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Rolex and the Great Escape

Rolex GMT Master

The Great Escape, a remarkable feat involving incredible human fortitude and risk-taking, involved a mass escape from the German prison of war camp, Stalag Luft III, during the Second World War. An interesting fact about the incident is its association with Rolex and the resulting positive media coverage it generated--both for the daring individuals involved and the Rolex brand alike.

Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, keenly believed that the Nazis would never win the war and, as an attempt to raise the morale of the British prisoners of war (held captive in German jails), Wilsdorf declared he would follow an interesting policy to support them. According to this policy, any British prisoner of war who lost his Rolex to his captors could write to Geneva (Rolex headquarters) for a replacement--for which he would not have to pay until after the War had ended. The fact that Wilsdorf believed the Allies could defeat the Axis powers was seen as a confidence-booster to both soldiers and civilians alike, and many British soldiers ordered Rolex watches under this policy. In perhaps the most amazing story related to this arrangement, one of the masterminds behind the Great Escape, Corporal Clive James Nutting, ordered an expensive stainless steel Rolex Oyster Chronograph (Model 3525) on March 10, 1943. With his order, Corporal Nutting wrote that he would pay for the watch with the money he saved while working as a shoemaker at the prisoner camp. After almost five months, on August 4, Corporal Nutting received the watch--delivered with a letter written to him by Wilsdorf himself. In the letter Wilsdorf not only apologized for the delay in delivering the watch, but also asserted that he would accept the price of the watch only after the war had ended.

This watch, although very expensive (1200 English pounds if ordered by mail), was believed to be ordered so Nutting could use it to exactly measure the patrolling times of the prison guards. After great planning and patience, on March 24, 1944, 76 British prisoners were finally able to make their way to freedom through a tunnel known as “Harry,” eventually garnering widespread fanfare and further bolstering the Rolex brand when the incident was widely publicized. Underscoring the popularity of the event is the fact that the Rolex watch ordered and used by James Nutting, and the letters exchanged between Wilsdorf and Nutting, fetched 66,000 English pounds in an auction held in 2007.