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Thread: How did Spitfire pilots tell the time in the office?

  1. #1

    How did Spitfire pilots tell the time in the office?

    This post isn't finished - much more later...

    Over Sunday lunch, my brother in law mentioned that he had been trying to buy a clock from a Spitfire's Instrument panel. My immediate reaction was to claim that they didn't routinely have one and that when they did, it would be whatever was available and within whatever 6A spec applied. Digging through all the stuff I'd written on the subject in the past, I notice that this was an odd thing to say as I'd previously written:

    The MKII Spitfire was equipped with a standard Smiths eight day clock, which, looking at the MKII from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, (P7350) is tucked right out of the way just above the magneto switches on the far left of the panel. Thus, if caught out to sea, or above unbroken cloud in an area with high ground and with a failed radio, a pilot could still navigate by a clock they'd be able to see at a glance rather than a watch that would be under several layers of wool, silk and sheepskin in the MKII's unheated cockpit.
    That I'm managing to disagree with myself comes as no surprise to me and merely confirms that I really could get into an argument in an empty room, However, in this case I have a bit of an excuse as I made this claim in an thread in which I was ridiculing Omega for calling the CK2292 'The Spitfire', here:

    so while I quickly checked my facts, I clearly hadn't thought it through or engaged in the sort of level of research that would tell us about any aircraft beyond the BBMF's MKII and my vague opinion. A vague opinion that had apparently changed...

    So rather than a quick browse through a reference book that had a picture of the panels of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) MKII Spitfire (P7350), I'm going to have a go at getting this right. P7350 is not a bad place to start as it is both one of the earliest flying examples and certainly one of the few flying that has any sort of continuity, rather than being 'rebuilt' from the remains of an identifiable crashed aircraft. This definitely does have the Smiths Eight day clock with an 'time of trip' function. However, P7350 was an early beneficiary of decentralisation (and moving inland) of aircraft production as it was one of the very first (number 14 according to legend) to roll off the production line at the new Castle Bromwich site in Augast 1940. So it's an early Spitfire, but not one built at the original Eastleigh docks in Southampton.

    P9374 was one of the surprisingly few Spitfires actually built by Supermarine in Southampton. This aircraft rolled off the production line in March 1940 but by September 1940, the main Supermarine factory was destroyed in two days of concentrated raids by the Luftwaffe. However, even before these raids, the decision had been made to spread Spitfire production all over the country. if anything does, this represents Supermarine's vision of how a Spitfire should be built as it was built to Supermarine's original MKI spec in the original factory, by the people who were in on the aircraft from the start. There's a lovely picture of the instrument panel here:

    Here's the picture from that splendid site for those who don't click links:

    The clock is subtly identified by the formation of red arrows. There's a couple of useful facts to be gleaned here.

    First, this is the standard position for the clock. For obvious reasons, the Air Ministry went out of their way to standardise instrumentation - The blind flying panel (The large black square panel) was meant to be standardised across all types used by the RAF but an effort was made to standardise the position of instruments across types. As such, if a Spitfire has a clock, it will have a clock on the far middle left of the instrument panel.

    Second, it's another Smiths eight day clock with an elapsed time chronograph function. So we now have two Spitfires, one from Southampton and one from Castle Bromwich. Both were built within a few months of each other in the middle of 1940 This is significant (and deliberate) The former was the original home of the Spitfire and the latter built over half of the Spitfires ever made. As such, the fact that both aircraft feature the same clock suggests that this was the standard clock of the period. Inspection of several other Spitfires suggests this to be the case. So the first conclusion is that if you want the clock from a Battle of Britain Spitfire, This is the one you are after:

    Ok - I've run out of time and I'm going to post this as I don't want to lose it. This is a work in progress...

    Other highlights to come:

    At the heart of the absolute confusion that tends to exist about the relationship between Smiths, Jaeger, LeCoultre and Jaeger LeCoultre there is a single man: Robert Lenoir.

    Lenoir, while qualified as a watchmaker, worked for Jaeger on the development of instruments for cars. In 1921, he was sent to London to work with Rotax, then an agent for Jaeger, to try to improve disappointing sales. Lenoir was charismatic and competent and popularised Jaeger instruments in motorsport and with several major British manufactures. However, the relationship with was never satisfactory for Jaeger as Rotax appeared a lukewarm agent.

    The reason for this was simple: Rotax were covertly developing links with Lucas (a major competitor) when this became clear, in 1923/4, Jaeger passed the agency to a distant relative and in 1925, to work around a patriotic and increasingly effective ‘buy British’ campaign, opened a factory to manufacture Jaeger instruments in the UK. Lenoir became the works manager of Ed. Jaeger London as an incorporated company.

    The factory was an instant success and in 1927, Smiths made Jaeger an offer they couldn’t refuse which resulted in Smiths purchasing a more than controlling 75% share in Ed. Jaeger London and making Lenoir, as works manager, a Smiths employee.

    However, there was still one fly in the ointment: escapements. Jaeger had almost exclusively been using parts and escapements from LeCoultre in their car and aviation clocks and had very close relations, while Smiths had been using clock escapements from Tavannes. Smiths made it clear that they desperately wanted to build up their clock business and to produce car and aircraft clocks that were entirely British. With the British market increasingly hostile to foreign products, the temptation to make a quick buck helping Smiths to do something they would eventually do on their own must have been overwhelming, in different ways, to both Jaeger and LeCoultre.

    In 1928, with significant, and independent, technical support from LeCoultre, the All British Escapement Company was formed. At conception, this rather pointedly named company was committed to exclusively supply Smiths with escapements for almost two decades. Finally Smiths had it all: their own instrument manufacture, run by Lenoir, which also made instrument panel clocks based on Jaeger’s designs and a vast modern escapement factory producing homegrown escapements developed with the help of LeCoultre.

    To put it another way, with the no doubt coincidental help of government policy Smiths appears to have comprehensively outmanouvered both LeCoultre and Jaeger to get what they really wanted: the capacity to mass produce entirely English clocks without the outlay of starting from zero. How different from the seventies when Smiths watches was allowed to fail while money was shovelled into the stainless steel coke habit of Johm Delorean.

    In 1931 Smiths founded Smiths English Clocks Limited and, while the manufacture of instruments continues to this day Smiths found themselves with the capacity to mass produce high quality clocks and eventually watches. Lenoir eventually became technical Director of Smiths Industries Clock & Watch Division and died in late 1979, which by coincidence is when Smiths finally stopped producing watches. Jaeger and LeCoultre finally merged in 1937.

    So, to return to the Smiths Clocks found in the Spitfire, they may well be Jaeger, and certainly have designs and design elements from both Jaeger and LeCoultre, However, they were made either by Smiths or by a wholly owned subsidiary of Smiths. Rather than coming from Switzerland, they, like the Goodies, hailed from the slightly less foreign Cricklewood.

    Likewise, the watches designed and made by Smiths were entirely British and at the time of design, the closest connection with Jaeger LeCoultre was that Smiths happened to employ an ex Jaeger employee as the technical director of their clock and watch division. He’d worked for Smiths for decades by then.

    I have no evidence that he actually did any of the design work on any Smiths Watch. Speedometers certainly, clocks, especially for car and aircraft most probably, but watches. I don’t think so. By the time Smiths were designing and making watches he was the director of the entire division and had spent most of his career as a an inspirational and talented manager, not a watch designer.


    I had a bit of a dig and eventually found the spec for a clock in the 1942 edition of the Air Ministry book 'Instrument Manual' (AP1275) This asserts that from the the MkIIA onward ....

    (in three versions - non lume 6A/1002, radioactive lume 6A/1003 and fluorescent lume 6A/1274 was the clock that would be fitted to Spitfires (among others) if a clock was fitted...


    And even

    Now this would look like a tidy conclusion, except I nipped down to Manston yesterday, where there's a handy MKXVI and a very helpful archivist. I had a quick delve in the cockpit and guess what, just like the MKIX at Ta'qali
    Last edited by Matt; Dec 22, 2014 at 03:49 PM.

  2. #2
    Dive Watches & Japanese Moderator OTGabe's Avatar
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    Oct 2014
    North Carolina, USA
    Very interesting. Looking forward to more.

  3. #3
    Moderator - Central tribe125's Avatar
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    Oct 2014
    Kent - UK
    Superb, Matt. I'll be reading the rest.

  4. #4
    wind-up merchant OhDark30's Avatar
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    Nov 2014
    Nice one, Matt!
    Very interesting.
    Here's a pic of Spitfire Island at Castle Bromwich
    It's the final countdown! PM me before they're all gone!

  5. Likes Seriously, Matt liked this post
  6. #5
    Hall Monitor Samanator's Avatar
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    Oct 2014
    Sebring, Florida
    Very interesting read. Looking forward to the next installment.


    Tell everyone you saw it on IWL!

  7. #6
    That's cool , never seen it before

  8. #7
    The Dude Abides Nokie's Avatar
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    Nov 2014
    Northern CA
    Most excellent. Keep it coming.
    "Either He's Dead, Or My Watch Has Stopped....."
    Groucho Marx

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