The journalist-turned-novelist died at home near Salisbury in Wiltshire yesterday after a lengthy illness.
His wife Diana said: "He had a wonderful life and he travelled the world. All he ever wanted to do was write and that is what he did.
"He died at home with his family around him."
Thomas, who was born in Newport, Wales, grew up in a Barnardo's home and started work as a reporter on a weekly newspaper before a stint on Fleet Street with the London Evening News, where he covered major stories including the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.
But it was his time as a national serviceman in Malaya that inspired his most famous work, a comic tale of British soldiers based in the Far East that became a huge bestseller and a hit film.
Thomas, who was given an OBE for services to literature in 2004, wrote scores more novels, non-fiction and travel books in his career.
He leaves his wife, four children and four grandchildren.
His publisher was among those who paid tribute.
Susan Sandon, divisional managing director at the Penguin Random House Group, said: "Leslie Thomas was an immensely popular author with a huge gift for storytelling and a wonderful sense of humour.
"His books have given so many people pleasure over the years, with their mix of great characters, strong sense of time and place, and unique ability to combine laughter and tears in the space of a few sentences."