The History Of The Dirty Dozen W.W.W Wristwatches by James Mulvale.
In the world of military watch collecting, there are plenty of pieces that get the hearts of collectors racing, and among the most desirable are a group of 12 watches collectively known as the Dirty Dozen. They’re named after the classic 1967 war film of the same name, directed by Robert Aldrich. What links these 12 watches together is that they were all procured by the War Office to a uniform set of requirements for use as general service watches by the British Army. For the record, I noticed many other articles will often refer to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) as being involved in the procurement of the Dirty Dozen. This is in fact an erroneous attribution as the MoD did not exist during World War Two.
The Dirty Dozen Weren’t The First Military Watches
The procurement of timepieces specifically for use by the British Military was nothing new to the British. In fact, a useful article by A. Taylerson in the Sept./Oct. 1995 Horological Journal lists the first as being pocket watches procured for the Royal Engineers as early as 1870. What’s more, the Dirty Dozen weren’t even the main watches issued during the Second World War, as they were only delivered in 1945.
Instead, for most of the conflict, the British Army used ATP (Army Trade Pattern) wristwatches. These were first issued in 1939, and just like the Dirty Dozen, they were made to follow a set of specifications outlined by the War Office, and are all fairly similar. ATP watches are characterized by a white/cream dial, Arabic numerals, a railroad minute track, and luminous hands and markers. On a side note, the seventeen brands that supplied these watches also often supplied very similar black dialled pieces to the Germans as well.
One of the A.T.P Watches credit: A.F.0210. straps.
The Origins Of The Dirty Dozen
However, despite the general uniformity of the ATP watches, the story goes that in 1943 General Sir Alan Brooke (who would later become a Field Marshal) realised the necessity of having a general service wristwatch built to high standards. Though, I have to admit I couldn’t find any primary or secondary sources that explicitly stated Brooke’s involvement in the creation of the Dirty Dozen.
Personally, I’m somewhat sceptical of Brooke’s claimed involvement in the creation of these watches. He was one of the highest ranking members of the British Army, a direct advisor to Churchill, and one of those responsible for planning the Allied war strategy. Therefore, I find it highly unlikely (but not impossible) that he was actually involved in the procurement of an item of equipment such as a wristwatch.
Unfortunately, we don’t know the actual origin story of the Dirty Dozen, but given that the war had been going on for 4-5 years by this point, it could simply be that it was decided to upgrade the ATP watches with newer timepieces built to improved specifications. This was after all the norm with every piece of equipment, weapon, and vehicle during the war. For example, there were a whopping 24 marks of the iconic Supermarine Spitfire produced in total.
The Specifications Of The Dirty Dozen Watches
Whatever the truth of the matter, late into the war the British War Office issued their Specification No. R.S./Prov/4373A for “Watches, Wristlet, Waterproof” (W.W.W.). This specification called for the watches to have the following features:
‘The watch shall be of the luminised wristlet type in a stainless steel or
other approved metal waterproof case, and shall be capable of withstanding
And for the movement to have the following:
‘non-magnetic lever type embodying not less than 15 jewels, fitted with an
overcoil balance spring, and Incabloc or other approved shock-absorbing
device The watch to be tested at 32°C in four specified positions. The
daily rate of any two of the four positions not to exceed 40 seconds. Each
watch to be engraved on both the outside and inside of the caseback with
the letters WWW together with the code letter of contractor, and the
serial number of the case.’
In total, twelve companies were contracted to produce these watches for the British. They were: Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex. A thirteenth brand, Enicar, was reportedly also chosen but, for some unknown reason, they never produced their W.W.W. watches.
Whilst there is some slight variation in design across the twelve brands, they all have the same basic features:
- Black dial with Arabic numerals, a subsidiary seconds dial, and a railroad minute track
- Luminous hands and hour markers
- A shatterproof crystal
- Waterproof to the standards of the era
- A movement regulated to chronometer standards.
- 15 jewel movements, between 11.75 to 13 ligne in diameter
- A durable case that can withstand shocks
All 12 of the Dozen. Credit: A collected man.
The Usage And Production Volumes Of Dirty Dozen Watches
There are reports of the first W.W.W. pieces being delivered to the British in late 1944, but it seems that most, if not all, were delivered in 1945. Which means that crucially, most of these watches might not have seen active service in World War Two, but as they remained in service for several years, it’s always possible a surviving watch was used in another conflict.
Earlier in this article, I used the phrase “general service watch” to describe the Dirty Dozen. That’s not to imply that these watches were intended for use by general personnel, but rather that they were intended for general timekeeping by key personnel such as officers or those in key roles such as engineers and communications staff. Basically, any area where accurate timekeeping was of paramount importance.
When it comes to the production quantities of the Dirty Dozen, it is estimated that approximately 145,000 were produced. However, only IWC, JLC, and Omega kept detailed records of their production volumes, and experts have had to guess the quantities made by the remaining brands. The go-to source for these numbers (and a lot of information on the Dirty Dozen) is Konrad Knirim’s book “British Military Timepieces”, in which there is a helpful table with the estimated production volumes, which is included below.
Production numbers and specifications according to Konrad Knirim’s in his book British Military Timepieces.
As you can see, Grana is thought to have produced the fewest watches by quite a margin, which makes them the rarest today. As well as the low production volumes, you also need to remember that as these were pieces of military equipment, many were also undoubtedly broken or lost through use. Plus, it’s thought that many W.W.W. watches were destroyed in the 1970s when they were retired from service, due to the luminescent material being radioactive (and harmful!) Radium-226.
Another result of these items being military equipment was that they often needed repairs, and with the military being concerned with practicality, rather than preserving originality, some examples of the Dirty Dozen can be found with service dials fitted by the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). Similarly, other parts such as the hands were also swapped between models in order to produce working timepieces that could be reissued to personnel.
Record Dirty Dozen with a swapped R.E.M.E Tritium Dial. Available here at Waecce.
One of the saddest R.E.M.E repairs. This Grana was cobbled together by the R.E.M.E with a Buren Mid Case and incorrect Hands. The Grana was discovered by Waecce a few years back.
Before I finish, there’s one final twist in the story of the Dirty Dozen that A Collected Man covered nicely in their article on these watches. That twist is that a small number of these watches ended up in use with the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army. This is presumably because with the Second World War ending just as these watches were delivered, the British had a surplus of stock and sold a portion of it off to the Dutch, who were trying to reestablish their colonies in the post-war period. These watches are denoted by the engraving K.N.I.L, which is the initials of Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger, the Dutch name for the army. It also appears as though some of these watches used by the Dutch, were then captured or acquired by the Indonesian forces they were fighting, as examples exist with the K.N.I.L scratched through, and the engraving A.D.R.I. (the acronym for the Army of the Republic of Indonesia) added.
Like a lot of minor aspects of military history, the story of the Dirty Dozen is more unclear than you might first expect. Whilst these watches have been extensively written about, and are highly coveted by collectors, there are a fair few holes in their history. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, most of the records of the contracts and orders for these W.W.W. watches are either lost or buried in archives somewhere. The second reason is that these are such a small part of the history of the Second World War, that few people have done any serious research into their creation and use. However, the Dirty Dozen are definitely an important part of the history of military timepieces, and they set the standard for British general service watches right up to the present day.
You can find examples of the Dirty Dozen in the Waecce Shop
I also strongly recommend you sign up to the Waecce Newsletter as many examples of the Dirty Dozen sell through there before even getting the chance to hit the site.