Watches have long served as gifts given to mark important occasions. In the past it was standard practice to inscribe the caseback with a name or even a short note. From parents to children, wives to husbands, watches made a great gift because they were both personal and essential. Folks needed a watch to stay on time, and what better way to remember an occasion than to actually use the object tied to it? *But in the early days of WWII, a batch of American watches were given as gifts to Soviet soldiers for a different sort of occasion: to help win a war.
On December 14, 1941 former ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies proclaimed to a crowded Boston Arena, “We must never forget that we have been the beneficiaries of their agonies. When they fight for their homes they fight for ours.” Mr. Davies was referring to the immense suffering Soviet troops faced as they fought off an encroaching Nazi army.*For some context, this was just seven days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which marked the entry of the United States into World War II.*
A letter to NYC governor Herbert H. Lehman from Allen Wardwell of the Russian War Relief.
Roughly six months earlier, three million German troops marched into the Soviet Union with the support of 3,000 tanks on the ground and the Luftwaffe in the air. The front spanned nearly 2,000 miles from the North Cape all the way to the Black Sea. The Soviet Invasion is widely accepted as Hitler’s most significant blunder, as its failure caused Germany to fight a two-front war. While the Germans grossly underestimated Soviet forces, Operation Barbarossa inflicted incredible damage to the Soviet Union. Perhaps the greatest ally to the Soviet Forces was the extremely harsh Russian winter, as the German troops found it absolutely debilitating.
But it wasn’t just the cold that came to the Soviet Union’s aid. In the United States, a New York-based foundation bolstered the efforts of the unflinching Soviets. Known as the Russian War Relief, the organization was set up in July 1941 (before the U.S. entered the war) and officially incorporated in September. Their mission was to supply Soviet troops with every bit of equipment possible in order to help them in the fight the Nazis. They raised funding from New York’s business elite, they recruited new members from Ivy League campuses, and they ran a sizable PR campaign to drum up support.*
And the Russian War Relief even custom-ordered watches to keep Soviet forces on time from a crop of America’s prominent watchmakers, Waltham, Elgin, and Hamilton. These special-purpose watches were built to the U.S. Army Ordnance Department’s general specifications, meaning they were rated to be used for basic timekeeping in military functions, although not necessarily combat. Watches carrying the A-11 specification are a cut above the Russian War Relief–ordered watches.
The watches are inscribed with an encouraging note to Soviet soldiers:*"To the Heroic People of the USSR – Russian War Relief USA,” with the latter half of the inscription being a transliteration into Cyrillic characters from English.*
There was a healthy amount of skepticism from the Western Allies towards the Stalin-led Soviet Union at the time, but the need to work together became obvious as Hitler’s Germany grew more powerful. American policymakers handled Soviet cooperation with a sort of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" approach. It wasn’t necessarily an alliance formed from shared values, brotherhood, or kinship, but rather it was an alliance born out of sheer necessity. The only way to stop Germany was to band together. Winston Churchill shared the sentiment with typical English wit: "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons."*
The Lend-Lease act, passed in March 1941, was purportedly the legislative vehicle that allowed the Russian War Relief organization to deliver these watches to the Soviet troops. It was a legislative instrument that allowed the United States to remain distant from the combat side of war while still taking a stance through supplying fighting forces with the equipment. Of course there was a fair amount of opposition to the bill, with some senators noting that it would allow the President to carry out proxy wars all over the world without ever putting men in the trenches.*
Of course, it’s possible that the Russian War Relief simply organized the delivery of the watches to troops outside the lend-lease act. While a production order for the watches does exist, there is no mention of the lend-lease act. After the war was over, it was actively discouraged in Russia to discuss the aid the U.S. had given to the Soviet forces, so there's no documentation on that side to help.*
With that in mind, it begs the question of whether or not the Soviet forces were allowed to keep these watches or if it was considered taboo to own a watch honoring a partnership that was forbidden to discuss. The particular example you see here is incredibly weathered, and the inscription on the caseback has been significantly worn down, potentially hinting at a lifetime of use. After all, it may have gone through the war strapped to the wrist of a soldier on the Eastern front.
The war ended with the defeat of the Nazis, and the Russian War Relief dissolved as American entered peacetime. Pins, posters, and records at the New York Public Library are all that's left of the organization, but every now and then a confusing watch pops up from an American watchmaker with Cyrillic writing on the back. The relationship that developed between Russia and America in the post-war years is another chapter in history entirely, but the watch serves as a reminder of the time our nations came together to fight a greater evil.*
The Russian War Relief gave the Soviet soldiers a vital timekeeping tool for warfare; the Soviet soldiers gave all they could in the fight against the Nazis.


More...