Johannes Steinhoff - Biography
My flying training commenced in 1935, in the German Navy, which I had joined the previous year. Holding the rank of Leutnant, my training ran until 1936, when I transferred to the Luftwaffe for fighter pilot training on biplanes. In 1939 I was assigned to build up the first night-fighter squadron using the Me 109, and became a Squadron Leader, flying this aircraft, in 10.(night-fighter)/JG 26.
My first combat mission was on 19 December 1939 when a number of British Wellington Bombers tried to cross the north coast by daylight to bomb Wilhelmshaven. In February 1940 I transferred to day-fighters and commanded 4./JG 52. I participated in the campaign against Rotterdam in May 1940. I then remained in the West and flew throughout the Battle of Britain.
On 22 June 1941, we invaded Russia. I flew this campaign with JG 52 until shortly after the fall of Stalingrad, having been stationed near Moscow, Leningrad and in the Crimea. When in command of BUG 52, as a Hauptmann, I received the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross on 2 September 1942, after my 101st victory, having received the Knight’s Cross the previous year.
I then transfer to North Africa to command JG 77, where I remained for just 1 month before moving, with my wing, to Sicily. I flew in Italy from the summer of 1943 until the middle of 1944, after which my unit moved to France to combat the Allied invasion forces in Normandy. I received the Swords to my Oak Leaves on 28 July 1944, after my 167th victory, in the rank of Oberstleutnant.
The combat unit which left the greatest impression on me was JG 77. This fighter wing was my first command as Kommodore and, after my experiences in the first year of the Russian Campaign, it was a very demanding period, with the RAF promptly bringing me back to the realities of air combat in the West.
After the loss of North Africa, we moved to Sicily, where my wing, minus III. Gruppe, which had remained in the East, stood alone against many hundreds of Allied aircraft which were preparing for the invasion of Southern Europe. It was a hopeless task, although my pilots did everything they could, eventually withdrawing to the Italian mainland. Frequent hasty withdrawals northwards followed, often losing valuable spares and equipment in the process. My eventual departure for JG 7 in December 1944 was tinged with sadness, as my wing fought on in the West.
In late 1944, I commanded the first jet unit, JG 7, for a short period, after which, together with other supposed ‘mutineers’, including General Galland, I was relieved of my post. I then joined Galland’s new jet unit, JV 44, where I flew the Me 262 from Munich-Riem until 18 April 1945 when, in a take-off accident, I crashed and received serious burns. Thus, in the rank of Oberst, and credited with 176 victories, the war was over for me and many years of hospital treatment were to follow.
Looking back, I felt that the early part of the war, particularly the Battle of Britain, had been a ‘gentleman’s conflict’. The aircraft we pilots most respected was the “Spit”, due to its performance and the ability of its pilots. When I transferred from Russia to North Africa, I met them again on my first mission and was immediately shot down with the feeling – “there are the British again!”.
After the war, I worked for 5 years with an advertising company, before becoming a member of the German Delegation to the European Defence Community. However, in November 1955, I rejoined the new German Air Force in the rank of Oberst. In the following year, I underwent refresher training as a jet pilot in the United States. After a number of staff appointments, including German Permanent Military Representative in NATO, where I was based in Washington, DC, I was given command of the 4th German Air Force Division in 1963.
In May 1965, I was appointed Chief of Air Staff, Allied Forces Central Europe (AIRCENT) in the rank of Generalleutnant and, in September 1966, became Chief of German Air Staff, a post I held for over 4 years. My final appointment was Chairman of the NATO Military Committee in the rank of General. After 3 years in this post, I retired from military service on 1st April 1974.
Aircraft flown in combat
I flew the Messerschmitt 109 from the outbreak of war until October 1944, when I converted to the Me 262. The Me 109 was an excellent fighter, although during its long period of service it had many ups and downs. As the war drew on, it became increasingly unreliable, mainly due to the shortage of quality materials available. By the war’s end, the average life of an Me 109 was only 100 hours.
The Me 262 jet fighter was by far the best wartime aircraft I flew. After the piston- engined machines, it was a revalation. I later flew the F104 Starfighter and the F4 Phantom, but the Me 262 was remarkable for its time. It had a self-starting unit, a small auxiliary power unit in front of the main engines, a nose wheel brake, and a working IFF system. But most remarkable was its armament: With four 30mm cannons the firepower was devastating.
Its main drawback was the poor reliability of the power plants. If you touched the throttle above 20,000 feet, it would suffer compressor stall and power from the engine would be lost. It also had an endurance of only 1 hour 20 minutes. But, my goodness, what an aircraft to fly!