Military Watches: Dirty Dozen

Britain’s Call for a Military Watch

Military watches are among some of the most popular and prized vintage timepieces. They don’t just have rich backstories and an important place in the heritage of horology and our culture. Watchmakers produced them in limited quantities and specifically for military issue, making them incredibly rare. Of all the military timepieces produced in the last century, there’s one particular group of watches that stands out – the Dirty Dozen.

dirty dozen

The Dirty Dozen is a collection of twelve watches that the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) commissioned during WWII. At the start of the war, the manufacturing efforts in Britain had a narrow focus. They produced machinery, ammunition, and weaponry for the military rather than timepieces. Instead, they imported Swiss civilian watches fitted with military dials and issue numbers. As the war persisted, they felt these models didn’t quite suit their needs.

So, they decided to draw up specifications for their first military commissioned watch. They stipulated that it must be accurate, durable – regulated to chronometer standards – as well as water resistant and shock resistant. It should have a black dial with Arabic numerals, luminous hour markers, hour and minute hands for maximum legibility. Finally, a shatter resistant crystal and a stainless steel case were necessary additions.   

Developing the Dirty Dozen

Instead of tapping one brand for the job, the MOD invited any Swiss watchmaker who could create a watch to the desired specifications to do so. Twelve brands answered the call: IWC, OMEGA, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Longines, Buren, Lemania, Eterna, Timor, Cyma, Record, Grana, and Vertex. Interestingly, Vertex was actually a British brand with production facilities in Switzerland. The MOD has never released official production numbers to the public, however it encouraged each manufacturer to produce as many units as possible.

dirty dozen

Estimates show that larger companies, like Jaeger-LeCoultre, issued around 25,000 pieces while smaller brands, like Grana, only issued around 1,000. Collectively, the production of timepieces for the British military was around 150,000. These timepieces remained in service well after the war, into the 1960s. But by the 1970s, many were destroyed because of the use of radium on the dials.

Watch, Wrist, Waterproof

In addition to the practical specifications for these timepieces, one unique detail instantly identifies a Dirty Dozen wristwatch. Each has an engraving on the caseback that reads “W.W.W.”, which stands for “Watch, Wrist, Waterproof.” Another defining feature of the Dirty Dozen timepieces is the broad arrow heads on the dial, inner case, and caseback. The broad arrow is a signature for British government-issued goods. They used it for nearly 400 years.

With roughly 150,000 watches produced, there are many available today within the vintage market. Even after taking into account lost or destroyed models over the years. However, mostly likely less than twenty collectors around the world have the coveted pleasure of owning a complete set.

The Dirty Dozen Influence Today

Some of the brands who produced the Dirty Dozen no longer exist. Still, many of the remaining watchmakers continue to draw inspiration from this iconic design. For example, IWC also refers to their version of the W.W.W as the Mark X, which spurred an entire collection. The latest model in the line is the special edition Mark XVIII for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, released in early 2018. In 2017, the Vertex brand reemerged. The founder’s great-grandson first started working on the revival in 2015. Their inaugural design, the Vertex M100, draws inspiration from none other than the Vertex W.W.W. It’s complete with the signature broad arrow on the dial.

dirty dozen

A British Broad Arrow on a watch case back

Though all the Dirty Dozen wristwatches are highly prized, collectors tend to play favorites. A majority site the Longines W.W.W as their favorite design. This is because of its stepped case and more modern size. It measures 38mm compared to others that are as small as 35mm. Still, the most coveted of all the Dirty Dozen models continues to be the Grana W.W.W. Its low production count and subsequent scarcity make it particularly alluring.

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