In mid-May of 2018 I was strolling through the Belgian city of Bruges. The Bruges is most well-known for its untouched medieval architecture and thriving chocolate industry. Therefore finding militaria was far from my mind that day. Nonetheless when I was walking along one of the city’s many canals my sixth sense for hunting military artifacts tingled when I spotted a flea market across the slow moving water. Flea markets are always an excellent source of militaria, so I had to investigate closer. Old clothes, art, and a mixture of odds-and-ends yielded military artifacts under closer inspection. Tucked between candle sticks and old children’s dolls were a few small caliber artillery projectiles were on one table with an old bayonet.
Another table was ran by an old woman with white hair who seemed to be selling a bit of everything. I was surprised and then excited to discover a brodie helmet nestled among the detritus. If you are unfamiliar with what a brodie helmet is: it is the typical flat bowl shaped helmet worn during WW1 and WW2 by British troops.*
I picked the helmet up and turned it over to ascertain what kind of helmet it was. I was pleased to find that it was a WW2 era British helmet. A complete liner was still inside with the majority of the original chinstrap still present. In broken Flemish mixed with English I asked the woman how much she would like for it. She said “50 Euros”. I did a quick calculation and found that price reasonable by retail standards. It was not a flaming deal, but was not overpriced either. I gave her the money without haggling, (because I did not know how to haggle in Flemish!). Besides, finding the helmet in such an unexpected way was worth the price in its own right. The woman offered me a plastic grocery bag to put the helmet in and said in rough English: “It is an old one”. Both happy, we parted ways and I hauled the plastic wrapped helmet throughout Bruges for the rest of the day. I remember distinctly taking a quick look at the helmet while sitting on a park bench while the warm noon-day sun was beaming down.
Once back “home” I was able to access my find properly. The term “salty” came to mind because the helmet was certainly well used and crusted with age. It was certainly an early or Pre-WWII British helmet, but missing one side of the chinstrap assembly. WW2 era British helmets had a black oil-cloth liner and primitive rubber padding that can degrade if stored improperly. This liner looked as though it had been kept in a shed for 70 years by the time it had finally made it’s way to market. Despite the aged condition, the helmet’s liner was complete and had a 1938 date stamped one of the straps. Another date was stamped on the rim by one of the chinstrap swivels, but was both faint and rusted out. The chinstrap swivels themselves were stainless steel and had tiny dates stamped on them: “1938”. The liner date matched the shell date, which was a very good sign this helmet had never been restored or pieced together after its military use. It had the unmistakable feel of a helmet that had dropped out of service unexpectedly, either lost or discarded during the war. It was frozen in time, like a time capsule from it’s issue to a particular soldier. All matching, all 1938 dated.
The next day, the friend I was staying with near Ghent offered to drive me to Dunkirk for the day, in exchange for a brief stop for lunch at a world famous brewery on the way back. I decided to take the helmet along in the hopes to take some interesting photos of the artifact on the Dunkirk beach. The image of abandoned equipment in the foamy channel surf remains one of the most iconic depictions of the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940, and I wanted to recreate the scene. It was blind luck I had found a helmet the day before I visited the Dunkirk beach. I often feel at times that things are meant to be and this photographic opportunity was one of those times. What was more interesting was I may have been reuniting the helmet with the Dunkirk beach where it was possibly left behind and found its way into the possession of the elderly woman who sold it to me.
While my helmet is early enough manufacture to have been with the BEF in 1940 at Dunkirk, I can never prove it due to the lack of markings or a name in the helmet. But I feel that it is very possible the helmet could have been in Belgium in 1940 due to it’s date of manufacture. In fact, Bruges had been within the Dunkirk perimeter in 1940, so the helmet could have been lost there at that time. It was not until 1944 that British troops returned to liberate the Bruges. By that time in 1944 the standard issue British helmet had different features than my 1938 example. So this points to the possibility it was left in the area in 1940 rather than 1944 or later. But I cannot rule out soldiers still wearing pre-war pattern Brodie helmets in 1944 during the liberation. So it remains a well formulated theory that awaits further evidence for proof or disproof.
Despite this theory, it is impossible to say the helmet was present during the Dunkirk evacuation or perimeter actions of 1940. However, thanks to my presence of thought during my travels and the lucky timing of my finding of the helmet, it was at Dunkirk in 2018. I took many photos of the helmet on the famous “Mole” breakwater at the Dunkirk port where troops crowded in 1940 awaiting rescue. I also placed the helmet on the open beach, and in the foamy surf to replicate the famous images of abandoned equipment that students of Dunkirk history know so well. It was an incredible way to make the history of the event come to life and I will never forget the feeling of bridging the temporal divide between the past and the present. Hopefully my photographs can help convey that sense of history.
Most collectors would pass this helmet by due to its “salty” condition but I absolutely love this helmet. It is one of my favorite artifacts due to the story of how I found it and how I took it along during to Dunkirk in May of 2018. My Dunkirk MkII Brodie can thus articulate one of the ways that artifacts can help individuals grow closer with events of the past. While my helmet may never have been at Dunkirk in 1940 it can tell the story of the evacuation wonderfully. For that reason among others; I will always treasure my “Dunkirk” MkII Brodie Helmet.
* It is called the Brodie helmet because the shape was designed and patented in London in 1915 by John Leopold Brodie, and has taken his name ever-since.
Want to learn more about “Operation Dynamo”, more commonly known as the Dunkirk Evacuation? Read: The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord
This is a great entry level read to the Dunkirk evacuation. From the collapse of the Allied defense in France, to the embattled perimeter around Dunkirk: this book does a excellent job at explaining why and how Operation Dynamo came to be. A great book for people daunted by heavy reads who want a quick but informative education. While being approachable it is also substantial enough to allow a perfect jump off point for further reading. MMH quick review rating: 4/5.