While Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient and the subsequent Oscar-winning film rescued his name from obscurity, both took liberties with the truth to cast “Count Ladislaus de Almasy” as a romantic hero whose love for another man’s wife sealed their fates and left him dying of burns in an Italian villa. The real story is rather different – not least because he was, in fact, gay.
Born in 1895, in Hungary, László Ede Almássy learned to fly while at boarding school in England. During World War I he was a fighter ace and then an aide to the last Habsburg monarch (who once mistakenly called him “Count” – a title that stuck), serving as his driver during two farcical attempts to regain the throne in 1921. Almássy then became a salesman for the off-road-car manufacturers Steyr, for whom he won many races, and in 1926 took Steyrs into the desert on the first of his numerous Sahara expeditions, about which he wrote several books. The Bedouin called him Abu Ramleh – Father of the Sands.
In 1932 he initiated the Zerzura Expedition, with co-explorers Lord Robert and Lady Dorothy Clayton-East-Clayton (the fictional Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton), the Irish desert surveyor Patrick Clayton (no relation) and Squadron Leader Godfrey Penderel. Unlike in fiction, Lord Clayton died of a sudden illness back home, and although his widow returned to the desert to continue searching for Zerzura, she didn’t meet Almássy again or share his discovery of the Cave of Swimmers – nor did she perish there in 1939, but rather in a fall from her plane in England six years earlier. Thus the motive for Almássy’s collaboration with the Germans in The English Patient is pure invention.
As a reserve officer in the Hungarian air force (allied to Nazi Germany), he could hardly refuse being posted to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which used his expertise as a spotter and his photos for their official handbook – to the fury of his old companions in Egypt, many of whom were now in the LRDG. Thanks to the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, the British knew of Almássy’s infiltration of two German spies into Egypt, whom he guided through the Gilf to Kharga Oasis in 1941.
He later made amends by visiting Patrick Clayton in an Italian POW camp and getting him moved to a better one. Almássy himself wound up in a Soviet camp where he lost his teeth from scurvy, before a People’s Court cleared him of being a Nazi sympathizer after testimony that he had sheltered Jewish neighbours in his flat in Budapest. His final years were spent in Africa, where he flew gliders and ran safaris. After catching dysentery in Egypt, he died in a clinic in Salzburg in 1951.