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Johannes Steinhoff
Johannes Steinhoff
Nickname Macky
Born (1913-09-15)15 September 1913
Died 21 February 1994(1994-02-21) (aged 80)
Place of birth Bottendorf, Province of Saxony
Place of death Bonn
Allegiance Nazi Germany Nazi Germany (to 1945)
West Germany West Germany
Service/branch Balkenkreuz.svg Luftwaffe (Wehrmacht)
Bundeswehr Kreuz.svg Luftwaffe (Bundeswehr)
Years of service 1934–1945, 1955–1974
Rank Oberst (Wehrmacht)
General der Luftwaffe (Bundeswehr)
Unit JG 26, JG 52, JG 77, Kommando Nowotny, JG 7 and JV 44
Commands held II./JG 52, JG 77 and JG 7

World War II

Awards Ritterkreuz mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern
Großes Verdienstkreuz mit Stern
Legion of Merit
Légion d'honneur
Other work Continued serving with the Bundesluftwaffe and later NATO until retirement

Johannes "Macky" Steinhoff (15 September 1913 – 21 February 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. He played a significant role in rebuilding the post war Luftwaffe, eventually serving as chief of staff from 1966 – 1970 and then as chairman of NATO's Military Committee from 1971 – 1974. In retirement, Steinhoff became a widely read author of books on German military aviation during the war and the experiences of the German people at that time.

Steinhoff was one of very few Luftwaffe pilots who survived to fly operationally through the whole of the war period 1939–45. He was also one of the highest-scoring pilots with 176 victories, and one of the first to fly the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter in combat as a member of the famous aces squadron Jagdverband 44 led by Adolf Galland. Steinhoff was decorated with both the Oak Leaves and Swords to the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. He played a role in the so-called Fighter Pilots Conspiracy when several senior air force officers confronted Hermann Göring late in the war.

Early years

Johannes Steinhoff was born on 15 September 1913 in Bottendorf, Thuringia, the son of an agricultural mill-worker and his traditional housewife. He had two brothers, Bernd and Wolf, and two sisters, Greta and Lotte.[1]

Steinhoff graduated from the Klosterschule Roßleben convent school after having "studied the classics and languages such as French, English, Latin and Greek,"[2] and from 1932–1934 he read philology at the University of Jena,[3] where he was a member of the Landsmannschaft Suevia academic fencing society and male fraternity.[4] Forced to abandon his university studies for lack of funds, Steinhoff enlisted in the Kriegsmarine, where he served for one year alongside his friend Dietrich Hrabak as a naval flying cadet before transferring to the newly-reformed Luftwaffe in 1936.[2] There, after completing his training as a fighter pilot, Steinhoff was posted to Jagdgeschwader 26.

Steinhoff married his wife Ursula on April 29, 1939, and they had one daughter, Ursula Steinhoff Bird, who became the wife of (now-retired) Colorado State Senator Michael Bird.

World War II

Steinhoff's 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[Notes 1] in this period. In February 1940, he was transferred to 4./JG 52 where he served in both the French campaign and the Battle of Britain. By the end of the Battle of Britain, 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. By August 1941 Steinhoff had attained 35 victories and been awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. In February 1942, as a Hauptmann, he was appointed to command II./JG 52, and claimed his 100th victory on 31 August, and his 150th on 2 February 1943.

Steinhoff remained with JG 52 until March 1943, when he took over Jagdgeschwader 77 as Geschwaderkommodore operating over the Mediterranean. A short time after taking command Steinhoff was shot down by Spitfires and had to crash-land his damaged aircraft. Previously he had been shot down only once 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 hand-pick 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. Along with several others, Steinhoff was relieved of his command for challenging Göring's leadership.

After a brief period spent in internal exile, Steinhoff transferred to the Jet Experten unit JV 44 then being put together by his close friend and confidant Adolf Galland in early 1945. Steinhoff initially acted as a de facto recruiting officer, persuading a number of veteran Luftwaffe aces to join the unit - some coming out of the Fighter Pilots' Rest Home at Bad Wiessee to do so. Steinhoff himself scored six confirmed kills with the unit.[Notes 2] Steinhoff survived nearly 1000 combat missions, only to see his flying career come to an end on the ground. On 18 April 1945, Steinhoff's Me-262 suffered a tyre blow-out and crashed on take-off from Munchen-Riem airfield. 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. Explaining his preference to remain with his damaged aircraft, Steinhoff admitted: "I only bailed out once. I never trusted the parachutes. I always landed my damaged planes, hoping not to get bounced on the way down when I lost power."[2]

Post-war years

Johannes Steinhoff at NATO

Steinhoff recognised the situation of postwar 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).

After retiring from his NATO command in 1974, Steinhoff became a widely read author of books on German military aviation during the war and the experiences of the German people at that time. He wrote The Final Hours, which detailed a late-war plot against Hermann Göring, and also published a vivid account of his time in Italy: Messerschmitts over Sicily: Diary of a Luftwaffe Fighter Commander. Steinhoff also became a watercolorist, and chairman of Germany's Dornier Aviation.[1]

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.

A former Luftwaffe F-104 Starfighter at Le Bourget.

One of Steinhoff's contributions was dealing with the high accident rate the Luftwaffe was having with its 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 interments. 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, there was 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, they all stood to attention in honour while a short trumpet salute was played. At the end, Steinhoff who was flanking Reagan, suddenly turned and in an unscripted act shook hands firmly with a pleased Ridgway in an act of genuine reconciliation. Reagan smiled, and firmly shook the General's hand too. A very surprised Kohl later thanked Steinhoff for his actions who later said that it just seemed to be the right thing to do.


Shortly before his 80th birthday in 1993, Steinhoff was asked by interviewer Colin D. Heaton what advice he had "for the younger generations today," to which he responded:

Oh, that is a very good question. I would tell them this: Love your country and fight for your country. Believe in truth, and that is enough.[2]

On February 21, 1994, Steinhoff died in a Bonn hospital from complications arising from a heart attack he suffered the previous December. He was 80, and had lived in nearby Bad Godesberg.[1]

Awards and honors

In 1990, the former Royal Air Force Gatow in Berlin Gatow, was named General Steinhoff Kaserne on being taken over by the German Federal Armed Forces. And on September 18, 1997, the Jagdgeschwader 73 (fighter wing 73) of the German Air Force was named "Steinhoff" in honor of the general. Steinhoff is one of only a handful of pilots honored in this way, along with Manfred von Richthofen and Max Immelmann.


  1. For an explanation of the meaning of Luftwaffe unit designation see Luftwaffe Organization
  2. For a list of Luftwaffe Jet aces see List of German World War II jet aces


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Saxon, Wolfgang (February 23, 1994). "Gen. Johannes Steinhoff, 80, Dies; Helped Rebuild German Air Force". New York Times. Retrieved 13 July 2013. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Heaton, Colin D. (February 2000). "Interview: Luftwaffe Eagle Johannes Steinhoff". Military History Magazine. Retrieved 13 July 2013. 
  3. Toliver 1996, p. 85.
  4. Jörn Petrick: Gedenkbuch der Landsmannschaft im Coburger Convent Saxo-Suevia zu Erlangen. Zur Erinnerung an unsere verstorbenen Bundesbrüder (1878-2010)., Erlangen, 2010, S. 151.
  5. Obermaier 1989, p. 37.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Scherzer 2007, p. 721.
  • Berger, Florian (1999) (in German). Mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern. Die höchstdekorierten Soldaten des Zweiten Weltkrieges [With Oak Leaves and Swords. The Highest Decorated Soldiers of the Second World War]. Vienna, Austria: Selbstverlag Florian Berger. ISBN 978-3-9501307-0-6. 
  • Fellgiebel, Walther-Peer (2000) (in German). Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939–1945 – Die Inhaber der höchsten Auszeichnung des Zweiten Weltkrieges aller Wehrmachtsteile [The Bearers of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939–1945 — The Owners of the Highest Award of the Second World War of all Wehrmacht Branches]. Friedberg, Germany: Podzun-Pallas. ISBN 978-3-7909-0284-6. 
  • Obermaier, Ernst (1989) (in German). Die Ritterkreuzträger der Luftwaffe Jagdflieger 1939 – 1945 [The Knight's Cross Bearers of the Luftwaffe Fighter Force 1941 – 1945]. Mainz, Germany: Verlag Dieter Hoffmann. ISBN 978-3-87341-065-7. 
  • Schaulen, Fritjof (2005) (in German). Eichenlaubträger 1940 – 1945 Zeitgeschichte in Farbe III Radusch – Zwernemann [Oak Leaves Bearers 1940 – 1945 Contemporary History in Color III Radusch – Zwernemann]. Selent, Germany: Pour le Mérite. ISBN 978-3-932381-22-5. 
  • Scherzer, Veit (2007) (in German). Die Ritterkreuzträger 1939–1945 Die Inhaber des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939 von Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm sowie mit Deutschland verbündeter Streitkräfte nach den Unterlagen des Bundesarchives [The Knight's Cross Bearers 1939–1945 The Holders of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939 by Army, Air Force, Navy, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm and Allied Forces with Germany According to the Documents of the Federal Archives]. Jena, Germany: Scherzers Miltaer-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-938845-17-2. 
  • Steinhoff, Johannes (2005). In letzter Stunde. Verschwörung der Jagdflieger Vom Widerstand der Jagdflieger gegen Reichsmarschall Göring (in German). Flechsig. 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.
  • Steinhoff, Johannes (2005). Die Straße von Messina. Tagebuch des Kommodore (in German). Flechsig. 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.
  • Thomas, Franz (1998) (in German). Die Eichenlaubträger 1939–1945 Band 2: L–Z [The Oak Leaves Bearers 1939–1945 Volume 2: L–Z]. Osnabrück, Germany: Biblio-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7648-2300-9. 
  • Toliver, Raymond F. and Trevor J. Constable (1996). Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 978-0887409097.
  • Williamson, Gordon & Bujeiro, Ramiro (2005). Knight's Cross and Oak Leaves Recipients 1941-45. Osprey Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-84176-642-9.

External links