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Post War Canadian Airborne Helmets

December 1, 2013

by Roger V. Lucy

Canada raised an Airborne battalion in WWII, which served with the British 6th Airborne Division. For combat these soldiers were issued with the British Helmet, Steel, Airborne Troops, Mk.I (which had a four-point leather harness) and, after 1944, the Helmet, Steel, Airborne Troops Mk.II, with a three point web suspension. For training purposes in the UK, the canvas and sorbo rubber Airborne Troops Training Helmet, Standard Pattern was also issued. Those training in the USA and Canada initially used the US Riddle training helmet or the steel M1 Parachutist Helmet. Later British airborne steel helmets, which were judged to be superior, being less liable to fall off or to foul the parachute shrouds, were procured for training in Canada.

Can Para June 44 e002852749 v6.jpg Preparing for their Normandy descent, these soldiers wear Helmets, Steel, Airborne Troops Mk.I heavily covered with netting and scrim.

Preparing for their Normandy descent, these soldiers wear Helmets, Steel, Airborne Troops Mk.I heavily covered with netting and scrim.

Immediately after the War Canada’s airborne forces were reduced to a single company, drawn from the Princess Patricia’s-Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI). By the end of the decade, however, Canadian defence policy had changed to meet the possible threat posed to Canada’s vast arctic territory by a potential Soviet aerial descent. To counter this perceived threat, a much expanded airborne capacity was created, the rapid reaction Mobile Strike Force (MSF). The MSF was envisaged as a force able to operate anywhere in Canada, including the Arctic, and required the expansion of Canada’s airborne cadre from company to battalion and then to nominally brigade strength. This put great stress on the supply of a variety of airborne equipment from transport aircraft to helmets. In 1951-2 the MSF required 3,000 paratroop helmets. The receipt of 900 helmets from the UK in 1948, had provided sufficient helmets to equip the newly expanded PPCLI battalion, but not the other battalions, nor the Joint Airborne Training Centre (JATC) at Rivers, Manitoba. When 400 additional helmets were ordered from the British War Office in June 1951, DND was informed that airborne helmet production had ceased at the end of the War and the British had no plans for procuring new helmets for its own use. The Canadian order was too small to justify reopening the line.

To meet this deficiency a number of Canadian Helmet, Crash, Motor Cyclists, Steel were converted to airborne use and issued to the Van Doos and RCR’s airborne battalions. The conversion consisted of inserting a top pad, cutting off the curtain and chin-strap and boring four holes in the rim to take a leather harness based on that of the Mk.I Airborne helmet. The helmets were worn reversed, so the brow pad on the DR helmet became a neck support on the Airborne helmet. Reports from the units indicated that these conversions were considered unsatisfactory.

An example of a Canadian-made steel DR helmet converted to an airborne helmet. It has been painted Paint, Exterior, Flat Green No 3-213. Author’s collection

An example of a Canadian-made steel DR helmet converted to an airborne helmet. It has been painted Paint, Exterior, Flat Green No 3-213. Author’s collection

The interior of a converted DR helmet, the helmet has been reversed, so the brow pad of the DR helmet now supports the back of the soldier’s head. Author’s collection

The interior of a converted DR helmet, the helmet has been reversed, so the brow pad of the DR helmet now supports the back of the soldier’s head. Author’s collection

This photograph shows the RCR Company of the MSF exercising at Malton. They appear to be wearing converted DR helmets. Note the white bands which seem to indicate officers.

This photograph shows the RCR Company of the MSF exercising at Malton. They appear to be wearing converted DR helmets. Note the white bands which seem to indicate officers.

This converted DR helmet was later fitted with a new liner and a web Mk.II harness. Peeling away some subsequent coats of paint revealed markings similar to the soldiers exercising at Malton. Author’s collection

This converted DR helmet was later fitted with a new liner and a web Mk.II harness. Peeling away some subsequent coats of paint revealed markings similar to the soldiers exercising at Malton. Author’s collection

In 1952 the British UK resumed airborne helmet production and on 30 January 1953, DND ordered 4,000 new-production Helmets, Steel, Airborne Troops, Mk. II from the manufacturer Briggs Motor Bodies, These were delivered by the end of the year and are readily identified by having BMB MK2 C335-53 (the exact batch number varies somewhat) stamped on the brim and BMB 1953 and the size stamped on the sweat-band.

This 1953-dated British airborne helmet has received a coat of Paint, Exterior, Flat Green No 3-213.and has a Van Doos decal on the left side. Author’s collection

This 1953-dated British airborne helmet has received a coat of Paint, Exterior, Flat Green No 3-213.and has a Van Doos decal on the left side. Author’s collection

A similarly painted helmet but with airborne Royal Canadian Engineers insignia at the front. Ed Storey collection

A similarly painted helmet but with airborne Royal Canadian Engineers insignia at the front. W.E. Storey collection

 

The interior of a the 1953 Helmet, Steel, Airborne Troops Mk.II, still in its original British paint.

The interior of a the 1953 Helmet, Steel, Airborne Troops Mk.II, still in its original British paint.

In August 1960, the US M1 helmet became the standard helmet for the Regular Army. It was intended to supplant the British Airborne helmet, with the M1 Parachutist Helmet, fitted with the nylon Type II Combat Liner. However, while an example of the parachutists’ version of the US nylon liner was obtained for evaluation in 1962, and the purchase of 6,000 authorized in November 1963, they were slow to enter serial production. In the interim, the British airborne helmets designated “limited standard” and remained in service. There were still 2,131 British Airborne helmets in the Ordnance stocks at Shilo in June 1960, but by late 1963 the larger sizes were no longer available. It is probably at this time that numbers of old airborne Mk.I and converted DR helmets were converted to Mk.II standard, and numbers of the 1953 helmets were refurbished. These helmets have post war Airborne Mk.II harnesses, as well as substitute sweat bands backed by crumbly yellow foam-rubber padding. The size is marked in felt pen.

The interior of the much converted ex-DR helmet, shown above with its replacement liner. Note the very poor quality foam rubber. Author’s collection

The interior of the much converted ex-DR helmet, shown above with its replacement liner. Note the very poor quality foam rubber. Author’s collection

The harness of the British airborne helmet was found to be incompatible with the new Canadian NBCW mask It was also unpopular with the troops carrying out training jumps, who complained that its weight tended to cause neck-strain, and that it gave no protection to the lower head and jaw from the parachute shrouds. Some soldiers took to using privately purchased football helmets for training. When, in August, 1964, CJATC sought formal permission for their use, General Allard, forbade their use altogether, noting they were also banned in the USA. In November, 1965, with no deliveries of nylon M-1 parachutists liners in sight, experiments were undertaken to see if a parachutist chin-strap could be fitted to the M-1 steel body. While it was determined that this was feasible, no steps seem to have been taken to issue these helmets in place of British airborne helmets.

Issues of the US-made parachutists helmets (Helmet Steel Parachutist, GS MK I) finally began in the late-1960s and the British airborne helmets were retired. Essentially the M1 parachutist helmet resembled the standard M1 helmet, except the liner was fitted with two web yokes to which were buckled a web chin-strap. On each side of the liner there was a press stud to which was snapped the end of a short extension of the steel pot’s chin-straps. Further tests were carried on M1 parachutists’ helmets at Rivers Manitoba in June1967. These concluded that the nylon Combat Liner Type II was generally satisfactory, except for the way in which its chin-strap was fastened. The brass wire claw buckles on the yokes were difficult to adjust easily and the brass eyelets had a tendency to tear away. Instead the eyelets were omitted and the buckles replaced by two slide buckles. The ends of the modified strap were heat-treated to prevent fraying. So modified, these helmets served on until 1997, when the kevlar CG634 helmet was adopted. This helmet is suitable for use by both airborne and ground troops,

The nylon Type II Combat liner worn under the M1's steel pot

The nylon Type II Combat liner worn under the M1’s steel pot

A Canadian issue M1 Parachutist helmet.

A Canadian issue M1 Parachutist helmet.

A close-up of the modified strap attachments on a Canadian-modified M1 Parachutist’s Helmet.

A close-up of the modified strap attachments on a Canadian-modified M1 Parachutist’s Helmet.

Markings and Insignia

Most British airborne helmets retained either their olive factory paint or were repainted in the universal dark green paint used on Canadian Army vehicles (and everything else of that period) termed: Paint, Exterior, Flat Green No 3-213. Liberal use of nets and scrim remained the norm for field service. At the same time however it became the practice to distinguish the helmets worn by different units, arms and services, either with decals, painted insignia or by painting them in branch colours. Infantry regiments often painted their helmets white; jump instructors red; Signals Corps blue and white; Ordnance Corps Red and Blue etc. Contemporary photographs show these coloured helmets used on exercises, perhaps as a way to identify different units and functions. This practice of applying unit insignia or colours to M1 parachutists’ helmet seems to have been rarely if ever practiced.

The RCE helmet, shown above, photographed being worn in service.

The RCE helmet, shown above, photographed being worn in service. W.E> Storey Collection

This white painted helmet with the PPCLI’s insignia began life as a Helmet Steel Airborne Troops Mk.I, but was later converted to a Mk.II. Author’s collection

This white painted helmet with the PPCLI’s insignia began life as a Helmet Steel Airborne Troops Mk.I, but was later converted to a Mk.II. Author’s collection

This photograph from a pamphlet on musketry instruction shows a another white airborne helmet, with rank insignia.

This photograph from a pamphlet an early manual on the FNC1 rifle shows a another white airborne helmet, with rank insignia. W.E. Storey Collection

This picture, taken in 1956, shows jump instructor wearing red helmets, with rank insignia.

This picture, taken in 1956, shows jump instructor wearing red helmets, with rank insignia.

An example of a similar instructor’s helmet, held by the Canadian War Museum. The interior markings indicate it was a wartime issue Mk.II.

An example of a similar instructor’s helmet, held by the Canadian War Museum. The interior markings indicate it was a wartime issue Mk.II.

A maroon painted Mk.II Airborne helmet.Author’s collection

A maroon painted Mk.II Airborne helmet.Author’s collection

An airborne signaller’s helmet, displayed at the RCCS Museum in Kingston.

An airborne signaller’s helmet, displayed at the RCCS Museum in Kingston. Photo courtesy W.E. Story

An airborne helmet worn by a Lieutenant of the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps. There is a similar helmet in the RCOC Museum. Author’s collection

An airborne helmet worn by a Lieutenant of the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps. There is a similar helmet in the RCOC Museum. Author’s collection

Ready to jump, an airborne medic with his helmet painted in the colours of the RCAMC

Ready to jump, an airborne medic with his helmet painted in the colours of the RCAMC

This black-painted Mk.I Airborne helmet has the red and yellow flash of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps. Jan Nowak collection.

This black-painted Mk.I Airborne helmet has the red and yellow flash of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps. Jan Nowak collection.

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2 Comments
  1. Colin MacGregor Stevens permalink

    An excellent article from Roger Lucy and I learned a great deal from it.

    He did miss the Canadian SAS Company’s existence just after WWII and the small staff of “testers” at Shilo. The SAS was made up of a platoon of PPCLI, a platoon of R22R and a platoon of RCR. The never rebadged. They wore a variety of helmets including one SOE parachute helmet. Major Guy d’Artois was the de facto CO of that unit and had served in R22R, FSSF and F Section of SOE prior to this. In at least one photo of a group he is shown wearing the soft camouflaged SOE helmet. When I visited him and his wife, who was also a combat WWII parachutist, he showed me this helmet and I photographed him holding it.

    Great work Roger and I look forward to seeing more of your great research published in due course. 🙂

  2. Colin MacGregor Stevens permalink

    Another one-of-a-kind Canadian airborne helmet anomaly was the chrome US airborne pattern helmet with the Canadian Airborne Regiment cap badge affixed to the front. The badge was also chromed.

    Collectors were puzzled by this helmet and could not determine it’s background. When I sold the medals of Col. Don Rochester to Bornewest, the former airborne soldiers organization in BC, I also sold them this helmet as they wanted it for display. At that time they revealed that it had been presented to Col. Don Rochester who had been the first Regimental Commander of the Canadian Airborne Regiment, 1968-1970. I do not know when the helmet was presented to him. It may have been in 1970 or years later when they presented him with his Canadian Airborne Soldier statuette on 31 May 1990.

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