One of the most recognizable symbols of China’s struggle in the Second Sino-Japanese War is the German M35 Stahlhelm. Purchased en masse as a result of the military and technological collaboration between Germany and China, around 200,000 to 300,000 German-made M1935 Stahlhelms (steel helmet) found their way to China where they equipped China’s soldiers. The M1935 Stahlhelms were imported to China between 1935 and 1937 and were used throughout the entire Second World War and even beyond. Prior to the arrival of proper German-manufactured Stahlhelms, it would appear that a much more early and crude version of the Stahlhelm was already in service with the Chinese on a substantially lesser scale. It is no exaggeration to say that history of China’s indigenous production of Stahlhelms is shoddy and poorly documented. Scarce information exists on this obscure part of pre-war China’s attempt to be self-sufficient, but thanks to photographic evidence and selected sources, it is possible to gain a general understanding on the subject.
The origins of the Chinese produced Stahlhelm can be traced to the early 1930’s during the Sino-German cooperation. Seeing the merits of the Stahlhelm displayed by German advisors, the Chinese requested that they be allowed to produce the helmet for their troops. While this request was granted, the poor industrial capabilities of China prevented them from producing quality copies. Many adjustments had to be made to the design for production which arguably decreased the effectiveness of the Stahlhelm design. Sources tend to agree that the World War I-era M1916 Stahlhelm was the basis for production, and though it shows some resemblance to it, it doesn’t necessarily prove that it was, as all Stahlhelms generally have the same shape. It would appear that enough Stahlhelms were produced to equip two to three divisions, and were distributed to units of the Central Army (中央軍) and Nanjing Combat Engineer School. These helmets were first introduced around 1932 and were used until 1937 where they were most certainly replaced by German-made Stahlhelms. It is not known which factory was responsible for producing the helmets, nor is it known when the helmets were finally phased out of service.
With the examination of some photos belonging to former German advisor to China Hauptmann O.H. Oehme, one could see Stahlhelm-esque helmets worn by Chinese soldiers belonging to the Nanjing Combat Engineer Academy during a river exercise. The photos of which these helmets appeared in were taken on November 18th of 1933, two years before the M1935 Stahlhelm was even accepted for service. However, these helmets are not standard Stalhelm but rather crude indigenous copies. All sources colloquially refer to these helmets as the “煤斗盔” (Coal Scuttle Helmet), which when translated into English is a common name for the Stahlhelm. It is unknown if this was an official name for the helmet or if it was merely a nickname. With mere glance at these photos, one could see that the helmets are indeed of crude construction, exhibiting unrefined production quality judging by the single stamp construction and uneven helmet brims. In addition, they are much flatter than any standard German Stalhelms. In terms of markings, photographic evidence suggests that an enamel Blue Sky with White Sun emblem attached on the helmet’s front is standard procedure. Though during the January 28 Incident in 1932, the emblems were in fact placed on the side of the helmet.
It would appear that at least one example of the Chinese produced Stalhelm survives. If the inscription on the side of the helmet is authentic, it would mean that this helmet was used in the January 28th Incident in Shanghai in 1932. The helmet’s inscription (in Japanese Kanji) suggests that it was captured by a Japanese soldier and gifted to a fellow soldier. The right side of the helmet states that it was used by the Chinese 19th Route Army during the Shanghai Incident. Photos of this surviving helmet showed that the front had a rectangular hole, likely for an insignia pin. Two holes exists on each side which are likely for ventilation. Markings exist on the inside of the helmet’s brim, likely the manufacturer’s mark. Unfortunately due to the helmet’s poor condition, whatever marking remains is virtually illegible. It can be reasonably deduced that the failure to produce effective Stahlhelms in China was a factor in the country’s decision to buy German-made Stahlhelms. Nonetheless, the history of China’s indigenous production of the Stahlhelm is interesting, if not obscure, and is an example of the country’s effort to modernize itself as well as showing the benefits the Chinese were receiving during the period of Sino-German cooperation.