The Tudor MilSub: Part IIBy Ross Povey
In Part I of this epic story we focused on the French National Navy’s pivotal role in the development of the Tudor Submariner. The Marine Nationale issued watches are the most well known of Tudor MilSubs but, beyond this, it is also important to consider the significant amount of research, development and consultation that occurred between the French Navy and Montres Tudor SA. The purpose of this installment of the story is to explore other military forces that opted to issue their troops with Tudor Submariners.
“Why Tudors?” is both a good question and one that is impossible to answer definitively. Hans Wilsdorf bestowed upon Tudor watches three key elements – the automatic movement (which he had pioneered), the Oyster case and the full Rolex guarantee. To achieve this prestigious guarantee, Tudor watches had to be built to the same standards as their coroneted cousins. This was achievable in part because Tudor Subs were manufactured with many components used in Rolex Subs – cases, crowns, tubes, crystals, sealing gaskets and bezel assemblies. Aside from case engravings, the only discernable differences were the dials, hands and movements. This made Tudor dive watches very durable, reliable and, perhaps most importantly, very good value. Not all forces were as wealthy as the British MOD and so the Tudors were a more cost effective solution.
None of the Tudor MilSubs that have surfaced so far have discernable markings on the dials, unlike the Rolex British MilSub (which have a ‘T’ within a circle to denote the use of tritium on the dial and hands). The single identifiable feature of Tudor military watches is the casebacks – usually. The French Navy watches have MN engraved on the reverse of the watch, the South African watches the serial number, while other forces had unique stock codes engraved on them. The only notable exception to this rule is the Canadian issued watches, which we’ll look at later.
South African Navy
It is now generally accepted that the MN watches were ordered from Geneva in batches that are identifiable across a number of years. The first batch of South African MilSubs date to 1974 and fall within one of the earliest batches of French MN 7016s – the most coveted black “MN 74”. The second batch was issued later in the 1970s and only two examples are known to still exist from that group, leading us to conclude that there were fewer ordered – there is a strong belief that that these watches were probably sourced through the French Marine Nationale, by the South African Navy.
The French supplied the South African Navy’s first submarine and the French Navy delivered training in Toulon to South African Navy divers in the early 1970s. I have a personal theory that the South African divers saw and used the MN Tudors and wanted to utilise the snowflake watches themselves. Several ex-South African Navy divers, who confirm they were issued with both Rolex and Tudor Submariners, have supported this theory. I have had extensive contact with one particular diver who was issued a black snowflake Submariner ref. 7016 having successfully completed the first two levels of diver training at the training school in Simon’s Town. The South African Navy did not issue any blue Tudors, only black, and they were all issued on fabric NATO-style straps to allow them to be strapped over the sleeves of wetsuits.
Unlike the French-issued watches, there are no service records or issue logs for the South African pieces. I have compiled a database of these watches and the actual number of confirmed pieces is very small. My database of Tudor Military watches is now up to approximately 500 pieces, but fewer than 10 of those are South African. What is certain is that all the examples, with one exception, originated in South Africa and more specifically Simon’s Town, which is where the navy is based. Most of the examples I know of were bought from clearance divers, navy personnel, and even one from a navy watchmaker.
So what is the secret? Well, the common theme of these watches is the serial number that is engraved across the case back. The engravings on all watches are of a high quality and are reasonably deep, unlike the shallow personal engravings seen on some military watches. As I mentioned earlier, they are from a very small serial batch and therefore all have a number of common numerals in the engravings. The font of the engravings is very distinguishable and all authentic examples have the same details in the engravings.
Over the past few years I’ve had a number of emails from ex-Canadian Navy divers who were issued Tudor Subs and consequently I am now certain that Tudor Submariners were issued by the Canadian Navy. But, while we know that they were in fact issued, with these watches the provenance is crucial. What I mean by this is that it is very hard to “prove” that you have bought a Canadian Milsub without some corroborating documentations. I have encountered Canadian Submariners with the following caseback features:
1) Sterile – no markings on the caseback
2) The owners name and rank
3) The watch’s serial number
4) Navy stores stock numbers
Again, as far as I’m aware there isn’t any service ledger book like the two that exist for the French pieces and so the information on the Canadian MilSubs has been amassed from online forums, the collation of known and trusted serial numbers (which help identify batches of common serial numbers), email exchanges with divers and administrators (existing and ex-service) and collectors’ shared knowledge.
From the watches that have been discovered I estimate that the Canadian Navy began issuing Tudors in the late 1960s. The earliest watches seen are ref. 7016 from 1968 with transitional “rose” dial and Mercedes-pattern hands. There are also well-documented snowflake watches including refs. 7021, 94110 and non-date 94010. The last watches issued were the 79090 Submariner Date watches, which I have some anecdotal information about from the retired Canadian Rolex Service Centre Manager. He confirmed that the last batch that the navy issued were in fact ref. 79090s.
The most fascinating Canadian Milsubs are, however, a unique batch of watches that all have a shared odd configuration – rectangular 3, 6 and 9 plots, triangular 12 plot and the remaining circular plots, but with snowflake hands. These “mismatched” dial and hand configurations are actually the same layout as the Tudor Heritage Black Bay watches – a traditional Submariner dial (like those on a ref. 7928) but with snowflake hands. We know that these watches were delivered in a reasonably small serial number batch and I suspect they were delivered in this configuration. One train of thought is that the Canadian Navy added the snowflake hands at the request of divers, to improve legibility. I suspect that this wasn’t the case as I came across an original owner watch in the North West of England three years ago in the exact same configuration as these watches within the correct serial range.
Jamaican Defence Force
One of the rarest and most unusual Tudor MilSubs I have encountered was issued to the Jamaican Defence Force. The Jamaican Defence Force (JDF) was formed in August 1963 as Jamaica’s maritime law enforcement body. The JDF’s original role was search and rescue and drugs policing. In the 1980s a diving division was introduced whose members were trained by the US Navy. The roles and missions of the diving department (then and now) are numerous. In addition to its previous duties, the diving unit carries out underwater inspection of drains, gutters and oil pipelines, ships’ hull searches (for narcotics and other smuggled goods) and pier-side dives searching for explosives, as requested by visiting foreign warships.
The only known example is a blue Submariner reference that was worn by a JDF diver who had been issued the watch whilst in active service. The serial number dates the watch to 1980 and it was issued to the diver by US Navy stores (who provided a lot of the JDF’s equipment). We know from previous research that the US Navy had issued Tudor Subs, including blue snowflake watches, to their divers. I have also seen the engraving style that appears on the JDF Sub appear on other US Navy-issued Tudors. It is, therefore, highly probable that the US Navy Stores Master had the caseback engraved to issue to the JDF.
My research informs me that the JDF widely issued Doxa and Seiko dive watches, a number of which are still in use today. Maybe the Tudor was “borrowed” from a batch that was intended for US divers to fulfill an order by the JDF. The provenance of the one known example is impeccable as it was acquired through a now former senior ranking officer within the JDF. In terms of buying a MilSub, it doesn’t get better than that.
United States Navy
There have been a number of well-documented Tudor Subs that were issued to divers in the US Navy (USN) that have appeared over the past decade. Based on examples that are known, we can conclude that the USN used Tudor Submariners across four decades beginning in the 1950s. There is one example of a “Big Crown” ref. 7924 with a USN caseback engraving that was discovered a few years ago, which would suggest the relationship began in the 1950s as per the French Navy.
The most commonly seen USN Tudors are ref. 7928. There are two or three different types of engraving on the ref. 7928 watches, all of which feature the three letters “U.S.N.”. Some pieces just have these three letters engraved in large fonts that are similar to the Jamaican Defence Force watch. Others have more information including an issue date, vessel it was issued to or, in rare cases, the word “SUBASE”, which is a reference to a submarine base. One very interesting point to note is that some of the USN Tudor 7928 Subs worn around the Vietnam conflict had “moisture discs” added to the dial. These small circular indictors were applied to the bottom half of the dial to warn the wearer if there had been any water ingress in the watch.
As well as 7928 Submariners, the US Navy also issued snowflake watches. A well-known example is a blue snowflake date watch that was issued to a member of the US Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT-13). The current owner of the watch bought it from the diver to whom it was issued directly and there is a lot of provenance with it.
Some of the most mysterious Tudor MilSubs originate from Argentina. The first are 1950s Tudor Submariners ref. 7924, the so-called Big Crown watches. A number of these were issued to the Armada de la Republica de Argentina (A.R.A.). I suspect they were issued in very small numbers.
The other Argentinian Tudor MilSubs are the “Ci” pieces. There are many known examples and all have a pattern of engravings that begin with the numbers six and one and three subsequent numbers i.e. 61xxx and then the letters Ci. The earliest known examples of these are mid- to late-1960s, pointed-crown-guard (PCG) Submariners ref. 7928. The caseback markings on these are all “612xx Ci” with the engraved fonts all having common traits. Additionally, a good number of known examples of these watches are with a reasonably small serial number range.
A transitional batch of watches followed that were marked “613xx Ci” beginning with ref. 7928 Submariners and then switching to Snowflake Subs. The Tudor Snowflakes continued to be issued and the caseback numbering moved through 614xx Ci to 615xx Ci. But what exactly do the letters Ci mean? The most popular theory is that it stands for Cuerpo de Infantería, which is a division of the Argentinian police force. In fact, the division is known as the Cuerpo Guardia de Infantería. The Argentinian Navy has a Commando de la Infantería, which deals with amphibious combat, much like Chile’s Cuerpo de Infantería, de Marina. I believe it is likely the watches were used by one of the latter two forces as their dive watches. Another recently mooted observation is that the Ci actually stands for código de inventario, meaning inventory code. Research is still ongoing, but they are interesting watches that we are piecing together gradually.
Israeli Defence Force
The Israeli Navy has an elite naval commando unit called Shayetet 13 (or S13) that has a reputation as one of the world’s finest and most secretive special-forces units. It has been deployed in all of Israel’s wars and is made up of specialist sea-to-land combat troops. A number of Tudor Submariners were issued to S13 members in the mid-1960s, all of which had the letter “M” and three numbers.
I am aware of a number of examples that were bought directly from ex-service personnel, and all these watches feature what collectors have dubbed a “drunken M”, where the “M” in the engraving is slanted as though it is in italics. There are a number of bad fakes with very poor quality engravings that are stylistically nothing like the authentic examples. Additionally, the watches were originally painted black and original examples still have traces of the black in unexposed areas of the watch.
And the rest…
I have focused on watches that were officially issued by stores masters or their equivalent. There are, however, a huge number of watches that were purchased by serving troops and then engraved with their name, rank, vessel on which they served and other personal engravings. Many of these watches saw combat situations and are important military watches in their own right that are keenly sought after by collectors. This article isn’t necessarily exhaustive and it is always exciting when a new discovery is made and that’s what makes this so much fun – the thrill of the chase!