By Sandy Mitchell
I could usually produce a cup of tea within 10 minutes in the desert," says Brigadier Rupert Harding Newman, 94, dashing from his drawing room to switch on the kettle. He strides back - tea made in five minutes flat - with a cup on a gleaming salver inscribed with the words "British Military Mission, Egypt, 1939".
He is the only surviving member of the Zerzura Club - a small, legendary group of desert explorers and soldiers formed in North Africa before World War II. Members included men who went on to lead the Special Air Service and set up the Long Range Desert Group, as well as a tall, reserved Hungarian whom they suspected was a Nazi spy.
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, which in turn prompted a debate about the true Almasy.
Was he really a German secret agent? Did he betray his best friend in the explorers' club by seducing his new wife? Did he pretend he was English when shot down in flames and captured, his face and body grotesquely charred?
"Almasy?" says Harding Newman, stiffening in his armchair at the mention of the name. "Bloody man," he splutters. He has been prompted to share his memories by the publication of a book, by Dr Saul Kelly, on the desert war, thick with new information drawn from British, German and Italian military intelligence files, and dedicated to "young Rupert". It reveals the count to have been a far more treacherous and exotic figure than fictional accounts have allowed, or the brigadier ever knew.
"At the beginning, what we were doing in the desert had no connection with any military purpose. That came later. It was just fun!"
In 1932, he was a young Royal Tank Corps officer, posted to Egypt. The invitation to join the first British desert expedition as a mechanic and cook offered an escape from routine duties. So he joined the tiny group of army officers, led by Major Ralph Bagnold, as they drove several thousand kilometres into the unexplored sea of sand stretching across southern Egypt and Libya.
The tribes on the desert's fringes could only report that the interior held evil djinns, or spirits, and a tiny scattering of freshwater springs, among them one they could give no help locating - the Wadi Zerzura or "Oasis of the Birds".
There were no maps. No one had flown over the desert. No portable radios were capable of transmitting a signal for help across this vast emptiness. If a man fell sick? "We had aspirin and Dettol," says the brigadier.
Even motorised expeditions could not carry enough water for a complete crossing unless they found oases. Explorers, like Harding Newman, heard the dry crack of bones beneath their truck tyres: bleached skeletons of all the slaves and camels who, for centuries, had perished from thirst. Temperatures hit 76 Celsius.
For all that, Harding Newman found the desert a seductive place. "You could feel the silence on your skin. There were no smells and no flies, which was remarkable in that part of the world." But the Wadi Zerzura oasis eluded them.
Halfway back to civilisation, they stopped at an outpost used by the British-led Sudanese Defence Force. "We were invited to dinner in the officers' mess. Almasy was there in a corner waiting. I drank a gin and tonic and shook his hand."
Harding Newman and his colleagues were wary. "We knew Almasy's reputation. We were always a band of brothers, either brother officers or friends. He had no friends, and was also reckless by our standards. It was our absolute golden rule never to go out alone in case you broke down. Almasy drove hundreds of miles across the desert by himself. And he never carried a mirror." In the crystalline air, a mirror could be used to flash emergency signals to an aeroplane 80 kilometres away.
When Bagnold and his party finally reached a cafe in a decrepit oasis village, on a whim they founded the Zerzura Club. It had just one rule: members must have taken part in the hunt for the lost oasis. Almasy automatically qualified.
It became an annual tradition for members within reach of London to gather at the Royal Geographical Society, where they would swap tales of their discoveries, and later dine at the Cafe Royal.
At the time of the 1936 dinner, Almasy was still in Egypt, so Bagnold read a paper the count had written for the occasion. The Hungarian - it seemed - had discovered Wadi Zerzura in the very heart of the desert, and thus beaten some of the most determined officers in the British Army to the great prize. They congratulated him.
Within three years, those same gentlemen in dinner jackets had become covert soldiers, and their Cafe Royal gossip about desert routes was suddenly classified as critical military intelligence. Only 1600 kilometres of sand and rock separated Italian-held Libya from the Suez Canal, the jugular of the British Empire. Anyone who could find a way through the dunes, a route from oasis to oasis, could perhaps lead an army across the desert.
Harding Newman was in charge of coordinating behind-the-lines raids by the SAS and the Long Range Desert Group (which had been founded by Bagnold). And Almasy?
"I never heard a thing about him during the war," says the brigadier - hardly surprising, given the clandestine world the count had joined.
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 venture 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.
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.
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.
What of the other escapades attributed to him? In the film, Almasy seduces his friend's young wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). "Such absolute rot. I couldn't watch it," snaps Harding Newman. Apparently, the count's sexual adventures were common gossip in Cairo, and they were not of a kind to threaten anyone's wife. He was homosexual.
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."
"I suppose whatever one thought of him," says the brigadier, "he was the most extraordinary man."
The Hunt for Zerzura by Saul Kelly is published by John Murray.