On the night of 24 March 1944, a group of Western Allied airforce personnel undertook a daring escape from Stalag Luft III, an Axis-controlled prisoner-of-war camp in the town of Sagan, Germany, about 100 miles southeast of Berlin.
They had been planning this night for the past year. Equipped with forged papers, some civilian clothes, and a train timetable, if successful, 200 of them would gain their freedom.
As the moonless night fell, they gathered in Hut 104, where they had dug the entrance to the tunnel they nicknamed ‘Harry’. It was one of three they had constructed — ‘Tom’ had been discovered by the Germans and dynamited, while ‘Dick’ was abandoned when the planned area to surface had been cleared for camp expansion.
‘Harry’ — 30 feet deep, 2 feet wide and 334 feet long — became their only escape route.
Delayed by a frozen trap door during the coldest March in the past 30 years, the first man emerged at 10:30 p.m. He found himself unexpectedly short of the tree line and terrifyingly close to a guard tower.
F/Lt. Imeson, the 172nd man in the queue that night, glanced down at his watch, likely realising that as time passed his chances of getting out became slim. During the planning, he had served as a ‘penguin’ — named for the oversized coat worn when bringing the dirt up from the freshly excavated tunnels to sprinkle across the camp grounds.
On the night of the escape, he was wearing Rolex’s top-of-the-line watch: the Oyster Chronograph reference 3525. Like him, it would survive the war, and now 80 years later this piece of history will be offered on 8 June 2022, as part of the Important Watches of Exceptional Provenance, Featuring the Kairos Collection Part III at Christie’s New York.
But on that night, the men continued steadily, unphased by the mounting problems of their task. They made their way through the tunnel at a rate of ten per hour, until 1:00 a.m, when the tunnel partially collapsed and had to be repaired. Word quickly spread that only half of the men would make it through before daylight.
At 4:55 a.m. the 77th man was spotted by a guard, the alarm was raised, and those who had already made it through ran for their lives. In the 1963 film The Great Escape, based off this event, the chaos surrounding this moment was immortalized by Steve McQueen’s famous motorcycle chase. Ultimately, only three ended up seeing their freedom that night, and of the 73 who were recaptured, it is estimated that fewer than half survived the repercussions.
F/Lt. Imeson was not the only one wearing a Rolex that night. ‘Military issued watches were often looted or seized by camp leaders for fear that they might contain a compass or something particularly useful for escape,’ according to Adam Victor, Senior Watches Consultant at Christie’s. ‘During captivity, however, airmen in the camps were generally shown beneficence by the Luftwaffe. So much so that there was a gentleman’s agreement that airmen could take advantage of an offer by Hans Wilsdorf, the owner of Rolex, allowing British officers to purchase watches on credit.’
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
Rolex had been providing this service since 1939, and often when a watch was received it was accompanied by a hand-written letter instructing them ‘not to even think about payment’ until after the war had been won. The servicemen would send postcards to Wilsdorf in Geneva, noting their ‘circumstances and whereabouts’ as well as which model they would like. Watches would arrive a year or so later with the help of the International Red Cross.
Rather than requesting one of the more modestly priced models, as many did, Imeson chose the Rolex Oyster Chronograph reference 3525, a top-of-the-line timepiece that boasted a waterproof oyster shell case with Radium-filled hands and numerals, allowing its wearer to keep accurate time in wet conditions, and see the hands and numerals in absolute darkness.
Calculating how long it would take the men to crawl through the tunnel, as well as timing the patrols of the camp guards required a precise and reliable instrument. It is speculated that F/Lt. Imeson’s Rolex 3525 played a key role in both of these elements of the escape.
F/Lt. Imeson’s capture by Axis powers came a day after his Vickers Wellington bomber had made an emergency landing in the North Sea just off the coast of Belgium. This gained him admission into the ‘Goldfish Club’, a term designated to airmen who had been forced to make a water evacuation. The pin he received and his membership card are included in this sale alongside his Rolex.
In Stalag Luft III, Imeson survived the unsuccessful escape, as well as the repercussions inflicted on those involved. When the Soviet army encroached in 1945, this chronograph was on his wrist as the camp members endured the gruelling forced marches deeper into German territory. He was ultimately liberated from another POW camp at the end of the war in 1945.
‘After the war,’ says Victor, ‘F/Lt. Imeson returned to his wife Lesley and to his job with the Air Ministry. He would have four children, nine grandchildren and he would treasure his Rolex 3525 until his death in 2003 at the age of 85. First auctioned in October 2013 by Bourne End Auction Rooms in Buckinghamshire, Christie’s is honoured to bring this incredible watch to market again today.’
It carries with it a tale of perseverance and survival in the face of immeasurable hardship. Telling the story of one man who experienced the entirety of the Second World War, this watch is a testament to the strength of an individual resisting and fighting in the throes of a collective horror. Its historical importance is as invaluable as the strength which carried him throughout those years.
‘The opportunity to own an exceptionally rare and beautiful Rolex 3525 in steel with a black luminous dial and hands is worth noting,’ says Victor, ‘but the opportunity to own a watch with the extraordinary provenance of this particular 3525 is virtually unheard of.’