Ever wondered who was issued - and relied on - the military timepiece you now own? I did, when I purchased an IWC Mark XI (1952) a few years ago.
It has its original radium dial. Another reason why I bought it was because of its almost mint case.
Nice to see the anchor on the bridge.
And the soft iron case.
I bought it from a gentleman in Montreal who was selling the watch after having acquired it from a local jeweler who, in turn, had purchased it (so the seller claimed) from its original owner. Along with this Mark XI came a set of photocopied flight records, which of course at the time I paid zero attention to because I had doubts about their provenance. But the seller insisted that the documents were real and that the navigator who owned the watch, Flight Lieutenant Frank Jekyll of the RAF, had once ferried the young King of Jordan and his Queen mother to safety during a coup attempt. So I was intrigued, no doubt, but never followed up.
Then one day in late 2010, I was reading about an airplane, a Vickers Valetta serial number VX 577, that had been destroyed in an arson attack in 1997. To my surprise, I saw that someone named "Frank Jekyll" had commented about the destruction of this aircraft!
Here is what Frank wrote:
"I came across your website purely by accident and was appalled to find that Valetta VX 577 had been destroyed by brain-dead vandals. I was a G.D. Navigator with Transport Command and Flew 577 on several occasions. There is a bit of history attached to this aircraft of which you may not be aware.
In 1958, there was again trouble in the Middle East ( or perhaps it has never stopped). The Valetta story as I remember it (you must allow that the recollection of nearly a half century may be a little fuzzy) King Hussein of Jordan had received information that an assassination attempt was to be made against him and his family and to secure the continuance of the monarchy arranged for his mother, Queen Zein and his son heir-apparent, who I believe is the present King were transported from Jordan to Cyprus and then to the UK.
I was the navigator for the flight to Cyprus on September 1st, 1958 and my logbook shows Valetta VX577. The flight was made across Syria without air traffic clearance and was shepherded by fighter jets from a US carrier that was stationed off the Lebanese coast. I remember the Queen and a small boy being loaded along with a large number of suitcases and just prior to take-off, King Hussein came into the cockpit, thanked us and shook our hands.
It is such a sad end for this aircraft
I thought - couldn't be, right? So I tracked down the seller from whom I purchased the watch, and he said he recalled the jeweler thinking that Frank lived in the Montreal area.
Making a few calls, I finally made contact with Frank and we agreed to meet at a restaurant in Montreal on the 4th of July this year. This is Frank, with the IWC Mark XI he once used as a chronometer!
I noticed he wore a watch on his right hand - a Timex. He said he had become so used to wearing the Mark XI on his left hand, set to GMT, and another watch on his right, set to local time, that he did not break that habit after he left the RAF in 1960.
Frank was with RAF Squadron 48, which had 80 aircraft, and was based in RAF Changi (Singapore). Coincidentally, one of the bases from which he operated - RAF Seletar, was about 3 miles from my former home in Singapore...
From 1952-1960, he was the navigator for countless missions, route flying and supply drops. The British were fighting the Communists in Malaya and there were frequent supply drops into the jungles. Frank said a few aircraft were lost during the missions as they had to make approaches at 200 ft above the ground.
Here's the Vickers Valetta VX 577, the very one he flew in, in better times:
(Photos by Dave Welch, who has granted permission to use these in this post)
Here are some pics in color:
(Photo by Fergal Goodman, who has granted permission to use this here)
(Photo by Paul Nann, who has granted permission to use this here)
We had a great chat about navigation using a Sextant, an Astro Compass, several analog devices including a Dalton Computer - not the type of computer we would assume it to be - etc etc.
Frank mentioned to me that flying those planes nearly 60 years ago required particular skills. It was typically foggy, especially when flying below 10,000 ft, and trips had to be planned with precision beforehand. He said he would sometimes have to fly through clouds for 6 hours straight and then he needed to know where they were when they finally broke through into clear skies!
He said he became a navigator because he enjoyed the challenge and had good math skills to begin with.
Before each flight, he would set his Mark XI using a master clock in the Briefing Room. He wore his Mark XI - which was issued to him in Dishforth - on a simple white cloth band that he purchased in Singapore, after finding the issued band not to his liking. I asked him if the original band was a metal Bonklip and he said it wasn't. I keep the Mark XI on a simple leather NATO, which I bought off eBay for a few bucks. Here's the watch in front of Frank's flight log:
While in the plane, he sat in an area behind the pilots, with a large map in front of him and an astro compass above him.
Here is the cockpit of the Vickers Valetta:
(Photo by Peter Clarke, who has granted permission to use this here)
And the area where the navigator would have sat:
(Photo by Peter Clarke, who has granted permission to use this here)
Frank is pointing to the dome within which the astro compass would have been mounted:
Here are some of his log entries. Frank was kind enough to make photocopies of key pages of his flight log, sending them to me after our visit:
Some notable events included:
-Ditching the aircraft a few miles from shore in the Indian Ocean (and yes, he found out the Mark XI was water resistant)
-Being one of the first three foreigners to land in Sri Lanka after the nation declared independence (they had to take off for half an hour, circle the area, and then land in a new nation)
-Ferrying VIPs around
I asked Frank what happened to all the military watches he saw then. "They were as common as dirt", he replied. He said there were Rolex Subs issued to the navy (remember this is the early 1950s...so likely they were A6538s) and all sorts of watches lying around.
In fact, he recalls vividly that the airbase (forget who, maybe the quartermaster?) would take surplus watches, lay them over an anvil, and smash them, one by one. I asked him why they would do such a thing. He said they'd rather do that, declare them destroyed, than fill out the paperwork to return them. "Common as dirt," he reiterated.
After his service, Frank migrated to Canada and found work as the Director of Equipment Services at a regional school board in Montreal.
When it was time to leave, I noticed that Frank, who was driving a truck, had a GPS installed in it. I expressed surprised that a skilled navigator like him would need an electronic device to point him around his home town.
"A navigator needs all the help he can get," he replied.
A big thanks to Frank for his time, and for the privilege of knowing more about the watch I now own.
p.s. I have invited Frank to join MWR - and I hope he does - so that he can take a look at the passion we have for milwatches.