The South African Tudor MilSubs Story
The South African Navy issued its divers with Tudor Submariners in the 1970s. Here we take a closer look at these rare and important pieces in the Tudor Military Submariner story...
It is now generally accepted that the French Marine Nationale watches were ordered from Geneva in batches that are identifiable across a number of years. The first batch of South African MilSubs date to 1974 and fall within the same serial range as one of the earliest batches of French MN 7016s – the coveted black “MN 74”. I believe that there is high probability that these watches were sourced through the French Marine Nationale, by the South African Navy. The French supplied the South African Navy’s first submarine and the French Navy delivered training in Toulon to South African Navy divers in the early 70s. I have a theory that the South African divers saw and used the MN Tudors and wanted to utilise the snowflake watches themselves. This theory has been supported by several ex-South African Navy divers, who confirm they were issued both Rolex and Tudor Submariners. I have had extensive contact with one particular diver who was issued a black snowflake Submariner reference 7016 having successfully completing the first two levels of diver training at the training school in Simon’s Town (see his quotes further down). The South African Navy issued the watches on fabric nato-style straps with Velcro fastenings that allowed them to be strapped over the sleeve of wetsuits.
SAS Durban in 1974 - the first year that the SA Navy issued Tudor MilSubs
These watches have some similarities with the French issued MN Subs. All the examples from 1974, that I have on file, fall into a very small serial range, which fit exactly within the issued batch of MN74s by the French Navy. The commonly accepted serial range for the 7016s is 620,000 to 780,000. However, we know that these Military issued 7016s have serials up in the 820.000 range. These serials are nearly a year later than 94010 introduction and is likely a specific order from the MN. It is very very rare to see non-issued/civilian watches with these serial ranges. I have also learned that these South African watches, like the MN examples, were issued and then reissued to various people over the years. One clearance diver was issued his in as late as the early 1990s.
1974 South African Navy Issued Black 7016
A Diver Speaks
I have had extensive contact with one diver. We’ll call him SS. He has confirmed that the divers were issued the Tudors once they completed their diver training (like the US Navy Seals!).
Here he explains more…
“I was in the Navy and was fortunate enough to get onto their diving programme round about ’79 and ’80. The navy had 3 diving courses. Part 3 up to 30m – ships diver; Part 2 up to 54m and mixed gasses mine recovery and harbour clearing; Part 1 salvage and other specialisations.
Warrant S*****r was the head of the diving school in Simons Town when I was there. After Part 3 we were transferred to the SAS Fleur – the Navy Dive ship with decompression chamber ECT for a year after which we were eligible to do the Part 2 course if selected. I was also lucky enough to do the Part 2 course after which I went into commercial diving and worked for SADS for a couple of years.
The Tudor watches were only issued to the Part 2 and Part 1 divers. So I was issued with a watch and wore it for about 18 months as a perk for having the part 2 qualification”.
SS's Diving Class Photo (with redactions)
All About the Case Back
Unlike the French issued watches there are no service records or issue logs for the South African pieces as far as I know. I have compiled a database of these watches and the actual number of confirmed pieces is very small, certainly fewer than ten! What is certain is that all the examples, with one exception, originated in South Africa and more specifically Simon’s Town, which is where the country’s Navy is based. Most of the examples I know of were bought from clearance divers, Navy personnel, and even one from a Navy watchmaker.
So what is the secret? Well, the common theme of these watches is the serial number that is engraved across the case back. The engravings on all watches are of a high quality and are reasonably deep, unlike the shallow personal engravings seen on some military watches. As I mentioned earlier, they are from a very small serial batch and therefore all have a number of common numerals in the engravings. The font of the engravings is very distinguishable and all authentic examples have the same details in the engravings.
Three Batches (So Far…)
There are currently three know batches of issued watches.
First Batch – black 7016 dating to 1974
Second Batch – blue 9401 dating to 1977
Third Batch – black 9401 dating to 1979/80
This confirmation is further supported by emails I have from a retired Major who served in the SA Navy. He worked as a combat diver and confirms that he and other divers were issued “Tudor Submariners with the serial numbers stamped into the caseback, as they were controlled items like vehicles and weapons”; two attributes common to the Tudors I have on file as SA Navy issued. We can only guess as to why the Navy chose such watches. One possible suggestion centres around a Naval officer Vice-Admiral Lambert Jackson “Woody” Woodburne, who early in his career undertook some training at Toulon in the early 1970’s. Perhaps he saw the Tudor Subs issued to French divers and when back in South Africa suggested the SA utilise the same watches.
'First Batch' black 7016 serial 82xxxx
'Second Batch' blue 9401 serial 86xxxx
'Third Batch' black 9401 serial 92xxxx
An Incredible Find – Again…
I was lucky enough to find an amazing example of the second batch of watches (from 1977) recently. It was also the first blue South African MilSub I’d ever come across. The original owner was a clearance diver and was able to share with me some incredible stories of his time in the South African Navy and confirmed that the watches were given out as dive equipment to experienced divers by the Stores Master. I’m delighted to share with you all some of the additional items that he shared with me when I acquired the watch. Having spent so many years researching these pieces, it was amazing to finally meet a diver who had served and could confirm so many of my theories and research.
The blue 9401 pictured on the divers log book
The blue 9401 with original dive badges
The front cover of the diver's military dive log book
The watch on my wrist! The dial is totally perfect.