PARIS -- General Alain Le Ray, a World War II Resistance leader whose escape from a notorious Nazi prison forged his image and career, has died at the age of 96, his family said yesterday.
General Le Ray, who died Monday, fought in colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria.
Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie called General Le Ray a "man of conviction and commitment" who "devoted his life to the fight for freedom."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said General Le Ray "incarnated the highest French military values." He "leaves for current and future generations a grand lesson of dignity and of courage," the French leader said in a statement.
The career officer was captured in June 1940 and became the first to escape from the infamous Colditz prison in Germany less than a year later. The Nazis had touted the prison as escape-proof, and his exploits were recounted in the 1976 book "Premiere a Colditz" -- "First in Colditz."
Back in France, General Le Ray entered the Resistance, and the expert mountain climber helped in an operation in the Alpine region of Vercors, becoming the first military chief of the Vercors network in May 1943.
General Le Ray rose within the Resistance to commander of the French Forces of the Interior in the Alpine Isère region. In 1945, his forces moved to Mount Cenis, where they forced the Germans from their last mountain strongholds in France . He organized the liberation of the Isère area with Allied forces.
He later was named a lieutenant-colonel, taking part in the 1953-54 Indochina campaign.
From 1956 to 1958, General Le Ray served as chief of staff of the paratrooper division in Algeria, the North African colony also waging an independence war. He then was named military attaché in Bonn. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1961, and a year later he was made commander of the 27th Alpin e Division in Algeria.
He was named general in 1968, two years before retiring.
"He was an excessively courageous man, always a step ahead of others," said fellow Resistance member Pierre Fugain, who served under General Le Ray at Vercors.
He praised General Le Ray's organizational and leadership skills at Vercors, noting that he "knew how to bring together these guys with different ambitions and ideas."
General Le Ray leaves his wife, Luce, the daughter of famed French writer Francois Mauriac. A religious ceremony is planned for Monday at Saint-Louis Cathedral at the Invalides, site of Napoleon's tomb, with burial the following day.