The East German helmet has origins that can be traced back to Nazi Germany. The Third Reich Research Council undertook a study of the ballistic characteristics inherent to various military helmets of armies of several different countries. The Reich Institute For Defense Technology was charged with this study, and two professors, Dr. Fry and Dr. Haensel collected several helmets from different countries for the test. These foreign helmets, along with the Wehrmacht’s own M35 Stahlhelm, were fired at with small arms ammunition from various angles and distances, to determine relevant penetration characteristics. The British “Tommy” helmet fared the worst. Even the M35 of the Wehrmacht was found to have serious problems.
The Reich Institute initiated a design process for a new helmet with superior ballistic characteristics. This resulted in several prototype helmets being produced by the Voelkingen Stahlwerke for testing. When the tests were complete in 1942, the results were provided to the Army Weapons Office. Despite objections by Hitler, the Army Weapons Office office under the auspices of a memoranda generated by the Army Medical Inspectorate, authorized production of a new pattern combat helmet. The memo was due in part to the ever increasing number of serious head wounds received by wearers of the M35, M40, and the M42 helmets. As well, the memo encompassed design changes that would address the increasingly scarce supply of necessary materials and labor required for production of the current M42 helmet. The M42 model was still expensive to produce despite modifications and design simplifications of the original M35 and subsequent M40.
A total of four prototypes were designed, which were named A, B, BII, and C. The latter three prototype helmets represented major changes from the M35/40/42 design. After initial testing, models B and BII were approved for further field research. Orders were placed with the Eisen und Huettenwerke for production of approximately 100 helmets. They were named the Thale/Harz helmets after their designers. The helmets were then sent to the Doeblitz Infantry School outside of Berlin, where they were then put through field testing with infantry units at the school. The new helmets proved to be acceptable design at this stage. The new helmet was also found to be superior in ballistics to any helmet then made.
Hitler was then presented with the final results of the B and BII research program in the autumn of 1944 for his approval of one or the other The new helmet was to be designated the M45. Hitler rejected both helmets on the basis that the current M42 helmet best exemplified the image of the German soldier.
Soviet records indicate the new helmets were first encountered when the Russian Army attacked Berlin in the spring of 1945. These were most likely from troops attached to the Doeblitz Infantry School. The Dresden Museum has an example of a model BII Stahlhelm. This is believed to be a survivor of the last ditch effort by the Wehrmacht against the Russians.
After the division of Germany, and the formation of the DDR as a separate country in 1949, a seemingly new type helmet known as the M54 already had appeared, which was worn in limited numbers by the KVP (Barracks Police). It actually was based upon the model A Stalhelm and resembled the M35/40/42 helmet. In 1956, with the transformation of the KVP into the new Nationalen Volkesarmee (NVA), the newly established NVA Rear-Services Administration and Office of Technology was instructed to develop a new helmet the NVA. It could not have physical characteristics associated with either the Wehrmacht M35/40/42 or the Russian helmet. Consequently, the M54/Model A helmet then being worn by the KVP was rejected.
In the form of the M44 Stalhelm this new replacement helmet for the NVA had already been designed, tested and the factory for producing the helmet already existed, with all the necessary tools and dies. As well, the Head Engineer appointed to and tasked with the development of the new NVA helmet was Erich Keisen. Ironically, he had been affiliated with Eisen und Huettenwerke, which had produced the model B and BII helmets formerly approved by the Wehrmacht Army Weapons Office, but rejected by Hitler. Hitler’s rejection became the stamp of approval for the M56 as it rescinded the connection to the Fascist Wehrmacht. The economy-minded DDR spent very little on design and testing this pre-existing M44/M56 helmet. Kiesen also was the holder of former patents for an improved helmet liner with a new “Y” type chin-strap and ventilation bushings meant for the M35/40/42, but never implemented. With modifications, the Model B and BII could be quickly fitted with that liner. The factory in question survived the war intact and was located in the DDR. The BII subsequently was selected for production over the model B. In January 1956, production of the model BII was resumed. The new helmet was officially introduced at the introduction ceremony of the NVA on May 1st, in Berlin. It was painted in a Stone Grey matte finish and bore a Tri-color Shield on one side in Black, Red and Gold.
Eventually, the helmet under the direction of Gen. Willi Stoph, went through more intense testing, resulting in superficial design modifications over the passing years - the removal of the rivets being one of the later design modification improvements. In principal however, the helmet was found to be superior to anything then being fielded by any army at that time. In 1957 the helmet entered production in earnest in three sizes (60m, 64m and 68m). By September of that same year, 50,000 helmets had been produced and issued to NVA Troops. By years end, all NVA Troops had the helmet. The entire process – development to production and issue, was accomplished in a single year. Also in 1957, the first light-weight resin or plastic NVA helmets were produced for issue to and wear by special elite or honor guard troops.
It should be noted that the first production helmets had a liner similar to the M42, but were configured with a double “Y” chin-strap. Consequently, any NVA Stahlhelm found to be configured with an M42 type liner and the single type adjustable chinstrap, could very well be an example of a model B or BII produced during the era of the Wehrmacht. The rivets should be found to be positioned lower on this helmet than on subsequent 1956 production models.