Zenith-Mark-V-WW1-pilot-watch

The Watch Goes to War: WWI Aviation 1914-1918

The History of the Pilot Watch Part III: Mark IV.A and Mark V

The two most import catalysts for the development of aviation watches were early aviation record attempts and war. World War I finds watch development between the pocket watch and the new wristlets with the British issuing pilots pocket watches. British Mark IV.A and Mark V pocket watches are an example of WW1 military aviation.

World War I conjures childhood images of bi-planes fitted with a machine gun to fire through the propeller, the Red Baron’s plane emerging triumphant from a dogfight, and the endless lines of trenches on the ground below. Add the romanticism of aviation to the romanticism of war, and you have an iconic, if mistakenly idealized, pairing. War’s demand for precise navigation or coordinated attack meant that the world grasped the importance of horology. When “balloon busting” or taking out observation balloons, British pilots flew with the pocket watch Mark IV.A (1914) and Mark V (1916).

Doxa Mark V military pocket watch

Doxa Mark V (source: Military Watch Forum)

Case back markings, unique to country, branch of service or intended use, are a distinguishing characteristic of vintage military watches. Great Britain’s characteristic mark was the broad arrow. For the collector, case back markings are key identifiers and an added authenticity safeguard. These markings meant that the watches were official military equipment, procured through contracts and mass-produced for combat pilots.

On April 13, 1912, the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed to develop a military and naval wing. Just prior to the war, given the unique needs of the fleet, the naval wing severed with the RFC to form the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). In 1918, these two separate aviation branches merged again to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) who continued to use the Mark watches. The RFC aviation issue watches had an underscored capital A with a broad arrow pointing upward underneath it. Repairs to the watch meant an additional caseback stamp marking the repair status. One look at the caseback, and the markings tell you, British issue.

Omega Mark V

Omega Mark V (source: Military Watch Forum)

Mark IV.A (1914) and Mark V (1916) pocket watches were standard issue. The RFC and RNAS had near identical watches, but the RNAS watches were predominately the eight-day variety and the RFC, the 30-hour. Once inside the aircraft, these watches became chronometric instruments, which the pilot fit into the instrument panel. As a result, the Mark IV.A and Mark V had long shank winding stems to extend beyond their instrument panel housing for mid-flight winding, earning the nickname, cockpit watch. German pilots, on the other hand, wore inverted watches suspended from a fob on their flight suits. Zeppelin pilots had rapid access to time, and the hanging, inverted dial was right side up when held. These adaptive measures were precursors to the pilot watch worn on the wrist.

Mark IV Pilot Watch WW1

Smith Mark IV.A – 8 day (IHC 185)

Numerous manufacturers supplied Mark watches with unsigned movements; retailers like H. Williamson Ltd. Of London or Birch & Gaydon Ltd. of London distributed these anonymous watches. The Smith watch company was a leading provider of Mark IV.A watches and bragged, “Because of its splendid time keeping and unfailing accuracy this instrument has gained the reputation of being the most successful watch yet designed for constant use on Aircraft”. The four known manufacturers of Mark V watches were Zenith, Omega, Doxa and Electa.

William Mark IV.A 8-Days cockpit watch

Williamson Ltd. Mark IV.A 8-Days

Mark watches had various configurations. Night flying required the issue of luminous editions so that pilots could monitor fuel consumption and navigate in the dark. The eight-day Mark V model was ideal for longer flights. The rigors of flight demanded thermal compensation, accuracy and shock-resistance. Form follows function, and the aviator’s tool was shaped by its intended use, and nowhere was that use more crucial than in combat. Forged in the fires of warfare, the pilot watch’s functionality expanded and would continue to expand.

British Sopwith SE5 WW1 bi-plane

British Sopwith SE5 WW1 bi-plane

War is serious business. Its existence is evidence of human failure, and war’s sometimes unavoidable necessity requires better than the best effort possible. The exigencies of war called the watchmaking industry to respond with their best effort, making war a catalyst for horological advance. WW1 was the beginning of an appreciation of the watch as essential military equipment. Yet after the horrors of World War I ravaged Europe, Omega issued watches in France which were embossed with the dove of peace. Without celebrating violence, we can celebrate the technological feats achieved amidst appalling circumstances. Mark IV.A and Mark V watches exemplify WWI horological achievement.

Resource: A Concise Guide to Military Timepieces: 1880-1990 by Z.M. Wesolowski

Check out History of the Pilot Watch Part I, II, IV and V by clicking on the images below.

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Max E. Reddick

‘Time in Eternity, Eternity in Time’ – Max’s love of watches began as a boy with his attempt to emulate the fictional character, James Bond. With a vivid imagination and a prized Seiko (sorry Omega), the watch fever started albeit through a laughable impersonation. Having left boyish pretensions behind, the new daydreams include pilot watches and nautical watches. Classic Marine Chronometers, Dive Watches, and Nautically Themed Chronographs are first loves. Max’s interest in Reformed Theology, Jungian Psychology and Haute Horology means that Switzerland is an enduring focus.

View all articles by Max E. Reddick

12 Responses to “The History of the Pilot Watch Part III: Mark IV.A and Mark V”

  1. graham phillips says:

    hi i have got a watch in exerllent condition with the brass case out of the bye plane i would like to get a value of this watch what do i need to do regards graham phillips.

  2. Frank says:

    Hi Graham,
    You could try to find similar models in Anitiquorum or Christies online catalogs of previous auctions. That could help to set a rough estimate.
    Regards,
    Frank

  3. Jacqui says:

    Hi I own one of the watches mentioned above a WWI British Royal Flying Corps Mark V 30 hour Non
    Luminous Pocket Watch in perfect working order and excellent condition would anyone know where to have this valued please

  4. John Rowe says:

    Prices on these RFC cockpit watches are all over the place, from next to nothing to more than $1000+USD, depending on condition of movement and case. I would love to see pictures of all of it inside and out perhaps could give you an idea of what it might sell for. I have several and might be interested. Thanks J. Rowe

  5. Phil Taylor says:

    I also have one a IV with the manufacture of Billodes. It also have a number in the case hand written (65614) can anyone shed any light on the number (65614)

  6. Phil Taylor says:

    Hi how do I go about finding out about my watch it is a Mark IV.A Watch but when I opened it up it had hand written a number (65614). I am really interested in finding who the watch belonged to. Any help please guys?

  7. Phil Rayner says:

    Hi, I have a Mk V 30 hour non luminous pocket watch which was given to me by my grandfather many years ago. On the face it has the following “BE 1388″ and inscribed on the back it has “A (arrow) Sth 1091″. I am really interested to find out more about the markings and if I would be able to find out who owned it from this markings. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  8. Max Reddick says:

    One of the distinctive aspects of military watches is their unique markings used to identify them. These marking range from the general to obscure. The capital A and broad arrow (mentioned above) is a general marking of the Royal Flying Corps for pocket watches (typically 1914-1917). The Military Watch Resource Forum is a good resource for the more obscure markings, which are likely contract numbers or military issue codes. I would suggest making an inquiry there: http://www.mwrforum.net/forums/.

  9. Dave C says:

    Hello, can anyone help me with my question? I have a MKV.A H Williamson (8days) cockpit watch with ‘W’ a crows foot then a ‘D’ (for war department) stamped on the caseback. My understanding is that this dates the watch to 1914. The watch does not have a loop as was standard with cockpit watches. All the cockpit watches I have seen so far have black faces/dials, however mine has a white face? now all the markings are the same as the black faced counterparts…but why a white face? I will add that it does match the watch in every way and does not look like a replacement, can anyone help please?
    Thanks,
    Dave

  10. Max Reddick says:

    @Dave – Many of the white face dials were naval counterparts to the aviation pieces. You might try the forums for more precise information on your specific piece.

  11. mikeonefour says:

    Doxa 30-hour non-luminous Mk V, black dial marked BE 790.
    Case is completely unmarked, and pendant is short, with a loop.
    Can any one date this ?…I’m assuming that because it is a Mark V, that it is a 1916 model ?
    Thanks !

  12. Robbank says:

    Very interesting site and very well described and explained. Thank you.

    I have a 30 hour non-luminuos Mark V, but with a hand written addition below of : G.S. Type. It is marked just above the second counter C.B. 3346. The hands still show traces of lume. The back plate has the usual arrow underscore A and above this shows A (crown) M on either side which I assume to read Air Ministry. The movement is clean, running and marked Zenith

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