a personal memoir
László Almásy, the real 'English Patient'
By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet
László Almásy was a well known explorer of the Sahara Desert. His story was publicized most famously in the movie The English Patient, but it also appeared in several books in English and Hungarian—including Almásy's autobiography—and numerous recent media articles.
The last examples I saw were a Mar 2009 article in Aviation History (which covered only Almásy's pre-WWII explorations) and a 2001 piece in The Times of London which described him as "a gay Nazi" and "a paid British spy."
Because not everybody has seen the movie or is familiar with this story, I'll start out by summarizing the facts. Because of my personal connections, I can truly say some of those articles contained misconceptions and accusations that were not correct.
I have some advantage over the other authors here, having met the "English Patient" personally, if only briefly. László was the first cousin of Erzsébet Almásy, my father's first wife. He came around to help my brother Gene and me to evacuate her house in Budapest after a British air raid left it severely damaged.
As usual, Almásy arrived in his huge US-made convertible, which in itself was his style.
Anyway, this is the true story of the "English Patient."
A real-life adventurer
László Almásy (1895–1952) was a member of an old and respected Hungarian family. Partially educated in England, he was an aviator and flew in World War I in the Austro-Hungarian Army Air Service. In the late 1920s and early 30s, he became an explorer in the Sahara and achieved some significant discoveries, among them the biblical Zerzura Oases in the Gilf Kebir depression.
His successes were due primarily because he was the first explorer of the Sahara ever to use his own private aircraft—in this case a 1930 de Havilland DH60G Gipsy Moth (serial number 1804, UK registration G-ABDK). He was also a reserve first lieutenant in the Hungarian Air Force.
Then came WWII and (from 1941 onwards) the Germans' North African campaign led by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, nicknamed the Desert Fox. At that time, the German Army asked the Hungarian government to loan them the services of Lt Almásy.
This had nothing to do with Nazi politics—Almásy was requested as a scientist because of his intimate knowledge of the area. He himself was not a Nazi and was probably not a spy, despite the allegation in The Times. In fact, he was a rarity—a Hungarian royalist who wanted to bring back the Habsburgs.
Almásy was not particularly impressed by his duties with the Germans, since they used him basically as a chauffeur. On 2 occasions, dressed in a British Army uniform and speaking perfect English, he drove a British military vehicle into Cairo, using the backroads known only to him and some Arabs, to transport German spies in and out of Egypt. When Rommel had been driven out of North Africa by the Allies, Almásy returned to Hungary.
After the war, in recognition of his expertise, the Egyptian government invited him to Cairo to take over management of the Sahara Institute. It was while he was there that he contracted a tropical disease. He was flown aboard an Egyptian government aircraft to Salzburg, Austria, where he died in hospital in 1952.
In 1989, after the communist regime in Hungary had been overthrown, the Hungarian Air Force erected a monument over Almásy's grave. He was also honored by a Hungarian postage stamp and a statue in Budapest.
And now the movie version
Hollywood started out with The English Patient—a novel by Michael Ondaatje, based loosely on the life of Almásy. The movie, in effect, uses the name of an actual deceased person and corrupts all the facts of his life.
Almásy is properly pictured as an explorer who worked with the Germans in North Africa during WWII. Beyond that, Hollywood goes haywire.
Obviously, Almásy would not have had a hot romance with the wife of his best friend because of his well-known "alternative" lifestyle. Again, in the movie version, Almásy crashes an aircraft and is severely burned. Found by British troops, he is taken to a field hospital. Since he speaks perfect English, and no one knows who he is, they call him the "English Patient."
Then comes a long and boring sequence in the movie in which he dies in a field hospital in Italy. Before his death, he identifies himself as the Hungarian Count Almásy.
All this is pure fiction.
The movie itself is excellent and was a great success. It has lots of airplane photography and beautiful aerial shots of the desert. Aside for the interminably long time it takes for the title character to die, it's a good story—but it is fiction masquerading as truth.
When the war was over, Almásy was charged with collaborating with the Nazis. His defense was simple. He said, "I was a lieutenant and was ordered to go to North Africa. If I didn't go, I'd be shot." He reasoned that you cannot try every lieutenant who simply followed his orders but was not even remotely involved in any kind of war crimes. He was duly acquitted.
Almásy was not necessarily a likable character. He was a show-off, as with his use of a big American convertible. This was a rarity in prewar Europe. Already in the 1920s, because of his car, he had been recruited to drive the deposed Habsburg King Carl IV.
During his 2 unsuccessful attempts to regain the throne of Hungary, the king, who was not very familiar with Hungarians, mistakenly called him "Count Almásy." While he was not entitled to this distinction, László Almásy immediately adopted it, on the grounds that a king cannot make a mistake, and that if he calls you a count you are a count. This was his style.
And I hope this will set the record straight when it comes to the "English Patient."
Alex Kvassay sold corporate aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 86, retired and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Argentina, Libya, North Korea and Cuba.