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.