When Jacques Cousteau was a French naval officer in WWII, he helped set up France’s elite commando frogmen unit. (Presumably as a side hustle while simultaneously pummelling the Hun.) Around the same time he went off to embrace the life aquatic, the special ops divers of Marine Nationale started looking around for a watch company that supported their underwater mission. They found Tudor, and a decades-long collaboration was born.
After an evaluation process in 1956, Tudor Submariners became as much a part of the French combat swimmers’ kit as scuba tanks, foot fins and the kind of fetching mid-century wetsuit later made popular by James Bond, Action Man, and Monsieur Cousteau himself.
It didn’t take very long for the first Tudor watch to grace a French combat swimmer’s wrist. The brand’s first diver’s watch – the Oyster Prince Submariner 7922 – was produced in 1954, designed for durability, reliability, precision and waterproofness at a moderate price. This early model tool-watch had a functional immersion depth of 100 metres, though after much experimentation, post-1958 versions managed to plumb greater depths.
In the ’50s, the combat swimmers’ role was evolving, too. Having developed roles and skill sets during the nation’s misadventures in the Indochina War, France’s battle frogmen formed a unit called Commando Hubert, named for one Lieutenant Augustin Hubert – a hero of the Second World War. Their specialty was maritime counterterrorism, as well as training other French military and police units who occasionally needed to operate underwater.
Clearly there was a market for combat divers keeping time, because the Marine Nationale started ordering up watches before the Submariner even made it onto Tudor’s official catalogue. Navies from the U.S., Canada, Argentina, South Africa and Italy soon followed suit, sporting handsome Submariners that could withstand watery punishment and intense pressures.
1969 kicked off the second generation of Tudor Submariners, with self-winding movements and a new face featuring square hour markers and matching hands. At the height of the Cold War, French Navy procurement was buying the same models from Tudor’s catalogue as their civilian counterparts – the only mod being an engraving of the initials “MN” and the last two digits of the year. Once in use, some watches were customised by individual frogmen with straps made from parachute belts. (Apparently the flexible material made the watch easy to adjust over a diving suit.) Aside from that, they wore the same timepieces as those on civvy street.
Because the whole point of military frogman watches is to take a battering and keep on ticking under pressure, few examples survive from this time in perfect nick. Still, given their rarity and storied pasts, they seem to be popular with collectors. And clearly, they last a long time. Tudor kept kitting out Marine Nationale combat divers well into the 1980s, and the last of their watches were decommissioned in the early 2000s.
This slice of French military history was brought to you by our friends at Tudor, a Swiss watchmaking brand offering mechanical watches with good looks and proven reliability.