Bill Ash, World War II pilot known for many attempts to escape captivity, dead at 96

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Bill Ash, a Texas-born fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, who was shot down over France and made more than a dozen daring efforts to escape from German prisoner-of-war camps during World War II, died April 26 in London. He was 96.

Brendan Foley, the co-author of Ash's 2005 autobiography, "Under the Wire," confirmed the death. Ash had been in declining health for several years.

Never one to shy from adventure, Ash rode the rails as a hobo during the Great Depression, served in India as a BBC correspondent in the 1950s and later become an avowed Marxist, leading leftist groups in England, where he spent most of his adult life.

But he was best known for his remarkable exploits during World War II after he crash-landed his British-built Spitfire fighter in 1942 after a dogfight with German planes over France. Tortured by the German Gestapo and marked for execution, Ash was spared the firing squad when he was transferred to a high-security prison camp in Germany.

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He made 13 escape attempts during his three years in captivity and was able to get beyond the perimeter of his prison camps half a dozen times. But, until his final escape attempt in the waning days of the war, he was always recaptured. Invariably, he would be transported back to camp, where he was locked in "the cooler," or solitary isolation cell.

. In 1944, the camp was the site of the largest mass escape of Allied prisoners during World War II, the so-called "Great Escape," which was depicted in a 1963 film of the same name. Many people suggested that Ash was the inspiration for the leading character in the movie, played by Steve McQueen, but he always denied it --

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