A few weeks ago I wrote an article on the most important World War II field watches. I have an inclination for this type of watches, and while researching the topic, I came across several WWII pilot watches that were equally important as their land siblings. I also recently re-watched Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in which Tom Hardy’s character wears one of the first pilot watches equipped with a timing bezel. I didn’t realize how important watches were for pilots—perhaps more than they were for infantrymen—and how they would use them. In this article, therefore, we will look at the most important models of WWII pilot watches, which brands make them, and what they were used for.
The British 6B/159
Produced by prominent Swiss manufactures such as IWC, Omega, and Longines, the 6B/159 designated ultra-legible watches used by both navigators and pilots from the Royal Air Force (RAF.) They came with cases measuring between 36 and 38mm in diameter and the case was made of Duralumin—an alloy made of aluminum, copper, magnesium and manganese—,a manual wound caliber mostly produced by Omega, large Arabic numerals, legible minute track, and sometimes a central-seconds sub-register at the 6 o’clock position. Precise and legible wristwatches were key parts of pilots' gear as they made it possible for them to calculate their position in relation to their targets, amongst other things.
The American Weems
Named after Lieutenant Commander Philip Van Horn Weems of the U.S. Navy, the Weems was a pilot watch produced by Longines and was one of the few WWII pilot watches to be equipped with a rotating bezel. Weems had been working on several navigational watches before and, amongst other things, developed a watch in collaboration with Charles Lindbergh—you know, the brave fellow who was first to fly across the Atlantic. Besides also being very legible, the Weems came with a unique feature: a screw-down bezel that could be synced to a radio signal, making it easier to situate the position of the plane. The Weems was produced for the Royal Air Force by Longines exclusively and measured 33.5mm in diameter.
The German B-Uhren
You most likely have heard of the “Type B” pilot watches still being produced today by prominent German watchmakers. “B-Uhren” is short for Beobachtungsuhr which translates to “observation watches” in German. They were the equivalent of the 6B/159 and the Weems, used by German pilots to calculate flight time and their position in relation to their targets. Unlike the pilot watches used by the RAF, B-Uhren were significantly bigger with diameters of 55mm. This was due to the fact they were made to be ultra legible and to be worn outside a pilot’s flight jacket. They were produced by companies such as IWC, A. Lange & Söhne, Lacher & Company/Durowe (now Laco), and Walter Storz (now Stowa.)
The German Fliegerchronograph
In addition to the B-Uhren, German pilots could also be sporting a Fliegerchronograph, indeed a pilot watch equipped with a chronograph complication. These watches were only produced by Hanhart and Tutima and came with either dual-pusher or mono pusher configurations. The chronograph functions included a running seconds sub-register, a 30-minute totalizer, and a flyback function. The cases were made of nickel-plated brass (akin many of the WWII-era field watches) and also had legible dials with large handsets and Arabic numerals all around. Some variants came with a rotating friction-fit bezel like the Weems.
The Japanese Seikosha Tensoku
Looking at the other side of the world, Japanese pilots wore what was known as the Seikosha Tensoku. Seikosha was the old name of what is now known as Seiko and Tensoku is short for “tentai kansoku” which translates to “astronomical observation” in Japanese. It was their version of the B-Uhr watch worn by German pilots. The Tensoku was also a massive watch with a diameter of 48.5mm. It was legible thanks to a full set of Arabic numerals and hands that were color-coded to the hour markers. They had a legible minute scale on the periphery of the dial for precise timing. From what I read, the Tensoku were only worn by Japanese pilots who flew the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter jet.
Most articles that deal with vintage military watches focus on field watches. The watches worn by the infantry which often appears in period movies. World War II pilots also had a need for precise timekeeping instruments and oftentimes, due to their intended use, they would come with oversized cases. What all WWII watches had in common, however, was their extreme legibility and functionality. There was no room for ornate details and precious materials here. All of the emphasis was put on being reliable and easy to use, and they would come with hand-wound mechanical movements that were very precise for their time.Featured image: www.wornandwound.com