A British pattern steel helmet, 1942.

What is it?

Steel helmets were worn by Australian servicemen, servicewomen, and civilians during the Second World War.

Who used it?

Staff of an Australian and New Zealand hospital arrive safely in Crete, c. April 1941

Kathleen Best wore a steel helmet for protection while she served as a nurse during the Second World War. In April 1941, as the Germans advanced down the Greek peninsula, the fighting around the nurses and patients of the 2/5th Australian General Hospital grew more intense. There were constant enemy air raids, and hospital supplies and food were running out. Matron Kathleen Best of New South Wales, often affectionately known as “KB”, was ordered to prepare her nurses for immediate evacuation on 23 April. Because transport was limited, not everyone could leave immediately, and Kathleen was asked to choose 44 women to leave first, meaning 39 would have to remain behind with her. She came up with a plan to help her decide who would go and who would stay:

I asked them to write on a slip of paper their names and either “stay” or “go” and hand them to me … Not one Sister wrote “go” on the paper. I then selected 39 sisters to remain [with me].

With the railway line destroyed, the departing nurses put on their helmets, piled into trucks and headed towards the harbour after dark, where fishing boats ferried them out to a waiting ship. One nurse recalled, “We had to judge the gap, and leap to the destroyer, equipped with tin hat, respirator, great coat, and a very tight mid-length skirt.”

The nurses left behind in Greece struggled on despite the air raids. Finally, in the early hours of 26 April, they too were evacuated to Crete, and then to Egypt. For her courage and efficiency throughout the evacuation, Kathleen was awarded the Royal Red Cross.

Find out more about Kathleen Best here.

When/where was it used?

Helmets were worn throughout the Second World War by Australian servicemen and servicewomen, and by civilians serving in the police force, fire brigade, air raid precaution units, and the Salvation Army on the home front.

What does it do?

The steel helmets were designed to protect against shrapnel and debris, but they were not bullet-proof.

Activities for research and classroom discussion

1. Research the types of helmets worn throughout the First and Second World War and put together a table outlining the differences. How would you improve the design?

2. Find out more about uniforms worn by Australian troops over the years. How have they changed? Are there any ways in which they have remained the same?

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