It’s June 6, 1944, and Canadian soldiers are disembarking under fire onto Juno Beach on D-Day. They’re in the first wave of troops tasked with seizing this French seashore from the Nazis. German opposition is stiff. But one thing that surely reassures the men is the Mark III steel helmets they’re wearing, the latest in British-made protective headgear. They won’t necessarily stop a direct hit, but they can certainly deflect the lethal shrapnel flying around.
British Medical Research Council scientists had developed the Mark III helmet in 1941 – although it was D-Day before it was ever used. Prior to that, the standard British-issue helmet had been the Brodie. With its distinctive rim, the Brodie had been in use since WWI by the British, Americans and others.
The Americans had used the Brodie helmet during the First World War and through to the 1920s and 1930s. But by the time the U.S. had joined the Second World War, it had been superseded by the M1 helmet. This helmet saw service from 1941 and into the Korean and Vietnam wars and beyond. It was retired in 1985.
The standard German helmet in the Second World War was the Stahlhelm, which translates from German simply as “steel helmet.” This headgear – often compared to a coal bucket – is familiar to anyone that’s ever watched a WWII movie. Soldiers first wore the helmet in the trenches of the First World War in 1916.
From 1932 the Imperial Japanese Army wore the Type 92 helmet, known by soldiers as the tetsukabuto, which, like the German word stahlhelm, simply translates as “steel helmet.” Previously they’d worn the French-designed Adrian helmet. The French Army continued to wear a modified version of the original Adrian, the M26, during WWII.
The idea of protective headgear for combat far predates the world wars of the 20th century. In fact, we can go as far back as the Middle Eastern Akkadian Empire of some 4,300 years ago for the first known deployment of headgear designed for fighting. The earliest helmets were made with brass and leather and later with bronze and iron.
From about a thousand years ago, forged steel became the favored material. In fact, it was steel that was mostly used right through the Second World War and later. Today, however, the most advanced military helmets are made from high-tech materials like Kevlar. Contemporary helmets can also be mounted with accessories like cameras and night-vision goggles.
Although military helmets had started to use steel a millennium ago, by the 17th century they were less used by foot soldiers. Although infantry stopped wearing helmets, cavalrymen such as Napoleon’s cuirassiers wore extravagantly elaborate headgear. Some elements of the French Army continued this habit right into the early part of the First World War.
But it was the industrialized warfare of WWI that brought the development of the steel helmets that we recognize today. When the Great War started in 1914, many soldiers went to war in soft caps that afforded no protection whatsoever. But it was soon realized that heavy artillery bombardments were leading to unacceptable losses.
The earliest contemporary steel helmet was the French Adrian, which made its debut in frontline fighting in 1915. Before that, French soldiers had worn a kepi, a kind of cap with no protective properties. But the inadequacy of this was soon recognized. The first attempt at improving things was a simple skull-cap placed underneath a kepi.
In 1915 French commanders arranged for better protection for the heads of their men. The man credited with creating the new helmet was Quartermaster General August-Louis Adrian and he gave his name to the headgear. Some 20 million of these Adrian helmets were eventually manufactured and were used by many armies around the world.
The Adrian was specifically designed to prevent injuries caused by exploding munitions which spit shrapnel onto men’s heads. That explains the ridge running across the helmet from back to front – it was intended to deflect 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 main rivals that would soon emerge – the British Brodie and the German Stahlhelm. But it was simple to manufacture and troops began to wear it in July 1915. And by September, the Adrian had been issued to all soldiers situated at the front in France.
The British solution to the head protection problem was rather different to that of the French. It was John Leopold Brodie who developed the British helmet. The British War office had recognized the need for head protection in 1915 – around the same time as their French allies had come to the same conclusion.
The War Office actually had an Invention Department and it was tasked with coming up with an effective helmet. Scientists there evaluated the French Adrian and decided that it wasn’t robust enough. And 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 advantages over the Adrian. It was created by being pressed from a single piece of steel. This made it stronger and easier to mass-produce than the French helmet. With its flat, elongated rim, it’s been said that the Brodie was reminiscent of a kettle hat, as worn by medieval foot soldiers.
After various Brodie prototypes, the final design used in WWI was made with steel reinforced by the addition of manganese. Sir Robert Hadfield, a distinguished metallurgist, suggested this modification and the material became known as Hadfield Steel. This alloy made the Brodie all the more resistant to shrapnel raining down from the skies.
This strengthened Brodie that entered into service with the British Army weighed just less than one pound and five ounces. As well as being effective against shrapnel, it was said to be able to resist a .45 caliber bullet fired from a range of 600 feet. A chinstrap and a liner – both made from leather – completed the design.
The bowl-shaped top and the wide brim surrounding the base of the helmet safeguarded against falling shrapnel. However, this design offered less in the way of protecting the neck, 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 was a British Army general named Herbert Plumer. He pointed out that the helmet’s “bowl” was not deep enough and it was too reflective, while the lining caused the helmet to slip. Theses criticisms were taken into account with the May 1916 introduction of the Brodie Mark I. Shortly thereafter, the British had manufactured one million of the steel helmets.
When the Americans entered the First World War and arrived at the frontline in France, they adopted the Brodie helmet. The U.S. authorities bought 400,000 of the British helmets, although from 1918 they started to manufacture them in America. By the conclusion of WWI, 7.5 million Brodies had been manufactured in total.
Like the French and British, the Germans soon realized that their own headgear was not fit for purpose. However, they did not come to this conclusion until somewhat later than their enemies. At the start of the war, German soldiers were still wearing the Pickelhaube with its distinctive spike jutting out of the top.
Indeed, the Pickelhaube was supposedly something of a threat to the comfort and safety of those wearing it. The conspicuous spikes on the top were said to present an ideal reference point for enemy sharpshooters. And the helmet’s construction material – which was boiled leather – offered little protection from 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 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 produced a helmet design which bore a resemblance to the sallet worn by soldiers in the 15th century. Remarkably, it seems that both British and German designers had looked back in time for inspiration. The helmets of medieval fighters helped to create a steel helmet design 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 underwent extensive testing in November 2015. The German Army then ordered some 30,000 of the new helmets and they first saw service at Verdun in France in February 1916. Reports from the frontline claimed that there was an immediate drop in head wounds.
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 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.
“With a great clanging thud, I was hit on the forehead and knocked flying onto the floor of the trench,” Schulze remembered. “A shrapnel bullet had hit my helmet with great violence, without piercing it, but sufficiently hard to dent it. If I had, as had been usual up until a few days previously, been wearing a cap, then the Regiment would have had one more man killed.”
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. Meanwhile, as we’ve already seen, Japanese soldiers wore the French Adrian helmet in the first decades of the 20th century. But that changed in 1932.
That was the year that the Japanese introduced their own helmet, the Type 92. Its official name was the tetsubo, but the troops themselves called it the tetsukabuto – the steel helmet. With its dome and protruding brim, the Japanese helmet somewhat resembled the British Brodie. However, 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 in 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 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 improved on the Brodie by providing enhanced protection for the sides of the soldier’s head.
The Americans continued to use the Brodie up until 1941. 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. And further protection was offered by the fact that the back dropped down to cover the rear of the head. This meant that more of the skull was protected from the threat of shrapnel and other hazards.
The Germans continued with the Stahlhelm in WWII. But unlike other countries which 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 was increasingly facing defeat, it was said that manufacturing quality declined.
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. The French Adrian was made from mild steel, not the strongest of materials. We’ve seen that Hitler downgraded the Stahlhelm, so that’s probably a poor option. And the Japanese tetsukabuto was said to be weaker than its competitors, surely making it an unattractive choice.
The Brodie helmet 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. But 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. But ultimately, of course, the safest helmet was one worn by someone far from the fighting.