Leopold Steinbatz

Leopold Steinbatz

Leopold Steinbatz
Born (1918-10-25)25 October 1918
Died 23 June 1942(1942-06-23) (aged 23)
Allegiance  Nazi Germany
Service/branch  Luftwaffe
Years of service 1937–42
Rank Leutnant
Unit JG 52

World War II

Awards Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords

Leopold Steinbatz (25 October 1918 - 23 June 1942) was a German pilot in the Luftwaffe during World War II and the only non-officer recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords during World War II.

Luftwaffe career

Steinbatz joined the Austrian Army in 1937. After the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria, the Austrian armed forces were integrated into the Wehrmacht, and he joined the Luftwaffe in 1939 as a trainee pilot. In November 1940 he graduated and was posted, as an Unteroffizier to 9./JG 52 (the 9th squadron of the Fighter Wing 52). He was often the Rottenflieger ('wingman') for the future high-scoring ace Hermann Graf.

Coincidentally at the same time III./JG 52 was transferred to Bucharest, and renamed I./JG 28 (until January 1941). This was part of the military assistance and pilot-training offered to Romania when it joined the Axis on 23 November. Even with the Balkan invasion of April 1941, III./JG 52 was kept back in reserve to guard the Ploiești oil installations.[1] On 25 May it was finally called into action, moving to southern Greece to support the invasion of Crete - mainly in a ground attack or anti-shipping role.

In mid-June III./JG 52 returned to Bucharest to re-equip onto the Bf 109F just in time for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. But again, tasked with protecting the oilfields, and being the southernmost Gruppen on the front, it had very little to do except to intercept bombers raiding the Romanian ports. So it was only once the Gruppen transferred to the Ukraine that Graf and Steinbatz were able to open their accounts - both shooting down I-16 fighters on the 4 August while escorting a Ju 87 formation. But it could have all been so different: Graf had dived in behind an enemy fighter and was set to fire, then nothing! Only then, he realised that he had forgotten to prime his guns. Then from out of nowhere another fighter fell in on his tail. Graf expected to be shot down, then the Soviet fighter itself suddenly burst into flames and fell out of the sky. Steinbatz, like every good wingman had been hanging back and carefully covering his leader's tail. Correcting his mistake, Graf got his first victory soon afterward.

For the rest of the year he often flew as Graf's wingman, flying as a potent combination. As the battle for Kharkov started at the end of September he was scoring consistently, and by the beginning of December he had 25 victories. On the 8 December he was awarded the Ehrenpokal der Luftwaffe (Trophy of Honour). As one of the few fighter units not committed to the Battle of Moscow (Operation Taifun), III./JG 52 was shuttling alternately between the attack in the Ukraine, the Crimea and Rostov. At this time the Soviets retook Rostov and forced the unit back to the relative safety of Kharkov for the winter. After a dismal start to the eastern campaign, III./JG 52 ended as the most successful unit on the southern front.

Through the winter they would often fly patrols and not encounter any enemy aircraft. But with their unit not being rotated back for extended rest and refit over winter, Graf and Steinbatz kept up their success into the new year. Of one such encounter, on 8 January, he wrote to his wife:

Today was my lucky day. Early this morning we took off on a free-hunt mission and we actually spotted three Soviets... I flew together with a young comrade who had never been in combat before as the three 'brothers' appeared. Of course I immediately attacked one of the fighters. With a short burst of fire I blew off his left wing and he went down vertically.

Pulling up, I saw the second fighter below. He was watching his descending comrade. I dived again and attacked him. I hit his radiator and he made a forced landing. We shot the aircraft on fire.

Now the turn had come for the third aircraft, the bomber. My wingman had been attacking him but wasn't able to bring him down. As I approached him, he fired like mad. I came in very close, and then I shot him in flames with a few rounds. Burning, he crashed into a village.[2]

Hermann Graf was awarded the Knight's Cross (Ritterkreuz) on 24 January 1942 for 42 victories and Steinbatz received the German Cross the day after. Then finally, on 14 February, he too was awarded the Knight's Cross for also reaching 42 victories, and sent on extended leave.[3] Graf was promoted to Staffelkapitän of 9./JG 52 in March, and by the beginning of April, his unit had racked up over 200 victories in Russia, for the loss of only 8 pilots of their own.[4] When the unit transferred to the Crimea at the end of April, the pair took off on an unprecedented victory spree. The opening of the next Axis offensive was against the fortress of Sevastopol and the Kerch peninsula with very rugged defence. In two weeks, Graf's squadron shot down 93 aircraft, without any loss.[5] Steinbatz claimed 7 victories on 8 May to take his own score to 58.

But a large Soviet counter-attack in May, south of Kharkov, forced III./JG 52 to be urgently dispatched to that sector. The Gruppe claimed 89 victories in just its first two days over Kharkov, with Graf becoming the first pilot in JG 52 to reach the century (on 14 May). Ofw Steinbatz got his 75th on 20 May, and although the ground offensive was blunted by the next day, the intense aerial combat continued. He claimed four victories apiece on 1 and 2 June and was awarded the Oakleaves to the Knight's Cross on 2 June for the 83 victories to date - being the first NCO in the Luftwaffe to receive this honour.

However the strain of ten months' almost non-stop combat was starting to show. In a letter to Frau Steinbatz, Graf wrote:

After his return he proved absolutely reckless... He entered upon an unparalleled victory march, scoring one victory after another! As he had achieved his No.80 and was expected to be awarded with the Oak Leaves. I urged him to take some leave. The combats had put a tremendous strain on his nerves. This was shown on several occasions. I grounded him for a couple of days, but then he requested that I allow him to start flying combat sorties again. As I was called to the Führer's Headquarters (on 24 May 1942), I exhorted him to 'cool down a bit'. But I knew that his goal was to reach his '100'.[3]

By 11 June he had 95 victories, but on 15 June, he dived into a larger group of Soviet fighters. After claiming three quick victories (to take his score to 99) and eager to be the first NCO to top the century mark, he pursued them into a heavily defended AA zone. His Bf 109F4 "Yellow 2" was hit by Soviet AA fire and plummeted into the forests near Volzhansk, killing Steinbatz, although his body was never found.[6] Eight days later, on 23 June, Leopold "Bazi" Steinbatz was awarded the Schwerten (Swords to the Knight's Cross) - this time becoming the only NCO in the entire Wehrmacht to be awarded this honour. He was also promoted to Leutnant. His 99 victories on the Eastern Front had been scored in only about 300 combat missions, and at the time, he was the 11th-ranking ace in the Luftwaffe.

His great friend, Hermann Graf would survive the war, becoming the second man to reach 150 victories (on 4 September). Then, after a phenomenal scoring spree over Stalingrad, on 2 October he became the first pilot to ever score 200 victories. He ended the war with the rank of Oberstleutnant (Lt Colonel) and commander of Jagdgeschwader 52.




  1. Weal 2004, pg. 56.
  2. Bergström 2001, pg. 72.
  3. 1 2 Bergström 2007, pg. 52.
  4. Weal 2004, pg. 71.
  5. Weal 2004, pg. 73.
  6. Bergström 2006, pp. 9-10.
  7. Obermaier 1989, p. 32.
  8. Luftwaffe Officer Career Summaries website.
  9. 1 2 Thomas 1998, p. 345.
  10. Patzwall & Scherzer 2001, p. 456.
  11. 1 2 3 Scherzer 2007, p. 720.
  12. Fellgiebel 2000, pp. 409, 505.
  13. Von Seemen 1976, p. 327.
  14. Fellgiebel 2000, p. 59.
  15. Von Seemen 1976, p. 29.
  16. Fellgiebel 2000, p. 40.
  17. Von Seemen 1976, p. 14.


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