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A rare POW Rolex Chronograph with links to Stalag Luft III, the “Great Escape” of 1944 and the “Long March” of 1945.

At 00:07 hours on the night of the 10/11th of October 1941, Wellington bomber Mk 1C, No. R1219 of 101 Squadron took off from RAF Oakington in Cambridgshire on a mission code-named Operation Cologne. At the controls of R1219 was Pilot Officer Gerald A.D. Imeson. Accompanying him were five other members of crew. They were one of sixty nine aircraft, from various RAF bases, sent to bomb the industrial region of Cologne.
Eight out of the nine Wellingtons that flew from Oakington that night returned safely to base but one was reported missing. Having successfully completed the first part of the mission, R1219 was on its return journey when it was hit by flak. With one engine out and the other iced up, it crashed into the sea near Blankenberge, off the coast of Belgium. All the crew but one (the tail gunner) survived the crash and managed to scramble into a dinghy. Cold and wet, they drifted in the North Sea for the rest of the night. Just after dawn, at the point of being rescued by a member of the Belgian resistance who swam out to assist them, they were spotted by a German patrol, towed ashore and arrested.*


* At 7:00am on the morning of the 11th October, a renowned Belgian National and International swimmer, Jan Guilini, saw the dinghy with the allied airmen being tossed about by the waves. He entered the cold water and, after several attempts, managed to cross the rolling surf. With great difficulty he swam to the raft and found its occupants cold, wet and in a state of shock. He was hoping to get the dinghy back to the beach without being seen by the occupying forces. Unfortunately, he was spotted by a German coastal patrol, who threw him a rope and towed them ashore. His heroic efforts were apparently reported by the BBC a few days later.
The following year, along with other members of the Belgian resistance, Jan was arrested by the Gestapo. On 22nd May 1944, he and some of his resistance colleagues were executed in a German prison; a sad end for a Belgian hero. A swimming pool in Bruges and a footpath in Blankenberge were named in his memory.

P/O Imeson had suffered a badly broken ankle in the crash and was taken to a hospital in Germany for treatment. After a period of recuperation, he was sent to POW camp Stalag Luft III at Sagan, in the East of Germany, (now Zagan in Poland) along with his Navigator from R1219, Pilot Officer R.C. Carroll. There they were given POW numbers 650 and 643 respectively. As for the other three surviving crew-members of Wellington R1219, one was sent to Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf and two were sent to Stalag 357 at Kopernikus. For all of them, “the war was over”!

Upon capture, RAF personnel had many of their military issue possessions confiscated, including their watches. Aware of this, Hans Wilsdorf, head of Rolex, made it known that they would supply British POWs with a replacement watch, allowing payment to be deferred until after the war had ended. Although a prisoner in Stalag Luft III, P/O Imeson was able to order the latest model Oyster Chronograph from Rolex in Geneva in December 1942. His new Rolex, Ref No. 3525, s/n 186052 was sent to him at the camp at Sagan via the International Red Cross on August 4th 1943.
During his time in captivity, he was promoted firstly to Flying Officer and then to Flight Lieutenant. Whilst in Stalag Luft III, he was involved with the preparations for what became known as the “Great Escape”. His duties included being one of the “Penguins”, as they were called, who dispersed the soil that was dug from the tunnels through specially enlarged pockets in their trousers, whilst they exercised in the compound. As the planned escape date approached, he was allocated number 172 to go out through tunnel ‘Harry’, whose entrance was in hut 104. His friend and fellow POW, Ken ‘Shag’ Rees, with whom he kept in contact after the war, had been in the tunnel awaiting his turn to exit at the moment it was detected by the German guards. (Flying Officer Ken Rees was the pilot of Wellington No. BK309 of 150 Squadron shot down over Norway in October 1942. His Navigator, Gwyn Martin wrote in his book “Up and Under”, published in 1989, that he shared a hut with Imeson when they were in the East compound in late 1942, before they were moved to the North compound).


It is well documented that 76 POWs escaped through the tunnel before it was discovered. All but three escapees were recaptured. Reprisals by the SS and Gestapo resulted in the execution of 50 of the allied officers, a war crime that was pursued at Nuremberg after the war.
In late January 1945, as Soviet forces were fast approaching, the German authorities decided to evacuate the POW camps in the East. Fl/Lt Imeson and his fellow POWs were ordered to leave the camp at 1:15am on the 28th January, on what was later dubbed “the Long March”. In extreme winter conditions, without adequate food or protection, they were force-marched many miles to other POW camps deeper inside Germany. Many did not survive this ordeal but Fl/Lt Imeson was one of the luckier ones. According to an entry in his wartime diary, his party were marched, over several days, to Spremberg, some 95kms away. At a railway siding, they were herded into cattle trucks (40 per truck), where they waited for two days. They finally arrived at Tarmstedt Ost at 4:30pm on Febraury 4th. From here they were marched 3kms to Marlag-Milag Nord Royal Naval POW camp, reaching it at 9:00pm. They had been on the go for some eight days, many spent in sub-zero temperatures. Flt/Lt Imeson remained at the Marlag-Milag POW camp until the end of April 1945 when he and his surviving co-prisoners were liberated by allied tanks of the Guards Armoured Division which bulldozed the perimeter fence of their compound. Free at last, they were soon to return home.


After repatriation, Gerald Imeson set about re-adjusting to a normal life and finally settled his account with Rolex (250 Swiss Francs or £15.12s 6d) for the watch that had stayed with him throughout his ordeal and which he treasured for the rest of his life. He hardly ever spoke of his time in captivity, but, pencilled very faintly in his wartime diary for March 1944, are the words “24-25/3 Big Event”, recording the night of the Great Escape.
Flight Lieutenant Gerald A. D. Imeson died in 2003 aged 85; his Navigator and colleague from Stalag Luft III, Ren Carroll, was present at his funeral.

 

F/Lt Imeson’s RAF Goldfish Membership Card. Note the Stalag Luft III “GEPRUFT” stamp upper right corner of  back. Its membership comprised airmen who had survived a wartime ditching. Founded in 1942 it is a tribute to those whose lives were saved by the use of a “Mae West” inflatable lifejacket, a rubber dinghy, or similar life saving equipment.

Photo sent to Flt/Lt Imeson in Stalag L3 by his wife, inscribed on reverse, “Recd 15/5/44”, (less than 2 months after the “Great Escape”). They had only been married for two and a half months before he was shot down.

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P/O Imeson (4th from left) with fellow prisoners in Stalag Luft III. Cpl Clive Nutting who owned the same model Rolex Chronograph can be seen far right. Photo C.1944. P/O Gerald Imeson on his wedding day in 1941
 
Gerald Imeson and his wife, Lesley, photographed in the early 1980s, wearing his Rolex. Note: it was then fitted with a 1960s expanding steel bracelet which will also be included in the sale. It now fitted with a later (non Rolex) leather strap.  

P/O Imeson’s Rolex, ref 3525, s/n 186052

 
 
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Provenance

Included with this lot will be Flt/Lt Imerson`s Gold fish Card issued in 1943, copies of period photos of him and his wife (some bearing the Stalag L3 `gepruft` stamp), copies of pages from his wartime diary recording when he ordered and received his Rolex watch, a copy of his amazing story and the expanding bracelet that was fitted to the watch in the 1960s.
See below for extracts from his diary for 1942, 43 and 45.....
1st entry for 8.12.1942 in Sent list states “Rollex Co. Switz. No 3525 Oyster Chron”. (A similar entry in the list of Received letters for February 1943 records a letter received 27.2.43 (sent 15.2.43) with subject “Rollex – order being executed but prob. Delay”)
A note in the back of the diary (two-thirds down left page) states “Rollex Chronograph 186052 Recd 4th August 1943”.
Entry for 27th January 1945 is headed “Exodus from Sagan” and has details of his “Long march”.
Flt/Lt Imeson’s wartime diary page for March 1944. Left page under “Notes” is faintly written “24-25/3 Big Event”, recording the night of the “Great Escape”.

Researched and compiled by Bourne End Auction Rooms in collaboration with members of Mr Imeson’s family, October 2013.

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