Winston Churchill’s watches: how the prime minister kept time

    28 May 2020

    With the 75th anniversary of VE day recently behind us and the impact of corona virus supposedly prompting a resurgence of ‘war-time spirit,’ talk has inevitably turned to Sir Winston Churchill who, as well as being a good man to have in charge during a crisis, blazed a trail for anyone interested in ‘accessories’.

    There were the bow ties and cigars, the hats (topper, homburg or bowler) , the ‘Siren Suit’ (overalls worn for everything from bricklaying to battle-planning), the Pol Roger champagnes, the pinstripes and the famous ‘teddy bear’ driving coat to name but a few.

    But one item that Churchill was seldom seen without was a gold fob chain that hung from his waistcoats in the shape of loose ‘W’. On one end was a well-used cigar cutter, and on the other his beloved Breguet pocket watch.

    Indeed, the gold Breguet – better known as ‘the Turnip’ to family members – was such a significant Churchill accessory that the modern-day brand was asked to recreate it in order to provide an added touch of authenticity to actor Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill in the 2018 film ‘Darkest Hour’.

    The real thing, officially called Breguet No. 765, was commissioned in 1890 by John Spencer-Churchill, the 7th Duke of Marlborough and Winston’s great grandfather. An ultra-accurate, certified chronometer featuring a minute-repeater function and a flyback chronograph, it remains the property of the Churchill family but can (once it re-opens) be seen on display in London’s Imperial War Museum.

    Despite serving on the Western Front as a Lieutenant Colonel with the Royal Scots Fusiliers during World War One, Churchill never became a fan of the new-fangled ‘wrist watches’ developed for officers to make them easier to use in the trenches. Instead, he preferred his trusty Turnip which, regardless of its precision, failed to prevent him from being late to appointments.

    It’s notoriety, however, has led to the impression that the great man was something of a horophile.

    He really wasn’t, but that didn’t prevent him from gratefully receiving a gold Le Mania wrist chronograph in 1946 following a three-week stay at the Villa de Choisi in the Swiss village of Bursinel, where he indulged his passion for painting and wrote the speech he gave at the University of Zurich on September 19 of that year, in which he proposed ‘a kind of United States of Europe’…..

    Winston Churchill sporting his famous Breguet pocket watch gold chain.

    Churchill received the watch during an official visit to Lausanne, ready-engraved with the words: “From the canton of Vaud to its famous guest Mr Winston Churchill August-September 1946.” A Le Mania is thought to have been chosen both for its quality and in reference to Lac Leman, which borders Vaud. Churchill kept the Lemania all his life, after which it passed to through his family and on to a Sotheby’s auction in 2017, where it fetched a seven-times estimate £162,500.

    But even that sum pales into insignificance when compared with the £485,000 paid for the unique ‘Victory Watch’ presented to Churchill by another group of Swiss citizens in recognition of his inspired leadership during World War II.

    The Agassiz World Time pocket watch – which uses the celebrated ‘Heures Universelles’ system developed by genius watch maker Louis Cottier – was one of four timepieces gifted to the Allied leaders after the War, the others going to Charles de Gaulle, Joseph Stalin and Henry Truman. The dial of the Churchill watch featured an enamelled portrait of St George slaying the dragon (with the hour hand taking the form of a trident) while the back of the gold case was engraved with a ‘V’ for victory.

    Again, Churchill received the watch in 1946 and, in his ‘thank you’ letter, told the good citizens who gave it to him that it was a ‘superb gift’ that would always remind him of their ‘friendly feelings’. Sotheby’s (which originally sold the watch on behalf of the Churchill family in 1998 as part of a controversial sale of his belongings) had expected it to fetch no more than £100,000.

    All of the above are, of course, unique – but if the idea of wearing a watch (wrist or pocket) that chimes with those of Churchill’s here are some possibilities.

    In the spirt of the turnip

    Breguet Classique Grand Complication

    If you really want to emulate Churchill in the waistcoat department, Breguet’s modern-day ‘Grand Complication’ pocket watch is the way forward. Measuring a majestic 56.5mm in diameter, it contains 525 parts and matched the ‘Turnip’ in complexity thanks to its tourbillon regulator and ‘grand strike’ chiming mechanism. There is a drawback, however – at £722,400, you might want to check that waistcoat for holes…..

    Breguet Classique Chronometrie

    If a pocket watch isn’t for you but Breguet it must be, the Classique Chronometrie reduces many of the Turnip’s important features to wrist wize. You get a 41mm gold case, a high-frequency escapement for extra accuracy and a beautifully finished hand-wound movement that can be seen through the sapphire crystal back.There’s no chronograph function, but there is a 1/10th of a second subdial and a power-reserve indicator. £33,100.

    In the spirit of the Lemania

    Carl F. Bucherer Manero Flyback

    Although the LeMania name was absorbed into the Breguet-owning Swatch Group in 1999, LeMania watches have not been sold for decades. But a similar look to the Churchill LeMania can be found in the Carl. F. Bucherer Manero Flyback chronograph – especially the version that combines a red gold case with a gold -coloured dial. £13,600

    Vacheron Constantin Cornes de Vache


    This chronograph from the ‘Historiques’ line recalls a hand-wound model from 1955 that featured distinctive ‘cow horn’ lugs. The modern-day interpretation measures 38.5mm in diameter and gets Vacheron’s latest manual-winding ‘1142’ movement that is stamped with the prestigious Geneva Seal of quality. £52,000

    In the spirit of the Agassiz

    Patek Philippe World Time

    Although watches are no longer made under the Agassiz dial name, Louis Cottier’s ingenious World Time mechanism has long been associated with Patek Philippe, which was one of the first makers to adopt it during the 1930s. The dial of this current World Time model, the reference 52313, features an enamelled map of Europe, Africa and America. £56,430

    Girard-Perregaux WW.TC

    The ‘WW.TC’ in the name of this watch stands for ‘World Wide Time Co-ordinated’ – and, like the Patek Philippe World Time, the watch is capable of showing the correct time in 24 different cities simultaneously.