Obituary: William Ash OBE, POW and radical

BORN: 30 November, 1917, in Dallas, Texas. Died: 26 April, 2014, in London, aged 96.

Bill Ash. Picture: Contributed

After his Spitfire was shot down over France in the spring of 1942, William Ash made his way to Nazi-occupied Paris with the help of the French Resistance. His plan was to go to Spain, then back to England to resume flying. While waiting, he sauntered through Parisian streets as a tourist, visiting the Louvre and the zoo, dining out and swimming daily.

“He loved doing stuff for the hell of it,” said Brendan Foley, who helped Ash write his autobiography, which was published to critical acclaim in 2005.

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While in Paris, Pilot Officer Ash was seized by the Gestapo and sent to the notorious Fresnes Prison, south of the city, where he was tortured. After it was determined that he was an airman and not a spy, he was shuttled from one Nazi PoW camp to another in Germany, Poland and Lithuania. It was in the camps he discovered his true calling: would-be escape artist.

Before the war ended, he had attempted 13 escapes and made it outside the barbed wire a half-dozen times. He went under, over and through fences. He walked out in disguise. He tunnelled through a latrine. He was always recaptured.

Ash said the routine was “a bit like being sent back to ‘Go’ when playing Monopoly – only with more bruises.”

Most prisoners never tried to escape, much less become serial escapologists. Many who did were killed, such as two-thirds of the 76 prisoners who participated in the mass breakout in March 1944 that inspired the 1963 film the Great Escape.

Ash was not among the 76, although at the time he was in the same camp, Stalag Luft III, in an area of eastern Germany that is now part of Poland. He was in solitary confinement, or “the cooler,” where Virgil Hilts, the American Cooler King memorably played by Steve McQueen in the film, often found himself.

Some have suggested Ash’s escape record made him a model for Hilts. “If I was, no-one told me,” Ash wrote in his memoir, Under the Wire.

John Sturges, who directed the film, also said the characters were fictional composites.

William Franklin Ash’s exceedingly full life began in 1917, in Dallas. His father was a failed millinery salesman. As a boy on holiday in New Mexico, he listened entranced as George Coe, a sidekick of the notorious Billy the Kid, told tales, brandishing the hand whose trigger-finger had been shot off.

As a boy, Ash worked at enough odd jobs to amass $200 (£120) by the time he was 12 (equivalent to about $2,760 today), then lost it all that year in the 1929 stock-market crash. Thereafter he called himself “a ruined tycoon”. Ash graduated with honours from the University of Texas, then wandered as a “hobo”, jumping from train to train, job to job.

He worked at a bank operating a lift. (An acquaintance asked if his employer knew about his academic success. “Yes,” he replied, “but they’ve agreed to overlook it.”) In 1934, as a cub reporter for the Dallas Morning News, he gazed on the bullet-riddled corpses of Bonnie and Clyde.

Disappointed to have missed the Spanish Civil War, he decided to join the Royal Canadian Air Force to battle the Nazi war machine of Fuhrer Adolf Hitler. (The US was neutral at the time, only entering the war in the wake of Pearl Harbour in December 1941.) Reaching Detroit in early 1940, he walked across the Ambassador Bridge to Canada to enlist, giving up his US citizenship.

He found he loved to fly, a delight that ended when six German fighters shot his plane down near Calais on the north coast of France.

His first escape attempt as a prisoner of war involved hiding in a shower drain. Two weeks’ solitary confinement followed. He nonetheless found the act of escape exhilarating, despite – or because of – the danger. He loved to take risks.

Ash said his escape attempts had a larger purpose: to help the war effort by forcing the Germans to squander time and resources chasing escapees. But the stakes were high and the consequences could be harsh. After the real-life “great escape,” Hitler ordered 50 of the men to be massacred.

Ash had three stints at Stalag Luft III, the last camp he was in. In 1945, after a forced march in the snow, he limped across a battlefield to freedom as the war neared its end.

After the war, Ash was granted British citizenship, and King George VI made him a Member of the Order of the British Empire. He earned a second bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics from the University of Oxford, and he became manager of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s operations in India.

The BBC later fired him, however, because of his leftist politics (he remained a lifelong friend of a BBC colleague, Tony Benn). Even the Moscow-oriented Communist Party rejected him, saying he was too radical to be a member. He responded by helping to start a British Marxist-Leninist party.

In 1946, he married Patricia Rambault, who as a member of the women’s branch of the Royal Navy had corresponded with him as a PoW. The marriage ended in divorce. In the late 1950s, Ash married Ranjana Sidhanta, who survives him. He is also survived by a daughter, Julia, son, Francis, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Ash was a published novelist, chairman of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and a prolific author of radio dramas. One of his most daring moves during the war was to trade identities with a PoW named Don Fair, who was being transferred to Stalag Luft VI, a camp near Heydekrug (now Silute), Lithuania.

Ash asked for the swap because he feared he was becoming too well-known. Each man climbed barbed-wire fences between machine-gun towers in broad daylight to change compounds. Ash went to Lithuania with Fair’s ID papers. The real Fair, a New Zealander, remained in the camp under Ash’s name.

After escaping from the Lithuanian prison, Ash found a boat on a beach that was too heavy for him to move. He approached some men in a field, by his account, and told them he was an escaped US pilot.

“Yes, we would love to help you,” one of the men said, “but we are soldiers of the German army, and you are standing on our cabbages.”

Ash was promptly returned to the cooler.

• Copyright New York Times 2014. Distributed by NYT news syndication service.