Johannes Steinhoff

Johannes Steinhoff

Infobox Military Person
name=Johannes Steinhoff
born=birth date|1913|9|15|df=y
died=death date and age|1994|2|21|1913|9|15|df=y
placeofbirth=Bottendorf, Thuringia

caption=Johannes Steinhoff
allegiance=flagicon|Nazi Germany Nazi Germany (to 1945) flagicon|West Germany West Germany
rank= General der Luftwaffe
commands=II./JG 52, JG 77 and JG 7
unit=JG 26, JG 52, JG 77, Kommando Nowotny, JG 7 and JV 44
battles=World War II
*Battle of France
*Battle of Britain
*Operation Barbarossa
awards=Ritterkreuz mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern Bundesverdienstkreuz Legion of Merit Légion d'honneur
laterwork=Continued serving with the Bundesluftwaffe and later NATO until retirement

Johannes Steinhoff (September 15, 1913February 21, 1994) was a German Luftwaffe fighter ace of World War II, and later a senior West German air force officer and military commander of NATO.

Steinhoff was one of very few Luftwaffe pilots who survived to fly operationally through the whole of the war period 1939-45. He was one of the highest-scoring pilots with 176 victories, and one of the first to fly the Me 262 jet fighter in combat, being a member of the famous aces squadron JV 44 led by Adolf Galland.

Early years

Johannes Steinhoff was born on 15 September, 1913 in Bottendorf, Thuringia, the son of a millworker and a housewife. He had two brothers, Bernd and Wolf.

Before WWII, he studied to become a teacher at the University of Jena but unable to find a job, he enlisted in the Kriegsmarine, where he served for one year as a naval flying cadet. Steinhoff transferred to the Luftwaffe after Hermann Göring became its commander in chief in 1935. After completing his pilot training he was posted to Jagdgeschwader 26.

World War II

His first combat experience was in 1939 when he fought RAF Vickers Wellington bombers that were attacking coastal industry in the Wilhelmshaven region, shooting down several. He was also appointed "Staffelkapitän" of 10./JG 26 [For an explanation of the meaning of Luftwaffe unit designation see Luftwaffe Organization] in this period. In February 1940, he was transferred to 4./JG 52 with which he served in both the French campaign and the Battle of Britain. By the end of the Battle, Steinhoff's score had advanced to six kills. Steinhoff's great strength was in his ability to pass on his knowledge and training to novice pilots, equipping them with the skills to survive and ultimately become experienced fighter pilots.

In June 1941 JG 52 were on offensive operations against the Soviet Union, becoming one of the highest scoring units in the Luftwaffe. Steinhoff himself claimed 28 Soviet aircraft shot down in the first month. Steinhoff remained with JG 52 until March 1943, when he took over Jagdgeschwader 77 as "Geschwaderkommodore", then operating over the Mediterranean. Only a short time after taking command Steinhoff was shot down by Spitfires and had to crash land his damaged aircraft. He had been shot down only once earlier, during the Battle of Britain.

On 28 July, 1944, Steinhoff received the Swords to the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. He ended the war as a jet pilot, first being posted to Kommando Nowotny in October 1944, and then, with the rank of Oberst, as "Geschwaderkommodore" of Jagdgeschwader 7 in December. JG 7 was equipped with the Me 262 jet fighter, and Steinhoff was allowed to handpick several "Staffelkapitäne", including Heinz Bär and Gerhard Barkhorn. After the heavy losses suffered during Operation Bodenplatte, Steinhoff and other fighter leaders fell into disfavour following the so-called 'Fighter Pilots Revolt' against what was perceived as the incompetence of Luftwaffe high command, and Hermann Göring in particular. Steinhoff was relieved of his command.

In early 1945 Steinhoff transferred to the "Jet Experten" unit JV 44 then being put together by Adolf Galland. Steinhoff initially acted as recruiting officer for the unit, persuading a number of the best Luftwaffe pilots around to join the unit. On 18 April 1945, after achieving six kills [For a list of Luftwaffe Jet aces see "List of German World War II jet aces"] with the unit, Steinhoff's Me-262 suffered a tire blow-out, crashing on take-off. Steinhoff suffered severe burns (spending two years in hospital) which left him visibly scarred despite years of reconstructive surgery. His eyelids were rebuilt by a British surgeon after the war.

His wartime record was 176 aircraft claimed destroyed, of which 152 were on the Eastern front, 12 on the Western front and 12 in the Mediterranean. He also flew 993 operational sorties. During his career as a fighter pilot, Steinhoff was shot down 12 times, but had to bail out only once.

After World War II

After the war he married Ursula, and they had one daughter, also named Ursula - later the wife of retired Colorado State Senator Michael Bird.

Steinhoff meanwhile recognised the situation of post war Germany, and was invited by West Germany's new interim government to rebuild the Luftwaffe within NATO, eventually rising to the rank of full general. Steinhoff served as Chief of Staff and acting Commander Allied Air Forces Central Europe (1965-1966), Chief of Staff of the Luftwaffe (1966 - 1970) and later as Chairman of the NATO Military Committee (1971 - 1974). He retired in 1974.

He wrote a book called "The Final Hours" (ISBN 1-57488-863-3) detailing a late-war plot against Hermann Göring. He also wrote a vivid account of his time in Italy; "Messerschmitts over Sicily: Diary of a Luftwaffe Fighter Commander" (Stackpole Military History Series Paperback)

Steinhoff received numerous honours for his work on the structure of the post war Luftwaffe and the integration of the German Federal Armed Forces into NATO, including: The Order of Merit with Star, the American Legion of Merit and the French Légion d'honneur.

One of Steinhoff's contributions was dealing with the high accident rate the Luftwaffe was having with their F-104 Starfighters. Upon researching the issue, Steinhoff, who had always been a good teacher, deduced that the problem was not the aircraft but poor training for pilots on that particular aircraft. He addressed the problem with an intensive training regime and the accident rate dropped dramatically.

The Bitburg controversy

Steinhoff played a major part in the controversial Ronald Reagan US Presidential visit to Kolmeshöhe Cemetery near Bitburg, in 1985. Planned as an act of reconciliation in light of the 40th anniversary of V-E Day that week by Reagan and then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, it was discovered that 22 Waffen-SS graves were among the 2,000 military internments. After severe national and political pressure to cancel the visit from Jewish groups and World War II American veterans on Reagan, the visit was preceded by Reagan and Kohl visiting the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Along with Kohl, 90-year-old General Matthew Ridgway, who had commanded the 82nd Airborne in World War II, and Steinhoff; Reagan placed a wreath at a wall of remembrance in the cemetery. After placing the wreath, and standing at attention in honour while a short trumpet salute was played, at its end, Steinhoff who was flanking Reagan, turned, and in an unscripted act, shook hands firmly with a pleased Ridgway in a true act of reconciliation. Reagan smiled, and firmly shook the General's hand, while a shocked Kohl later thanked Steinhoff for his actions. Steinhoff later said that it just seemed the right thing to do.


Steinhoff died in hospital in Bonn on Monday 21 February, 1994, from complications arising from an earlier heart attack. He was 80, and had lived in nearby Bad Godesberg. [ [ NY Times obituary] ]

Jagdgeschwader 73 "Steinhoff"

In 1990 the barracks in Berlin Gatow barracks, taken over by the German Federal Armed Forces, were named after Steinhoff. On 18 September, 1997 the "Jagdgeschwader 73" (fighter wing 73) of the Luftwaffe, was named "Steinhoff" in his honor. Steinhoff is one of only a handful of pilots honored in this way, along with Manfred von Richthofen and Max Immelmann.


*Wound Badge in Gold
*Iron Cross 2nd and 1st Class
*Ehrenpokal der Luftwaffe
*Front Flying Clasp of the Luftwaffe in Gold with Pennant "900"
* Combined Pilots-Observation Badge
*Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords
**Knight's Cross (30 August 1941)
**Oak Leaves (2 September 1942)
**Swords (28 July 1944)
*German Federal Cross of Merit with Star
*Legion of Merit (1970)
*Légion d'honneur (March 1972)


*Berger, Florian. "Mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern. Die höchstdekorierten Soldaten des Zweiten Weltkrieges". Selbstverlag Florian Berger, 2006. ISBN 3-9501307-0-5.
*Fellgiebel, Walther-Peer. "Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939-1945". Friedburg, Germany: Podzun-Pallas, 2000. ISBN 3-7909-0284-5.
*Flechsig (2005). "In letzter Stunde. Verschwörung der Jagdflieger Vom Widerstand der Jagdflieger gegen Reichsmarschall Göring". (ISBN 3-88189-592-2) Originally published in German in 1974, and then in English in 1977 as "The Last Chance - The Pilots' Plot Against Goering". (ISBN 0-09-129620-X)
*Flechsig (2005). "Die Straße von Messina. Tagebuch des Kommodore". (ISBN 3-88189-593-0)
*Schneekluth Munich(with Peter Pechel, Dennis Showalter, foreword by Helmut Schmidt) (4. Edition 1989). "Deutsche im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Zeitzeugen sprechen". (ISBN 3-7951-1092-0)
* [ A Steinhoff biography]
* [ interview]
* [ Online version of World War II magazine February 2000 interview]

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