1942, Flight Lieutenant Gerald Imeson was held at the Stalag Luft III camp in Germany. Since he was in a German war camp, you would be surprised to learn that the British Lieutenant was able to order and accept a delivery for a brand new Rolex watch.
Yes, you read that correctly.
The Swiss company offered all British officers who were PoWs one of their time pieces to replace the ones that the Germans had confiscated. One condition, the watch had to be paid for after the war. Why just the British officers? The company viewed these men as honorable and would repay their debt. Imeson was wearing the watch as he helped to dig three tunnels for the escape attempt in 1944. His job was to be a ‘penguin’. A penguin was the term used to call a man who disposed of the dirt that came from the secret tunnels. They kept this as unnoticeable as possible by putting the dirt in their pockets.
He was to be the 172nd prisoner to escape the camp through those tunnels. Unfortunately, he never was able to escape because the German guards discovered the break-outs. Only 76 men were able to escape. 73 of those men were re-captured. 50 of those were executed.
The story of the escape attempt was made into a movie in 1963, aptly titled ‘The Great Escape’.
The timepiece that Imeson wore was the Rolex Oyster Chronograph. He wore this during the treacherous marches through Germany so they could evade the advancing Red Army in the harsh winter if 1945.
Luckily, in 1947 Imeson survived and he was able to make it back to Britain with the watch intact. He repaid his debt of £170, which is equivalent to £5,000 in today’s currency. Imeson treasured the watch all the way until he died in 2003 at the age of 85. His dying request was to have the watch auctioned so that his family could benefit from it. The time piece is now up for auction y Bourne End Auction Rooms in Bunckinghamshire. It is estimated to be worth £25,000, but it is presumed that the watch will go for more.
Martin Perrin, a spokesman from the auction house, told the Mirror News, “PoWs generally had their watches confiscated by the Germans on the excuse that they may have contained hidden compasses that could have helped in an escape. “When the owner of Rolex heard that PoWs were having their watches taken from them by the Germans he said British officers could replace them with a Rolex and not be billed until after the war.
“Airmen who were kept in Luft camps were treated quite well and there would have been a gentlemen’s agreement for the PoWs to order and keep these watches.
“The model F/Lt Imeson chose was one of the top Rolex made at the time. It was sent to him at the camp via the International Red Cross. “It was quite some time after the war that he paid for the watch, in about 1947, because the government put a stop on any money going out of the country. “He had to have permission from the Bank of England to release the money to Switzerland. “He kept the watch for the rest of his life and treasured it. But it was his wishes that the Rolex be sold to benefit the family.
“It is in a very good condition and was serviced by Rolex in 1980. It would appeal to two types of collectors; those interested in vintage watches and those interested in military history. “If it was just a vintage Rolex we believe it would be worth about £12,000 but with its history it is at least double that amount.” Imeson was captured by the German forces in October of 1941. He was flying a Wellington bomber enroute back to Britain after an attack on Cologne when it was attacked by flak. It resulted in a crash into the North Sea just off the coast of Belgium.
The crash resulted in only one casualty while the rest swam to the dinghy. When dawn came the next morning, a member of the Belgian resistance swam out to assist the men. Unfortunately the lot were spotted by a German patrol and towed ashore. Imeson was taken to a German hospital for a broken ankle before he was sent to Stalag Luft III in eastern Germany.