Nowadays, we take our ability to tell the time at-a-glance for granted. It seems every piece of technology we carry around has an ultra-accurate clock built right into it. In fact, if you have an AI assistant on your mobile device, as most do in this day and age, you don’t even have to look at the time — you can just ask for it instead. Just a few short decades ago, however, time-telling devices were a bit rarer and a lot more analog. But some of them, especially those given as standard issue gear to soldiers, were of the utmost importance.
Perhaps in no venue is this more true than during WWII. In a time when most wartime vehicles were stripped down to their bare essentials to save on weight, cost, and production time, keeping a watch on one’s person was a necessity — especially in time-sensitive missions. Of course, while most soldiers had some kind of wristwatch on their person at all times — usually a simple field watch — some of these wristwatches were more crucial and impactful than others. And you can learn about eight of the best on our following guide to the most important watches from World War 2.
Watches & Warfare
Timekeeping Turns The Tide
Just because radio control and Wi-Fi timekeeping didn’t exist yet, that doesn’t mean that time was less important during WWII. In fact, staying on a tight schedule was of the utmost importance for some operations. Missing one’s timing by even a millisecond could have meant a convoy of enemy weaponry slipped through the Allies’ grasp, a squad of bombers completely missed their target, or a full platoon of soldiers ended up firing on friendlies rather than hostiles. This is largely why keeping accurate time was so important, and was the primary reason that so many military watches featured a seconds-hacking function — so soldiers could keep their watches synched perfectly to one another to ensure they were all on the same page, even when they couldn’t communicate directly.
Of course, that’s only one of the advents that had the potential to turn the tide of battle. In fact, many watchmaking advancements were directly related to creating watches that were better for the soldiers wearing them. That includes things like better waterproofing, higher overall durability, purpose-driven chronograph complications, more accurate movements, and more. Furthermore, many of the watches developed for, during, and just after WWII would go on to influence the entire watchmaking industry for literal generations. There are even companies around today that have built their entire brand around reissuing modern versions of classic WWII watches (amongst other historical timepieces). War is hell — this is undeniable — but it also has the potential to drive progress, especially in regards to mechanical technology.
Also known as the “Navigator Watch,” The 6B/159 was manufactured by several significant watchmaking brands that are still in operation today — including Omega, Jaeger Le-Coultre, and Longines. Primarily used by RAF pilots, this watch was designed for and approved by the British Ministry of Defence and was made to be both remarkably simple and incredibly reliable. It bore no extraneous detailing — just a simple 12-hour dial, trio of hands (hour, minutes, seconds), simple steel case, and a stitched leather strap. It did, like so many of its brethren, come with a mechanical hand-wound movement, as quartz watches were not invented and widely distributed until well after WWII in 1969. Beautiful in its minimalism, this is one of the more common WWII watches and used versions can still be found fairly easily to this day.
If there is any one watch on this list that stands out amongst its brethren as the most important, impactful, and significant, it’s the A-11 you see here. In fact, the A-11 is widely referred to as “the watch that won the war.” And that’s due in a major way to the fact that it was wrapped around the wrist of so many infantrymen from the U.S. Army — the force largely credited for turning the tide of battle, especially on the European Front — and many other Allied military forces. However, the U.S. wasn’t the only force to use this watch — the British Ministry of Defense also employed it, though they called it the 6B/234. The A-11, regardless of who used it, was produced by Bulova, Elgin, and Waltham and was marked by a manually-wound 15-jewel mechanical movement with a hack function. It was also available with Navy Bureau of Aeronautics specified lume, however not all examples had luminous markings. It was simple and unboastful, but it truly did get the job done.
While the A-11 was the preferred watch of the U.S. Armed Forces, the British were a bit more fluid with their selection of timekeepers, having been known to utilize numerous different designs. The lesser-known A.T.P. (short for Army Trade Pattern) was one such offering. While not as impactful as some of its more famous counterparts (like the W.W.W.), this watch was no less an important one during the WWII watchmaking era. What’s probably most interesting about this particular watch, was that it was produced by a jaw-dropping number of different Swiss manufacturers — some reports suggesting as few as 17 and others are closer to two-dozen — though few have remained impactful to this day and many have since gone belly-up. The primary difference between this one and its field watch brethren is the distinct seconds sub-dial at the 6 o’clock position. Beyond that, it shares much of its design notes with its siblings — including a manually-wound 15-jewel mechanical movement, a steel case, and a leather strap.
While most of the WWII watches on this list and in history were field watches, this war also marked the most significant periods for the pilot watch. After all, so many battles hinged on aerial combat — including the notorious Battle of Britain. Many of the watches worn on that battle were likely the British Ministry of Defense’s 6B/159 — at least on the side of the Allies — but the German and Axis flyboys were almost certainly equipped with B-Uhrs built by the likes of Laco (then called Lacher & Co.), IWC, Stowa, Lange & Söhne, and Wempe. These German pilot’s watches — short for Beobachtungs-uhren (German for “observation watch”)– were also known as flieger watches and boasted oversized cases (to make them suitable for wearing over flight jackets), hand-wound movements, and a dial design that would deeply influence the future of pilot watches — especially those made in Europe. While the B-Uhr variety is most remembered, there was also an “A” specification that was slightly different in its dial design.
While the German B-Uhr pilot watches we’re by far the most widely used by Axis flyboys, there was also a much lesser-known — but still markedly important — flieger watch developed for use during WWII. The reason this watch is still so unknown to this day is that it was actually developed in secret, as a collaboration between the German government and two watchmaking brands: Hanhart and Tutima. It also holds another significant and important distinction — it was the only wristwatch with a chronograph movement used during the war, and it was used exclusively by German pilots. That wasn’t even it’s only significant feature; the Glashütte Chronograph also boasted a flyback design — which allowed pilots to reset the chronograph function without the need to stop the watch first — as well as an anti-magnetic housing, a shatterproof crystal, luminous markings, and more. It wasn’t as common as the others, but this might have been the most technologically advanced and significant watch of all WWII.
While the Glashütte Chronograph is probably the most technologically significant watch from WWII, it was hardly the only one to break new ground, so to speak. In fact, while that watch was changing airborne timekeeping, there was another watch making significant strides on and beneath the surface of the ocean. Primarily built by Hamilton and Elgin, though there’s reason to believe other watchmakers also crafted them, the Canteen watch was not entirely dissimilar to its land-lubber cousin, the field watch. However, there was one pretty significant difference: its signature oversized screw-down crown cover, which gave the watch its distinctive appearance and also led to its “canteen” nickname. This crown cover wasn’t simply a design choice, either, as it served a specific purpose. That purpose was to protect the watch’s internal mechanisms by creating a waterproof seal. Also sometimes called a BuShips watch — a result of its dial and/or caseback markings, which denoted that this watch was approved by and manufactured for the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ships — the canteen watch wasn’t the first dive watch ever made, but it was one of the most effectively waterproof ones of the time and served to influence the entire dive watch category.
Seikosha Kamikaze Watch
Aerial warfare was not limited to the European Front during WWII. In fact, some might argue that it was even more dire and impactful in the Pacific Theater — where the United States and other Allies faced off against the Japanese in a bloody series of island-hopping battles. While we’ve already touched on watches used by the Allies and Germans in the skies, the Japanese also had pilot watches of their own. And the most important is probably this one — now known as the Seikosha Kamikaze watch. The proper name of this watch was the Seikosha Tensoku and was built for Japanese pilots by an offshoot of the company known today as Seiko. However, this watch wasn’t just made for any pilots; rather, it was crafted for those that flew in Mitsubishi’s A6M Zero planes on suicide runs. Of course, that’s not the sole purpose of this watch or the aforementioned fighter airplane, but we’d be remiss in our duties if we didn’t recognize the significance and seriousness of that particular application.
Admittedly, we’re bending the rules a bit by including the W.W.W. — short for Waterproof Wristlet Watch — as it wasn’t delivered to the British Ministry of Defense until late 1945. However, we’re still counting it because it was developed specifically with wartime applications in mind, and it was crafted specifically to replace another watch on this list — that watch being the A.T.P. Probably the most significant bit of information regarding this watch was that it was contracted by the British MoD through 12 significant watch manufacturers — many of which who are still revered and respected to this day — now commonly referred to as the “Dirty Dozen.” That list includes Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, Omega, Record, Timor, and Vertex. They’re not distinctly different from their predecessors in function, however, they were significantly upgraded to be more waterproof, durable, and — most importantly — reliable in their timekeeping abilities. For watch collectors, these watches are also still easy to find today in pretty good condition — likely due to the fact that they never made it onto the battlefield.
The Complete History Of The Field Watch
You can’t talk about significant war timekeepers without the conversation circling the classic field watch. Of course, this style of timepiece was around before WWII and has stuck around long after, as well. Learn all you could want to know and more on our guide to the complete history of the field watch.