Rolex was founded in 1905 by a German, Hans Wilsdorf, and an Englishman, Alfred Davis. Initially based in London, the company moved to Geneva, Switzerland in 1919, where they manufacture watches to this day.

Fast forward to the second world war. Switzerland continued with its long tradition of neutrality, however, Wilsdorf, a committed supporter of the British cause decided to help by practically giving away state-of-the-art watches to officers who had been captured by German forces and were prisoners of war.

The Geneva Convention ensured prisoners of war had the right to receive mail and packages via the Red Cross, so Wilsdorf encouraged the captured servicemen to write to him so he could send them a new Rolex to replace their own watches which had been confiscated by the Germans. The deal was that the new watch would be paid for after the war when Europe was freed from Nazi rule. That way, Wilsdorf gave the prisoners hope by clearly stating that the war was going to end in their favour.

Corporal Clive Nutting, ordered a stainless steel Rolex Oyster 3525 Chronograph. The request was sent directly to Hans Wilsdorf with an explanation that he would pay for it with money he’d saved by working as a shoemaker at the camp. The watch arrived four months later, accompanied by a letter handwritten by Wilsdorf himself.

Nutting was one of the masterminds of the famous great escape from Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, perhaps the most audacious escape project carried out during WW2. He used his Rolex specifically to measure the frequency of German patrols in the camp, which was all part of the bigger plan.

Situated deep within Nazi-occupied Poland, some 100 miles southeast of Berlin, the camp was considered one of the hardest to escape from. Undeterred, Nutting, together with RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, conceived the plan for a mass escape in the spring of 1943. Interestingly enough, Bushell has connections with Hermanus where TimeTraders is based – you’ll find his name on the local War Memorial.

The plan involved digging three separate tunnels which, in typically English fashion, were named Tom, Dick, and Harry. Each tunnel was dug 9 metres below the surface and had electric lighting, a wooden railway, and an ingenious air pump. In the end, only Harry was used as the other two were discovered by the Germans and destroyed.

Unfortunately, the daring escape turned out to be a failure. Only 76, of the planned 200 actually made it out and most, including Nutting, ended up back in their camp within a few days. Sadly, 50 were executed by the Gestapo, following orders directly from Adolph Hitler. Three men did make it all the way which is a scant reward for such a huge effort.

The story was forever immortalised in the 1963 Hollywood blockbuster “The Great Escape”, starring Steve McQueen. If you haven’t seen it yet, you must!

After the war, Nutting returned to England and received a bill for his Rolex. Due to currency export controls in England, he was charged a mere £15. In 2007 both the watch and the correspondence between Wilsdorf and Nutting were sold at auction for the price of £66,000.

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