The Munich Air Disaster
- 6th February 1958 -
Currently lying second, behind Wolves, in the First Division of the Football League Manchester United were going for their third successive league title. Their side’s average age was just 24 and they were being talked about as having the possibility of being one of the greatest football sides this country had known. The manager was the inspirational figure Sir Matt Busby and he had carefully built his team into a true European force.
After losing in the semi-final of the European Cup the previous year they had reached the quarter final again. In the quarters they had drawn Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia. On January 14th they won the home leg 2-1 at Old Trafford. Determined to have easier travelling arrangements after the difficulties of their last away leg in Prague, the club chartered a plane for the away tie. The 3-3 draw was enough to see them progress and they headed to the airport to make their way back to Manchester the following day. One member of the team, Jonny Berry, lost his passport and take-off from Belgrade was delayed for an hour.
The plane landed at Riem Airport in Munich to refuel. It had started snowing by this stage as they taxied out for take-off. The pilot, James Thain, felt he had not enough power in the British European Airways, Airspeed Ambassador 2, plane and pulled out. This happened a second time. Captain Thain was offered the option of postponing the flight till the morning but was determined to try one more time. This time he managed to get the nose off the ground a few feet before the plane careered into a fence and the left wing hit a house causing a fire to break out.
Peter Howard, a Daily Mail photographer, said that it felt as if the plane just completely broke up and fell to bits with the seats crumbling. ‘It was a rolling sensation and all sorts of stuff started coming down on top of us. There was not time to think. No one cried out. No one spoke; just a deadly silence for what could only have been seconds,’ he said.
Of the 44 people on board 20 were killed straight away with the injured taken to Rechts der Isar hospital in Munich, where a further three died later. 7 players and three officials died along with 7 journalists and the co-pilot, Captain Kenneth Rayment, a cabin attendant, travel agent and Willie Satinoff, a racecourse owner, supporter and close friend of Sir Matt Busby.
The players who died were the captain, Roger Byrne (aged 28), Geoff Bent (25), Eddie Colman (21), the youngest of those who died, nicknamed snakehips due to his outside swerve, Duncan Edwards (21) who died 15 days later, Mark Jones (24), David Pegg (22) who had already played one match for England, Tommy Taylor (26) who had scored sixteen goals for England in just 19 appearances, and Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan (22) who was not a confident flyer and said, after the second aborted take-off, “Well, if this is the time, then I’m ready”. Tommy Taylor had been bought from Barnsley for £29,999 by Busby but he didn’t want him to have the pressure of a £30,000 price tag. In the boardroom when the deal was completed Busby took a £1 note from his wallet and gave it to the lady serving tea.
The three officials killed were the secretary, Walter Crickmer, the chief coach, Bert Whalley, himself an ex Manchester United player, and the trainer, Tom Curry.
Sir Matt Busby was the most seriously injured survivor and underwent a number of blood transfusions. Bobby Charlton came around after the crash and found himself thrown clear of the aircraft still strapped to his seat.
The plane, the same one that had taken the team out to Belgrade, was the first of its kind to suffer a fatal crash after 86,000 flights had carried 2,340,000 people. Initially pilot error was blamed in that Captain Thain had failed to de-ice properly. However, he was later cleared and the final report blamed it on a build-up of slush on the runway that prevented take-off.
The team battled to complete the season and, remarkably, won through to the final of the FA Cup, losing out to Bolton Wanderers. The assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy, stood in for Busby for the rest of the season and in their next match after the disaster defeated Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 with a team largely of reserve and youth team players. The programme that day left blank spaces where the names of the players who should have played would have been. That was to be the only league game they won for the rest of the season. They did manage to beat Milan in the home semi-final of the European Cup but were beaten heavily in the return leg at the San Siro to go out, Real Madrid running out the eventual winners.
Many thought the club might fold but carefully Busby rebuilt his team and a decade later they became the first English team to win the European Cup, beating Benfica in the final with a team that included just two of those who were involved in the crash – Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes. It did include, however, future legends of the club, George Best and Denis Law.
There were many tributes from around the world following the crash. The Red Star club asked for Manchester United to be awarded the title of European Cup winners. That was not to be. There were many personal reminiscences too and the following is just one of them.
I remember watching the television continuously for the rest of the evening until it closed down for the night. Every so often the scheduled programmes were interrupted, sometimes with the bad news that another player, another club official or another of the journalists had perished, and sometimes with better news that someone was known to have survived.
I don't know how any of us managed to sit our exam the following day, never mind pass it. The most poignant memory was of the evening when the bodies were brought back. The convoy of hearse after hearse passed our house in Seymour Grove in Old Trafford on the way to the ground and thousands turned out to pay their last respects.
I'm a grown man of nearly 70 but it still brings tears to my eyes when the 6 February comes round each year. That team was my team and as well as watching them whenever I could, I would often see some of the players getting off the bus as some, including Matt, lived in Old Trafford. Malcolm Wood, England