A never-before-seen, almost 80 years old Rolex Panerai 3646 with sought-after Einsatzgruppe Keller – Kampfschwimmer engravings has surfaced at the German auction house Kastern GmbH & Co KG in Hannover. The present watch belongs to the very first batch of Rolex-Panerai watches seized by German armed forces during the German occupation of Italy.
The story of these watches is absolutely fascinating. The entire batch was originally meant for the new Decima Flottiglia MAS that emerged from the Italian surrender to the Allies in September 1943. The whole lot was collected in Florence by Lieutenant Commander Heinz Schomburg and later distributed solely among German Kampfschwimmer recruits. The Italians did not receive a single watch, even though they paid for them.
Rolex Panerai Ref. 3646 – 1010187
Reference: Rolex-Panerai 3646 Type C Kampfschwimmer
Dial: Radiomir Panerai (Aluminium Sandwich dial with radium lume)
Case number: 1010187
Estimate: EUR 70,000.00
Hammer price: EUR 58,000.00 (around EUR 75,000.00 incl. fees and tax)
The present watch is how the original Rolex-Panerai watches were supposed to look like, proudly featuring the Radiomir Panerai signature. Later 3646 batches specifically made for German Kampfschwimmers were anonymous, they did not feature any Panerai signature. More on this later.
The dial of this watch is a typical first generation aluminium Sandwich dial with Radiomir Panerai engravings introduced in 1942. The radium lume from this production period developed a dark patina.
The Radiomir Panerai engravings are absolutely stunning. Some letters have lost parts of the white filler, something that can also be observed on other examples from the same period of time.
The skeletonized heat-blued hands were probably repainted at some point.
Oyster Middle Case
The cushion-shaped Oyster middle case appears to have retained its original shape. The soldering of the wire lugs is most certainly the original one.
The crown tube shows signs of wear, something that can be expected after almost 80 years. Important in my view is that the original onion-shaped Rolex crown No. 11, which appears to be in a good condition, can still be properly screwed down.
The plexy crystal is a regular dome and not a volcano dome as found on later Type D to Type G watches. It is unknown if the crystal is still the original one.
Caseback with Kampfschwimmer Engravings
For collectors, the Kampfschwimmer engravings applied to the caseback are the icing on the cake. The initials MS stand for Max Schoss. Schoss was a member of the Einsatzgruppe Keller, a unit led by Lieutenant Alfred Keller and deployed mainly in the East to slow down the Soviet advance during the final months of WW2 (World War 2).
The unit consisted of Lehrkommando 700 frogmen, trained under Italian supervision, first in Valdagno and later in Venice.
Kampfschwimmer engravings are not military matriculation marks. They are commemorative inscriptions applied after the Kampfschwimmers were taken captive by the British on the German island of Sylt. It is said, the engravings were applied with a modified electric razor.
There are currently seven known 3646 watches, including this one, featuring Einsatzgruppe-Keller engravings. Keller’s group consisted of 16 men.
So far, only the watches of Alfred Keller, Heinz Pape (HP), Sigfried Köneke (SK), Walter Lewandowski (LW), Hanns-Martin Kaufhold (HK) and Ernst Döhl (ED) have surfaced.
The next picture shows the inside of the caseback featuring typical Rolex stamps used by the famous Geneva company between 1938 and 1945. The 7-digit Rolex case number 1010187 is from 1942/43.
7-digit case numbers are not typical Rolex Oyster numbers. In this period of time, Rolex Oyster case numbers had only six digits. 7-digit numbers are Rolex pocket watch case numbers. For some reason, Rolex decided to manufacture the first three 3646 batches (Type A, B & C) made between April 1940 and 1942/43 within their pocket watch production.
The movement of Max Schoss’s watch is a Cortebert-made Rolex Cal. 618 Type 1a. These were elaborated pocket watch calibers made to 100% by Cortebert for Rolex. A distinct feature of these movements are the slightly curved Rolex engravings on the train gear bridge which follow the shape of the bridge.
Later movements had completely straight Rolex signatures. This type of movement (Rolex 618 Type 1a) is absolutely consistent with the case number. If this was a car, we would speak of matching numbers.
The condition is ok for its age, but not outstanding. Oxidation can be found on all bridges and particularly on the crown and ratched wheels, spoiling the beautiful swirl-finish. The balance cock retained the original Breguet overcoil hairspring. Another detail that matches the case number is the untreated movement retaining ring with its distinct patinated brass colour.
It is unknown whether the original lead gaskets are included.
The strap of this watch is most certainly not the original one. I spoke shortly with Kostas Venizelos of Kostas Straps, who is the person to go to when it comes to vintage Panerai straps. His impression is that this strap was possibly made around 1970 to replace the original strap.
The next picture shows the back of the strap. Even though it is most certainly not the original strap it is nevertheless an amazing strap with a fantastic vintage feel that complements the watch perfectly.
This watch is almost 80 years old. Considering its age, the overall condition is simply stunning.
About the Original Owner Max Schoss
The present watch was consigned by the family of Max Schoss, a battle-tested Kampfschwimmer during WW2. Max Schoss was a Verwaltungsmaat (Petty Officer) in the German Kriegsmarine and one of the first Kampfschwimmer recruits to receive their training at the secret Italian Gruppo Gamma training facility in Valdagno, Italy.
The picture below shows a bunch of German Kampfschwimmer recruits relaxing in front of Valdagno’s indoor pool. Max Schoss could be the guy second from left leaning against the door.
Officially, the Germans were in Valdagno to recover from war-related injuries and illnesses. Many of the German recruits were famous record-setting olympic swimmers. They were trained by Alfred von Wurzian under supervision of Lieutenant Commander Eugenio Wolk, the very diver who developed the frogman concept in late 1941.
Wolk was an important figure. The next picture shows Eugenio Wolk (second from right, standing) with some of his men at the Naval Academy in Livorno in early 1943. The academy in Livorno was the original training site of the Gruppo Gamma, the frogman unit of the Decima Flottiglia MAS.
After the first Italian attacks carried out with manned torpedoes against British Naval Bases in the Mediterranean Sea, the British started using refined hydrophones to locate approaching SLCs (Siluro a lenta corsa). The element of surprise was gone and the Italians had to figure out new methods to attack their targets.
In January 1941, Wolk was assigned to the diver school in Livorno to assist Commander Angelo Belloni in developing an underwater infantry. Belloni’s idea was simple. A diver, equipped with a 50 kg explosive charge on his back, would be released from a submarine and march on the seabed up to 10 km towards enemy harbours, attach the charge to a target and then march back to the submarine.
This worked well in theory but once the divers descented to the bottom and started marching on loose, muddy seafloors, they became exhausted quickly and had to surface. Belloni’s idea was impossible to realize. In late 1941, Wolk redesigned Belloni’s idea and developed the very first Italian swimfins to give the divers full advantage of the water. The fins gave the diver the appearance of a Uomo Rana (= frogman), which coined the name ever since.
The Gruppo Gamma was named after the G in guastare (= demolishing). The new unit proved their effectiveness when in July 1942 a group of twelve Gamma frogmen armed with limpet mines attacked the British Naval Base in Gibraltar and sank four ships in one night.
On September 8, 1943, the Italian government announced the Armistice of Cassibile, Italy’s surrender to the Allies. Weeks earlier on July 25, 1943, following a heavy Allied bombardement of Rome and Allied landings in Sicily, Mussonlini had been removed from power and arrested. In early September 1943, a massive Allied invasion force landed in the toe of Italy near Salerno.
The Italian population took to the streets to celebrate the end of the war without knowing that the real struggle was only about to begin. Italy’s surrender came as no suprise to Nazi Germany. Several German divisions were already in place to swiftly occupy the former ally in case of a defection. Without prior notice nor specific orders from their government, the Italian armed forces desintregrated almost immediately in the chaos that followed. Cornered by the Germans, they were given the choice to remain loyal to Germany or be deported for slave labour.
Tens of thousands of Italian soldiers were killed within the first hours for not immediately surrendering their arms. Over 700,000 were taken prisoneer and deported to Nazi slave labour camps all over Europe. To enforce the occupation, the Nazis used extreme brutality including mass executions and indiscriminate reprisals for any resistance.
The Decima Flottiglia MAS and their sub units like the Gruppo Gamma fell apart as well. Many of the prominent members fled to the south and joined the Allied invasion force to help liberate Italy. These men established a base in Taranto and became known as Mariassalto. Highly decorated divers like Luigi Durand De la Penne, Antonio Marceglia and Amadeo Vesco were members.
After days of consideration, Decima MAS Commander Junio Valerio Borghese decided to remain loyal to Germany, and with him a handful of his men. Eugenio Wolk joined Borghese with the goal to rebuild the Gruppo Gamma.
The Germans soon rescued Mussolini from his secret prison with a spectacular operation known as the Gran Sasso Raid led by SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny. Two days later, Hitler ordered Mussolini – who was actually hoping to retire – to become the leader of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI), a German puppet state.
Borghese recruited thousands of unemployed young men and created a new unit that retained the name Decima Flottiglia MAS. The name is misleading as the new Decima had little in common with the original one. The new unit quickly evolved into an infantry division with strong fascist ideology and was mainly deployed under German command to combat Italian partisans. If you google Decima MAS you come across pictures like the one below. To be clear, these guys were not frogmen, they were infantry soldiers. Many of them commited war crimes.
It is also important to understand that the famous Xa Flottiglia MAS arm badge seen in this picture did not exist prior to September 1943. The original Decima MAS was a secret unit with regular Navy insignia. The above Xa Flottiglia MAS badge was created in 1944 on special request of Borghese. In my opinion it is a symbol with negative connotations comparable to the SS Totenkopf.
Officially, the Gruppo Gamma was reborn on September 15, 1943 but it was not until December 1943 that the new recruits started their training. Wolk established a secret training site in Valdagno, Italy. Soon after in early January 1944, the bulk of German Kampfschwimmer recruits arrived in Valdagno. From the very beginning, the Gruppo Gamma was not treated as an equal partner. The Germans used the Italians to obtain equipment and kept sending more and more men without informing the Italian command.
Prior to the arrival of the first German recruits, Lieutenant Commander Eugenio Wolk had ordered a number of Panerai watches for his new Italian recruits. Since Lieutenant Commander Heinz Schomburg – the officer in charge of the Kampfschwimmer – was in Florence when the watches were ready, he was assigned to collect them. All watches – without exception – ended up on the wrists of Germans recruits. This is a fact described in Sergio Nesi’s book Junio Valerio Borghese. Sergio Nesi was a member of the Gruppo Gamma.
“2) La X Flottiglia aveva ordinato e pagato degli orologi da sommozzatore in construzione presso la ditta Panerai di Firenze. Per facilitare il ritiro era stato incaricato il tenente di vascello Schomburg che, recatosi a Firenze, aveva ritirato gli orologi e li aveva incamerati per la Marina Tedesca, sottraendoli cosi a quella italiana.”
Translation: The X Flottiglia had ordered and paid a number of diving watches produced by Panerai in Florence. To faciliate the pick-up, Lieutenant Commander Schomburg was assigned to collect the watches since he was already in Florence. Schomburg gave all of them to the German Navy, thus denying them to the Italian one.
The picture below shows Kampfschwimmer recruit Werner Bullin wearing a 3646 with Radiomir Panerai engravings belonging to the batch originally meant for the Decima MAS. This picture was taken at the Piazza San Marco in Venice with the Basilica di San Marco visible in the background.
Werner Bullin died during an exercise in the Venetian Lagoon on June 20, 1944. His watch was handed over to recruit Heinz Günter Lehmann. Interestingly, the case number of Lehmann’s watch (1010186) is only one number away from Max Schoss’s watch.
Shortly after this episode, the Germans requested over 700 new watches from Panerai as they planned to create a large Kampfschwimmer force. The following Rolex letter from 1984 written in response to a service request for a 3646 Type D with case number 260639, states that 720 Ref. 3646 watches were produced in 1943. This refers most certainly to the Type D batch with case numbers between 260400 and 261120.
“Im Jahre 1943 wurden 720 Stück dieser für die damaligen Zeit aussergewöhnlichen Taucher-Uhren fabriziert. Die ganze Serie wurde nach Italien verkauft und an die italienische Armee geliefert, die ihre Froschmänner damit ausrüstete. Es ist vielleicht bekannt, dass die Italiener auf diesem Gebiet bahnbrechend waren.”
Translation: 720 examples of these extraordinary diver watches were produced in 1943. The whole series was sold to Italy and delivered to the Italian army as equipment for their frogmen. Perhaps it is known that the Italians were absolute pioneers in this field.
All watches belonging to this new order lacked the Panerai inscription on the dials, and this for a good reason. Panerai was forced to deliver these watches without payment and under massive time pressure. Giuseppe Panerai neither wanted to be associated with Nazi Germany nor was he eager to become an Allied target and have his house bombed. It is these watches without Panerai inscription that are typically referred to as Kampfschwimmer watches.
After their basic training in the large indoor pool in Valdagno, in which they learned to dive with a closed-circuit breathing apparatus (rebreather), the German recruits were sent to Venice where they trained under real life conditions in the Venetian Lagoon. Their secret base was located on a small island named San Giorgio in Alga, around one kilometer off the coast of Venice.
Interestingly, Allied intelligence became aware of this facility almost immediately. The above aerial image from May 25, 1944 has an arrow pointing at the island.
Around the same time, the Allies managed to break through heavily fortified German defensive lines in central Italy and as a result, they swiftly captured Rome. A few days later, the Allies landed in Normandy, France with the largest amphibious invasion force in military history. The Germans were now under attack from three different sides.
Knowing it was only a matter of time until Italy would be liberated, the Nazis started confiscating everything useful, materials, vehicles, cattle, food, etc. Semi-finished Italian aircraft carriers were taken apart to extract the precious aluminium desperately needed for new aircraft and rockets. It is a well-known fact that Nazi Germany systematically looted Italian art from private collections and famous Italian museums. All of the above can be read in interesting non-fiction books like The Monuments Men and The Venus Fixers.
Men of the Gruppo Gamma secretly entered the areas where the stolen goods were stockpiled and prepared for transport to Germany. The Gammas extracted food in particular and gave it to the starving Italian population.
In July 1944, the British 8th Army reached the outskirts of Florence. Before Florence could be liberated, German armed forces paid by G. Panerai e Figlio a visit and stole their entire inventory, including their machines. This is a fact proven by the following photo archive found at the old premises of Panerai.
“Foto dell’officina prima che i tedeschi ci rubassero le macchine.”
Translation: Pictures of the workshop before the Germans stole our machines.
The goods extracted from Panerai were sent to the Arturo Junghans watch factory on the island of La Giudecca in Venice, a part of Italy that was still under German control. Interestingly, the secret Kampfschwimmer facility was only a few hundred meters away. Some of the stolen items – mostly dials but also around thirty NOS 3646 with California dials – surfaced decades later in the early 1990 when the old factory buildings were transformed into lofts.
It is interesting to note that in Helmut Blocksdorf’s book Das Kommando der Kleinkampfverbände der Kriegsmarine, the Rolex-Panerai watches are referred to as Junghans diving watches. It can be assumed the author received this information from a former Kampfschwimmer who believed the watches were made by Junghans since they were distributed out of the Junghans factory in Venice.
From the island of San Giorgio in Alga, a number of experienced Kampfschwimmer were deployed to their first missions in Caen and Orne in an attempt to stop the Allied invasion force in the Normandy. Since Allied intelligence was well informed about the Kampfschwimmers, most of their missions ended either in complete failure or did not have any effect on the course of the war.
In October 1944, most Kampfschwimmers were transferred to the island of Sylt in northern Germany. It was here were in February 1945 the Einsatzgruppe Keller under the command of Lieutenant Alfred Keller was formed with the objective to halt the Soviet advance in the east. This group consisted of experienced men like Max Schoss. The picture below shows most members of the Einsatzgruppe Keller.
A closer look at Max Schoss reveals he was wearing his watch when the picture was taken.
The badges and awards on Max Schoss’s uniform provide information about his military career. Clearly, he was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery on the battlefield. Underneath the Iron Cross, Schoss was sporting what appears to be the Verwundetenabzeichen (wound badge), a badge given to soldiers that were wounded in battle.
Schoss participated in the two major Kampfschwimmer operations. In February 1945, together with team leader Alfred Keller, Köneke and Pape, Schoss attempted to blow up a bridge over the River Oder in Aurith with the goal to slow down the Russian advance in the East. Their mission failed due to the extremely cold water of the river.
Two other Kampfschwimmer teams deployed only hours later suffered the same fate. In addition, their timing devices malfunctioned.
Schoss was again deployed on April 8, 1945. This time the mission’s objective was to destroy a Luftwaffe ammunition depot located in the beautiful Voerkelius brewery in Cammin (Kamień Pomorski, Poland) before the fast advancing Soviets could seize it.
The two man commando consisting of team leader Franz Lebek and Max Schoss succeeded. For their bravery they were awarded the German Cross in Gold on April 25, 1945. The brewery building does not exist anymore. The attack probably destroyed large areas of the ensemble.
The deployment of German Kampfschwimmers in the final months of WW2 was an act of desperation. None of their missions, whether successful or not, slowed down the Allied advance. In most cases, the German leadership took the death of the Kampfschwimmers into account plainly for propaganda purposes.
In late April 1945, the war in Italy was about to end. The Decima Flottiglia MAS was disbanded on April 26, 1945 and Commander Borghese went into hiding with the help of American agents to escape immediate execution by Italian partisans. He was later sentenced to 12 years in prison for collaborating with the Nazis but released after four years.
Fearing the Germans would destroy or try to block the important Italian ports of Genoa, La Spezia and Venice on their retreat, Lieutenant Commander Eugenio Wolk of the Gruppo Gamma divided his unit into small cells and sent his men to said ports to prevent the Germans from destroying significant infrastructure. Together with a handfull of his most trusted men, Wolk went to Venice where Allied forces had already taken over the city.
A few days later, Wolk surrendered himself to British Lieutenant Commander Lionel Buster Crabb, the famous Decima MAS hunter of Gibraltar, and was immediately hired to take part in the newly established “Allied Navies Experimental Station” on the island of Sant Andrea, where he and his men helped clearing the harbour from mines, shipwrecks, etc. Since they had collaborated with the Nazis, none of them was allowed to return to the Italian armed forces after the war. In addition, ex partisans were hunting them down to get their revenge.
Wolk left Italy with his family and helped establish an underwater unit in Argentina. The next picture from the late 1940s shows Eugenio Wolk (center) with his Argentinian recruits in Mar del Plata, Argentina.
German forces in Italy surrendered on April 29, 1945. One day later, Hitler commited suicide and the Soviets captured the Reichstag in Berlin, marking Nazi Germany’s military defeat.
In early May 1945, British armed forces occupied the island of Sylt and took the Kampfschwimmers prisoners. Some of the men, including Max Schoss, managed to hide their watches to avoid confiscation. During their captivity, a person related to the Einsatzgruppe Keller engraved the casebacks of the watches as a reminder of their time as Kampfschwimmers. The distinct engravings were applied with a modified razor.
Max Schoss died in 1973. His watch remained in the family until now.
Max Schoss’s watch is a great example of the earliest Rolex-Panerai timepieces confiscated by the Germans during the brutal occupation of Italy. With its proud Radiomir Panerai signature on the dial, it does not look like a typical Kampfschwimmer at first glance. The full story is only revealed on the back. These pieces were distributed among the best and most experienced German divers, the very first to be called into action. Historical tool watches of this caliber don’t come up often. If you are in the market for such a watch, this could be your opportunity.
Watches worn by German Kampfschwimmers during WW2 are not everybody’s cup of tea, and understandibly so. From a historical point of view they are nevertheless important time witnesses and a reminder of some of the darkest days of our world.
Thank you for your interest.
The Panerai Time Machine
Rolex-Panerai watches used by German Kampfschwimmers during WW2 are an important milestone in Panerai’s history. Please click the graphic to download the highres version.
This timeline is available as a high quality print in two sizes:
- 120 x 68 cm (47 x 26 inch): EUR 85.00 (plus shipping)
- 150 x 85 cm (59 x 33 inch): EUR 120.00 (plus shipping)
Printed with HD Inkjet on heavy synthetic paper and laminated.
Limited edition: 50 pieces, numbered and signed by Maria Teresa Panerai in Giuseppe Panerai’s very own laboratory at the historical site of the Villino Panerai (Panerai Villa) in Florence: Sold out
More information: The history of Panerai watches at a glance