What were the Dirty Dozen watches?

Mention the Dirty Dozen and a few names spring to mind: Lee Marvin, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson and Ernest Borgnine. The 1967 film about a motley crew of criminals parachuting across enemy lines to take out German officers is a much-loved classic.

But for those with a keen interest in military history and watch collecting, it’s a title that evokes a few different names – Longines, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Omega, Eterna, Cyma, Vertex and IWC, among others.

That’s because the Dirty Dozen was the name given to a group of 12 watchmakers commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence to supply over 150,000 custom-built wristwatches to allied soldiers during the Second World War.

British-made watches were not a viable option, as many of the local component manufacturers had been tasked with building military parts for allied forces. So Britain turned to the Swiss – who had greater watch production capabilities – to create watches to a simple brief: W.W.W.

These three letters, engraved on the back of every watch, stood for watch, wrist and waterproof. Every timepiece had to be fit for the battlefield – accurate, reliable and durable. They each followed the same design language: black dial, arrowhead motif, Arabic numerals, railtrack chapter ring, a 35-38mm stainless steel case and luminous hands and markers for legibility.

The Dirty Dozen were a masterclass in utilitarian design; everything that needed to be there and nothing more.

It is no coincidence that they bear a strong resemblance to the cockpit clocks used in Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters – the very timepieces on which the Sidewinder Spitfire is based.

There are many watch collections that feature MOD-commissioned timepieces. But very few possess a complete and authentic set of the Dirty Dozen. Omega, Cyma and Record may have produced many thousands of watches for the British military, but other companies such as Eterna, Grana and JLC made far fewer. Not surprisingly, the ravaging effects of war and time have now made these models extremely rare.

As fashions come and go, true design icons remain timeless. That’s why British companies such as Sidewinder are keeping the spirit of the originals alive to this day. A 44mm matt black case, sturdy Italian leather strap and domed sapphire lens (tougher than the original) give it a contemporary appeal – but there’s no mistaking the design roots that echo back to the era of the Dirty Dozen.