Last week we received tremendous feedback to the story about the Rolex Oyster Chronograph Antimagnetic worn by one of the heros of the “Great Escape” of WWII. This week, we’re delving back into that incredible period of history with a look at another watch worn by a Stalag Luft III hero.
The Nazi prison camp Stalag Luft III was immortalized in the Hollywood movie The Great Escape, which followed the camp’s Allied prisoners of war in their escape bid. However, The Telegraph recently uncovered one of the historical episode’s real players.
Charles Woehrle, now 97, was a lieutenant in the US Eighth Air Force and was sent to Stalag Luft III after being shot down in 1943. Woehrle helped dig out the three tunnels that led 76 men to freedom the night of March 24, 1944. Unfortunately the breakout was discovered, and the prisoners were returned to the camp or killed. “It was a dark time for all of us,” Woehrle told The Telegraph.
One of the few glimmers of hope in Woehrle’s life during that time was his stainless-steel Patek Philippe Ref. 1461. Woehrle had come across promotional literature about watches at the camp, and sent away to Patek Philippe.
“The watches were expensive and I knew they were beyond my means,” Woehrle said. “But I had given my watch to a clergyman in the camp, Murdo Macdonald. So, I filled out my information on that little card, adding a PS, asking if they could send a watch I could afford. I explained that I could pay them when I got home. Several months went by and I’d kind of forgotten about it. Then, one morning, my senior officer, who had just come from the camp commandant’s office, told me a parcel had arrived from Geneva, from the watch company Patek Philippe. The next day I opened that package and there was this perfectly beautiful wristwatch on a black alligator strap. The news ran all through the camp. There was a line of men all up and down the hall, outside of my room. They all had to see that watch. Such a thing arriving at that camp from the finest watchmaker in the world, addressed to a PoW…it was hard to comprehend.”
Far from home and in enemy hands, the timepiece took on special significance for the pilot. “I think it’s hard for the average person to appreciate what it meant to us,” Woehrle told The Telegraph. “It was thrilling, absolutely thrilling, just to hold the watch. To see the sweep hand, to wear it. I can’t tell you how many people asked, ‘Can I see it again?’ It was an event, not just for me, but for all of us.”
True to his word, Woehrle sent $300 to Patek Philippe upon his return home from Europe. Sadly, the Patek Philippe Ref. 1461 was among the items stolen during a home burglary in the mid-1970s. However, there’s no need to fret! This story has a happy ending. After Woehrle’s niece Louise made the documentary called Stalag Luft III: One Man’s Story about her uncle’s ordeal, Patek Philippe was contacted. Although the manufacture was unable to find an exact replacement, they sent Woehrle a close match: a 1950s Patek Philippe Ref. 1584J in yellow gold.
Photos courtesy The Telegraph.