We live in a digital age, where computers do all the work for us. This is the case in so many facets of our lives including our personal pursuits and professional occupations. Storm patterns are predicted by computers, seismic reactions are electronically modelled and computer-flown drones can give us real-time, high-definition pictures of any part of the planet. But it hasn’t always been like this and back in the analogue era, humans were sent out into the unexplored territories to carry out scientific research to help humanity better understand our world. The analogue era relied on analogue communication and timing and the development of the wristwatch made it perfect for the great early-to-mid-20th century explorers to carry for timekeeping. Precise timekeeping was an important safety concern for the teams who explored extreme climates and locations. These expeditions were the perfect opportunity for watch brands to test their products to their climatic and physical limits.
Hans Wilsdorf was a man who saw an opportunity to support expeditions to both test his watches and capitalise on the incredible marketing opportunities they offered. He was confident that not only could his timepieces handle the conditions, but that they would thrive and work flawlessly. I wrote extensively about the Explorer and the pre-Explorer watches, supplied by Rolex, that were used during the historic ascents of Everest. You can read the article here.
This time the focus is on the younger brother of the Wilsdorf family, the Tudor Oyster.
I have long been fascinated by the Tudor Oyster watches from the early-1950s, with the vast array of dial variations and case references. The first Tudor Oyster watches were sold in 1946 and housed manual-wind movements. The Oyster Prince was unveiled in 1952 – Prince signaling an automatic movement and the equivalent of the Rolex Perpetual. The early watches were of what collectors refer to as monoblock construction (or monoblocco in Italian) where the mid-case and bezel are made from one piece of steel. The Oyster case refers to the screw-down winding crown, screw-on caseback and pressure-fitted crystal – all of which combine to create a waterproof watch-case that is hermetically sealed like an oyster. Truly rugged in construction, these watches were conceived as pieces to be worn for all rugged occasions as highlighted in early Tudor Oyster adverts featuring construction workers, motorbike racers and polar explorers. And there was no more rugged test for the watches than an expedition to Greenland.
The British North Greenland Expedition (BNGE) 1952-54, was led by Commander James Simpson and commissioned by Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill to survey and research the ice cap. A total of 30 men took part in the expedition over the two years and were made up from representatives of the armed forces and various scientific fields including the areas of geology, meteorology, glaciology and physiology. As well as research work, it was also an opportunity to train the military servicemen in Arctic conditions. The expedition was almost entirely carried out by the British, but the Danish Army did provide a captain, an army surveyor, who was sadly the one fatality of the mission in 1953. Denmark claimed Greenland as their sovereign land in 1380, but officially the Kingdom of Denmark adopted the island in 1953 – right in the middle of the BNGE. There would have been a lot of political activity in Denmark at this time and so I expect that it was a diplomatic necessity to have a representative of Denmark on the BNGE.
The work was carried out from two base camps – the first at the glacial lake Britannia So (a name given to the lake for the expedition) and a second camp North Ice, which was 230 miles west of Britannia So. Travel around the island was via either dog-pulled sledges or Studebaker M29s, military tracked vehicles known as “Weasels” that were designed for use on snow. The mission began somewhat dramatically when one of the RAF supply planes, making equipment parachute drops, got caught in a blizzard white-out and had to make an emergency landing. Everybody survived, but they had to be rescued by the United States Air Force in a mission lasting two days.
According to records, the expedition was supplied with 26 Tudor Oyster watches, ref. 7809. These watches were monoblock pieces, with the one-piece case featuring the screw-down crown and caseback. The watches were delivered on brown leather straps and were visually not dissimilar to the Rolex ref. 6098 pre-Explorer “Ovettone” watches that were provided for the 1952 Everest expedition. The “Everest” Rolex watches were also of monoblock construction but in a 36mm case ref. 6098. They had dials with an applied Rolex coronet and simple applied baton hour markers, with a double baton at 12 o’clock.
The Tudor 7809s that were supplied had two different dial configurations in slightly smaller watches measuring 34mm. One dial version was very similar to the Rolex dial with simple baton hour markers and a double baton at 12 o’clock. The second dial variation resembled the Explorer watches that would come later from Rolex and the Ranger series from Tudor, with applied Arabic numerals at 12, 3, 6 and 9. We remain unsure how many of each dial was provided.
Performance Under Pressure
A key part of the agreement between the expedition and Rolex was the monitoring of timekeeping of the Tudors. The team would check their 7809’s timekeeping against BBC radio signals and note the accuracy. These notes then formed part of the Rolex research and development program and the company’s pursuit of excellence.
One member of the team, the Officer in Charge of Vehicles – Captain JD Walker of the Royal Engineers, was very happy with his Oyster Prince. In a letter to Rolex he stated that having spent 13 months in Greenland he had: “Extreme admiration for the Rolex Tudor Oyster Prince which I wore on my wrist throughout my tour with the Expedition.” The letter describes the extreme temperature changes from 70°F to -50°F (21°C to -46°C) and various tasks undertaken whilst wearing the watch including hut building, riding dog-sleds, driving the Weasels, and the watch inevitably being regularly immersed in water. He concludes: “Despite these trials, occasional time signals broadcast from England proved that my Rolex Tudor Prince watch was maintaining a remarkable accuracy. On no occasion did it require to be wound by hand.”
During my time of researching vintage Tudor watches, I have been fortunate enough to examine three watches that were given to members of the BNGE. The most noteworthy is the example that was given to Roy Homard, who joined the expedition in its second year. He was tasked with maintaining the vehicles, in this case the Weasels. The work was difficult due to the extreme temperatures and Homard recounted that he would wear six layers of gloves and socks to combat the icy conditions.
He worked alongside the seismic survey team, who carried out controlled explosions in the ice. The readings helped determine the depth of the ice cap. Sixty years after the event, the retired Royal Engineer discovered his old Oyster Prince in a kitchen drawer. In a bid to breathe new life into the watch, which had long stopped working, Homard took it to a Rolex service centre. Eventually, Homard donated the watch to the Tudor museum and, as a show of appreciation, he was awarded a new Heritage Ranger by Tudor in recognition of his role in research and development work for them all those years ago in Greenland.
The Lost Tudors
Another important discovery was that of the Tudor 7809 that was issued to Chief Petty Officer Herbert “Dixie” Dean, who was a senior radio operator on the expedition. The Herbert Dean watch had the dial version with applied Arabic numerals, complemented by stunning dagger hands and a vibrant blued-steel seconds hand. The watch was discovered by vintage watch collector Martyn West, who lives locally to the cousin of Herbert Dean.
I spoke to Martyn and he told me that Dean had left the watch to his cousin when he passed away. The cousin recalls being told that the watch was “issued to Dean as part of his military service when he was stationed in Greenland to support a scientific expedition”. As is often the case, she had forgotten about it. Much like the discovery of the Homard watch, Dean’s watch was rediscovered in a drawer. It wasn’t working and Martyn had it serviced and enjoyed wearing it for a while, before selling it to a collector in the Far East.
The third and perhaps most talked about of the known examples is the one that belonged to the Medical Officer, Surgeon Lieutenant Jock Potter Masterton.
JP Masterton was on the expedition for the whole two-year stretch and was a Royal Navy Reservist. His watch was discovered many years ago and bought by a French collector. It is, as per the other known examples, a ref. 7809 Oyster Prince with a similar dial to the Herbert Dean watch. The Masterton watch is, interestingly, the only one to have a caseback engraving. The engravings “JPM B.N.G.E. 1952-1954” were, I suspect, done commemoratively after the event.
Are there more Tudor 7809s out there that were worn on the BNGE? Well, we know that there were at least another 23, but where they all are is a mystery. I’ll keep on looking for them and let you know when the next one is uncovered!