The Dutch KNIL Tropical Helmet

The Dutch KNIL tropical helmet has roots in Wisconsin.
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The use of a steel helmet in the tropics might seem odd, but The Dutch Ministry of Colonial Affairs ordered 45,000 specially designed steel helmets to issue to the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger — KNIL).These KNIL soldiers are seen marching through Melbourne, Australia, in late 1942. They were fortunate enough to escape from the Dutch East Indies and were apparently resupplied with American boots and web gear in addition to the steel tropical helmets. The KNIL was made up of European as well as native troops. These men fought side-by-side throughout the war.

The use of a steel helmet in the tropics might seem odd, but The Dutch Ministry of Colonial Affairs ordered 45,000 specially designed steel helmets to issue to the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger — KNIL).These KNIL soldiers are seen marching through Melbourne, Australia, in late 1942. They were fortunate enough to escape from the Dutch East Indies and were apparently resupplied with American boots and web gear in addition to the steel tropical helmets. The KNIL was made up of European as well as native troops. These men fought side-by-side throughout the war.

A unique tropical helmet of the 20th century was a variation of the Dutch Model 1927 steel helmet. While many steel combat helmets were used in tropical regions during the WWII, most were the basic helmet simply worn in that theater of operations, sometimes with a cover, net, or painted in a shade of khaki.

The steel combat helmets used by the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army or Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger (KNIL), however, were actually developed and produced specifically for tropical use. Instead of issuing the KNIL with the newly adopted Model 1927 helmet that was used by the Dutch military in the Netherlands, the Dutch Minister of War called for the development of a modified version.

Prior to receiving the steel helmets, the KNIL had used a dark cloth “tropical helmet” since the late 1880s. That helmet was a copy of the British Home Service helmet with a truly black cover rather than one of dark blue. These were worn in the Dutch East Indies into the 1920s.

Prior to receiving the steel helmets, the KNIL had used a dark cloth “tropical helmet” since the late 1880s. That helmet was a copy of the British Home Service helmet with a truly black cover rather than one of dark blue. These were worn in the Dutch East Indies into the 1920s.

The helmet, known as a model B during its development, had to meet certain criteria for use in the tropics. The Model B variant of the Model 27 featured a brim that was about 2cm shorter than the standard Dutch combat helmet, making it easier for soldiers to fire from a prone position. Why this modification was only necessary for helmets for the tropical colonies is not clear.

The helmet went into production at Verblifa (De Vereenigde Blikfabrieken — a Dutch company that manufactured tin packaging, in addition to sheet-metal articles, enamel plates, household articles, sheet and stamping work and cooking and heating articles) in 1930. Forty of the early prototypes included several ventilation holes at the dome of the helmet, a feature that was determined to reduce the ballistic qualities of the helmet. Since a steel helmet was deemed to be superior to a helmet made of cork or pith, the ventilation holes were left out in the subsequent production of the KNIL helmets.

The designers opted to include an orange-colored felt cloth and asbestos lining and a leather neck curtain to help reduce the effects from the sun. Given these features, it almost seemed as if the designer never experienced tropical conditions. Regardless, the helmet was adopted and seemed to be well-liked by the men who wore it.

A still image from a period newsreel shows KNIL troops in 1940 wearing the  “bamboo” hat that was issued due to shortages of the steel helmet.

A still image from a period newsreel shows KNIL troops in 1940 wearing the “bamboo” hat that was issued due to shortages of the steel helmet.

The Dutch Ministry of Colonial Affairs ordered a production run of 45,000 helmets and about 4,000 were delivered by May 1939. Another 6,000 were to be delivered each of the next five months. Delays became common after the outbreak of the war in Europe in September 1939 due to the Dutch military’s inability to source steel. Adding to the delays, the Dutch military began to increase production of the Model 1934 steel combat helmet for use in Europe even after the Netherlands declared its neutrality.

By May 1940, when Germany invaded the Netherlands, only about 28,000 of the 45,000 ordered helmets were actually delivered to the Dutch East Indies. The German occupation brought an abrupt halt to the production of the KNIL helmets.

These KNIL soldiers were photographed in the early stages of the Dutch East Indies campaign. The soldier on the far left of the photo appears to be wearing a Dutch-made version of the helmet as indicated by the badge on the front of his helmet. Some of the KNIL helmets were also issued to Dutch colonial troops in Surinam, a Dutch colony in South America. Those units helped restore order in the Netherlands at the end of WWII. In that case, the helmet designed for the tropics actually was used in the mother country in Europe.

These KNIL soldiers were photographed in the early stages of the Dutch East Indies campaign. The soldier on the far left of the photo appears to be wearing a Dutch-made version of the helmet as indicated by the badge on the front of his helmet. Some of the KNIL helmets were also issued to Dutch colonial troops in Surinam, a Dutch colony in South America. Those units helped restore order in the Netherlands at the end of WWII. In that case, the helmet designed for the tropics actually was used in the mother country in Europe.

The Dutch government in exile recognized that its forces in the Dutch East Indies might be facing an invasion from Japan. It decided to complete the production of the KNIL helmets elsewhere. In a strange twist of fate, the Milsco Saddlery Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, picked up the contract and produced the KNIL helmet in two sizes. Apart from the lack of an emblem depicting the Dutch lion on front, the Milsco-produced helmet was nearly identical to the Dutch-produced version

Milsco delivered the helmets to the KNIL before the outbreak of the war in the Pacific. Many were also issued to the Royal Netherlands Navy which also saw action in the war.

The profile of the steel helmet shows how the leather neck curtain shielded the wearer’s neck — even though leather seemed a poor choice of materials to use in tropical conditions!

The profile of the steel helmet shows how the leather neck curtain shielded the wearer’s neck — even though leather seemed a poor choice of materials to use in tropical conditions!

Made in the United States, this Milsco helmet has the stencil of the Royal Netherlands Navy painted on the front.

Made in the United States, this Milsco helmet has the stencil of the Royal Netherlands
Navy painted on the front.

Royal Netherlands East Indies Army: KNIL

The KNIL had been considered a semi-elite force, but the occupation of the Netherlands left the East Indies forces severely weakened. The KNIL was cut off from Dutch assistance other than the Royal Netherlands Navy. During the Dutch East Indies campaign of 1941-42, most of the KNIL were defeated. Most of the captured soldiers were interned by the Japanese as POWs. More than 25 percent of those captured didn’t survive the war.

A side-by-side comparison of the Dutch Model 1927 and the Milsco-made KNIL helmet.

A side-by-side comparison of the Dutch Model 1927 and the Milsco-made KNIL helmet.

Some of the KNIL personnel did escape to Australia, however. These men took part in the failed attempt to retake East Timor in 1942. During 1944-45, some units saw action in the New Guinea and Borneo campaigns.

After the war, the KNIL served in two large military campaigns in 1947 and 1948 to re-establish Dutch control of Indonesia. After those efforts failed, a newly independent Federal Republic of the United States of Indonesia was formed. In July 1950, the KNIL was disbanded. 

The KNIL helmets were painted green and had a profile similar to those combat helmets used by the Dutch Army in the Netherlands.

The KNIL helmets were painted green and had a profile similar to those combat helmets used by the Dutch Army in the Netherlands.

The interior shows the leather liner and the felt to help reduce the heat on the wearer’s head. How effective this was is a matter of debate.

The interior shows the leather liner and the felt to help reduce the heat on the wearer’s head. How effective this was is a matter of debate.

An example of the Milsco helmet without neck curtain – this example was apparently captured by a Japanese soldier who wrote his name in the interior. Some of these helmets were used by the Japanese in the occupied Dutch East Indies, but based on the condition, this one was likely a souvenir.

An example of the Milsco helmet without neck curtain – this example was apparently captured by a Japanese soldier who wrote his name in the interior. Some of these helmets were used by the Japanese in the occupied Dutch East Indies, but based on the condition, this one was likely a souvenir.

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