Rolex Prison Break

John Vogel

In March of 1943, the founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf, received an order for a watch.

The customer requested a Rolex Model 3525—a popular model with both American and British pilots. The watch was made with a black face, round stainless-steel case, included a chronograph and, of course, it ran like a Swiss watch. For five years, Royal Air Force pilots were eager to ditch their issued watches and save their money for a Rolex, and Rolex filled orders as fast as possible. Hans Wilsdorf didn’t usually read every order that came in, he had teams to do that. But this order’s return address caught his eye.

Stalag Luft III. Occupied Poland. A POW camp for Allied pilots.

By 1943, Stalag Luft III was home to over 10,000 prisoners of war. Most of the soldiers being captured at this point were pilots and air crew, and with the amount of flak being launched from the ground, it was a matter of time before the Germans would be throwing up No Vacancy signs. Lucky for those captured, the camp was run by the Luftwaffe, and not the Gestapo, who had a tendency to rip out fingernails as a way to get to better know their captives. The Luftwaffe aimed to keep prisoners in, and to not let hands go idle. They installed libraries, allowed PT, distributed Red Cross rations, even allowed a beer now and then. And for the most part, looked to Allied officers to keep their fellow prisoners busy.

So one day, British army Corporal and POW C.J. Nutting decided to use his time wisely and wrote a letter to Rolex requesting a new watch similar to what the senior airmen had. He explained the situation, and promised to send payment as soon as possible, as he had been working as Stalag Luft III’s cobbler. Hans Wilsdorf sent a letter back saying they received his order, but to not worry about the payment of 250 Swiss Francs ($2500 USD in present day), he could pay after the war was over and he was free.

By August of 1943, Nutting received the watch, just in time to begin planning a major operation to escape the camp via tunnel systems. The plan called for 3 tunnels—nicknamed Tom, Dick, and Harry—to be dug, all leading under the camp. Tom was started under a barracks’ living space, concealed by a wood stove, heading directly west into the tree line. Dick was to serve as a storage tunnel for all dirt and debris from Tom and Harry. Harry was to reach past the tree line directly north. Tom was discovered early on and filled in, leaving Harry to bear the load.

Harry was 30’ below the surface, 2’ wide, and 338’ long. It contained an air pump for circulation, a rope and cart system, and a staging room at the exit.

Nutting found his Rolex had a place in this operation. Nazis were absolute fools for tight schedules, consistent routines, and unwavering order. Using his chronometer, Nutting watched the rotations of guards around the camp each day and began memorizing their movements.

By March of 1944, three months shy of D-Day, Harry was finished. Using Nutting’s recordings, the plan was to send two teams of 100 men through the tunnel and out to the forest, one every minute. Papers had been supplied by German resistance, allowing prisoners to travel unhindered. Using just watches, men would be given their cue to get out and sprint.

When they discovered the tunnel’s end was just short of the tree line, and with a layer of snow on the ground, the decision was made to limit escapees to one every six minutes. The 2nd team of 100 men were told they weren’t leaving tonight. By 5 A.M., 76 POW’s had made it out, the 77th one being caught by guards and surrendered. The tunnel was discovered and destroyed. Nutting was left to look on as his hope of escape was crushed.

In the end, 73 of the 76 escapees were caught. 17 were sent back to Stalag Luft III. Six were sent to other camps. 50 were lined up and shot, orders directly from Hitler himself.

Nutting ultimately was freed just a few months before the war’s end, his Rolex 3525 still on his wrist. It wasn’t until 1948 that he received a bill from Hans Wilsdorf. Hollywood eventually called and asked him to share his story of the breakout from Stalag Luft III. They turned his story into the highly-acclaimed film, The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen.

From the FE Films Archive

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