Flight Lieutenant William Ash M.B.E.
Born in Texas USA November 30th 1917. Died: London, England, April 26th 2014, Age 96
William Ash, was the real-life ‘cooler king’ of Stalag Luft III
, said to be one of several sources for the character Virgil Hilts, played by Steve McQueen in the film ‘The Great Escape’: his escape attempts became celebrated – over the wire, through it with cutters, through the gates in disguise as a Russian slave-labourer, and, especially, via tunnels.
If he never succeeded, it was not for want of trying.
Ash crammed several lifetimes of adventure into his 96 years.
Even in Stalag Luft III he stood out.
While most of his fellow-officer inmates in 1942 were from well-to-do British backgrounds, Ash was a former Texan hobo who had swapped his place in a Depression-era cattle car for the cockpit of a Spitfire.
William Franklin Ash was born on November 30 1917 in pre-oil-boom Dallas, Texas, where he remembered, as a boy, the townsfolk gathering in wonder to stare at the city’s first traffic light.
His father, a spectacularly unsuccessful salesman of ladies’ hats, was, as Ash recalled, ‘forever having his automobile, on which his livelihood depended, carted off by the repo-men, like a cavalryman having his horse shot from under him during a rout’.
Almost from when he could walk, Bill contributed to the family finances by doing odd jobs or selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door .
Later his work ranged from shelf-stacker to cub reporter for the Dallas Morning News, where he remembered staring at the bodies of Bonnie and Clyde in their bullet-riddled getaway car.
Gradually he managed to save enough money to put himself through school and through college at the University of Texas (Austin).
An exceptional student, he graduated with top marks in Liberal Arts, despite doing multiple jobs .
But as he emerged from university into the Depression, jobs were scarce.
He found employment as a lift operator at a bank, where he bumped into a former professor who, horrified, asked if the bank realised he was an honours graduate. ‘Yes,’ Ash replied, ‘but they’ve agreed to overlook it.’
Ash soon took to the road, joining hundreds of thousands of other men riding the rails from town to town looking for work.
The experience of sharing what little he had with others in hobo shanties on the edge of nondescript towns all over the Midwest was one that sharpened his sympathy for the underdog as well as making him handy with his fists.
By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 Ash’s travels had taken him to Detroit, where he became involved in a punch-up with some early supporters of the American Nazi movement.
As the United States was still neutral, he walked over the bridge to Canada and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force – a move which would cost him his US citizenship. ‘I tried to explain that I was not so much for King George as against Hitler,’ he recalled, ‘but they didn’t seem to care much at the time.’
After training as a pilot in Canada, Ash arrived in Britain in a troopship in 1941 and saw action in No 411 Squadron, flying Spitfires over occupied France as well as defending shipping over the Channel.
He also flew escort on the ill-fated bombing attack on Scharnhorst as she sailed up the English Channel in broad daylight.
During his time as a Spitfire pilot, Ash, who gained the uninspired but persistent wartime nickname of ‘Tex’, featured in publicity drives aimed at encouraging the united States to enter the war and more Americans to go to Canada as volunteers in the meantime.
Once, returning from a sortie, he found a portly gentleman in a suit being helped on to the wing of his Spitfire.
Flashbulbs popped, and he later discovered his visitor was McKenzie King, Canada’s wartime Prime Minister.
P/O. Ash meeting with the Canadian Prime Minister, McKenzie King
Ash’s luck ran out while he was returning from bomber escort duty over the Pas de Calais in the spring of 1942.
With his plane shot full of holes and his gun button jammed, he could do nothing but turn into his attackers to minimise his profile as half a dozen Focke Wulf 190s took it in leisurely turns to try blowing him out of the sky.
He recalled continuing to press his gun button and shouting ‘Bang! Bang!’ – to no avail.
Forced to crash-land near the small village of Vielle Eglise, he was helped to escape by a Frenchwoman who had been widowed earlier in the war.
With the help of the Resistance he made his way to Paris, where he was holed up for several months.
But, instead of hiding, he sauntered out into the streets as an American tourist , visiting art galleries and even the local swimming baths.
The Gestapo soon arrested him and took him to the notorious Fresnes Prison, where he was beaten and tortured.
Shortly before he was due to be executed, however, he was ‘rescued’ by a Luftwaffe officer who was fearful of reprisals against downed German pilots in Britain if Ash were shot as a spy.
Arriving in Stalag Luft III
, Ash became firm friends with the Battle of Britain veteran Paddy Barthropp, with whom he made several escape attempts.
During the first of these, they hid in a shower drain in the hope that they could escape after lying low for a few days under the shower huts, fortified with a supply of ‘The Mixture’ – a high-energy mix of chocolate, dried fruit and oats donated by the prisoners from their Red Cross parcels.
When they were discovered they decided the best they could do was to stop The Mixture falling into enemy hands.
They were eventually hauled out with chocolate-covered faces and given two weeks to digest, locked up in solitary confinement in ‘the cooler’ .
Though Ash was usually swiftly recaptured, his numerous escape attempts won him the admiration of his fellow prisoners, and it was as a tunneller that he found his true vocation.
On one occasion, after he had been sent to a camp for recidivist escapees in Poland, he and a Canadian pilot led an escape bid involving the digging of a tunnel extending several hundred yards from under a stinking latrine to beyond the camp perimeter.
They managed to break out, leading the way for 30 other prisoners, but all were eventually recaptured and Ash was returned to Stalag Luft III.
On another occasion Ash staged a daring climb in broad daylight over two barbed-wire fences between machine-gun towers to reach a neighbouring compound where a group of prisoners were being shipped off to a new camp in Lithuania, which Ash thought might offer better prospects for escape.
When he got there, he helped to dig another long tunnel and this time made it all the way to the Baltic coast. There he found a boat, but was too weak from hunger and exhaustion to drag it down the beach alone .
He spotted some civilians digging a cabbage patch nearby and tried to enlist their help – only to discover that they were off-duty German soldiers.
He swiftly found himself back in Stalag Luft III.
Ash was still in the cooler when his comrades made the great tunnel bid that became known as ‘The Great Escape’, but he was released in time to hear that many of his closest fellow would-be escapees had been shot on capture on the direct orders of Hitler.
He finally escaped in the dying days of the war in Europe in 1945 when, after a long forced march in the snow, he walked through a battlefield to freedom.
Back in Britain Ash was appointed MBE, awarded British citizenship and went up to Balliol College, Oxford, on a veteran’s scholarship, to read PPE.
He then joined the BBC, working alongside a young Tony Benn, who became a lifelong friend.
Sent to India as the Corporation’s main representative on the subcontinent, he was influenced by Nehru’s brand of socialism, and by the time he returned to Britain in the late 1950s his politics had solidified into a hard-boiled Marxism.
He became involved in Left-wing ‘street politics’, including the post-war anti-fascist movement, but his late-blooming revolutionary tendencies eventually proved too much for the BBC, which fired him – though he managed to cling on to freelance employment in the Radio drama department as a script reader.
Beginning in the 1960s, Ash wrote a series of novels, including Choice of Arms and Ride a Paper Tiger. Politics, however, remained his chief interest.
Finding him too quirky and individualistic, the Communist Party rejected his application for membership, and he co-founded the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).
He also brought his academic background to bear on the subject, publishing a study entitled Marxist Morality .
In later life Ash served for several years as chairman of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and helped to encourage young writers through his work as a script reader for BBC Radio and later as literary manager at the Soho Poly theatre.
His book How to Write Radio Drama remained the best on the subject for more than 20 years.
In 2005 Ash’s wartime memoir ‘Under the Wire’ (written with Brendan Foley) became a bestseller and enabled him to enjoy, at the age of nearly 90, some late-found celebrity.
Bill Ash’s first marriage, to Patricia Rambault, was dissolved.
He is survived by his second wife, Ranjana Sidhanta Ash, freelance lecturer and writer of South Asian literatures and by the son and daughter of his first marriage, Juliet and Francis.
Further details: P/O. ‘Tex’ William Franklin Ash RCAF
Age 25 PoW. Stalag Luft Sagan and Belaria
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard of the Spixworthonian Language School.