Here we are again talking about World War II watches. This time, we’re taking a look at what Rolex contributed to horology during that time period. Few articles have been written on this subject; the best sources of information are these articles from Analog Shift and Bob’s Watches. In our article, we’re going to take a broader look at Rolex’s watches from the period of 1939 to 1945, as well as the brand‘s mobilization to support the war. This article is a continuation to the recent articles I’ve written about wartime mobilization of watch brands, the significance of the A-11 watch, and the Rolex Bubbleback. The more I research the topic of military watches during World War II, the more there is to talk about. So, without further ado, let’s see what kind of watches Rolex made during World War II.
Historical Context: Rolex During World War II
In a few of the articles I’ve written on the subject of WWII watches—especially this one, that one, and this one again—I mentioned that Switzerland remained neutral during World War II and that many of the brands we now cherish made watches for both the Allied and Axis forces: namely the British, French, Italians, and Germans. By the time war broke out in 1939, Rolex had already relocated to Switzerland. However, it was one of the few brands—if not the only one—that sold watches exclusively to the Allied forces. (The articles from Bob’s Watches and Analog Shift linked above did make mention of the fact that, although Hans Wilsdorf was German, he did not support Germany during the war and was, actually, critical of Hitler.)
Rolex, therefore, made a few models that found their ways to the battlefields, whether on land or in the air. Unlike other Swiss brands like Longines, Buren, Timor, IWC, and many others, Rolex did not issue military watches—meaning the brand was not following what we refer to as Government-issued military specifications which explains, in part, why most Army Trade Pattern (A.T.P.) watches as well as the Dirty Dozens look identical. Instead, Rolex made watches for the military which it distributed by way of local retailers or sent directly to the military. And, as the story goes, sometimes directly to captured soldiers in German camps. In a way, Rolex hasn’t really changed the way it distributes its watches. But that’s a topic for another day.
Rolex Pilot Watches of World War II
When it comes to pilot watches, it seems Rolex only made two: the reference 3525 and a myriad of “Air” models (more on that later.) As Rolex-inclined journalists wrote, the service pilot watches that were issued to the Royal Air Force were not good enough, prompting Rolex to give them 3525s. One famous story which inspired the movie The Great Escape is that of Corporal Clive Nutting who ordered his 3525 from Rolex while he was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III from which he escaped. Wilsdorf was so supportive of the Allied soldiers that he told him to worry about payment only once he would have made it home safely. The 3525 is interesting because it was the first chronograph Rolex made using the Oyster case. It was powered by a Valjoux 23 caliber and the dial incorporates both telemeter (to measure distance from a target) and tachymeter (to measure air speed) scales.
At the end of the war, Rolex also made simpler looking pilot watches, again issued to the Royal Air Force. They were made for various groups and distributed locally, which could explain the reason why they went by many names including “Air King,” “Air Tiger,” “Air Lion,” and “Air Giant.” Unlike the 3525, these models were time-only and came with ultra legible dials. Generally, white dials, full stacks of Arabic numerals, long hands, and cases which resembled that of the future Bubblebacks. If you’ve read any of the numerous articles talking about the history of the Explorer 1, then you might agree that some of these Air Kings, Air Tigers, Air Lions or Air Giants resembled the precursor to the Explorer 1 which was worn by Sir Edmund Hillary when he ascended Mount Everest.
Rolex Field Watches of World War II
Here’s where things become interesting and confusing. Different sources say different things about which field watches Rolex made during World War II and how they were distributed. Therefore, I’ll focus on two models which grabbed my attention more than others did. First, the Rolex Oyster Army (pictured below) which resembles 1940s Bubblebacks, but with a twist. Rolex, of course, used the Oyster case to guarantee that the movement would be protected against water, dust, and dirt, which the brand combined with Arabic numerals and Mercedes hands. The Oyster Army was 30mm in diameter and ultra legible, and according to some, better made than many field watches that were officially issued to armed forces. (Here I will again refer you to the military specifications.)
The second model that grabbed my attention is the Oyster Lipton and the litany of other field watches Rolex made and which were distributed by local British retailers. The Lipton pictured below is particularly interesting for two reasons: first, the use of what looks like blued Syringe hands which we typically see on the A.T.P. and Dirty Dozen watches. Second, the alternation of Arabic numerals and batons for the hour markers which kept the dial legible and clean. Most World War II field watches we’ve discussed in the Everest Journal did not have this kind of dial layout. To me it shows that Rolex already had a different approach to watch design than many other brands did not.
Well, did you expect that Rolex had made so many watches during World War II? I didn’t. Generally, when people talk about World War II watches, they do so by mentioning the same watches over and over again, something I’m guilty of having done when I wrote about the Dirty Dozen. Furthermore, many believe that the Dirty Dozen were used in WWII combat, but they weren’t. Now we know that Rolex did make important contributions to that period of watchmaking. Since Rolex always does things differently, the brand either sold watches by way of local retailers or directly to soldiers who ordered them individually. And the brand also used its best technological advances of the time—mainly the Oyster case—to equip all of its military watches.Featured image: www.analogshift.com