Sunday, December 12, 2010


Almasy with is Afrika Korps uniform. Note the Iron Cross
Count Laszlo Almasy was the most compelling of all in that mysterious time and place; it is his story that inspired Michael Ondaatje's romantic novel, and the subsequent film, The English Patient.
He was a pionnier of the desert's exploration, and was hired by Rommel in 1941. He was given the rank of Luftwaffe Hauptmann, though he was not german, but hungarian. He was at the head of a special unit. His most famous action was the Operation Salaam, which took place in 1942.

The new history of the desert war uncovers the full story. When the Hungarian arrived in North Africa in 1926 he was 31 and penniless, a bitter survivor of World War I in which he had served with the defeated Austro-Hungarian air force.

In North Africa, the count's only asset was a connection with some wealthy Egyptian princelings whom he had met on shooting parties in Hungary. They were keen to enjoy some hunting and adventure in the desert to the south of their country, and turned to the veteran pilot for help. Silent film of Almasy's first adventure into the desert shows a giraffe-like man with a slight stoop and a very long nose. He is no screen idol. As he pitches camp wearing baggy shorts he looks about as dangerous as a boy scout who has lost his penknife.

Laszlo Almasy was born at a castle in what is now Bernstein in eastern Austria but in 1895 was part of Hungary. Like the sons of many well-to-do Hungarian families at the time, he was sent to an English school. He showed an early aptitude for flying, and by the age of 20 he was a pilot in the Austro-Hungarian air force. Always ready for an escapade and disappointed at the disappearance of the empire, the count drove Karl, the grand-nephew of Emperor Franz Josef, into Budapest in 1921 in an attempt to restore the monarchy. It seems that Karl gave Almasy the title of count, which, because it was not an authentic hereditary title, Almasy used only abroad.

The real Almasy was a far cry from the character portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in the film based on Michael Ondaatje's novel, a dashing explorer who falls in love with another man's wife while working with the Royal Geographical Society in North Africa, and who helps the Nazis only as a way to be united with his love.

In real life he was an intrepid explorer, but he was also a homosexual who wrote passionate letters to a young German officer he tried to help avoid going to the Russian front. And he was a monarchist, obsessed with the idea of returning the Hapsburgs to the throne even when it was clear the empire was beyond redemption. Apparently, the count's sexual adventures were common gossip in Cairo, and they were not of a kind to threaten anyone's wife.

The research into the real Almasy shows a man who was willing to work for whoever suited him at the moment.
But even then, Almasy was passing his hand-drawn maps to grateful officers of Mussolini's army in Libya. By 1940, he was fully involved with the Abwehr - German military intelligence - and proposed a plan directly to its chief in Berlin to provoke an uprising in British-occupied Egypt, led by a local pasha who was one of his pre-war contacts. The plan came to nothing when the pasha crashed his plane into a palm tree as he headed to Germany for his briefing.

By the summer of 1942, Rommel's Afrika Korps was pushing to within hours of Cairo, and the count seized his chance to impress with his boldest plan yet. He would motor with a small convoy 3370 kilometres across the great desert from Libya, entirely through enemy territory, using his own sketch maps. When he reached the Nile he would drop off two agents, then head back the same way. He achieved this stupendous feat of endurance, and Rommel personally promoted him to the rank of major.

This guy was germano-egyptian. He was one of the spies Almasy released after a 900 kms trip behind ennemy lines in 1942, through the Gilf Kebir (Lybia) he discovered during the Thirties. He abandonned his car in Assiut: it is still there. The tracks dating back to the thirties are also still visible. (Maybe Hans Eppler?)
Awarded the rank of major of the Luftwaffe, the count made a number of audacious raids. Driving a captured British Ford car through British lines in the North African desert, he traveled nearly 2,000 desert miles, relying on water holes he knew from his expeditions in the 1930s, to take the infamous German spy, Hans Eppler, to an oasis near Cairo.

Almasy survived the desert campaigns and continued to work for the Abwehr in Turkey, until he sensed he was again on the losing side of a world war. This time he fed his secrets to the British. Even so, when the war ended, he was sent by the Allies to Hungary and imprisoned in a Russian camp. He escaped with the help of friends in the Egyptian royal family, and was bundled into an aeroplane bound for Cairo. In real life, the "English patient" was never shot down, burnt or captured in the desert.

In a mission code named Operation Condor, Eppler was then able to set up a German intelligence headquarters on a houseboat on the Nile.

The count also made two daring though unsuccessful attempts to get the pro-German head of the Egyptian army, Masri Pasha, out of Egypt so that the pasha could help Rommel take Egypt.

Camping site at the foot hills of the Gilf Kebir Plateau. Trip continues in direction of the Egyptian oasis. Although camouflaged, the German beam cross and other tactical symbols are visible on the car doors.
And his discovery of the Wadi Zerzura? "It was just a fantasy. There never was an Oasis of the Birds," says the brigadier, and quotes from a book written by Bagnold after the war: "I like to think of Zerzura as an idea for which we have no apt word in English, meaning something waiting to be discovered in some out-of-the-way place. As long as any part of the world remains uninhabited, Zerzura will be there."

Almasy died in 1951, of dysentery in a Salzburg sanatorium. He was 54. His tombstone in the local cemetery was inscribed in Arabic, "The Father of the Sands", a title coined before the war by an old camel-rustler. He was given a less grandiose epitaph by a British member of the Zerzura Club: "A Nazi but a sportsman."

About 80 of Almasy's passionate letters to the young German army officer are now in the possession of Kurt Mayer, an Austrian filmmaker who recently completed a documentary based on film of one of Almasy's expeditions, a seven-month trek by car in 1929 from Mombasa in Kenya through the swamps and desert of Sudan to Alexandria.

Uwaynat in southwestern Egypt is the location of the ‘Cave of the Swimmers’, the famous cave paintings discovered by Laszlo Almasy in the middle of the western desert. The images, which are found in a region completely devoid of water, curiously depict characters swimming. This cave featured prominently in the film The English Patient.


  1. Curious about the comment regarding the car that was left behind and the fact that it is still there - any more info on that?

  2. I don't know... I receive that information, but I never confirm that...

  3. Was reading about the Cave of Swimmers and considering a visit. Saw Almasy's name and googled him Thank you for this information!

  4. car was recoovered a couple of days after return to gialo