The Dirty Dozen: as Legendary as the Cinema Classic

For most people, the words “The Dirty Dozen” immediately call to mind Robert Aldrich’s genre defining World War II epic starring Hollywood hard boiled tough guys Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, and Telly Savalas. But in the watch collecting world, this is a nickname that refers to a group of 12 watches worn by British soldiers who actually fought in the war.    

Omega ‘Dirty Dozen’ a stainless steel British Military issue wristwatch 1940s. $2,500-3,500

Military watches that make up the Dirty Dozen are many a collector’s coveted dream and when an elusive full set appears on the market it can sell for incredible sums, not least because of the military history and scarcity that surrounds it. Let’s delve a little deeper into how this influential collection of field watches helped British soldiers win the war and earn their very cool sobriquet.        

Turning back the clock to 1914, we saw the demands and rigours of the First World War battlefields sound the death knell for the pocketwatch. They persisted in civilian life, but on the battlefield a soldier didn’t have the luxury of extracting a watch from his pocket. If he had to tie up one hand in the operation of a pocketwatch to determine the distance of incoming artillery fire whilst loading a rifle, that lost moment could cost him his life. Initially, the trend was for soldiers to strap their pocketwatches to their wrists for easier and quicker access. Eventually, soldiers would be issued “trench watches” made with pocketwatch movements, with the crown usually at 12 o’clock and luminous indices, but most importantly, they could be worn on leather straps keeping their hands free and allowing for accurate coordination of military manoeuvres.

Grana ‘dirty Dozen’ a Rare Stainless Steel British Military Issue Wrist Watch 1940s. $20,000-30,000

While these trench watches effectively served their purpose, the advent of another war barely two decades later would make the demand for the “perfect soldier’s watch” as distinct from repurposed civilian watches, increasingly pressing. The edict from the British Army, Air Force, and Royal Navy stipulated that military timepieces were to meet strict specifications such as: a black dial, Arabic numerals, railroad style minute track, luminous hands and minutes, chronometer grade 15-jewel manual wound movement, shock and water-resistant type case and crystal, fixed lugs, and a larger crown for use with gloves. 

For the duration of WWII, British manufacturing had focused its production to goods directly beneficial to the war effort. With the British watchmaking industry now depleted, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) approached the following 12 Swiss watch manufacturers to produce dedicated field watches to equip their specialists and soldiers: Buren, Cyma, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor, Vertex, Eterna, and the most famous brand on the list, Grana. These Swiss based manufacturers answered the MOD call producing military precision watches with case backs stamped W.W.W. (“Watch, Wrist, Waterproof”), a capital letter and five-digit serial number, along with the Broad Arrow emblem that was steeped in British heraldry and traditionally used to denote UK Government property. 

The Dirty Dozen Movie Poster, 1967 / Alamy

With the end of the war came the diminished demand for military watches and for the next couple of decades they were unassumingly referred to as “Watches, Wrist, Waterproof” as per their W.W.W. caseback initials. However, when in 1967 Robert Aldrich’s WWII blockbuster hit the screens to massive commercial success, the tough guy title caught on and the nickname “The Dirty Dozen” was affectionately applied to this group of watches – and don’t watch collectors love a nickname.

It is fair to say the story of the Dirty Dozen has entered horological lore and the fascination with these functional and efficient tool watches has not waned. Not only are they regarded with reverence for aiding British soldiers in winning the war, but they also provided the template for many field watches that followed. Notable watches from this set such as the limited issue Grana are met with a flurry of excitement when they appear on the market, and for a complete set to come up, well, here you might say we’re approaching holy grail territory. 

Leonard Joel will offer An Important Private Collection of Military Watches including a complete Dirty Dozen  in our forthcoming Timepieces Auction.

By Patricia Kontos, Senior Timepieces Specialist

Top Image: A selection of The Dirty Dozen

May 2024