The Gay 'English Patient' The True Story of Desert Explorer Laszlo Almasy

During World War II, desert explorer Laszlo Almasy smuggled Nazi agents through the Sahara on an epic journey behind enemy lines. Now the true story of the man depicted in "The English Patient," is coming to light.

As a boy, the son of a Hungarian nobleman would often stare off into the distance from his birthplace, a castle in the Burgenland region of present-day Austria. He always longed for the unattainable.

At 14, the boy built himself a glider to fly up to the sky, but it crashed.

Then, in the 1930s, Laszlo Almasy set out to find the lost oasis of Zarzura. The mythical place is mentioned in Arabian treasure books and in the collection of stories known as "One Thousand and One Nights," where it is referred to as "City of Brass."

The pioneer explored 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles) of the Sahara. He surveyed the land, drew maps and set foot in places in that sea of sand "that no human eye had seen." In the remote Wadi Sura, he even stumbled upon painted dugouts from the Stone Age -- a sensational find.

But he never found Zarzura.

There is no question that Almasy was a man who followed his desires. But who was this adventurer, flight instructor and Nazi agent, who the Bedouins reverently called Abu Ramla, or Father of the Sand?

Hollywood's Distorted Melodrama

Almasy's diaries have disappeared. Reports he wrote for the German spy network were captured by the British and are now under lock and key at the Imperial War Museum in London.

The monument Hollywood erected to him presents a distorted image. The Almasy depicted in the melodrama "The English Patient," dies of a morphine overdose, a hero who had had his heart broken by a woman and was determined to die.

In reality, the explorer died of amebic dysentery in 1951. And he had little interest in women.

Love letters have now been found among the documents he left behind. Almásy, a member of the German Africa Corps, wrote them to a young soldier named Hans.

The Heinrich Barth Institute for African Studies in Cologne also has intimate correspondence penned by the gay sandman, but it is unwilling to publish the letters. A staff member does reveal, however: "Egyptian princes were among Almasy's lovers."

New details have also emerged about his most daring deed. In 1942, Almásy smuggled German agents into British-occupied Egypt in a venture known as "Operation Salam." To complete the journey, he drove 4,200 kilometers through the eastern Sahara. A report on his wartime experiences in Africa, which Almásy wrote in Hungarian, has now been published in German for the first time.

An Epic Journey

According to the account, Almasy worked for the "Brandenburg Division," a notorious unit of the German foreign military intelligence agency that carried out acts of sabotage behind enemy lines. He was soon given a delicate mission: To smuggle spies overland to the Nile.

The journey began in May 1942, when the group left the Jalo oasis in two stolen US trucks and two Chevrolets. First they wanted to push forward directly to the east, through the most impassable terrain. However, they encountered a dead zone of quicksand and blazing salt flats. The vehicles kept sinking into the sand, and when two of the drivers became sick with diarrhea, the group decided to turn around.

In the second attempt, a few days later, the convoy of smuggled agents drove deep into the Libyan hinterlands, only turning toward the Nile near Kufra in southeastern Libya. "The terrain is terrible," Almásy noted.

At one point, the group came within sight of the British. "I am observing the enemy through my binoculars," Almasy wrote. "They are praying." After that, he boldly emptied the enemy's gasoline tanks.

After a difficult journey, the group finally reached railroad tracks near the Egyptian city of Asyut. The spies, Hans Eppler and Peter Stanstede, jumped off and made their way to Cairo, where they went underground in the city's red-light district. They hid their radio transmitters in the cocktail bar of a riverboat on the Nile.

How could this epic journey have succeeded? It is known that Almásy had a depot set up where fuel, food and water for the return trip were kept. He described the site as a "deep cave in a cliff, a real thieves' nest."

There had been many attempts over the years to find this hiding place and now an Austrian expedition has finally discovered it in southern Egypt.

Daring Military Operation

The Austrians found dusty car batteries and inner tubes in the cavern, as well as Wehrmacht gasoline canisters, bottles of schnapps and "two cans of corned beef from Brazil and one can of condensed milk," says archaeologist Kathrin Kleibl.

A mundane as the material is, it represents one of the most daring military operations behind British lines. Almasy was brilliant as a desert trapper, even though he was on the wrong side during the war.

The undercover mission itself never did much damage. The German agents transmitted information from Cairo for several weeks, but then their transmitter broke down. It was none other than Egypt's future president, Anwar al-Sadat, part of the resistance movement against the British occupation at the time, who hurried over to repair the transmitter.

But Sadat quickly realized that there was something odd about the situation. In his memoirs, he wrote that the spies had deliberately dismantled their transmitter so that they could enjoy themselves, undisturbed, with "two Jewish prostitutes."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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