In my line of work I’m forever looking at watches and discovering their stories. Just recently I was browsing online when I noticed a vintage A. Lange & Soehne pilot’s watch for sale on an online auction. Then I noticed the price, and the headline: “Grandfather’s WWII watch being sold for daughter’s College Fund”. It got me thinking, and suddenly I was picturing the scene:
In my mind’s eye it is the year 1945, two hours before sunrise, and a Luftwaffe bomber is limping home over the Alps. Greasy smoke billows from the second engine, icy wind rushes through bullet holes in the fuselage, and fuel is running out fast.
Any minute now the Weisshorn could appear between the clouds. In the cramped, greenhouse-like cockpit of the Heinkel He 111, ‘Grandfather’ is navigating. (Of course he’d probably be in his mid-twenties at the time). He worriedly scans the mist for any sign of the mountain.
He checks over his map and his dead-reckoning calculations and consults the 55mm dial of the Luftwaffe standard issue pilot’s watch on his arm for the tenth time. Will they make it home? Will he ever get the chance to hand over his prized Beobachtungs-uhren (Observation watch) to his son or his future grandson?
Well, by the graces of fate, and helped along by his very accurate watch, he did get the chance. Today that watch is for sale on an online auction house.
Then again – that’s probably not what happened at all. Those early timepieces were owned by Luftwaffe, not the pilots. ‘Grandad’ will have had to return it straight after the mission. But you never know…
There’s something nostalgic and intriguing about that era, and about the artefacts like the watch that you can still find online from time to time.
The big dials and vintage styling of these genuine pilot’s watches experienced a bit of a renaissance recently, and watchmakers are responding.
- Lange & Söhne were not the only manufacturers during the war years to produce the B-Uhr’s either. Wempe, Lacher & Company, Durowe (Laco), and Walter Storz (Stowa) were also making them, and of course IWC was there too.
IWC is perhaps the most well-known brand where it comes to WWII watches, and the company produced watches for both sides during those turbulent years.
In 2006 IWC released a special edition watch to commemorate a classic by the French cultural hero - Antoine St.-Exupery, who wrote The Little Prince. That deeply inspiring story about a pilot who crashes in the desert and befriends a transcendental young prince was based in part on the author’s adventures on the Toulouse-Casablanca-Dakar mail route. On his wrist was an aviator’s watch from the same era.
I covered the IWC B-Uhr watches in a last year’s November issue, writing about aviator watches. In the same article I spoke about the other two aviator heavyweights – the Longines Linbergh and the Rolex GMT. But since then IWC have upgraded their range – a testament to the recent popularity of the style.
Their new Pilot’s Watch line includes the Big Pilot’s Heritage Watch offered in both 48 and 55 mm and the new Pilot’s Watch Mark XVIII.
Breguet is a brand that I don’t typically associate with pilot’s watches – more often it’s a dress watch or something highly complicated, but they are in the list too.
Type XX and Type XXI watches were produced in the 1950s, according to a military specification from the French war authorities. Breguet stopped production for some time, but re-launched again around 1995, and they are still made today.
Finally, an article about pilot’s watches won’t be complete until I’ve mentioned Zenith.
In 1909 Louis Blériot was known as the “Crash King.” He was flying monoplanes when everyone else thought that it was madness, but his daring, his will and his spirit of adventure carried him across the English Channel – and on his wrist was a Zenith.
It was a milestone for the brand, and they’ve honored it ever since. In 2012 Zenith made the Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 as a limited edition of 250 pieces. Sized at 57.5mm this isn’t made for a dainty wrist, and the design stays true to the time when these wristwatches were based on the pocket watches that preceded them. Still, for the true vintage pilot’s watch enthusiast, there’s simply more to love.
You might opt for a brand new watch that just looks like a vintage, or perhaps you prefer the original that was made during the war years. Either way, you’ll be wearing a little piece of the story on your wrist.