It’s June 6, 1944 – D-Day – and Canadian soldiers are under deadly fire as they disembark onto Juno Beach. The men are among the first wave of troops who’ve been tasked with seizing this stretch of French coastline from the Nazis. German opposition is stiff. But one thing that perhaps reassures the men is the fact that they’re wearing Mark III steel helmets – the latest in British-made protective headgear. And while each helmet won’t necessarily stop a direct hit, these vital pieces of personal armor can certainly deflect the lethal shrapnel that’s flying around.
British Medical Research Council scientists had advanced the Mark III helmet in 1941 – although it wasn’t until D-Day that it was ever used. Prior to that, in fact, the standard British-issue helmet had been the Brodie. With its distinctive rim, the Brodie had actually been in use by the British, Americans and others since WWI.
Yes, the Americans had used the Brodie helmet during the First World War through to the 1930s. But by the time the U.S. joined the Second World War – in 1941 – the iconic lid had been superseded by the M1 helmet. The M1 then saw service from 1941 into the Korean and Vietnam wars – and beyond. In fact, it was only retired in 1985.
Elsewhere, the standard German helmet in the Second World War was the Stahlhelm, which translates simply as “steel helmet.” This headgear – often compared to a coal bucket – is familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a WWII movie, of course. Mind you, Soldiers first wore the helmet in the trenches of the First World War in 1916.
From 1932, meanwhile, the Imperial Japanese Army wore the Type 92 helmet – known by soldiers as the tetsukabuto. This, like the German word stahlhelm, just means “steel helmet.” Previously, though, the Japanese troops had worn the French-designed Adrian helmet. And the French Army actually continued to wear a modified version of the original Adrian – the M26 – during WWII.
Yet the idea of wearing protective helmets for combat far predates the world wars of the 20th century. In fact, we can go as far back as the Akkadian Empire of Mesopotamia some 4,300 years ago for the first known deployment of headgear designed for fighting. The earliest helmets were made with brass and leather, too, and later with bronze and iron.
From about a thousand years ago, though, forged steel became the favored material for helmets. In fact, steel was mostly used for this purpose right through the Second World War and later. Today, however, the most advanced military helmets are made from high-tech materials such as Kevlar. Contemporary helmets can also be mounted with accessories, including cameras and night-vision goggles.
Yet although military helmets had started to be composed of steel a millennium ago, the need for sturdy headgear didn’t take full effect until after the rise of infantry artillery. Cavalrymen such as Napoleon’s cuirassiers, for instance, had worn extravagantly elaborate headgear. Interestingly, too, some elements of the French Army kept up this habit right into the early part of the First World War – but no further.
So it was predominantly the industrialized warfare of WWI that brought the development of the steel helmets that we recognize today. When the Great War started in 1914, you see, many soldiers went to war in soft caps that afforded no protection whatsoever. But it soon became clear that heavy artillery bombardments were leading to unacceptable losses.
The earliest contemporary steel helmet was therefore the French Adrian. This lid made its debut in frontline fighting in 1915. Before that, then, French soldiers had worn a kepi – a kind of cap with no protective properties. And the first attempt at improving things was a simple skull-cap placed underneath a kepi.
The man credited with creating better protection for the heads of the French was Intendant-General August-Louis Adrian. He also gave his name to the new helmet. Some 20 million of these Adrian helmets were eventually manufactured, too, and they were used by many armies around the world.
The Adrian was specifically designed to prevent injuries caused by exploding munitions, which spit shrapnel into men’s heads. That explains the ridge running across the helmet from back to front: it was intended to deflect the shrapnel. Another design feature was the ability to attach regimental insignia to the front of the helmet.
The Adrian was composed of mild steel, and it weighed in at one pound and 11 ounces. It didn’t offer as much protection as its two subsequent main rivals: the British Brodie and the German Stahlhelm. But the Adrian was simple to manufacture, and troops began to wear it in July 1915. What’s more, by September, the Adrian had been supplied to all soldiers situated at the front in France.
The British War office had also recognized the need for head protection in 1915 – around the time that their French allies had come to the same conclusion. Yet the British solution to the head protection problem was rather different to that of the French. In this instance, then, it was John Leopold Brodie who developed the British helmet.
But the War Office actually had an Invention Department, and it was therefore tasked with coming up with an effective helmet. Scientists there subsequently evaluated the French Adrian – and decided that its durability didn’t make the cut. Then Brodie, who had become a wealthy man in the gold and diamond mines of South Africa, registered a patent for a steel helmet in August 1915.
Brodie’s helmet had clear improvements upon the Adrian. It was created by being pressed from one piece of steel, for one thing. This made it stronger and easier to mass-produce than the French helmet too. And with its flat, elongated rim, the Brodie is reminiscent of a kettle hat, as worn by medieval foot soldiers.
After various Brodie prototypes, then, the final design used in WWI was made with steel reinforced with the addition of manganese. Sir Robert Hadfield, a distinguished metallurgist, suggested this modification, and the material was subsequently named Hadfield steel. And this alloy made the Brodie all the more resistant to shrapnel raining down from the skies.
The strengthened Brodie that entered into service with the British Army weighed just less than one pound and five ounces. As well as providing effective protection against shrapnel, the helmet could supposedly resist a .45 caliber bullet fired from a range of 600 feet. A chinstrap and a liner – both made from leather – completed the design.
There were some drawbacks, though. The bowl-shaped top and the wide brim surrounding the base of the helmet safeguarded against falling shrapnel, for instance. Yet this design offered less in the way of protection for the neck, the lower part of the head and the face than some of its rivals. Nonetheless, by the early part of 1916, British factories had produced around 250,000 Brodie helmets.
One critic of the Brodie, mind you, was a British Army general named Herbert Plumer. He pointed out that the helmet’s “bowl” was not deep enough and that it was too reflective. The general also said the lining caused the helmet to slip. So these criticisms were taken into account with the May 1916 introduction of the Brodie Mark I. And shortly thereafter, the British had manufactured one million of the steel helmets.
So when the Americans arrived at the frontline in France in 1917, they adopted the Brodie helmet. The U.S. authorities bought 400,000 of the British helmets, in fact. And from 1918 they actually started to manufacture the lids in America. All in all, then, 7.5 million Brodies had been manufactured by the conclusion of WWI.
Like the French and British before them, the Germans also realized that their own headgear was not fit for purpose. However, they didn’t come to this conclusion until somewhat later than their enemies. At the start of the war, then, German soldiers were still wearing the Pickelhaube with its distinctive spike jutting out of the top.
Yet the Pickelhaube was supposedly something of a threat to the comfort and safety of those wearing it. In fact, the conspicuous spikes on top were said to present an ideal reference point for enemy sharpshooters. And the helmet’s construction material – boiled leather – gave limited protection against loose shrapnel.
It was Dr. Friedrich Schwerd, a staffer at the Technical Institute of Hanover, who developed the Stahlhelm. By the first few months of 1915, you see, Schwerd had conducted research regarding the head injuries typically seen in the trenches. Army commanders then summoned the doctor to Berlin and ordered him to create an effective steel helmet.
Schwerd subsequently produced a helmet design that bore a resemblance to the sallet worn by soldiers in the 15th century. Remarkably, in fact, it seems that both British and German designers had looked back in time for inspiration. The helmets of medieval fighters therefore influenced the steel helmet designs fit for the horrors of 20th-century trench warfare.
The Germans chose the sallet design because of the protection it offered to the neck and the head. Schwerd’s design then underwent extensive testing in November 1915. Following this, the German Army ordered some 30,000 of the new helmets – which first saw service at Verdun in France in February 1916. Reports from the frontline claimed that there was an immediate drop in head wounds too.
Schwerd’s Stahlhelm used a steel alloy that included silicon and nickel. And it was actually stronger than the Hadfield steel the British used in their Brodie helmets. However, because of this alloy and the coal-scuttle shape of the Stahlhelm, a more complex manufacturing process was required. That meant that the German helmet was more expensive to produce.
But the helmet seems to have been highly effective, at least according to one battlefield account. In his 2007 book, The German Army on the Somme 1914–1916, Jack Sheldon quoted the words of one German officer. Wearing one of the new Stahlhelme, Reserve Lieutenant Walter Schulze was fighting on the Somme in France with his regiment on July 29, 1916.
So the helmets worn by the French, the British and the Germans during the Second World War had all been originally developed during the First World War. And as we’ve already seen, Japanese soldiers wore the French Adrian helmet in the first decades of the 20th century. But that all changed in 1932.
That was the year, after all, that the Japanese introduced their own helmet: the Type 92. Its formal name was the tetsubo, but the fighters themselves called it the tetsukabuto – the steel helmet. With its arch and prominent brim, the Japanese helmet somewhat resembled the British Brodie. But the physical appearance was where the resemblance ended.
For the Japanese helmet had a fatal flaw; its construction material, an alloy of steel with chrome-molybdenum, was rather weak. This meant that shrapnel could penetrate it all too easily, with predictable results for the unfortunate soldier wearing it. There was also a tropical version of the tetsukabuto. This was made of cork, so it can have offered little protection on a modern battlefield.
As for the British, they continued through most of the years of WWII with the Brodie helmet. It was also commonly used by other Allied soldiers, including those from Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. However, minor but important modifications had been made to the Brodie helmet since its WWI days.
In 1936, for instance, the liner of the Brodie headgear had been improved and an elastic chin strap fitted. And then in 1944 the British Army introduced a radically revised helmet – the Mark III. Sometimes known as the “turtle” because of its contours, this was used by some on D-Day, as we saw earlier. The Mark III also improved on the Brodie by offering greater shielding for the sides of the soldier’s head.
The Americans continued to use the Brodie up until 1941 too. But in that year an American-designed helmet, radically different from the Brodie, was introduced. It was dubbed the M1, and its design was based on research by Major Harold G. Sydenham. This manganese steel alloy helmet had a small brim to the front and a modest lip around the rest of its circumference.
Speaking to the Smithsonian magazine in 2017, Frank Blazich, Jr. of the National Museum of American History highlighted one of the advantages of the M1. “The M1 helmet liner was a big improvement, as it allowed for a much closer, more-custom fit,” Blazich declared. “Somewhat remarkably, they originally took the idea for the liner from the liner of Riddell football helmets of the age.”
And the M1 had other advantages. The sides of the headgear extended halfway down the wearer’s ears, for one thing. And further protection was offered by the fact that the back covered the rear of the head. This meant that more of the skull was protected from the threat of shrapnel and other hazards.
The Germans also continued with the Stahlhelm in WWII. But unlike the countries that improved the protection their helmets offered, it seems that the Germans actually downgraded their headgear. This was apparently on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler, who was anxious to cut the helmet’s production costs. And as the war ground on and Germany increasingly faced defeat, it was said that manufacturing quality declined even further.
So, given the chance, which helmet would you choose to go into WWII combat? Essentially, the decision depends on gut feeling, as there appears to be no systematic comparison of all the WWII helmets. Yet the French Adrian was made from mild steel – not the strongest of materials. And we’ve seen that Hitler downgraded the Stahlhelm, so that’s probably a poor option. The Japanese tetsukabuto was also said to be weaker than its competitors, surely making it an unattractive choice.
The Brodie helmet, meanwhile, seems to have been well-made with a quality alloy. But it didn’t offer much protection for the sides or back of the head. This was improved late in the war with the introduction of the Mark III helmet used on D-Day, though. Yet overall, perhaps the best choice would be the U.S. Mark I. It gave good all-round protection to the head and was made of quality material. Ultimately, of course, the safest helmet was likely one worn by someone far from the fighting.