South African ‘Polo’ helmet

Whilst most of the British Empire used Wolesley pattern of pith helmet, or increasingly the Cawnpore pattern, however South Africa did things rather differently between the wars. The South Africans adopted a pattern of sun helmet known as the ‘polo’ helmet that was of a very different shape, being much smaller than the British patterns and with a much shorter brim over the neck. This helmet was made of cork and was used by all the arms of the Union Defence Force, including the RSAAF and it is a polo helmet from this organisation we are considering today:

The example here is in very poor condition, the cork having mostly disintegrated and the helmet being in a semi-relic condition. Having said that, on a display head it is still an attractive item and original examples are very scarce so I am happy to have it as part of my collection. The polo helmet has the brass cap badge of the South African Air Force on the front of the helmet:

Like other sun helmets, this example has a puggaree carefully folded and wrapped around the base of the crown of the helmet. Turning to the rear of the helmet, the very short rear brim is easily visible:

A pressed metal ventilator is fitted to the top of the helmet, covered with a layer of fabric to match the rest of the helmet:

The interior of the helmet has a leather sweat band fitted around the inside and a centrally mounted metal grill to connect with the top ventilator:

The leather band has a piece of string threaded through to allow a small amount of size adjustment:

Note also the metal grommets which connect through to the exterior of the helmet and allow further ventilation to the inside. South Africa procured their helmets from a number of sources, this example was manufactured in the United Kingdom by J Compton and Webb, as indicated by the paper label pasted inside the helmet:

These helmets were used extensively in the later inter-war period and well into the Second World War, here being seen worn by South African artillerymen:

This was a high water mark for the design however, and it was dropped from military service by the end of the war, being replaced by more modern types of headwear. The original helmets do not survive well due to the fragile nature of the cork from which they are made and even examples in poor condition, such as this one, are scarce in the UK today.

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