A Helmet for a Desert Front
When Adolf Hitler agreed to send an expeditionary force to North Africa to shore up his beleaguered Italian ally, it was understood by the German military planners that the conditions which this force would be fighting in were different than any front the Germans had hither to served in. North Africa with it’s extreme climate and desolate landscapes would require unique uniforms and headgear suitable for what the new Deutches Afrika korps or DAK would experience there.
In July of 1940 the task of developing this new uniform was handed over to the Tropical Institute of the University of Hamburg. The institute designed an entirely new lightweight cotton uniform and cork pith helmet which would replace the wool uniforms and steel helmet used in the European theater.
The new pith helmet was designated the modal 1940 and would see service with members of the DAK until the theater’s collapse in Tunis in May 1943. The pith helmet’s light weight made it comfortable to wear in the hot environment. It’s wide skirt also offered the wearer’s face and neck protection while fighting in the punishing African sun. However pleasant to wear the pith helmet was, it offered no meaningful protection whatsoever from bullets and shrapnel.
It was quickly realized that despite the draw backs in comfort the steel helmet worn by German soldiers on the other fronts offered the only real means of head protection in combat. Steel helmets were going to be needed if the DAK wished to keep head injuries at a manageable level. Yet despite steel helmets being made available to German soldiers, the use of the pith helmet did not cease. Many men preferred comfort to safety. The pith helmet continued to be worn with relatively frequency even in combat as both photos and DAK veteran accounts can attest.
The Steel helmet
For German soldiers in North Africa who did receive a steel helmets, they would wear the exact same models that were issued to German soldiers in Europe. At the time of the DAKs arrival in North African in February of 1941, there were two standard helmets being worn by the German military. The so called M35 made between 1935 and March 1940 distinguishable by vent holes which were separate pieces peened into the helmet shell during manufacturing. A change was made to the design in March of 1940. Instead of the vents being separate components they were embossed directly into the helmet’s shell. This new variant known to collectors as the M40 would go into production in March of 1940. Despite these modifications, the German high command did not differentiate between the two variants, and M35s would continue to be worn till the end of the war.
Between 1935 and March of 1940 over 1.4 million M35 helmets had been produced by five different helmet manufactures. This would mean that there would have been thousands of M35s in supply depots ready for issue during the early days of the North African campaign. It can therefore be assumed that this variant would have been the dominate helmet, at least until large enough numbers of the newer M40 became available. With production lags, the needs of other fronts and shipping to supply dumps in North African, it was probably some months before large numbers of M40s became available to members of the DAK. Near the middle of the North African campaign a third helmet variant began to be produced which is known to collectors today as the M42. The new design would feature a raw rim instead of a rolled rim as seen on M35s and 40s. This design would go into production in July of 1942 and would continue until the end of the war. It is therefore likely that at least a few of these helmets managed to make it to the North African front before the fall of Tunis in May of 1943, but the numbers would have been small compared to M35s and 40s.
The smooth hues of apple green found on the M35s and dark field gray on the M40s was entirely unsuitable for the tones of tan found in the dunes and wadis of Egypt and Cyrenaica. The simplest method of alleviating this problem was to repainted the helmets a tan matching the desert background. An army memorandum, Heeresmitteilung Nr. 281 authoring the use of tan paint for camouflage in the North African theater was issued 17 March 1941. The order specified that the color to be used was designated under the Reichs-Ausschuß für Lieferbedingungen color standard codes as RAL 8000 or Geldbraun (yellow brown). This color however would eventually be deemed as ineffective for use in North African and a new color would be developed for use under the code RAL 8020 Braun (brown). This new shade would be authorized for use 25 March 1942. Although this second memorandum Heeresmitteilung Nr. 315 did authorize the use of the new color it also specified that stocks of RAL 8000 should be used up first. So it can be ascertained that both colors would have been used concurrently after the March memorandum.
While the existing German records are fairly clear on what the authorized colors for use in North African theater were, there is considerable diversify seen on original examples as well as color photos. It may at times appear to some that almost any shade of tan would be correct. Collectors, modelers, and reenactors have added to the confusion by creating their own nomenclature to describe colors they believe to be correct for North African such as “Afrika Pink” or Afrika mustard” based on their own observations. There are many likely reasons for the color variation on DAK helmets. One obvious explanation and one that is well documented is that the DAK made use of Italian camouflage paint as well as stocks of captured British and South African paint. All of these colors were tan but would have varied somewhat from the colors the Germans had authorized.
Another explanation is that the near constant sun exposure and heat changed the colors of the paint over time. This particular explanation may give some credence to the so called “Afrika Pink” shade of tan. The color of “Afrika Pink” has taken on almost mythical status in the discussion of DAK helmets. The theory goes that the German high command ordered a very specific shade of tan to be developed for issue to German troops in North Africa. This tan would be mixed so that there would be slight pink hue to it. The reasons supposed for this is that the Libyan and Egyptian deserts sands are made from crushed coral left over when the Mediterranean sea subsided giving the terrain a pinkish hue. The Germans would have known this and would have factored that fact in while creating their new shade of desert camouflage paint. The problem with this theory is that there is no archival evidence of the development of such a paint. In fact the change from RAL 8000 to RAL 8020 in early 1942 would seem to indicate the Germans were unsure of what color would be best in North Africa and neither color has a pink tone. Despite this there are many within the collector community who fervently believe that unless the helmet’s finish has a pink hue to it, then that helmet did not see service in North Africa. Even without the archival evidence, many surviving original German helmets with North African campaign providence do have this shade of so called “Afrika Pink”. The explanation may simply be that the color was changed overtime. The pigments in some of the camouflaged paint might have reacted to the heat and sun exposure which brought out a pinkish hue in some helmets. Whatever the truth is behind these pink hued helmets, they are just one of several shades of tan seen on original DAK helmets.
Paint application was done by either spraying the outside of the helmets directly over the original factory paint with a pneumatic paint gun or, in some cases, by applying the paint by hand with either a brush or rag. Occasionally the inside of the helmet’s skirt was also over-painted.
The work repainting the helmets a suitable tan color was usually preformed by supply depots but occasionally it was done by the men themselve in the field. Helmets were typically painted with a single shade of tan, but, occasionally, a second shade of tan, olive or brown was over sprayed in a pattern as a disruptor.
The brutal climate of the North African desert would reek havoc on the camouflage finishes of these helmet. The harsh sun would often blench the paint white and/or caused the paint to become brittle and crack and sand storms chipped and peeled the paint. For these reasons, helmets were frequently given new coats of tan camouflaged tan. Attesting to this,surviving original DAK helmets are sometimes found with several layers of differing shades of tan paint.
Although the helmets were painted with a matte finish, the smooth surface easily reflected the African sun. A quick remedy for this issue was to mix sand into the paint before it was applied or by sprinkling it on the wet painted surface of the helmet before spraying a second time.
The sand created an efficient anti-reflective finish which provided a far superior concealment than a smooth finish. Despite this fact, the sand finish was not universally adopted by all German soldiers and many continued to wear helmets with a smooth finish for the duration of the North African campaign.
A few photos have surfaced of more elaborate hand rendered camouflage patterns. These patterns were likely seen as a method of breaking up the outline of the helmet. They may also represent the creativity of certain soldiers who developed a pattern that they felt would conceal their helmet more adequately. Many of these patterns were particular to the Tunisian campaign.
While Tunisia is located in North Africa it’s terrain is more similar to Italy than Libya. At the time the Tunisian countryside boasted of green farmland, olive, palm and citrus groves. Photos taken during this time frame of the North African campaign show shades of green over spray added to some helmets. This was no doubt done in response to the changing colors of the country side they were now fighting in.
Both m35s and M40 had decals applied at the factories. The M35 had a branch of service decal applied to the wearers left side of the helmet, on the other a national colors decal. In March of 1940 the national colors decal had been eliminated, so the vast majority of M40s only had a branch of service decal applied. Original photos as well as surviving original examples with North African campaign providence show that decals were just as likely to be masked off during the camouflaging process as they were to be simply painted over. Even M35s with the national colors decals which were ordered removed can still be seen on DAK helmets. The wearer’s reasons as to why they still wished to sport the national cover decal months after it was ordered removed in entirely up to speculation
There were no specific DAK insignia or decals designated for the helmet. The same decals worn by German soldiers and sailors in Europe were worn in Africa. The famous DAK palm tree and swastika insignia was authorized for marking vehicles, but not for helmets. The myth of the DAK palm insignia being applied on helmets over the years has been perpetrated by both Hollywood films and reenactors, but no real evidence has surface that such a decal was even produced yet alone worn in North Africa.
While no photos as of yet have surfaced with such a palm tree decal, a small number of helmets have been found with this painted insignia. While their authenticity maybe dubious at best, there is always the possibility of such insignia being applied as vet art post-war.
Other Camouflage Methods.
The use of paint was not the only method employed to camouflage helmets of the DAK. A few German soldiers wore helmet covers. These covers were fabricated from hessian or sacking cloth, and were secured to the helmet shell by means of a draw string. Photos from the era show a number of different styles were made. British Empire troops also wore Hessian cloth covers on their helmets so many of these covers were undoubtedly seized from captured British stocks.
The irregular shape the covers gave when worn would break the outline of the helmet’s unnatural dome. The rough fabric also displaced the sun’s glare which also helped with concealment. In the often open expanses of the North African desert this could be a real benefit to the wearer. The drawback to their use is the cover would conceal the vents of the helmet causing heat to build up instead of dissipating. This no doubt adding to the discomfort of the man wearing the helmet, and is one explanation as to why helmet covers are not seen with a greater level of frequency among members of the DAK.
Covers were not the only method used to break up the outline of the helmet. A simple rubber band could be made cut from discarded innertubes. The field-made bands are seen with great frequency on German troops in Europe and are generally referred to as being “foliage bands”. The idea was that they could be used to secure foliage to the helmet for better concealment. Yet in North African with little foliage available they were clearly rarely utilized as such. Even without foliage being available, these bands are still seen being worn by members of the DAK frequently in photos. There continued use even with the lack of foliage would indicate it is therefore more likely that the band was used as a simple method for breaking up the outline of the helmet.
After the German collapse in North Africa many of the members of the DAK who escaped would go on to fight the Allies in Sicily and Italy wearing the same helmets. The same camouflaged methods used in North Africa would continue to be utilized in those theaters. German paint production factories had produced so much tan paint for use in Africa that by 1943 it was issued out to every front the Germans were engaged in. This tan paint was used on helmets, field gear, and vehicles from Russia to Normandy, often in conjunction with other colors for better concealment.
Today these original helmets with North African campaign providence are highly sought after by collectors and WWII enthusiast. Original examples sell for thousands. While tan camouflaged German helmets would see action on other fronts, the color will always be associated with the North African campaign. Perhaps this is correct as these shades of tan were developed as a response to a front that was different than any the Germans were engaged in. Yet it is still a unique thing in WWII history. No other front in which the Germans were engaged in during WWII can really claim one particular helmet as a representative of the campaign. Yet when a tan camouflaged German helmet is encountered today, even those with only basic knowledge of the Second World War will point to the camouflage surface and remark, “that helmet was worn in North Africa”.