Today, Panerai's adorn the wrists of the rich and famous and are something of a regular fixture on the wrists of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Statham. But before they received the Hollywood action men's seal of approval, they were seeing real action in World War II on the wrists of the world's first underwater commando unit, the Decima Flottigila MAS .
Panerai's military association began before the War, when Guido Panerai (grandson of Giovanni Panerai, the company's founder) was approached by the Regia Marina Militare, the Italian Royal Navy, to produce a series of high-precision mechanical instruments for use underwater. These instruments were very successful and eventually Panerai were commissioned to create a military divers’ watch that would function successfully at depth and could easily be read by the frogmen who were to wear them.
Guido patented a process for creating luminescent watch markings by utilising the element Radium to coat the dials, which he named "Radomir". This process would allow the watches to be easily read in the low-lighting conditions that the Regia Marina Militare had specified. However, this process had the rather unfortunate side effect of making the watches highly radioactive, which, sadly, proved to be fatal to a number of women whose job it was to hand paint the dials with the toxic substance.
What is a little known is that these first watches commissioned for the new commandos were, in fact, made for Panerai by Rolex – a partnership that was to last from 1935 to 1954. These early watches were developed from the Rolex pocket watch (Ref: 2533), which sported a large, 47mm case. These early examples still bore the Rolex insignia on the crown and on the movement and it was in partnership with Rolex that Panerai developed their distinctive crown guard. These early watches are really rather rare, and it comes as no surprise, considering their scarcity and their Rolex movements, that these watches are highly sought after by collectors and can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.
However, it was these very watches that were issued to the Italian Navy frogmen of the Decima Flottigilia MAS, the specialist commando unit that developed something of a fearsome reputation amongst the Allies during the WWII.
In June of 1940, Fascist Italy entered World War II and the Decima MAS became a formidable weapon in its arsenal. The unit was responsible for the destruction of some 72,190 tons of Allied warships and 130,572 tons of Allied merchant ships. The battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth were both sunk by the unit and the heavy cruiser HMS York and the destroyer HMS Eridge were wrecked.
In one mission alone in December of 1941, in the port of Alexandria in Egypt, these frogmen were responsible for the crippling of the only two British battleships in the region, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valliant, a tanker Saratoga and the destroyer, HMS Jervis. The frogman leading the assault, Lieutenant Luigi De la Penne, was captured but refused to reveal any information pertaining to the attack. However, as the time of detonation approached, he warned the British crew of the impending explosion, which was to later win him the Medal of Valour. Winston Churchil later said of his actions that “it was an extraordinary example of courage and geniality.”
James Bond creator Ian Fleming even based the use of an underwater hatch on the Disco Volante in his novel Thunderball on the Olterra, a scuttled Italian tanker that was used later in the War as an underwater base by La Decima. From here they launched several attacks on Allied shipping. In the novel Bond pronounces the incident as “one of the blackest marks against intelligence during the whole war.” As Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence, this must have been quite a sore spot for Fleming.
Despite the heavy losses to Allied shipping during the War, these men were considered courageous and were respected by the Allies. Their missions were often extremely dangerous and their losses were reportedly very high - as few as one in five frogmen would return from a mission. It is no coincidence then that Panerai should revel in their association with the Decima MAS. Panerai's marketing made much of the fact that it was their watches that adorned the wrists of the first underwater commando unit in the world. A unit that would become the inspiration for the British SBS and the American Navy SEaLs.
After the War, Panerai continued to provide diving watches for the Italian Navy and, despite their celebrity endorsement, Panerai continues to use the image of the Italian frogmen of the Decima Flottigila MAS in their promotion to this day.