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When we were great: Steinhoff's request.

The inevitable closed on Strome Galloway some months ago; like most of us he ultimately had to clean out his den. In the process, several active decades as soldier and author were stored in assorted bags and Col Galloway was left fingering a yellowing letter sent to him in 1967 when he was Canadian Military Attache in Bonn. It was from Lieutenant General Johannes Steinhoff. Between the lines one could read the story of the fall of the Luftwaffe and the rebirth of the German Air Force, and the assistance provided by the then-RCAF.


The story started in January 1945, when the Luftwaffe lost 300 aircraft in a 900-aircraft strike at allied air bases. The long-range Mustang had also made its appearance and was providing effective air cover for American day bombers while Bomber Command continued to waste cities at night. Col Steinhoff was one of the top Luftwaffe pilots who met in Berlin's Luftwaffe Club that month to present grievances to Reich Marshal Herman Goering.

The mood was bitter and sullen pilots smarted under Goering's complaint that pilots were losing their nerve. The pilots knew that the war was over but were determined to force Goering and Hitler to give them the means of going out in style. Hitler had been hoarding a meagre quantity of Me-262 jets in order to build up a jet bomber force with which to strike back at England.

Col Gunther Lutzow spoke for the pilots. He reached the ignition point when he demanded that all Me-262's be assigned to fighter operations. Goering became apoplectic and promised to have Lutzow shot for treason. But before the deed was done, Hitler heard about the pilots' revolt and ordered Goering to let fighter-chief Gen Adolph Galland try the 262's as fighters.


Galland collected 50 of the best, and Col Steinhoff was in charge of familiarizing the veteran pilots with the jet. Many had been in the war since day one; some had come out of convalescent hospitals, some had over 300 victories and all were drawn by the word "jet" and a speed of 540 miles an hour.

Steinhoff's elite squadron was operational on 1 April. The Me-262 was a delight to fly, but its speed and limited range presented problems. The intense speed created gunnery problems as the fighters closed on targets. Bomber crews soon were dropping wheels or flaps to reduce speed and cause the jet to overshoot. But for a brief month, Steinhoff's Jagdverband 44 (JV44) squadron fought a brilliant battle it could never win.

Three weeks from the end of the war, Steinhoff crashed on take-off and the man once called the Luftwaffe's handsomest was severely and hideously burned. His face was destroyed and he went through months of convalescence. Gunther Lutzow flew out and never returned. Adolph Galland continued to lead his dwindling forces. The war had 11 days to run when he led a flight against American Martin Mauraders when he suffered a shattered knee and made an emergency landing.

On 1 May the last of JV44's jets sat silent and empty at Salzburg as American tanks approached and American fighters wheeled overhead. Suddenly one Me-262 buckled and burned, then another and, by the time the Americans took the field, most of the jets were in ashes.

Ironically, Steinhoff ended up in England at a hospital near Tunbridge Wells where many RAF pilots had been given new faces. He recovered and gradually became an architect of the post-war German Air Force.


Our story now fast-forwards 21 years to 1966 when Canada's Air Division was in Europe and veterans of JV44 were NATO allies and senior members of a reconstructed German Air Force. Steinhoff was now a lieutenant general at a time when Canadian airmanship had swept several seven-nations competitions. The Weapons Meet was much more than a top-gun contest because the emphasis was on the entire team which serviced the aircraft, mission planning and a number of factors which measured the efficiency of every man on a team of over 30 specialists.

The CF-104 was used in both the low-level strike and reconnaissance roles and, once a year, recce pilots reported to the Air Weapons Unit at Decimomannu, Sicily, for strike attack training while strike attack pilots spent two weeks at Deci practising nuclear weapons delivery.

Charles de Gaulle disrupted what harmony there was between NATO leaders in 1966 when he expelled all foreign nuclear weapons. This brought substantial changes within the Canadian Air Division as the wing at Merville was converted into a non-nuclear role. The second wing at Grostenquin was closed down and two squadrons were assigned to wings in Germany at Sweibrucken and Baden-Soellingen.

The CF-104 Starfighter was a remarkable but unforgiving aircraft. It was being flown by both German and Canadian pilots and pressure mounted on Gen Panitzki, head of the West German Air Force, as 22 aircrew died in crashes and 656 German CF-104's were grounded. By the spring of 1966 the debacle over the widow-maker led to Panitzki's dismissal, and LGen Steinhoff became Inspector General of the Air Force.

He inherited a situation where German pilots got much less training than Canadians and machines had a questionable maintenance record. The Germans then studied Canadian maintenance methods and, when they adopted them, casualties fell off. Steinhoff contacted Col Galloway at the Canadian Embassy telling him that a number of their casualties took place over or in the North Sea. He specifically asked for help with air-sea rescue techniques.

The request resulted in the training of 900 German aircrew at Decimomannu in the last six months of 1967 alone and the CF-104 death-toll was reduced. The tattered letter from Steinhoff which Strome Galloway found en route to the garbage truck stated that, "The RCAF has, by its help, considerably facilitated the continuation of our flying missions. I should be much obliged if you would convey my thanks to all the officers and training personnel who have made this success possible."

In the days of transport aircraft which can't get off the ground and helicopters which can't stay in the air, it's nice to remember a time when Canadians and their aircraft were role models.
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Author:Shannon, Norman
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Aug 1, 2000
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