Dean Owen

5 years ago · 2 min. reading time · visibility ~100 ·

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The incredible Mark V Cockpit watches

The incredible Mark V Cockpit watches

Back in 2012, I received a Zenith Mark V Cockpit watch from a dealer in Portugal and I started to delve into the history of this watch. It is truly remarkable to know that in 1916 and 1917, close to ten watch houses were commissioned by the British Air Ministry to make these Mark V Cockpit watches for pilots of the Royal Flying Corps (the predecessor to the Royal Air Force). Omega, Invicta, Doxa, Octava, Electa, and Zenith appear to have been the houses that received the largest orders from the Ministry, on average producing perhaps 7,000 Type V's each. There is a lot of speculation as to how many Mark V's were produced in total, with war historians placing the total number anywhere up to around 58,000 pieces (based on studies of serial numbers on the watch dials). 

The incredible Mark V Cockpit watches

The British are reported to have built 58,144 aircraft during The Great War, and these included Bristol F2 fighter, the Sopwith Camel, and the Sopwith Pup pictured above. The Mark V Cockpit watches were put in a black painted aluminium holder right in the center of the instrument panel, and these holders had horsehair felt to soften the rattle and act as a sort of suspension. Remember that these single seater warplanes (bi-planes) were made of not much more than wood and fabric ! Almost 36,000 of these planes were lost in the War, and pilots were required to salvage the watch if he was downed since the watches were not standard issue with the planes. 

According to a fellow blogger, in the book "No Parachute" by Arthur Gould Lee, the author once crash landed his Sopwith Pup just behind the enemy lines and had commented in a letter home to his wife that someone had stolen the watch from the dashboard and he had to fill out all sorts of forms swearing that he had not taken it. He noted the irony of the fact that no one was concerned he had lost a plane, but a watch, well that was a different matter! 

Now, apparently the reason why the Mark V's, and much of the aircraft instrument panel had black dials was so as not to impair night vision since white numbers on black would have less impact than black on white. 

The luminous versions were commissioned in the latter half of 1917 when the night bombing raids started. But many preferred non-luminous ones since the luminous painted numerals tended to flake off, especially with the vibrations of the bi-planes. There was also a third type of Mark V, with an 8-day Power Reserve, that was commissioned for the Royal Naval Air Services, and is quite a rare find. The 8-day requirement was for the longer bombing sorties, across the Channel, to France, Belgium, and on to Germany. With very few instruments available, these cockpit watches were critical to every part of the mission, from calculating fuel, to the timing of release of bombs. 

You'll notice "CB 5924" written on the dial, where CB refers to the manufacture, Zenith, and 5924 being the serial number. Each manufacture had their own ID, with BB referring to Doxa and Omega, BD referring to Invicta etc. On the reverse side, the markings "A M" apparently refer to the "Air Ministry", with the "A" possibly referring to Air. 

The incredible Mark V Cockpit watches

It is interesting to note that Georges Favre Jacot produced the predecessor Mark IV-A watches before registering the Zenith trademark that decade, and thus Zenith appears to be the only manufacture commissioned by the British govt to produce both the Mark IV-A and the Mark V.

These Mark V's are not that rare, but they are also not common, since as one can expect, many were lost during the war, and many more since. But they often appear at auctions and vintage watch shops and are highly collectible pieces of history that can be had for an extremely fair price. Prices ranges from $200 up to $800 for good condition pieces from the popular Omega and Zenith houses. 

And so it is a fitting tribute that, 95 years later, in 2012, Zenith launched the Type 20 Special which certainly maintain the DNA of the amazing Mark V 30 Hr "Non-Luminous". 

The incredible Mark V Cockpit watches

Please do not take this small tribute as factual as I am far from a historian and expert on WWI military instruments, but do feel free to correct, add, or continue to research these remarkable instruments of history.

Dean Owen is the Co-Founder of Quimojo, a revolutionary new concept in Global Campus Recruitment.

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Dean Owen

5 years ago #1

Excellent! Or should I say tip top old boy! I do hope some of your research makes it to the pages of beBee. I would love to read it. Were the British Generals really that ignorant and incompetent as they are portrayed in the movies ?

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