From Behind the Iron Curtain: Communist Bloc Helmets

F rom the end of World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Europe was divided into two armed camps; NATO with American support in the West, and the Warsaw Pact under Soviet domination in the East. Despite agreements that the nations of Eastern Europe would be free to hold elections, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Albania and Bulgaria soon became puppet states along with the occupied East Germany. On May 14, 1955, the USSR and the above nations signed the  Agreement on Friendship, Coordination, and Mutual Assistance–the Warsaw Pact.

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A comparison of the Soviet SSh-40, the Czech M-53 and the Hungarian M-70. Note the different liner systems with the three helmets. Author’s collection
    
    To maintain order and uniformity, the forces of the Warsaw Pact soon began to be armed with Soviet weapons, and equipped with Soviet gear. While the forces of NATO quickly adopted the American M1 pattern helmet–with France designing a modified version, and England retaining their late WWII model–the forces of the Warsaw Pact soon utilized Soviet helmet designs.
    
    Although Soviet helmet designs were widely adopted in the years following the end of the World War, there is actually a great deal of variety in the types of helmets used throughout the Communist Bloc. Today, it is easy to think of Soviet domination across Eastern Europe, but one must understand that the various nations still maintained their unique national identity in terms of uniforms and equipment. This was most certainly true of helmets.

SOVIET SSh-40
    
    At the end of the Second World War the SSh-40, or Model 1940, helmet was the primary steel helmet in use by the Red Army. This featured a three-pad liner system that allowed for very precise fitting and reduced the production process from previous designs. This style helmet remained in use, with minor changes, until replaced in 1968 by the SSh-68.

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A comparison of the Polish Wz. 31/50 and the Polish Wz. 68. Note the Polish Eagle on the front of the Model 1968 helmet. Author’s collection
    
    The SSh-40 shell design was used throughout the Eastern Bloc following WWII. Most of the earliest helmets were likely Soviet surplus with the three-pad liner system. However, by the 1950s, these were produced domestically in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
    
    In fact, the first wave of the so-called “Soviet Army” or “Red Army” steel helmets to hit the West in mass in the 1990s were actually Czech M-53 steel helmets. From the exterior these do look almost exactly like SSh-40, but are painted a darker greenish-brown color. Many of these are still available on eBay and through surplus catalogs for under $50 in unissued condition. There is no exact number on how many of these were produced, but the numbers are surely in the hundreds of thousands or more.

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A Polish-made but East German-used Model 1963 paratrooper’s helmet. These were produced in Poland throughout the 1960s and 1970s and used throughout the Soviet Bloc. These were sold as surplus in the last decade, but once again have become somewhat uncommon. Author’s collection
    
    The Czech M-53 is actually a slightly lighter gauge of steel, and according to various sources, there is no evidence to suggest these were produced in the Soviet Union. These helmets were produced by the highly efficient Czech arms industry. The main distinguishing feature of these helmets is the liner, which was inspired by the German M-31 or Italian M-33 liner system. It features eight leather tongues around a steel band, which is mounted to the shell at three points, much like the Italian design, in fact. This allows for a highly adjustable helmet, but has the downside of having the qualities of a bell!
    
    The Czech M-53 was used by Czechoslovakian forces, and there seems to be evidence that it was exported as well. Sand camouflage examples have been found in the Middle East, and Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi forces among others have likely used this helmet model.
    
    The Czechs were not the only Warsaw Pact nation to rely on the SSh-40 shell design. While there is no argument that the people of Hungary suffered greatly under Soviet domination, the nation’s army was never one to be highly trusted by the Soviets. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the Hungarians utilized the SSh-40 steel helmet throughout the Cold War.

    

    At the end of WWII, the Hungarian Army briefly continued to use their pre-war, German-licensed helmet, the Model 1935/38. The pre-WWII version was typically a mustard brown color, while the post-war modified 1948 versions were darker green. No doubt these were considered a reminder of the war and were replaced in 1950 by the Soviet design that remained in use for the next 20 years. It is believed that Soviet-produced helmets, rather than those made domestically, were used throughout this period (including the Budapest uprisings in 1956).
    
    A modified version, which is known by collectors as the “Model 1971” (but may have been designed in 1965), retained the basic shell with a highly modified liner. This four-pad liner and double leather chinstrap is probably among the best liner systems of any of the SSh-40 designs. Possibly because it is a four-point chinstrap, this helmet design is erroneously called a paratrooper helmet, but there is no evidence to suggest this was ever the case. While the improved liner is more than adequate for an infantry helmet, without additional padding it is sorely lacking as a jump helmet. The sloped design of the helmet shell would also be impractical as a paratrooper helmet. While not as common as the Czech M-53, the Hungarian M-71 helmets are still relatively plentiful and affordable.

POLAND, ROMANIA AND BULGARIA
    
    The armies of Poland, Romania and Bulgaria each managed to maintain a bit of their nationalist identity during the Cold War. The nation of Poland had disappeared from the maps of Europe in 1795, only to reappear in 1918. It disappeared again in 1939, and was vastly changed with the peace of 1945. While the nation had an army in exile fighting from England, the first forces loyal to the Soviet Union were formed during the Second World War as well. Therefore, the first Communist Polish helmets were issued well before the Cold War.

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The Romanian Model 1973, based on the pre-war Dutch M38 helmet. Author’s collection

    Poland: As with the rest of Eastern Europe, Poland was firmly behind the Iron Curtain, trading their Nazi oppressors for Communist ones. And this puppet government soon began to rearm. The post-war Polish army began a modernization in 1949, followed by another round in 1956. Throughout this, and in spite of influences from the Soviets, many traditional elements of the Polish army remained, notably the field caps that were inspired by the old military rogatywka caps. The Polish eagle, a symbol dating back to the nation’s golden age, was retained. In fact, Poland was one of the few nations where their old symbols actually were kept in favor of the Communist red star.

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While resembling an Italian Model 1933, the Bulgarian M51 helmet features a lower quality of steel. Author’s collection
    
    Likewise, the Polish retained their own unique helmet designs. Prior to WWII, the Poles had used French “Adrian” steel helmets, which were replaced in the 1930s by the Wz. 31, or Model 31. The model featured a three-pad leather liner system that was loosely based on the German Model 1916 design. These helmets were issued with an anti-reflective textured paint for the infantry, which has become known as the “Salamander finish.”
    
    Following WWII, the Wz. 31 was retained, but stripped of its salamander paint. The helmets received a flat matte finish. A new liner and chinstrap system (a copy of the German M-31 and  Italian M-33 liner systems) replaced the three-pad system. These post-war Wz. 31-50 helmets typically have two sets of rivets on the shell–one set from the original liner system and the second set holding the new liner. These helmets remained in use until the 1980s.
    
    In the late 1960s the Poles introduced a replacement for the Wz. 31, which is known as the Wz. 67, or Model 1967. It appears as a mix of the older helmet with the Soviet design. These helmets typically had the Polish eagle stenciled on the front. These helmets remained in use until Poland joined with NATO in the 1990s. Therefore, they remain easy to find as a surplus item.
    
    One other Polish helmet is worth mentioning, and ironically it is typically referred to as an East German helmet: the Model 1963 paratrooper helmet. These helmets were produced in Poland, but used by various Warsaw Pact nations during the Cold War, notably their East German allies. It features a round oval steel shell with a well-padded leather liner. Ear covers are part of the chinstrap system, which makes for a tight fit. Because of this design, the helmet is sometimes encountered as a “dispatch rider” helmet.

Romania: During the latter half of the Cold War this Balkan nation also became one of the most reluctant of Soviet “allies,” in fact breaking  the Warsaw Pact on numerous occasions–notably attending the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, while the rest of the Soviet Bloc stayed home. As with Poland, Romania also retained their pre-WWII helmet designs.
    
    As a “socialist” rather than “communist” nation, Romania distanced itself from the Warsaw Pact, and even refused to allow foreign (as in Soviet) troops to be stationed within its borders. By the 1970s, the Soviet SSh-40 helmets, which had been used by the Romanians were out, replaced by the Romanian Model 73 helmet (which was based on the pre-war Dutch-designed M-38). These helmets were used in a variety of green, gray and even blue colors for the various armed forces of Romania. Some of the M-73 helmets had the Romanian state seal on the front, which is reminiscent of the King Carol II plate that appeared on the WWII version.
    
    In addition to the Romanian infantry helmet, a paratrooper model was also produced. It closely resembles the Polish M-63 paratrooper helmet, but with a shell more reminiscent of the M-73.  

Bulgaria: Only a nominal Axis ally during WWII, Bulgaria didn’t actually engage the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Nevertheless, Bulgaria fell into the Soviet sphere of influence after the war. The Soviets never stationed large numbers of troops in Bulgaria, which was seen by Westerner observers as a sign of trust and as the region’s lack of importance to Soviet defenses.
    
    At the same time, however, the Bulgarians had often modeled their uniforms on those of Imperialist Russia, and later the Soviet Union. The influence in Soviet style equipment and headgear is rooted in a long tradition. During the 1930s, the Bulgarians did shift away with their helmets, and relied on German inspired designs, no doubt based on the German WWI Model 1916/18 helmet design. Bulgaria even used former German and Austrian WWI helmets. It isn’t uncommon to find the latter with Communist stars on the front, suggesting that these remained in service for a long time.
    
    By the middle of the 1930s, the Bulgarians adopted their own unique helmet models, known collectively as the Bulgarian Model 1936 helmet. This model was, in fact, available in three main versions, with some variations of each. These were produced in Czechoslovakia and Germany prior to the war, and in recent years have been sold as surplus in large numbers. While these will never have the value of a German WWII helmet, these are probably the most affordable of any Axis power helmet from the era.
    
    The various M-36 helmets, which featured a tri-color decal on the right side, were reissued to the pro-Soviet forces of Bulgaria in the 1950s. Many of these featured a Red Star on the front as a sign of their support. These remained in use throughout the Cold War.
    
    A new steel helmet was introduced in 1951 based on the Italian M-33. The helmet is the same shape and features the same liner as the Italian shell, but the steel and liner are of a lesser quality. The M-51 was even occasionally used in movies as a Soviet helmet, notably the WWII epic Cross of Iron. As with the WWII Bulgarian helmets, the M-51 is a fairly uncommon helmet; however the prices remain quite affordable.

EAST GERMANY

    
    The army of the DDR, or East Germany, was probably the best trained and best equipped of the Warsaw Pact powers–including those of the Soviet Union! The country was also ironically held as the most reliable, yet least trusted by their Soviet masters, thanks to the bitter reminders of WWII.

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The “classic” early pattern East German Model 1956 steel helmet. This example features the early pattern liner and dark slate gray paint. Author’s collection

    
    The history of the East German helmets actually goes back to WWII. As early as 1942, the German army was looking at ways of simplifying its production methods, and in producing superior weapons. During the war, there were several designs, including the Model B/II. Rumors persist that Adolf Hitler didn’t like the helmet and it went nowhere. Whether any saw combat is unknown, and whether they even exist today is also left open for debate. Helmets do surface  with the sellers claiming these are the elusive “Model B/II,” but any of these should be viewed with some skepticism.
    
    East Germany was declared an independent state in 1949, but already the Soviets had created an armed branch of the People’s Police, or Volkspolizei (VOPO), which served as the forerunners of the NVA (Nationale Volksarmee) –not to be confused with the NVA of Vietnam. Interestingly, the East German military forces retained a distinctly Wehrmacht style uniform, but wore a Soviet SSh-40 helmet, making for a rather eclectic, and almost anachronistic, soldier. It is believed that both actual SSh-40 and Czech M-53 helmets were issued. These featured a unique East German decal on the front. This model, with the decal, is highly sought after by collectors and is considered somewhat rare. Fakes, unfortunately, are known to exist.
        This helmet lead to the first true East German helmet, the Model 1954. In appearance, it is  similar to the German M-35 but it does have considerably more square shape. These were used by the border police and VOPO forces. These helmets are extremely rare today. The Model 1954 were replaced by the Model 1956, the most recognizable helmet from the DDR.

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A comparison of t he first pattern East German M-44 liner with the later M-56/70 liner. Author’s collection
    
    Based on the Model B/II, the M-56 does feature the outline of the M-35 steel helmet with a more rounded/sloped shape. This improved the ballistic properties of the helmet and made for a handsome outline. The first model of the helmet featured the Model 1944 liner system, which was designed to replace the M-31 liner that had been used with the German M-35/40/42 helmets. The first batch of helmets used a single M-31 style chinstrap. Y-straps replaced the chinstrap on each subsequent model.
    
    There are several variations of the M-56. The most common is the final version with six leather tongues and foam padding.  Floyd Tubbs, in his original edition of  Stahlhelm, describes a helmet liner with four thin leather pads, cork lining and rubber blocks–however this author has never seen an example in person or in a photograph to match that description. No doubt these four-pads were confused with the Soviet SSh-68 liner system. As few East German helmets were likely encountered in the West in the 1970s, Tubbs may have relied on the little information that was available.
    
    While rare and highly sought after throughout the 1980s the East German M-56 fell in price faster than the Berlin Wall came down. As with most East German items, the helmets have been seen at army surplus stores for more than a decade, selling for as low as $10! However, the early models with the M-44 liner, and those with decals are still desired by collectors. The liners haven’t been faked yet, but collectors should be wary of fake decals. Likewise, many “fantasy” decals exist, such as those for Stasi–a unit that is known never to have used decals.

AROUND THE WORLD

    
    As with the AK-47 rifle, the Soviets were never shy about exporting their equipment around the world. As a result, various Soviet, and Soviet Bloc, helmets can be found around the world. Soviet Bloc ally Albania used SSh-40, Czech M-53 and later Bulgarian M-51 helmets before adopting Chinese made helmets.
    
    During the Korean War, SSh-40 helmets were supplied in small numbers to the North Koreans and their Red Chinese allies. During the Vietnam War, PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam)forces–not to be confused with the NVA of East Germany–used Soviet helmets. Soviet SSh-40 and, later, SSh-68 helmets made it to Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Cambodia, Cuba, Afghanistan and even African nations such as Angola.
    
    These models received new coats of paint, a variety of insignias and in the case of some of these countries new liners to replace the worn out ones! As a result today there are countless variations of Soviet and Soviet Bloc helmets for collectors to discover and research. And while the “people’s revolution” didn’t turn out as Soviet leaders had hoped; they did give the capitalistic collectors some really interesting helmets to collect!

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