HALF a century ago, the streets of Budapest in Hungary rang to the sound of machine-guns – and hundreds were to die in the heavy fighting.
A people’s uprising kicked out the Soviet- backed government, and for a few glorious days the citizens breathed the sweet air of freedom.
It was not to last, and the Soviet Union leader Nikita Krushchev ordered in his armed forces.
The country was torn apart in a bloody counter-revolution as thousands of Russian tanks and soldiers poured across the borders.
In the violent aftermath, thousands fled their country for a new life in Britain — but after all these years, Jozsef Vizi of Axbridge, Somerset, still has vivid memories of those times.
Rumours abounded in Jozsef’s home town near Budapest one October afternoon that there was fighting in the capital. “I worked at a steel mill as a fire prevention officer,” he recalls.
“After the 2pm shift ended, not many people came back to work. Rumours were flying around about what was happening in Budapest.
“About 4pm, someone said that a couple of people from Budapest had been arrested by the local secret police.
"Lots of people marched down there to ask if there was anyone in the cells, and the big red star above the entrance was torn down.
"We heard on the radio that fighting was going on in the city.”
Feelings were running high among the people as police barred their entry to the capital.
In Hungary in 1956 the secret police and army ruled the Communist state with an iron fist.
Swept up in the crowds, Jozsef headed for the army camp nearby, where guns and ammunition were stored. The commander refused them entry and, after listening to a deputation, ordered the crowds to disperse.
Moments later, shots rang out but, despite several casualties, the demonstrators held their nerve.
Later, the camp delivered up its guns, and the Hungarian Revolution took hold in Jozsef’s village of Szalkszentmarton.
Jozsef was born in 1930, the eldest of four brothers. Their parents, Eszter and Mihaly, had a small farm, but had suffered under the new collectivisation policies of the Communist regime installed in 1945.
Jozsef had been in the Hungarian army and was a crack shot with a rifle – and he was an enthusiastic member of the revolutionary forces that rapidly formed to overthrow the government of Erno Gerö.
After the events of that October afternoon, he volunteered to go to Budapest with some friends in a lorry to deliver food to the fighters battling with the secret police and Soviet troops in the city.
He also took one of the newly liberated rifles and plenty of ammunition.
There then began a strange life for a few days for Jozsef. He would commute into the capital by day with his comrades, spend the day fighting, and then return home at night.
“It was only five days,” he says. “We sorted out the Russians with Molotov cocktails and machine-guns.
"I shot at those firing at us and as far as I could tell they didn’t fire back. I didn’t see anyone die, but I’m a crack shot.
“We were fighting for freedom. Under the Communists you couldn’t say much. If you spoke out you didn’t know if a lorry would come in the night and take you away.”
Jozsef had already had a run-in with the authorities. He had refused to join the Communist Party and was punished by being dismissed from his previous job.
By the end of the month the forces of repression were on the run and the revolution had succeeded.
New Prime Minister Imre Nagy reversed the previous pro-Soviet policies of Gerö and the nation rejoiced in its new-found freedom.
It was a brief period of liberty. On November 4, Jozsef heard a desperate radio broadcast from Budapest pleading for support.
More than 1,000 Russian tanks had invaded the country, and Communist aircraft were bombing the capital.
He immediately went back with his comrades to try to resist the onslaught, but it was no use. Outgunned, the revolutionaries were forced to flee.
Back in his home town, Jozsef considered making a last stand. But the forces that overthrew Nagy’s new government were vast. Tens of thousands of occupying troops swamped the surrounding countryside.
Then an old friend of Jozsef’s tapped him on the shoulder. Bizarrely, he was a secret policeman, a former footballing buddy, who told him he would be arrested the next day and shot as a traitor, along with one of his brothers. Jozsef had three choices: to fight on, be shot or run.
His wife Joan takes up the story: “Jozsef told his parents he and the middle two brothers had to go, leaving the youngest behind.
Their father went with them to the edge of the village.
“It was agreed they would call themselves the Three Ladybirds, and they would try to get a message through to the Red Cross that they had escaped.
Jozsef’s father said to him: ‘You must be the father now, take my place and keep together’. He shook hands with the three of them and said: ‘I hope we can meet again’. They watched their father walk back to the village before setting off for the Austrian frontier. It was the last they ever saw of him.”
The brothers walked at night and slept by day, eventually crossing the border into Austria and freedom. A few days later, Jozsef’s neighbour Szabo Neni heard the Red Cross broadcast: “The Three Ladybirds have landed.”
The brothers were able to travel to England, and Jozsef took a job with the RAF as a cook and settled in Buckinghamshire before finding work in the building industry.
Back in Hungary, his father suffered at the hands of the secret police and was given many beatings in retaliation for Jozsef’s actions. He died a broken man.
A few years later Jozsef met Joan, a pre-school teacher from Bristol, and they married in 1961. They retired to Axbridge in 1988 – before which, to his abiding delight, they were able to visit Hungary and see his mother one last time.
Now a new generation of Hungarians enjoys the kind of freedom Jozsef Vizi had to travel to another land to find, after having their brief taste of it cruelly snatched away 50 years ago.