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The Great Escaper

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William Ash, a Canadian Spitfire pilot during the Second World War, was celebrated for his many attempts to break out of PoW camps.

Last year, when former Spitfire pilot and prisoner of war William Ash took off on his final celestial flight, aged 96, the ­obituaries noted that he was thought to have been the model for the Steve McQueen character in the film, The Great Escape.

Ash, whose virtues included great modesty, always denied it. For one thing, he had never ridden a motorbike, he said. For another, he had not taken part in the mass breakout from Stalag Luft III that the film is based on. What he didn’t say was that if he had been given the chance he would undoubtedly have done so. The reason he couldn’t was that he was banged up in the camp ‘cooler’ – ­punishment for a series of other escape attempts.

It is easy to see why Ash might be mistaken for the fictional Virgil Hilts, the lean, leather-jacketed American played by McQueen. Ash hailed from Texas, was handsome and charming and determined that the Germans should not break his spirit. Above all, he was a rebel. He had been born with a ­contrary streak that was reinforced by his experiences in various PoW camps. Many emerged from incarceration with the understandable desire to lead a quiet, conventional life. Ash spent the rest of his days crusading for social justice and moving ever further to the Left of the political spectrum.

Even among the rich crop of heroes thrown up by the war, Bill Ash was something special. While researching my book on his wartime experiences, The Cooler King, I made extensive use of his own writings. As I dug deeper into his exploits, comparing them with other accounts and official documents, I discovered a number of inaccuracies. But instead of exaggerating his role and achievements, Ash’s version of events tended to underplay them.

His war began when he arrived in England in 1941, as a newly fledged fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force. He had joined up while America was still on the sidelines of the conflict (forfeiting his citizenship in the process), driven by a desire to fight fascism. His outlook was formed by a tough upbringing in depression-hit Texas, where his father worked as a travelling salesman. Bill worked his way through university but couldn’t find a job at the end of it and had to ride the rails from town to town searching for work.

In June he was posted as a Flying Officer to 411 Squadron, a newly formed Canadian unit, and spent six months flying patrols and taking part in raids on targets in northern France that were of little military value and resulted in a lot of aircraft being shot down.

In March 1942 his was one of them. While returning from an operation he was bounced by a swarm of German fighters near Calais. He managed to destroy one of them but his Spitfire was riddled with cannon-fire and he was forced to crash-land outside the village of Vieille-Eglise. Crawling from the wreckage he was taken in by a French woman, Pauline Le Cann, who dressed him in civilian clothes and sent him on his way. It was the first act in a series of ­extraordinary acts of kindness and bravery by French civilians, several of whom paid dearly for their courage.

Aided by a Resistance network, Ash ended up in Paris where a young couple gave him shelter. The lure of the city was too strong for his romantic soul and he took the opportunity to see the sights. Eventually an informer betrayed him and his hosts. There followed a series of brutal interrogations by the Gestapo, which he managed to resist without giving away any details of those who had helped him. He was rescued by the Luftwaffe, who insisted that as an airman he was their prisoner. He spent the rest of the war in three camps – and contrived escape attempts from all of them.

Most of his fellow prisoners – the great majority in fact – had no interest in escaping. Having survived the harrowing experience of being shot down, most concluded sensibly that they had used up their store of good luck and settled down to try to make the best use of their time behind the wire while they waited for the war to end. Ash belonged to a hard core of determined escape artists. Their motivations were mixed. Some, like his friend Aidan Crawley, felt a patriotic duty to return to action – or at least to carry on contributing to the war effort by making the Germans’ lives as difficult as possible. For others, an escape project gave them a focus that relieved the appalling tedium of camp life.

Ash himself found it hard to say precisely what it was that drove him on, but concluded that it boiled down to ‘an unwillingness to crawl in the face of ­oppression’.

Even he couldn’t say exactly how many attempts he made. There were opportunistic efforts – such as the time when, as part of a work detail unloading a train, he made a run for the woods when the guards’ backs were turned. Most of the time he was involved in long-term schemes for mass escapes that required a high degree of cunning, organisation and endurance.

The most spectacular was the

latrine escape from Oflag XXI-B, near Szubin in Poland, in March 1943. Ash was one of those who devised the plan, which ­involved digging a tunnel, about a ­hundred yards long, which started ­underneath a lavatory block. Day after day men, who in normal times would wrinkle their noses at the thought of having to wear the same shirt two days running, lowered themselves through a toilet seat and into a trap door let into a wall above a lake of human sewage. By the light of margarine lamps they ­burrowed through the soil, toiling in air whose foulness was only partly alleviated by bellows fashioned out of kitbags.

Ash’s companions included Crawley, who went on to become an MP and TV magnate; the celebrated television performer and historian Robert Kee; and the Tory chancellor of the exchequer Anthony Barber. Thirty-five men ­escaped. Two were drowned crossing the Baltic. The rest were all recaptured after less than a week. Failure was bitter after all the effort, but all went on to try again and again.

Ash did make it in the end – breaking out of his last camp near Bremen in the last days of the war. He adopted Britain as his new home and seemed set on a conventional life, studying at Oxford, marrying for a while a former Wren he had met before he was shot down and joining the BBC, where he worked as their representative in India. But the rebel and idealist in him kept breaking through. His increasingly radical views got him into hot water with the corporation. He regarded the Communist Party of Great Britain as compromised and formed a breakaway group.

Despite his fierce commitment, he loved life and fun, and politics was no bar to friendships. He died in April last year, still carrying traces of boyhood ­innocence. One thing he learned from escaping was that it often ­involved a degree of selflessness that he found inspiring. At the end he was still ­wondering how it was that the spirit of co-operation could flourish in wartime but wither with the arrival of peace.

‘The Cooler King: The True Story of William Ash, Spitfire Pilot, PoW and WW2’s Greatest Escaper’ is published by Atlantic Books.

This story was from October 2015 issue. Subscribe Now