The German helmet of the Normandy Campaign
A helmet customized for Battle
Some of the most unique German helmets of WWII were worn during the Battle for Normandy. The terrain of thick green hedgerows, rolling green meadows, golden fields and orchards created diverse but deadly battlefields; one that necessitated good helmet camouflage for survival. To help their helmets blend into this environment, German soldiers at Normandy used a wide range of paint, wire, cloth covers and other devices to this end. These men were often hardened, experienced combat veteran with experience in campaigns in Poland, France, Africa and the USSR. They knew from experience what worked and what didn’t, and the helmet they wore during the Normandy campaign reflected that.
By the time June 6th, 1944 rolled around, the German armed forces with the exception of Fallschirmjägers (Paratroopers) were using one model of helmet. The design, however, had been modified three different times. Today collectors refer to helmets with these modifications as the M35, M40, and M42. The first modification came in 1940. The directive called for punching the helmet’s vent directly into the steel instead of being made from separate grommets. A final modification was ordered for the elimination of the helmet’s rolled edge which went into effect July 6, 1942. Helmets with this final modification are today referred to as the M42. M42 helmets were produced on a massive scale at a time when German war-time manufacturing was at it’s peak. With two years of mass production, millions of M42 helmet had been manufactured and would be the most commonly worn helmet of the Normandy campaign. Even with the massive numbers of M42 helmets being available, the older M35s and M40s were never pulled from use. These helmets were constantly re-worked to serviceability and reissued all the way to the end of the war and would have been widely used during Normandy. It should be noted that the factory F.W. Quist G.m.b.H., Esslingen never stopped production of the M40 helmet, so new M40s from this factory were worn during the battle.
German paratroopers were issued with an entirety different helmet than the standard coal scuttle style helmet worn by the rest of the military. The standard German helmet was deemed unacceptable for use by the Fallschirmjägers in the 1930s. It was feared that the helmet’s skirt would catch on the parachute shrouds. The solution was a relatively simple one which was to remove the helmet’s skirt. A new liner and chinstrap system would also be designed as well, adding foam padding into the base of the helmet and around the liner band to lessen impact during jumps. The new helmet designed especially for use by paratroopers would be known as the Model 38, and would be worn throughout the war.
Only one factory, Eisenhüttenwerk AG, is known to have produced M38 helmets during the war. The production numbers of these helmets was far lower than the need, and Fallschirmjäger units often found themselves short helmets. The solution was to substitute a regular model helmet. Photos show this was often the case during the battle of Normandy. In truth this was of little consequence as during the war the roll of the Fallschirmjägers would change from that of an airborne assault unit to preforming almost exclusively ground operations. Therefore a regular model German helmet would suffice.
WWI Vintage Helmets
As early as 1937, the German army dealt with a shortage of helmets. The method of dealing with this shortage was substituting older WWI Austrian M17s and German M16 and M18 helmets until such time as the newer models became available. These WWI helmets were often stripped of their WWI paint, and reconditioned with new liners and chinstrap to make them serviceable.
By 1941 five factories were producing hundreds of thousands of steel helmets which was mostly sufficient for the demand at the time. Some effort was made by German supply officers to remove the older WWI helmets from front line service. Most of these helmets were then reissued to rear echelon or training units. Not all the WWI helmets were ever fully pulled from service however. Many photos as well as surviving original examples with Normandy providence do exist. It should be remembered that Normandy had been relatively quiet up until the June 6th, 1944 invasion. It is probable that German supply depots received some older reconditioned WWI helmets thus making the newer model available to where the fighting was happening at the time.
Some of these older WWI helmets were issued to the so called Ost-Bataillones. The Ost-Bataillone were made up of foreign volunteers from the east, a mix of Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Russians, Cossacks, Georgians, Ukrainians and Balts just to mention a few. Famed German divisions stationed at Normandy such as the 352, 243, 21st Panzers and 709s were all made up of a percentage of these men. Ost-Bataillones were frequently issued with older uniforms and equipment including helmets. While photos seem to indicate that by-in-large the majority of these men received the same M35,40 or 42s as their German counterparts, some were issued with WWI helmets and wore them during the Normandy campaign.
Helmet Camouflage Development
By the time Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, their German enemy had almost five years to fine tune their helmet camouflage techniques. While the German helmet was an excellent design in many aspects, the silhouette it cast was easily recognizable. That fact led soldiers to seek creative solutions to counteract the problem. As early as the Polish campaign in 1939, German soldiers had seen the drawbacks that their helmet design had with concealment. Some men took to wearing a bread bag strap on their helmet which not only broke up the outline of their helmet, but could also hold foliage. Others would fit bailing wire or bands of rubber cut from old inner tubes around the base of their helmet’s dome which served the same purpose. Thick mud was often applied by men to the surface of the helmet. This served the double purpose of both concealing of any paint sheen and blending into the environment.
While each of these methods would be utilized during the Battle of Normandy, a number of other techniques would come into practice during the summer of 1944.
One effective, although more permanent method of concealing the helmet was the use of camouflage paint. It is up to some debate exactly when this method began among German soldiers but by the time of the Normandy campaign it was widespread. In mid 1943 the German high command ordered that a three color camouflaged scheme of tan, green and brown be used in the painting of vehicles and other equipment. These same paints were used to camouflage helmets as well. While the high command did order specific color codes be used for consistency, the hues of tan, green, and brown can vary on original examples significantly. The mix of these tan, green, and brown colors were used by German troops at Normandy with such frequency that today collectors call almost any German helmet with a mix of these three colors “Normandy Camo”. It should be clear that while the use of these three colors for camouflaging helmets was common, there was never a directive from the German military high command to paint helmets in this manor. No officially sanctioned “Normandy camo” existed. The collector term, Normandy camo can still be justified to a large degree. Photos from the battle as well as surviving original example with Normandy providence would indicate this particular camo pattern was a favorite of Germans during the campaign. The mix of the three colors was certainly a good choice for Normandy as the countryside does exhibit those same colors. That being said with much of Western Europe’s terrain looking so similar this same pattern would see action in other battles as well. The camouflage paints used at Normandy do not confine themselves to distinct hues of tan, brown and green. Some helmets were painted with two colors or just one and sometimes with non-standard military paints that were probably locally sourced. Further complicating the matter, captured British, Soviet, French and Italian paints were all used to camouflage helmets at Normandy. The hue of these colors often deviate from the standard German military colors. The German soldiers who camouflaged their helmets were well aware of their surroundings and certainly were aware of what colors and patterns would blend into the terrain they would soon be fighting in. It is logical they would have chosen colored paint based the local area which would account for the variation.
Paint Application Methods
Camouflaged paint was applied to helmets using a number of methods. The paint was issued from military stores in tins of concentrated paste which was produced in a manor to be thinned with either water or gasoline. The paint could be either sprayed or brush on. Usually this was only done to the outside of the helmet; however, sometimes the inside of the skirt was painted as well. In some very rare cases, the liner was removed so the inside of the dome could be painted as well. German troops attached to armored, artillery, troop carriers or anti-tank units had access to pneumatic paint guns. It is therefore logical that the majority of these men would have used leftover vehicle paint which they could apply to their helmets with the unit’s pneumatic paint guns. Soldiers that did camouflage their helmet with paint guns often sprayed the paint with disruptive patterns that further broke up the outline of the helmet. Sometimes the paint was sprayed over netting to create a pattern when the net was removed.
When mechanical painting equipment wasn’t available, the helmet was painted with a brush. A rag could also be used to smear paint onto the helmet’s surface. During the painting process, the helmet’s decal was often carefully masked off and painted around, but it has been discovered that some decals were simply painted over. While the helmet factories had been ordered to cease applying decals in the summer of 1943, there was never an order given to men in the field to remove their decals. Therefore, any attempt at painting over the decal may be reasoned as indifference by the painter or perhaps as a true method of further camouflage, but not as an order from the high command.
Because the painted surface of a helmet can take on a reflective sheen, German troops found ways to cut down on the glare. During the painting process, the wet paint was often sprinkled with sawdust, pebbles, grit, wood chips, seed casings, and even bits of dry grass. This created a rough finish which cut down on the reflection.
Some German soldiers sought an even rougher finish and would thicken paint with gravel, ash or a mixture of other grit which was then brushed onto the helmet’s surface.
Unit Specific Camouflage
With so much time having passed, it can be particularly difficult to ascertain exactly which units might have utilized painted camouflaged patterns and which did not. Even original photographs can be misleading as the monochrome photos of the era do not always pick up the multi-colored patterns.
Logic would dictate that German soldiers who had access to painting equipment would be more likely to utilize painted camouflage patterns on their helmets. The conclusion being that such units would have a larger percentage of camouflaged helmets than those that did not. Photos do seem to bear that out. Still it is unlikely that the practice was confined to only such units. The decision to camouflage helmets was left up to the individual unit commanders so it is likely some unit leaders ordered the procurement of paint for this end. Whether units had access to left over vehicle paints or sourced the paint on their own, it seems reasonable that the men in that unit would all have similar camouflage patterns on their helmet. It should be noted that at least some German soldiers took the initiative and sourced paint on their own and camouflaged their helmets to their own liking.
Some collectors have noted that a large percentage of camouflaged helmets with Normandy providence were worn by Luftwaffe ground troops. The reasons for this maybe that among these men it was realized that the color of their helmets which could range from hues of dark blue to almost horizon blue in color stood out in the Normandy county side. Unit commanders sought to minimize this risk with camouflaged paint. While it may be hard to ascertain exactly which units did this, there are a few verifiable cases at Normandy.
One such case is the 6th Fallschirmjägers Regiment; the 6th gain notoriety for the stiff resistance offered defending Saint-Lô. Surviving original helmets worn by members of the 6th for the most part all have the exact same camouflage pattern. The helmets were all painted by each unit with a specific camouflage pattern that due to the consistency seen on original examples must have been a directive. The factory finish was over sprayed with a basecoat of tan paint which was dusted with fine wood chips then over-sprayed with green paint as a disruptor. While there are certainly other units which may have mandated a specific camouflage pattern, the 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment is one of the few units where the mandate can be verified with a level of certainty.
Netting was utilized to a large degree during the battle for Normandy. Some German troops were issued camouflage helmet nets or Stahlhelmtarnnetz. These nets became an issued item per an 10 August 1942 order. As is often the case with German equipment, these nets were somewhat over-engineered. Unlike both the American and British helmet nets which were fit with a simple draw strings, the German nets were secured with the aid of a drawstring with a metal ring and several metal hooks. The nets were manufactured in various colors and weights from natural twine. The net was rectangular in shape and were deigned to extend past the brim of the helmet and hang over the wearers face as a face veil. When the veil was not utilized it could be pushed back over the dome of the helmet and secured with two metal hooks. The hooks were often lost or discarded and the nets were instead secured to the helmet’s dome with a rubber band or wire. The German troops who were not issued a net often cut up vehicle camouflage netting which could be fit onto their helmets. Other men fashioned their own nets with bits of rope or twine. Some German troops even utilized captured American and British helmets nets which easily fit onto their own helmets without modification. Sometimes these nets went over a helmet that was already camouflaged with paint. The net just added an extra level of camouflage. The netting served to effective break up the smooth contours of the helmet and also to minimize any sheen on the helmet’s surface. Additionally the net could be used to secure bits of foliage and hessian scrim. Original photos as well as news reels from the battle show some German troops often with an inordinate amount of leaves, foliage and scrim woven into the netting.
Improvised Cloth Covers
Illustrating old-fashion soldier creativity, cloth helmet covers were often made in the field from a variety of available material. These covers ranged from skillfully made to crude. Often the cover was nothing more than a bit of cloth secured to the helmet’s dome with a rubber band, twine or wire. Camouflaged cloth was relatively easy to come by for German troops in Normandy. At the time of the battle, German troops were using a wide variety of different types of camouflaged uniforms and camouflaged shelter quarters . Worn out uniforms and shelter quarters were at times cut-up and fashioned into covers. Photos as well as surviving original examples show a range of different types of German and sometimes Italian camouflage. Italian camouflage was more likely to be utilized by the Waffen-SS as they seized a significate bulk of it from the Italians, but it appears in other places as well. Even Allied camouflage cloth might be utilized in this manor.
A few photos of German soldiers wearing covers fashioned from U.S. camouflaged cloth and parachute silk do exist. Helmets with Normandy providence have even surfaced with cloth covers made with SS dot 44 camouflage probably made from worn out SS uniforms. Some of these non-issue covers have been found that were made with such skill they might have been made by a unit tailor or locally by a French tailor. Examples such as this are rare however. More commonly old zeltbahns quarters (tents) were often fashioned into covers both crudely and well made.
Issued Helmet Covers
A camouflaged cloth helmet cover, Stahlhelmüberzüge, was made for general issue to the German army in 1942. The covers were fabricated from HBT cloth, imprinted with an overlapping camouflage pattern known as Splinter B. Later covers were made from the same cotton duck fabric as the shelter quarters because it was more durable. At Normandy both were certainly worn. The cover was designed to be reversible with a white side for winter combat. The Splinter side had loops for the addition of foliage if the wearer desired. The cover was designed to be fit to the helmet with the aid of a simple drawstring. Two versions of this cover were made, one designed to fit a M38 Fallschirmjäger helmet and the other the standard Infantry combat helmet.
Splinter covers appear with frequency in photos during the Normandy campaign. Some units appear to have received more of these covers than others. In the case of both the Panzer Lehr and the 21st Panzers divisions photos would indicate that these covers were widespread where as in other divisions these covers only appear sporadically if at all. One possible explanation is that these covers were specifically issued to units where it was expected that they would take a disproportionate amount of fire such as mortar crews or anti-tank units and would thus need further camouflage.
While cloth helmet covers appear only sporadically among Heer and Luftwaffe units at Normandy, the Waffen-SS is an entirely different story. The Waffen-SS began issuing their troops helmet covers as early as 1937. The SS helmet covers were of an entirety different design and camouflage pattern than those worn by the Heer and Luftwaffe. Two different camouflage patterns were adopted by the Waffen-SS for use on helmet covers. One known as Oak and the other as Blurred Edge. The covers were reversible with autumn and spring colors on the corresponding sides. An earlier pattern lacking foliage loops was replaced in 1942 with a version that had loops. Instead of a draw string the cover was secured to the helmet with a series of steel or aluminum rocker clips. The version with the loops was by in large the most commonly worn cover by the Waffen-SS during the Normandy campaign.
With the frequency of SS helmet covers appearing in photos during Normandy, it is temping to believe every member of Waffen-SS had one. While the cover is no doubt predominate among SS troops, not everybody received one. A number of Waffen-SS soldiers were photographed wearing nothing on their helmets. Others utilized painted camouflage patterns of the same type used by the Heer and Luftwaffe. SS units with vehicles used the same type of paints as the Heer and Luftwaffe troops. Anyone wishing to camouflage their helmets with paint could do so.
One question that remains controversial about SS helmet covers is did any non-SS troops wear them at Normandy? It may be entirely possible that a few non-SS troops by means of theft or trade of battlefield pick-up may have managed to obtain a SS helmet cover for their own use. While it is not out of the realm of possibility, it would have been unusual.
One of the most creative methods of camouflaging a helmet utilized at Normandy was the use of iron wire. Wire could easily be fit onto a helmet serving the duel purpose of both breaking up the outline of the helmet and as a method to attach foliage or scrim. The fitting wire to helmets for the purpose of camouflage was by no means a new idea by Normandy. Baling or fencing wire was fit onto helmets as early as the Invasion of Poland. Yet by the time of Normandy, it was becoming much more common among the troops. The early wire baskets usually consisted of a single wire bent around the base of the helmet’s dome. By Normandy it was not uncommon to see several more wires bent over the top of the helmet’s dome often in a overlapping fashion.
Aside from these simplistic wire baskets, chicken-wire was also a favorite method used to camouflage the helmet. The use of these chicken-wire baskets may have started at Normandy or around that timeframe. The practice doesn’t appear in photos prior to the Normandy battle. This is probably due to the fact that chicken-wire was rarely used for farming in the Soviet Union where much of the fighting was happening, thus German soldiers would not have had access to it. At Normandy chicken-wire baskets were utilized as helmet camouflage by all the branches of the German military including the Kreigsmarine and Waffen-SS. The purpose of these baskets served as to both break up the outline of the helmet, but also as a medium of holding scrim and/or foliage which could be woven through the wire hexes.
The wire was easily obtained from local farms, either ripped from chicken coups or procured from local hardware stores.
It should be noted there are various types of chicken-wire; various gauges of wire and different size hexes which would have been available to German soldiers in France at the time. Collectors of German helmets often categorized the types of wire by the number of twists on the hexes in the wire. Generally wire of the era was woven with three, five, or sometime six twists. The twists on this type of wire travel in one direction which is a method distinct to wire made in Western Europe in the era. In any discussion about types of wire available in Europe in the 1940s, double twist American wire must be brought up. While European chicken-wire fabricating machines were calibrated to create the twists in the hexes traveling in one direction, American machines were not. American chicken-wire is distinctive from the European variant as the wire twists three times, stops then travels the other direction in three more twists. This wire is typically called American doubt twist wire and it’s use among German troops in WWII remains to this day controversial among collectors and reenactors. Typically when a helmet is found with American double-twist it is dismissed as being a post-war fabrication as American wire could not have been available in Europe at the time. Yet this argument ignores the truth that trade did exist between the nations of Western Europe and the United States, therefor it is reasonable to assume that at least a few chicken-wire weaving machines were purchased from the U.S. and did produce the American double twist wire in Europe. European single twist was far more common, a helmet with an American double twist wire basket should not be dismissed on its face. Not only have helmets with Normandy providence been discovered with American chicken-wire baskets but photos do exist as well.
Regardless of the variation of the wire, it was usually zinc coated to keep it from rusting. In a farm setting without such treatment the wire would deteriorate rapidly due to exposure from weather and farm animal manure and urine.
The wire was usually fitted over the dome of the helmet in two methods. Either by folding the ends of the wire over the skirt of the helmet or twisting the end of the wire around a base with a wire fitting around the base of the helmet’s dome just above the skirt. The two variations are called a full basket and half-basket respectively. Making these baskets was somewhat time consuming, but in the time prior to the battle of Normandy, little was taking place. With the run up to the battle, German troops would have had the time to make these baskets. The wire basket might have fit directly over the helmet’s factory fieldgray finish or ,in some cases, a camouflage pattern was sprayed right over the wire for further camouflage.
A Helmet for Survival
As history tells, the battle for Normandy did not conclude in German favor. The forces of the Third Reich were pushed from France and soon would meet their defeat. Hundreds if not thousands of helmets worn by German troops in that fateful battle were captured by Allied veterans and kept as treasured memorials to their service in that campaign. Today those same helmets fill the shelves of not just private collections but museums around the world. They each tell their own story of the battle, and soldiers’ attempt to survive another day. From the soldier who just attached a simple bread bag strap around his helmet to break up the helmet outline, to the more intricate painted camouflage pattern this was all done for the same reason, survival. These men all knew even the slightest edge could mean the difference between life and death. With the many camouflage variations utilized on helmets during the battle for Normandy, they are a tangible symbol of a soldier’s desire to survive and see home again.