With this year marking the 60th anniversary of the launch of the Rolex Oyster Perpetual, we thought we would share a charming WWII Rolex story that caught our attention.
By the end of the 1930s, Rolex watches had already acquired a reputation for prestige among Royal Air Force pilots, who bought them to replace their inferior standard-issue watches. However, when captured and sent to POW camps, their watches were confiscated. When Hans Wilsdorf (the owner of Rolex) heard of this, he offered to replace all watches that had been confiscated. Their delivery was mostly organized through the Red Cross.
Being a gentleman, Wilsdorf believed that an officer’s word was his bond, so did not require (and, in fact, insisted) that no payment was required until the end of the war.
While this noble story provides an interesting insight into Rolex as a company, it has a further twist.
While still a prisoner of war, Corporal Clive James Nutting, ordered a stainless steel Rolex Oyster 3525 Chronograph by mail directly from Hans Wilsdorf in Geneva. He intending to pay for it with money he saved working as a shoemaker at the camp. The watch was delivered to Stalag Luft III on 10 July that year, along with a personal note from Wilsdorf apologising for delay in processing the order.
Although not an officer, Wilsdorf had been impressed with Nutting, and that he had ordered the expensive Rolex 3525 Oyster chronograph (most other prisoners ordered the cheaper Rolex Speed King model which was popular due to its small size).
The specially ordered watch was, in fact, used in the preparation and execution of the real events which took place at Stalag Luft III that were later depicted in the film The Great Escape. As a chronograph watch, the Rolex could time patrols of prison guards and time the 76 escapees through the famous ‘Harry’ tunnel on 24 March 1944.
After the war, Nutting was sent an invoice of only £15 for the watch, due to currency export controls in England at the time. Nutting later served as a consultant on the 1963 film The Great Escape.
The watch and associated correspondence between Wilsdorf and Nutting were sold at auction for £66,000 in May 2007.