A “POW Rolex” Recalls the Great Escape 

by Alan Downing

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On May 12-13 th, Antiquorum Geneva will hold its second auction of 2007, in which nearly 696 watches and clocks will be auctioned off.

On this occasion, two lots, No 311 and 312 will be sold and we are proud to share with you the wonderful story of lot No. 311. We warmly thank Mr Alan Downing, who we met at our Antiquorum Office in Geneva three weeks ago, for sharing with us the exceptional story of this Pow Rolex.

Following a very interesting discussion with Mr Downing and thanks to the rich illustrative material he provided us with, we hereby present the story of this Rolex Oyster which belonged to Mr Clive James Nutting, Corporal in the Royal Corps of Signals, who was a prisoner in Stalag Luft III from 1939 to 1945. This essay written by Alan tells us the story of Clive Nutting and shows how Rolex (and other watch factories) were engaged in the regular supply of watches to men incarcerated in Prisoner of War camps like Stalag Luft III (located at Sagan, 100 miles southeast of Berlin, at present Poland). This camp is probably the most famous of all Prisoner of War Camps due to it being the scene of the great escape of march 1944 and the subsequent making of the 1962 film of the same name. 

We are pleased to share this story, provided by Alan, and photos with the TimeZone community in advance of the catalog's publication.


Sharon Kerman and Morghan Mootoosamy

Clive Nutting’s POW Stalag Luft III Watch” - lot 311

Lot 311: Ref. 3525, Stainless Steel So-Called "Monoblocco” with Exceptional Original Documentation. Rolex, “Oyster Chronograph, Antimagnetic”, Ref. 3525. Case No. 185983. Made in 1941, sold "gratis” on July 8, 1943 to Corporal Clive James Nutting whilst a prisoner of War in Stalag Luft III.

Very fine, one of very few remaining, water-resistant, stainless steel gentleman's wristwatch with black dial, round button chronograph, register, tachometer, telemeter and a stainless steel Rolex Oyster buckle. Accompanied by the original numbered receipt, numbered guarantee, Rolex envelope, three letters from the Rolex Watch Co. Ltd. signed by Hans Wilsdorf, and Corporal Nutting's archives, correspondence, and photographs relating to his time at Stalag Luft III.

C. Two-body, polished and brushed, screwed-down case back, concave lugs. D. Matte black with luminous gilt-edged Arabic numerals, outer gilt minute/seconds track, subsidiary seconds and 30-minute register dials, outermost gilt tachometer and telemeter scales. Luminous gilt "baton" hands. M. 13''', rhodium-plated, 17 jewels, straight line lever escapement, monometallic balance, self-compensating Breguet balance-spring, index regulator.

Dial, case and movement signed.

Diam. 35 mm. Thickness 14 mm. 

About the Ref. 3525

Ref. 3525 was one of the first Oyster Chronograph references and was available in stainless steel as well as 18K pink and yellow gold. The condition of the present watch and the rarity of the black dial make it one of the most desirable watches of this reference to appear at auction in the last decade. When this watch first appeared In the early 1940s it cost 350 Swiss Francs in stainless steel, in 18K gold it cost 935 Swiss Francs.

Adding to the desirability of this particular watch is the almost unique survival of the original receipt bearing the reference and case number of the watch and the original numbered guarantee with it's postally used Rolex envelope. Historically important correspondence from the immediate post-war period between Clive James Nutting and Hans Wilsdorf himself is included with this lot and gives a fascinating insight into the business methods of the Rolex Watch Company during the Second World War.

The documents included with this lot are:

- Original order acknowledgement from Rolex Geneva to Corporal Nutting in Stalag Luft III, dated March 30, 1943. Signed by Hans Wilsdorf.

- Original dispatch note from Rolex Geneva to Corporal Nutting in Stalag Luft III, dated July 10, 1943. Signed by Hans Wilsdorf.

- Original Rolex receipt bearing the watch reference and case numbers, dated July 8, 1943.

- Original Rolex guarantee and envelope bearing the watch case number, dated July 8, 1943.

- Letter from C.J. Nutting to Hans Wilsdorf requesting that the watch is serviced and offering to pay for the watch, dated August 11, 1945.

- Letter from Hans Wilsdorf to C.J. Nutting with instructions to return the watch for servicing and discussion of payment, dated August 20, 1945. Signed by Hans Wilsdorf.

- Letter from The Rolex Watch Co., Ltd informing C.J. Nutting that payment can now be accepted at £15, 12s & 6d, dated March 23, 1948.

- Corporal Nutting's wartime log with original drawings and photographs made in Stalag Luft III, official notices regarding his missing and prisoner status, newspaper cuttings, letter from United Artists regarding the film "The Great Escape" and Wessex Film Productions regarding the film "The Wooden Horse". 

A Wonderful Story

A 1940s Rolex chronograph that belonged to a British prisoner of war at the Stalag Luft III camp in Nazi Germany is coming up for sale at Antiquorum in Geneva on May 13 and 14. With it is the logbook Corporal Clive Nutting of the Royal Corps of Signals kept during his wartime captivity. It’s a collection of unpublished cartoons, illustrations and photographs revealing a new insight into camp life and the mass breakout of 76 POWs made famous in the movie, The Great Escape.  

Included in the papers is Nutting’s correspondence with Rolex, confirming the remarkable marketing campaign the Geneva brand launched during World War II. 


A Captive Market

Swiss watch sales were badly hit by the war, especially after Germany invaded unoccupied Vichy France in November 1942, and neutral Switzerland found itself completely encircled by Axis powers. Watch companies were cut off from their best customers, the British and Americans.

Rolex, however, discovered that there were plenty of British and Americans right on Switzerland’s doorstep — literally a captive market — in German prisoner-of-war camps. Stalag Luft III, for example, housed up to 10,000 Allied airmen, shot down in operations over occupied Europe. Thousands more Allied officers were interned in the various Oflag (officer’s POW camps) scattered throughout the German Reich.

Clive Nutting (at right) with his “Brothers in Arm” in Stalag Luft III


This was evidently a booming market, judging from Rolex’s confirmation of an order for one of its more expensive watches received from prisoner No. 738 in Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Germany (now part of Poland). Hans Wilsdorf, founding director of Rolex who took personal charge of sales to POWs, warned Clive Nutting of “an unavoidable delay in the execution of your order.” The delay was due, not to wartime restrictions, “but to a large number of orders in hand for officers.”  

Rolex’s Incredible Offer

The large number of orders is explained by the incredible offer Rolex was making to POWs. Underlined in Wilsdorf’s letter to Nutting are the words,  “…but you must not even think of settlement during the war.” The news that Rolex was offering watches on a buy-now- pay-whenever” basis must have spread through the camps like wildfire. More than 3,000 Rolex watches were reportedly ordered by British officers in the Oflag VII B POW camp in Bavaria alone.


It meant that Wilsdorf, himself a German, was betting on an allied victory. By early 1943, this was a risk worth taking. The tide of war had turned: the Russians were on the offensive after routing the Germans at Stalingrad; German and Italian armies were being driven out of North Africa. But this expression of trust must have been a wonderful morale-booster for the POWs. Besides being a comfort in a POW camp, watches were part of an airman’s kit, and many had lost theirs on capture or in trying to avoid it. Clive Nutting, as a signaller, would also have been issued with a watch as part of his equipment. For escape-minded prisoners, who could only get to the borders by public transport, a watch was as essential as a train timetable.

Wilsdorf hedged his bet further by making this offer available to British officers only, in the belief that their word was their bond. He had started his watch business in England, but moved to Switzerland after World War I for tax reasons. He was also impressed by the fact that Rolex watches were popular among British Royal Air Force pilots. But he also extended the offer to Clive Nutting, who though not an officer nor even in the air force, was gentleman enough to order a 250-franc Rolex 3525 Oyster chronograph. Most other POWs ordered the much cheaper Speed King model, popular for its small size.

The Oyster chronograph No. 122, ordered on March 10, 1943, was eventually sent on July 10 with a gratis invoice, certificate and instructions, and it was on Nutting’s wrist by August 4. As a chronograph, it could well have been useful in timing the patrols of the goons (prison guards) or the despatch of 76 escapers though tunnel “Harry” in the mass breakout of March 24-25, 1944.


A Valuable Craftsman

Nutting was among a few army personnel quartered in the North camp of Stalag Luft III and, as a shoemaker by trade, was valuable both to the Germans and to the POWs. He thus had a privileged position in charge of the camp’s shoemaking workshop. He received a wage from the Germans, sent remittances to his family in England, and as an officer’s promissory note testifies, had money to lend. He could evidently afford a special watch.

Clive Nutting (at right) with his friends in the workshop


The next we hear of the watch is on Nutting’s return to his home in Acton, London, in August 1945 when he writes to Wilsdorf that although his watch served well in the cold weather during the evacuation of the camps, it was now gaining an hour a day. Where can he have it fixed? And can he have the final invoice?

Due to British currency restrictions, Rolex could only send Nutting the invoice of £15 12s 6d for his watch in 1948. The chronograph stayed with him until his death in Australia in 2001 at the age of 90.

The last record of Nutting’s POW watch is a restorer’s bill for AU$2,356 (€1,400), dated March 28, 2003 — exactly 63 years after its original owner became a prisoner of war.

The restorer’s bill dated March 28, 2003 


A Souvenir to Escape For

The Swiss watch industry also heavily promoted its watches to the estimated 5,000 allied escaped POWs in Switzerland (known as évadés), including more than 1,200 US airmen who had baled out of, or landed their crippled aircraft in Switzerland. The Americans, as well as British officers, stayed in luxury hotels in such Alpine resorts as Adelboden, Wengen and Davos, becoming the mainstay of the wartime tourist industry. 


 Then-popular brands such as Aureole, Angelus, Cyma, Invicta, Movado, Mulco, Olma, Paul Buhré, Richard, Rodana and Pierce, advertised heavily in the évadés’ newspaper, Marking Time. Richard, in particular, took out whole-page advertisements offering evadés  a 25% discount on their 100-franc automatic model, payment in 12 weekly installments, and replacement in case of loss or theft.

Patek Philippe, more discreetly, advertised an expensive high-precision pocket-chronograph.

The Americans, with an allowance of CHF20 a day, had the most money to spend. Non-commissioned British and Dominion évadés had to subsist on CHF15 a week, yet most managed to save up enough to buy a watch.

The success of the campaign is shown by a cartoon in Marking Time of returning evadés parading for departure festooned with watches and clocks. The évadés  were no doubt also motivated by the paper reporting a shortage of watches in Britain, citing a demand to the minister for economic warfare for “an aircraft full of Swiss watches to be sent to England as soon as possible” because “good cheap watches are unobtainable.” 


The Historic Value of Watches

The prices quoted for watches in the 1940s converted to current values, show that watches were relatively far cheaper then than they are now. In the pre-quartz era, watches were more of a necessity than a luxury.

The CHF250 quoted for Nutting’s Rolex chronograph in 1943 had the purchasing power of about USD2,500 today. Today’s Rolex chronograph costs around four times as much, although, unlike the 1940s model it’s automatic.

The cheapest Swiss lever watches sold for an equivalent of USD300-500 today. Automatics were at least twice as expensive. 


Continue to Part 2: Clive Nutting’s Story and the Great Escape >>>



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