Horrible History Costume: World on Fire
Created by Peter Bowker, ‘World on Fire’ is a British war drama television series set in the Second World War. It follows the intertwined lives of ordinary civilians across Europe who are caught up in World War II. The first series, broadcast in 2019, covered the lead up to and first year of the war from March 1939 to July 1940. The series revolved around events such as the Defence of the Polish Post Office in Danzig, the Battle of the River Plate, the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain. The second series covering October 1940 to May 1941, features the beginning of the The Blitz in Manchester and the North African campaign (including Operation Compass and the Siege of Tobruk) The series returns to occupied France and the activities of the resistance movement and also features the Lebensborn programme that was instituted in Nazi Germany.
While watching the fortunes of the character ‘David’, a Jewish RAF fighter pilot played by British actor Gregg Sulkin, there was something bothering me about the screenshot shown right. While the goggles seem to be WW2 vintage, there is something suspect about the flying helmet and oxygen mask. During the Battle of Britain RAF pilots wore the B Type flying helmet as shown below left. By 1936 this type of helmet was being introduced to make the best use of the Type D oxygen mask. This was the helmet and mask combination with which RAF crews went to war in September 1939. As can be seen in the black and white photograph, the helmet integrated large-domed and zippered ear-pads inside which were housed the earphone receivers. They were padded with rubber to protect the receivers and also offer some side impact protection to the pilot’s head. The electrical wiring for the earphones was external, and the Type D oxygen mask was attached by two press studs. Note that the oxygen mask hose is of a relatively small diameter compared to that shown in the screenshot. The propmakers were undoubtedly aiming to equip ‘David’ with a B Type flying helmet but evidently one was not available to purchase or hire. While the one shown appears to be leather, it does not have the characteristic ear-pads. An attempt was obviously made to create the look, but the resulting helmet is clearly incorrect.
By the end of 1941 the B Type helmet was superseded by the C Type which was intended to be used with the later types of oxygen masks. The pilot shown in the colour photograph above is wearing a C Type helmet with its distinctive rubber earphones and a Type G oxygen mask. The hose for this mask had a significantly larger diameter, all of which neatly circles us back to the mask worn by ‘David’ in ‘World on Fire’. This too has a large, corrugated rubber hose but it connects beneath a distinctive circular outlet valve. This combination makes the set up instantly recognisable as a Mark V respirator (also known as a ‘gas mask’). Looking at the photograph above right, it seems the propmakers or costumiers may have simply cut away the eyepieces and upper part of the Mark V facemask. Alternatively, they may have taken an outlet valve and hose and attached these items to a bespoke facepiece, possibly of canvas or rubber. Unfortunately, determining the precise construction of the prop facepiece is complicated by the lighting effect inside the ‘cockpit’ and the image quality of the screenshot. Regardless, it seems such a shame that the production company could not have recreated the iconic look of one of ‘the Few’ but there it is.
And finally…This has either been a ‘rant’ on some pet peeves with media representations of historical themes or food for thought. We have tried not to be unreasonably critical but thought there was an opportunity to highlight a strange costume choice and then present a more accurate historical picture. In this way we hope everyone can learn something. Regardless, thank you for reading this far. So, until next time, bon appétit.
T6 Harvard Ltd, ‘Wartime RAF Flying Helmets’, Available online (accessed July 31st, 2023).