As I sit here in my office in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua, just far enough south of this country's current crisis to be able to almost concentrate on the daily tasks at hand. But within this environment it is hard to keep ones mind from wandering and then with a quick glance at the Rolex Submariner on my wrist I take a step way back in time and I begin to wonder as to the role of Rolex watches in World War II, because in my mind I couldn’t envision a company such as Rolex not having a role to play in such a horrific world event even though the name Rolex is associated with class and luxury, two things not generally seen at the forefront of war. But something kept pulling at me.I just felt that Rolex in some form had to be in the trenches of this conflict so I got my shovel out and began to dig for answers.
What I found was one very interesting story which in my mind personifies the image of Rolex in war or peacetime. Rolex, founded by Hans Wilsdorf and Englishman Alfred Davis began in London England but soon relocated to Switzerland where the Rolex legend continues to this very day.By the advent of W.W.II Switzerland already had a long tradition of neutrality when it came to the conflicts of other countries and that stance did not waver during W.W.II. Swiss watchmakers had to become very cautious to whom they sold their products as to not become an inadvertent supporter of one side or the other without that really being their objective.
Hans Wilsdorf coming from England had a very different attitude and made no effort to hide the fact that he was a committed supporter of Britain's cause and very much opposed to the Hitler regime. He figured even a symbolic act may help the cause and felt it worthy of the effort.
After the Battle of Britain Rolex watches became popular with British R.A.F. pilots. The innovative “Air” models introduced in tribute to the Airmen who who defended Britain against insurmountable odds began to replace R.A.F. issued watches as the pilots found them to be more reliable. The “Air-Tiger, Air -Giant, Air-Lion and Air-King” were a bit larger and therefore more legible at a pilots quick glance.
But Wilsdorf felt this contribution fell short of his desire to help the Allied Forces. Later on he became aware that the Germans were confiscating the watches of captured R.A.F. soldiers. With the assurance of the Geneva Convention that prisoners of war could receive mail and packages via the Red Cross he began a campaign encouraging captured servicemen to write to him so he could send them a new Rolex watch. There was one small catch, the watch had to be paid for after the war when the Nazis had been defeated.In such he gave the soldiers hope that they would be the victors of the war, and with each glance at the new Rolex on their wrist that hope was bolstered.
Corporal Clive James Nutting was one such recipient of a Rolex watch, but his order was a bit unique.
On March the 10th of 1943 Nutting ordered a stainless steel Rolex Oyster 3525 chronograph. At that time a 3525 chronograph was at the higher end of the Rolex price range but Nutting, in a letter addressed directly to Rolex owner Hans Wilsdorf, assured Wilsdorf he could pay for the watch with money he saved working in the prison shoe factory.
The watch arrived four months later with a letter direct from Wilsdorf himself apologising for the delay in delivery and stating he refused any type of payment until the end of the war. Wilsdorf was ultimately impressed with Nuttings taste in watches.
Little did Wilsdorf know that Nutting being one of the mastermind behind the famous great escape from Stalag Luft III P.O.W. Camp ordered the watch for its ability, through the chrono function, to measure the frequency of the German Patrols in the camp.
Unfortunately the daring escape turned out to be mostly a failure with Nutting and many others back in their cells shortly after the attempt.Some less fortunate were captured and executed by the Gestapo. Only 3 men managed to make it to neutral Switzerland and Spain. Nutting, upon returning from the war received a bill for L15.
The story came back to life in 2007 when the correspondence between Wilsdorf and Nutting along with the Oyster Perpetual Chronograph were sold at auction for an incredible price of L 66,000
As might be expected Wilsdorf and his Rolex watches walked away from the war with a huge amount of respect for his efforts and the more than 3,000 watches ordered during the war from this program.
When American soldiers stationed in Europe heard of Rolex from their British Allies they soon followed suit purchasing Rolex watches which eventually wound up on American shores and a new market was born.
I guess they say the rest is history.
Check back for our next military installment when we will take an in depth look at Rolex Military Submariner (Mil Sub)