A “POW Rolex” recalls
the Great Escape
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 It’s a collection of unpublished cartoons,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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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 évadés a 25% discount on their 100-franc
automatic model, payment in 12 weekly instalments, and replacement
in case of loss or theft.
Patek Philippe, more discreetly, advertised an expensive high-precision
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 évadés 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
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
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.
NEXT: Clive Nutting’s story and the Great Escape.
A “POW Rolex” recalls the Great Escape (Part 2)
A 1940s Rolex 3525 chronograph, part of a collection of prisoner-of-war
mementoes from Stalag Luft III, fetched some USD53,000 when it was
sold in Australia in September 2006. Now the watch and the unpublished
mementoes that belonged to ex-POW, Clive Nutting, is coming up for
auction at the Antiquorum sale in Geneva on May 12 and 13.
A treasure of unpublished POW mementoes
During his five-year captivity, Clive “Nobby” Nutting kept
a war log filled with drawings, cartoons and photographs depicting
life in World War II’s most famous prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag
Luft III — scene of the Great Escape.
He starts his scrapbook book with a coloured drawing that sums up his
time in action prior to his capture on March 28, 1940, south of Dunkirk.
It shows him clinging desperately to a damaged telegraph pole, trying
to establish communications as bombs and shells rain down on a battle-torn
landscape. A “Stuka” dive-bomber hovers menacingly overhead.
Nutting had joined the Royal Corps of Signals — the army’s
communications engineers — in 1935, as a part-time soldier in
the reservist Territorial Army.
By April 1940, Corporal Nutting was in France with the 44th Territorial
division, part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) guarding the
border with Belgium. On March 10, the Germans attacked, splitting the
French armies, encircling the BEF, and forcing it in a tighter pocket
around Dunkirk — the only port of evacuation.
On March 28, the Germans overwhelmed Nutting’s rearguard position
near Cassel, a strategic communications centre. That night, the remnants
of his 44th division managed to slip away. Some were among the 340,000
British and French troops evacuated from Dunkirk.
A series of official letters evokes the agony that Clive Nutting’s
parents must have felt when they discovered their son hadn’t
got back from Dunkirk. First he’s posted missing, and it’s
not until September 12, 1940 that they know he’s a prisoner-of-war.
We next see Nutting in a press photograph published in an American
men’s magazine. He’s a haggard and exhausted prisoner on
a cold, hungry march through Belgium and Germany to captivity. German
soldiers hold their rifles at the ready. A contemporary handwritten
account among his mementoes speaks of potato fields being stripped
bare as the prisoners march over them, and of POWs being machine-gunned
as they steal milk from a cow.
From June to September 1940, Nutting is incarcerated at Stalag VIIIB
in Lamsdorf. Then he’s moved to Stalag Luft I at Bart on the
Baltic, where he stays until 1942. He spent from 1942 to 1945 at Stalag
Luft III in Upper Silesia, where he was the camp shoemaker. At the
end of January, he was evacuated ahead of the advancing Russians across
Germany to Westertimke on the North Sea, and spent the remaining few
weeks of his captivity at the Milag Nord camp for captured merchant
The drawings and watercolours of camp life are typical of the British
serviceman’s humour-in-adversity: we see Nutting distilling 100-octane
hooch from marmalade, or wondering whether to make potato substitute
from bread or bread substitute from potatoes. One accomplished artist
contributed a cartoon of a young man hurrying upstairs, a packet of
ice-cream in one hand and dragging a scantily clad lady in the other,
and urging: “Hurry darling! Before it gets soft!” But there’s
also a grimly detailed pencil drawing of a camp watchtower, and series
of watercolours of the forced march out of Stalag Luft III in midwinter
1945. First the POWs struggle through snow dragging a sled. Then the
snow melts and they have to carry their loads. A dramatic drawing records
an attack by a RAF Mosquito aircraft on February 22, 1945.
Apart from the unpublished collection of POW art, there are a number
of photographs with Nutting and his fellow POWs behind barbed wire,
standing next to their huts or at work mending shoes.
Nutting was in a way better off than many POWs. His job as cobbler
kept him occupied. In wartime, your boots are your best friends, gold
to the prisoners and their guards alike. He was undoubtedly popular,
judging from the contributions to his scrapbook, and his evident sense
of humour — natural in a Londoner — would have helped keep
up the morale.
The Great Escape — a game turned to tragedy
Of all Clive Nutting’s mementoes of prisoner-of-war life, none
is more poignant than an illustrated poem depicting the tragic escape
from Stalag Luft III in March 1944.
The verse was penned by an Australian airman when the camp learned
that the Nazis had murdered 50 of the escapers. Accompanied by a detailed
drawing of the tunnel beneath the camp, it expresses the outrage and
defiance of the POWs in typical Aussie style.
“…Fifty fine fellows
With good stout intentions
Trusting no doubt in the Geneva Conventions
Reckoning not with he mind of the Hun
Fifty fine fellows — and now there are none.
“Will we forget — or pardon this? Might we?
I’ll wager a bet — ‘Not bloody likely!’”
What became known as the Great Escape was an ambitious plot launched
in early 1943 to get up to 250 POWs out of Stalag Luft III through
tunnels beneath the wire. The mass breakout was designed to tie up
as much of the German resources as possible in hunting the escapers.
Masterminded by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, a South African, it
quickly grew to a massive undertaking, employing more than 500 of the
camp’s artisans in the production of escape equipment — civilian
clothes, German uniforms, compasses, rations and hundreds of forged
documents and maps.
The escape organisation built, stole or extorted tools, ventilation
and lighting equipment for the tunnel engineers. The operation, under
the noses of the Germans, required elaborate security and a constant
monitoring of guards and patrols.
As a shoemaker with well-equipped workshops at his disposal, a specialist
in signals and an experienced “Kriegie” (POW), Nutting
was part of the escape organisation from the start, making civilian
belts, shoes and briefcases for the escapers out of leather stolen
from his German clients.
Nutting had already been involved in the ingenious “Wooden Horse” escape
from Stalag Luft III in the summer of 1943. The POWs had started a
tunnel from beneath a vaulting horse built out of Red Cross cases.
Every day they carried the horse, with a man hidden inside it to the
same spot in the prison compound near the perimeter wire. While the
prisoners vaulted, the man inside dug the tunnel. Nutting was one of
the “penguins” who dispersed the earth dug out of the tunnel
by dropping it out of bags inside his trousers. The three escapers — F/Lt
Eric Williams (who wrote a book about the escape), Lt Michael Codner
and F/Lt Oliver Philpot got home via Sweden.
After the war, Nutting acted as consultant for both the 1950 Wooden
Horse movie and the Great Escape of 1963.
The real Great Escape started with the launch of three tunnels, “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry,” each
starting in a barrack hut, through the concrete foundations of the
stove or shower because the huts themselves were elevated on stilts. “Tom” was
discovered, and “Dick,” abandoned and used for hiding escape
kits. All energies were concentrated on “Harry,” dug 10
metres deep to avoid German tunnelling detectors and more than 100
metres long to come out in the pine forest beyond the wire.
The breakout through Harry was scheduled for the moonless night of
March 24, 1944. It started with the disappointment at seeing the tunnel
emerge well short of the pine forest in an open snow-covered area patrolled
by German sentries. Having to wait for the sentries to pass, a power
blackout and tunnel collapses slowed the throughput to barely a dozen
men an hour instead of the planned one a minute.
By dawn 76 POWs had got out. The next man emerged from the tunnel under
the feet of the sentry.
All but three of the 76 were recaptured. Hitler was so furious at the
breakout that he ordered them all shot. Eventually, Goering, head of
the Luftwaffe and responsible for the prisoners, persuaded
him to limit the number to more than half. Thus 50 prisoners of war
were handed over to the Gestapo and killed.
For the British, this had started out as a game, as the verse commemorating
the tragedy makes clear:
“Bloody fine fellows
To prove this was done
Set out for freedom,
And thought it was fun.”
That the Germans should not play the game by the rules — in this
case the Geneva Conventions — was deeply shocking to the
British, who made great efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice
after the war. The Royal Air Force Special Branch managed to track
down 18 of the murderers: 14 were sentenced to death and one escaped
the gallows by committing suicide.
The killing of the recaptured POWs was embarrassing to the Luftwaffe,
which had meticulously respected the Geneva Conventions in the treatment
of their British prisoners, mindful of the fact that many of their
downed airmen were in British camps. As a gesture, the Luftwaffe allowed
the Stalag Luft III POWs to build a memorial to their murdered comrades.
Nutting’s scrapbook contains a sensitively drawn post-card of
the fine memorial to the 50 airmen, which still stands at the camp
site, now in Zagan, part of Poland.