[Marxism] William Ash, R.I.P.

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sun May 11 13:59:35 MDT 2014

Outside of the fact that he was successively a hobo, an RCAF pilot in WW II, a POW who escaped from prison, a BBC staffer and writer, a Communist activist and writer, and a figure in Britain's Maoist sectarian circles, the poor guy led a dull uneventful life.

Jim Farmelant


William Ash, Danger-Loving Escape Artist, Dies at 96

William Ash in England in 1941 as a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot. He likened being recaptured to "being sent back to Go."  

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 Resistance. His plan was to go to Spain, then on 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 Mr. Ash write his autobiography, published in 2005, and confirmed his death, on April 26 in London at the age of 96.

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 P.O.W. camp to another in Germany, Poland and Lithuania. It was in the camps that 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 tunneled through a latrine. He was always recaptured.

Mr. 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, like two-thirds of the 76 prisoners who participated in the mass breakout in March 1944 that inspired the 1963 movie “The Great Escape.”

Mr. Ash was not among the 76, though at the time he was in the same prison 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 brash American played by Steve McQueen in the movie, often landed.

Some have suggested that Mr. Ash’s escape record made him a likely model for Hilts. “If I was, no one told me,” Mr. Ash wrote in his memoir, “Under the Wire: The World War II Adventures of a Legendary Escape Artist and ‘Cooler King.’ ”

John Sturges, the director of the film, said the characters were fictional composites.

William Franklin Ash’s exceedingly full life began on Nov. 30, 1917, in Dallas. His father was an unsuccessful ladies’ hat salesman. As a boy on vacation in New Mexico, he listened raptly as George Coe, an accomplice of Billy the Kid, told tales, brandishing the hand whose trigger finger had been shot off.

(Mr. Foley insisted that he had documented this and other claims by Mr. Ash. “Every time I researched an event, Bill had, if anything, played down his part,” he said in an interview.)

As a boy Mr. Ash worked at enough odd jobs to amass $200 in savings by the time he was 12 (equal to about $2,760 today), then lost it all that year in the 1929 stock market crash. Forever after he called himself “a ruined tycoon.”

Mr. Ash graduated with honors from the University of Texas, then wandered as a hobo, bouncing from boxcar to boxcar, job to job. He worked at a bank operating an elevator. (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 Hitler. (The United States was neutral at the time.) Reaching Detroit in early 1940, he walked across the Ambassador Bridge to Canada to enlist, giving up his American citizenship.

He found he loved to fly, a delight that ended abruptly when six German fighters shot him down near Calais on France’s northern coast.

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.

“If he saw a big red button,” Mr. Foley said, “he had to push it.”

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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. 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 Maoist party.

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

Mr. 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 P.O.W. named Don Fair, who was being transferred to Stalag Luft VI, a camp near Heydekrug (now Silute), Lithuania. Mr. Ash sought the switch 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. Mr. Ash went to Lithuania with Mr. Fair’s ID papers. The real Mr. Fair, a New Zealander, remained in the camp under Mr. Ash’s name.

After escaping from the Lithuanian prison, Mr. 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 American 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.”

Mr. Ash returned to the cooler.

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