The fascinating story of how Rolex was engaged in the regular supply of watches to men incarcerated in German Prisoner of War camps during World War II.
The "Prisoner of War" watches from Rolex
©Write Time Partners V, 2000
The story of the Rolex “Prisoner of War” watches is a fascinating one, but a story that has become almost a legend in its retelling . . .
First, the legend: If you were an Allied Prisoner of War captured by the Germans during World War II, you could write to Rolex, Geneva and they would send you a watch FREE OF CHARGE.
The reality is only a little different: this service was only available for British prisoners and not for French, American or other Allies. The letter would be sent to Rolex from the camp via the International Red Cross, who (like Rolex) was headquartered in Geneva. Hans Wilsdorf himself, who wrote a letter that accompanied every watch dispatched to a P.O.W, ran the administration of this program.
(NOTE: Hans Wilsdorf was the founder and lifetime owner of the Rolex Company - S.L.)
As stated in the first letter, the recipients were expected to pay for their watches in Swiss Francs at the end of the war. However due to economic situation at the end of the war, it was often 1947 or 1948 before foreign exchange resources were available to meet the bills.
The first letter is to a senior officer in the RAF, who was a guest of the German Air Force. This was because one of the stranger German habits during WWII was that each service ran its own prison camps “catering” to prisoners from the opposing service. This can be gained from the address “Stalag Luft 3”, Stalag, meaning “prisoner of war camp” and Luft being short for “Luftwaffe” or Air Force.
The interesting thing about the letter (other than the fact that Hans Wilsdorf wrote it himself) is what was included with the watch, as listed at the bottom of the page. There was an invoice, the instruction book and the guarantee card but also included was the official chronometer-rating certificate. I suppose as Wing Commander Trumble would have some time on his hands, at least he could now measure it accurately.
The camp Stalag Luft 3 may mean nothing to most of you but if you have ever read the book by Paul Brickhill or the movie (roughly based on it) both called “The Great Escape”; you will know something of it.
The second letter is the most interesting; as it is a personal letter from Hans Wilsdorf to the parents of a British Officer taken prisoner, most likely during the fall of France. Note what Wilsdorf says in the letter “We are looking after his wants in the same way as for some other British Officers, who are also prisoners in the same camp. Please rest assured that we will do everything in our power to obtain food or other articles . . .”
There are a number of questions about this letter. Why is Wilsdorf writing to the family with this important information? Isn’t this the job of the Red Cross? He also offers the firm’s services as a communication conduit, once again normally the job of the Red Cross.
I have no proof for it but my gut feeling tells me that the subject of the letter “Grahame” may well have been a Rolex employee before the war. And, as he is an officer (note that he is in an “Oflag” or Officer’s camp) was most probably of managerial status and would then have known Wilsdorf. This may also explains why Wilsdorf always calls Grahame, not Captain Smith (or whatever his name may have been). Lending further credence to my theory is the fact that almost every POW Rolex I have seen was a boy’s size Speedking. However the watch that was sent to Grahame was a reference 3525 Oyster chronograph, one of the most expensive watches in the Rolex catalogue at that time.
Note Wilsdorf’s PS is in his handwriting and is further evidence of a personal relationship between Wilsdorf & Grahame.
The reason the British Prisoners of War needed a new watch was that most of them would have had their own (or government issue) wristwatches confiscated when they were captured. Whilst some of this was simple looting, the main reason the Germans did this was that they knew that RAF officers were normally given escape & evasion kits by the RAF. Examples of this were needles in sewing kits which were magnetized to act as compass needles and maps printed on silk concealed in the heel of a flying boot. There was even a special section of British Military Intelligence (MI9), specially dedicated to getting escaped prisoners & downed aircrew back to the UK. The logic behind all this was that every escaped prisoner tied down hundreds of German troops and police drawing them from offensive operations against the allies.
To Be Continued . . .
. . . S.L.