Military Watches of the World: Israel Pt. I

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In this installment of Military Watches of the World, we travel to the Middle East to examine the timepieces of the Israel Defense Forces. Header image credit: Phillips. 

Modern Israel was established during a war that followed a declaration of independence in May, 1948 and lasted over nine months, but that had been raging in one way or another, clandestinely or overtly, for several decades. The country’s military, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), was established officially that same year as a consolidation of the pre-war paramilitary Haganah (the “defense”) and the Irgun and Lehi militant groups. 

The IDF evolved quickly following its victory in 1948, establishing a dedicated paratrooper brigade, a highly capable air force, and numerous special operations units. The country, like many in the post-War 20th century, had no native wristwatch industry, and most soldiers — as is the case today — simply purchased their own watches with personal funds. However, there were indeed instances in which special units received issued watches, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s when the IDF’s operational tempo was at its peak fighting both conventional and shadow wars.

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Pilot’s Watches: 1950s – 1990s

The earliest documented, IDF-issued timepiece currently known to the watch community is a Longines ref. 5824 dating from 1958. Housed in an oversized, 47mm stainless steel case with a single pusher at 2 o’clock and a large onion crown at 3 o’clock, the 5824 features an unusual dial and an unusual movement.

A concave, rotating count-up bezel with 60-minute gradations surrounds a black dial with an outer 1/5th-seconds track, an inner railroad minute track, large Arabic numerals, and a sub-seconds counter at 6 o’clock. Two sword hands are accompanied by two seconds hands: one in white, and one in red.

Credit: Phillips

This abundance of hands is explained by the presence of the Longines cal. 12.68Z movement, a successor to the famed 13ZN, which is lauded by many as one of the finest chronograph movements ever created. The cal. 12.68Z features both a flyback mechanism and a central chronograph counter (lending the watch the nickname “Stopseconde”) — when the pusher at 2 o’clock is lightly depressed, it stops the chronograph, whereas pressing it fully resets the chronograph.

Flipping the watch over reveals a small but significant case back inscription: the Hebrew letters chet and aleph, for cheil avir, or air force, and a three-digit issue number. Akiva Gothelf, an Israeli watch dealer based in Tel Aviv and collector of IDF watches, noted that he has seen examples of these watches whose case backs have additionally been adorned with a pilot’s name, and even the names of wars and operations in which he served.

The next known issued pilot’s watch is not a chronograph, but rather a dive watch — the famed Seamaster 300, which were in use throughout the 1960s. This is a 40mm, stainless steel dive watch carrying reference number ST165-024 and featuring a 40mm, “twisted lug” case, a black dial with sword hands and tritium lume, an acrylic crystal and the automatic Omega cal. 552 movement. An extract from Omega’s archives confirms this watch’s IDF provenance. 

Credit: Bachmann & Scher

Gothelf shared a fascinating story regarding a date-equipped version of one of these Seamaster 300s on his Instagram page: Navigator Aaron (Ara’le) Katz was shot down by a Syrian rocket on July 24, 1982 during the First Lebanon War, while pilot Gil Vogel fell into captivity. Katz’s watch remained in Syria for years, until the Mossad obtained and returned it to his family in 2015, 33 years after the end of the war. Gothelf noted that most of the Omega Seamasters he has confirmed as IDF issue have been date models with black date wheels, rather than the aforementioned dateless variant. 

Later, in the 1970s, Omega Seamaster 120s were also in use by the air force. (One example, delivered in late June of 1973 to the IDF, sold at a Phillips auction in 2018. Given the watch’s delivery date, it’s almost certain that it saw service during the Yom Kippur War of October, 1973.) These watches feature 39mm stainless steel cases, black dials with black, quickset date wheels, sword hands with tritium lume, large, wedge-shaped tritium hour indices, fully graduated, bi-directional Bakelite count-up bezels, and 120 meters of water resistance. They’re powered by the automatic Omega cal. 565 movement with 24 jewels.  

Credit: Phillips

In the 1990s, it seems that the air force switched over to inexpensive quartz watches produced by native Israeli watchmaker Adi, which was established in 1984 on Kibbutz Kvuzat Yavneh. (More on this company later on.)

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Naval Watches

Much of the history of IDF dive watches is linked to Shayetet 13 (“flotilla 13”) — Israel’s rough equivalent to the U.S. SEAL teams or Great Britain’s Special Boat Service. Founded during the Independence War of 1948, it quickly rose to prominence as one of the world’s most elite special operations units, executing missions both domestically and internationally. It’s notable that the IDF, which was squeezed for funds through much of its existence and reliant upon homegrown ingenuity, foreign weaponry and aid from allies, didn’t hesitate to equip its most elite naval commandos with some of the best dive watches available in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Credit: IDF

However, Shayetet 13 is not the only Shayetet — the word simply means “flotilla,” and there are several IDF naval units that take this moniker and have different numerical designations. Watches have been issued not only to Shayetet 13 commandos, but to Shayetet 7 submariners, for example. (Shayetet 7 is the unit responsible for operation of the IDF’s submarine fleet.) Confusion arises concerning the watches issued to these different units due to several factors:

There are two numbering systems that were in use for Shayetet-issued watches: one utilized the English letter “M” followed by three or four digits and is considered a “sterile” numbering system (i.e. one in which it would be difficult to identify the watch as IDF-issued kit), and another that used the following system: the case back was adorned with the Hebrew letter tzadi, which adorns most IDF-issued kit and stands for the tzava (“army”) in tzava haganah l’Yisrael (“army for the defense of Israel,” or IDF), plus a 6-digit serial number after which follows what appears to be a Hebrew nun; then mem, samech, kuf, tet (an abbreviation of mispar catalog, or “catalog number”) followed by an eight-digit serial. 

There has been speculation as to why both of these systems would be in use for watches that were all supposedly issued to commandos of Shayetet 13, especially considering that the latter system is most certainly not “sterile.” However, it may be that only the sterile watches were indeed issued to Shayetet 13, whereas the non-sterile variety were issued to other Shayetet units — which would explain away the possibility of commandos utilizing equipment that could positively identify them as being Israeli.

However, this doesn’t explain why examples of the cushion-cased Kon-Tiki Super, known to have been issued to Shayetet 13 operators, would turn up in certain cases with non-sterile case backs. Gothelf, who has studied these watches extensively for 20 years, has his own theory: Shayetet 13 is an incredibly small, elite unit — only 20 or so individuals would finish the unit’s maslul (training course) per year back in the 1960s and 1970s. The IDF might have purchased in any given year, however, a larger batch of watches from Eterna and have had need of them in other units. In this case, Shayetet 7, for example, might have received some of this stock and issued the watches to its sailors with the non-sterile numbering system. 

For this reason, it’s possible that a watch — even a cushion-cased Kon Tiki Super from the 1970s, famed for their association with S13 — that features non-sterile case back markings may have been issued to other Shayetet units, rather than Shayetet 13. More on this shortly.

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Dive Watches: 1960s

The earliest watches the author has discovered featuring the IDF’s “sterile” numbering system (an “M” followed by three or four digits) are Tudor Submariners issued to Shayetet 13 dating from 1963 or 1964 — mostly reference 7928s. 

Credit: Davidoff Brothers

The 7928s in question feature the classic mid-century, 40mm, stainless steel Submariner case manufactured by Rolex, a black gilt dial, tritium lume, a bidirectional dive bezel, an acrylic crystal and the automatic Fleuerier cal. 390 movement. The case backs of these watches are identified as IDF issue by the letter “M” followed by a three or four-digit issue number (not to be confused with the watch’s case or movement serial number) as well as an interesting secondary feature: impressions cut into the case back for use with a conventional case back removal tool. As Rolex uses a proprietary system for case back opening and closing, it’s of little surprise — and indeed, very Israeli — that the Israelis would simply modify their watches for use with standard case back wrenches. (After all, we’re talking about a country that buys brand-new F-35s and immediately modifies the avionics with custom systems of its own design.) 

Another interesting point to note is a theory concerning why many of these watches are today in such poor condition. Gothelf has posited that because Shayetet 13 commandos used to train in the Kishon River near Haifa — which for years was the most heavily polluted river in Israel and laden with heavy metals and other contaminants — it may be that the watches from this period suffered as well.

Also issued in the late 1960s were at least two variants of the Eterna Kon-Tiki Super in non-cushion cases. The references 130PTX-3 and 130FDP are both known, though their issue details are again scarce. The 130PTX-3, manufactured in 1965 and featuring a 40mm stainless steel case, black dial with date, sword hands with tritium lume and aluminum dive bezel, features non-sterile case back marking, likely indicating issue to a Shayetet other than S13. Given the watch’s production date, it’s possible that it saw service during the Six Day War of 1967.

Credit: Bachmann & Scher

The ref. 130FDP is perhaps more interesting, and more historically significant: Featuring a 40mm case not all too dissimilar to that of the contemporary Omega Seamaster 300, this particular example bears a case back marking that differentiates it from its brethren: it reads “B’hukrah Shayetet 7” and features an “M” plus a 3-digit serial. B’hukrah means roughly “in appreciation of,” and often adorns gear donated to soldiers in a particular unit by an organization outside the army. (For example, there’s an organization that exists to support soldiers of the Paratrooper Brigade, and will often donate a large order of workout gear to every soldier within a particular draft to that brigade, though it doesn’t exist within the formal framework of the army. This gear will often bear the word B’hukrah.) 

Credit: Bachmann & Scher

IDF-issued watches were largely only issued to members of special units whose operatives underwent a long maslul — commandos, submariners, pilots, etc. There is some speculation as to whether these watches were given to these men, or merely issued and expected to be returned. (The fact that veteran operators in their 60s and 70s can still be seen in Israel with their old watches on their wrists means that many of them simply kept the watches, in any case.) The aforementioned Eterna watch may provide something of a clue:

Conceivably, these Eterna watches might have been purchased by an organization outside the confines of the IDF and gifted to these soldiers in appreciation of their service upon finishing their maslul. However, the watch in question also features the “sterile” M-plus-serial-number configuration. In this case, these watches may in fact have been purchased for the unit, “in appreciation,” but then stamped with serial numbers for easy tracking and expected to be returned upon a soldier’s discharge. (Alternatively, these watches may have been gifted to individual soldiers, and the serial numbers were merely used as an additional piece of identification — even issued personal kit that is not expected to be returned is often adorned with serial numbers.) 

Credit: IDF

So why was a watch adorned with marks clearly identifying it as Israeli equipment also given a “sterile” number? There may be a very simple explanation: the “B’hukrah Shayetet 7” inscription takes up the top half of the case back, leaving little room for the full, “non-sterile” inscription system to be used. 

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Check back soon for Pt. II of this article, which will delve further into dive watches, chronographs, and modern IDF watches. 

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.
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