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Alain Le Ray, 96; Resistance leader, one of few to escape Colditz Castle

June 08, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Alain Le Ray, a French general and World War II Resistance leader who was the first man to escape from a notorious Nazi prison, died Monday, his family announced. A cause of death was not given. He was 96.

Le Ray, then a lieutenant in the French army, was captured after the German invasion of France in 1940. He was interned in Colditz Castle, which the Nazis had turned into a maximum-security prison camp 90 miles south of Berlin.

He was the first of 18 Allied officers to get away successfully from Colditz, which the Nazis had touted as escape-proof. His exploits were recounted in his 1976 book, "Premiere a Colditz," or "First in Colditz."

On Good Friday in 1941, Le Ray leaped into an old park building as the prisoners marched up a hill after playing soccer.

"I was sure they would see me, but there were no shouts, no chase, no dogs," Le Ray told the London Daily Mail in 2001.

With homemade civilian clothes under his uniform, he waited until after dark, climbed over a wall and escaped into the woods. Equipped with a map of the German railway system that a British prisoner helped compile, Le Ray made his way to Switzerland.

An accomplished mountaineer, Le Ray returned to France and became one of the leaders of the Resistance in the Alpine region of Vercors. After the Allied invasion of France, he resumed his conventional military career and fought in colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria.

Le Ray was named general in 1968, two years before he retired.

French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie called Le Ray a "man of conviction and commitment" who "devoted his life to the fight for freedom and embodied the spirit of Resistance."

Pierre Fugain, a fellow Resistance member who served under him in Vercors, said Le Ray was "an excessively courageous man, always a step ahead of others."

He praised Le Ray's organizational and leadership skills at Vercors, noting that he "knew how to bring together these guys with different ambitions and ideas."

Survivors include Le Ray's wife, Luce, the daughter of noted French writer Francois Mauriac.

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