The years between the wars were lucrative, with Rolex enjoying a huge market share, thanks to holding patents on the
waterproof Oyster case and the automatic ‘Perpetual’ movement, but the Second World War seriously impeded the
company’s progress as a commercial entity, as export in and out of neutral Switzerland became impossible. Things
reached a head when, in 1942, with the pendulum edging towards an allied victory, a crucial rail link through Vichy,
France was severed, leaving Switzerland entirely surrounded by the Axis nations, cutting the country off from the
international markets beyond its own frontiers.
Wilsdorf, however, realised he had a captive market – in the most literal sense of that phrase – just across the
border in Germany. Gambling on an allied victory, he offered British officers in the prisoner of war camps Rolexes
to replace watches that had either been looted by Nazi camp leaders or seized on the grounds that they might contain
a hidden compass (The British Secret Service often got humanitarian groups to distribute escape gear to PoWs,
including, on one occasion, silk maps sewn into Monopoly game boards).
The condition for providing the watches was that recipients wouldn’t have to pay for the timepieces until after the
war was won. Requests for a watch of their choosing could be sent by letter via the International Red Cross, which,
like Rolex, was based in Geneva. The watches would be sent back, often with a personal note from Wilsdorf reading:
“You must not even think of settlement during the war.”
A good number of Royal Air Force pilots had already ditched their standard-issue watches in favour of the notably
more reliable, durable and accurate Rolex models, but for many, Wilsdorf was offering an attractive upgrade. As well
as giving morale in the camps a much-needed shot in the arm, the timepieces would also be particularly useful for
escape. And so it proved true, including perhaps the most famous escape of them all: the audacious breakout of the
Luftwaffe-run PoW camp Stalag Luft III, immortalised by Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson et al in the seminal
movie that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year: The Great Escape.
The Rolex Oyster Chronograph worn by Flight Lieutenant Gerald Imeson, who was one of the ‘penguins’ – the men who
sprinkled soil dug from the tunnels onto the grounds via holes in their trouser pockets, as depicted in the movie –
fetched £30,000 when it was sold at Bourne End Auction Rooms, Buckinghamshire in October last year. Imeson was not
one of the 76 to successfully breakout, and went on to wear his chronograph throughout the gruelling forced marches
through Germany in the winter of 1945, to evade the encroaching Russians. He ultimately survived the war, though,
and paid his SFr.250 bill (equivalent to £15 12s 6d) to Rolex in 1947.
Imeson wasn’t the only escapee to take up Wilsdorf’s kind offer: Clive James Nutting, a Corporal in the Royal Corps
of Signals, ordered a stainless steel Rolex Oyster 3525 Chronograph identical to Imeson’s, intending to pay for it
with money he saved working as a shoemaker at the camp. Despite Nutting being a non-commissioned officer, Wilsdorf
took to him on the basis that he requested the pricey Rolex 3525 Oyster chronograph, while most prisoners opted for
the more modestly priced Rolex Speed King model.
According to Bourne End Auction’s watch and clock historian Martyn Perrin: “Flt. Lt. Imeson ordered his Rolex model
3525 in December 1942 and received an acknowledgement from Rolex in February 1943 stating there would probably be a
delay. Less than two weeks after this, Cpl. Nutting ordered the same model watch from Rolex. Both watches were
received at Stalag Luft III on the same day i.e. 4 August 1943.
“It is, therefore, quite probable that Imeson told Nutting about his order and the confirmation letter he had just
received, which prompted him to order the same model watch. It has been speculated (and is quite possible) that both
watches could have been used to time events in the run up to the Great Escape.” Nutting in particular is thought to
have used the watch to time the prison guards’ patrols and also to time the 76 escapees through tunnel ‘Harry’ on 24