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Johannes Steinhoff
Johannes Steinhoff
Last Wartime Rank: Colonel
Unit(s): JG 26, JG 52, JG 7, JG 77, JG 44
Theatre(s): France, Battle Of Britain, North Africa, Med, Eastern and Western Fronts
Combat Debut: Dec. 1939
Decoration: The Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords
Victories: 176
28 France, Battle Of Britain, North Africa, Med, & Western Front (Incl. four 4-Engined A/C and six with Me 262)
148 Eastern Front
Total Sorties: 993
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.

His first combat experience was in 1939 when he fought RAF Vickers Wellington bombers that were attacking coastal industry in the Wilhelmshafen region, shooting down several. He was also appointed Staffelkapitän of 10./JG 26 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 was 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.

Johannes Steinhoff

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 with the unit, Steinhoff's Me-262 suffered a tyre 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 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 NATO's 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.

Steinhoff played a major and most positive part in the controversial Ronald Reagan US Presidential visit to Kolmeshöhe Cemetery near Bitburg, in 1985. Planned as an act of reconciliation on 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 internment's. 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 passed away in a 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.


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