Military Watches of the World: “The Dirty Dozen”

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The attraction of the vintage tool watch for many is that these were timepieces built to do a specific job as accurately as possible, and, as such, form almost always followed its utilitarian function. Military wristwatches, of course, often took this idea to the extreme, with nothing extraneous added, and nothing essential left out of the design.

During World War II, the British imported Swiss wristwatches and issued them under the A.T.P. moniker (Army Trade Pattern); most of these were 29–33-millimeter chrome or steel-cased watches with white or silver dials, luminous pips or baton indices, running central or sub-seconds, and 15-jewel movements with snap or screw back cases. However, the MoD eventually decided that these watches, which were essentially civilian models with military dials and spec/issue numbers, weren’t cutting it in the field, and they drew up a specification for a new wristwatch designed to fit the particular needs of Her Majesty’s Government—an ideal military watch where, yes, form followed function.

No, not that The Dirty Dozen.

The new spec resulted in the W.W.W., the acronym for Wrist, Watch, Waterproof, but the watches themselves have become known colloquially as “The Dirty Dozen,” both as a reference to the famous 1967 war film, and because the timepieces were produced by a total of 12 Swiss firms. Because the watches weren’t delivered until between May and December of 1945, it is unlikely that any saw any wartime use in Europe during WWII (V-E Day was May 8, 1945), but the watches remained in circulation for some years afterward, and, as you will read below, some were even reissued to other militaries.

Because the 12 contracted firms each differed in size and production capabilities, each company simply delivered as many watches as it was capable of producing, with roughly 150,000 watches delivered in total.

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The new W.W.W. spec called for a watch between 35 and 38 millimeters in diameter (not including the crown); a black dial with luminous hour markers, hands and railroad minute track; a 15-jewel movement between 11.75 and 13 lignes in size; a shatterproof crystal; and a chrome or stainless steel case. The watches were to be waterproof, and movements were to be of chronometer grade. Case backs (all screw-back with the exception of the IWC, which had a snap-back) were engraved with the Broad Arrow (mark of HM Government’s property), “W.W.W,” and two numbers: one was the manufacturer’s unique identifying number, and the second, beginning with a letter, was the military store number.

A complete collection. Photo credit: user Siewming via Malaysia Watch Forum.

Because the 12 contracted firms each differed in size and production capabilities, each company simply delivered as many watches as it was capable of producing, with roughly 150,000 watches delivered in total. The 12 delivering companies were as follows: Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, IWC, Jaeger LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, Omega, Record, Timor, and Vertex. Enicar may have originally been contracted to manufacture the watches as well, but as none have surfaced and record keeping from the time was poor, we may never know the details of this arrangement.

Case back on a Longines W.W.W.; image via A Collected Man.

The W.W.W. was designated a “general service” wristwatch, but in practice it seems to have been issued to what an American serviceman might pejoratively term a “pogue”: Persons Other than Grunts, or Person Of Greater Use Elsewhere—i.e. artillery officers, signals personnel, etc.—anyone but a standard infantryman. There are no firm records on who was issued the W.W.W. watch and why, and with WWII having just about drawn to a close by the time the watches came out of production, the point, in any case, seems moot.

. . . over the years many non-original parts found their way into these watches. . . . All of this, of course, makes for a highly interesting collector’s market.

However, despite the end of the War in Europe, armed men were very much still interested in killing one another in conflicts around the world after 1945, and some Dirty Dozen watches were later renumbered and sold to Commonwealth and other armies. The K.N.I.L. (Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger, or Royal Netherlands East Indies Army)—in conflict with the local Indonesian resistance movement which had just declared independence—eventually secured some of the W.W.W. watches from the British. Some of these then, in turn, ended up in the hands of their enemies, the A.D.R.I. (Army of the Republic of Indonesia), who crossed out the K.N.I.L. markings and added their own.

Note the roughly scratched off K.N.I.L. markings and the A.D.R.I. engraving at the bottom of the case back. Image vi A Collected Man.
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Servicing the W.W.W. watches was the purview of the R.E.M.E. (Royal Electric & Mechanical Engineers), whose responsibility was to ensure that watches were working and up to spec. What this meant in practice is that over the years many non-original parts found their way into these watches. Eventually, original radium dials were swapped for tritium or promethium variants, of which there are several varieties. Some of these updated dials were copies of the original with the manufacturer’s name and pheon (broad arrow), but lumed in promethium or radium. Some were MoD dials featuring the pheon and a five-digit number representing the individual manufacturer of the particular watch. Others were NATO dials featuring the pheon, circle “T” for tritium, and a NATO stock number and manufacturer code. And to complicate matters even further, occasionally certain other slight variations come to light that may well still constitute a legitimate W.W.W. dial variant. All of this, of course, makes for a highly interesting collector’s market.

Because of the disparity in production numbers from some of the smaller brands to some of the larger, it may come as a surprise to learn which of the twelve are the most valuable today. The Omega variant, for instance, features a 35-millimeter stainless steel case and the venerable 30T movement, but because roughly 25,000 were produced, one can be had for a relative bargain (at present, generally between $2,000 and $3,000, depending on condition).

Cyma W.W.W.

There’s nothing quite like wearing one on one’s wrist, and wondering where it’s been, and what it’s seen.

Cyma, a brand unknown to many modern enthusiasts, built a W.W.W. variant that features a modern 37-millimeter stainless steel case and a caliber 234 manufacture movement, making it a prime candidate for someone seeking out an issued military piece that is also highly wearable by today’s standards. Again, however, because production numbers were fairly high, at around 20,000 pieces, these can generally be had for between $1,000 and $2,000.

But the Grana model, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Only 1,000-5,000 of this variant were manufactured, making this 35-millimeter stainless steel watch with an in-house KF320 caliber worth about $15,000 on today’s market!

Grana; image via ssongwatches.

Today, there are numerous watchmaking firms producing modern interpretations of these great watches, or are producing watches that take design cues from this era and are reminiscent of the original (IWC, Longines, and Bell & Ross come to mind). Vertex has even been revived by the great-grandson of the original founder and is producing a modern version of their W.W.W. watch.

There is, however, something special about an original W.W.W., whether it was produced by a smaller firm like Vertex, or a larger one like Omega or I.W.C. These were precision-built instruments meant to do one thing—and to do it accurately under adverse conditions. There’s nothing quite like wearing one on one’s wrist and wondering where it’s been and what it’s seen.

Featured image photo credit: user Siewming via Malaysia Watch Forum.

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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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