A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY: RHODESIA
The Colony of Southern Rhodesia was a land-locked self-governing British Crown colony in southern Africa, established in 1923 and consisting of British South Africa Company territories lying south of the Zambezi River. The bounding territories were Bechuanaland (Botswana), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Moçambique (Mozambique), Transvaal Republic (Boland “upper land” now named Gauteng, province of South Africa).
Initially, the territory was referred to as “South Zambezia”, a reference to the River Zambezi, until the name “Rhodesia” came into use in 1895. This was in honour of Cecil Rhodes, the British empire-builder and key figure during the British expansion into southern Africa.
“Southern” was first used in 1898 and dropped from normal usage in 1964, on the break-up of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. “Rhodesia” then remained the name of the country until the creation of Zimbabwe Rhodesia in 1979. Legally, from the British perspective, the name Southern Rhodesia continued to be used until 18 April 1980, when the Republic of Zimbabwe was promulgated.
In 1953, with calls for independence mounting in many of its African possessions, the United Kingdom created the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (or the Central African Federation, CAF), which consisted of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, respectively).
The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was dissolved on 1 January 1964. Accordingly, Britain granted independence to Northern Rhodesia on 24 October 1964.
In 1965, Rhodesia unilaterally declared itself independent, under a white-dominated government. After a long civil war – known as the Bush War – between the white (until 1979) government and two African majority, Soviet Bloc-aligned “liberation movements” (Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army and Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army), Britain resumed control for a brief period before granting independence to the country in 1980, whereupon it became Zimbabwe.
THE RHODESIAN AIR FORCE
Formed in 1935 under the name “Southern Rhodesia Staff Corps Air Unit” as a territorial unit, the first regular servicemen with the unit went to Britain for ground crew training in 1936. Its first pilots were awarded their flying wings on 13 May 1938. The reservists were called up early August 1939 and were posted to Kenya by 28 August.
On 19 September 1939, two weeks after the United Kingdom declared war against Germany, the Air Unit officially became the “Southern Rhodesia Air Force” (SRAF).
The SRAF was then absorbed into the British Royal Air Force (RAF) proper in April 1940 and redesignated No. 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF. British No. 44 Squadron RAF and No. 266 Squadron RAF were also assigned the name “Rhodesia” because of the large number of Rhodesian airmen and crew in these units. Rhodesians fought in many of the theatres of World War II.
The SRAF was re-established in 1947. The Rhodesian government was anxious to maintain the strong wartime links established with the RAF, not only for access to training and new technology but also because of his growing concern over the expansionist ideas of the newly established apartheid Afrikaner nationalist regime in South Africa. The booming Rhodesian economy allowed more money to be allocated for new aircraft, training and aerodrome facilities, and growing co-operation with the RAF in the 1950s saw the SRAF operating in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Kenya, Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Oman and South Yemen.
On 15 October 1954 the federal air arm was officially designated as the “Royal Rhodesian Air Force” (RRAF).
During the Rhodesian Bush War, the air force consisted of no more than 2,300 personnel and of those only 150 were pilots. These pilots were qualified to fly all the aircraft within the air force so were often involved in combat missions. In March 1970, when Rhodesia declared itself a republic, the prefix “Royal” was dropped and the Service’s name became the “Rhodesian Air Force” (RhAF).
Following the independence of Zimbabwe in April 1980, the air force was renamed the Air Force of Zimbabwe.
Air Force insignias (from left to right):
Southern Rhodesian Air Force (1939–1954), Federation of Rhodesia & Nyasaland Air Force (1954–1963),
Royal Rhodesian Air Force (1963–1970), Rhodesian Air Force (1970–1980).
THE WRISTWATCH QUESTION
REFERENCE CK 2777
It is clear that the Rhodesian Air Force has equipped some of its pilots with OMEGA watches, even if we do not have precise information about the terms of a possible agreement between the brand and the Army at this stage.
The first models appeared in the 1950s, and were CK 2777 references.
This reference is famous among military watch collectors, for having been selected by the RAF for its pilots (the “1953 RAF Omega 6B/542” was conform to all the key requirements of the DEF-3 specifications issued by the Ministry of Defense). These watches are all fitted with the 283 manual-wind caliber.
Some Rhodesian CK 2777s have been presented for sale on specialized watch forums, auctions or sales platforms. Thanks to the help of David Young, a truly passionate collector, we have gathered some of them here. It is very interesting to see that unlike the “standard” 1953 RAF CK 2777s, it seems that they were generally fitted with a red second hand.
The casebacks are engraved with specific military information:
- 6645 101000 (NATO stock number),
- 6B / 542 (British RAF reference code),
- xxx/x/xx standing for individual number / month / year (here 1956 and 1957).
Here are some examples of Rhodesian CK 2777s (actually we observed about a dozen of them, including mainly 2 blocks of serial numbers: 14.804.xxx and 14.591.xxx).
It is interesting to note that the Extracts of the Archives from OMEGA indicate that these watches (or at least some of them) have been delivered to the UK, meaning that they probably have been sent to the Rhodesian Army by the UK authorities and not directly by OMEGA. This could be a perfect example of the co-operation between the RAF and the Royal Rhodesian Air Force in the 1950s.
REFERENCE ST 145.014
The second series of Rhodesian pilots’ watches that we have observed concerns the Speedmaster Mark II, reference ST 145.014. This Speedmaster, born in 1969, was an evolution of the Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch, incorporating the famous pilot line, an integrated tachymeter bezel under a flat mineral glass.
It is likely that the Rhodesian Air force ordered two batches for this model.
a) In the first batch, from 1969, we have seen 3 watches with a serial number in 27.719.xxx; the 3 casebacks are standard, with the following additional engravings: “xxx/69” (standing for the individual number and the year, here 1969) and “NiV 188” (NiV standing in UK Ministry of Defence for “Not in Vocabulary”, i.e. equipment no in NATO Stock Number).
b) The second group consists in 6 watches with a serial number in # 31.005.xxx, 2 of them having an Extract of the Archives indicating a delivery to South Rhodesia in January 1971; the engravings on their casebacks are different from the previous group: “xxx/71”, “NIV 188”, and the serial number of the movement.
In addition, we have observed a watch with a caseback similar to the ones of the second group (with the serial number 31.005.xxx engraved outside), but with a 27.719.xxx movement. This is probably due to the fact that the caseback (or the movement) has been changed during a service.
Another interesting information comes from 2 watches provided with a repair ticket, indicating that the watches are from the New Sarum Base, which was completed in March 1952, and became the New Air Headquarters and Technical Headquarters of the Southern Rhodesian Air Force. One can clearly read the name of the Base, the codes “6B” and “NIV188”, and the military serial number of the watch.
The following pictures show Rhodesian pilots wearing Speedmaster Mark IIs.
Supplement to ILLUSTRATED LIFE RHODESIA, 22nd July, 1976.
The pilot is wearing a Speedmaster Mk II.
Credit: The Master of Speed.
THE RHODESIAN MOONWATCHES
Reference ST 105.003
Actually the Speedmaster Mark II may not be the first Speedmaster used by Rhodesian pilots.
We have no clear information about this, and we haven’t found (yet) documents or invoices regarding these watches. This is still an on-going research, and we will probably update this article as soon as we find new details about this story. But the very first Rhodesian Speedmaster we have observed is the property of our friend David Young, and is a reference 105.003, with serial number # 24.011.xxx.
David asked for an Extract of the Archives, and this extract confirms the delivery to South Rhodesia in December 1966. Apparently the watches were not delivered to the UK anymore but directly to Southern Rhodesia (as we have seen for the Mark IIs). Unfortunately the caseback of this watch has probably been replaced during a service by another Rhodesian Air Force Speedmaster one, more recent, from a reference 145.022-74. The hands are not conform to the model and may have been replaced too.
Anyway, this watch is extremely interesting because it shows that the first Speedies may have been sent to Southern Rhodesian quite early, during the mid 1960s.
We have found a picture of a Pilot Training Course (PTC), attested 3rd April 1967, showing a pilot wearing a Speedmaster Moonwatch (last one on the right). That could confirm the use of Moonwatches at that time.
Reference ST 145.012
Thanks to the information transmitted by the auction house Watches of Knightbridge, we have observed another Pre-Moon reference fitted with caliber 321 and ordered by the Rhodesian Air Force.
The watch is a Speedmaster Professional 145.012-67, serial number 26.xxx.xxx, delivered to South Rhodesia. The markings are similar to the ones on the Mark IIs: “6B / NIV188 / 199/69”.
Credit: Watches of Knightbridge.
Reference ST 145.022
Apart from these Pre-Moon models, the main block of Rhodesian Moonwatches that we have seen concerns the reference ST 145.022-74, probably ordered in 1976.
We have observed the following watches:
- “Air Force 2-77 6B Niv188”, sn #39.180.xxx, with Extract of Archives, delivered to East Africa (Nov. 1976),
- “Air Force 5-77 6B Niv188”, sn #39.180.xxx,
- “Air Force 6-77 6B Niv188”, sn #35.581.xxx,
- “Air Force 11-77 6B Niv188”, sn #39.180.xxx,
- “Air Force 13-77 6B Niv188”, sn #39.180.xxx,
- “Air Force 16-77 6B Niv188”, sn #39.180.xxx,
- “Air Force 18-77 6B Niv188”, sn #39.180.xxx,
- “Air Force 26-77 6B Niv188”, sn #35.581.xxx, with Extract of Archives, delivered to East Africa (Nov. 1976),
- “Air Force 29-77 6B Niv188”, sn #39.180.xxx, with Extract of Archives, delivered to East Africa (Nov. 1976).
So it could mean that two different batches of watches (35.581.xxx and 39.180.xxx) have been delivered.
Interestingly, some of those Rhodesian 145.022-74s (at least for the 39.180.xxx ones) seem to be fitted with wider pushers than the standard ones. Those specific pushers are similar to the ones fitted on the Apollo-Soyuz special series from 1976 (5.5 mm diameter, on a slightly modified case).
Looking for pictures of Moonwatches worn by Rhodesian pilots is not an easy thing, but we managed to find some interesting images where the watches can be seen.
Extracts of the official unit film of The Rhodesian Air Force (1970s).
CREDITS & AKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The pictures of watches have been taken by David Young, who owns an incredible collection of Rhodesian OMEGAs, Crispin Jones, a well-known watchmaker from London (www.mrjoneswatches.com), and Matteo Leoni, a.k.a. The Master of Speed.
They shared many information with us. We are very grateful to all of them for their collaboration, their research and their passion.
The historical information about Rhodesia and its Air Force have been collected on Wikipedia and on the Rhodesian Air Force Association website (www.rhodesianforces.org).
Join the discussion 4 Comments
Fantastic read thanks for this comprehensive research, I am always interested in looking at some of the commonwealth airforces and their Mil/spec watches. I have enjoyed your great book on the Flightmaster, it definitely sets the benchmark.
Omega Speedmasters have a big following and Robert-Jan Broer of Fratello Watches blogs extensively about them, but I’m sure even fans of military watches may not know about the watches mentioned here.
Meticulous research, as a Rhodesian and a friend of Brian Gordon I’m glad this history has been preserved.
Interesting article and photos. I also have a Rhodesian Air Force Omega Speedmaster with the following inscription on the back 6B/NIV 188 and serial number 2837. I have had the watch since new circa 1975 and it still functions perfectly. The stop watch facility is also 100 % correct.