Stahlhelm (plural, Stahlhelme) is German for "steel helmet". The Imperial German Army began to replace the traditional leather Pickelhaube (spiked combat helmet) with the Stahlhelm during the First World War in 1916. The term Stahlhelm refers both to a generic steel helmet, and more specifically to the distinctive (and symbolic) German design.
The Stahlhelm, with its distinctive "coal scuttle" shape, was an instantly recognizable icon for military imagery and became a common element of military propaganda on both sides, just like the Pickelhaube before it.
At the beginning of World War I, none of the combatants were issued with any form of protection for the head other than cloth and leather caps. As the war entered the trench warfare phase, the number of casualties on all sides suffering from severe head wounds (often caused by shrapnel) increased dramatically. The French were the first to see a real need for more effective protection — in late 1915 they began to issue Adrian helmets to their troops. The British and Canadians followed with the Brodie helmet, which was also later worn by US forces, and the Germans with the Stahlhelm.
After lengthy development work, which included testing a selection of German and Allied headgear, the first Stahlhelms were tested in November 1915 at the Kummersdorf Proving Ground and then trialled by the 1st Assault Battalion. 30,000 examples were ordered, but it was not approved for general issue until New Year 1916, hence it is most usually referred to as the "Model 1916". In February 1916 it was distributed to troops at Verdun, following which the incidence of serious head injuries fell dramatically.
The model for the Stahlhelm's design is said to be the 15th century sallet, which was worn by both knights and commoners, and which provided good protection for the head and neck.
In contrast to the Hadfield steel used in the British Brodie helmet, the Germans used a harder martensitic silicon/nickel steel. As a result, and also due to the helmet's form, the Stahlhelm had to be formed in heated dies at a greater unit cost than the British helmet, which could be formed in one piece.
The M1916 design had side-mounted horn-like ventilator lugs which were intended to be support an additional steel brow plate or Stirnpanzer, which only ever saw limited use by snipers, as it was too heavy for general use.
The shell came in different sizes, from 60 to 68, with some size 70s reported. The suspension, or liner, consisted of a headband with three segmented leather pouches, each holding padding materials, and leather or fabric cords could be adjusted to provide a comfortable fit. The one-piece leather chin strap was attached to the shell by M1891 chinstrap lugs, the same kind used in the Pickelhaube helmet.
The M1916 design provided excellent protection, but it was not without its flaws. The ventilator horns often let cold air in during the winter, requiring the wearer to block the vents with mud or fabric. The large, flared skirt tended to make it difficult for soldiers to hear, distorting surrounding sounds and creating an echo when the wearer spoke.
Originally painted Feldgrau (field grey), the Stahlhelm was often camouflaged by troops in the field using mud, foliage, cloth covers, and paint. Official issue cloth covers in white and grey appeared in late 1916 and early 1917. Camouflage paint was not formally introduced until July 1918, when German Army Order II, No 91 366, signed by General Erich Ludendorff on 7 July 1918, outlined official standards for helmet camouflage. The order stipulated that helmets should be painted in several colors, separated by a finger-wide black line. The colors should be relevant to the season, such as using green, brown and ochre in summer.
After the effectiveness of the M1916 design was validated during the 1916 campaigns, incremental improvements were subsequently made. The M1917 version saw improvements to the liner, but was otherwise identical to the original design.
Extensive redesigns were made for the M1918 model. A new two-piece chin strap was introduced, and was attached directly to the helmet liner rather than the shell. Certain examples of the M1918 had cutouts in the rim along the sides of the helmet. It has incorrectly been said that these cutouts were to accommodate using headphones while wearing the helmet. These cutouts were actually done to improve hearing and to reduce echo created by the large, flared skirt.
The M1918 Stahlhelm can be distinguished from the M1916, as the M1918 shell lacks the chinstrap rivet on the lower side of the helmet skirt found on earlier models. (external image)
Germany delivered 5,400 visorless versions of the M1918 helmet for Turkey. The missing front visor was thought by the Germans to be for religious reasons, and it was claimed that it was to allow Turkish soldiers to touch their foreheads to the ground during prayer, without removing their helmets. However, this story has been disputed. The Turks rejected any more than the 5,400 delivered and an unknown number from the overrun were issued to German armed forces and were used by German Freikorps units after the war.
In 1934 tests began on an improved Stahlhelm, whose design was a development of the World War I models. The Eisenhuttenwerke company of Thale carried out prototype design and testing, with Dr. Friedrich Shwerd once again taking a hand.
The new helmet was pressed from sheets of molybdenum steel in several stages. The size of the flared visor and skirt was reduced, and the large projecting lugs for the obsolete armour shield were eliminated. The ventilator holes were retained, but were set in smaller hollow rivets mounted to the helmet's shell. The edges of the shell were rolled over, creating a smooth edge along the helmet. Finally, a completely new leather suspension, or liner, was incorporated that greatly improved the helmet's safety, adjustability, and comfort for each wearer. These improvements made the new M1935 helmet lighter, more compact, and more comfortable to wear than the previous designs.
The Army's Supreme Command officially accepted the new helmet on June 25 1935 and it was intended to replace all other helmets in service.
Over 1 million M1935 helmets were manufactured in the first two years after its introduction, and millions more were produced until 1940 when the basic design and production methods were changed.
The M1935 design was slightly modified in 1940 to simplify its construction, the manufacturing process now incorporating more automated stamping methods. The principal change was to stamp the ventilator hole mounts directly onto the shell, rather than utilizing separate fittings. In other respects, the M1940 helmet was identical to the M1935.
A variant of the M1935 helmet with a shell lacking the projecting visor and deep, flared rim was issued to Fallschirmjäger (German paratrooper) units. It was so designed in order to lessen the risk of head injury on landing after a parachute jump. Early Fallschirmjäger helmets were manufactured from existing M1935 helmets by removing the undesirable projections, which were omitted when the new design entered full production. The modified shell also incorporated a completely different and more substantial liner and chinstrap design that provided far more protection for German airborne troops.
The East German M-56 helmet was originally designed in 1942 as a replacement for the M1935/M1940 model Stahlhelms. The design was never progressed and was unused until the requirement for a new German helmet for the Volkspolizei and the National People's Army arose, it being realized that the reintroduction of the Stahlhelm would not have been tolerated by the Soviet Union. It came in three basic versions, Mod 1 or I/56, Mod 2 or I/57 and Mod 3 or I/71, and was widely sold (or given) to Third World armies.
The Wehrmacht consisted of the army (Heer), the navy (Kriegsmarine), and the air force (Luftwaffe). While not technically part of the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS ("Armed-SS") tactically operated as such and was considered part of Germany's armed forces during the war. The same was true of some Sturmabteilung (SA) units, along with other subsidiary organizations, which functioned as part of the armed forces particularly towards the end of the war. Wehrmacht branches typically displayed distinctive emblems in the form of decals on their helmets. The Heer, or army, displayed a black shield bearing the frontal view of a silver-colored German eagle holding a swastika in its talons (known as the Reichsadler), while the navy used the same eagle emblem in gold. Luftwaffe decals displayed the side view of an eagle in flight, also holding a swastika. The SS was both a military and a political organization, and its black runic initials on a silver-colored shield (normally applied to the right side of the shell) looked like twin lightning bolts. Other military, political, and civil or defense organizations used similar decal insignia to distinguish their helmets. Such visible identification devices were gradually abandoned as the war progressed, however, so that by war's end most Wehrmacht helmet insignia had been eliminated to reduce the wearer's visibility in combat.
After the end of World War I Poland seized large quantities of M1918 helmets. Most of those were later sold to various countries, including Spain. However, at the end of the 1930s it was discovered that the standard Polish wz. 31 helmet was unsuitable for tank troops and motorized units; while offering decent protection, it was too large and heavy. As a stop-gap measure before a new helmet was developed, the General Staff decided to issue M1918 helmets to the 10th Motorized Cavalry Brigade, which used them during the Polish Defensive War.
During the inter-war years, the Republic of Ireland equipped their Army with a British-made copy of the M1918 helmet manufactured by Vickers, and a German-type tunic. At the outbreak of World War Two, Ireland remained neutral, but in 1940 accepted the British offer to replace the German-style uniforms with British-style battle dress and Brodie pattern helmets.
Switzerland used a helmet that was roughly similar to the M1916, but had a shallower, more rounded crown and skirt.
After the Second World War, West Germany abandoned the distinctive Stahlhelm, which had become a symbol of German military aggression, for a variant of the more "harmless-looking" United States Army "GI pot" helmet. The Bundesgrenzschutz border guards and some West German police units kept the Stahlhelm in their inventories, though it was seldom worn, and the Fallschirmjäger variant was used for some time by the GSG 9. German firefighters today still use Persönliche Ausrüstung eines Feuerwehrmannes#Feuerwehrhelm in a fluorescent color. In the 1990s, a Kevlar helmet was adopted by the Army which sported the distinct form once more.
East Germany's M-56 helmet was modelled on an unusued 1942 German design with a more conical shape. The Chilean Army still uses the Stahlhelm design for ceremonial purposes. There are also some Japanese bicycle helmets (with accompanying goggles) that resemble the Stahlhelm.