‘Great Escape’ artist of World War II dies at 95

October 3rd, 2008 - 5:40 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Oct 3 (IANS) The man whose World War II prison exploits inspired the Hollywood blockbuster, The Great Escape, is no more.Nicknamed The Mole, John Fancy was Britain’s most prolific wartime tunnel-digger and one of the men behind the original Great Escape. He was 95.

Fancy helped dozens of his fellow inmates escape from prisoner-of-war camps in Poland, Lithuania and Germany.

Warrant Officer Fancy, an RAF navigator who trained in land management before enlisting, was captured in 1940 after being shot down on a bombing mission over occupied France.

During five years of captivity in a number of camps, he dug at least eight tunnels and escaped three times himself but was recaptured on each occasion.

He was sent to Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Poland, in 1942.

There his expertise was used to help plot the break-out of 76 men that became known as the Great Escape.

The plan was to dig three tunnels - Tom, Dick and Harry; the first of which, Tom, was built by Fancy and others in the corner of a hall.

In order to keep the tunnels from being detected, they were 30 ft below the surface and were only 2 ft square.

Although Fancy was transferred away from the camp and Tom was later discovered, 76 men did escape through Dick the following year.

Of these, only three evaded capture - 50 men were killed and the rest were sent back to the camp.

Two decades later, the escape attempt caught the imagination of movie producers and inspired the 1963 Hollywood blockbuster The Great Escape, which starred Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough.

Fancy was finally released from his last camp in 1945 and became a full-time gardener, land manager and author of two books about his exploits.

When Fancy was liberated from Lithuania by allied soldiers, they described finding him as “a six-stone, lice-ridden, walking skeleton - but still digging his way under the wire”.

His daughter, Janet, told Daily Mail: “During his long stint as a prisoner of war he acquired the reputation as the most determined escapologist the Germans had ever encountered…. After surviving a plane crash and five years of imprisonment, the whole family rather felt he was indestructible. He will be greatly missed”.

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