A Brief Guide to the Iconic Military Watches of World War II

Posted by Mike Johnson on in Articles, Collector's Guides

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What is it about military watches that inspires such passion?

Is it the deep history and brutal conflict these little machines have endured? Or maybe it’s the incredible amount of human ingenuity that goes into making such a durable and reliable tool?

Whatever it is, our love for military time-pieces run deep, and to understand modern tool watches it’s important to look closely at the pioneering references that have informed the style, function, and history of the watches we wear everyday.

In this article we’ll explore some of the most iconic military wrist-watches of World War II, how they were used, and their inspiration for modern day watches, looking at important military pieces on both sides of the Allied and Axis forces.

WW2 Military Watch Visual Reference Guide

visual_reference_iconA handy three-page visual reference guide containing photos of dials and movements for 16 popular and collectible vintage WW2 watches from the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan.

Download PDF

america The American A-11

Size: 32mm – 36mm
Date Produced: 1940 – 1949
Forces Supplied: USAAF, Royal Canadian Air Force, The Royal Airforce, Soviet Air Force
Manufacturers: Elgin, Bulova, Waltham, Hamilton
Buy Online: Find Authentic Originals on Ebay
US Army training in Maryland during WW2

US Army training in Maryland during WW2

The A-11 Military Spec was one of the most commonly issued watches types supplied to Allied forces during WWII. The A-11 is not a particular model per-se, but instead a production standard that was implemented by the major American watch manufacturers during the period in several different variations.

Those companies were called Elgin, Bulova, and Waltham, and millions of their timepieces were issues to Allied Air Force and Army personnel during the start of the war. These watches were not only highly valued personal items for soldiers, pilots, sailors, engineers, and officers, but quickly become crucial equipment to complete mission critical tasks.

Vintage Bulova A11

Vintage Bulova A11

Needing to survive rough conditions on the battlefield, the A-11 military spec required these pieces to be produced to rigorous standards: dust and waterproof casing, extreme temperature resistance, and a robust movements with accuracy requirements of +/- 30 seconds per day and a 30 – 56 hour power reserve. Military watches produced today are still held to this same high standard of production.

The American A-11 is widely referenced as the “watch that won the war”, enabling Allied forces to systematically drive back the German troops in Europe both in the air and on the ground with precision and accuracy.

For collectors, these types of watches are fairly common, and decent examples can typically be acquired online for around $500 to $1000 dollars. Just be weary of purchasing watches based on photographs only, many of these watches have had parts replaced on the field and may not be completely original.

Modern Homages

  • Longines Heritage 1938

    Longines Heritage 1938
    n/a

  • Bulova 96B229

    Bulova 96B229
    $149.95

  • Victorinox Infantry Mechanical

    Victorinox Infantry Mechanical
    $490.52

germany  The German B-Uhr

Size: 47mm – 55mm
Date Produced: 1941 – 1946
Forces Supplied: The German Luftwaffe
Manufacturers: Laco, Stowa, IWC, ALS, Wempe
Buy Online: Find Authentic Originals on Ebay
Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-3 of 11/JG 2 after landing in the UK by mistake in June 1942. Introduced in 1941 to supplement the ME 109, the FW 190 was probably Germany's best piston-engined fighter. MH 4190 Part of ROYAL AERONAUTICAL SOCIETY

German Luftwaffe FW 190A-3 in June 1942

The B-Uhr (short for Beobachtungsuhr, or Observer) is another iconic military watch style that was supplied to German Luftwaffe during World War II.

Like the American-made A-11, the B-Uhr was manufactured by several cooperating German and Swiss companies, namely: IWC, ALS, Wempe, Lacher & Co (Laco), and Walter Storz (Stowa).

Available in two primary configurations (A and B), the B-dial features a shorter hour hand aligned with the inner circle of the dial and a unique triangular marker at 12. The B-Uhr was an essential tool for Luftwaffe navigators, and it’s functional design provides a historical reference for many modern pilot watches.

Vintage German B-Uhr Observer Watch

Vintage German B-Uhr Observer Watch

Regulated to the highest of chronometer standards, B-Uhr watches were precisely synchronized using radio signals from the German Naval Observatory. These tools had to be deadly accurate in order to successfully intercept targets on the field.

At 55mm, these were huge watches, but they served a purpose. Along with an extended double-riveted leather strap, the B-Uhr was designed to be worn over flight jackets, and it’s massive size provided the navigator with unambiguous legibility.

Additionally, mechanical movements were housed in anti-magnetic iron cages to prevent electrical interference from flight equipment and the oversized onion-shaped crowns allowed smooth operation while wearing flight gloves.

Although complicit in unimaginable human suffering, the B-Uhr design is one of the most important tool watch designs in watch history. If you can’t find an original vintage version of this watch, modern reproductions are plentiful, with some modern B-Uhrs still being produced by the companies who produced the originals (namely, Stowa and Laco).

Modern Homages

Japan The Japanese Seikosha “Kamikaze” Watch

Size: 48.5mm
Date Produced: 1940 – 1945
Forces Supplied: Japanese Air Force
Manufacturers: Seikosha (“Seiko”)
Japanese Kamikaze pilot preparing for his last flight

A Japanese Kamikaze pilot preparing for his last flight

As part of the Axis forces, the Japanese played an important role in the resistance during WWII, culminating in the horrific destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the American-dropped atomic bombs in 1945.

Prior to the Japanese surrender in 1945, the Japanese Navy was famously known for using “Kamikazes” – suicidal pilots who crashed directly into U.S. battleships – a last ditch effort to slow down the powerful U.S. Navy advance.

This rare watch, the Seikosha “Kamikaze”, was on the wrist of these imperial pilots as they made their last descent.

Seikosha Kamikaze Pilot Watch

Seikosha Kamikaze Pilot Watch

The name of this watch may sound familiar, and that’s because Seikosha was a branch of the popular watch company Seiko that has produced watches and clocks for military and civilians since the 19th century.

Like the German B-Uhr, the oversized case and crown were designed to be worn over flight equipment and operated with thick leather gloves. This Japanese pilot watch does have a unique feature though: a turntable bezel, allowing for marking of elapsed time during missions.

Because of the nature of how these pieces were used, finding one in decent condition is rare. Not many were made and most of them were destroyed. Some museum quality pieces that were salvaged from wreckages do exist, but can fetch upwards of $20k at auction.

United Kingdom The British W.W.W.

Size: 32 – 37 mm
Date Produced: 1940 – 1949
Forces Supplied: The British Royal Airforce, The British Army
Manufacturers: Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jeager-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex
Buy Online: Find Authentic Originals on Ebay
British Troops on Sherman Tank

British Troops on Sherman Tank

Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939 after the famous Blitzkrieg invasion of Poland devastated Polish forces.

Needing a massive supply of wrist watches for it’s embarking armies, the United Kingdom developed a production standard called “W.W.W.” (Wrist. Watch. Waterproof).

With British watchmakers focused on building naval and aviation instruments, the British Ministry of Defense turned to neutral Swiss watchmakers to fulfill the massive need. In response to this request, a group of 12 companies collectively known as the “Dirty Dozen” all rallied to produce an implementation of the spec: Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jeager-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex.

Longines WWW Pilot Watch

Longines WWW Pilot Watch, one of the most sought after British WWW Watches

The specs may seem familiar by now: Waterproof, luminous hands, and chronometer grade movements, durable timepieces that can standup to the rigor of military life. Much like the A-11 and the B-Uhr, these were no-nonsense watches built for a very specific purposes and every soldier had one.

Unfortunately for collectors, many of these watches were destroyed in the early 70’s for fear of radioactive Radium-226, an element found in the luminescent material on the dials of these watches.

Hundreds of thousands of these watches were produced, but the Grana is by far the most elusive piece. With only 1000 actually produced, it’s often the missing link for those completionists looking to obtain all 12.

 

germany  The Glashütte Chronograph

Size: 39mm
Date Produced: 1940 – 1949
Forces Supplied: The German Luftwaffe
Manufacturers: Tutima Glashutte, Hanhart

 

UROFA Caliber 59

UROFA Caliber 59, the Flyback Chronograph

An often overlooked watch developed secretly in collaboration between the German government and Hanhart/Tutima, this Flyback Chronograph is one of the most historically important chronographs in all military history.

Used in aerial combat during the war, the German pilots were the only military combatants to have actual chronograph timing capabilities on their wrist, and the Flyback mechanism was an important technical achievement (and the first of it’s kind).

Tutima Flieger ChronographThis piece has some serious tool watch specs: Antimagnetic and waterproof case, shatterproof domed acrylic crystal, rotating bezel, radioactive lume, and the famous Flyback chronograph mechanism, which allows you to reset the chronograph while its running.

After the war was over and Glashutte lay in ruin, Russian troops dismantled the manufacture and moved all equipment and parts to Moscow as part of reparations. Russian versions of this watch using the same Calibre 59 can be found from this post-war period, and can be highly collectible as well.

Modern reproductions: Hanhart Pioneer, Tutima Grand Flieger Classic Chronograph 6402

 


Today, military time-pieces have made quite a comeback. What was once only desired by hardcore military collectors can now be found at JCrew and purchased from “luxury” watch brands (for a premium, of course). As fans and collectors of tool watches, looking at historic military timepieces begins to connect the dots of the modern tool watch landscape.

Luckily, we can enjoy these watches today without risking our life and limb, while appreciating those that did for us.


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About the Author
Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson is the managing editor and primary contributor to 60clicks.com. Born into a military family as the son of US Navy pilot, Mike spent many of his formative years studying Computer Science and User Experience Design. When not obsessing over watches, Mike spends time hiking, traveling, and spending time with his family in Phoenix, Arizona.


Comments 14

  1. Chase

    Hi, I was wondering if there were other watches you left out or a more complete guide somewhere? What watches were the Russians or other European forces issued?

    1. Mike Johnson Post
      Author
      Mike Johnson

      I did a bit of research there and couldn’t find much about Russian issued watches during WW2. My understanding is that there weren’t many, and they actually used some watches produced by Elgin, Hamilton, and other Swiss/American companies. Maybe somebody out there has some more information they could share with us…

  2. Joy lupear

    I am looking to purchase a watch for my son for graduation. He is a history buff and studies history and german. I was thinking a WWll watch era watch -German . Not sure on what I’m supposed to be looking for in purchasing a watch so I thought maybe you could help me. Thank you

    1. Mike Johnson Post
      Author
      Mike Johnson

      Hi Joy — are you trying to get an authentic vintage watch? Those can be quite expensive. I would suggest a modern German Flieger from Laco, Stowa, or Steinhart. Email me at [email protected] if you need more guidance.

  3. Polly Joy

    Hello, I have received my fathers naval flight watch, registration cards, dog tags and the watch he wore when flying. The watch still works. Do you know who I could contact or who might be interested in this vintage WWII “stuff”?
    Thanks, Polly

    1. Mike Johnson Post
      Author
      Mike Johnson

      Hi Polly – if you’re looking to sell the watch, you could certainly find buyers on eBay. You could also post a private listing on one of the many online watch communities (like Watchuseek). If you’re looking for information, there are many WW2 watch enthusiasts at MWR (military watch resource)

  4. Vlad

    RAF – Pilots had also exellent Swiss made logarithmic chronograph Pontiac, and I have it — № 378561, 1940 year. Work, exact.

    1. Mike Johnson Post
      Author
  5. Patrick Stone

    I’m looking for info on the Honor brand watch. My grandfather was a Navy Pilot in the pacific. I found his watch in a trunk with various other items ( dress blues, flight manuals, tags, and papers that identify various target ships) the watch I can’t seem to find any info on.

  6. steve d

    i have a longines www watch sometimes called the greenlander bought in 70s for 15 pounds in second hand shop found in a box of old watches just had serviced runs for 2 days with wind what are they worth now .

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