Hands-On With The Zero West DB-2 Lancaster: A Bold Horological Statement From The UK
The Zero West DB-2 Lancaster is an impressive watch, both in the metal and in spirit, so to speak. Its steel case measures 44mm wide, 16.3mm thick, and 50mm long, and it sits on a strap 22mm wide. Generous numbers indeed. A feature that’s even more impressive — I’m now referring to the spirit of the watch — is the presence of a machined disc salvaged from Dambuster ED825, an Avro Lancaster bomber that took part in Operation Chastise, the bombing of three dams in the German Ruhr area during World War 2. Trying on the watch and putting this story together made me think about the DB-2 Lancaster as a wrist ornament and instrument, but also made me consider the meaning of the historical part inside its case.
Andrew Brabyn from Zero West is a passionate and driven man. The Zero West DB-2 Lancaster (£4,300 with tax and £3,583.33 without) is the materialized dream of Brabyn and his business partner Graham Collins. My colleague Ben had a chance to visit the Zero West studio where he met the two watch enthusiasts who decided to start a watch brand. “I was in between contracts,” says Andrew Brabyn. “Graham has a background in military aviation engineering, and my background is in branding and graphics. Hey, I went to art college, and I used to pimp Swatch watches there. I showed Graham a render of a dial I designed, and he thought it looked great. And on that basis, we started a watch brand.”
The DNA of the Zero West DB-2 Lancaster
“What we first did was put together a document of how the brand could look. We started with a brand instead of a single watch. Massively ambitious, I know. And we self-funded the whole project. But as I said, we were confident and ambitious. From the start, we were convinced that having our own brand identity was paramount. We set out to create a distinct brand DNA. Zero West is not about margins but about the best product we can do. So we also did intensive research on how to organize the business accordingly. Zero West is very vertically integrated. There are lots of things done in-house. Graham designs watches on a five-axis machine, for instance. And the watches we create are not only very detailed, but we also make sure the quality is of the highest level. The stories our watches tell are also part of our DNA.”
British engineering, a distinct human element, and a specific story setting
The brand Zero West is named after the prime meridian that runs through Greenwich. Every watch the brand makes has a connection to history, and each embodies British engineering, a distinct human element, and a specific story setting. And that also applies to the DB-2 Lancaster chronograph, of course. The chronograph, powered by a Top Premium Grade SW500-C automatic movement, has a dial that shows large, luminescent hands and the coordinates/date code referencing Operation Chastise, the 1943 attack on three dams in the Ruhr valley, the industrial heartland of Germany. The watch features an aerospace-grade rubber strap and a bespoke steel pin buckle.
The DB-2 Lancaster is a limited edition of 100 watches, and the most interesting and intriguing part of each one is on the case back. Flip over the completely matte 316L stainless steel case, and you will see a diamond-turned aluminum insert that houses a small disc repurposed from Lancaster ED825 aluminum. It sits right under the black silhouette of the Lancaster that’s reverse-printed on the sapphire crystal.
Buy the watch, own a piece of history, and get a book for free
When you buy the watch, it comes with a 100-page book that covers everything from the raid to finding the crashed ED825 in northern France. And that story is a genuine one. “We don’t do marketing fluff,” Brabyn stated firmly. And it’s a story that resonates with people. “We do things a bit differently at Zero West. There’s already a story in how we produce our cases. Our cases come from a facility in the UK that also produces parts for Formula One cars. And we also don’t send our designs to Switzerland. We do our own, and we’re super fussy when it comes to colors, dial designs, you name it. We produce a mid-hundreds amount of watches per year, and our business model is not to become a big brand. Instead, we want to design runs of limited-edition watches.
We’re obsessed with fulfilling a lifelong dream. Yes, it’s arduous, but it’s also fun and massively rewarding. One buyer of the DB-2 Lancaster, for instance, came all the way from Wales to pick up the watch here in Emsworth. He brought his 90-year-old father, who worked on the bombs that were dropped during Operation Chastise. For them, it was an emotional moment.”
Hands-on with the Zero West DB-2 Lancaster
The XL Zero West DB-2 Lancaster is too large for my wrist. It’s too tall and too heavy, but the thing about watches and wrists is that every combination is unique. I do appreciate the intricate design of the case, though. It actually does look like a Formula One car part. What’s interesting about it is that Brabyn said that “sometimes history can overshadow a design. But since we’re very much watch enthusiasts, the design of the watch must be able to stand on its own.”
And that it does. This is not the watch you want if you’re in the market for a retro-styled Tudor or your first Omega. This is a watch you desire because of its unique shapes and backstory. And it’s the story behind this watch that got me thinking. Please read my thoughts below.
For more information about the DB-2 Lancaster, fly over to the official Zero West website.
Contemplating watches dedicated to or made with parts of military machines
After talking to Zero West’s Andrew Brabyn, wearing the DB-2 Lancaster, and then writing the hands-on review of it, I found myself thinking about the meaning of the watch. Inside it, you will find a piece of the Avro Lancaster Mk.III (Type 464) bomber with call sign ED825. It was this aircraft’s mission to bomb the Sorpe Dam in Nazi Germany on May 16th and 17th, 1943. The crew managed to hit the target, but because of the way the bomb hit, it only did minimal damage to the crest of the dam.
After the raid, the aircraft returned to base in Scampton, one of just 11 returning aircraft from the 19 that took part in the mission. On December 10th, 1943, the plane was bound for Doullens in the Somme area of Northern France to drop supplies for the French Resistance. German anti-aircraft guns hit the Lancaster’s fuel tank, causing a fire. The pilot managed to not crash the plane on the town, but the flight ended on a hillside, killing all those on board.
Protectors and liberators
Operation Chastise, the attack with bouncing bombs on three dams in the Ruhr valley, the industrial heartland of Germany, saw 53 of the 133 aircrew members killed. Three more were captured and became prisoners of war. On the ground, an estimated 1,300 people lost their lives because of the flooding caused by the burst dams. The impact on the industrial production in the Ruhr area wasn’t significant, though. Nevertheless, the daring and inventive raid with its spinning, bouncing bombs boosted the morale of the British people — very understandable in wartime. Let’s not forget that the Luftwaffe had severely bombed several British cities at the beginning of the war, causing death and devastation. Brave RAF pilots flying Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires tried to stop German bombers. These brave pilots won the Battle of Britain and saved it from a planned German invasion.
Many decades later, we look back at WW2 as the fight between good and evil. In the end, the good guys prevailed. From a British (watch) perspective, it makes sense to build a watch with parts from a Hurricane or Spitfire, the brave protectors against evil. But what about celebrating war machines that didn’t protect but attacked? It’s a difficult question to answer, but wearing and writing about the Zero West DB-2 Lancaster did provoke thoughts and questions.
The Lancaster conundrum
When I think of the Lancaster, I hear the magnificent roar of the four Rolls-Royce Merlin XX V12 engines and imagine the plane’s robust silhouette. But the plane was also an instrument of mass destruction in the hands of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris (1892–1984), the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) RAF Bomber Command. He got his ominous nickname from his continued preference for area bombing with the risk of causing civilian casualties over precision targeting. His tactics were already controversial during the war and became the topic of a heated debate after, in which the bombing of Dresden was a major topic. Even British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who rallied the people and led the country from an almost certain defeat to victory, went so far as to write, “The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.”
Dresden in Saxony was targeted by bombers of the US Air Force and the RAF in February 1945. At the time, the city with around 600,000 inhabitants was filled with an extra 300,000 refugees fleeing from the Red Army approaching from the East. Hundreds of Lancaster bombers dropped thousands of tons of bombs — a deadly combination of high-explosive bombs and incendiaries — and so did the hundreds of US B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. “Florence on the Elbe,” as Dresden was also known, quickly became engulfed by a raging firestorm. It not only destroyed the city but also killed an estimated 35,000 people.
We live in times of growing global instability. There’s a war raging on the borders of Europe between a sovereign state and a (former) superpower The civil war in Syria is ongoing, and so are many more armed conflicts worldwide. Furthermore, the Iraq War (2003–2011), which cost the lives of more than 150,000 people, is still an open wound.
In light of all these violent conflicts that caused the lives of many innocent people, luxury and decorative objects made with parts of war machines can become problematic, not least of all because we are confronted with war refugees daily. The Zero West DB-2 Lancaster does not celebrate death and destruction; don’t get me wrong. The people behind the watch literally took a fragment of British history and put it in a watch. The part of the Lancaster bomber inside the watch is more a celebration of original and inventive engineering than anything else. It definitely is not glorifying war. But the salvaged warplane part did get me thinking, and once that started, there was no way back.
Please let me know your thoughts regarding the Zero West DB-2 Lancaster chronograph as a pure horological object, but also on watches that are dedicated to or made with military parts.
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