Churchill’s chal­lenge

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In 1941, in the har­bour of Alexan­dria, a pair of Bri­tish bat­tle­ships were heav­ily dam­aged by Ital­ian frog­men rid­ing “hu­man tor­pe­does”. The stealth raid sent shock­waves through the Royal Navy – and when Churchill heard of it, he in­sisted that the Bri­tish work to cre­ate a sim­i­lar de­vice.

As the frog­men op­er­ated in small groups, it was clear that, to syn­chro­nise at­tacks, they would need a watch that was ca­pa­ble of func­tion­ing for sev­eral hours un­der­wa­ter. Other than those made for the Ital­ian frog­men by Pan­erai, no such time­piece ex­isted; but pocket watches used by mem­bers of the Royal Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety in ex­treme en­vi­ron­ments of­fered in­spi­ra­tion. These tended to fea­ture a spe­cially de­signed screw back-and-front case, with the wind­ing crown pro­tected by an ad­di­tional cap at­tached by a short chain.

This, then, is how the Bri­tish wrist­watches (pic­tured) ap­peared, with lit­tle devel­op­ment on a de­sign that was by then more than a cen­tury old. The watches, con­tain­ing a Longines move­ment used in Fleet Air Arm pi­lots’ watches, were big­ger even than Pan­erai mod­els, at 51mm across.

They were screwed Paner­isti shut with a wrench, and thick wire was sol­dered on to ac­cept a strap.

It’s likely that fewer than 50 of these were made, and to date just four are known to have sur­faced – an amaz­ing relic of a time when Bri­tain stood alone and had to find its own so­lu­tions.

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