Created: 24 November 2013
9 March 1913 – 16 September 2008
John Fancy (9 March 1913 – 16 September 2008) was a British former airman whose tunnelling escapes from various German prisoner of war camps during World War II earned him the nickname The Mole, and inspired the book and film The Great Escape.
John Fancy was born on March 9 1913 in the vicarage at Lund, near Driffield in the Yorkshire Wolds; he was delivered by his grandmother, who was the local midwife. His father was the manager of a nearby estate.Fancy was born in 1913. He was educated at Hymers College and looked set to follow his father into a career in estate managemen as he then worked in the parks and gardens department at Scarborough before deciding, in late 1935, to join the RAF. Although slightly colour blind he was passed fit for aircrew as an air observer and achieved the rank of Warrant Officer. His service record included delivering Blenheim bombers to Finland and operations over the North Sea including a raid on Stavanger. His squadron was then moved to operations over Northern Europe in support of the British Expeditionary Force rearguard actions which culminated in Operation Dynamo.
He was first captured on May 14, 1940 when the Blenheim in which he was serving as air observer/navigator was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire while returning from a raid on Sedan, France. He was taken to Stalag Luft I (the Germans maintained separate POW camps for aircrew), as prisoner 89 he was one of the first allied airmen to be captured.
In all Fancy escaped from custody some sixteen times, and constructed eight separate tunnels from various camps, using a German-issued steel table knife as his principal tool. The knife became his prized possession after the war. As an escapee he had many adventures, including being captured by an extermination squad and being subjected to three mock executions.
Though he was Britain's most prolific tunnel-digger and once got as far as a boat off the Baltic coast, he was recaptured every time and was finally repatriated in April 1945 when his camp was liberated by the advancing Allied forces. He later observed: "After four years, 10 months and four days I landed back in England after taking off on what should have been a four-hour flight." He was Mentioned in Despatches for his conduct.
After the war Fancy returned to the Yorkshire Wolds, establishing a market garden near Driffield and three greengrocer shops at Scarborough. He was a keen fisherman, a good tennis-player and he enjoyed painting. He also took great pride in his garden. After the death of his wife in 1983 he moved to Slapton, in south Devon, to be near to his daughter. He was a great favourite in the village and had his own seat at the bar in the two local pubs.
Fancy published two books about his experiences in the war: Tunnelling to Freedom (written with a ghostwriter) came out in 1957; and Flights of Fancy (1986).
In 1992 Fancy was invited to a ceremony in London to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Finnish Air Force. The Finnish ambassador took the opportunity to present him with the country's Winter War Medal.
John Fancy died on September 16. He married, in 1937, Elsie Parker, with whom he had two daughters and a son
John front row first on the right