The Digger’s Choice Of Military Timepieces
Issued military watches are a big deal in watch collecting and watchmaking to say the least. It was the mass acceptance of wristwatches by soldiers in the first World War that created the market for watches as we know it. Pilots (and later, astronauts) used chronographs to time fuel burn and navigational maneuvers. Military diving squads like the French Marine Nationale, the Italian Gruppo Gamma, and the U.S. Navy SEALs were issued watches as basic equipment and in some cases worked with manufacturers to create innovations.
One of the most if not ‘the’ most valuable and collectible Rolex Submariners is the ‘MilSub,’ issued in small numbers to British amphibious soldiers. Of course, the Omega Speedmaster was used by test pilots and later most famously by NASA. The most famous Tudor has to be the blue Sub issued to the aforementioned Marine Nationale. The Heuer ‘Bund’ chronograph, the large ‘B-Uhr’ watches issued to German bomber pilots, any number of Panerais, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms; compiling a list of military watches important to collectors would not be short.
But like all lists and giant aggregations of things, there’s always some outliers and underappreciated gems in the pile. The British ATP watch is one of them!
A.T.P. stands for ‘Army Trade Pattern,’ the set of design rules created for watches destined for Her Majesty’s armed forces. The ‘pattern’ was this; a watch case from 30 to about 34mm. A white or silver dial with black numbers for legibility. A small second or ‘running seconds’ on the dial to aid in more precise timing coordination.
Fixed bars at the lugs so the strap always stays connected to the wearer. A reliable and accurate movement of 15 jewels or more. Finally, the hands and dial markers needed to be painted with some sort of luminous material to aid in night work.
Seventeen Swiss watch companies answered the call by the British Ministry of Defense to build these timepieces. They were: Buren, Cortebert, Cyma, Ebel, Enicar, Font, Grana, Lemania, Leonidas, Moeris, Reconvilier, Record, Revue, Rotary, Timor, and Unitas. There are slight differences between all the watches; for example, some of the Lemania watches have a sweeping center seconds hand instead of a subsidiary running seconds at the 6 o’clock position.
The Cortebert watches almost always contains an anti-dust movement cover inside the case. Some of the watches have stainless steel cases, but many more are brass with chrome plating. Especially in the beginning of the war, materials like stainless steel were rationed for use in building wartime hardware, not watches.
The A.T.P. watch really has a sort of utilitarian beauty to it, as do many military timepieces. The only design elements that exist in these watches exist for a reason; the timepieces were created for functional purposes only. Of course, this also means that most of these watches still ticking today went through a fair amount of abuse.
Many examples have replacement parts, and in some cases they were fixed by the MoD and re-issued with new serial numbers. After the war, surplus stocks of these watches were purchased and sold to civilians by a shop called Bravingtons; these were later engraved with the shop’s name on the back of the case.
Around 130,000 of these watches were produced, but it is not known how many still exist today. If you want to get technical, there were actually a couple more companies that made these pieces; Mido and Eterna. However, these were made in small numbers and usually with black dials.
These were basically repurposed civilian watches, and having black dials they did not match the ATP design rules. However, the backs of their cases were engraved with ATP by the MoD, so some collectors see these as true ATP watches.
So why are the ATP watches underrated by watch collectors?
Well, for one, there are a lot of them out there. Even though many were destroyed or wrecked during the course of service, the sheer number of pieces manufactured means that lots of examples are still around. Secondly, compared to modern watches the ATPs are pretty small in size.
Thirdly, many of them still in existence are in pretty rough shape. Most of them have chromed brass cases, and saw a lot of action. This means they got pretty beat up, and a lot of collectors don’t want to rock a scratched-up watch.
Finally, the ATP watches are usually overshadowed by what collectors call ‘the Dirty Dozen.’ (Yes, we got this far in the article without mentioning them!) The ‘Dirty Dozen’ was a list of twelve companies that also made watches for the British armed forces near the end of the war.
These watches were larger in size, had black dials, and usually had 100% stainless steel cases. Nothing against the ATPs, but many collectors like the characteristics of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ watches much more than their white-dialed predecessors.
So it’s fairly easy to find ATP watches, and you can usually get them for a few hundred US dollars. Think about it; you can get a serially-numbered, issued Swiss field watch that most definitely saw action in WW2 for the price of a quartz-powered shopping mall watch! The ATPs are design icons and pieces of history, and you can find them in a lot of places. If you can get away with wearing a smaller watch, give an ATP a try.