t lower my flaps—I knew that wouldn’t do any good—and I started to pray. The plane slowed down and recovered by itself in pull out. The fight was over in three to five minutes. I came home.”
Winks’ victory was one of seven credited to the 364th Fighter Squadron on Christmas Eve. In total, the 357th Group claimed 31 German fighters on December 24, for the loss of three pilots. Although the 362nd Squadron was the group’s top scorer with 17, it lost Captain William H. Mooney, Jr. to an Fw-190 over Fulda, and after being credited with two Fw-190s, 1st Lt. William T. Gilbert, Jr. was mortally wounded by his second victim before bailing out west of Machtlos. The German who killed Gilbert, Gefreiter Hans Hufnagel of 7/JG.300, was also forced to exit his stricken Fw-190, but was at too low an altitude for his parachute to open and he fell to his death east of Gorzhain, less than a kilometer from where Gilbert’s body was found. Both antagonists were 21 when they killed each other, and local residents buried them together in Gorzhain.
A third tragic loss occurred when the 363rd Squadron flew through a formation of Mustangs of the 343rd Squadron, 55th Fighter Group as it engaged other German fighters over Daun. Most of the 343rd managed to get out of the way, but Lieutenant Wendell Helwig of the 363rd crashed into Lieutenant Kenneth J. Mix’s plane, both pilots being killed.
Among JG.300’s many losses that day was 5/JG.300 commander and 34-victory ace Leutnant Klaus Brettschneider, who was caught by a Mustang while attacking B-17s near Kassel and sent crashing to his death at Hausen. He was most likely the victim of either Lieutenant Byron K. Braley or Evan L. McGuire of the 364th Squadron, who were both credited with Fw-190s south of Kassel.
Winks downed two more Fw-190s and shared half credit on an Me-109 southwest of Ludwigslust on January 14, 1945. “One was a lucky one,” Winks said, “he was coming at me, I shot ahead and as I looked behind me, his wing came off.” After downing a second Focke-Wulf, Winks attacked an Me-109. “I had the guy on fire,” he said, “but I was concerned about a bogey following above. While I hesitated to finish that Me-109, another guy got between me and him and shot his tail off. I called it in to him. January 14 was our big day—the 357th was awarded a Presidential Union Citation for shooting the most enemy aircraft down in a single mission—56 1/2. We wiped out a whole Geschwader over Berlin. The French recognized us, too, they awarded the group the Croix de Guerre.”
The 364th Fighter Squadron accounted for 19 1/2 of the 357th Group’s victories that day. Its victims probably came from JG.300 or JG.301, both of which were over the Mecklenburg region in what turned out to be their last appearance in force to challenge the Eighth Air Force’s bombers—only to become involved in a running fight with the escorts. Although the two wings claimed 12 B-17s, two P-47s and two P-51s that day, they lost 78 fighters, with 69 of their pilots killed or wounded. Curiously, the 357th Group lost three Mustangs: 1st Lt. George A. Behling of the 362nd and Lieutenants William R. Dunlop, Jr. and James R. Sloan of the 363rd, all of whom were taken prisoner. No other partial victories were claimed besides Winks’ that day—apparently the other Mustang pilot either didn’t notice him or didn’t think his contribution sufficient to give him a share in the Me-109, because he claimed the entire kill.
The very next day saw Winks achieve acedom in rare fashion. “We were on a sweep over southern Germany, in the Munich area,” he recalled. “The 364th Squadron was over to take pictures of a 262 airfield. Pete Peterson had a camera in his P-51 and we were flying escort. The Eighth Air Force had orders not to strafe those airfields—it had incurred too many losses. I was flying along when I saw a plane doing slow rolls on the deck, over patches of snow—it was an Me-262. I was following what he was doing and called him in to Peterson, who responded with an order to ‘Go down and get him.’ At that point the bogey was going back toward the airfield. I dropped my two tanks, cut my engine and went into a straight dive with 5 degrees of flaps. I was at about a 60-degree angle when I came at the jet and fired 240 rounds of .50-caliber into his cockpit and wing root. The German flipped over, caught on fire and banged in. Pete confirmed it.”
The identity of Winks’ quarry has only recently come to light. Although Schöngau was put under alert because of the Mustangs’ presence in its vicinity, Fähnrich (cadet trainee) Rudolf Rhode, either took off or was already airborne when Winks caught him. “We observed Me-262s taxiing toward protective abutments all over that airfield,” Winks recalled. “Whoever was piloting the Me-262 that I shot down must have had a military rank high enough to have been able to countermand the ‘alert.’ Or so I have always thought.” Killed at age 19, Rhode was buried in Schwabstadl, near Lechfeld. In regard to the trainee status of his last victim, Winks remarked: “I denied the Luftwaffe an Me-262 aircraft, and a pilot from attacking our bombers. That is what I was hired and trained to do. Speaking, perhaps, for both sides of the conflict...what a terrible waste of men, and the world’s wealth.”
No sooner had Winks shot down the jet then the anti-aircraft guns defending Schöngau airbase cut loose, literally with a vengeance. “Boy,” Winks said, “did they have flak coming at me! I went straight into the heavens and suddenly I realized that my engine had lost power, it was only wind milling. When I dropped my auxiliary fuel tanks, I had failed to turn the fuel selector switch on to the internal fuel tanks. I corrected the switch, and the speed gained in my dive on the Me-262 plus the speed of the wing milling prop sucked out any airlock in my fuel lines, and the engine roared back into full power and got me out of there, f-a-s-t!”
“I finished on March 14, 1945, when I flew my last mission,” Winks concluded. “I went back to the States in April and got married on May 21. After the war, I took advantage of the point system and got out. We had a business in poultry, butter and eggs in Iowa, but in 1951 I sold it out, came to California and got into sales and other businesses. I was a manufacturer’s representative when I retired in 1996.”
Kent D. Miller, Fighter Units and Pilots of the 8th Air Force, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA 2001.
Merle Olmsted, The 357th Over Europe, Phalanx Publishing Co., Ltd., St. Paul, MN, 1994.
Danny S. Parker, To Win the Winter Sky: Air war Over the Ardennes 1944-1945, Combined Books, Inc., Conshohocken, PA, 1994.
Thanks to Kurt Schulze and Wilhelm Göbel for additional information from the German side.
Bob Winks tells about his Me262 Victory
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