American GIs liked their war trophies, which is why there is such a military collectibles hobby in the United States today. Helmets seemed popular and while steel helmets captured (or liberated as the case may be) from German soldiers were certainly favored, so too were sun helmets.
Here is one of the rarest examples we’ve encountered. It is a first pattern German tropical helmet, of the type used by the Afrika Korps during its campaign in the desert. What makes it truly stand out is that the German shields have been removed and replaced by American collar insignia – and this might be the only example of this display of war booty that we’ve seen. Continue reading →
While the bulk of the fighting in the First World War occurred in Europe, notably on the Western Front, the conflict was truly a “World War” as soldiers fought in distant parts of the globe. One of the more colorful tales involved those of Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who commanded the German colonial forces in German East Africa – today Tanzania.
During this campaign the Germans relied on field-made equipment, and utilized every piece of arms and ordnance at their disposal. Von Lettow-Vorbeck increased the strength of his military force by recruiting German colonists and from the indigenous population, but also by requisitioning a full company of sailors from the SMS Königsberg. It is possible the above helmet was used by one of those sailors.
Today the sun helmets and other tropical headgear utilized by the Ottoman Empire before and during World War I remains somewhat of a mystery. One factor that is so few pieces have survived and the photographic evidence suggests that a variety of patterns were used.
Our colleague and friend Dr. Chris Flaherty chronicled the various patterns for these, but now a new photo and some insight from the Imperial War Museum may shed a bit more light on the Ottoman “Sun Helmet.” Continue reading →
This is a special study of Japanese tropical helmets by Nick Komiya, and is presented in four parts.
1887-1911 Colonial Predecessors of the Army Sun Helmet
Initially a trademark of the British and French colonial look, the wearing of pith helmets spread worldwide from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. However, despite of this worldwide fad, Japan was slow in coming to see any need for such gear. That was because being a late comer to the game of Imperialism, Japan did not hold any tropical colonies.
But even so, the well-travelled Japanese Navy must have felt obliged to match the colonial style dress code when making port calls at tropical colonies of the European empires. Thus the Imperial Japanese Navy introduced a sun helmet already in 1887, nearly 40 years ahead of the army. Continue reading →
A pith helmet in the capital of the British Empire might not seem that odd at all. A helmet made of pith with a London maker/retailer stamp does seem a bit more odd – especially when one considers that the majority of helmets produced in Great Britain were in fact made of cork. As we’ve noted cork and pith are two distinct materials, and English hatters opted for cork, which came from nearby Portugal; while we have found that Indian hatters worked with sola pith, which was more common in the subcontinent.
There are no doubt countless exceptions to the rule, and both Roland Gruschka and I have discovered Wolseley helmets that seem to have been made in India. This is interesting as the Wolseley was a helmet largely produced in cork. Shortages of the material in World War I resulted in helmets with straw bodies as noted by two examples in my colleague Stuart Bates’ collection, and during World War II shortages of cork resulted in helmets being produced out of pressed felt. Continue reading →
One still hotly disputed debate surrounds what was the first sun helmet utilized by the Third Reich. It is true that the Kriegsmarine used a pressed fiber styled helmet that was a holdover from the days of Weimar Republic’s navy but by the outbreak of the Second World War the German military wasn’t exactly planning for combat in tropical regions.
Much of this changed with the fall of France in June 1940 and the opening of a campaign in North Africa later that year, followed by the invasion of the Balkans in the late spring of 1941. In other words the German military planners likely didn’t have a plan when it came to tropical uniforms or equipment. It is therefore possible that the first pattern of sun helmet used in the Mediterranean theater were of Italian origin! Continue reading →
An American Army tropical “Pressed Fiber” helmet and mosquito net from the Vietnam War era of the late 1960s (Author’s Collection)
The military sun helmet was introduced to save lives, not from bullets or even spears but from quite literally from the sun. The European soldiers – first the British but later the French, Belgian, Spanish, Portuguese and Germans – fell victim to sun stroke and heat stroke in their respective newly obtained colonies. The sun helmet offered protection from the sun and along with better tropical clothing likely helped save countless lives beginning in the second half of the 19th century.
The other problem facing soldiers as well as diplomats, colonists and workers was tropical disease. Among the most deadly was yellow fever. Even today in many tropical regions – especially Africa and South America – yellow fever continues to be a major problem. Today nearly a billion people live in an area of the world where the disease is common. Yellow fever originated in Africa but spread to South America through the slave trade in the 17th century, and since that time there have been major outbreaks in the Americas, Africa and even Europe. Continue reading →