Little could a German frogman know – as he swam away from the Nijmegen bridge after setting an explosive charge in 1944 – that he was about to be parted from his Rolex AND that it would sell for over £52,000 over 70 years later.
In the weeks after the Allies took the Normandy beaches during the D-Day landings, they progressed across Europe as they marched ever closer to Berlin. Operation Market Garden formed part of the Liberation of Europe and focused on the low-lying lands of Holland and Germany.
While the Allies advanced upon the Dutch towns of Nijmegen and Arnhem, Operation Market Garden was to seize several bridges that spanned the River Rhine near the German border and help the Allies end the war by Christmas 1944. Although the Allies manged to protect the bridge at Nijmegen, they were unable to hold the bridge at Arnhem. This bridge was the bridge too far, from the Hollywood movie of the same name “A Bridge Too Far.”
With Nijmegen forming the new frontline, Sgt George Rowson and his unit were there to prevent German counter attacks. In a daring mission, 12 German frogmen entered the river six miles away from Nijmegen and moved along the river to place charges to the underwater footings of the railway bridge. Tired and disorientated, the frogmen exited the river at the wrong point, walking straight in to Sgt Rowson and his section. Captured at gunpoint the British, Sgt Rowson took the Rolex Panerai from one of the divers as a souvenir.
Having protected the watch for decades, Sgt Rowson passed it on to his son, who auctioned the watch at the end of January 2018. The story behind the Rolex is fascinating in its own right but what makes the watch even more unusual is that the watch is one of only 618 Rolex 17 Panerai 3646 watches produced between 1941 and 1943. Made by Italian watchmaker, Panerai, Rolex movements were used. Waterproof, with an oversized face which was visible in the dark, they were supplied to the Royal Italian Navy and used by brave divers operating human torpedoes – rideable missiles that had a detachable warhead which could be used as a timed limpet mine on enemy ships. The Italians gave their German counterparts the watches, which is why the Nazi diver was wearing one when he was captured on September 29, 1944.
Stg Rowson explained how he came to own the Rolex, documenting his story in a letter which also went up for auction with the watch.
Jim Tannahil of Hopkins & Jones, London pawnbrokers, said, “This is an absolutely fascinating story and certainly underlines the value in watches such as Rolex. People live such interesting and complex lives yet their watch retains part of the history of which they live through. What helps the watches outlive their owners is the sheer mastery in the making. Considering an investment in a timepiece can be hugely rewarding but always interesting”.