The Battle of Winslow Sobanski
Any war is made up of a series of battles – for each particular country, region, city, hamlet, hill or strongpoint… and World War 2 was no exception. But alongside the thousands of strategic and tactical fights which made it into the history books, there were millions of private battles that didn’t.
On land, sea, and in the air, every combatant fought battles against their enemy at a him-or-me level; against fear and fatigue; against cold, and heat, and mud, and more.
Winslow Sobanski fought just to get to the fight.
And for all that he never made it home: On D-Day, the 6th of June 1944, when the Luftwaffe was supposedly nowhere to be found over Western France, he found them. Or rather, they found him.
You’ve probably never even heard of him, but at the time Sobanski was a Major in the USAAF, and Commander of the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force.
These were the renowned ‘Debden Eagles’ whose alumni included the likes of Don Blakeslee, Don Gentile, John Godfrey, Spiros Pisanos, Duane Beeson and James Goodson.
You have to search pretty hard to find Sobanski’s name mentioned in company like that. He generally performed more yeomanlike service, but he did it so well he’d earned an Air Medal and Don Blakeslee’s personal praise before claiming even one of his six victories.
Renowned 4th Group triple-ace Goodson recalled Sobanski as ‘room-mate and closest friend to me; probably the closest friend I ever had.’ The pair met while enrolling in the Royal Canadian Air Force, long before they transferred to No.133 ‘Eagle’ Squadron and thence to the 4th FG, USAAF in September 1942.
Both had direct experience of Nazi brutality, and had joined the war to get even. No wonder they connected.
When Jim Goodson wrote an autobiography 40 years later, he dedicated an entire chapter – the second in the book – to Sobanski’s still vivid memory. He called it ‘The Pole’.
The other pilots called him ‘Mike’.
There was no big story to either title. Michael was his middle name and he was, for all intents and purposes, Polish. Except he was born in New York City, which also made him an American.
Actually, Sobanski was utterly Polish – the son of a well-off Warsaw family. His birth in New York, on July 29th, 1919, only happened because his mother had gone there to visit her sister, who had earlier joined the diaspora of eastern Europeans making a new life in the New World.
HIs mother named her new baby Waclaw and they returned home to Warsaw shortly after. From 1920 Waclaw grew up in Poland, speaking Polish, and thinking of himself as a proud Pole.
He was studying economics at university in Warsaw when Germany attacked his country in the early hours of September 1st, 1939. He was one of several students who’d enjoyed some private flying in the previous years and, together, they went to join the Polish Air Force. They were told there was no time to train them and, in all likelihood, no planes for them to fly.
So they fell back on the military training all young men received and joined the army, which put them on a train to the Vistula front. Almost inevitably, the train was bombed by Luftwaffe Ju-87 Stukas and destroyed.
Sobanski was pinned in the wreckage, with three broken ribs and a gash across his nose, until a friend dug him out. One volunteer Red Cross nurse and a doctor who’d happened to be on the train did what they could for the wounded – which wasn’t much. Even breathing was agony, as Sobanski was put aboard another train where he rode on the floor for five days, with his friend stealing apples for food.
To a prison hospital
Eventually they arrived at a makeshift hospital in a converted monastery, where Sobanski lay for another two days before doctors could see him and fit a cast. Then word came that the Germans were approaching from the north, and those that could move boarded yet another train and headed southeast, toward Kowel, at an almost tectonic pace.
When the train finally reached Kowel, the town had been destroyed and the decision was made to continue toward Brest-Litovsk. However the train was overrun by the rapidly advancing Panzer divisions, and their German captors shipped the wounded to a prison hospital that had been set up in an old Russian fort with a moat.
Mistakenly believing Sobanski was immobile, the Germans left him unguarded. So that night he got out of bed, waded through the moat and started walking toward Romania. After 20 miles he rethought this plan and decided to turn around and make for Warsaw instead.
With his slowly healing ribs and, incredibly, still wearing a Polish Army uniform, Sobanski walked or hitch-hiked the 200 miles along roads choked with refugees, German soldiers and defeated Polish troops. Its not hard to imagine that he blended in.
Still under attack
Warsaw was still under attack by German bombers when he reached it. He changed into civilian clothes and entered the city as it fell on September 27th. There, he settled into a life of black market food and wild rumours. False stories of devastating British and French bombing attacks on German forces came through, as did news of the Athenia being torpedoed off Scotland on the night of September 3rd. His future 4th FG room-mate and friend James Goodson was one of the survivors.
As the occupying forces tightened their stranglehold on Warsaw’s defiant residents, listening to the BBC was first banned, then all radios were confiscated.
Sobanski had carefully guarded his American citizenship papers throughout and, on presenting himself at the US Embassy, was advised to ask Gestapo Headquarters for permission to leave the country.
The Gestapo made him sign a declaration saying he wasn’t an enemy of the Third Reich; they made him provide a complete list of everything he intended to take with him; and they made him wait four long months. Eventually, with the help of a substantial bribe, Sobanski received his exit visa in April 1940.
He started by travelling south to Italy, arriving in Venice with pennies in his pocket – but delighted to have escaped the Reich. His first thought was to find a way to start paying Germany back. France seemed the obvious choice, but that country soon fell to a new Blitzkreig and Italy moved to declare war on the Allies.
Sobanski left directly for the US instead, working his passage aboard the American freighter SS Winston-Salem, which would later be part of the disastrous PQ-17 Arctic Convoy in July 1943. But in July of 1941 she faithfully delivered Sobanski to Baltimore where he signed off and, despite having no English, made his way to the home of his relatives in New York. They were away for the weekend!
When they returned they found a dishevelled, broke and hungry relative on their doorstep.
Denied his shot at Germany with the French Armee de l’Air, Sobanski immediately asked about joining the US Army Air Forces. A family friend who also happened to be a recruiter for the Royal Canadian Air Force advised that pilot training with the USAAF took 2 years while training in the RCAF took just 8 months. If it was a sales pitch, it worked: Sobanski immediately headed north.
And somewhere around this time, Waclaw became Winslow.
While he was a capable pilot, Sobanski was initially washed out of flight training with the RCAF because of his extremely limited English. However Britain needed pilots and Sobanski studied desperately – eventually receiving his wings in October 1941.
Interestingly, Goodson gives a slightly different account in Tumult In The Clouds. In his telling, Sobanski’s hospital was in Warsaw and he escaped from there as the city fell. He then made his way across Poland, Czechoslakia, Hungary and Rumania to Istanbul, where he boarded a ship to the USA. Either version of events could be true, and we may never know for sure.
What Goodson does reveal is that the Pole’s American relative was none other than the renowned aviation impressario Harry Bruno – who knew everyone worth knowing in the industry at the time. It explains his ready access to an RCAF recruiter. And when Sobanski washed out of pilot training, Uncle Harry put in a call to none other than Air Vice Marshall Billy Bishop, RCAF, to get him reinstated.
(If you’ve never heard of Harry Bruno, click the link. I promise you’ll be amazed.)
By late November Sobanski was in Scotland, receiving operational training on Miles Masters and Hurricanes. He was then posted to the newly formed No.416 Squadron RCAF based at RAF Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, with Jim Goodson.
For the next eight months, Sobanski and the rest of No.416 flew convoy patrols in their Spitfires, much to Sobanski’s boredom and frustration. In June, they were moved south and, on August 19th, joined the RAF’s all-out contribution of 56 fighter squadrons covering Operation Jubilee, the largely Canadian raid on Dieppe.
German forces resisted this mini-invasion with substantial force and Sobanski finally got his first chance to shoot back at the Luftwaffe. Completely over-excited, he missed wildly – to his great regret.
On September 23rd, Sobanski and Goodson resigned from the RCAF to join the USAAF. Initially they were both assigned to No.133 ‘Eagle’ Squadron, RAF, which was then formally transferred to the USAAF as the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group, on September 29th.
The 4th’s first Group sweep was Circus 221 on October 2nd, 1942. Both the 334th and 335th flew a diversionary raid across the Pas de Calais, encountering Luftwaffe Fw.190s and downing four of them for no losses.
After that, the pace of work slackened notably as the autumn turned to winter, with only intermittent patrols and convoy escorts for individual flights. Sobanski must have bristled at the all-too-familiar lack of action.
The Group continued to fly their familiar and nimble Spitfires, although they did leave behind brand new Mk.IXs and revert to Mk.Vbs when they joined the USAAF. A somewhat incongruous transition to Republic P-47 Thunderbolts followed from January 1943.
Ramrods and Rodeos
It wasn’t until April 8th that all three squadrons put up P-47s for an operation – an uneventful sweep to St. Omer in France. But on April 15th the Thunderbolts finally met the Luftwaffe and downed three Fw.190s for the loss of three of their own. Group Commander Col. Chesley Peterson had to be fished from the English Channel by an RAF Walrus, after bailing out of his burning Thunderbolt at less than 500 feet.
Ramrods and Rodeos followed in steady succession, generally at least five a week, occasionally two in a day. On May 25th, Sobanski was transferred across to the 334th Fighter Squadron, and on August 16th, the Group finally met the Luftwaffe in force while escorting bombers to and from airfields around Paris.
Over 40 long minutes they downed 18 enemy aircraft for the loss of just one P-47 (Joe Mathews evaded capture and returned to Debden in October), equalling the 56th FG’s record of 18 enemy destroyed in a single outing.
Still unblooded, Sobanski flew cover for Col. Blakeslee who was directing the battle. He never fired a shot, but received his Commander’s commendation for his self-discipline and for safely escorting Capt. James Clark home after that pilot’s P-47 had an aileron shot away.
What he’d come for
On November 9th, 1943, Sobanski was designated Leader of the 334th’s A Flight, and the regular flow of missions continued.
Meanwhile, Blakeslee flew one of the first P-51B Mustangs in December 1943 and immediately began agitating to have them replace his Group’s P-47s. As he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given command of the 4th from January 1, 1944, his requests gained traction.
On the 31st of that month, Sobanski finally got what he’d come for – a German scalp. While escorting a raid on the Luftwaffe field at Gilze-Rijen his flight was bounced by a number of Me.109s. Sobanski turned into the first attack, then wheeled to follow a second aircraft down as it plunged through the formation.
Firing without effect in the steep dive, he put in a second burst with 20º deflection as the enemy pilot started to pull up. He observed hits around the wing root and cockpit, followed by a plume of white smoke, before the Messerschmitt flicked over onto its back.
Sobanski’s Jug flick-rolled at about the same time and he lost sight of his target, but both his wingman, 2nd Lt. Howard Moulton and his element leader Lt. Howard Hively saw the 109 go straight down in a long plume of flame. One to The Pole.
The sleek new fighter
Freelance and escort missions continued almost daily through February, with a short break mid-month followed by the constant drive of Operation Argument (aka ‘Big Week’) from the 20th. The final raid of Big Week, on February 25th, was also the Group’s last operation in Thunderbolts. Blakeslee had got his P-51s and, true to his word, there would be no three-month transition to the sleek new fighter.
After growling that his men would ‘learn to fly them on their way to Berlin’, Blakeslee had a full force of Mustangs over occupied Europe within days. They flew freelance raids on February 28th and 29th, withdrawal support for bombers raiding Frankfurt on March 2nd and then, famously, went all the way to Berlin for the first time on March 3rd.
On March 15th, Winsow Sobanski was made Operations Officer for the 334th. Then, on April 15th, he was promoted to Squadron Commander after the loss of Capt. Raymond C Care (who’d only held the post for one week) to ground fire.
A month after that, on May 13th, he was promoted to Captain.
Confidence in combat
On May 28th, 1944, the new Captain turned in one of the most memorable encounter reports of the war.
With a sense of humour that fully reflected his comfort and confidence in combat, he recounted how he’d flown through a confused melee of German and American fighters to find an Me.109 and P-51 flying in perfect line abreast formation with each other, apparently oblivious to their unlikely alliance.
Sobanski’s guns soon disavowed both pilots of their error. The Me.109 dived sharply away and Sobanski followed him down, firing short bursts without seeing any hits. Suddenly the pilot jettisoned his canopy and bailed out, leaving his aircraft to plough into the countryside below.
Sobanski circled around and took a picture of the German in his parachute, then flew home to claim the Me.109 “and a scared Hun”.
The Longest Day
On 1 June 1944 he was promoted to Major. His squadron flew two missions into France on both June 4th and 5th, then began ‘The Longest Day’ with a pre-emptive and uneventful sweep east of Rouen, taking off in darkness at 0319 and returning to Debden for breakfast at 0945.
Sobanski led the 334th off again at 1120, for a fighter bomber sweep against communication targets and other targets of opportunity around Rouen.
In total, the 4th FG put up six operations over the course of the D-Day, from that first take-off just after 0300 until the final patrol returned at 2300. The pace of operations must have been merciless for the ground crews. They would have been in no doubt that they were part of the largest invasion in history, and doing their fair share of the heavy lifting.
Heavy hearts around the hardstands
And there would be heavy hearts around the hardstands that night. Indeed, D-Day might have been a bright day for freedom, but it was a black day for the Debden Eagles. Of the 25 aircraft lost by 8th Fighter Command on June 6th, 1944, nine were from the 4th Fighter Group – a dark underscoring of the Mustang’s vulnerability during ground attack.
‘Mike’ Sobanski was one of them. And not surprisingly, there is still confusion around exactly what happened.
It’s reported that his entire flight of four Mustangs was bounced by at least 16 Me.109s and Fw.190s as they attacked a truck convoy near Rouen, and all four were shot down. However this sound suspiciously like the fate of the 335th’s Blue section – Bernard McGrattan, Cecil Garbey, Harold Ross and Walter Smith – who were lost in exactly those circumstances during the 4th’s final sweep of the day, when the 334th and the 335th raided east of Dreux between 1822 and 2300.
White Car flight
A friend of Sobanksi’s was also flying with the 334th on their fateful second mission. Major Michael McPharlin, Deputy Commander of the 339th Fighter Group, had flown with the No.71 Eagle Squadron and then 334th. He borrowed a P-51B and flew as element leader ‘White Three’ in Sobanski’s ‘White Car’ flight.
Over France, McPharlin called out that his left magneto had failed and, with a rough running engine, he was heading home. He never made it (and there’s no further account of his wingman either).
Meanwhile, Sobanski and his wingman, 2nd Lt. Edward Steppe in P-51B #43-6957 ‘Turnip Termite’, continued attacking trains near Evreux, south of Rouen. Other pilots heard Sobanksi report that he’d hit wires and that he was going after a second train. It’s generally thought the two Mustangs were then bounced by a superior force of German fighters while still at low level and both men were shot down. (Sobanski: MACR 5603, Steppe: MACR 5604.)
Shortly after McPharlin called out his abort, White Two was heard to call ‘Watch those behind you, White Leader!’
It was the last ever heard of Sobanski and Steppe… Almost. More on that in a second.
No time for sorrow
Sobanski was flying his old friend Howard Hively’s P-51B #43-6898 ‘The Deacon’ at the time and, according to Joe Baugher’s extensive aircraft database, his downing was credited to Hauptmann Herbert Huppertz of JG 2/3 Stab 3, flying an Fw.190A-8.
Back at Debden, there was no time for sorrow. Hively immediately took over command of the 334th and, pulling the men together in his friend’s absence, led them on their third sweep of the day. It had, indeed, been a long one.
Plot C, Row 3, Grave 1
Winslow Waclaw Michael Sobanski died about two months shy of his 25th birthday; a Major and Squadron Commander with 4.16 victories (2.83 air and 1.33 ground) to his credit (later revised to 5 and two shared); plus the Air Medal with 3 oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross with 3 oak leaf clusters, and a Purple Heart.
He is buried in the Ardennes American Cemetery at Neupre, Belgium, Plot C, Row 3, Grave 1 – virtually forgotten.
Through walls of flak
There is a Sobanski photo collection in the archives of the Cradle of Aviation Museum, NY, presumably from the hand-captioned album he kept at Debden. Jim Goodson recounts trying to return it to the Polish girl Sobanski hoped to marry after the war, only to have her give it back to him. Presumably he donated it to the museum. What an incredible artefact it must be!
Goodson also recounts interviewing captured German Army officers in the months after D-Day, one of whom told him:
‘Do you know, I saw two Mustangs destroy two trains completely. The leader must have been mad. He flew through walls of flak and small arms fire and even electric cables. I know he was hit many times but he kept coming back. On his last dive, German fighters were after them, adding their fire to the ground fire. The leader crashed into the train, and it was all over. Now why should an American do that? He must have been mad!’
To which Goodson replied ‘Or he just might have been a Pole!’
To ‘Mike’ Sobanski
This post began with an article about Sobanski from the January 1944 issue of Air Force magazine (Blocking Back In A P-47, by Capt. A. Gordon). It appears to be the basis for the few subsequent biographies of Sobanski. The details of Goodson’s more personal recollections have been largely overlooked.
Even what should be the go-to source, Robert Gretzyngier’s Polish Aces of World War 2 (Osprey Publishing, 1998) only offers 300 fairly familiar words under a heading of The Mysterious Sobanski.
Given he was with the 4th from its beginning, and commanded an esteemed Fighter Squadron in one of the war’s most famous Fighter Groups, it seems remarkable that there isn’t more web-space dedicated to his memory.
Hopefully that’s not quite the case any more.