The Dirty Dozen: 12 Legends of WW2

The Dirty Dozen: 12 Legends of WW2
When it comes to legendary field watches, none will captivate more discussion than the infamous “Dirty Dozen”. A set of twelve field watches from twelve Swiss watchmakers, ordered in 1944 by the British War Office & issued to their troops as part of the ever-complexifying kit of a “modern” soldier. The Dirty Dozen was the product of a “revolution” within military watch procurement in a similar way to the A-11 was for the US Military: a specification produced by the War Office for manufacturers to follow & fulfill. 

The genesis of the Dirty Dozen traces back to a pivotal moment in history. As Great Britain plunged into WW2 alongside France against the Axis in September 1939, the nation faced a pressing need for standardization within their armed forces.  This included wrist watches; which back then were usually individually procured by soldiers themselves. The result was a mix & match of watches throughout the armed forces with varying degrees of reliability & readability. 

WW1 Era Trench Watch & AdvertisingWW1-Era Trench Watch & advertising for a "Military Luminous Watch" of the same era. These were usually acquired privately by well-off officers as we can see by the price noted in the advert.

 Enter Commander Alan Brooke, a high ranking officer & advisor to Winston Churchill who took on the task of designing the “perfect soldier’s watch” that would replace all personally procured watches of the British Army. Unsurprisingly, the spec-sheet focuses on extreme legibility & precision.

 Dirty Dozen Specification Requirements

    • Dial: Black dial with Arabic numerals; small seconds at 6 o’clock;  railroad-style minute track; luminous hour and minute hands and indexes; 
    • Movement: a proven precise movement, preferably regulated to chronometer standards; hand-wound movements with 15 jewels; 
    • Case: a shock-resistant, water-resistant case, 
    • Crown: easy-grip crown for use with gloves
    • Crystal:  shatterproof plexiglass crystal

Commander Alan Brooke & Winston Churchill in 1945Winston Churchill with his Chiefs of Staff in the garden of 10 Downing Street, 7 May 1945. Commander Alan Brooke is seated directly to the left of Churchill.

This spec-sheet came out as the UK had already switched its economy to war-time production & was embroiled in some extremely heavy combat. Whatever was left of the British Watchmaking Industry after the intense “Battle of Britain” German bombing campaign was therefore conscripted into producing goods that would bring more of an impact to the war effort such as avionics & other high-precision instruments.. Thus, the call went out to neutral Switzerland for these custom wristwatches, engineered to exacting specifications & that would endure the harshest conditions of war.

Switzerland - thanks to its absolute neutrality in the conflict had not switched to a war-time economy and it’s watchmaking industry found itself in the very advantageous position of actually having the resources & capacity to mass-produce quality watches. British procurement officers flew over to Switzerland; spec sheet in hand and set out identifying potential manufacturers for their Dirty Dozen. They ended up with twelve companies: Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor, and Vertex. Vertex was technically a British-based brand but, its factories were based in Switzerland.

All 12 dirty dozen watchesPhoto courtesy of Watches of Knightsbridge - All 12 "Dirty Dozen" watches reunited in a single picture

The orders were placed in 1944 with deliveries starting in 1945 as the war was coming to an end. It’s estimated around 150,000 watches were produced in total - with production coming to a stop as soon as the war in Europe officially ended. Quantities produced per brand vary wildly with Omega & Record producing 25,000 while Grana managed less than 5,000 (the precise number is unknown to this day). All of the Dirty Dozens were branded with the “Broad Arrow”; symbol of British Government property & serialized according to a strict code. One notable piece of branding on the caseback was W.W.W - Watch Wrist Waterproof. A simple yet effective recap of the initial objective of producing the “perfect solider’s watch”.

Although production of Dirty Dozen’s ended in 1945; the Dirty Dozen’s themselves were only at the beginning of their career. Post-war, the surviving watches were sold to other countries’ armed forces. Most notably the Dutch, Indonesian & Pakistani Militaries. This extensive career; combined with the decision to strip the radium luminescent paint from the surviving Dirty Dozens by the MoD has led to rarity; especially when compared to the American WW2 A-11 Spec watches. It is estimated that only twenty complete set of all twelve watches exist today; and although getting a few in your collection is not very difficult; getting all twelve requires deep pockets and equally large amounts of time. Considered as a kind of “holy grail” among collectors; the Dirty Dozen watches have risen to fame and are a highlight of the innovation that can spawn during critical times.

By the way, I’ve been casually mentioning these watches as “the Dirty Dozen” since the beginning of this article but I feel like now is the time to announce that this name was posthumously attributed to the “collection”. The title comes from the 1967 movie of the same name. Featuring Lee Marvin & Charles Bronson, the movie showcases 12 convicts from a penal military unit being trained as commandoes for a suicide mission ahead of the D-Day Landings. Today, “Dirty Dozen” is almost accepted as the de-facto official way to mention all twelve watches in one fell swoop. 

Dirty Dozen movie posterThe "original" Dirty Dozen in 1967

The Dirty Dozen have captivated collectors to the point of seeing brands either re-edit their own Dirty Dozen or, pay homage to them. Most brand will usually try to provide a “modernized” take on the design. Providing a cleaner more clinical look that brings the Dirty Dozen to the XXIst century. However, at Praesidus, we did the exact opposite and, decided to “vintagize” our homage to these twelve legends. The originals all feature unique aging & wear that serve as a witness to the action they’ve been through. We went out and patina’d our own re-edition as a way of paying tribute to the true age of this design.
So I guess I have to ask: how old do you want your Dirty Dozen? 

DD-45 Poster Image

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1 comment

Blane Mills

Blane Mills

I love this watch. I have a Buren pocket watch that belonged to my great grandfather. I love the small seconds subdial, it’s the best look on any watch. I have 5 watches with small seconds subdials and I will, of course, obtain more. I’m looking forward to tomorrow to get in on the first 100. Thanks Praesidus for making something so unique.
My great grandfather was in WW1, grandfather was in WWII and, my father was in Korea and Vietnam, and I was in the Navy.
This watch is bringing back memories of them all. Thank you for that.
Looking forward to tomorrow.
Excited, Blane M

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