I just read off a news feed that a watch worn by a British prisoner of war involved in “The Great Escape”, the audacious World War II breakout immortalised by Hollywood, is being auctioned in England next month.
The stainless steel Rolex has a guide price of between £15,000 and £25,000, (17,500-30,000 euros, $24,000-$40,000) at the November 6 sale at Bourne End Auction Rooms, west of London.
It belonged to Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot Gerald Imeson, who was imprisoned at the Stalag Luft III camp on the German-Polish border after his plane was shot down returning from a bombing raid on Cologne in 1941.
He was involved in a now legendary plan to dig tunnels out of the camp, which was portrayed in the 1963 blockbuster film “The Great Escape” starring Steve McQueen.
Imeson was one of the “penguins”, men who dispersed the soil by carrying it in their trouser pockets and scattering it around the compound as they exercised. They walked a little oddly, hence the name.
When the time came for the escape in 1944, the British airman was number 172 on the list. But he was still waiting when the Germans discovered the tunnels.
Seventy-six prisoners had made it out by then but 73 were re-captured, and 50 of those were shot.
Later, as Soviet forces were approaching the camp in early 1945, Imeson and his fellow Allied servicemen were ordered to leave the camp on what became dubbed “The Long March”.
He was one of the few to survive the gruelling winter trek through Germany and made it home — where he still had to pay for the watch.
According to the auctioneers, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf offered to supply watches to British prisoners of war who had had theirs confiscated while in the German camps, on the gentleman’s agreement that they pay up after the war.
Imeson’s was delivered from Geneva and sent to him at the camp via the International Red Cross. In 1947, two years after he was freed, he settled up the £170 bill — the equivalent of more than £5,500 today. I found this later part of this story very interesting as it certainly shows a very civilised perspective of this great conflict and that many parties on both sides believed that life would go on after the war. The latter point perhaps made it more bearable.
Imerson apparently treasured the watch until his death in 2003, aged 85.