What watch did Spitfire pilots wear?

On 20 August 1940, Winston Churchill uttered a line that would go down as one of the most memorable quotes in British history. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

He was referring to the young pilots – The Few, as they were commonly known – of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. It was the first major military campaign fought almost exclusively by air forces. A month prior to Churchill’s speech, German forces executed a massive bombing campaign against Britain – a tactic intended to bring the country to the negotiating table.

Targeting air defences, ports, RAF fighter command, civilian centres and aircraft manufacturers, the strategy was twofold: gain air superiority over British skies and terrorise the civilian population.

In response, the RAF mobilised 2000 fighter and bomber aircraft – the former largely made up of the legendary Supermarine Spitfire and the lesser known, but devastatingly effective Hawker Hurricane.

For a fighter pilot, timing is everything. The classic Smith & Sons MKII D cockpit clock fitted to both aircraft is the design that features on the Sidewinder Spitfire watch. Its simple, bold face helped pilots know exactly when to change headings and altitudes. And while fuel gauge instruments were used, it was often through the clock that pilots calculated how much flying time they had remaining.

The cockpit clock was one thing. But the RAF wanted its pilots to have access to another time instrument. So on 5 January 1940, it sent an urgent order to the major watch manufacturers of allied and neutral nations for 2000 fighter pilot watches.

It was Omega that won the battle to become the RAF’s primary watch supplier – with the CK2129. A delicate chronograph had no place in the rough and tumble of aerial combat. So Omega devised an ingenious solution that featured a rotating bezel with a second crown that locked it in place. It was known as the Weems watch, because the design followed one invented five years earlier by US naval officer and navigation pioneer Philip van Horn Weems.

When a single second can be the difference between life and death, it was important for pilots to synchronise their watches. These days, this can be done through hacking – the ability to pull out the crown and stop the second hand – but in 1940, robust hacking technology was a few years away. So the Weems solved this problem by lining up the second hand with the bezel and locking it in for synchronised timing.

The Omega CK2129 included 15 ruby jewels in its 23.4SC hand-wound movement and was engineered to an incredibly high standard. Within its relatively compact 34mm case, it featured lyre-shaped lugs and the distinctive second crown at the 4 o’clock position. It was precise to within 10 seconds a day and had a power reserve of 40 hours.

The watch was superseded two years later by the smaller CK2292, which did not have a rotating bezel or second crown. And although it was still known as the ‘Spitfire’, the majority of pilots still wore the older CK2129 – preferring the rotating bezel to tell elapsed time quickly and accurately.

The Omega Weems recently appeared on the big screen – on pilot Tom Hardy’s wrist in Christopher Nolan’s movie Dunkirk. If you want to get your hands on one, expect to pay around £7-£9k for a good example. And if that’s stretching the budget somewhat, the Sidewinder Spitfire is a faithful recreation of the Spitfire’s MK11 D cockpit clock for a far more accessible £195.