Ever since you were a kid, you always admired your grandfather’s Longines 6B/159. It was a gift to him from a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II, and he rarely took it off his wrist while he was alive. He said it reminded him of some good moments in what was otherwise a very dark time.
While your grandad’s watch may not have all the bells and whistles of today’s timepieces, it shares the same exceptional craftsmanship of some of today’s most prominent names in watches, including Longines, Omega, Rolex, IWC, Panerai, and A. Lange & Sӧhne.
Both the Allies and Axis forces benefitted from some incredible watchmaker collaborations during the war years and some excellent individual contributions. As watch repair experts, getting to work on one of these vintage pieces is a real honor. Below are a few of our favorites.
Rolex 3525 “Prisoner of War”
After the Battle of Britain in 1940, Royal Air Force pilots increasingly turned away from their standard-issue watches to the Rolex, as its face was bigger and easier to see in a glance. Popular models included the Oyster Perpetual and the Air line of watches, created to honor the RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain (Air Tiger, Air Giant, Air Lion, and Air King).
One of the founders of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf, was a staunch supporter of Britain and the Allies, despite his German heritage. When he heard that German POW camp leaders were taking the airmen’s watches as they arrived, he set in motion a campaign to replace their timepieces at no immediate cost. Referred to as the “Buy Now, Pay Whenever” program, prisoners (usually officers) could get a new Rolex from Wilsdorf through the Red Cross mail system, and the bill wouldn’t come until after the war was over.
The campaign turned out to be marketing genius, as Rolex was able to test its watches in combat and bolster the troops at the same time. Not having to pay until after the war sent a clear message that Rolex was betting its future profits on the fact the war would soon end and the Allies would win. Sure enough, it paid off. Most pilots settled their accounts immediately after the war, ensuring the watch giant didn’t lose its investment. American forces also took a shine to the watches worn by their British counterparts, opening a brand new market for Rolex.
Interestingly enough, one of the prisoners who wrote to Wilsdorf for a new watch was Corporal Clive James Nutting of Britain’s Royal Corps of Signals. He served as a cobbler in Stalag Luft III and helped organize the famous “Great Escape” of 76 prisoners in March 1944. It’s rumored that Nutting may have used the Chrono function of the 3525 Chronograph Oyster he ordered from Wilsdorf to calculate the frequency of the camp’s guard patrols.
Lt. Cmdr. Philip van Horn Weems invented his Second-Setting watch in 1929. The watch, produced by Longines, featured a first-of-its-kind rotatable seconds bezel and lock crown and was uniquely designed for aeronautical astronavigation. The U.S. Army Air Corps used Weems’ Second-Setting design to create the first “hack” watch under the “A-11” moniker in 1940, and the RAF designed its version with similar specifications a year later, known as the 6B/159. The watch allowed aviators to pull the crown and stop or “hack” the second hand at the 12 o’clock position, synchronizing their missions to the second.
The A-11, “The Watch that Won the War”
As the war progressed and the United States increased its involvement, the U.S. military realized operational success on land, sea, and air would require accurate navigational tools. Cue the new A-11.
Not to be confused with the white-dialed Longines Weems A-11, this new A-11 “hack” watch sported a signature black dial with white Arabic numerals and was small (only 31mm in diameter) and unassuming. The newly re-named U.S. Army Air Force tapped watchmakers Elgin, Waltham, and Bulova to mass-produce the A-11 in 1941.
Known as “the watch that won the war,” the A-11 became a fixture on the wrist of almost every U.S. infantryman and many of the Allied forces, too. The RAF introduced their updated version of the A-11 in 1942, under the series designator 6B/234. Today, Bulova is the only watchmaker of the original three still in business, and it offers collectors a modern version of the Hack Watch in its new Military Collection.
Beobachtungsuhren, translated as observation watches, were the German Luftwaffe’s answer to the American and British navigation hack watches. At 55mm in diameter, the B-Uhr face was large and easily legible and featured a large onion- or diamond-shaped crown that could be wound or adjusted with gloved fingers. The watch also had an extra-long strap to fit securely over a thick leather flight jacket.
B-Uhren came in two models: Type A and Type B. Both had the recognizable black dial, white Arabic numerals, luminous sword-hands, and an upwards orientation triangle located at the 12 o’clock position. While Type A only featured a face with hour markers, Type B, created in 1941, added an outer ring for minutes and seconds.
Five watch companies – four German and one Swiss – combined to manufacture the B-Uhr exclusively for the Luftwaffe: Germany’s A. Lange & Söhne, Wempe, Lacher & Company/Durowe (Laco), Walter Storz (Stowa), and Switzerland’s IWC. In true Swiss fashion, IWC made watches for both the Allied and Axis powers.
Tested and regulated to the highest chronometer standards, the B-Uhr was quite a fantastic watch and an effective tool in ensuring the accuracy of German bombers. As such, it was so prized that navigators could only keep the watch for the duration of the mission, after which they were required to turn it back into the Luftwaffe.
As is often the case, necessity is the mother of invention, and World War II certainly presented challenges that needed to be addressed immediately with new technologies. Spectacular watches such as those mentioned above played a crucial role in the war effort on both sides and today are valuable collector’s pieces. If you are lucky enough to own one, consider taking it to a professional watch repair shop for any restorative work. Our Swiss-trained technicians will treat your timepiece with the respect and care it deserves as both an item of great personal value and as a piece of history.