Watches Worn by The Few: Two Watches of Battle of Britain and the RAF in WWII
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” — Winston Churchill, 20th August 1940.
Anybody with a slither of knowledge of World War II history would know what this line was about, and who Churchill was referring to. Commonly known as “The Few,” this was dedicated to the young pilots of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain.
This series of articles, which I will call “Watches Worn by ___”, will talk about significant wristwatches worn and used by specifically pilots in war. As a pilot myself, I always found myself intrigued about the days when a watch was the only instrument capable of accurately telling time. Time is important to us as pilots, it tells us when to change headings, altitudes and most importantly tells us exactly how much fuel we have left in our tanks.
The Battle of Britain was known for being the first major military campaign fought almost entirely by air forces. German forces, starting from 10th of July 1940 begun executing large scale bombing attacks against Britain and her air defenses, shipping convoys, ports and shipping centres in an attempt to bring Britain to the negotiating table. Further goals of the Luftwaffe as the battle enraged were to destroy the RAF fighter command, destroy civilian centres, destroy aircraft manufactures and also to terrorise the population by bombing areas of political and/or cultural significance. It was essentially a blockade, and a mass air attack in an attempt to gain air superiority over the British skies.
The Royal Air Force mobilised nearly 2000 of her fighter and bomber aircraft, with many pilots freshly minted from flight school. The older pilots were also just introduced to the new generation of fighter aircraft, mainly the well known Supermarine Spitfire and the lesser known but highly effective Hawker Hurricane. This article wouldn’t be a comparison of which is better and which one contributed the most, because in my opinion all the pilots and personnel involved in defending Britain should equally be respected. Bomber pilots and crews also had their work cut out during counter attacks and night raids against the Luftwaffe that are quickly closing in.
As World War II dawned on Great Britain, it was increasingly apparent that air combat in the war against the Luftwaffe were to be fought with high speed, high performance fighters and bombers. These aircraft would be able to fly at high altitudes, much higher than the biplanes of World War I. So on the 5th of January, the Royal Air Force sent an urgent order to all major watch manufacturers of allied and neutral nations for 2000 watches for fighter pilots. It had to be legible, accurate, rugged and must have a timing device of sorts.
Omega ended up being the primary supplier of most of the Royal Air Force’s watches. They came up with a solution that didn’t require a stopwatch (chronograph). Chronographs were simply too delicate at the time as there are too many moving parts. Instead, the watch had a rotating bezel with a second crown that locked it in place in order for pilots to time and make course changes. The design was ahead of its time, and is arguably the first watch with a rotating bezel. This watch had the model number of the CK2129.
The watch had large crowns to allow for winding, time setting and locking/unlocking the bezel with gloves on. The bezel itself was thick to allow for easier usage. It featured an Omega Calibre 23.4SC hand wound movement. The movement featured 15 ruby jewels for reduction of friction and increased shock resistance. Hand wound watches were the order of the day at the time, with automatic winding watches still too delicate and quartz out of the question for another 30 years. This watch was genuinely relied upon by pilots as the primary timing device, and was engineered to incredibly high standards at the time. It was accurate to within 10 seconds a day, had a shock resistant balance assembly and escapement and a power reserve of 40 hours.
Interesting note: Both the above mentioned watch and the watch I will talk about next did not feature a hacking feature. Hacking is the ability to stop the seconds hand when the time setting crown is pulled out for complete precision when synchronizing watches. This was done to keep parts count to a minimum and reliability to a maximum. The Luftwaffe on the other hand had already been using hacking watches, though reliability of such pieces remain unknown.
2 years later in 1942, Omega released their second type of pilot’s watch to the Royal Air Force. With the model number CK2292, this watch features no rotating bezel. This is actually a very interesting point because without the rotating bezel, it was still widely known as the “spitfire” watch when in actuality the majority of spitfire pilots still wore the older CK2129. This was perhaps due to spitfire pilots always being in the thick of the action as bomber escorts and day fighters, and required the locking rotating bezel to tell elapsed time quickly and accurately.
So what was new with this watch? It was smaller and the hairspring/balance spring was made up of a new non-ferrous alloy material which made it useful for bomber navigators. Especially ones operating electrical equipment such as radar. The CK2292 can be said as one of the early attempts to make a pilot’s watch anti-magnetic. The movement was therefore upgraded and due to new anti-magnetic alloys required 16 ruby jewels for less friction. It was rightfully given a new designation as the Omega Calibre 30T2SC. Specifications regarding accuracy and shock resistance were identical, and was regulated and adjusted to 4 positions to within 10 seconds a day. This design ultimately led to the post war development of the Seamaster and Railmaster line. Both being anti-magnetic watches and such lines are still produced today, albeit with more modern materials and far greater resistance to the elements.
It may sound like an old cliche, but I guess the old adage is true. A watch tells the story of mankind, and the development of horology goes hand in hand with the history of us as humans. Through conflict, exploration and triumph. Timepieces and timekeeping had always been an integral part of it all. Throughout this series of articles, I hope to be able to convey some important times in aviation and war history through these little time telling machines.