Henry Fancourt

Henry Fancourt

Captain Henry Lockhart St John Fancourt, DSO, RN (April 1, 1900 - January 8, 2004) was a pioneering naval aviator, and held important aviation commands with the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War. When Fancourt died at the age of 103, he had been the last survivor who had actively been involved in the Battle of Jutland.

Early life and naval career

Fancourt was born in Birmingham, and was the son of General St John Fancourt. He joined the Royal Navy and entered the Royal Naval College, Osborne, in January 1913 at the age of 12. In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, like most of his classmates he was sent to sea -- in his case, on the battlecruiser HMS "Princess Royal".

The Battle of Jutland, 1916

On May 31, 1916, the "Princess Royal" was involved in the initial engagement of the Battle of Jutland. Two of her sister ships were lost (with nearly 2,000 men) and the "Princess Royal" was mistakenly reported as having been sunk. In reality she had been hit twice and was hit three more times later in the battle. Fancourt's action station was in the rear gun turret so he did not see much of the battle.

Fancourt was mentioned in dispatches later in the war for his efforts on flotilla escort and patrol duties from Queenstown, Ireland. In June 1919, he was present at the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow.

Interwar activities

After the war, Fancourt was sent to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, to complete his interrupted education. On his return to the Navy he chose to specialise in aviation. He qualified as a pilot in 1924 after attending No 1 Naval Pilots Course. Because of the ongoing dispute between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry about naval aviation, he held the dual rank of Flying Officer Royal Air Force and Lieutenant Royal Navy.

In 1927, while serving on HMS "Argus", he took part in the western military buildup in the Far East when European interests in Shanghai were threatened by fighting between the forces of Chiang Kai-shek and the warlord Sun Chuan Fang.

After a tour in HMS "Renown", he was assigned to HMS "Courageous" in 1929. In August of that year he took part in operations to restore order in Palestine. Working ashore with the RAF he flew in support of the Army and Navy and made demonstration flights over Jerusalem.

In June 1931, Fancourt was involved in trials, aboard "Courageous", of a new system of athwartships arrester cables to catch landing aircraft. He was the first to land using the new system. The system is now standard on modern aircraft carriers.

In April 1933, after promotion to Lieutenant-Commander, Fancourt became the first CO of the newly formed 822 Squadron. The squadron, which was formed at Netheravon, flew Fairey IIIF biplanes.

After this assignment he worked in the Admiralty organising the recruitment and training of officers for the expanding Fleet Air Arm. In 1937 the Fleet Air Arm was handed back to the Navy from the Air Ministry. He later served as second in command of the cruiser HMS "Neptune" then commanded the sloop "Weston".

World War II

In December 1940 he was promoted Captain and given command of HMS "Sparrowhawk", the naval air station at Hatston in the Orkney Islands. While here, flying a Gloster Gladiator, he made the first landing of the war by a British plane on an American aircraft carrier when the USS "Wasp" was passing through Scapa Flow.

In January 1941, Fancourt was bady injured when German dive-bombers destroyed the control tower at Lee-on-the-Solent. In May 1941, he was mentioned in dispatches for his initiative in sending a Maryland naval aircraft to continue the hunt for the German battleship "Bismarck" after weather blocked RAF reconnaissance.

In 1942, Fancourt had been assigned to take command of the escort carrier HMS "Searcher" which was under construction in the US. This was cancelled however and he found himself assigned to Operation Torch, the allied invasion of north Africa. He was placed in command of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla which consisted of two destroyers, HMS "Broke" and HMS "Malcolm" and a group of American Rangers. Their assignment, which was called Operation Terminal, was to enter Algiers harbour on November 8, land the troops and prevent the Vichy French from scuttling their ships or wrecking the port installations.

This turned into a disaster when the commandos landed on either side of Algiers failed to capture the Vichy artillery batteries. The batteries placed Fancourt's destroyers under a heavy bombardment. "Malcolm" had to withdraw after suffering engine room damage but "Broke", which was carrying Fancourt, penetrated the defensive boom on her fourth attempt and landed her troops. "Broke" was sunk by French artillery later in the day but the crew and wounded were transferred to the destroyer "Zetland". Fancourt was awarded the DSO for the battle.

In January 1943, Fancourt was placed in command of the training carrier "Argus". In September 1943, he was given command of the light fleet carrier HMS "Unicorn", which sailed for the Indian Ocean in December 1943 with reinforcements for the Eastern Fleet.

Post-war career

In April 1946, he was appointed deputy chief naval representative in the Ministry of Supply. He retired from the navy in December 1949, and joined the aircraft manufacturer Short Brothers and Hartland in Belfast where he worked until 1965. While there, he was chief of staff to Admiral Sir Matthew Slattery, a colleague from No 1 Pilots Course.

The final entry in his flight logbook was in 1956, by which time he had logged 1,317 flying hours.


Fancourt had two sons and two daughters. Both sons were in the Navy--Michael served in the Fleet Air Arm, and the other one was a Captain in the Reserves and commanded London Division RNR. In 1943, Fancourt landed a Fairey Swordfish with Michael, then a 16-year-old Air Training Corps cadet, as a passenger on HMS Argus. This was probably the first father-and-son deck landing.

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