The Wonders of Tanker Helmets
Since the first tanks rolled across the battlefield during World War I 100 years ago at the Battle of the Somme, armored crews have required specialized equipment to protect them inside their giant metal beasts. At first this often meant adopting existing head protection, but the interwar and Cold War eras saw great development in the types of helmets tank crews were provided.
The First World War is remembered as the first truly modern war. Napoleonic battle lines gave way to trench warfare, while the grand colorful uniforms were replaced with subtle tones of gray and khaki. Ceremonial looking hats and leather helmets, which had no place in combat, were removed from front line service in favor of steel headgear. The day of cavalry charges faded away, replaced by slow and lumbering tanks assaults. The crews of these behemoths utilized whatever they could adopt, but in the post-World War I era most nations began to create actual motorized units, complete with their own specialized equipment.
The British were the first to successfully deploy tanks on the battlefield, and thus the first to realize that the soldiers inside the tanks needed just as much head protection as those in the trenches. Often it was from the vehicle itself that the soldiers needed protection! The uneven moonscape terrain of no man’s land caused the crew to bounce around, and head injuries were commonplace.
The solution was to issue helmets to the troops inside the tanks. These first helmets, issued in the summer of 1916, were actually made from four pieces of very thick leather riveted together to form a deep bowl. Only a few hundred of these helmets were produced, because the shape was found to be too similar to the German M16 steel helmet. Thus in early 1917 these helmets were withdrawn and replaced by the standard British MkI steel helmet, which were painted blue for use by tank troops.
To provide a bit more protection to the wearer, a unique protective mask with small eye slits was created. This anti-splinter eye mask had a drape to cover the lower face that was composed of closely-knit metal links over a piece of leather. These links were reminiscent of medieval chain mail and mounted to the forward part of the MkI helmet visor.
The French too adopted their steel helmets for tanker service during the Great War. France had been among the first nations to use a modern steel helmet for combat in the trenches of World War I, and quickly devised their own modified helmet for armor crews. The first change was merely removing the forward visor from the M15 “Adrian” helmet, and later improvements included the use the aforementioned British anti-splinter visor.
Following the war the French would continue to experiment with a variety of tanker helmets, adding a leather bumper pad to the front of the helmet. This style of helmet would go through a few other changes in the interwar period, and would include better liner systems and thicker pads. Eventually the telltale top comb of the Adrian pattern would be removed completely, giving way to a fairly sleek helmet that would remain in service as another war began. The final evolution of this design, known as the Jeanne d’Arc or De Gaulle Helmet, would feature an American M1 style webbing system for the liner. This simple shell design would prove to be dated for the new styles of war that France would face from Indo-China to North Africa.
The first French post-war tanker helmet was introduced in 1951. This leather helmet was unique in that it could be used in conjunction with the M51 OTAN steel helmet. Classified as a radio tank helmet, it was updated in 1958 and then in 1965, first with a plastic shell replacing the leather variety and then with attached radio equipment built-in. This designed remained until the 1980s when it was replaced by a plastic rubberized helmet that incorporated an anti-noise system. This helmet remains in use today.
The British too utilized several tanker helmet designs following World War I, including a leather crash helmet in the 1930s. This was one of the first tanker helmets to include an earphone harness for greater communication between the tank crew.
During World War II the Royal Armoured Corps adopted a mild steel shell that featured the basic shape of their paratrooper helmets. Through several versions, with a variety of liner types, this helmet remained in service until being replaced by the “Vehicle Crewman Helmet” in the 1970s.
This helmet was bulky and hot, but was still an improvement over earlier helmets. The current model in service, the 1983 Kevlar version, features detachable communication equipment and is lighter than previous helmets. It is less bulky and more comfortable even for extended periods of time.
Tanker helmets of the Central and Axis Powers
Germany, much like their enemies across the lines during World War I, entered the conflict with a style evocative of another era. Their spike helmets, or “Pickelhaube,” were ill suited to the trenches and the Germans eventually introduced a helmet design that would be iconic through two World Wars. Though it was lesser known than the steel version, the Germans—and according to some sources their Austrian allies—also used a specially created leather tanker helmet. Few are known to have survived, but the helmet was round with leather padding all around. Period photographs show the use of anti-splinter mask almost identical to the British version, but it is believed these were developed independently.
Following their defeat in the First World War Germany wasn’t allowed to possess any significant armored units, but with the rise of National Socialism and the Nazi Party the nation rearmed in the 1930s. This included a new emphasis on armored combat, and thus the Panzer troops adopted a special tanker beret that remained in service through the early blitzkrieg campaigns.
Tankers wore a black woolen beret over a helmet made of leather and felt. With their black uniforms and deaths head “Totenkopf”—not to be confused with the same style of imagery used by the SS during this period—the tankers became modern dragoons, an elite force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. These berets were found to be impractical, however. And while there’s speculation that a steel experimental version of the inner cap was designed and tested, there’s no known documentation to support this claim. By the summer of 1940 the berets were phased out and Panzer crews were issued steel helmets. This style of tanker helmet would however make a return, in khaki color rather than black, with the post-war West German Bundeswehr. The East German forces would rely on Soviet-styled helmets throughout the Cold War.
Germany’s Italian allies during the Second World War attempted to modernize their army under the dictatorship of Mussolini, and this included the creation of armored units which saw combat in Libya and Ethiopia. These units were provided the first anti-crash leather helmets in the early 1930s. Their brown helmets were made almost entirely of leather and were likely inspired by the Italian air force helmets.
The Italians created the Model 1935 tanker helmet, which were produced in large numbers and used throughout World War II and into the post war years. These helmets featured black leather padded with felt and cardboard; these had a black leather skirt that covered the back of the wearer’s head. An extra round “donut” of padded leather with felt circled the helmet to provide extra bump protection. Unattractive and uncomfortable to wear, these helmets worked well and Italy continued to use these until the 1960s. Additionally, these leather helmets were issued in large numbers to Franco’s forces in Spain—and today these Spanish versions are commonly found for sale. Other examples were used by various South American nations during the World War II and the post-war period.
Halfway around the world from Europe Japan devised its own tanker helmet, which was very distinct from their traditional steel helmet designs. It’s been suggested that Japanese tanker helmets were actually based on flight helmets.
There are also three well-known variations of tanker helmets, including an early winter model that’s fur lined with dark brown leather, a summer weight composition fabric version, and a variant with snaps to secure goggle straps to the helmet. The summerweight version is the most common, made of waterproofed hemp with a leather liner that provides extra support in front and back. Interestingly, many seemingly un-issued Japanese tanker helmets have shown up in recent years. These aren’t believed to be fakes or copies, but were possibly from a forgotten cache uncovered in Kyoto in the 1970s or 1980s (depending on who you ask).
It’s generally agreed that Japanese companies awarded military contracts typically produced the quantity of items in the contract, regardless of how the war was going. Thus it is logical to believe that these “forgotten” items were merely contracted items but weren’t required by the military at the time.
It should also be noted that Axis tanker helmets typically weren’t designed for use with radios or other communication equipment. Until the war’s end the Japanese relied on signal flags to direct their armored units while the German and even Italians at times used throat mics and traditional earphones, but this wasn’t integrated into their headgear.
Tankers of the Superpowers
While many nations went through several varieties of headgear for their armored personnel, the Soviet Union followed the mantra that if it isn’t broken don’t try to fix it, or at least don’t try too hard. The first anti-crash helmets were used during the Russian Civil War and were little more than heavy leather hats. Motorized riflemen were issued specialized versions of the typical Soviet helmet during the Cold War, but typically the tank crews relied on a basic leather, later canvas, padded helmet.
The Soviet philosophy about tank headgear is also well established; they never expected a tank crew to have interior ballistic protection. Their anti-crash helmets were first designed in 1935 and featured a forehead pad along with three strips of additional padding along the top of the helmet. Due to material shortages the Soviets switched from leather to cloth during the war, and these versions were issued in several colors including black, khaki, green and even dark gray. Made in both winter and summer versions, with lighter fabric and less padding for the summer version, these accommodated communication headphones quite easily.
After the war the helmets were redesigned with four rather than three bumpers, with most experts agreeing the wartime version had three bumpers. Facemasks for protection from dust and smoke, and even night vision equipment, were optional accessories eventually introduced for use with the Soviet helmet system. In the 1980s the helmet was again upgraded, this time with six protective bumper pads and a noise reduction system. This type of helmet remains in use among former Soviet republics including Russia and the Ukraine.
For collectors it should be noted that as with other Soviet items it is often hard to precisely date some of these helmets. The three-pad design was in place in the 1940s and 1950s, and often the “wartime” items demand more money. It is all too common to find these dates altered, so collectors should be cautious. Likewise, there are a growing number of fakes being produced in Eastern Europe and aged to look like the real deal—many supposedly coming from the Battle of Kursk!
Of all the tanker helmets used during World War II, the most familiar is the football helmet-shaped American tanker helmet. This was not the first tanker helmet used by the United States, however. In fact, the first helmet specifically designed for armor troops was developed by the Ordnance Technical Committee headed by Bashford Dean at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dean was curator of the Arms and Armor Gallery, and had overseen several helmet designs for the United States.
The 1918 helmet design was called the Model 13, and was the first one specifically considered for tank crews. It was a steel bowl-shaped helmet with a three-pad liner and web chinstrap, while a large foam-rubber ring served as a bumper pad. This helmet was ultimately rejected, along with several other experimental helmet designs, which included a couple of designs that have become known as “donut” tank helmets thanks to their prominent rings. These helmets, along with other designs, are documented in Chris Armold’s reference book Painted Steel: Steel Pots, Volume II. Throughout the 1930s, American designs were clearly inspired by football helmets of the day.
A rare “donut” style tanker helmet at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum.
Armold has suggested that this was because of the availability and functionality more than anything else. He told this reporter, “General Patton, for example, was getting football helmets from the Riddell Company via Major Sydenham, who was the officer in charge of developing the M1 combat helmet.” Armold added that the Riddell helmet was ideal for protecting tank crews from bumps often encountered in bouncing armored vehicles.
This inspiration led to the 1938 tanker helmet, which some collectors call the M-1938. It should be noted that the official nomenclature for this piece of headgear is just “Tank Helmet,” rather than the typical American designation or military name. Likewise, it was not considered a clothing item—like a helmet or hat—but rather ordnance as part of “On Vehicle Material” for the tank. Used throughout World War II and into the 1950s, these helmets featured leather flaps and elasticized straps to hold radio equipment in place. Rather than cotton webbing the designers opted for leather when creating the liner.
This particular pattern, quite successful as a tanker helmet, was only meant to be a temporary measure until an actual steel helmet could be designed for tank crews. As with the later French OTAN tanker helmet, the American tanker helmet could be worn under the M1 steel helmet shell—although with radio equipment this would be somewhat difficult.
These helmets were used by American Army and Marine tank crews in every theater of World War II and were exported during and after the war to Australia, Britain, India and China. They remained in service through the Korean War and even into the early stages of Vietnam. And while these helmets saw much action it is actually possible to find a nice example today. Many have shown up in recent years.
“A large cache of them was found a few years ago by a military dealer in India,” explains Armold. “Now they’re all over the place.”
So popular were these helmets that variations were even produced in occupied Germany for American tank crews serving there. These helmets have subtle differences but are clearly based on the original 1938 design.
That design saw numerous experimental upgrades throughout the Cold War, but the helmet was eventually replaced by the T-56 communication helmet. This was the first CVC, or Combat Vehicle Crewman helmet, with a self-contained communication system, and it was used throughout the latter part of the Vietnam War.
In the early 1970s the Americans developed a four-part helmet system with an outer shell, inner liner, earphones and microphone. The DH-132 featured a non-ballistic bump protection outer shell made of a hard phenolic resin laminate. This was upgraded in the 1980s with the addition of improved ballistic Kevlar shell. This helmet remains in use by the American Army. A slightly different version, called the MC-140, remains in use by the Marine Corps.
The Combat Vehicle Crewman’s helmet (CVC) was developed in the 1970s by the Gentex Corporation. It was a four part system with an outer shell, inner liner, earphones and a microphone. The outer shell is made of Kevlar and resins.
Just as with tanks, helmets used by armor crews have evolved a lot in 80 years and future armored warriors will no doubt have high-tech helmets with advanced visual updates for the crew and improved noise cancellation technology. It certainly has come a long way since banging your head while crossing rough terrain was your primary worry.
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About The Author: Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer and his work has appeared in more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He has been writing about military history for nearly 20 years, and we’re pretty sure that this bio is the shortest piece he’s ever written. He continues to research and report on the history of tropical headgear at MilitarySunHelmets.com