The 60th Anniversary of the Munich Air disaster that almost ruined Manchester United.
The Daily Mail:’ February 6 will mark the 60th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, a tragedy etched forever in the history of that city, Manchester United and the football world.
That fateful afternoon in 1958 ultimately claimed the lives of 23 people, including eight members of Matt Busby’s trailblazing team.
It cruelly robbed a generation of football fans of the opportunity to see whether this wonderful football team — nicknamed the ‘Busby Babes’ because of their boundless youthful promise — would conquer Europe in the same way they had England.
The disaster is part of the club’s fabric. Was it fate, or coincidence, that United would again be crowned champions of Europe on what would have been Busby’s 90th birthday in 1999, or again 50 years on from the crash in 2008?
Here, we tell the story of what happened before, on and after that tragic day 60 years ago.
Wednesday December 4, 1957
UEFA had established the European Cup in 1955 and United were ranked among the favourites to win the trophy in the 1957-58 season. They lose 1-0 to Dukla Prague in the first round but advance because of a 3-0 win in the first leg.
Because of foggy conditions in England, they are forced to take a time-consuming and more exhausting route back from Czechoslovakia. They fly to Amsterdam, take the ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich, and then the train to Manchester.
The longer trip takes its toll on the players, who can only draw 3-3 at Birmingham City three days later, losing valuable ground in their pursuit of the league title.
Now aware of the side-effects of competing in Europe as well as domestically, the club decides to charter a British European Airways (BEA) plane for future trips.
Tuesday January 14, 1958
Sixty thousand people cram into Old Trafford to watch United beat Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia 2-1 in the first leg of their quarter-final tie.
Busby’s side fall behind in the first half before goals by Bobby Charlton and Eddie Colman turn it around. Still, the tie remains on a knife-edge.
Saturday February 1
The same United team that would line up in Belgrade for the return leg play Arsenal in front of 63,578 spectators at Highbury.
It is a fantastic exhibition of attacking football that sums up the excitement of the Busby Babes.
United beat Arsenal 5-4 in a rollercoaster contest, with goals scored by Tommy Taylor (2), Charlton, Duncan Edwards and Dennis Viollet.
It is the last time many of the players perform on English soil.
Monday February 3
The United party board their charter flight to Belgrade, two days before the match itself, arriving to find low cloud, poor visibility and snow.
The BEA aircraft they use is an Elizabethan class Airspeed Ambassador 2, built in 1952 and called ‘Lord Burleigh’. The pilot is Captain James Thain, a former flight lieutenant in the RAF.
His co-pilot for the trip to Belgrade is Captain Kenneth Rayment, also a former RAF flight lieutenant and a flying ace in the Second World War.
Wednesday February 5
United cruise into a 3-0 lead in just over half an hour at the Stadion JNA. Viollet opens the scoring after just two minutes before Charlton adds two more.
Red Star rally and by the hour-mark have pulled it back to 3-3. United look rattled but manage to hold out against the pressure to advance 5-4 on aggregate.
After the game, a cocktail party is held for the players at the British Embassy in the city.
On the same night, Busby’s assistant Jimmy Murphy, who is also the manager of Wales, takes charge of their World Cup qualifier against Israel. Wales win the match 2-0.
Thursday February 6
United begin the journey home, with thoughts switching to their weekend league engagement. They must travel first from Belgrade to Munich for refuelling because a non-stop flight to Manchester is beyond the range of the Elizabethan.
Departure from Belgrade is delayed by an hour because outside right Johnny Berry misplaces his passport.
The plane lands in Munich. It descends through low cloud and a mixture of rain and snow. But the result and the prospect of an easier journey home than from Prague boosts spirits. They play cards, discuss the news and read books and magazines to pass the time.
Still tired from the match, some of the players catch up on sleep.
The refuelling process finishes. The passengers make their way from the terminal after a cup of coffee, back across the ice to the aircraft.
At 3.31pm local time [2.31pm UK time], Captain Rayment, at the controls because Captain Thain had flown the plane out, radios the control tower to say they are ready for take-off.
The plane lines up on the runway, the engines rev up and everyone prepares for departure. But Rayment abandons the take-off after Thain notices the port side boost pressure gauge is fluctuating abnormally. The engine also gives an odd note while accelerating.
Captain Rayment lines up the aircraft for a second attempt and decides this time he will open the throttle more gradually before releasing the brakes.
But this attempt is called off 40 seconds in with the engines over-accelerating because of the fuel mixture used. It is a common fault with the Elizabethan aircraft.
While they inspect the problem, the passengers are told to disembark and return to the lounge.
Heavy snow starts to fall and the passengers grow increasingly sceptical they will be able to fly that day. A few of the more apprehensive fliers are reluctant to get back on board.
Full-back Bill Foulkes remembered: ‘We’d been playing cards for most of the flight from Belgrade to Munich, and I remember when we left the aircraft thinking how cold it was.
‘We had one attempt at taking off, but didn’t leave the ground, so I suppose a few of those on board would start to worry a little bit, and when the second take-off failed we were pretty quiet when we went back into the lounge.’
Edwards sends a telegram to his landlady back in Manchester: ‘All flights cancelled. Flying Tomorrow.’ But the passengers are told to return to the aircraft. Edwards’ telegram would arrive at 5pm, after the crash.
This time there is an air of nervousness. Foulkes keeps the deck of cards firmly inside his jacket pocket.
He recalled: ‘I was sitting about halfway down the aircraft next to a window, on the right-hand side of the gangway. Our card school was Ken Morgans, who was on my right, and facing us David Pegg and Albert Scanlon.
‘Matt Busby and Bert Whalley were sitting together on the seat behind us and I remember how Mark Jones, Tommy Taylor, Duncan Edwards and Eddie Colman were all at the back.
‘David Pegg got up and moved to the back: “I don’t like it here, it’s not safe,” he said and went off to sit with the other players. I saw big Frank Swift back there too, he also felt that the rear was the safest place to be.
‘There was another card school across the gangway from us, Ray Wood and Jackie Blanchflower were sitting on two of the seats, Roger Byrne, Billy Whelan and Dennis Viollet on the others with one empty seat amongst them.’
On the flight deck, the two captains discuss the engine problems with station engineer William Black. He tells them the boost surging is common at Munich-Riem Airport because of its altitude.
Black suggests holding the plane overnight but Captain Thain is anxious to stay on schedule and suggests opening the throttle even more slowly will do the trick.
Although it means the plane will not reach take-off speed until further down the runway, the pilots do not believe it will be a problem on the 1.2mile-long strip.
The engines are both steady so Captain Rayment releases the brakes and the plane moves forward again. He continues until both captains call ‘full power’.
Captain Thain again notices the signs of boost surging and calls this out to his co-pilot above the intense noise of the engines. But the surging is controlled and the throttle pushed fully open.
‘I glanced at the air speed indicator and saw it registered 105 knots and was flickering,’ recalled Thain. ‘When it reached 117 knots I called out ‘V1’ [Velocity One, the point on the runway after which you can’t safely abandon the take off].
‘Suddenly the needle dropped to about 112 and then 105. Ken shouted, ‘Christ, we can’t make it’ and I looked up from the instruments to see a lot of snow and a house and a tree right in the path of the aircraft.’
Inside the cabin, the passengers witness slush kicking up off the ground and past the windows, then a terrible noise that Foulkes described as ‘like when a car leaves a smooth road and starts to run over rough ground.’
The aircraft leaves the runway, smashes through a fence and crosses a road. The port wing strikes a house, ripping it and part of the tail away from the fuselage. The house catches fire.
The cockpit strikes a tree, while the starboard side of the fuselage hits a wooden hut containing a truck loaded with fuel and tyres. This explodes on impact.
Twenty of the passengers die instantly.
They were United players Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Coleman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan; United club secretary Walter Crickmer; trainer Tom Curry; chief coach Bert Whalley; cabin steward Tom Cable; journalists Alf Clarke (Manchester Evening Chronicle), Donny Davies (Manchester Guardian), George Follows (Daily Herald), Tom Jackson (Manchester Evening News), Archie Ledbrooke (Daily Mirror), Henry Rose (Daily Express) and Eric Thompson (Daily Mail); travel agent Bela Miklos; and Willie Satinoff, United fan and a friend of Busb
The immediate aftermath
Foulkes, who had braced himself for an impact after sensing something was wrong, hears an enormous bang, then loses consciousness. He wakes to see a gaping hole in front of him.
‘The back of the aircraft had just disappeared. I got out as quickly as I could and just ran and ran. Then I turned and realised that the plane wasn’t going to explode, and I went back.
‘In the distance I could see the tail part of the aircraft blazing and as I ran back I came across bodies. Roger Byrne still strapped to his seat, Bobby Charlton lying quite still in another seat, and Dennis Viollet. Then Harry Gregg appeared and we tried to see what we could do to help.’
Gregg, also knocked unconscious, comes round believing he is dead. Feeling blood on his face he ‘didn’t dare put my hand up. I thought the top of my head had been taken off, like a hard-boiled egg.’
Thain orders his crew to evacuate, fearing the plane will explode. The stewardesses, Rosemary Cheverton and Margaret Bellis, leave through an emergency window that has been blown out, followed by radio officer Bill Rodgers.
Rayment is trapped in his seat by the crumpled shell of the plane. He tells Thain to go without him.
Thain, worried flames underneath the starboard wing would ignite the 2,300 litres of fuel contained within, nevertheless grabs two handheld fire extinguishers in an effort to stop the spread of the flames.
‘You could not see into the cabin, it was sort of squashed,’ said Cheverton in a recent interview. ‘I was jolted out of my seat and out of my shoes. And then we came to a standstill and it was very hushed and quiet.
‘I know the pilot got back in and got some fire extinguishers, which he and the radio officer were using. There may have been a small fire and we had just refuelled so they wanted to put out anything that would cause a bigger explosion.
‘I did not have any shoes and there was snow on the ground and it was very cold, but I didn’t even feel it.’
Despite being warned it was too dangerous, Gregg, having kicked a hole through which to escape, returns to save some passengers.
Ambulances arrive. Busby, severely hurt, is carried away on a stretcher. Charlton is helped into a minibus, where he is sat alongside Violett in the front while other survivors are picked up.
They are taken to the Rechts de Isar hospital in the city. Frank Swift, the former England and Manchester City goalkeeper turned News of the World journalist, loses his fight for life en route to hospital. The death toll is now 21.
News reaches Alma George, Busby’s secretary, in her office at Old Trafford. She tearfully informs Murphy, just back from Cardiff. He doesn’t register her words at first, making for the solitude of his office.
‘The words seemed to ring in my head,’ he later recalled. ‘My head was in a state of confusion and I started to cry.’
Most of the Manchester evening newspapers’ early City editions have already gone to the presses when their newsroom teleprinters stamp out the horrifying words: ‘Manchester United aircraft crashed on take-off… heavy loss of life feared.’
The report is unconfirmed but makes the stop press column of the late city editions of the Chronicle and the News.
The news starts filtering out onto the streets of Manchester.
Murphy regains his composure and assumes responsibility for telephoning the next of kin with United assistant secretary Les Olive. They have to wait several minutes to get an outgoing line, such is the volume of people calling the club seeking clarification on the news.
Chief scout Joe Armstrong is sent out in a taxi to check on relatives. Many of them have gone to Manchester Airport to welcome the team home in triumph, as have many supporters and Busby’s wife, Jean.
BEA Flight 609 is scheduled to land at Manchester Airport at 5pm. But the jubilant mood of those wives, girlfriends and fans gives way to apprehension when a crackly PA message summons them to the BEA desk.
They are told there has been a serious accident, but full details are not known. Jean Busby collapses in tears, the wives and girlfriends of the players clutch each other.
Those in the United Kingdom lucky enough to have a television set are switching on for Children’s Hour on the BBC. But they see newsreader Richard Baker saying: ‘And the reason you’ve come over to the news studio is that we have to report a serious air crash at Munich Airport.
‘We haven’t full details yet, but the aircraft that has crashed is an Elizabethan. It was on charter from British European Airways and travelling from Belgrade to Manchester.
‘On board was the Manchester United football team returning from the World Cup [sic] match in Yugoslavia. Twenty-five of the passengers and crew are believed to have died.’
5pm, in Munich
Busby, who has fractured ribs, a punctured lung and leg injuries, receives the last rites. The hospital say: ‘We do not have much hope of saving him.’
The nation tunes their wireless sets to the BBC Home Service, hoping for more information. An unemotional BBC newsreader says the chilling words: ‘Here is the news. An airliner carrying the Manchester United football team crashed in Germany this afternoon’ before proceeding to other headlines about proceedings in parliament and fines for pollution from chimneys.
Once further detail arrives, the newsreader lists all the members of the United party who had gone to Belgrade. The report says that Gregg, Foulkes and Charlton have possibly survived but added: ‘It is not possible to say yet what has happened to most of them.’
Millions up and down the land eat their tea in stunned silence.
Manchester is paralysed by shock. The news stands reading ‘United in the semis again’ have been replaced by ones that read in thick bold letters ‘United Disaster’ and ‘United plane crash’.
People wait on street corners, hoping for good news or seeking confirmation that their worst fears are true. Machinery in factories grind to a halt as workers gather around the radio for updates.
Nobby Stiles, then an apprentice at United, grabs a paper as he heads to Old Trafford for duties such as cleaning the boots of the first-teamers.
Yet here they are staring out at him from the front page – Byrne, Bent, Colman, Pegg, Taylor, Whelan, Jones. The dead.
Stiles thinks ‘surely Eddie can’t be dead’ – contrary to the headlines. He had just scrubbed his boots.
As the evening wore on, the true extent of the tragedy becomes apparent through the radio and television bulletins.
In London, Daily Mail photographer Peter Howard, who had escaped from the wreckage, telephones through an account of the crash to his desk.
He describes how the plane rolled and that there wasn’t time to think, before ‘just a deadly silence.’
The nine o’clock radio bulletin includes a reaction from the Football League. The match with Wolves, scheduled for that Saturday, is postponed.
The other 90 clubs in the League will play their matches as scheduled but observe a two minutes’ silence. Flags will be flown at half-mast and black armbands worn.
The day after
Britain wakes to their morning newspapers. Pictures of the tragedy and those who have perished are on every front page.
The Daily Express headline reads: ‘Shattered in one dramatic second – The finest soccer team since the war.’ The Daily Mail splashes on Howard’s dramatic account.
The bodies of the deceased are flown back to Manchester and lie overnight in the gym at Old Trafford before being collected by their families for the funerals.
On the gates outside the stadium hangs the message: ‘Training cancelled’.
It was not until the following day that the scale of the tragedy hits home for walking wounded Foulkes and Gregg.
‘We went in and saw Matt in an oxygen tent, and Duncan Edwards, who seemed to be badly hurt. Bobby Charlton had a bandaged head, Jackie Blanchflower was nursing a badly gashed arm which had been strapped up by Harry Gregg in the snow of the night before,’ Foulkes said afterwards.
‘Albert Scanlon lay with his eyes closed, he had a fractured skull, and Dennis Viollet had a gashed head and facial injuries. Ray Wood’s face was cut and he had concussion and Ken Morgans and Johnny Berry lay quite still in their beds.
‘I spoke to a nurse and she told me that she thought Duncan had a better chance of making a full recovery than Johnny did…
‘We came across Frank Taylor in another bed; he was the only journalist around and he asked if we’d like to have a beer with him. Like us, he didn’t know the full implications of what had happened the afternoon before.
‘We were about to leave the hospital when I asked a nurse where we should go to see the other lads. She seemed puzzled so I asked her again: ‘Where are the other survivors?’
‘Others? There are no others, they are all here.’ It was only then that we knew the horror of Munich. The Busby Babes were no more.’
Saturday February 8
Manchester is flooded with rumours that Busby has lost his fight for life. Crowds gather around the offices of the Manchester Evening News and the Manchester Evening Chronicle.
Eventually, the Rechts der Isar hospital puts out a statement: ‘The reports are entirely false. They do not come from us.’
The six o’clock radio bulletin that night reports that five of the 15 still in hospital are seriously ill.
That afternoon, Old Trafford, ordinarily packed with up to 60,000 fans watching a match, stands deserted, a chill wind blowing snow and sleet across it.
Saturday February 15
A scheduled FA Cup fifth-round tie with Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford is postponed out of respect to the dead.
Sunday February 16
Murphy takes control of the side. Busby, still fighting for his life, tells Murphy to ‘keep the flag flying.’
Monday February 17
Murphy, aided by former United goalkeeper Jack Crompton, makes a number of emergency signings to ensure United can put out a team.
They include Stan Crowther from Aston Villa and Ernie Taylor from Blackpool. Three players, Derek Lewin, Bob Hardisty and Warren Bradley, are signed on short-term contracts from non-League club Bishop Auckland. Reserve players Shay Brennan and Mark Pearson are promoted into the first team.
Wednesday February 19
United ride a tide of emotion at Old Trafford to beat Wednesday 3-0 in the rearranged tie. Brennan scores twice and Alex Dawson also nets in front of 59,848 fans at a sombre Old Trafford.
The front cover of the match programme features a message from the club chairman beneath the title ‘United will go on…’
It reads: ‘An unprecedented blow to British football has touched the hearts of millions and we express our deep gratitude to the many who have sent messages of sympathy and floral tributes.
‘Wherever football is played United is mourned, but we rejoice that many of our party have been spared and wish them a speedy and complete recovery.
‘Although we mourn our dead and grieve for our wounded we believe that great days are not done for us.
‘The road back may be long and hard but with the memory of those who died at Munich, of their stirring achievements and wonderful sportsmanship ever with us, Manchester United will rise again.’
These programmes feature a blank United teamsheet because nobody knows in advance who United will field.
Friday February 21
Edwards dies of his injuries at 2.16am. The loss is a particularly cruel blow. Just 21 when he died, Edwards is already one of the finest footballers England has ever produced. In his career of five years, he helped United to two league titles and won 18 England caps.
He suffered multiple leg fractures, fractured ribs and severely damaged kidneys. A kidney transplant in hospital reduces his blood’s ability to clot, causing internal bleeding.
Despite his strength sapping, Edwards says to Murphy, who flew out to assess the damage to the team: ‘What time is the kick off against Wolves, Jimmy? I mustn’t miss that match.’
He is buried in his hometown of Dudley five days later. Five thousand people line the streets.
Friday February 28
Captain Rayment succumbs to his injuries, taking the death toll to its final total of 23.
In all, 21 survived the crash. They were United players Johnny Berry (who never played again), Jackie Blanchflower (never played again), Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, Harry Gregg, Kenny Morgans, Albert Scanlon, Dennis Viollet and Ray Wood; manager Matt Busby; stewardesses Margaret Bellis and Rosemary Cheverton, radio officer Bill Rodgers and captain James Thain; News Chronicle reporter Frank Taylor; Daily Mail telegraphist Ted Ellyard; Daily Mail photographer Peter Howard; Eleanor Miklos, the wife of Bela; Nebojsa Bato Tomasevic, a Yugoslavian diplomat; and Vera Lukic, wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat and her baby daughter, Vesna, both pulled from the wreckage by Gregg.
Saturday March 8
A recorded message by Busby is played before United’s home match with West Brom. He is now well enough to be moved to Interlaken in Switzerland to recuperate with his wife.
Reports from the day said: ‘women wept as the tape-recorded voice echoed across a packed and silent Old Trafford.’
Friday April 18
Now 71 days after the crash, Busby returns to Manchester via rail and sea. He would resume as United manager at the beginning of the following season
Saturday May 3
Before the FA Cup final with Bolton Wanderers at Wembley, Busby makes his way to the bench with the aid of a walking stick.
United wear shirts that feature a phoenix rising from the flames, but they are beaten 2-0 in the day in front of 100,000 fans.
Wednesday May 14
United’s run in the European Cup comes to an end at the semi-final stage as they are beaten 4-0 by Milan to exit 5-2 on aggregate.
The FA decline UEFA’s offer of a place for United in the following season’s competition, with Wolves, the League champions, flying the flag for England.
Real Madrid, who would go on to win the trophy for the third successive year, suggest that United should be awarded the cup, something supported by Red Star Belgrade. But the gesture doesn’t come to fruition.
10 years later
Captain Thain was initially blamed for the crash by the German airport authorities and it took 10 years to clear his name.
Legal action against him claimed he had attempted to take off without clearing the wings of ice and this caused the crash, despite several witnesses stating there was no ice on the wings.
Eventually, British authorities recorded the cause as a build-up of melting snow on the runway that prevented the plane reaching the required take-off speed.
Wednesday May 29, 1968
A decade on from the Munich disaster and Busby, having built another outstanding team featuring the likes of Charlton, George Best and Denis Law, leads United to the final of the European Cup.
Charlton and Foulkes are the two Munich survivors in the United team as they beat Benfica 4-1 after extra-time at Wembley. Charlton scores twice, with further goals by Best and Brian Kidd.
United are the first English team to win the European Cup. Busby has triumph after the disaster.