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The Life of a Collector At Auction: A Hero’s Rolex

November 11th marks not only the anniversary of the end of WWI, but is also Veterans Day.  Also known around the world as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, this holiday celebrates service of military veterans.

Rolex Ties To The Military

Royal Air Force pilots began buying Rolex watches at the start of World War II, replacing their standard issue watches.  However, if these airmen were captured and sent to POW camps, they had their watches confiscated.  The German soldiers stated the watches could be hiding a secret compass or other tool to aid with escape.

Hans Wilsdorf, upon hearing of this, offered to replace the watches and not require payment until the end of the war.  An estimated 3,000 Rolex watches were ordered to one prison camp for officers alone.  To order a watch, an officer only needed to write and explain their circumstances of the loss of the original watch, and where they were being held.rolex-vintage-8

Wilsdorf, himself, took responsibility for making sure the officers received their watches.  He corresponded with the officers, and even sent multiple watches if he found out they were never received.

Upcoming Rolex Auction

The most recent World War II Rolex that has been put up for auction belonged to a Royal Air Force pilot who was killed after being caught during the Great Escape.  This pilot was Flight Lieutenant Jack Williams who, of 76 escaped, was one of 50 chosen to be executed.

The Great Escape

In 1943, one of the main organizers of the famous Great Escape, ordered a stainless steel Rolex Oyster 3525 Chronograph. Corporal Clive James Nutting was delivered the watch in July.  It is believed that this watch was ordered because of the chronograph’s ability to accurately time patrols of prison guards, or to time the 76 escapees through the tunnel “Harry” in late March, 1944.

WWII Vintage Rolex

Jack’s Rolex

The officers actions as prisoners of war, and famous escapes, inspired both The Wooden Horse and the 1963 film The Great Escape.  The Corporal was sent an invoice of £15, to be auctioned for £66,000 in May of 2007.  Another Rolex was on auction in 2013, selling for £60,000. This was a Rolex Speed King owned by Flight Lieutenant Gerald Imeson.  Imeson was number 172 in the escape queue at the camp; German guards discovered the tunnel after escapee number 76.

Jack Williams

Also ordering the top-of the-line chronograph, Ref 3525 was FL Jack Williams.  This watch arrived in early August, 1943, and it’s serial number is only 5 digits away from the same model that was delivered to FL Gerald Imeson. The black dial chronograph has a serial number starting with 186,xxx.

Williams’ role in the Great Escape was that of Penguin.  He wrote to his family stating that he took up gardening, and planting vegetables to supplement the poor rations they were given.  This aligned with the secret soil that was dug from tunnel “Harry,” and carried through special pouches in his clothing to be later dispersed through the camp.  It is believed that he used his vegetable plot to hide some of the soil.

Jack Williams (first row; second from right) and other POWs.

Jack Williams (first row; second from right) and other POWs.

Only 200 officers were selected to break out out of the 600 that had been involved.  Jack drew number 67. The night before the breakout, Jack told his friend Don Wilson that there was a good chance he would see him in the next fortnight, but “if by any chance I do [escape], would you kindly take my two wrist watches home.”

Wilson held onto the watches, even after being evacuated in February 1945 and marched through severe weather conditions.  He also escaped death by ‘friendly fire,’ avoiding being hit by diving quickly for cover.  After the War, Wilson visited his friend’s parents, where he returned the watches and a few personal effects.

The Rolex stayed in the family, given to the present owner by a great-aunt, Jack’s mother, in the 1980s.  In 1984, exactly 40 years after the Great Escape and Jack Williams attempt to escape, the watch was taken to Rolex in London to repair a broken mainspring.  Rolex serviced the watch, free of charge, after learning of it’s amazing history.

Returned from servicing in 1984.

Returned from servicing in 1984.

Read the full story of FL Jack Williams and his Rolex on Bourne End Auction’s News.

The Auction takes place on December 2nd, 2015. The current estimate of the watch, and personal affects of FL Jack Williams, is £50,000 or around $75,000, due to the military history. The images in this post are courtesy of Bourne End Auction’s.

About Emily Smith
Newbie to watches but a quick learner. She loves the history of watches and loves learning how they work. She prefers Rolex and Omega watches but is learning the history behind other brands. Her watches of choice right now are her vintage Omega Ladymatic that is a mere 19mm and her newest addition, a 1973 Rolex Oyster with a navy dial. While she enjoys the look of vintage watches, she is excited to learn about new models and build her collection.

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