‘Great Escape’ Rolex watch sells for £165,000

editorial image
Share this article

A rare Rolex belonging to a prisoner of war killed after the Great Escape has sold for more than three times its estimate at auction.

And one Barnoldswick man is “delighted” at the result as his father helped reunite the watch with the man’s family following liberation.

John Francis Williams

John Francis Williams

The 1943 stainless steel black dialled Rolex Oyster Chronograph watch, belonging to F/Lt John Francis Williams, known as Jack Williams, went under the hammer along with his Second World War medals and other personal possessions at Bourne House Auction Rooms in Buckinghamshire on Thursday.

The lot, numbered 67, as Jack was number 67 out of the “Harry” tunnel on the fateful night in March 1944, sold to a private British collector for £165,000, smashing its estimated price of £30,000 to £50,000.

Donald Wilson, father of Barnoldswick’s James Wilson, was a former Warrant Officer and friend and fellow prisoner of war with Jack Williams in Stalag Luft III in Poland, where captured air servicemen were held. Donald was asked to look after the watch and return it to Jack’s family should the escape mission fail.

James said: “We are quite staggered by the amount. There are six of us brothers and sisters and whole family is absolutely delighted it has made such a lot of money. Dad would be pleased too.

The 1943 stainless steel Rolex Oyster Chronograph watch which sold at auction for �165,000. Photo: Bourne End Auction Rooms.

The 1943 stainless steel Rolex Oyster Chronograph watch which sold at auction for �165,000. Photo: Bourne End Auction Rooms.

“I think it’s a shame it is no longer in the family but there were no other sons or daughters that were left.

“I was contacted by somebody acting on behalf of the auctioneer who tracked me down asking for pictures and any other details for the auction.

“The watch was owned by a third cousin, I think, who decided rather than hang on to it to sell it so somebody who would value it more.”

After the bid to escape failed, Jack was recaptured and was one of the 50 executed by the Gestapo. Donald returned the watch and a few other personal items to Jack’s family after liberation in 1945.

W.O. Donald Wilson. Photo supplied by James Wilson.

W.O. Donald Wilson. Photo supplied by James Wilson.

In an interview with the Yorkshire Post in 2008, Donald recalled Jack’s words to him. “He said, I know I’ll not get away, I couldn’t possibly get away so I’ll probably see you in the next fortnight.

“But if by any chance I do would you kindly take my two wrist watches home and he gave me a pile of letters from his girlfriend to take back. Jack never came back.

“Sadly he’s the only guy that was murdered and they never caught up with who murdered him. All the others they caught up with and they were tried and hanged. The only news is that Jack was cremated at Breslau.”

In a letter in 1999 to the watch’s now previous owner, Donald recalled Jack’s “well cultivated moustache, of which he was justifiably proud”.

Donald also remembered Jack’s popularity with the ladies “being a good looking lad with a charming voice” and how the pair stayed fit despite the “very minimal” food by walking for hours and hours round the perimeter fence.

Jack’s ashes now lie at the official war grave in the Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery.