By Peter Suciu
Not once, but twice in the span of two decades, military equipment makers in Great Britain produced a German-styled helmet. It wasn’t for the Tommies on the battlefield, and only a few thousand Jerry-styled helmets were ever actually produced, but these have become a strange and largely forgotten tale of military history.
The first pattern was based on the German Model 1916 steel helmet and was produced under contract for use by the newly formed Irish Defence Forces. As the Ireland Free State had recently obtained its independence from the British, it looked to completely update its military with distinctly non-British uniforms, equipment and most certainly steel helmets.
The Irish Defence Forces considered the French Model 1915 “Adrian” helmet but in limited testing, found it unsatisfactory. Instead, the Irish military adopted the German helmet pattern. In 1926, the Irish government even approached the German consulate to request a sample. In late-December 1926, the German Foreign Office responded that the export of steel helmets was, in fact, prohibited under the terms laid down by the Versailles Treaty and therefore, could not comply.
The Irish Free State turned to the British firm Vickers & Co. Ltd. of London and ordered 5,000 helmets that were based on the German pattern – and thus this was the first German-styled helmet produced by a British arms maker!
It is worth noting that Vickers reportedly only produced the actual steel shell, which were stamped V Ltd., and a serial number, while that the interior fittings and liners were completed in 1927 by Dublin by T. Smith & Son. The helmets were designed to be worn with a distinctive Irish badge on the front, but few surviving examples are actually found with the badges in place.
It is the opinion of this author that the reason that so few helmets had badges – as noted in period photos – is that the loops for the badge were installed by Vickers, but the actual badges were likely produced by an Irish firm. The prongs for the badges likely didn’t fit and had to be filed down accordingly. Period photos do suggest that officers may have worn the helmet with the badges and it is reasonable to suggest that only helmets intended for an officer would have had gone through this extra step.
The distinctive helmet remained in use until 1940 when ironically these were replaced with the British Mark II helmets, as it became apparent that the Irish were in far more danger from the Germans and would need the assistance of the British should there be a German invasion of the Emerald Isle. The Vickers helmets were withdrawn but later issued to various emergency services and painted white. Many of there were later buried in a landfill, and it is believed only a couple hundred survived in original condition, making it among the rarest non-German but German-looking helmets!
The other half of the story is almost as fascinating, and began when the British Army went into the Second World War wearing an updated version of the same pattern helmet it used a generation earlier. The MkII featured the same basic shell as the MkI but had an updated oilcloth liner and improved chinstrap. This pattern helmet was only slowly replaced in 1944 by the MkIII “Turtle Shell” helmet, but at one point the British military did produce a German-style helmet again.
Despite Internet rumors this helmet, which loosely resembled the German Model 1935, was not for Special Operations Executive (SOE). Instead it was developed for use in training prior to the D-Day landings. In January 1943, the First Canadian Army created a special unit that was to be outfitted in German equipment, and this required some 100 sets of imitation German tunics, side caps, belts, leather equipment and of course helmets. These were ordered for use for the Intelligence Section and requisitioned via the British War Office.
According to noted Canadian-military historian and author Roger Lucy, the Directorate of Clothing and Equipment of the British Ministry of Supply replied sending samples and a price list.
“The samples were deemed acceptable by First Canadian Army and in early February the Ministry of Supply confirmed that all the requested items were due to arrive shortly, except the helmets which will take another month to produce,” said Lucy. “The helmets seem to have been made by Grimson & Slater Ltd of Long Eaton Nottinghamshire.”
According to the letterhead of the firm, it was the maker of springs and steel furnishings. In 1943, it also manufactured liners for paratrooper helmets. The firm responded to the First Canadian Army on March 4, 1943, to advise that 100 “special assemblies” were en route by train and should be arriving within 24 hours. The finished helmets were made of magnetic steel and painted dark green and cost about 15 shillings – roughly $30 in modern American money.
Externally, the Grimson & Slater helmets were similar to the German models, except that they lacked bushed vents. Internally, the liners were based on the British MkII. The rivets and chin-straps closely resembled the German originals, however.
Some of these helmets and uniforms were issued to the 1st Canadian Division German Demonstration Team. In its War Diary, the 7th Reconnaissance Regiment recorded a visit by the Team, on 21 April, 1943. Lucy noted that this group consisted of what could arguably be “proto-reenactors” that replicated a German infantry platoon, giving demonstrations of German drill, commands, and infantry tactics.
It isn’t clear how many of these helmets were actually produced, but it is known that the Canadians ordered 100. Similar helmets were used in U.S. and British training films, suggesting more than 100 were made.
“I would imagine that there was at least limited mass production, maybe 1,000 or more,” said Lucy. “At 15 shillings each they were a bit more expensive than a MkII helmet, but not significantly so.”
As for the SOE connection, Lucy agrees that it is likely pure fiction – possibly as a way to make these unique helmets seem even more interesting.
“They would probably mainly for training and demonstration purposes at a time when real German helmets were not yet readily available in quantity,” said Lucy. “They would likely not be used in operations by SOE, as only the most short-sighted German would be fooled.”
It is possible, however, that there may have at least been consideration for using the helmets – but it is unclear if any were used in such a capacity. Lucy noted that MI9, the British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 9, which was responsible for POW escape and evasion, seems to have made a version with a German-style liner. Still, based on the exterior differences including paint, lack of bushed vents, and rather unconvincing decals, it is unlikely that such helmets would have fooled anyone short of television’s Sgt. Schultz!