Though the move from pocket watch to wristwatch was accelerated by First World War, it was really during the Second World War that the idea of a dedicated watch for military use came into its own. Developments in Italy just prior to the breakout of hostilities led to the military dive watch, while the Germans advanced the design of the aviator's watch and the Americans mass-produced infantrymen's timepieces on an incredible scale. Of course, it was ultimately the Swiss whose neutrality during the war aided their ascendancy to global horological domination, a position they still enjoy today.
Here are some of the most notable military watches developed and used during the Second World War by countries around the world.
Housed in a positively diminutive (by today's standards, anyway) 30-32mm case, the A-11 was manufactured by famed American watch companies Elgin, Waltham and Bulova according to a standard from the U.S. military. Mostly produced with black dials, white Arabic numerals and hands and 60-minute gradations, so many were made that the A-11 is sometimes referred to as "the watch that won that War." Rarer white-dialed versions are sometimes seen, as well as examples issued to Commonwealth forces under the "6B" designation.
Produced by Omega, Longines and Jaeger-LeCoultre for use by RAF pilots and navigators, these watches featured white or black dials, Arabic numerals, central seconds, non-luminous, blue steeled hands and cases fashioned from "Duralumin" — an alloy of aluminum, copper, magnesium and manganese — that were fitted with steel backs. Interestingly, in the mid-1950s, the Ministry of Defense re-cased some of the old Omega 30 T2 SC movements from the Omega variants in new, stainless steel cases and provided them new dials.
The Wrist. Watch. Waterproof. (The "Dirty Dozen")
Produced under contract to the British MoD, 150,000 of these watches were delivered to replace the various timepieces given the Army Trade Pattern designation. Contracted to 12 watch different companies — some of them big names in Swiss horology — they were delivered in late 1945, too late to see combat. Nonetheless, the Wrist. Watch. Waterproof. watches (which were only given their cinematic nickname by modern collectors much later) were built to high standards, with mechanical movements regulated to chronometer accuracy. Enough were produced that they can still be purchased today for a few thousand dollars.
Though often overlooked, the A.T.P. ("Army Trade Pattern") watches, in addition to 6B/159 and certain other timepieces, were the true workhorses of British forces during WWII, not the more famous "Dirty Dozen." These were watches produced by close to two-dozen Swiss manufacturers that all shared a similar feature set: 29-33mm chrome-plated or steel cases, a 15-jewel, manually wound movements, white or silver dials with luminous pip or baton indices and hands and central or sub-seconds. Produced in enormous quantities, they're readily available on the secondary market today.
Watches are still produced today by myriad companies that take inspiration from this military classic. The Beobachtungsuhr (“observation watch”) was designed under specification from the German Luftfahrtministerium (air ministry) and manufactured by five companies: IWC, A. Lange & Söhne, Wempe, Lacher & Company/Durowe (Laco), and Walter Storz (Stowa). Two dial types, the A and B, were produced with slightly different layouts, and all were fitted into oversized, 55mm cases and were powered by handwound movements. The dial layouts, large onion crowns and utilitarian, no-nonsense looks of these watches has made them legendary in horological and military equipment circles.
Though originally developed in the 1930s by Lieutenant Commander Philip Van Horn Weems of the U.S. Navy and produced by Longines, the "Weems" navigation watch concept was later licensed to Omega, which produced roughly 2,000 pieces for use by RAF personnel. (Jaeger LeCoultre also produced their own version). These unique watches, though small in diameter (roughly 33.5mm) featured a novel screw-down bezel that was used to synch the watch to a radio signal for navigational accuracy. Confusingly, they were also given the 6B/159 designation.
The Canteen Watch
The "Canteen Watch" was produced by Hamilton and Elgin for the U.S. Bureau of Ships and issued to Underwater Demolition Teams personnel, whose job it was to clear harbors of obstructions and ordnance and to gather intelligence ahead of beach landings. They utilized manually-wound, central-seconds movements and featured a unique twist: a special screw-on cover over the crown connected to the watch case by a chain. This, in combination with a crystal that was soldered onto the case, was designed to prevent water incursion — an early, American attempt at a dedicated military dive watch.
The Panerai Radiomir
Panerai's first Radiomir watches were developed in 1936, produced in a run of 10 pieces in 1938 and improved upon in 1940 with reinforced lugs. Featuring oversized cases with luminous "sandwich" dials illuminated by a radium compound, they were powered by, at first, the Rolex cal. 816 (a decorated Cortebert movement), and later, by the Angelus cal. 240, an 8-day movement. These early Radiomirs saw service by the Italian Marina Militaire, and especially by the Decima Flottiglia MAS, an elite naval special operations unit that utilized manned torpedoes to attack Allied shipping and military forces.
Produced by Hanhart and Tutima in single and dual-pusher versions from 1939 and 1941, respectively, these aviation chronographs were earmarked for Luftwaffe personnel. Utilizing the cal. 41 from Hanhart, cal. 59 by Tutima (both dual-pusher designs) or the cal. 40 from Hanhart (single-pusher design), they featured nickel-plated brass cases, black dials with white Arabic numerals, central flyback seconds hands, 30-minute and running seconds counters and knurled rotating or smooth fixed bezels. A well-known, recognizable variant had a red-coated chronograph pusher, a design that's still present in the modern Hanhart collection.
The Seikosha Tensoku
Seikosha, part of the Seiko group, produced different watches and clocks in the 1930s and 1940s for the Japanese military. The Tensoku (an abbreviation of tentai kansoku, meaning "astronomical observation") was produced for pilots of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the aircraft infamous for its role in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Roughly analogous to Germany's Beobachtungs-uhren, they featured oversized 48.5mm cases, manually wound movements, large onion crowns, Arabic numerical indices and coin-edge bezels.