Friday, November 03, 2017

Born Today in 1895: Real 'English Patient,' László Almásy

László Ede Almásy de Zsadány et Törökszentmiklós was born today, November 3, in 1895.  He served as the basis for the protagonist in Michael Ondaatje's novel, The English Patient and the subsequent film of the same name. Almásy actually was a gay Hungarian aristocrat, motorist, desert explorer, aviator, and sportsman.

Letters discovered in 2010 in Germany written by Almásy prove that, unlike the fictionalized character of the film, The English Patient, he was gay. His lover during World War II was a young soldier named Hans Entholt, who was an officer in the Wehrmacht and who was killed by stepping on a landmine. The letters also confirmed that others, including Egyptian princes, were among Almásy's lovers.
László Almásy with Nándor Zichy
at Mátyásföld Airport, Budapest 1931

Almásy was born in what today is Bernstein im Burgenland, Austria.

During World War I, Almásy saw action against the Serbians, and then the Russians on the Eastern Front. In 1916, he transferred to the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops. After being shot down over Northern Italy in March 1918, Almásy saw out the remainder of the war as a flight instructor.

After the war, he returned to Hungary and became the personal secretary of the Bishop of Szombathely, János Mikes, one of the leading figures of the abortive post-war Habsburg restoration attempt. The young Almásy became involved in these events by accident as the driver of Bishop Mikes when King Karl IV of Hungary returned to Hungary in 1921 to claim the throne, and was helped by Mikes to reach Budapest (from where he was politely but firmly sent back to Austria by Miklós Horthy, the Regent of Hungary). 

After he was introduced, the King continued to refer to him as "Count Almásy," confusing László with another branch of the family. This was the basis for Almásy using the title to his advantage, mostly in Egypt among the Egyptian Royalty to open doors that would have remained closed to a commoner. However, he himself admitted in private conversations that the title was not legitimate.

After 1921, Almásy worked as a representative of the Austrian car firm Steyr Automobile and won many car races in the Steyr colours. He managed to persuade a wealthy friend, Prince Antal Eszterházy, to join him in driving a Steyr from Alexandria to Khartoum, before embarking on a hunting expedition to the Dinder River, a feat which had never before been accomplished by an ordinary automobile.

The 1926 drive from Egypt to the Sudan along the Nile proved to be the turning point in his life. Almásy developed an interest in the area and later returned there to drive and hunt. He also demonstrated Steyr vehicles in desert conditions in 1929 with two Steyr lorries and led his first expedition to the desert. 

During the 1930s, Almásy embarked on a series expedition exploring the Libyan Desert to find the legendary Zerzura, "The Oasis of the Birds." 

In 1931 Almásy made arrangements for an expedition to Uweinat and northern Sudan on what was planned to be the first exploration of the Libyan Desert by aeroplane. He was accompanied by Count Nándor Zichy. They took off from Mátyásföld Airport Budapest on August 21st in a  plane that had been purchased by Zichy in England a few weeks earlier. Four days later they crashed in a storm near Aleppo. Both survived with scratches only, but the aircraft was a total wreck. The Syrian papers reported them dead.

Almásy and his group eventually succeeded in their exploration of Zerzura.  They also succeeded in entering Wadi Talh, (the third valley of Zerzure), and discovered the prehistoric rock paintings of Ain Dua at Jebel Uweinat.

After the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Almásy returned to Hungary. The British suspected that he was a spy for the Italians — and vice versa. However, there is no evidence to suggest that he was involved in any clandestine intelligence gathering prior to the War.

As a Hungarian reserve officer, Almásy wore the uniform of  the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. Initially he was working on maps and country descriptions, then he was assigned to an Abwehr commando in Libya under the command of Major Nikolaus Ritter, using his aviation and desert experience in various missions. After the failure of Plan el Masri and the first Operation Condor to airdrop two German spies into Egypt (ending with the ditching of one of the two aircraft and the injury of Ritter), Almásy assumed command of the unit.

Almásy's greatest achievement during his wartime stay in North Africa was the successful completion of Operation Salam, the infiltration of two German spies through the Libyan Desert behind enemy lines.

After the war, as the Communists took over in Hungary, Almásy was arrested for alleged war crimes and treason for joining the armed forces of a foreign power. The charge was based mainly on a wartime book he wrote. However, during the trial it emerged that neither the prosecutor nor the judge had read the book, as it was placed on the banned books list by the Soviet occupation forces. Eventually Almásy was acquitted, with the help of some influential friends.

Almásy became ill in 1951 during a visit in Austria. On March 22, he died of complications induced by amoebic dysentery—contracted during a trip to Mozambique the previous year—in a hospital in Salzburg, where he was then buried. 

Almásy remained a little-known desert explorer until 1997, when he (or rather his fictitious character) was thrown into the limelight by the Academy Award-winning film The English Patient. While the storyline is pure fiction, the story is based on some of the the expeditions of the real Almásy into the Libyan Desert. The hype created around the movie helped uncover many details about Almásy's life, but also resulted in a huge volume of inaccurate or outright untrue claims, mostly related to his World War II activities, which continue to circulate. 

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