Sotheby’s London kicked off the watch year with something truly outstanding. A Rolex-Panerai Ref. 3646 riddled with battle scars. The watch was consigned by the family of a British Royal Navy officer who was among the first to enter Venice at the end of the war. At the time, Venice was the main base of Italian underwater units that were working hand-in-hand with German ‘Kampfschwimmer’ recruits. The story of this watch leads us down yet another mind-blowing rabbit hole that has its origins in the British Naval Base of Gibraltar. The watch fetched £ 35,280 which is a good result given the not-so-great condition and the missing information on how and from whom the watch was obtained.
Lot 6 – Rolex-Panerai Ref. 3646, 1010050
The present watch is a Rolex Ref. 3646 Type B from 1941/42 made for the Regia Marina (Italian Royal Navy) and featuring a first generation aluminium sandwich dial made by the Italian company G. Panerai & Figlio. The first thing that catches the eye is of course the condition of the dial. According to Sotheby’s the watch suffered a water damage.
The keen eye will also immediately spot the thick welding around the wire lugs. The wire lugs were a weakness of Ref. 3646, especially of the early models and many of the watches that surfaced over the years lacked them partly or completely. Please click the following link to read the full description on the Sotheby’s website.
When I first saw this watch, I immediately visualized an underwater explosion. Given the provenance and the link to Lieutenant Commander Lionel Crabb, who was a mine and bomb-disposal specialist, the thought is not so far fetched in my opinion. Speculations aside, fact is we do not know what happened to it but one thing is certain – after having catalogued more than 550 Rolex-Panerai watches, I can say with absolute certainty, I have never seen a dial that comes even close to this. It is indeed absolutely unique.
The upper aluminium disc featuring the cut-outs received its matte black finish through an electro-chemical process known as ‘anodizing’ which creates a coating that is resistant to corrosion. As you can see, the anozing is completely gone in certain areas and bare aluminium is visible. I have seen a number of water-damaged G. Panerai & Figlio dials but the coating remained always intact. It is interesting to note, when Sotheby’s received this watch from the family of the Charles Canning, it had neither a crystal nor hands.
The present watch features the earliest version of G. Panerai & Figlio’s aluminium sandwich dial, a multi-layer construction where the radioactive luminous material was sealed deep within the assembly. Like most of these early aluminium sandwich dials, the cut-out fillings which kept the radium/zinc sulfide mixture in place, developed a dark red patina. If you look closely, some of the fillings appear to have molten.
The aluminium sandwich dial was G. Panerai & Figlio’s second attempt at creating a watch dial. The first attempt, the so-called riveted plastic dial, a multi-layer construction as well, was a total failure. Deformed by the ravaging radiation of radium-226, the plastic layers warped to such extent, the hands could no longer turn, thus compromising the very functioning of the watch.
Inspired by a patented idea developed by Swiss dial maker Stern Frères in 1935 (CH182122), G. Panerai & Figlio ‘solved’ the problem by clamping the plastic layer containing the lume between two metallic discs. The picture below shows a 1930s Vacheron & Constantin timepiece with patented Stern sandwich dial.
It is interesting to note that the Orologeria Svizzera, G. Panerai & Figlio’s very own watch shop, was one of the largest Vacheron & Constantin retailers in Italy.
Read more: Orologeria Svizzera – The Watch Shop
The Rolex Oyster Case
Ref. 3646 was basically a Rolex Oyster pocket watch for the wrist, similar to WW1 trench watches. Introduced in April 1940 as a replacement for Ref. 2533 in stainless steel from 1936 which was powered by a refined Montilier Cal. 663, Ref. 3646 featured a more economical Cal. 618 movement made by Cortébert instead.
Read more: Vintage Panerai 2533 ‘Frankenstein’
Clearly, the Oyster case of the present watch has seen better days. The wire lug a 6 o’clock was lost and had to be replaced. The wire lug a 12 o’clock is the original one but the soldering appears to have been reinforced to prevent it from falling off. The way the repair was executed shows that utilitarian considerations were clearly predominant.
For some reason, Type B cases were prone to losing the wire lugs. There are several known examples where this occured, for instance case number 1010049 seen below which is only one number away from the present watch (1010050). This particular watch lost both wire lugs.
The inside of the caseback is marked ‘Oyster Watch Co(mpany)’, a Rolex sub brand which first appeared in early 1930s Rolex ‘Bubbleback’ watches and then disappeared around 1945. Interestingly, a company with this name was never officially registered and the “brand” was only used as a caseback stamp.
The seven-digit number 1010050 is a typical Rolex pocket watch serial from 1941/42. So far, 1010050 is the Ref. 3646 Type B specimen with the highest documented number. The lowest recorded Type B has case number 1009911. The resulting range suggests a batch of around 150 pieces for this particular type. Ref. 3646 types are distinguished by the caseback stamps but also by other characteristics like the height of the bezel. The table below lists all Ref. 3646 types with their corresponding case number ranges. Together, they amount to an estimated total production of 1,345 pieces made between 1940 and 1944.
|Ref. 3646 Type||Year||Case number Range||Caseback Stamps||Quantity (est.)|
|A1||1940||1009421 – 1009430||Oyster Watch Co (Staybrite)||25|
|A2||1940||1009498 – 1009566||Oyster Watch Co||75|
|A3||1940||1009773 – 1009789||Oyster Watch Co||25|
|B||1941/42||1009911 – 1010050||Oyster Watch Co||150|
|C||1942||1010091 – 1010374||Rolex S.A.||300|
|D||1943||260400 – 260695||Rolex S.A.||295|
|E (low bezel)||1944||260696 – 260849||Rolex S.A.||155|
|F (low bezel)||1944||260850 – 261120||Rolex S.A. (removed by Rolex)||270|
|G (low bezel)||1944||317488 – 317530||Rolex S.A. (removed by Rolex)||50|
The present watch is powered by a Cortébert-made Cal. 618 movement with 17 jewels, overcoiled Breguet hairspring and Rolex engravings following the upper curve of the train gear bridge which is a perfect match and absolutely original. This type of movement is known as Rolex 618 Type 1a.
The movement is in good shape for an 80-year-old timepiece that was used as a diving tool watch. The regulator lever on the balance cock broke off which in my opinion is a only a minor issue. On the plus side, ratchet and crown wheel have mostly retained their attractive swirl finish and there is practically no oxididation present, neither on the bridges nor on the moving parts. The brass-coloured movement retaining ring is another perfect match for Type B.
The provenance of the present watch revolves around the “Allied Navies Experimental Station’ (A.N.E.S.) established in Venice at the end of World War 2. Consigned by the family of Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer Charles Canning, who became a subordinate of the famous British frogman Lieutenant Commander Lionel Crabb when they were sent to Venice in late April 1945 following the withdrawal of the German forces, the watch is of great historical interest. Canning is mentioned several times in the book ‘Undersea Warrior – Commander Crabb’s Story’ by Marshall Pugh.
A priority of the Allied forces was to get their hands on as much Decima Flottiglia MAS equipment and know-how as possible. Since mid 1944, Allied intelligence services had gathered information about a manned torpedo base on the island of Sant’Andrea (Le Vignole) and a training facility for German and Italian frogmen on the small island of San Giorgio in Alga. While the latter was destroyed in an Allied air strike in early 1945, the former remained intact.
Together with Naval Intelligence Officer Lieutenant Tony Marsloe of the U.S. Navy, Crabb took control of the manned torpedo base. The facility had been constructed in the early 1900s as an operating center for seaplanes (Idroscalo). The two Italian manned torpedo operators looking after the place surrendered immediately. Their biggest concern was not becoming prisoners of war but rather that the Germans had stolen five of their manned torpedoes and had submerged them at unknown locations in the Venetian lagoon in preparation of possible future attacks against Allied shipping.
Lionel Crabb’s frogman career began in November 1942 when he, a trained mine and bomb-disposal officer, was sent to the British Naval Base of Gibraltar. Until the moment of his arrival, Crabb had not heard of Italian frogmen. His job was to disarm explosive charges removed from Allied ships by hard-hat divers but he quickly realized it would be much more efficient if he learned to dive himself.
To be able to move freely underwater, just like the Italians, Crabb used a Davis oxygen rebreather which had actually been developed as an emergency breathing apparatus to escape sunken submarines in shallow water.
The Italian rebreathers developed by the technical director of the Decima Flottiglia MAS Commander Angelo Beloni, which were produced by Pirelli, were based on the Davis device but more advanced. They had an operating range of up to five hours. The advantage of rebreathers was that they did not create bubbles underwater as the exhaled breath was recycled through a soda lime scrubber. This was perfect for sneaking undetected into enemy waters but limited the divers to a maximum depth of just about 39 ft/12 m, as pure oxygen becomes rapidly toxic under pressure.
Italian frogmen were attacking Gibraltar since late 1940, first with manned torpedoes and later also with entire swarms of free swimming ‘Gamma’ frogmen armed with small explosive charges. Lionel Crabb was highly respected among Italian frogmen and here is why. In Autumn 1942, the Italians established a secret manned torpedo base in an Italian tanker named Olterra that was moored in the harbour of Algeciras, Spain since the beginning of the war. The crew had scuttled the ship to prevent it from falling into the hands of the British. Algeciras is right opposite from the British Naval Base in the Bay of Gibraltar. The idea was developed by Licio Visintini, a Decima Flottiglia MAS veteran who had participated in two earlier attacks against Gibraltar where the manned torpedoes had been deployed from the Italian submarine Sciré. Sending submarines had become too risky.
Late at night on December 7, 1942, three manned torpedoes left the Olterra through the secret diving door in the hull to attack a naval squadron named ‘Force H’ that had just arrived at Gibraltar. Since the early attacks, the British were using anti-frogman depth charges to keep the Italians away. They were shot in regular intervals but since Crabb’s deployment, the British created a new system in which the depth charges were deployed randomly. The Italians had missed this detail. At the entrance to the inner harbour, Lieutenant Licio Visintini and his second man Petty Officer Giovanni Magro were killed by an irregular depth charge. The British recovered their bodies and Crabb personally burried them at sea with full military honours, including priest, Italian flags and a wreath. This gesture was witnessed by the Italian frogmen in nearby Spain and much appreciated. Both, Visintini and Magro received the Gold Medal for Military Valour (MOVM) post mortem.
In July 1943, the Allies kicked off the Italian campaign by swiftly invading Sicily and bombing the outskirts of Rome. As a result, the fascist regime collapsed. Mussolini was arrested and held at secret locations to prevent Hitler from rescuing him. On September 3, 1943, the Allies invaded mainland Italy at Salerno near Naples. A few days later, the Italian government officially surrendered (Armistice of Cassibile). The Germans were prepared for this eventuality and swiftly occupied most of the Italian peninsula. The official Italian government lead by King Victor Emmanuel fled to the Allied-controlled south. Left with no specific orders, the Italian armed forces desintegrated within hours. Tens of thousands of Italian soldiers were executed by the Germans for not immediately surrendering their arms. Over 700,000 of them were deported to Nazi slave labour camps for refusing to keep fighting alongside the Germans. The Decima Flottiglia MAS fell apart as well. Most prominent divers remained loyal to the king and fled to the south. A handful stayed and pledged loyalty to the Nazis. This initiative was lead by Commander Junio Valerio Borghese who reestablished the Decima Flottiglia MAS mostly as an infantry devision to fight Italian partisans and communists under Nazi SS command. The ‘Gamma’ frogman training was resumed in January 1944 under the proven leadership of Commander Eugenio Wolk and with an ever growing number of German ‘Kampfschwimmer’ recruits. Even “Europe’s most dangerous man”, SS Sturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny, who had rescued Mussolini from his secret prison in the mountains (Gran Sasso) in a spectacular operation in mid September 1943, took part in the training. On their way up north, the Allies encountered heavy resistance and their advance came for several months to a complete halt at the heavily fortified Gustav defensive line south of Rome.
Following the Italian surrender in September 1943, the crew of the Olterra destroyed most of the equipment and disappeared. This is when the British found out about the base. The Olterra was towed into Gibraltar where Crabb managed to salvage one of the manned torpedoes. During the reconstruction process, the British learned the details of this new weapon and soon deveoped their own version, the so-called ‘chariot’.
Italian Decima Flottiglia MAS operators like Luigi Durand de la Penne, who had been taken prisoner prior to the surrender, were given the chance to fight alongside the Allies against Nazi Germany. Many accepted and so was born the ‘Mariassalto’ unit, basically the Decima Flottiglia MAS of the south. In joint British-Italian operations, they sunk an number of large ships in Italian ports to prevent the Germans from using them to block the entrances. In these attacks, they used British ‘chariots’.
In late July 1944, Allied forces reached the outskirts of Florence. Short after, the Germans raided the G. Panerai & Figlio workshop and confiscated watches, instruments and other goods, inculding most of the machines to control the supply for their frogmen. Everything was shipped to the Arturo Junghans watch factory in Venice.
After the German retreat from Italy in late April 1945, the Allies had planned to establish a supply port in Trieste, Italy, but because of the communist threat posed by Josip Tito’s Yugoslav Army, it was decided to use Venice instead. The problem was, the retreating German forces had riddled the lagoon with magnetic mines and other explosive charges. Additionally, they had sunk a number of ships to prevent Allied Navies from landing. In late April 1945, Crabb was therefore tasked with clearing the waters around Venice. To be able to fullfil his task swiftly, Crabb gave a number of Italian ‘Gamma’ frogmen, who had remained loyal to Germany and had been taken prisoner by the partisans, the chance to redeem themselves. Among them was also Commander Angelo Belloni, the very guy who had conceived much of the idea of the Decima Flottiglia MAS, and invented its most important gear, namely the the Pirelli rebreather and the diving-suit.
From this moment onwards, the manned torpedo facility on the island of Sant’Andrea became known as “Allied Navies Experimental Station’. This is where Chief Petty Officer Charles Canning comes into the picture. Tasked by British Commander Backhouse to look after their most important prisoner of war – Angelo Belloni – Canning soon became an integral part of the ‘Allied Navies Experimental Station’.
I know what you are thinking. No, that is not Arnold Schwarzenegger in the picture above. His name was Montecchini. During this period, the British and the Americans learned a big deal about the methods of the Decima Flottilia MAS. In addition, new gear was developed and tested. An improved version of the ‘Belloni’ rebreather became standard equipment of the American Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT). The Americans referred to it as ‘Pirelli Lung’.
Another important figure soon joined the group and took over the leadership on the Italian side, ‘Gamma’ Commander Eugenio Wolk who was highly respected among his men. In January 1941, Wolk had been assigned to the diver school in Livorno to assist Commander Angelo Belloni in developing an underwater infantry. Belloni’s idea was inspired by Jules Verne’s ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea’ novel. 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.
Belloni’s idea worked well in theory but once the divers descended to the bottom and started marching on loose, muddy seafloors, they became quickly exhausted and had to surface. Belloni’s idea was impossible to realize. In late 1941, Wolk reimagined Belloni’s idea, introducing swimfins and a smaller rebreather. Instead of 50 kg charges, Wolk’s ‘frogmen’ would be armed with up to three small explosive charges instead. The Greek letter ‘Gamma’ stands for guastatore (= demolisher).
With Wolk at the helm, mine clearance and the recovery of scuttled ships proceeded at a much faster pace. The five hidden manned torpedoes were soon found as well. At least one of them was of the latest generation, a so-called ‘Siluro Bartolomeo’, more streamlined and much easier to handle. The picture below shows Wolk demonstrating the craft to a British Intelligence Service officer.
Wolk introduced Crabb to Licio Visintini’s widow whose husband had been killed by a depth charge in Gibraltar. Since Mrs. Visintini spoke English and had secretarial training, Crabb hired her as a secretary for the A.N.E.S. Crabb also met Visintini’s mother, and legend has it he gave her her son’s Rolex-Panerai which she later passed on to Vittorio Stradi, a good friend of the deceased.
Over the course of the following two years, the Italian frogmen under the exemplary leadership of Eugenio Wolk removed all mines and recovered all wrecks the retreating Germans had left behind. At some point, the A.N.E.S. was handed over to the Italian Navy which would soon be renamed ‘Marina Militare’.
With very few exceptions, the frogmen who had remained loyal to the Axis were not allowed to return to the Italian Navy. After his service at A.N.E.S., Wolk emigrated to Argentina where he helped establish an underwater unit in the image of the Decima Flottiglia MAS.
Lionel Crabb remained with the Royal Navy until his retirement in 1955. One year later, the foreign intelligence service of the United Kingdom, MI6, recruited him to examine the newly developed propeller design of the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze, which had taken the head of state Nikita Khrushchev on a diplomatic mission to Britain. Crabb dove and was never seen again. More than a year later, a body in a Royal Navy diving suit missing the head and both hands was found by fishermen. People who knew Crabb were not able to identify the body. What happened to Crabb remains a mystery to this day.
It is unclear how Charles Canning came into possession of the Rolex-Panerai Ref. 3646. He most certainly received the watch from one of the involved frogmen or even Belloni himself.
A number of people asked me whether it would be worth bidding on this watch given its condition. In my opinion, this watch is not about condition but about history and provenance. Just look at it! This timepiece must have witnessed some incredible events. What forces were at work when the wire lugs at 6 o’clock were torn out and what happened to the dial? Whatever the answer, if absolutey necessary for cosmetical reasons, a proper restoration of the wire lugs should be doable. But do not touch the dial as it is absolutely striking in my opinion and gives this watch its unique look. Original heat-blued hands can be found with the necessary tenacity. Congratulations to the buyer!
Thank you for your interest.
The Panerai Time Machine
Early examples of Ref. 3646 were mostly used by Italian frogman and took part in some of the most gallant attacks against the British Naval Bases of Gibraltar and Alexandria. The timeline below represents the current state of research into vintage Rolex-Panerai watches. Click to zoom in.
This timeline is available as a high quality print in two sizes:
- 120 x 68 cm (47 x 26 inch): EUR 95.00 (plus shipping)
- 150 x 85 cm (59 x 33 inch): EUR 135.00 (plus shipping)
Printed with HD Inkjet on photo 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
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