The march of time: How war led to some of horology's finest innovations, from diving watches to the chronograph

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Halfway through Pulp Fiction, with typically unnerving intensity – not to mention outrageous casual racism – Christopher Walken’s Captain Koons coaxes a young Butch Coolidge from his TV cartoons and presents him with ‘The Gold Watch’.

This time-piece, he explains, was so important to his father that, while detained in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, he hid it from his captors in the only place he knew they wouldn’t look: “His ass.”

Other than hoping that the good captain had since given it a thorough clean and service since its five-year rectal term, watch nerds noted that Quentin Tarantino’s props team had done particularly well. Bruce Willis’s character and three generations of Coolidge men before him had treasured a genuine WWI ‘trench watch’, with wire loops soldered to the top and bottom. For it was there on the Western Front that infantrymen crudely modified their pocket watches to allow a strap to be attached, freeing up their hands for affixing bayonets.

As well as switching a new generation of men on to the convenience of a wrist-worn timepiece, the theatre of war also became a fertile incubator for the modern watch. War has accelerated innovation in all manner of guises, from below the waves to up in the air, the time always needing to be read wherever combat ventures next. And sure enough, the military watch’s evolution beyond the trenches was onto the wrists of pilots.

This is perfectly illustrated by another, much more recent ‘Hollywood watch moment’, during this summer’s biggest blockbuster. Flying over the Channel towards the crowded beaches of Dunkirk, Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot repeatedly pulls back his shearling cuff to keep track of his fuel reserves – and with a director as obsessive as Christopher Nolan on the other side of the camera, you just knew Hardy would be kitted out with an authentic military-spec pilot’s watch.

Sure enough, it’s a particularly early-iteration Omega, the CK2129, panic-ordered by the RAF in early 1940 to the tune of just 2,000 units. Its novel rotating ‘bezel’ around the dial aided navigation (remember those tiresome time, distance, speed calculations in GCSE maths?) and cleverly, a second crown at 4 o’clock locked the bezel, so timing couldn’t be affected by accidental knocks in a cramped cockpit.

This wasn’t newfangled navigation by any distance, however. During the previous world war, Switzerland’s pre-eminent aviation pioneer Breitling created the world’s first single-pusher chronograph with its pushpiece separated from the crown, at 2 o’clock, where the thumb or forefinger naturally rests, making it far easier to time your flight.

Then, between the wars, US Navy captain Philip Van Horn Weems worked with Longines on a rotating seconds ring, which enabled pilots to precisely synchronise their watch with a radio-transmitted GMT time signal without stopping the sweep seconds hand.

This eliminated a potential margin of error that could send them off course by miles. After making his celebrated trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 aboard Spirit of St Louis, aviator Charles Lindbergh then worked with Weems to develop Longines’ next system, the ‘Hour Angle of 1931’, which determined longitude and cemented the humble wristwatch as essential kit for any combat pilot.

When it comes to military-spec watches, it’s all these ultra-utilitarian details and Boy’s Own anecdotes that send collectors into a frenzy. Once WWII started in earnest, the newfound strategic importance of air dominance meant every Swiss, British, French, German, Japanese and American watchmaker had the job of turning out inexpensive but high-grade military-issue wristwear.

And in the case of the Allied standard-issue infantry watch, this gave rise to the most ‘Holy Grail’ of mil-spec collectables, fondly referred to as the ‘Dirty Dozen’: 12 near-identical versions of ‘Watch. Wrist. Waterproof.’ made by 12 Swiss brands to the MoD’s newly rigorous standards of highly legible, luminous-white-on-black waterproof precision. About 145,000 examples were supplied, but given that the most obscure brand (Grana) only made 5,000, collecting all 12 examples is nigh-on impossible, and therefore catnip to watch nerds.

Post-war, as engineering and technology boomed, the pipe-smoking boffins of the late-40s and 50s demanded even more precision, antimagnetism and absolutely no nonsense. Of particular note is the Mark 11 of 1948, arguably the most iconic mil-spec watch ever produced. It was produced by IWC as a follow-up to its own W.W.W. (the same IWC that made the Luftwaffe’s ‘Big Pilot’’ navigator watch, Switzerland being neutral, remember). Apart from the addition of a modern-era date window, this year’s limited-edition tribute is a truly desirable distillation of that definitive classic.

The immediate post-war period not only saw the boom of the Cold War boffins, but also Jacques Cousteau and chums, making serious headway on self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, or SCUBA – an application that obviously had as many military possibilities as recreational. Thus, after land then air, the next and final frontier for mil-spec watches switched to the sea.

Mil-spec watches hadn’t been completely averse to the life sub-aquatic. Officine Panerai had already met the needs of Italy’s elite frogmen in the late-30s by strapping cushion-shaped Rolex Oyster pocket watches over their wetsuits – origins echoed by the current ‘S.L.C.’ Radiomir, named after the slow-speed ‘Siluro a Lento Corsa’ torpedoes that the commandos rode en route to attaching limpet mines to ships. And that near-incidental cushion shape continues throughout the modern-era Panerai oeuvre; iconically so.

With the advancement in SCUBA however, frogmen were going deeper and deeper, demanding hardcore diving watches and the ability to time their remaining breathing gas. Enter the groundbreaking (wavebreaking?) Blancpain Fifty Fathoms – commissioned for the French navy’s crack ‘Nageurs de Combat’ unit in 1953. Its uni-directional rotating bezel was revolutionary, only turning anticlockwise and therefore only displaying less remaining dive time should you accidentally knock it on a bit of passing coral – rather than deceptively, and lethally, more.

Worn by Cousteau in his 1956 classic, The Silent World, the Fifty Fathoms pipped Rolex’s totemic sports watch, Submariner to the post by a matter of months. Which isn’t to say the Submariner was relegated to civvy-street footlockers. Far from it: after the Daytona, the ultra-rare ‘Milsubs’ adapted for the British Military in the 50s and 70s are among the most covetable Rolexes in the world.

Usually denoted by the circled ‘T’ on the dial, indicating non-radioactive Tritium in the luminous numerals, the most dramatic tweak to an already-rocksolid diving watch was the rotating bezel. Not only did Whitehall’s equipment testers demand chunkier ‘grippiness’ but they wanted it in German silver rather than steel, so any knocks would simply dent rather than break.

For our purposes here onwards, however, the specially contracted mil-spec watch becomes something of a moot point. Water resistance, antimagnetism, shock-proofing, non-radioactive luminescence… they had all been perfected and were readily available to any quartermaster wandering down a high street.

Which is why nowadays, the British MoD’s choice of standard-issue watches are a couple of basic Seikos and a Citizen diving watch. Given the paperwork involved at any level of the military, it’s probably easier to pop to Argos for something that’s up to the job. And most already have.

“For deployed ops, ruggedness and functionality are king,” watch-mad RAF flight sergeant Jeremy tells us, “which means you’ll find Casio’s tough-as-old-boots G-Shock on the wrists of most soldiers.

“But when the boys and girls get their operational bonuses,” he continues, “they tend to go higher-end. British brand Bremont has become more and more popular. And you’ll find a Breitling on the wrist of every Tornado or Typhoon pilot. “The one most will save for, however, is the Omega Seamaster.”

While they may not know it, this couldn’t be a more appropriate choice, not only for Omega’s long-established history with the British military, but also for the fact the Seamaster was first conceived in 1948 as a commercialised version of the brand’s own Dirty Dozen ‘W.W.W.’ It was even the standard-issue British Naval diver during the Sixties, sandwiched by the first and second-issue Rolex Milsubs.

Which isn’t to say the military doesn’t continue to customise its own watches. All three of the aforementioned ‘operational bonus’ watch brands – Breitling, Bremont and Omega – plus France’s own Bell & Ross, offer servicemen the opportunity to personalise a limited run of professional-spec watches with their insignia, logo or motifs, and buy them at a discount.

A special Military division has even been created at Bremont, yielding over 100-and-counting commissions from any sort of military operator you could imagine, from 2013’s chronograph for the US Navy F/A-18 “Diamondbacks” squadron to 2014’s shockproof MBII for Royal Naval submariners.

Compared to Butch Coolidge’s WWI hand-me-down, these are truly sophisticated bits of military kit that any soldier would covet dearly. But at 43mm wide and a centimetre thick? Better look fast for an alternative hiding place if you’re captured…