Style Watches

Soldiers of time: A brief history of military wristwatches

Combat-ready timepieces go waaaay back.
Alvin Uy | Oct 31 2018

While there is no definitive history on how wristwatches were invented, it's believed to have begun at the start of the 180os when a German officer strapped a small pocket watch to his wrist with a leather webbed cup to support it. The re-purposed pocket watch offered the wearer more mobility and use of both hands. Girard-Perregaux was thought to be the first watch maker to offer mass-produced quantities of wristwatches to be used by the officers of the German Navy.

These timepieces had square, metal mesh protectors over the glass case surrounding the dial. The first and second world wars hastened the improvement of the military wristwatch. A wide variety of watches were designed for use in diving and aviation, due to their accuracy and their ability to determine longitude. Rolex, Doxa, Fortis, Gruen, Zenith and Elgin were among the first brands to provide watches for military use during the First World War.

By the time the second big war came along, military wristwatches were sporting easy-to-read dials including, in some models, luminous digits. Most featured Arabic rather than Roman numerals and had movements that withstood shock, dirt, and moisture. Breitling, Breguet, Omega, IWC, and Hamilton are among the names that have a history of making military watches. Today, vintage pieces as well as some of the newer military-style models are sought after by collectors, especially if a particular watch model has been used in a certain conflict or has a specialty Inn 111 application.

The Girard-Perregaux watch for the German navy

Some notable military watch brands

Omega produced wristwatches for British Royal Flying Corps, as well as for communications troops in the US Army during World War I. These featured white enamel dials, Arabic numerals, radium skeleton hands, and came in either silver or chrome-plated metal cases. Some had metal mesh protectors similar to the Girard-Perregaux designs using tempered-steel grids over the watch face to protect it from mechanical damage. Breitling was also another supplier to the British forces. In 1923, it developed the first chronograph with an independent push-piece, making start and return-to-zero functions known as the flyback feature simpler and more intuitive.

The addition of a second return-to-zero push-piece improved the functionality for aviators. Breitling became the official supplier for the British Royal Air Force in 1936. It is often thought that Breguet's XX Chronograph was the first to feature the flyback. The XX nomenclature was named in sequence with the legendary Breguet XIX airplane and the watch introduced in 1954 as a specialty timepiece for pilots of the French Air Force. Louis Breguet, the great-great grandson of the original Abraham-Louis Breguet (the watch brand's namesake), created the Breguet XIX plane, which made history in 1922 as the first plane to make it non-stop from Paris to New York.

Breguet’s Type XX Chronograph

In 1942, Breitling introduced the Chronomat as the first chronograph wristwatch fitted with a circular slide rule on the bezel. After the war, these watches became very popular with the public and nowadays, vintage Chronomats are considered highly collectible. In the early 1900s, the three men who formed Jaeger-LeCoultre began creating instruments intended for the aviation and automobile pioneers of industry. They were Jacques-David LeCoultre (grandson of founder Antoine LeCoultre), Edmond Jaeger, and Edmond Audemars. Audemars was the first pilot to have flown from Paris to Berlin and set a new record for a high-altitude flight at 6,120 meters.

International Watch Company (IWC).

Their instruments were manufactured mostly in the Swiss Vallée de Joux and carried the Jaeger nameplate. Its instruments, chronographs, 8-day watches, automatic pilots and goniometers are standard equipment on Allied planes during World War I and are being used on some of the most prestigious post-war cars of that era. Jaeger-LeCoultre's legendary Mark 11 watch was the original pilot's watch made to the strict 6B/346 specification by the British Military of Defense and issued to navigators in the Royal Air Force and later in the Royal Australian Air Force. Aside from Jaeger-LeCoultre, International Watch Company (IWC) was the other watchmaker that was also commissioned to produce the Mark 11. Although both watches appear very similar, they had some slight differences in details. IWC continued to produce updated versions of the Mark series and has enjoyed a cult following on this collection.

IWC’s iconic Big Pilot’s Watch from the 1940s.

During the 1930s, IWC made the first watch with antimagnetic mechanism especially designed for aviators. In 1940, the Big Pilot’s watch marked another important milestone for IWC. IWC developed the Big Pilot’s Watch 52 T. S. C. with a central seconds hand. It was about the same time IWC timepieces were engraved on the back of the case with W. W. W., which stood for “Watch, Wrist, Waterproof” with the royal arrowhead insignia used as a mark of ownership. In 1948, IWC’s Mark 11 used the same antimagnetic case armoring that would be used by the Ingenieur and in many IWC models today.

The legendary Rolex Submariner is still the benchmark for military dive watches.

In the Cold War era, watchmakers continued to supply the military with high quality timepieces. One of the most collectible and notable vintage military wristwatches from the 1970s is the Rolex 5517 Submariner, which was made for the British Royal Navy. Only about 1,200 of these watches were produced and to date, perhaps only a few hundred pieces would have survived. The letter “T” on the dial indicated the presence of a luminous isotope of hydrogen called tritium, which was used to illuminate the wristwatch’s sword-shaped hands.

Panerai has also been enjoying a cult following for over a decade now. Since production volumes are low and vintage pieces are hard to find, it has driven up the prices of pre-owned watches. In 1916, Guido Panerai registered the first of many patents to secure Panerai's place in watch-making history. Panerai created the Radiomir to meet the tough requirements of the Royal Italian Navy, using a radium-based powder for making sighting instruments. Later on, he used the Radiomir to make the dials of his watches luminous under low lighting conditions.

The Panerai Radiomir used by Italian Navy commandos in World War Two.

By 1936, a prototype of the Radiomir watch was created for underwater use by the Command of the First Submarine Corp, with many of the features that still appear in today's Panerai watches—a large steel cushion-shaped case (47 mm), luminous and highly readable numerals and markers, wire loop strap attachments welded to the case, and a reliable hand-wound mechanical movement. Other features include a wide, water-resistant strap, long enough to be fastened over the diving suit.

 

This article first appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 6 2012.