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Prisoners of War, Rolex Watches & The Great Escape
Rolex Watches Available In Imprisonment
I have only recently heard the amazing story about how Prisoners of War, captured by the Germans in World War II, ordered Rolex watches while in imprisonment.
What is even more amazing, is that the Rolex watches were ordered and delivered to the prison camp free of charge . This incredible service was only available to British allies, who would make their order by letter via the Red Cross Headquarters in Geneva to Rolex also based in Geneva.
In 1908, Hans Wilsdorf registered the trademark ‘Rolex’ and opened an office in Switzerland. The company name ‘Rolex’ was registered in 1915.
By the start of World War II, Rolex watches were very popular with Royal Air Force pilots. However, when captured and sent to POW camps these watches were confiscated. Incredibly, when Hans Wilsdorf heard of this, he offered to replace the confiscated watches and declared that he would not require payment until the end of the war. To qualify, the Officers had to write to Rolex and advise which camp they were being held in and the circumstances of losing their watch.
The administration of this programme was run by Hans Wilsdorf himself. He would personally write a letter accompanying each and every order for a Rolex watch. The Prisoners of War were advised that they would be expected to pay for their watches in Swiss Francs at the end of the war. In reality, because of the economic situation at the end of the war, it wasn’t until 1947-1948 that foreign resources were available to meet the bills.
A staggering estimated 3,000 Rolex watches were ordered by British officers in the Oflag V11 B POW camp in Bavaria alone.
In 1943, while still a Prisoner of War, Corporal Clive James Nutting ordered a stainless steel Rolex Oyster 3525 Chronograph (valued at a current equivalent of £1,200). The watch (Rolex watch no. 185983) was delivered to Stalag Luft 111 camp in what is now Zagan, Poland. This camp was made famous by the 1963 film ‘The Great Escape‘; Corporal Nutting was one of the organisers of the ill-fated breakout.
Accompanying the Rolex watch was a letter from Hans Wilsdorf apologising for the delay in processing the order. The delay was due, Hans Wilsdorf explained, not to wartime restrictions, but to a large number of orders in hand for officers. He also added that an English gentleman such as himself ‘should not even think’ about paying for the watch before the end of the war.
The following is taken from Hans Wilsdorf's letter to Corporal Clive James Nutting:-
We beg to acknowledge receipt of your order 10th March 43, and in accordance with your instructions we will supply you with 1 Chronograph Oyster No 122.
This watch costs to-day in Switzerland frs 250-,
But you must not even think of settlement during the war.
As we now have a large number of orders in hand for officers, there will be some unavoidable delay in the execution of your order, but we will do the best we can for you.
Meanwhile, believe us to be
Montres Rolex S.A.
Hans Wilsdorf had been impressed that Corporal Nutting had ordered the more expensive Rolex 3525 while most other prisoners ordered the much cheaper Rolex Speed King model.
The watch is believed to have been ordered specifically for use in the ‘Great Escape’ when, as a chronograph, it could have been used to time patrols of prison guards or time the 76 ill-fated escapees through tunnel 'Harry' on 24 March 1944.
Corporal Clive Nutting, known as “Nobby” was a shoemaker by trade and worked as a cobbler in the POW camp for the Germans repairing officers boots and was able to save his earnings, he was in the camp for 5 years.
Eventually, after the war, Nutting was sent an invoice of only £15 for the watch, due to currency export controls in England at the time. He paid for the watch upon his return to London in 1948.
Corporal Nutting served as a consultant for both the 1950 film ‘The Wooden Horse and the 1963 film ‘The Great Escape’. Both films were based on actual escapes which took place at Stalag luft 111. Corporal Nutting died at the age of 90 in the year 2001.
The Rolex watch and associated correspondence between Hans Wilsdorf and Corporal Nutting were sold at auction for an amazing £66,000 in May 2007.