To say that it was quite an ambitious undertaking would be an understatement. In the early 2000s, brothers Nick and Giles English sought to bring the construction of luxury timepieces back to Great Britain. In 1800, half of the world’s watches, about 200,000 pieces, were built by British watchmakers. A century later, Switzerland and the United States had reduced that number significantly as they began to mass-manufacture timepieces. Then came the World Wars when several British watchmakers put their time and talents into making armaments for the war effort.

The Original Dirty Dozen

Examples of watches from the 12 manufacturers commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence to make watches for their troops during World War II. Screenshot from YouTube and HobbyOfHours

At the start of World War II, the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) realized their troops required reliable, practical timepieces to help them accomplish their mission of defeating Nazi Germany. The MoD ordered what they considered to be “the perfect soldier’s watch.” They were required to have the following characteristics:

  • Black dial with Arabic numerals
  • Luminous hour and minute hands, as well as indices
  • Small second hand at the 6 o’clock position
  • Hand-wound movement with 15 jewels
  • Precision movements (regulated to chronometer standards, if possible)
  • Shatterproof plexiglass crystal and shock-resistant case
  • Water-resistant crown of a large size
  • Waterproof to the standards of the era

The military code for these watches was W.W.W., which meant “Watch, Wristlet, Waterproof,” and each timepiece was to be engraved with those letters on the case back. The MoD also required that all of these military watches be engraved in three places with a Broad Arrow. This denotes that the piece is the property of the British Crown.

Although they were termed “General Service,” each soldier was not issued a watch. Instead, these were reserved for distribution to special units or those with particular tasks, such as artillery, staff members, or the Communications Corps. As noted above, British watchmakers were busy making weaponry and equipment for the war effort, so requisition officers farmed the watchmaking duties to the neutral Swiss. Twelve companies, as illustrated above, were chosen (Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor, and Vertex.)