Military Watches of the World: Great Britain Part 1—The Boer War Through The Second World War

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In the second installment of our series focused on military watches from around the world, we are going to examine the military watches of Great Britain, beginning with the advent of the wristwatch during the Boer War and continuing through the present day.


The Boer War, The “Wristlet,” and The Great War

Prior to the 20th century, the “wristlet,” or a small clock worn as a pendant on a bracelet, was almost exclusively worn by women, as men thought them feminine and unreliable. However, accounts from the Second Boer War (1899-1902) describe soldiers jury-rigging pocket watches by soldering on wire lugs and attaching leather straps to them for use on the wrist, which freed the hands for the more necessary tasks of both inflicting and avoiding death.

Waltham advertisement circa 1914; Image courtesy of vintagewatchstraps.

At the outset of World War I (1914-1918), pocket watches were still the standard timekeeping instruments of the modern gentlemen, and some units were issued a number of them for use by non-combat personnel such as telephonists, telegraphists, etc. However, it wasn’t long before watch manufacturers came to the realization that war on such a large scale was changing their market, as the sheer numbers of soldiers who required the time on their wrists was necessitating a move over to purpose-built wristwatches. In fact, by 1915, mention of wristwatches had already become commonplace in war-time poetry and prose, indicating that the “wristlet” was no longer only the purview of women, but also of soldiers at the front.

For the most part officers were expected to purchase their own wristwatch, preferably with a luminous dial (radium-coated) and an “unbreakable glass” crystal, and many British jewelers advertised these “campaign” or “service” watches in the daily press.

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Dennison Advertisement circa 1915. Image courtesy of vintagewatchstraps.

However, from 1917 the British military did issue a limited number of wristwatches with the aforementioned feature set and broad arrow/serial number, though again, these seem to have been meant for signals personnel, engineers, etc. The War Department surveyed and tested numerous Swiss-made wristwatches that generally featured unsigned movements and black enamel dials with radium hands; those with snap-back cases were rejected as unsuitable for combat conditions in favor of screwback models of the Dennison or Borgel type. It should be noted that almost no British watchmaking firms produced military-issue or military-type wristwatches, but rather used Swiss-made watches or Swiss-made movements with British-made cases.

After the war, many men simply continued to wear their wristwatches, propelling this new “gadget” into the mainstream and largely replacing the pocket watch.

 

“Knowledge for War: Every Officer’s Handbook for the Front” by Captain B. C. Lake Own Scottish Borderers; 1916. Image courtesy of vintagewatchstraps.

The Second World War

WWII saw Britain produce numerous wristwatches for issue, perhaps the most ubiquitous of which was the A.T.P. watch, or Army Trade Pattern. These watches were manufactured by numerous Swiss companies (the exact number has been difficult to ascertain but seems to be between 17 and 22) and all shared similar characteristics: a 15-jewel movement housed in a round chrome or steel case between 29 and 33 millimeters in diameter, a white or silver dial with luminous pips/batons on the indices, luminous hands, and running central or sub-seconds. Some of the casebacks were of the screwback type and some the snapback, but as a definitive military specification sheet has thus far not surfaced, it has been difficult to ascertain whether or not these were intended to be waterproof.

Cyma ATP; image courtesy of bobsy.

A lesser known specialty watch was the Hydrographic Survey piece produced by Longines, which featured a 51-millimeter sterling silver case made by A.T. Oliver, a Longines 12.68N 16-jewel manual-wind movement, and a brass dial with radium-painted indices and cathedral hands, as well as a special waterproofed protection system for the winding crown that is reminiscent of the U.S. BuShips “canteen” watch. These were oversized diver watches intended for use by the Hydrographic Survey, the arm of the Admiralty responsible for chart and mapmaking, and the British military’s answer to the Italian Panerai; it is believed that less than 50 were made and fewer than ten individual watches have been cataloged.

Longines H.S. watch; image courtesy of James Dowling, Timezone.

For aircraft navigation, the M.O.D. had watches produced under the 6B/159 spec, referred to as the “Mk. VII” watch. These pieces were produced by JLC (often signed “LeCoultre” on the dial), Omega, and Longines, and feature a 36-hour lever movement with blued steel hands, steel or plated case, silvered metal or white enamel dial, and Arabic numerals, though they are sometimes seen with black dials and it is unclear whether these are original or later MOD replacements.

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Confusingly, another iconic WWII-era watch, the Air Ministry-issued “Weems”-type navigator watch, was issued with the same spec number as the aforementioned piece. These watches, created in conjunction with Lt. Commander P.V.H. Weems of the U.S. Navy in the 1930s, were designed specifically for synchronizing the seconds hand on the watch to a signal emitted by radio. This was a system that predated hacking and played an important role in aeronautical navigation.

Image courtesy of Ebay seller Latriaz.

These watches featured a distinctive metal bezel and two crowns, the lower of which controlled the movement normally, and the upper of which was simply a screw-down device that locked the rotating bezel in place, indicating where the seconds hand lined up with the radio signal. Most of these piece were built by Longines and cased by Keystone in the U.S.; however, during WWII, the “Weems” concept was licensed to Omega and about 2,000 watches were made for issue to RAF personnel through the Goldmsiths & Silversmiths Company. JLC also made a version of this watch, cased by Samuel Smith & Sons.

Perhaps the most iconic British-issued wristwatch of the War was, however, the W.W.W. (Wrist Watch Waterproof), commonly referred to as the “Dirty Dozen” watch after the famous 1960s war movie and in reference to the fact that 12 Swiss firms produced these watches under contract to the M.O.D. While there was some leniency in the particulars of the spec, the watches had to feature several things in common, such as a black dial with Arabic numerals, luminous minute and hour hands, a shatterproof crystal, a railroad minute track, and a 15-jewel movement. Some cases were stainless steel and some were chrome, and the handsets differ, though all were sub-seconds models featuring case diameters between 35 and 38 millimeters.

“DIRTY DOZEN”; PHOTO CREDIT: USER SIEWMING, MALAYSIA WATCH FORUM

Each manufacturer delivered as many watches to the M.O.D. as production would allow, though this was significantly more watches for smaller firms and more from the likes of Omega, Cyma, and Record. The W.W.W. watches were intended for “general service,” though in practice it seems they were issued to radio operators, artillery officers, etc, rather than the typical infantryman.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Great Britain installment, in which we examine British-issued military watches from the post-WWII era through the Vietnam War era.

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Oren Hartov is a NYC-based musician and writer whose work has appeared in SHIFTed Magazine, Special Operations Report and K-9 Cop Magazine. He enjoys watches, history, archaeology, militaria, SCUBA, and just about anything that goes “BANG.”
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