POTS, LIDS, BONE DOMES.. Theres one thing despite their myriad nicknames you can be sure of; steel helmets have been cursed by soldiers for centuries, only to be later blessed when they saved the wearer's life.
Since Lhe ear y days of organised warfare, steel helmets have been prolific and ancient examples have been found across the globe. Unlike many other parts of the body, the skull is hard to damage but if you can, a head wound is often fatal and the first warriors were quick to realise this.
Throughout the Cold War years nearly every nation adopted a form of hardened manganese steel head protection, (with basic through to complicated carrier/liner inner systems) and notably the last few years of the period began to see experiments with plastic and ballistic nylon lightweight helmets occurring, largely in the West among the NATO nations.
While metal head protection has been around almost as long as the ability to forge and shape metal itself has, the actual design of steel helmets changed dramatically during WWII and the vast majority of Cold War Warriors would be seen up until the 90s using (essentially) WWII designs.
To see the true origins of the modern infantry helmet we have to look back to WWI At the beginning of the 20th century, personal armour had fallen almost entirely out of fashion. Some cavalry wore ceremonial helmets and breastplates but the fighting man went to war in 1914 wearing a soft cap or at bestr a leather helmet (like the classic German "pickelhaube" with its "comedic" spiked crown). Hideous casualties from artillery bursting overhead of static trenches andr to a lesser degree, injuries inflicted by snipers on anyone foolish enough to stick their head out of the parapet, caused the "top brass" of the belligerent powers to look into a way of eliminating the high explosive and shrapnel threat that was causing almost 75 per cent of casualties in some sectors.
The British and French (and their allied nations) opted for almost medieval designs in quite separate ways. The British "Brodie" Mkl helmet with its "soup bowl" style was designed to protect a soldier from overhead missiles falling down into a trench with its wide brimmed shallow design, similarly troops poking their heads up for sneaky peak had a chance to deflect an oncoming bullet striking the smooth curved dome.
"THE FIGHTING MAN WENT TO WAR IN 1914 WEARING A SOFT CAP OR AT BEST, A LEATHER HELMET (LIKE THE CLASSIC GERMAN 'PICKELHAUBE' WITH ITS COMEDIC" SPIKED CROWN)"
While this sounds well thought out, the actual origins of this style of helmet design can be seen as early as the 14th century, although in medieval warfare the intention was for the helmet to protect against overhead blows swung down upon the wearer from hand weapons. The French went for an equally archaic design (reminiscent of Roman helmets) with their "Adrian" helmet and its re-enforced "comb" to deflect blows from the top of the skull (this style was also adopted by the Russians in very limited numbers in WW2) but it is with the technologically innovative Germans where we the finest theories were put into practice.
In fact these early German designs are so good that helmets clearly inspired by the German "model 1916 stalhelm can still be seen in service today.
The Germans had opted for a well thought out and visually distinctive style that not only protected the skull from above but swooped down at the side and the back before flaring out, offering incredible protection to the sides of the face, ears and neck. In fact post-WWI studies ascertained that had the British adopted the German style, head injuries could be minimised by up to 50 per cent! It wasn't done, by the way as it was seen to be "not British" to follow the German example - regardless of how many lives it may have saved!
In this possibly apocryphal anecdote, however, lies an important grain of truth. The steel helmet is a boon in terms of protection but also a curse when it has such a distinctive shape. The head and silhouette of the helmet is often the first thing a patrolling soldier sees of his enemy - so much so that soldiers since WWII have taken great pains to break up the outline of the "unnatural" helmet shape with scrim, netting and local foliage. During the 1970s the US even produced thousands of fake plastic Soviet "look alike" helmets to put over U5 helmet liners, to make the "opposing force" on exercise look like a "real enemy"r which illustrates how important a shape of the helmet is to identifying friend from foe.
During WWII the allies were held back by each nation using its own distinct equipment with little or no standardisation. Moves to replace the UK helmet, found lacking outside a "trench warfare" environment, with the US "M1" model (vastly superior to the UK MKII of the time) were shelved when it was found that UK headphones would not fit under US helmets. Adopting the German or Russian model was out of the question and so the UK "compromised" with the MKIII or "turtle shell" assault helmet, which came into service in the last years of WWII and looked like the bastard child of a British MKII and a US MKI helmet. This quickly introduced "interim" design would serve the British Army in various modified forms up until the mid-80s!
The rest of NATO, however, would adopt the US M1 steel helmet with a separate liner (usually consisting of compressed wood fibre or plastic) for decades, creating a degree of standardisation as West Germans, Americans, Belgians, Norwegians and many other nations adopted the US model under licence, often changing minor features like chinstraps and liners. The Ml helmet had many advantages over its competing British MKIII model, not least was the fact that the pull out liner allowed the soldier to use the helmet as a water carrying pot and, in emergencies, even cook in it (although this was discouraged as repeatedly heating the steel could weaken its protective qualities).
Across the Iron Curtain the Warsaw Pact (WP) was also standardising its soldier's head protection. During WWII the Russians had begun the war using the French "Adrian" helmet but soon created their own domestic entry into the world of bone domes and, in the process, created another world icon... The M40 steel helmet.
After a shaky start (the "machismo" of many Soviet soldiers made them feel that "helmets were for sissies" - regardless of casualty lists saying otherwise!) the Model 40 (which was startlingly similar in profile to the US M1) became a standard, with minor variations, across the WP with the Russians, Czechs, Hungarians and the Poles (M50). The Bulgarians initially used an old WWII 1936 model -before "modernising" to a copy of the Italian M33 helmet in the 1970s, while Romania used an equally aging copy of the 1930s Dutch model. On the whole though, like NATO with its distinctive Ml design, the WP had an equally distinctive profile, with the M40 type being in use with most armies; making the two sides easily recognisable in profile. Even in the Eastern Bloc though, the true innovation, was happening in Germany!
Soon after its inception, the armed forces of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) adopted the M56 stalhelm, a distinctive and highly effective design. Allegedly the M56, so folklore holds, had been designed in the middle of WWII as a successor to the ageing M35 type "stalhelm" (the classic WWII "Nazi" helmet) but was disliked by Hitler and shelved, never to see "Third Reich" production. With a new communist party in power... well, anything Hitler hated had to be good and the plans were dusted off and the M56 put into production.
The M56 once again demonstrated Hitler was utterly clueless and really excelled only at making poor decisions, as, to put it bluntly, the new helmet proved to be a world-beater and could have been a great boon to the Wehrmacht. Post-Cold War comparative tests found the M56 to be equal in protective power to modern ballistic nylon helmets and far superior to UK and U5 models of the same time period! But the age of steel was drawing to an end.
While reasonably protective against shrapnel and "sub velocity fragments" (that's bits of fencepost and house bricks thrown up by a blast to you and me), no steel helmet could stop modern rifle rounds. Despite the Warsaw pact adopting a modernised, more sharply angled helmet in the 70s (the M68) and NATO constantly improving the inner liners of their designs, the helmet was beginning to be a heavy encumberment. Its protective "pros" did not really compensate for the "cons" of weight and poor thermal insulation.
During the 1970s many armies had experimented with plastics helmets. The U5 had used plastics for helo crew helmets; the Polish, East Germans and British had made paratrooper helmets (although these lacked true ballistic protection) and motor cycle despatch rider helmets. In the west some AFV crew helmets were made of plastics, while in the East the Warsaw Pact continued to save money on padding the inside of AFVs by padding the driver with a cloth crash helmet instead!
All of this was to change with experiments in "ballistic nylon"; Kevlar and similar plastics resistant to sharp, high speed projectiles. By 1985 the UK's "MKV" steel helmet was hopelessly out of date and had been found lacking in the Falklands and Northern Ireland; as a result squaddies were only too happy to trade it in for the new lightweight MK6 plastic helmet. Cornfier, lighter and superior in extremes of temperature but the UK was at this point following the U5 lead... who were really borrowing from, yes you've guessed it... the Germans!
In the early 80s the U5 army, galvanised by horrific casualties in Vietnam, had taken "personal protection" as a "top pnohty" for the infantry soldier. Using revolutionary new fibres and fragment resistant nylons the Personal Armour System Ground Troops (PASGT) set was introduced and first saw combat usage in the 1983 invasion of Grenada.
As we've covered the vest element of PASGT in a previous issue, we'll conclude this month's article with a look at the helmet and see personal protection at the end of the 20th century go full circle.
ACROSS THE WORLD POLICE FORCES, ARMIES AND OTHER FORCES THAT PUT THEMSELVES IN HARMS WAY TRUST TO A COMBINATION OF TURN OF THE CENTURY DESIGN (IN BOTH CASES) TO KEEP THEM SAFE!
The PASGT helmet was dubbed the "Fritz" helmet by the men of the 82nd Airborne Division - and with good reason. One look at the PASGT and one can see the classic lines of the M1916 Stalhelm poking out! Forty years after the end of WWII, the shadow of Nazism was so faint that the World's second largest superpower could risk outfitting its troops with the silhouette of Hitler's storm troopers. But let's make no mistake, this was a sound choice for the U5 Army, as studies since the 1920s had shown the "coal scuttle" design to be one of the best possible options to keep the fighting man alive.
Free of the associations of the evil acts done in WWII and given enough time to heal the memories of veterans, the PASGT could protect a new generation of GIs fighting for the Free World.
The legacy of the PASGT (or should we say the M1916) remains with us to this day. Across the world police forces, armies and other forces that put themselves in harm's way trust to a combination of turn of the century design (in both cases) to keep them safe!