W hen the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, the British had produced some seven million MkI helmets. With the advent of the Second World War, the British army were using only a slightly improved steel helmet.
A new liner system was developed for the MkI in 1936, and existing stocks of the helmets were retrofitted. This liner was a single piece of oilcloth with five fingers and mounted to a central band with eight rubber bumpers to provide support. A crossbar of pressed-fiber pulp held the liner in the helmet via a single screen at the top of the dome. A rubber T-shaped pad was mounted on the top of the bar to add further cushioning. Instead of the four sizes used in the MkI, this new liner system was available in 10 sizes. A new elastic chin strap, with a khaki canvas outer layer, was also introduced and retrofitted to existing helmets.
The updated MkII with the new liner system and elasticized chinstrap (Author’s collection)
In 1938, the War Office began production of new helmet bodies that used this liner and chinstrap system. The helmets featured an improved line strap-securing lug and were designated the “Helmet, Steel, MkII.” This is the most commonly encountered British helmet of WWII. About 12 million were produced between 1938 and 1944. But, unlike the MkI, not all were made in the United Kingdom, as many were produced in Canada during the Second World War.
“Canadian helmets were issued almost exclusively to Canadian troops,” says Roger Lucy, who has collected helmets for nearly 40 years, and is the author of Tin Lids: Canadian Combat Helmets. He adds that there were exceptions to the rule, and 1,150 helmets were sent to Newfoundland, 1,100 to Jamaica, 3,000 to Trinidad and 1,000 to the Norwegian Air Force.
While the MkII is often remembered as a British helmet, these were widely exported and were sold to neutral countries, including Turkey and Ireland, during the conflict. They were also used by Allied forces, including those soldiers from occupied nations such as Poland and Norway. Lucy noted, “The other Commonwealth-produced helmets also made it throughout the world. For example, South African helmets seem to have been more widely distributed to various contingents fighting in North Africa, while Australian helmets went to India and other forces in the Asia/Pacific area.”
A NEW DESIGN: THE MKIII
After the Blitzkrieg of spring and early summer 1940, it became apparent that the Second World War wasn’t going to be a replay of the first. It was just as apparent that the MkII was ill- suited for this faster style of war. Ironically, the helmet did serve well during the air raids. But on the front lines a new helmet was needed.
“Being that they had the Germans knocking at their front door, there were indeed far greater concerns upon their plates to address than making new helmets for their troops,” says Harlan Glenn, author of For King and Country. “Developing and manufacturing new aircraft and better small arms came far before such things as tin hats.”
But, by 1941, a new helmet was developed. It wasn’t until 1943 when it was introduced for Commonwealth troops, most notably, the Canadian. “The MkIII came out just in time for the ‘Big Show’–the invasion of Normandy,” says Glenn. “That is when the MkIII made it’s big debut. It came ashore at Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches, along side the old MkII worn by some of the old salts like the 50th and 51st Infantry Divisions.”
Made of manganese steel, the helmet was, in fact, developed by the Medical Research Council and produced by Briggs Motor Bodies Ltd., and Rubery Owen Company. It used the MkII liner and chin strap. The MkIII was one of the shortest lived British helmets of WWII. Only about 500,000 pieces were produced.
“The MkIII was Great Britain’s upgrade to the MkII. It provided more protection than the ‘tin hat’ and remained in service for many years to come,” adds Glenn. “One of the reasons that it is one of the hardest British Army helmets to attain today is that they were all used up and few were surplused like the MkII and MkIVs.”
The so-called “Turtle Shell” was introduced in 1944, first as the MkIII and then updated as the MkIII seen here. This pattern of helmet design would stay in service until the 1980s (Author’s collection)
The MkIII shell, which is often called a “turtle shell,” does resemble the shell of the small animal, and in many ways seems reminiscent of the American Liberty Bell helmet from nearly 25 years earlier. The helmet provided greater protection for the wearer and was popular with the troops.
The liner was mounted via a single screw, much like the MkII. It was decided to refine this method. Instead of a screw, a fixed fastener stud was attached at the dome. This allowed the liner to be removed from the helmet via a system known as “lift-the-dot.” This allowed the shell to remain watertight. The chin strap lugs were mounted closer to the rim for better balance. This new helmet was dubbed the MkIV. It actually remained in service until the 1980s, being upgraded in 1959 as the MkV with a new liner made of synthetic materials.
Whether the MkIV was actually used during the closing days of WWII is left for debate. While a helmet may be dated 1945 or even 1944, it is hard to say for certain whether it ever left the supply depot in time to be issued.
COLLECTING THE TOMMY’S HELMETS
Other than paratrooper helmets, British WWII helmets have never been especially popular with collectors. Those with tan paint for desert camouflage, or with divisional insignia, have traditionally been more sought after than the standard Tommy helmet. In recent years however, British helmets have increased in value.
“Just from what’s been seen on eBay and remarks on the helmet forums, I’d say there has been a rise in prices in these helmets,” says advanced helmet collector Dave Powers. He adds that the dramatic increase has been notable for specialized helmets, such as the RAC and paratrooper models.
“The helmets were ignored simply because they are British and, even to this day, collecting British and Commonwealth items is not, and never will be, as desirable as that of German or Japanese, or even American,” suggests Glenn. He adds that this is why many wartime British pieces have gone by the wayside due to lack of interest. “There is more misinformation conjured up by gun show table idiom than there is solid data for the collector or reenactor to work from.” Despite this, the British helmets are beginning to attract interest, and it isn’t just the paratrooper helmets that have climbed in price.
Occasionally, MkV helmets are passed off as wartime, but this is essentially impossible. Collectors should carefully examine any MkIII, as there are fakes made by removing the fastener stud and drilling a hole, and then mounting a traditional MkII liner. This takes two $100 helmets but transforms one of them into a potential $500 helmet! The location of the chin strap lugs is the dead giveaway. Anyone looking to purchase a MkIII should become acquainted with the location of these lugs.
The basic MkII, though (just like the American M1), saw action on virtually every front and in every theater of operation. It was a helmet worn with pride, and it remains an icon of the brave British Tommy.