Military Watches of the World: Canada

In this installment of Military Watches of the World, we visit America’s northerly neighbor and examine its history of significant timepieces, from World War I through the present.


When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on August 4th, 1914, it dragged the Commonwealth nations with it, among which was Canada. Canada fought valiantly during the global conflagration and suffered roughly 61,000 dead and 173,000 wounded from an expeditionary force that numbered some 620,000 — a casualty rate of 38%. 

In examining Canada’s history of military watches, it is appropriate to begin with the Great War, though records of issued timepieces this early in the 20th century are rarer than those for other major combatants such as the British, Americans or Germans. As Canada was without a powerful native wristwatch industry such as that of the Americans or the Swiss, Canadian servicemen who were issued watches were given timepieces produced by international firms. Further, issued watches, it would seem, were few and far between, and were likely only given to officers and NCOs whose duties necessitated precision timekeeping, such as those in command of artillery batteries or those coordinating attacks. (The same was also true of the British, Americans, etc.) Luminous watches were, however, increasingly essential kit, to the degree that many soldiers likely purchased their own timepieces from Canadian retailers such as Birks or Eaton’s.


The Rolex Connection

Later, in the 1930s and into the 1940s during the Second World War, wristwatches produced by Rolex and retailed by the aforementioned retailers became popular with Canadian servicemen, though they were never issued. These watches, sold under various designations (Oyster Centregraph, Oyster Lipton, Oyster Junior Sport, Oyster Raleigh, Oyster Commander, Oyster Recorda, Oyster Edison, Oyster Grenfell, Oyster Standard and Oyster Shipmate — see this informative piece for more information) utilized an ebauche (movement blank) produced by Fontmelon and modified by Rolex, which they dubbed the cal. 59. Eaton’s-retailed Rolexes, which were dubbed Solar Aqua or King of Wings, weren’t signed “Rolex” or “Oyster” on the dials.

credit: Horologist

These small Rolex models (28-29mm, for the most part) spanned many different models, designations and configurations, but many can be found with an inner 24-hour track executed in red, large, lumed Arabic indices, an outer minute track and a sub-seconds dial — clear hallmarks of utilitarian, military-geared wristwatch. These pieces, no matter the name on the dial, were contemporary Rolex watches in every sense, and make for a fascinating overlap between the history of the Crown in Canada and the larger tale of Canadian military wristwatches.

The Second World War

Moving into World War II proper, we discover several interesting, officially issued pieces. One of these was a pocketwatch, made by famed American firm Elgin and issued to the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN). Open-faced, it measures 51mm in diameter and features a 16-ligne, 17-jewel movement housed in a nickel silver case with screw-down back and bezel. A black porcelain dial with luminous, radium-coated hands features an outer minute track, large Arabic indices and a sub-seconds dial. The case back is clearly stamped “R.C.N.” and features an issue or serial number and the “broad arrow” or pheon, the sign of Crown property. 

credit: Adam Vintage

The A-11, dubbed “the watch that won the War” and well-known as the quintessential American-made military timepiece of World War II, was also issued in a slightly alternate guise to Canadian forces: More rare than their American counterparts, these A-11s were given the Commonwealth “6B/150” designation and were produced by American firms (Waltham seems to be the most common manufacturer). In addition to the “6B/150” designation, the case backs were also signed “R.C.A.F.” (Royal Canadian Air Force) and feature an issue/serial number and the broad arrow. Handwound and measuring roughly 31mm in diameter, they were later re-dialed by the RCAF in the mid-1960s and are often found in this condition. (The white redials are quite beautiful, with lumed, mixed 3, 6, 9, and 12 Arabic and dot indices, lumed pencil hands, an outer minute track and “RCAF.”)

Post-War Watches

Following the War, the Canadian government contracted several manufacturers to produce chronographs for the RCN and RCAF in a production run that lasted from the early 1960s through the 1970s. These steel watches (ref. 6W/16) which were all of the monopusher variety, were made by three firms: Breitling, Omega and Rodania. Featuring white dials with two-register layouts, they were stamped with the service branch, issue and serial numbers on their screw-back cases. 

The dials were sparse and legible, with a 30-minute totalizer at 3 o’clock and a running seconds counter at 9 o’clock, as well as lumed 12 and 6 o’clock Arabic indices, an inner track for the remaining indices, executed in black, lumed dot indices at each numeral and lumed pencil hands. The Breitling and Rodania models featured sterile dials, while the Omega-built variants were either sterile or were signed with the manufacturer’s name and logo. The Omegas measured 38mm and were powered by the handwound Lemania cal. 2221 movement, while the Breitling and Rodania models were 36mm in diameter and were powered by the handwound Valjoux cal. 236.

credit: The Watch Club

Canadian divers during this same period were sometimes issued with that most beloved of military timepieces, the “mil-Sub” — in this case, of the Tudor variety in both black and blue dials. In service from the 1960s through the 1990s, Canadian mil-Subs are highly collectible, though their provenance is more difficult to establish than that of their French or other cousins, as it doesn’t seem that log books were kept by the military for each individual watch. Watches with Canadian naval stores numbers are easier to establish provenance for, but others either stamped with the individual serviceman’s name, the watch’s serial number, or without markings have also surfaced with supposed RCN history.

credit: Bulang & Sons

Beginning in the late 1960s, the RCN began issuing ref. 7016 Tudors with “rose” logo dials and Mercedes hands, followed by “snowflake” hand-equipped watches (refs. 7021, 94110 and 94010). More notable, however, is a unique type of mil-Sub featuring snowflake hands set against a dial with rectangular 3, 6, and 9 indices, a triangular 12 index and circular indices for the remaining numerals — making them appear like ref. 7928s but with snowflake hands. These watches, as far as the collector community is concerned, are entirely “correct” and were in fact issued this way in a very narrow serial range. (Watches could be and were, of course, serviced and fitted with whatever parts were available at the time, making for other configurations that are technically “correct” as far as military issue is concerned.) The last Tudor Submariner issued was the ref. 79090 with date in the 1990s.



In the 1980s, a joint-project between Canadian firm Marathon Watch Company and Swiss firm Gallet resulted in a unique watch with a unique signature. Signed “ADANAC” (“Canada” backwards), these were asymmetric three-hander watches powered by quartz movements and housed in 40mm steel cases. Evidently produced for both American and Canadian forces, these “navigator” watches were supposedly issued to air crews and featured screw-down crowns, 300m of water resistance, 20mm fixed spring bars, and steel cases with an easy-access battery hatch. The dials screamed pure utility: black, they featured outer Arabic indices 1-12, an inner 24-hour scale, triangular tritium lume plots and lumed sword hands. An outer rotating, bi-directional 12-hour bezel makes tracking a second time zone (or elapsed time) a cinch. Case back markings included the manufacture date in addition to serial and issue numbers, making for easy tracking. 

Marathon is perhaps the best known modern-day supplier to the Canadian armed forces and unique in that it’s actually based on Canadian soil, though production takes place in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland. According to a Marathon representative, government contracts don’t specify the receiving unit, so it’s difficult to tell precisely who within the Canadian military is using which watches. Marathon did specify, however, that they sell many General Purpose Mechanicals and automatic divers, and that the purchasing orders read only “Department of National Defense.”

It’s interesting to note the prevalence of the General Purpose Mechanical in government contracts, which gives some credence to the theory that certain militaries do in fact prefer mechanical watches for their shelf life and potential resistance to electromagnetic pulse. The General Purpose Mechanical is available in two iterations: the first is 34mm in diameter and housed in a fibershell case with a sapphire crystal. Powered by the Seiko cal. NH35 automatic movement, it’s water-resistant to 30m and has an official NATO stock number. Illuminated by tritium gas tubes (a signature of Marathon watches), its black dial with radioactive symbol will be familiar to fans of vintage American military watches from the likes of Benrus, Hamilton, and others. 

The second variety of mechanical field watch is based upon the famed GG-W-113 spec and features a 39mm steel case and the ETA 2801 mechanical (handwound) movement. Its dial is also illuminated with tritium tubes, and it features 50m of water resistance. Both varieties of mechanical field watch ship on one-piece nylon straps that conform to MIL-S-46383B Type II codes.

Marathon’s dive watches come in several different types and sizes, though they’re fairly uniform in look and all make use of tritium tube illumination. Available models — which come in both quartz and automatic varieties — include the 36mm medium SAR (search and rescue); the 41mm large SAR; and the 46mm jumbo SAR. Medium varieties are referred to as “MSAR quartz” or “MSAR auto,” while large divers are either GSAR (automatic) or TSAR (quartz), and jumbo are either JDD (automatic) or JSAR (quartz). The convention can be somewhat difficult to follow, but all Marathon divers are of a similar ilk: robust and overbuilt, they’re serious tools meant for professional soldiers and adventurers alike. Each includes a unidirectional rotating dive bezel, black or white dial, tritium tubes, and a rubber strap. Movements used include the Sellita SW200 automatic, the ETA F07 high-torque quartz and the ETA 2836 automatic.


Though these divers carry the “search and rescue” moniker, the author has confirmed instances in which American infantrymen (rather than divers) have received these watches during service in Iraq and Afghanistan through their supply chains. No firsthand information was available to the author from Canadian servicemen and women, though a proverbial dive into the online watch community has yielded possible answers as to who might have been issued a Marathon in the past (combat engineers, search and rescue technicians, etc).

Similarly to the situation prevalent in other militaries around the world, the aforementioned watch forum search yields individuals with firsthand knowledge stating that most Canadian servicemen today simply purchase their own watch, and that in instances in which a specific tool is needed, the unit in question purchases enough timepieces for its personnel. Uniquely, however, Canada has a modern watch company operating on its own soil producing mil-spec quartz and mechanical pieces and supposedly still issuing them to this day. Keeping up with the dependable and ever-affordable G-Shock is a tough business, though as long as certain jobs still require purpose-built watches that conform to government-written specifications, Marathon will no doubt supply them.

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Oren Hartov is the watches editor at Gear Patrol, a contributor to several other publications, and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. He is a reserve paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces and enjoys music, history, archaeology, militaria, scuba diving, languages and travel. He is of the opinion that Steely Dan’s “The Royal Scam” may in fact be a better record than “Aja,” but he’s not positive.