We asked former CIA Senior Intelligence Service Case Officer, J.R. Seeger to look into the watches worn by the Glorious Amateurs of the Office of Strategic Service (OSS) officers in World War II. The findings were as unconventional as the OSS itself.
Watches of the OSS - The Predecessor of the CIA - by J.R. Seeger
During World War II, both the United States and the United Kingdom supported resistance groups in Occupied Europe and Southeast Asia. The US organization responsible for these operations was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The UK organization was the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Both organizations employed a blend of military and civilian agents trained to infiltrate behind enemy lines, engage local partisans and to conduct sabotage and subversion operations. Their work with resistance organizations played a key operational and tactical role in the larger fight against the Axis powers. The efforts of these organizations was especially crucial to the cause during the run-up to the Battle of Normandy, Operation Overlord – in June 1944.
US issued A11 bomb timer stopwatch, China Burma India Theater (CBI) patch and blood chit. (Seeger Collection)
Readers of thrillers set in World War II and even some non-fiction histories of the OSS and SOE could easily assume the kit of these “special forces” operators was highly specialized and the result of great care and curation in OSS and SOE headquarters. The reality was that early in the war, this kit was as much ad hoc as it was highly curated. The goal was to start operations first and sort out problems later.
The SOE had their first personnel in the field in early 1941 and SOE headquarters carefully reviewed what worked and what didn’t work in the field. Even before the OSS was officially sanctioned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the summer of 1942, the future OSS commander, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, was already placing officers in the field in neutral countries in Europe, India, and China as well as dispatching future paramilitary operators in UK training camps in Scotland and in Canada.
OSS Training in Virginia, mid-1940s. (Photo Credit: CIA Museum)
It wasn’t until late 1943 that both OSS and SOE created formal “catalogs” of specialized equipment that could be ordered for use in resistance operations. Even a cursory review of memoirs, official histories and even declassified manuals shows the men and women who operated in Occupied Europe and Asia were issued a strange blend of military and civilian equipment with the addition of suppressed pistols, specialized knives, explosives, and timing devices, and even a very specialized jump suit for parachute operations not at all common in the UK or US military. One item in this kit which remains a puzzle: the watch.
In previous stories, we have talked about why timepieces are essential to the espionage trade. An agent handler must arrive on time to meet a contact, or they are both at risk of capture and, possibly execution. In OSS and SOE operations, the importance of proper timekeeping was even more important. The operators had to send regular radio messages both to report facts on the ground, send a “sign of life” that they were still alive, and to ask for supplies for the resistance. Encrypted messages in morse code had to be dispatched at precise times on specific frequencies set by OSS and SOE headquarters. Timing was everything. Too early or too late and headquarters would not be monitoring the frequency. Too long and the radio operator risked discovery by the fixed point and mobile Gestapo radio direction finding or their Japanese counterparts in SE Asia. Aerial resupply required a drop zone marked just in time for the aircraft to confirm the signal and release the parachute loads. In sum, a timepiece was a critical piece of kit along with the radio. Everything else might be in the next resupply, but if you can’t communicate you simply can’t work behind enemy lines.
Seeger personal collection of military issued watches and OSS memorabilia (Photo Credit: J.R. Seeger)
In any research project related to the world of espionage and special operations, the first stop is archival research including declassified files, memoirs, and authorized histories. The declassified files and memoirs offer little in describing any single piece of kit, much less a small item like a watch. Instead, the best chance for identifying a watch is an old photo of the men and women of the SOE and OSS. When I started this research, I expected the most common watches in these photos would be either the standard US issued A11 watch or the British equivalent known as the WWW watch from the designation “watch, wrist, waterproof.” Many firms made these watches, but all followed a relatively clear standard: a robust watch, big crown, black dial, sweep second hand, and hour and minute hands with substantial luminous (most likely radium) paint. The watches were designed for the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the US Army Air Force (USAAF) aircrews, but they became the watches worn by the allied troops in multiple theatres throughout the war. Most of the designs we see today of “field watches” are based on this early 1940s design.
A Communications Branch instructor demonstrates a radio to an OSS recruit at Area C. (Photo Credit: (Photo Credit: U.S. ARMY SPECIAL OPERATIONS HISTORY OFFICE)
What I found instead was that except for the photos of the air crews from the Special Service squadrons of the RAF and the special delivery units of the USAAF known as the Carpetbaggers, none of the photos from the OSS and SOE field officers show a black faced dial watch. If a watch is visible at all in the photos taken behind the lines, it is always a white face watch and usually on the simple leather band or, sometimes, a modified band that we know today as the “bund” strap that has a piece of leather between the watch and the wrist. It is possible that the limited available sample of photos are capturing early war issued watches: the Army Time Piece (ATP) watch of the UK forces and the US Army Ordnance (ORD) watches of the US forces. These watches were white faced watches with small seconds display at six o’clock and often had little or no luminous paint on the hands. I believe it is just as likely that the watches on the wrists of these men and women were the watches they owned before entering service. To paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the army (or in this case the watch) that you have.
Army Time Piece (ATP) watch of the UK forces and the US Army Ordnance (ORD) on original OSS manual (Seeger’s personal collection)
We can say for certain that the early SOE and British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) agents who infiltrated Occupied Europe as singletons wore very basic European, most likely Swiss, watches. Both SOE and SIS took great care in ensuring their agents were wearing clothes appropriate to both the cover occupation. The British had a complex acquisition program that insured their agents wore clothes that were from Europe not just clothes that looked like they came from Europe. And that acquisition program even focused on clothes and documentation for a specific region of Europe. The memoirs of both the agents and their “dispatchers” in England detail a final inspection where everything on their body was checked and double checked before they loaded on a vehicle to the airfield. Something as simple as the wrong watch – wrong in origin or value or even in age – could be the difference between freedom or capture.
In the case of the women agents dispatched from England, they were under the greatest scrutiny by their dispatchers because they were the most essential personnel. They were the communicators for these early teams. It is hard to imagine that they would have had any watch at all except a small, highly decorative timepiece. Women’s watches of the 1930s were more a decorative piece of jewelry than a sturdy timepiece. As noted earlier, they would need a reliable timepiece to maintain the communications link. Most probably, they carried a reliable pocket watch, possibly one certified by the UK military as a “General Service Time Piece” (GSTP), inside the same case with their radio equipment. If their radio equipment was captured, the fact that they had a GSTP pocket watch would have been the least of their worries.
Jeff Bass artistic rendition of Virginia Hall, a female OSS officer, operating a suitcase Type 111 MKII Radio with headphones and morse code pad. A watch is noticeably absent from the painting, but would have been necessary for accurate transmissions. (Photo Credit: CIA)
By late 1943 and 1944, both the SOE and OSS were dispatching paramilitary teams into the combat theatres. The men involved generally wore a blend of military uniform and local garb. In all of the photos, small, white-faced watches are on display on the left wrist of any agent partially obscured by a military shirt or jacket. In several of the SOE photos of the time, especially of those operators in Crete, the operators are wearing rectangular (aka tank) watches. Of course, US, UK and European companies selling rectangular watches in the 1930s marketed them as robust, sports watches. It seems the advertising was an accurate depiction.
Watch visible on future CIA Director and then OSS Paratrooper William E. Colby led a Special Operations team into Norway (Codename “Operation RYPE”) to sabotage German rail links. (Photo Credit: CIA and Colby family)
The only photos of specialized watches on OSS agents are team photos from the OSS Maritime Units in the Mediterranean and China, Burma, India theatres. In those cases, the OSS/MU combat swimmers are wearing the enhanced waterproof “canteen watch” variation of the A11 watch where there is a threaded cylinder covering the watch crown and winding assembly.
Like all espionage stories, this essay ends with the classic statement: it depends. The type of watch used by the men and women involved in irregular warfare in World War II depended entirely on their job and when and where they were deployed. Early agents into Occupied Europe faced a diligent, aggressive, and multi-layered Nazi security enterprise. This adversary used patrols, collaborators and radio direction finding to locate and identify allied infiltrators. A simple mistake like the wrong watch (or even wearing a watch) could destroy a cover story and result in execution. Later in the war in Europe and throughout operations in China and SE Asia, agents had little or no cover that they needed to preserve so they could afford to wear whatever watch they could find that would survive the rigors of combat.
A member of Special Operations Team LEOPARD cranks a generator to power the team’s radio, China, 1945. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army Special Operations History Office)
Watch lovers today would never imagine taking anything other than a robust tool watch into combat or even on a day long hike. However, it appears that the standard wrist watches of the late 1930s and early 1940s were reliable and sufficiently robust. They saw their share of combat and rough service and appear to have survived the ordeal – at least long enough to have a picture taken on the wrist of the SOE or OSS agent. Of course, we can assume there were more than a few requests for watches along with boots and clothing in the regular resupply messages back to SOE and OSS headquarters.
Read Next: Digital Watches Of Espionage, The Role Watches Played In The Early Days Of The CIA's War In Afghanistan, by J.R. Seeger
J.R. Seeger served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne and as a CIA officer for a total of 27 years of federal service. He served 17 years in multiple field assignments focused on counterterrorism, counterintelligence and irregular warfare. During his final, 3-year assignment in CIA Headquarters, he first served as a chief of operations for a geographic division in the Directorate of Operations and then served as a deputy director and deputy chief of the CIA Counterterrorism Center. Seeger led multiple, small unit teams during his service, including leading one of the CIA teams that infiltrated into Afghanistan after 9/11.
Since his retirement, J.R. has written articles and book reviews in the CIA professional journal “Studies in Intelligence” and the T.E. Lawrence Society newsletter. His seven-part MIKE4 series is about a family who have served in the special operations and intelligence community from World War II to the present.