LONDON (AP) _ Group Capt. Peter Townsend, the dashing World War II fighter pilot who loved and lost Princess Margaret, has died after more than 30 years of self-imposed exile. He was 80.

Buckingham Palace on Tuesday announced the death of Townsend, an equerry to Margaret's father, King George VI, and later to her sister, Queen Elizabeth II, and said the princess ``was sad to learn of this news.''

Townsend left Britain after Margaret, bowing to a disapproving establishment, told the nation on Oct. 31, 1955, she had decided not to marry him because he was divorced.

He died late Monday in France, where he lived 30 miles outside Paris with his Belgian second wife, Marie-Luce Jamagne.

The romance between Townsend and the young princess, 16 years his junior, became public in 1953. It was a year after his divorce and the year Elizabeth was crowned monarch and temporal head of the Church of England, which frowns on divorce.

Amid a furor which reverberated through Britain and its Commonwealth of former colonies, the much-decorated war ace was banished from the palace on the advice of Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill to a diplomatic post in Brussels.

But the romance survived until 1955 when Margaret, then aged 25 and third in line to the throne, made her final decision. They had known each other since he came to palace in 1944 when she was a teenager and he was 29.

``She could have married me only if she had been prepared to give up everything _ her position, her prestige, her privy purse,'' Townsend wrote in his 1978 autobiography. ``I simply hadn't the weight, I knew it, to counterbalance all she would have lost.''

Margaret said that ``mindful of the church's teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duties to the Commonwealth, I have decided to put these considerations before any others.''

``I have reached decision entirely alone,'' she added, ``and in doing so I have been strengthened by the unfailing support and devotion of Group Capt. Townsend.'' He left the country immediately afterward.

In 1959, he married his second wife, who was then aged 20, and in 1960 the princess wed photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones. They were divorced in 1978.

Townsend reflected in later years that he had found happiness while it had apparently eluded Margaret.

On Tuesday, Margaret smiled and waved from an open, horse-drawn carriage in the procession at Royal Ascot, a four-day horse-racing meeting west of London.

In France, Townsend developed a varied career as a wine buyer, a public relations man, a Radio Luxembourg disc jockey, a United Nations advisor, and author of six books. Townsend sold his 12 war medals for $35,200 in 1988 to set up a trust fund for child war victims.

The palace said Margaret would not attend Townsend's funeral in France on Friday. The queen sent a condolence message to his widow.

Townsend is survived by his wife, by two sons from his first marriage, and by two daughters and a son from his second.