The Best & Worst of Times: The tanks came straight for us: In a Beetle covered with a Union Jack and filled with medicines, a young Oxford student and three friends joined the Hungarian revolution - Roger Cooper talks to Danny Danziger

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WHEN THE Hungarian revolution got going, in 1956, I was in my second year at Oxford. I sat around drinking coffee with some rather adventurous fellow students one morning, discussing what was going on.

The revolution looked as if it was succeeding. Imre Nagy had taken over from the previous regime, and people were looking for the secret police and beating them up. This was being reported in England as a collapse of Communism, the people asserting themselves, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for Hungary. People were hoping that the revolution would succeed.

Among my friends was Michael Korda, now a publisher in New York, who is of Hungarian extraction. He said: 'My aunt wants to do something to help the Hungarians, and she has got some money, what can we do?'

We kicked it around a bit, and somebody came up with the idea of medical supplies. So I got on to my old man, who had been a doctor in the RAF, and he said: 'I will find out exactly what they need,' because we didn't want to bring aspirins if they had millions of aspirins. We got the very best, state-of-the-art antibiotics.

We knew we had to get out there somehow. My older brother had emigrated to Canada, and left an old Volkswagen Beetle with a friend in Brussels. We made a phone call to this friend, and he got the car ready.

It was amazingly quick. At 11 or 12 o'clock in the morning we decided to do this. Lady Korda got the cash by about 3pm - pounds 5,000, which was a lot of money in those days. My father wrote the prescription, we hitchhiked up to London, and the next morning we flew to Brussels on the 6am flight. We only just managed to pack the four of us and the drugs into the Beetle, drove through the night, and the next morning we were in

Vienna.

Through the Korda network we had the name of the doctor in Hungary who was organising the medical relief, Dr Hajnal, who was a pioneer in heart disease.

We went first of all to the Hungarian Embassy and said: 'Look, we have got this very important cargo of antibiotics that your people need, can we have a visa to deliver it?'

They were pretty friendly, but they were obviously Communist appointees and they didn't know which way things were going, so to cover themselves they said: 'We would like to give you a visa. You get the OK from the Red Cross, and we will give you one.'

So we went round to the Red Cross and showed them our medicine, and they said: 'Wow, give it to us, we will deliver it.' We said no way: we didn't like the look of them, they seemed very bureaucratic, and we had promised Lady Korda we would get it to the right people. Also, to be honest, we wanted to continue on the adventure; it was getting pretty exciting. So we asked if we could join their convoy, and they said: 'OK, if you can get a visa.' It was a real catch-22.

Eventually we thought, to hell with it, we'll go down to the frontier, they won't be too fussy about visas in this turmoil. It wasn't long before we overtook the British Red Cross contingent, who were brewing up by the roadside. And indeed, when we came up to the frontier post, the Austrians let us out without any trouble.

We drove further into Hungary, and we hadn't been more than two or three miles when a column of Russian tanks came charging towards us. The roads weren't very wide, and I had to swerve the car into a ditch, and the column went right past us.

We later learnt that they had sealed the frontier. The Red Cross convoy never made it - we were the last people in.

Another 50 tanks came up. They peered out of the turrets, came down and had a pee, and even helped us to get the car back on the road. As I spoke Russian, I talked to them a bit. They weren't interested in us at all, their orders were simply to seal the frontier and not let any more people come in or out.

We then drove through Russian lines until we came to a town. There we met the Minister of Defence, Pal Maleter. He was the right-hand man of Imre Nagy. He was terribly friendly when we told him what we had done, and he gave us his personal pass, because they were setting up road-blocks all the way along to

Budapest.

So we kept going through Hungarian military pockets, where the moment we showed this pass they saluted, and then Russian ones, where they were a little less respectful. It was very spooky because you knew a battle could begin at any moment.

We must have been a sight in the Beetle. We had a big Union Jack from one of the hotels. I can't quite remember if they gave it to us or we liberated it, but it was about six foot by four foot, and we put it over the roof rack so people could see we were British. We thought this somehow was going to help.

Anyway, late on the Saturday we reached Budapest, we got to Dr Hajnal's headquarters and handed over the drugs, and he was overjoyed. He said: 'This is the most useful consignment in the whole country, we don't have anything like this,' so we really felt good. He was quite busy, but he invited us to his home that evening for dinner.

We checked into the Hotel Astoria, one of the main hotels on the Pest side, and then we went over to the rather swanky Buda side where Dr Hajnal lived and had a very nice evening; he spoke excellent English, and he gave us a nice meal, thanked us again, and we went back to our hotel.

We were pretty exhausted because we hadn't really slept since we left Oxford, and we just crashed out.

In the small hours, I woke up with Michael saying: 'Roger, Roger, wake up, I can hear gunfire.' I was really groggy, because I had done most of the driving, and I listened; you could hear a distant thundery noise. I said it was just thunder, and went back to sleep.

But after a bit, he woke me up again, and by then it was definitely gunfire, quite close, so we got up and went down to the street. None of us spoke Hungarian, but I could get along in German pretty well. The Russians were rumoured to be coming into the city.

Some freedom fighters were organising barricades against the tanks, and they knew we had a car, and asked if we could spare petrol to make Molotov cocktails. We had a spare jerry can, and I gave them 20 litres of petrol, which they used. I never actually saw a tank knocked out by a Molotov cocktail, but I was told if you got it into the fuel tank, it could be quite effective.

And suddenly the Russian tanks were charging down towards us again, and the barricades didn't deter them, they just went right over them. But they stopped at a very clever thing: one chap got a dozen dinner plates from the hotel, and laid them out, face down on the road, and they looked like mines, and that really slowed the Russians up, and they started loosing off shells to destroy them.

But that was the end of the resistance where we were. They couldn't do anything really; I never saw any guns on the side of the freedom fighters. And within a day or two Budapest was subdued; all the fighting stopped.

We thought we had better tell the British Embassy we were alive and well; we thought they might be worried. In fact, we were the only Brits who hadn't been in the embassy the day the fighting started. They said we should get there as soon as possible.

So when it got dark we set off with our bags. One of the freedom fighters offered to take us through the back streets, and we got about a hundred yards down the road, and suddenly, machine-gun fire and tracer came whizzing past our noses, and we thought, this is too dangerous, and went back to the hotel.

We phoned the embassy again, and they said: 'Oh, good thing you're back there, because there's a little battle going on out here, too.'

Our hotel was quite badly destroyed, because it had become a centre of resistance, and the tanks were taking pot shots at it day and night. But everything was moved down to the cellars where food continued to be served in a makeshift way, and on the tables there were still the little flags denoting which country you were from. They were jolly good at the Astoria: they had seen this all before.

We stayed there for about three days until people began coming out and the bakeries started working. We then got over safely to the embassy.

There were quite a few British journalists, at least a dozen, and they were fed up because they hadn't been able to see what was going on - the ambassador had given orders that no one was to look out of the windows. And so when we arrived, we were rather in demand, and they were all interviewing us and filing off their stories. I happened to mention I had taken some film, and they got very excited at that, and I actually sold my negatives to the Picture Post for pounds 10. I was really pleased.

After a bit, the Russians agreed we could all leave Hungary, in one big escorted convoy, and the four of us came back to Oxford.

I had to see the senior tutor, and he was very frosty and said I shouldn't have done it. And he made the technical point that you have to keep a certain number of weeks to complete your term, and therefore with the holidays looming up I had to stay up another week. He didn't actually punish me openly.

But just before I had set off, I had received my grant cheque and paid it into my bank, and amazingly, the moment they found out I'd gone, the college told the Ministry of Education I had disappeared, and recommended that my grant cheque should be stopped. And the Ministry of Education actually stopped the cheque after. Just before going I had paid off a few debts around town, pounds 5 here and pounds 10 there, and when I came back they were bouncing cheques everywhere. I couldn't believe it.

The three guys from Magdalen, when they got back, their master invited them to a private dinner and said: 'You did jolly good jobs.'

But I was in the dog house because of my college, St John's. Anyway, this was when I saw the power of the press. In those days, there were a lot of students who were stringers for national papers - Oxford was always a good source of interesting, crazy things - and one of these stringers must have heard about me having my grant stopped. He came round and wrote a story, which got into the Daily Express under the headline 'Hero Loses Grant'.

And the next thing I knew, some millionaire rang me up at the college, which was unheard of in those days: no one got phone calls, the porter didn't really like it.

'A gentleman on the telephone for you, sir. He wouldn't give a message, he must speak to you personally . . .' And I had to go into the porter's lodge while the porter was standing around as if he had a rotten kipper under his nose.

He was an industrialist somewhere in the Midlands, this millionaire, and he said: 'I read the story in the Daily Express, and I was horrified. Who is your bank?'

So I said: 'It is the Westminster bank in the High Street.'

'Give me the name of your bank manager,' he said.

'Well, I don't know his name . . .'

'Cooper,' he said, 'I will give you a rule in life. Always find out the name of your bank manager. It is very important.'

'Now look, how much was your grant cheque?' he asked.

'I don't know, maybe pounds 200.'

'Right, I am sending you a cheque by special delivery.' End of conversation. He put down the phone.

Really good, wasn't it? And as a result of this publicity, suddenly it was 'all a mistake' and my grant cheque was reinstated, and I paid the guy back, actually. I thought it was the right and proper thing to do.

In 'Death Plus Ten Years', published by HarperCollins, Roger Cooper writes a vivid account of his five years in an Iranian jail.

(Photograph omitted)

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