British WWII Helmets: Airborne, Dispatch Rider and Tank Crews

T he success of the German paratroopers early in WWII inspired the British army to form their own airborne units. It was immediately clear that a new type of helmet would be needed. The infantry MkII, which retained the basic shape of the helmets worn during the First World War, was utterly impractical for a paratrooper and soon a variety of training helmets–mostly made of rubber or padded leather–were introduced.
   
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The original British paratrooper helmet featured a non-magnetic manganese steel shell with a rubberized rim.

    The first steel helmet was produced at the BMB factory in 1941. These early “P Type” helmets only numbered between 500 and 1,000 units. The P Type featured a non-magnetic manganese steel shell with a rubberized rim and a lining with interior padding that was similar to the German M36/40 design. These helmets, because of the relatively small numbers that were issued, have become very rare and are seldom seen for sale.
   
    The next step in the evolution of the British helmet came in 1942. This helmet featured a similar shell design, but with a thick vulcanized fiber band rim that clearly distinguishes it from the German model, along with a four-point chinstrap system and a band of sorbo rubber for padding. These earliest helmets used leather chins traps and are considered quite rare. This helmet is simply known to collectors as the “airborne helmet.” The airborne helmets have been faked, and modern replicas are currently produced for re-enactors.

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This is the style of helmet worn by the famous “Red Devils” and other WWII British Army paratroop regiments. Author’s collection
    
    The MkI paratrooper helmet was the next version. This version is sometimes  confused with the previous–as well as later–versions. The MkI is similar to the aforementioned helmet but without the fiber rim. Otherwise, the two are virtually identical. The MkI paratrooper helmet was produced for a short time before being upgraded.
    
    Collectors encounter the MkII helmet version most frequently, mainly because it remained in service in the years following the war. The MkII helmet differed from the previous version in that it used a two-piece webbing harness instead of a leather chinstrap. The harness was attached via three external screws. This was the primary helmet used in WWII and is very popular with collectors. This helmet was put back into production in 1952 and was also produced in Belgium under license.

HINTS FOR COLLECTORS
    
    Collectors today should carefully examine any helmet, because, as has already been mentioned, it can be tough to distinguish a wartime helmet from that made much later. It should also be noted that, unlike their American or even German counterparts, the British troops, including the Red Devils of the 1st Airborne Division, often discarded their helmets following a landing. Paratrooper helmets issued during WWII were often a dark olive green while post-war helmets are usually encountered in a brighter green. This is far from a perfect way to judge the authenticity of a helmet, though. Likewise, the leather chinstrap of the MkI model has been copied, and it takes very little effort to put a fake strap on a MkII and call it a MkI.

TANKER & DISPATCH RIDER HELMETS
    
    The basic MkI paratrooper helmet shell was not exclusively used by the airborne divisions. The Royal Armoured Corps adopted the basic MkI paratrooper shell with the addition of the liner of the “Helmet, Steel, MkII.” From the outside, it is actually easy to recognize that one of these tanker-modified shells is not a paratrooper helmet. It will have a single rivet at the top of the dome, and one rivet on each side for the chinstrap mount. This helmet was officially designated “Helmet, Steel, Royal Armoured Corps, MkI.” It was replaced on 1944 by a modified MkII, which used the  “lift-the-dot” design.

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A comparison of the liner systems of the dispatch rider (left) and paratrooper (right) helmets. Author’s collection
    
    The post-war MkV “Turtle Shell” liner system had been used in these helmets in the 1950s as well, but there seems to be no special designation. This helmet pattern remained in service with the British army until 1973, and was used on board ships by the Royal Navy until the 1980s.

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The dispatch rider helmet of the British army closely resembled the paratrooper helmet, but the texture is typically rougher while the color is a lighter shade of green. Author’s collection
    
    Finally, another similar helmet was also introduced in 1942 as the “Helmet, Steel, Dispatch Rider MkI.” This helmet again had the basic MkII paratrooper shell, but with a special liner that included a front head pad and leather neck flap. These helmets were produced in great quantities, and many seem to have never been issue. The dispatch rider helmets  are still much more affordable than the WWII paratrooper helmet, making it an perfect entry point into collecting WWII UK helmets.

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