A little-known fact about Rolex is the company is owned by a privately held non-profit (organized under Swiss law). And for most of the existence of the company, they’ve involved themselves with many marvelous philanthropic activities.
One is the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which my compadré Josh Benson wrote about here.
Another is the program the company implemented during World War II. During that war, Rolex offered and sold watches to thousands of allied soldiers (some reports say British officers only) who were prisoners of the Third Reich. On credit. With no bona fides. They didn’t have to pay until after the war was over. Such was Rolex’s confidence in both the POWs and in the Allied Command to ultimately win out.
An allied POW had simply to contact Rolex through the Red Cross and request a watch, and the order was promptly fulfilled. Hans Wilsdorf himself administered the program.
And that brings us to an order received from prisoner No. 738 in Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Germany, dated “10th March 43” (March 10, 1943).
First, some background. Stalag Luft III is best known for being the camp where two storied escapes took place during the war. The “wooden horse” escape took place during the summer of 1943. Prisoners placed a wooden vaulting horse in position in the same location in the camp yard every day, with a man hidden inside. That man dug a tunnel over the course of several weeks, which was ultimately used by three prisoners to make their escape.
The other escape was the Great Escape, the prison break made famous by the eponymous movie which starred Steve McQueen. 76 men escaped. However, all but three were ultimately recaptured. 50 were put to death as punishment.
And now back to our man, prisoner No. 738, who turned out to be Corporal Clive James Nutting, a shoemaker by trade before the war. His watch, a Rolex 3525 Oyster chronograph, was shipped on July 10, 1943.
Nutting played a part in both escapes (after the war, he consulted on the making of “The Wooden Horse” and “The Great Escape,” the movies based upon the events). He distributed dirt excavated during the Wooden Horse project by spilling it down the legs of his pants and into the prison yard (a la Shawshank Redemption). And for the escapade known as The Great Escape, he made belts, shoes and briefcases for the escapers out of leather he stole from his German customers (as a craftsman, Nutting was enlisted to ply his craft for the benefit of his captors).
But did Nutting’s Rolex chronograph play a part in the adventure? The answer to that question does not seem to have been recorded. Certainly, he could have put a chronograph to good use timing the patrols of the prison guards and dispatching the 76 escaping prisoners.
One thing we do know is that Nutting kept the chronograph until his death in 2001 at age 90. It was sold with some fantastic provenance at Antiquorum in 2007 (one source saying it went for £66,000 – about $130,000 at the time), along with another similar Rolex chronograph with a similar heritage.
You’ll find more details in this account, nicely done by Alan Downing for Timezone just before the 2007 auction.
And this breaking news about an identical watch owned by one of the unfortunate 50 escapees shot for their escape.