Page last updated at 19:15 GMT, Friday, 3 October 2008 20:15 UK

WWII tunnel digger 'Mole' dies

By Alex Bushill
BBC News

Warrant officer John Fancy
Warrant officer John Fancy escaped three times

World War II tunnel digger John Fancy whose actions inspired the film the Great Escape, has died.

He was an adventurer, a charmer, above all, a nuisance. Warrant officer John Fancy volunteered for the RAF seeking adventure and he certainly found it.

Just nine months after the beginning of hostilities in the WWII, the young and dashing RAF observer was shot down.

His Blenheim bomber had just successfully hit its target in the Ardennes when he came under heavy fire from German anti-aircraft positions on 14 May 1940. Within moments the aircraft had ditched.

At her home in Slapton, South Devon, his daughter Jan says she remembers her father telling her how a line of lime trees broke the aircraft's fall, effectively saving his life as his plane crash-landed.

She said: "He was a charmer, a ladies' man, he was doted upon by his sisters as a boy. The day he was shot down, he'd been told he was a father to be and felt indestructible."


She said he had been transfixed by the German Zeppelins in WWI and wanted to become an RAF pilot to shoot them down as soon as he saw them.

However, when he enrolled as a pilot he was refused as he was colour blind.

It wouldn't stop him, he reapplied and soon became an observer on a Blenheim bomber. But it was deep behind enemy lines he was to make his name.

His tour of duty had not started well, taken prisoner just months into the war, he became prisoner number 89. But there was one consolation, plenty of time to plan an escape.

He was irrepressible, truly irrepressible
His daughter, Jan

For the rest of the war he planned several escapes, dug numerous tunnels, and escaped three times.

He was held in camps across Lithuania, Poland and Germany, including the notorious Stalag Luft III.

Like the other British captives he took part in amateur dramatics, even a camp newspaper written by the prisoners.

But it was a cover for his subterranean activities. Armed with nothing more than a 10-inch butter knife issued by his German captors, he began to dig. And dig. He dug eight tunnels in all, escaping three times. But every time he was caught.

'The Mole'

His daughter, who still has the knife, inscribed with the German eagle emblem, said: "He dug deep and long tunnels. The Germans soon caught on to the fact there might be tunnels under the wire.

"So they used to go around the compound prodding to find tunnels, so my father was up against that. So they must have had to go quite deep underground.

"On his final escape, he and two other prisoners made their way to the Baltic coast and were out at sea when they were eventually retaken."

It didn't seem to dampen his spirits. His camp commandant nicknamed him "the mole" for his burrowing ability and there was talk of holding him in Colditz to make sure he wouldn't escape again.

Despite his best and unending efforts it was not until the end of the war that he was liberated. Summing up that moment he once said: "After four years, 10 months and four days, I landed back in England after taking off on what should have been a four-hour trip."

Jan, who he nicknamed "princess mole", said she will always remember him as being, "above all patient - something he taught us. He was irrepressible, truly irrepressible".

A suitable tribute to a man who knew how to make a nuisance of himself.

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