The Cooler King
Patrick Bishop on why William Ash, spitfire pilot, PoW and WW2's greatest escaper, was different
Writing history involves delving into character and making judgements on human nature. Sometimes research tends to temper respect as a hero’s human failings become apparent. When I set out to write the life of William Ash, Spitfire pilot and escaper extraordinaire, I had the opposite experience. Bill Ash was a truly inspirational figure whose physical bravery was matched by his moral courage.
He is said to have been the model for Captain Virgil Hilts, the lean, leather-jacketed American flier in the movie The Great Escape, played by Steve McQueen. Ash, whose, many virtues included modesty, never endorsed the claim.
He was however every bit as dashing as the fictional character. Ash, who grew up in Depression hit Texas, tired of waiting for America to join the war and crossed the border to sign up with the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was a fighter pilot in Britain until being shot down over northern France in March 1942. For the rest of the war he was in a succession of prisoner of war camps and devoted all his time to trying to break out of them.
His feats – such as planning a mass break out from a camp in Poland via a tunnel dug underneath the prisoners’ toilet block – were extraordinary. But what really impressed me was his decency, cheerfulness and generosity. Bill witnessed the worst of human nature but he preferred to dwell on its noble aspects. He was beaten, sentenced to death and locked up in solitary confinement in the ‘cooler’ more times than he could remember. He never lost his sense of humour or belief that people were fundamentally good and could live in harmony if only politicians would let them.
His experiences made him a convinced Communist. Politics were no bar to friendship however. One of his closest buddies was Paddy Barthropp, another fighter pilot and PoW. In some ways they could not have been more different. Paddy came from a privileged background and was hardly a man of the Left. What they shared was a great generosity of spirit and sense of the absurd which carried them through several failed escape bids. They remained close to the end, sharing laughter and reminiscences and mutual leg-pulling – Paddy found it endlessly amusing that Bill’s address in London was Moscow Road in Bayswater.
It was uplifting to learn that Bill’s faith in human nature was constantly rewarded. At every stage of his wartime career he was the beneficiary of the selflessness of ordinary people. After he was shot down he was sheltered by French men and women who risked death to protect him. So too did the Poles who aided his escape bids from PoW camps. Human folly is often a large ingredient in military history. In writing The Cooler King it was nice to be able to also celebrate human nobility.
The true wartime story of William Ash - the inspiration for Steve McQueen's character in The Great Escape. A thrilling tale of incredible courage and resilience, from one of Britain's bestselling military historians.