A Helmet for a Titanic Battle
The largest battle the World had ever seen would take place at the Russian city of Stalingrad between August 23, 1942 and February 2nd, 1943. Before the battle ended, both sides would sustain a combined total of over 2 million casualties. Throughout this titanic battle, the German army would utilize different helmet models. The helmets worn by German forces on the Russian front are often viewed as somewhat plain while spectacularly painted camouflage patterns were often used on helmets in Italy and France. German soldiers on the Russian front were forced to find ways to conceal their helmets in order to survive the Russian offensive. This is especially true of Stalingrad.
The M35 Helmet
The model 35 helmet was the first helmet to be produced for combat use by the Third Reich. These helmets were produced for military use between June 25, 1935 and March 1940. In that time frame, 1.4 million helmets were made by five different firms. While the M35 would be replaced in March of 1940 with an upgraded model, the old M35s were never pulled from service. By the time the battle of Stalingrad started, most of the German forces fighting in the U.S.S.R. were wearing the older M35 model helmet.
Between the years of 1935 and 1940, the M35 helmets were painted with a smooth semi-gloss finish and a decal was applied on each side of the helmet, one indicating the branch of service and the other the German national colors. The reflective qualities of the semi-gloss finish fared poorly in combat because the semi-gloss surface reflected the sun’s ray attracting enemy fire. In March of 1940 the M35s already in service were ordered to be re-worked. Equipment depots would, by means of a pneumatic paint gun or brush, apply a coat of matte dark gray-green paint to the outside of the helmet’s surface and sometime around the inside of the skirt. Fine aluminum oxide was mixed into the paint to create a rough anti-reflective finish. The porous flat paint combined with the aluminum textured finish absorbed the dust, dirt and grim of the Russian steppe. Some German vets later describe how their helmets would appear perpetually dusty due the all the fine dust and mud the paint on their helmets absorbed.
The national colors decal was ordered to be removed or painted over while the branch of service decal was allowed to remain.
While in theory all m35 helmets were to be repainted with a coat of matte field gray, a number of photos show this was not always the case. By the time the Battle of Stalingrad commenced, almost two years after the order was given, photos show that some men still wore M35 helmets with the smooth pre-war factory finish. The reasons for this could be indifference on the part of the wearer or because the changes were not made a priority within the unit or even paint shortages.
The Double Decal M35
Despite the order to remove the national colors decal from the M35 helmet, a number of photos taken at Stalingrad show men and officers still with both decals. The continued use of the national colors decal by these men can only be guessed at. One idea could be that soldiers had more important things to worry about in a series of vicious battles than removing the national colors decal. Another opinion could be that soldiers continued wearing the national colors decal to distinguish themselves as “old hands”, with service going back to the pre-war era.
Some of the most famous photos showing the use of double decals at Stalingrad are a series taken by Kriegsberichter Rothkopf, a member of one of the German propaganda companies operating in Stalingrad during the battle. The men in the photos are members of the Luftwaffe 9th Flak Division. All the men in the photos are wearing double decal helmets. It can only be theorized as to why these men continued to wear their helmets in the pre-war configuration. One explanation is that these men had recently arrived at Stalingrad from Germany and due to having been in a noncombat zone, never saw the need to make the ordered changes to their helmets.
This is unlikely to be the case. The 9th Luftwaffe flak division had been fighting on the Russian front since January of 1942. They had participated in the battle of Crimea so they were certainly combat savvy. The answer may lay in one of the photos. The man armed with the MP40 closest to the camera is Oberleutnant der Reserve Helmut Wilhelm Schnatz. As per regulation, he is wearing a tie. Despite this uniform regulation Luftwaffe flak troops often discarded their ties which would have been uncomfortable in a combat situation especially in the heat of the Russian summer. Yet here amid the chaos of Stalingrad, Schnatz wears his tie. This may be an indication that the regiment these men were a part of adhered strictly to their uniform regulation, opting for a more formal look even in battle. The continued use of a double decal helmet, with it’s semi gloss finishes, may have factored into the more formal look desired by the regimental commanders.
The M40 Helmet
Starting in March 1940, the Germans made a few small changes to their helmet. While the general look of the helmet changed little, there were small modification made. On March 26, 1940 an order was issued to the factories making helmets to emboss the ventilation holes directly into the helmet’s steel on each side. Prior to this order the vent holes had been made from separate hollowed rivets. The second change called for the helmet to be made from improved manganese-silicone steel. These new helmets were heavier but offered better protection for the wearer. At the time this change order was issued, the helmet factories were in full production. By the time of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, many German soldiers had been issued a M40. Photos taken during the Battle of Stalingrad show this model as being prevalent. A third change was made to the helmet in July, 1942 which ordered the helmet’s rim to be left raw and no longer rolled. These raw rimmed helmets are known as M42. With production and delivery time, it is unlikely that many or even any of these helmet reached the men at Stalingrad.
German soldiers fighting at Stalingrad often found creative ways to camouflage their helmets. One common method was the use of a rubber band added around the dome of the helmet.
These bands made from black or red rubber were cut from bicycle or vehicle tires. The bands were added by the soldiers to their helmet to secure foliage and grass for added camouflage. Much of the fighting in Stalingrad was in bombed out urban ruins so there would have been no need to use foliage for camouflage. It is therefore likely that soldiers wearing these band on their helmet had added them before the battle and never saw a reason to remove them. Whatever the reason, these bands show up with considerable frequency in Stalingrad photos.
Aside from improvised rubber bands, German soldiers at Stalingrad often added leather straps, bread bag straps, wire, cord, or bits of netting onto their helmet. While these items could all be used to add foliage to the helmet, they also served a different purpose at Stalingrad. The German helmet’s distinct shape created an obvious silhouette, making an easy target for Red Army soldiers, a fact German soldiers were all too aware of especially with the heavy losses taken due to Red Army snipers at Stalingrad. The additional use of wire, straps, etc. on the helmet broke up the helmet’s outline and would have given the soldier at least some degree of concealment.
Despite the matte finish on the German helmet, after time in the field the the paint began to take on a sheen. Due to constant handling of the helmets, the oils from the wearer’s hands would slowly polish away the rough textured finish. One of the best ways to combat this problem was to use a helmet cover. Starting in 1942 the German army began issuing helmet covers made from the same camouflage cloth used to make shelter quarters or zeltbahns. These covers were reversible to a winter white side for use in snow conditions. Loops were sewn onto the cover to secure foliage. While photos show that some of these covers were worn during Stalingrad, often times what looks to be a covers is not. Damaged zeltbahns were often cut up in the field to make improvised helmet covers. Some of these covers were well made, and look almost identical to the factory made issued covers. Others are a simply a piece of zeltbahn cloth secured to the helmet with wire or twine.
For those who could not secure a helmet cover, a number of alternative were available. The simplest way was to cover the helmet in mud which would temporarily conceal any sheen on the helmet. Another common method was to use hessian (burlap) cloth to make a cover. Hessian cloth was readily available and could easily be turned into a cover. The cloth was typical held onto the helmet with a rubber band or wired to the helmet dome.
Another type of cover that appears at Stalingrad is Hungarian. The Hungarians are often forgotten in discussions of Stalingrad, but over 200,000 men served in the Hungarian Second Army along side their German allies in that battle. A number of photos show German soldiers wearing Hungarian camouflage covers. How they obtained them is up to speculation. German soldiers may have traded with Hungarian soldiers for them, or they may have salvaged them from discarded Hungarian equipment or simply obtained them from Hungarian equipment stores. However they got them, a number of photos show German soldiers wearing these covers. There is some degree of confusion about their use. Due to the Hungarian camouflage pattern being so similar to the Soviet amoeba camouflage, Hungarian covers are frequently misidentified as being captured Soviet camouflage covers.
The Enigma of the Amoeba Cover
A few photos have surfaced of German soldiers at Stalingrad wearing helmet covers made from captured Soviet amoeba camouflage cloth. This cloth was used by the Soviets to make a camouflage coverall worn by sappers and snipers. The Soviets also produced a small number of helmet covers with this cloth for their SSH36 helmet. These covers were used in small numbers by the Red Army during the Japanese-Soviet boarder clash at Khalkhyn Gol, but rarely afterwards. The use of captured equipment by the German military is not unusual. All sorts of captured equipment was pressed into service by the German such as weapons, e-tools, and blankets. Even enemy uniforms were re-worked and worn by German soldiers; however, the use of a helmet cover made from enemy camouflage cloth is something entirely different. Soldiers learned to respond quickly to the sight of the enemy’s uniform. In the confusion and stress of a battle, wearing the enemy’s camouflage would seem to be an invitation to be mistakenly shot by one’s own side. This is especially true in the case of Stalingrad. The nature of the fighting at Stalingrad was close and personal. The urban environment necessitated that enemies battled in the same buildings often feet from each other. In such a situation the accidentally shooting of one’s comrade because he was wearing the enemy’s camouflage on his helmet would seem inevitable. Yet photos prove it was done. It could be assumed that the threat of friendly fire wasn’t enough to deter a few men from utilizing these covers.
The use of these Amoeba covers by German forces actual predates the battle of Stalingrad. They can occasionally be spotted in photos taken in the early summer months of 1942. During the months after Germans initiated the invasion of the Soviet Union, the rapid collapse of the Red Army allowed the captured of huge stores of Soviet equipment. Bolts of Amoeba camouflage cloth, camouflage suits and even finished helmets covers were seized by the German military. A study of photos showing German soldiers wearing these covers reveal that some were closely fitted to the helmet while others appear to be sloppily stitched together from scraps. The existence fitted covers would indicate that at least some German units had helmet covers locally made from this Amoeba cloth they found in captured Soviet equipment stores. The poorly made covers may be the result of soldiers making their own covers.
While the use of these covers by German troops cannot be denied, photos indicate it was not common practice. A study of over two hundred photos taken at Stalingrad for the writing of this piece found only a handful of men were definitively wearing one the Amoeba covers. This may come as a surprise to some due to a series of photos taken during the battle in the rubble of the Barrikady Ordinance Factory on October 19, 1942. These photos have today become famous and are frequently seen on websites and books about the Battle of Stalingrad to the point of being symbols of the iconic battle. The photo above, as well as the one at the top of this section, were taken by Kurt Heine another German propaganda photographer. The man in the photo is Hauptmann Wilhelm Traub, the commander of Pionier-Bataillon 305/305.Infanterie-Division. Traub is wearing a well fitted Amoeba helmet cover. The cover is so well fitted that it is possible that it was tailor made to fit Traub’s helmet. Both the photo in the series that focus on Traub are dramatic. He poses in the ruins of Stalingrad wearing a captured helmet cover and brandishing a captured Soviet PPSh-41 sub-machine gun. There is a level of confidence and hubris to the use of these items. These photos without a doubt played well for the Germans on the home front. Even today they convey a powerful message, and it should come as no surprise that these images are still popular today. Yet in other photos from the series, Traub appears to be the only man wearing one of these covers.
Traub’s use of this cover can only be guessed at. He may have worn this as a method of distinguishing himself to his men. It is also possible that more men had been wearing the cover prior to the photos being taken but had been killed in the fighting. At the time these photos were taken, Pionier Bataillon 305 had been fighting continuously for weeks. The battalion had taken heavy casualties and were down to almost a company sized battle group. Whatever the reasons were, Traub sadly did not survive the battle, and would go missing in action on January 5, 1943. While the use of Amoeba covers may not be as common as sometimes supposed, at least a few men chose to wear the enemy’s camouflage at the Battle of Stalingrad.
Telling the Stalingrad Story
The German 6th army would surrender to the Soviets on the 3rd of February 1943. The German soldiers who wore these helmets and managed to live were marched off to Soviet POW camps where they would languish for years in squalid condition. Most would not survive. Their helmets would be cast off and forgotten. Many were buried by Soviet authorities, and today are dug up by relic seekers. Anyone wishing to own a helmet that saw service at Stalingrad need to look no further than an online auction site. These rusty witnesses to the carnage that was Stalingrad can be purchased for a small sum. The helmets worn by the men of the 6th army at Stalingrad each tell the story of that battle in their own way. The camouflage methods used on the helmet illustrates the desire these men had to survive, to give themselves a small edge in the roulette that was that terrible battle. Other methods such as the use of the Amoeba cover, or a semi-gloss double decal helmet may make little sense to modern eyes but may have been perfectly logical to the wearer during the battle. Whatever the reasons or logic, it is all part of the history of one of the worst battles the world has ever seen.