Second world war Spitfire pilot and PoW who was an inspiration for Steve McQueen's character in The Great Escape
Bill Ash was a Spitfire pilot shot down over occupied France in 1942 who went on to make numerous escapes from German PoW camps. Bill, who has died aged 96, had three spells in Stalag Luft III and was one of the inspirations for Steve McQueen's character, the "cooler king", in the 1963 film The Great Escape. After the war, he went on to represent the BBC in India, co-found a political party, write several novels and mentor a generation of theatre and radio writers.
Bill was born in Dallas, Texas. His family was genteel but poor – "not so much white collar as frayed collar," he recalled. As a boy he stacked shelves and later, while working at a local newspaper office, saw the bullet-riddled bodies of the outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. When he was 12, a family friend persuaded him to take the $200 he had saved up for a college education and invest it in stocks and shares. The 1929 stock market crash came a week later. It was that loss, Bill said, that put him on a collision course with capitalism.
He still worked – and starved – his way through the University of Texas at Austin, and graduated with honours in liberal arts. Emerging into the Depression years, he took to the road. He shared what little he had with other midwest hobos and became a handy boxer. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Bill's travels had taken him to Detroit. He made his way to Canada, enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and lost his US citizenship. "I tried to explain that I was not so much for King George as against Hitler," he said, "but they didn't seem to care much at the time."
He arrived in Britain in 1941, and flew Spitfires with 411 Squadron, providing cover for Channel shipping and escorting bombers attacking the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as the battlecruisers made their daylight dash up the Channel. Bill had temporarily metamorphosed into "Tex" for US-targeted publicity drives. Once, back from a sortie, he found a portly gentleman being helped on to the wing of his Spitfire. Flashbulbs popped. His gladhanding visitor was the Canadian prime minister, Mackenzie King.
One day in spring 1942, over the Pas-de-Calais, Bill's plane was jumped by half a dozen Focke-Wulf 190s. After his crash landing, members of the resistance helped him get to Paris where, instead of hiding, he visited galleries as if he were a tourist. The Gestapo caught up with him and he was beaten and tortured at Fresnes prison and threatened with being shot as a spy, unless he provided "just one name" of a French person who had helped him. His captors were delighted when he gave a name, until they realised that he had shopped his French teacher in Texas.
At Stalag Luft III (in Silesia, now part of Poland), he became firm friends with the Battle of Britain veteran Paddy Barthropp. Their first escape attempt entailed hiding in a shower drain. Two weeks' solitary confinement on bread and water followed. This was the first of many trips to the "cooler" for Bill, in many PoW camps. Bill's escapes became famous – he went over the wire, through it with cutters, and out of the gates disguised as a Russian labourer, but it was as a tunneller that he found his vocation.
As punishment, he was sent to a camp in Schubin, Poland, where he and a Canadian pilot, Eddy Asselin, started under a stinking latrine, a tunnel that extended several hundred yards. They got around 30 prisoners out, and fled across country while thousands of troops and civilians searched for them. All escapers were eventually recaptured and Bill was sent back to Stalag Luft III. It was "a bit like being sent back to Go when playing Monopoly," he said, "only with more bruises".
Once, Bill climbed in daylight over two machine gun-covered barbed-wire fences to reach a compound where a group of PoWs was being shipped off to a camp in Lithuania with better escape prospects. Once there, he tunnelled out, and made it to the Baltic coast. He found a boat, but was too exhausted to drag it down the beach. He tried to enlist help from some civilians digging a cabbage patch – but they turned out to be off-duty German soldiers.
He was still in the cooler at Stalag Luft III when 76 of his comrades made the "great escape" in March 1944. He was horrified to learn that many of his friends had subsequently been shot on Hitler's orders. In 1945, after a long forced march in the snow, Bill walked to freedom across a battlefield.
Back in London he was appointed MBE, became a British citizen and studied politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford, on a veteran's scholarship. In 1946, he married Patricia Rambault, a Wren. She had written to Bill regularly when he was a PoW.
In the early 50s, Bill joined the BBC, where his colleagues included Tony Benn, who became a lifelong friend. Bill became head of the BBC's Indian operations, but as his career briefly flourished, his marriage crumbled. Towards the end of the 50s he married Ranjana Sidhanta, a leftwing academic.
India changed him and, back in Britain in the late 1950s, his politics solidified into Marxism. This disturbed the BBC and by the 60s his work for the corporation had dwindled, though he continued to work as a freelance radio script reader. In the late 60s, after his application to join the Communist party of Great Britain was rejected, he became a co-founder, alongside the trade unionist Reg Birch, of the Communist party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Throughout the 1970s he edited its paper.
Bill's books included the novels The Lotus in the Sky (1961), Choice of Arms (1962), The Longest Way Round (1963, described by Anthony Burgess as the work of "a very considerable novelist"), Ride a Paper Tiger (1968) and Take-Off (1969). In 1988, he published Marxist Morality. "As far as I'm concerned, anyone who is one pay cheque ahead of disaster is working class," he said.
In the 70s and 80s, he chaired the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. He encouraged a new generation of writers through his work at the BBC and, later, as literary manager at the Soho Poly theatre in central London (now the Soho theatre). His 1985 book The Way to Write Radio Drama is a standard text.
In 2005, Under the Wire, an account of his wartime exploits that we worked together on was published. Every time I researched a half-remembered adventure, the truth turned out to be even more amazing, and usually Bill had played down his own role. He was delighted with his late fame and particularly enjoyed appearing on Radio 4's Midweek back at the corporation that had worked so hard to eject him. What, he was asked, was the secret of his eventual success? "Easy," replied the tunnel king. "All you have to do is dig a hole and wait 60 years."
Bill is survived by Ranjana; by Juliet and Francis, the children of his first marriage; by his grandchildren, Jesse, Simon, Annie, Georges and Lamorna; and by two great-grandchildren, Ira and Amber.
William Franklin Ash, fighter pilot, writer and activist, born 30 November 1917; died 26 April 2014