June 6, 1944

Fewer and fewer are left to tell their first-hand accounts of this date in history, but the reminders are spread along coast and waters of Normandy.  D-Day was a tremendous operation involving untold numbers of men and materials, including proud ships of the Royal Navy.  Vacheron & Constantin was present as well, keeping time on the ships in aid of navigation and military matters.

June 6, 1944

I'd like to introduce you to a military Chronometre Royal of the Royal Navy.  While the watch wasn't present on this fateful date, she saw proud service on two ships that did participate in the invasion, and this is their story.

First the watch.  At 59mm wide, it fits the typical pattern of a silver-cased ship's chronometer and could have seen duty with either side, but the broad arrow on the enamel dial and "H.S.2" on the back tell us it was British.  The inner cuvette is plain polished and all business, while underneath resides what may be the prettiest iteration of the 18-ligne Chronometre Royal calibre.  Specifications included 15 jewels, cut bimetallic balance, Breguet balance spring, swan-neck fine regulator, and finely finished Geneva stripes with bright rhodium plating.  VC archives indicate the watch was completed in 1943.

June 6, 1944

June 6, 1944

June 6, 1944

Further evidence of British origin is the wood transit box which secured the chronometer in a screw-top Dennison brass bowl.  The label testifies to issuance on the 5th of March, 1945; the date this watch went into service.  As an H.S.2-rated Ship's Chronometer, the watch was one step above an H.S.3 deck watch and one below the master H.S.1 gimballed box Chronometer with detent escapement.  The timekeeping requirements were quite strict; an H.S.2 had to be accurate to less than 1 sec. per 24 hours!

June 6, 1944

During my research on this piece, I was fortunate enough to connect with the very helpful people at the Royal Maritime Museum who managed to locate the inventory ledger for the watch.  The details were exciting:

June 6, 1944

Royal Navy “Chronometer Watch” inventory sheet for Vacheron &  Constantin (36) 9409
Date of Purchase: 3 Sep. 1943 from H. Golay
  • 5 Mar. 1945         Transferred to   C.S.O. Saltcoats
  • 3 May 1945                                       F.D.T. 217
  • 15 Jun. 1945                                    Sheerness
  • 11 July 1945                                     H.M.S. Southdown
  • 26 Apr. 1946                                     Taunton
  • 1 Aug. 1961                                       Southern Watch Co. (taken off charge)
Between periods of transfer, this ledger indicated active service with Fighter Direction Tender (FDT) 217 in May of 1945, and Escort Destroyer HMS Southdown in July of that year.  It went into storage in 1946 and was sold as surplus in 1961.

To learn about FDT 217 is to visit the very beaches of Normandy on D-Day and for weeks afterwards.  I am very indebted to an essay by Horance Macaulay for this history.  In the entire Royal Navy there were only three such craft.  Converted from 328 ft. Landing Ship Tank (LST) craft, these top-secret radar-equipped vessels were brought in close to shore for the invasion, to detect enemy aircraft and control their interception.

June 6, 1944

The radar systems on the FDTs were developed following the capture of sophisticated German Wurzburg radar in a commando raid on the Cherbourg peninsula in 1942.  The concept of using ground radar on floating vessels was initially tried by the Allies during the invasion of Sicily in July, 1943, and proved so successful that Fighter Command requested similar vessels for the invasion of the landings in Europe.

FDT 217 was converted in Scotland and carried a compliment of 100 Navy officers & men in addition to 176 Air Force personnel.  Sent for sea trials in April, 1944, she was involved in the ill-fated exercise Operation Tiger.  A squadron of German E-boats intercepted the flotilla and sank many LSTs for a loss of over 600 American personnel.  Among the missing were ten officers with knowledge of the planned D-Day landings.  The security of the entire invasion was at risk while the beaches were searched for their bodies.  By some miracle, all ten were located and the plans were considered safe again.

Soon enough the FDTs were ready for action and joined the Assault Task Force on June 5, 1944.  FDT 217 was stationed off the British and Canadian beaches of Sword, Juno and Gold.  Happily enough, the radar technical crew onboard were all members of the Royal Canadian Air Force.  FDT 217 performed its radar interception duties amidst the shell fire and also acted as the co-ordinating vessel to order reinforcements where required.  After 17 days of continuous operations, FDT 217 was withdrawn from the beaches.

RCAF radar crew of FDT 217 who saw service during D-Day
June 6, 1944

FDT 217 was undergoing re-fit for Japan when the watch was delivered to the vessel.  The atomic bomb was dropped before work was completed, ending the war.  The crew was paid off and the ship returned to the US Navy in February, 1946.  She was sold for scrap a year later, minus the top-secret radar equipment.

The inventory ledger next shows the watch being delivered to HMS Southdown in July of 1945.  Southdown was one of 86 Hunt-class Escort Destroyers built under the 1939 rearmament program, and was launched in July of 1940.  As one of the first twenty Type I ships of the series, she was equipped with two 2x4" gun mounts, one 4x2-pounder "pom pom" AA gun, two 20mm Oerlikons, and one 2-pounder "bowchaser" gun.  For anti-submarine use, she carried two depth-charge mortars and a single depth-charge rack.  Her compliment was 146 officers and men.

June 6, 1944

She was 280 feet long and 29 feet abeam, with two steam-driven turbine engines geared for a top speed of 27 knots.  At a more sedate 15 knots, range was 3,500 nautical miles.  This speed and range suited her role as convoy escort and she earned battle honors in the North Sea from 1941-45 and Normandy in 1944.  Nineteen Hunt-Class ships were lost in action and a further six damaged beyond repair, while another seventeen were out of operation by the end of the war undergoing repairs.  This certainly speaks to a hard life!

HMS Southdown was next involved in Operation Deadlight, towing captured U-boats out to sea for disposal past the North Channel.  She towed out six submarines and was almost dragged under when U-218 sunk on the way out.  Quick action by the crew in cutting the lines during a Force 8 storm saved the ship.  After the war, Southdown was converted for use as a target ship until placed in the Reserve Fleet in 1946.  She was sold for demolition in 1956.

Having a Ship's Chronometer in-hand for these ships has given me a reason to pause and reflect on this day in history.  Thank-you for joining me.

June 6, 1944
thank you for this post on D-day anniversary
06/06/2012 - 08:16
being French, this date is always special
Re: thank you for this post on D-day anniversary
06/06/2012 - 17:44
I've always been impressed with the reception given by the people of France to returning veterans, who also always comment on the great care given to allied gravesites.  One TV show recently featured a relative searching for knowledge of his grandfather's fate after D-day.  He eventually found the French farmer's field where his grandfather's tank had been destroyed and everyone killed.  The farmer had gathered all the wreckage he'd found tilling the field, including bits of personal gear, and made a beautiful shrine in a grove of trees.  It was very moving for the grandson and the farmer when they met, and for me to!
What a fantastic story behind this wonderful Vacheron...
06/06/2012 - 09:58
Thank you so much, Dean. Really captivating! Did you make this piece of Vacheron's maritime history yours? Best always, Radek
Re: What a fantastic story behind this wonderful Vacheron...
06/06/2012 - 17:48
Hi Radek.  I now have the Kriegsmarine and Royal Navy ship's chronometers side-by-side in the cabinet.  How ironic that they left V&C together, were seperated by war, and are now together again!
It's fate and destiny rather than irony, my friend. They both found...
06/06/2012 - 18:31
a great home and a fantastic cabinet with you, buddy! Hope you enjoy them in the utmost of health ;-)
A piece of history and yet another fascinating read, the movement is
06/06/2012 - 12:25
amazing considering that it is a tool watch and yet got such lavish finish
Re: A piece of history and yet another fascinating read, the movement is
06/06/2012 - 18:00
Dan posted his wonderful calibre 166 H.S.2 watch click here to see this post.  We discussed the other 22 ligne calibres 162 and 163 with rhodium plating and Geneva waves.  In the case of chronometer watches, size does make a difference and the larger calibres were preferred because their correspondingly larger balance wheels gave better results.  I'm impressed that V&C was able to manufacture and regulate this smaller Chronometre Royal calibre with "only" 15 jewels to the same chronometer standards as those larger watches with 21 or more jewels and Guillaume balance!
Re: June 6, 1944
06/06/2012 - 15:23
Dean,    Thank you for this very interesting and insightful look into WWII history. A beautiful piece of horology with an amazing history (and quite unique being on board of a FDT nonetheless)! Best, Walid
Re: Re: June 6, 1944
06/06/2012 - 18:04
Walid, it was a retired RN officer that pointed out the significance of the ledger entry "FDT 217" otherwise I would not have learned this incredible story.  As it turned out, one of the men pictured in the radar crew was a native of my own city.  Unfortunately, he passed away in 1996 or I would have tried to look him up.  The comments of his friends in the obituary indicated he was quite a character and would have had many interesting stories I'm sure.
your research is tremendous! thank you for taking us through this
06/06/2012 - 16:19
piece of history
My pleasure! nt
06/06/2012 - 18:04
A terrific post for this great day
06/06/2012 - 17:03
Thanks for giving us this wonderful piece of history, Dean.  And what an addition to your collection with this history behind it.  Reading "sold as surplus in 1961" made me a bit sad, but it is good to know that the watch has not been forgotten and is in good hands now. Best, Robert
Re: A terrific post for this great day
06/06/2012 - 18:07
All credit to the superb Dennison transit case for keeping this watch in near-new condition.  Apparently the attrition rate was so high that the RN kept thousands of timepieces in inventory to replace lost and damaged watches.  This explains why the Chronometre Royal watch was purchased in 1943 yet only put into service in 1945, and then only for a brief period.
Hardly a stone left unturned...
06/06/2012 - 22:20
Dean, another piece of first-class research. Excellent copy and graphics, which combined, made for a very timely appearance. With many thanks. Tony
Re: Hardly a stone left unturned...
06/07/2012 - 19:27
Tony, I'm presently on the trail of a battle diary kept by a seaman onboard the HMS Southdown during 1944-45.  I'm finding a clash of technology though, as a single manuscript is kept in a library for in-person viewing and they won't copy as they don't have permission from the author, who may very well be deceased!  I'm sure the gentleman didn't turn his papers over anticipating the age of internet, the quagmire of copyright, or the obstinance of librarians blush.
HMS Southdown...
06/07/2012 - 22:25
Dean, If anyone is going to crack this one, you will! Changing times... Good luck with your research. Tony
Re: June 6, 1944
06/07/2012 - 13:40
Wonderful research and pedigree.  Thank you so much for all the work you put into this piece!
Your welcome
06/07/2012 - 19:33
and keep showing us your gorgeous QP yes
My contribution
06/07/2012 - 22:07
with a deck watch from the british Ministery of Defence, Hydrographic Department. All the best to my fellow loungers. Berny
A real beauty Berny
06/08/2012 - 03:08
with the matching numbered box as well.  I'm guessing it is one of the calibre 166 watches made for the Hydrograhic Service in 1944?
CSO Saltcoats
06/24/2012 - 23:30
Being of an obsessive-compulsive nature, I'm returning to this thread to add a bit of new research information.  Initially my Royal Navy contacts were unable to interpret the meaning of the ledger entry from 5 Mar 1945 to 3 May 1945 when the watch entered service with C.S.O. Saltcoats.  Since then, however, a small clue revealed the significance of this entry, and it has to do with spying! Composite Signals Organisation (C.S.O.) Stations were the super-secret "Y Service" of the British General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which had its origins in World War I.  A historically significant, but little known, example of British signals interception was this telegram sent to the Mexican government by the German Foreign Minister in 1917.  This evidence of negotiations between the two, and the direct threat to US home territory, was a major factor that induced the American's into the First World War: But GCHQ is probably best known for code-breaking and research efforts centered at Bletchley Park during WWII.  I'm sure many have heard the exciting stories around the captured Enigma code machine.  It's existence was kept secret except for a few at the very top, and after the war many lamented in hind-sight how much death and destruction could have been prevented if they used this intelligence more generously.  Churchill was always of the belief that too many "coincidences" would have compromised the code-breaking program and he was very likely correct.  This letter, from the GCHQ website as was the 1917 telegram, reveals Churchill's routine: CSO Stations were tasked with intercepting radio traffic, or SIGINT, and forwarding to Bletchley for decryption.  Scotland provided an excellent base for monitoring the North Sea and even today a few battered buildings scattered along the coast provide evidence of this past, such as the Scottish Historical Registry site at Bowermadden that remained operational until 1978. It is now perfectly understandable how this V&C Royal Navy ship's chronometer was transferred from CSO Saltcoats to the floating monitoring station of FDT 217. 
Remembrance Day Update
11/11/2015 - 00:37

Here in Canada the airwaves are dedicated to November 11th, Remembrance Day.  Actually, a local merchant was soundly criticised for an advertisement that that included "Happy Remembrance Day", considered inappropriate for the occasion!

I'm reading the book, Code Name Caesar, which reveals the cooperation between Germany and Japan during WWII and covers in detail one particular mission to transport secret weapons technology and scientists by submarine to Japan in the later stages of the war, a scheme that was defeated through Enigma intercepts.  What brought this old post to mind were comments by the authors, Jerome Preisler and Kenneth Sewell, relating to the Y-stations like CSO Saltcoats:

...by 1941 Bletchley's code breakers were deciphering nearly all encrypted German army, naval, and diplomatic communications with ease.  The transmissions were snatched out of the air by signals intelligence posts, or Y (for cryptology) stations, at remote sites across the British coast and countryside, then relayed to Bletchley via motorcycle courier, landline, and teletype, and decoded on the eight-foot-high iron 'bombes' (TT; their name for the code-breaking machines, from the Polish prototype called 'bomba').  Generally working in small huts bristling with radio aerials, Y-station operators - or wireless monitors, as they were called - ranged from MI6 agents to army, navy, and RAF personnel, to WRENS and women's Auxiliary Territorial Service conscripts, to volunteer ham radio buffs.

Working on a need-to-know basis and sworn to secrecy, the men and women at the listening stations diligently went about their business, spending long, exhausting shifts at their radio equipment, living close by in spartan bungalows.  They were never told the destination of the messages or informed of their importance.  They referred to the recipient of their intercepts only as Station X, the British code name for Bletchley Park, and had no information about what was being done there.  But ULTRA would have starved and withered without their steady flow of intercepted communications.

Amazing to think that a V&C pocket chronometer was part of that essential mission!

Remembrance Day Update