- Written by Stefan Häuser
The Wehrmacht steel helmet is still THE symbol for the Wehrmacht and the German soldiers of World War II.
Apart from this, the helmet had an ever deeper meaning for the soldiers - it was a life-save, a central piece of their accouterments that was part of a soldier's life from the start of the war until its end.
The helmet was a rather indidual piece of gear. Since many soldiers had their own techniques for camouflage, they applied their own painting which often resulted in unique camouflage schemes, not only reflecting the particular war experiences of soldiers but also their personalities. Each steel helmet thus had its own character.
Although it is impossible nowadays to reconstruct the experiences and personalities of most soldiers, the steel helmet nevertheless allows us to time travel a bit and get a glimpse of his resepctive wearer.
Many soldiers wrote their name onto their helmet - either by hand, written on the inner leather liner or the inner rim of the shell or as patches applied to the liner.
Not only due to its life-saving nature, the steel helmet was a long-time companion for every soldier. During this time it was not unusual for a helmet to get damaged by bullets or shrapnels. A helmet could not withstand direct bullet hits - a rather frequent misconception. Often, the helmet was also deformed by external forces from hits etc., too.
The german steel helmet had an advantageous shape from a ballistic point of view (despite its incapability to withstand a direct hit). This is the reason why it was used by the NVA long after World War II. This later version of the steel helmet was based on prototype samples which came too late to be deployed during the war. All in all, this steel helmet was the most sophisticated helmet during the second World War, something that also hold true for the models M16 and M18 dating back to the World War I.
Although the helmet offered some protection against bullets, its main purpose was to protect the soldier from shrapnels and hits from hard dirt and other debris.
Severely damaged helmets had to be replaced at the front line which was often impossible. The only alternative in this case was to use the helmet of a comrade killed in action making the story behind the helmets all the more interesting.
Many so-called "war souvenirs" can still be found in Great Britain and the United States of America. These were collected by allied soldiers and sent home as souvenirs. These specimen often have their chin straps cut through. This was typically done when a soldier was wounded or killed during combat and paramedics or allied troups had to get the helmet off quickly.
Today it sounds horrible to capture the helmet of a killed enemy but we have to take into account that the soldiers had seen truly horrbile things which caused them to become emotionally rather blunt in order to survive. Typical reasons for such souvenir hunting were to keep them as trophies or as keepsake to remember a certain, often life-threatening combat situation.
All in all, the steel helmet was the most popular souvenir of allied troups, something that also might have had its roots in the special meaning of this particular helmet for the soldiers.
Parts of a steel helmet:
The german steel helmet consists of six main components:
- Helmet shell
- Inner ring
- Chin strap
The inner lines was mounted to the inner ring by small rivets. This inner ring had three gaps, one at the neck side and two at the left and right. This ring was in turn mounted by rivets to the helmet shell. These rivets were just bent as can be seen in the pictures below. By means of the strap, the inner liner could be adjusted to different head shapes.
Embossments and stamps:
Every steel helmet was marked by embossments by its manufacturer:
Each helmet shell has a manufacturer and a size code. In addition to that it carried a lot number.
Typically, the correct color scheme was acknowledged by a "color stamp" on the inner side of the shell. The leather liner was also stamped to indicate its particular size and manufacturer, as were the chin straps.
Q = Quist, Esslingen
ET (ckl) = Eisenwerke Thale/Harz
EF (FS) = Emaillierwerke A.G, Fulda
NS = Vereinigte Deutsche Nickelwerke, Schwerte
SE (hkp) = Sächsische Emailier- und Stanzwerke A.G., Lauter
bvl / qvl = Till today this is an unknown rare manufacturer
The tokens in parentheses were intrudced in 1943 to conceal the manufacturers - a result of the increased allied bombing raids on the german industry.
The various helmet types:
Following the M16 and M18 helmets dating back to World War I (these were sometimes still used by the Wehrmacht in limited amounts), there were three basic models of the Wehrmacht steel helmet:
1. Steel helmet M35
2. Steel helmet M40
3. Steel helmet M42
M40 and M42 were clearly based on their predecessor M35 - these models are the result of an evolutionary process, driven by the ever increasing shortage in material and advances in production methods.
The steel helmet M35:
The model M35 was introdcuced by means of an order issued on June, 25th, 1935 (Heeresmitteilung 35, Nr. 289). It was based on the models M16 and M18 which will be subject of another post on this website.
The most visible change was the replacement of the two prominent "horns" by flat rivets. These allowed some means of ventilation. The reason for this was of acoustic nature - many soldiers had complained about loud buzzing noises which were caused by resonsances. Many helmets used in World War I had these hollow "horns" plugged with wood chips, dirt etc. to get rid of the noise effects.
The M35 consisted of sheet steel with a thickness of 1.1-1.2 mm. The shell was deep drawn from a saucer-shaped piece of sheet steel. The outer rim was peripherally flanged to increase the overall stability. The shell itself should have a clearance of about 2 cm to the head. Apart from the mounting rivets, it featured two rivets to allow for some air exchange (so-called "Entlüftungsbuchsen") - these were separately riveted.
The helmet is caoted with an anti-corrisive protection layer. The color varied widely from apple-green (rather bright) to the well-known gray. Three millimeters below the two air-exchange rivets, the emblem (black-white-red) was painted on the right side, while the national emblem, the well-knwon eagle holding the swastika in its claws, was located on the left side.
The steel helmet M35 and its successors were manufactured in five sizes: 60, 62, 64, 66, and 68. It shoudl be noted that these sizes denote the inner circumference of the helmet! The head-circumference was determined by the inner liner:
- Size 60: 52/53cm
- Size 62: 54 / 55cm
- Size 64: 56 / 57cm
- Size 66: 58 / 59cm
- Size 68: 60/61cm
Apart from these standard models there were special helmets to fit very large heads. These shell sizes were 70, 72, and even 74, corresponding to head sizes ranging from 62 cm to 68 cm! These irregular sizes were (at least as known today) manufactured by the Eisenwerke Thale/Harz (ET / ckl) only.
The weight of a steel helmet ranges between 900 and 1200 grams.
The chin-strap was introduced by an order issued on November, 22th, 1935 (Heeresverfügung 35, Nr. 691) was was nearly unchanged until the end of the war. Early specimens featured double web buttons made from light metal (typically Aluminum). This was replaced by zinc coated iron on later years.
The steel helmet M40:
The only but visible difference to its predecessor M35 is that the ventilation rivets were left out and replaced by punched holes which were flanged on their border (order issued on March, 26th, 1940, Nr. 3365/40). Nevertheless, the already ordered and produced rivets were still used until the supply was exhausted.
Of particular disadvantage were the national emblem and the light color of the early M35 steel helmets which could be easily spotted by enemies. With a special order dating back to March, 21st, 1940, all black-white-red markings had to be left out. The helmets already issued to the front line were overpainted. Accordingly, the M40 was only manufactured during five days with the national emblem on its right side, making this an extremely rare model.
An order issued on January, 27th, 1940 (Heeresmitteilung 40, Nr. 165), changed the color of steel helmets to tarnish gray (a later order, March, 31st, 1940, Heeresmitteilung 40, Nr. 428, changed this color to different type of gray).
Thus no successor models of the M35 were ever manufactured featuring the light green color. All of these new paints had also to be matted which increased the camouflage effect considerably.
Steel helmet M42:
The steel helmet M42 was introduced by order of the OKW dating back to April, 20th, 1942 (Nr. 4120(42). Now the outer edge was no longer flanged, it just had an edge measuring about 4mm which gave a similar stability but greatly simplified the production process. The evolutionary process can be seen clearly.
Of course, every part of a helmet, as well as the overall helmet itself was thoroughly tested. Even minor flaws resulted in the rejection of the helmet.
Helmets with slightly misaligned shells or featuring out of position ventilation holes were often given to civilian organizations such as the air-raid protection or fire-fighting brigades. These helmets were typically marked with a bulge running around its circumference.
Today, such helmets are often called "Kradmelderhelme" (helmets for motorcyclists), arguing that this bulge helped to hold the protective goggles. This is definitely wrong. These helmets are just rejects that were reused wherever possible to save precious resources. There is not a single known picture of a Wehrmacht's soldier or a military motor cyclist wearing such a helmet. On the contrary, there is a plethory of pictures showing these helmets in use in more civilian organizations.
What to do if a helmet is found?
If you find a steel helmet, the most important thing is to keep the helmet untouched. Do not remove dirt, dust, paint etc. Do not attempt to lay open the national emblem. All of these action drastically reduce the value of the helmet - keep it in its original condition.