Saturday, November 28, 2009

PRISONER of WAR ROLEX's

STORMBRINGER Presents:

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.





(Part I)

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.

11 comments:

  1. Re: Stalag Luft 3, my highschool math/woodworking/technical drawing teacher spent part of WW2 there.

    He was a B-17 navigator, shot down in 1943 and badly injured in the event. German doctors fixed him up, mostly, and into the camps he went. His health was too poor to be considered as an escaper, but he did work on tunnel support.

    Ended the war, after a long hike in truly rotten weather, at one of the Stalags at Moosburg.

    An admirable gentleman, retired from teaching, but still with us.

    His one weakness was being too easy to derail from classwork, but his stories were almost always about various kriegies, for whom he had the greatest respect and admiration. He taught us a lot.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I know nothing about these
    watches. Most of them are $300 or higher. There is only one
    at $200. What is it that I must look for to get him a watch he will
    treasure and be able to use for the next 20 years? What is it that
    makes this one $200 watch different from those at $300 or more?....
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    ReplyDelete
  3. This program was NOT restricted to British POW's only as stated above. My father was a USAAF POW at Stalag Luft III from 1943-1945 and ordered a Rolex through their regular POW sales program. The bill for $150 was sent to my mother in the USA.

    David

    ReplyDelete
  4. An admirable gentleman, retired from teaching, but still with us. Sell Rolex

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi, I have a huge collection of war letters , and the same letter from Rolex regarding the purchase of a watch.They were for Lieut.H.B ROBINSON Gef.Nr925 Oflag VII B. There are at least 200 letters, and receipts for bank account which the Officer was paying into Banks In London. There are also escape maps and diagrams of the area where the camp was.
    There are 3 books with details of every letter written into the books, all the addresses of the officers and all the presents and parcels they received from the Red Cross. This is a brilliant collection connected with the same prison camp. Some of the letters have black paint censored on them. Hugh Robinson was in the Northampton Regiment and was captured in 1940. He was a stockbroker and was a director of Hogg Robinson a big company in England after the war. Hence all the buying of stocks and shares whilst in the prison camp.The famous Douglas Bader RAF was also paying him for shares whilst in the same camp. Hope this is of Interest

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