The story of WWII’s Dirty Dozen watches

By Simon De Burton

4 minute read

It might be almost 82 years since the start of World War II, but it seems that time has done little to diminish the appeal of the classic military wrist watch.

In a seamless transition from the battlefield to the bar (and other benign lifestyle locations) the explosion in popularity of ‘mil look’ watches has been nothing short of Howitzer-like.

The story of the original waterproof wristlet watch – commonly known as the ‘WWW’ – dates back to the end of WWII, when the Ministry of Defence introduced what is believed to have been the first standard specification for a military timepiece, before commissioning 12 Swiss-based manufacturers to produce them.

The standard decreed that the watches should be water- and shock-proof with matte black dials, Arabic numerals, luminous hands and hour markers, an outer minute track and a shatter-proof crystal, all surrounded by a stainless steel case to house a movement of specific size.

Oldwatch Withoutstrap
Top: Vertex MP45B DLC Black. Above: The original Cal59 WWW, produced by Vertex for the War Office during WWII

As a result, all the watches from the 12 manufacturers (Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor, and Vertex) looked more or less the same. One particular feature that they certainly had in common was the presence of the MoD’s ‘broad arrow’ property mark, also called a ‘pheon’, which dates back to the 1600s when it was first used to denote objects paid for with the monarch’s money, or those owned by the government.

Initially adopted by the Navy, use of the ‘broad arrow’ spread to the Army and other government-run institutions, including prisons – hence the popular image of inmates dressed in uniforms printed with the symbol, which is today used almost exclusively by the Ministry of Defence.

Vertex Watch Journal July Horological Journal 1951 Pr
Vertex HQ in Hatton Garden, 1951

Military watch geeks have been collecting the original ‘Dirty Dozen’ watches for decades, with many searching for years to build up complete sets in excellent, original condition. But only relatively recently have manufacturers revived the look, usually bringing it up to date with larger, more contemporary case sizes than the relatively puny, 36mm originals.

Back in 2017, entrepreneur Don Cochrane decided to re-launch Vertex after discovering that the firm had been set up in 1916 by his great-grandfather Claude Lyons. It grew to be among the top 10 watch manufacturers in Europe in the 1950s, but subsequent uncertainty in the mechanical watch business caused production to come to an end in 1972.

The Dirty Dozen collectors

Vertex Watch Journal July Old Headquarters
A sketch of the Vertex factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland

The Dirty Dozen collectors

For the re-launch, Cochrane started with an initial, limited-edition model called the M100, which featured a black dial with highly luminous Arabic numerals, a small seconds counter and that ‘broad arrow’ government property mark – all of which harked right back to the old, military issue models.

Unusually, however, he didn’t make the watch freely available. Instead, he invited 60 people to buy the first new model, each of whom was then entitled to invite five others, after which each of the five could invite one more person to buy. Once all 660 M100s were sold, no more were made – which, by accident or design, created an almost instant collector’s market.

Cochrane subsequently introduced a blackened version called the M100B, and followed that with a single button chronograph, the MP45, that’s based on a watch supplied post-war to the Royal Navy. Manual and automatic winding versions of that one are now available, along with a choice of blackened or plain steel cases and black or white dials.

The modern military iterations

Vertex Watch Journal July75
Vertex M100 Bronze 75, designed to mark the 75th anniversary of the ending of WWII

The modern military iterations

And in 2020, to mark 75 years since the official end of World War II on September 2, 1945, the bronze-cased ‘Vertex 75’ was launched as a limited edition of 150.

The watch contains the same, bespoke, hand-wound movement as the original M100, but features an all-new, 40mm case made from bronze. The back of the case is an exact reproduction of the WWW one made between 1944 and 1945. It even has the ‘WWW’ stamp, broad arrow property mark and Army stores number.

Again, these bronze models have struck a chord with collectors and are likely to command a premium above their original £2,700 selling price.

If you’re more of a dive watch fan, however, you might want to keep your cash for the autumn when, we’re assured, a new Vertex called the M60-D will become available.

But more than that we’re not allowed to say… After all, ‘walls have ears’, as they used to say back in WWII.

The Lymited Journal

Explore more stories across our luxury categories, spotlighting craft, people and creativity in art, design, fashion, watches, jewellery, cars, whisky, spirits and wine.