The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of John White, Branch Secretary of the Carryduff Manchester United Supporters Club. You can visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/carryduffmusc
Although I was born a few years after the Munich Air Disaster, the Busby Babes has always fascinated and intrigued me. Indeed, I am sure all of my fellow Manchester United fans, regardless of their age, feel the same way about this iconic team.
In their first two away fixtures of the 1957-58 European Cup Manchester United used scheduled airline services to avoid the players from experiencing the fatigue of long journeys by road, rail or sea. However, their return journey from the Czechoslovakian capital, Prague, following a 3-0 First Round, First Leg win versus Dukla Prague on 4th December 1957, had been beset by problems (scorers: David Pegg, Tommy Taylor & Colin Webster). A fog over England forced the aircraft transporting the Manchester United team to Manchester to divert to Holland where they landed in Amsterdam. Matt Busby, the Manchester United manager, was concerned that his team would not be able to return home in time to fulfil their next First Division away to Birmingham City on Saturday 7th December 1957 and face the wrath of the Football League who without hesitation would undoubtedly deduct the club points.
The Football League were still smirking from United’s decision to enter Europe’s premier football competition and were lying in wait for the men from Old Trafford to give them any reason to penalise the club. The hierarchy at the Football League maintained their strict stance that the Champions of England had no place competing in what they regarded a distraction to domestic football and a circus of a European competition. The previous season the Football League ordered the English First Division Champions in season 1954-55, Chelsea, from participating in the inaugural European Cup tournament in season 1955-56. But in Busby, Manchester United had a manager who was not a man to listen to orders barked at him from the game’s hierarchy and he defied them by playing in the competition.
Thankfully, Walter Crickmer, the club secretary, managed to book the team on a ferry that brought them to Harwich on the morning of their visit to Birmingham and from there the team travelled north for their encounter versus Birmingham City. Despite scoring three goals, the effects of the tiresome journey took their toll and the game ended in a 3-3 draw (scorers: Dennis Viollet 2 & Tommy Taylor). Meanwhile, Wolverhampton Wanderers who went on to clinch the First Division crown in 1957-58, won 2-1 away at Preston North End to take a 9 points lead at the summit of the table.
The Manchester United officials were adamant that their Czech experience would not be repeated when the club was drawn against Yugoslavia’s Red Star Belgrade in the quarter-finals. When the draw for the quarter-finals of the 1957-58 European Cup was made United were drawn against the Champions of Yugoslavia, Red Star Belgrade. In an effort to avoid a recurrence of the previous Round of the competition the club chartered a 47-seater Air Ambassador “Elizabethan class” plane with British European Airways (BEA) for the 2,000 miles round trip from Manchester to Belgrade for the second leg. It was seen as an extravagant decision at the time but one that the club felt was necessary if the team was to continue challenging for a third consecutive League crown and European glory. There was also the small matter of a home League fixture versus leaders Wolves on the Saturday to take into consideration.
Not a single fan who turned up at Arsenal Stadium for Manchester United’s Division One clash with Arsenal on 1st February 1958 would have ever believed that they would pay witness to the last ever game played in England by the all- conquering Busby Babes. United were at the home of the last team to have won England’s elite League three times in succession and came out of it at the other end 5-4 winners in one of the most exhilarating games British football can lay claim to. Tommy Taylor (2), Bobby Charlton, Duncan Edwards and Dennis Viollet all found the net in a win that kept United’s dreams of a third consecutive First Division title alive. But when the team left Manchester for Belgrade on Tuesday 5th February 1958, they still trailed First Division leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers by eight points in their quest to become the first team to win three title three years in a row (Arsenal 1932-33 to 1934-35).
The Manchester United team were on their way home from Belgrade having drawn 3-3 with the famous Red Star Belgrade, Champions of Yugoslavia the night before in the quarter-finals of the European Cup (scorers: Bobby Charlton 2 & Dennis Viollet). Having won the 1st leg 2-1 (scorers: Bobby Charlton & Eddie Colman) at Old Trafford, Manchester United had progressed to the semi-finals where they would meet the reigning Italian Champions, AC Milan. Their chartered flight had to stop-off at Munich-Riem Airport, West Germany en route to Manchester for refuelling as a non-stop trip from Belgrade to Manchester was not possible for the BEA Elizabethan class airplane (called “Lord Burleigh”). The flight from Belgrade to Munich was delayed for an hour when Johnny Berry could not find his passport. When the plane touched down in Munich the weather conditions were extremely poor with a chill factor wind swirling around the airport.
Around 2.00pm the twin-engine airplane was ready for take-off with Captain Kenneth Rayment, second in command at the controls. Captain James Thain had flown the plane from Manchester to Belgrade two days earlier and handed over the controls to Captain Rayment for the flight home. At 2.31pm Captain Rayment radioed the control tower to inform them that the plane was rolling. However, as the plane made its way down the runway Captain Thain noticed the port pressure gauge fluctuating just as full power had been engaged and a strange sound emanating from the engine during acceleration.
Within just 40 seconds of starting off Captain Rayment abandoned take-off. It was quickly discovered that the problem had been that of boost surge whereby the engines over-accelerated because of the very rich mixture of fuel. Post the disaster flight experts said that this was quite a common problem with the Elizabethan class but the German investigation claimed that iced wings prevented the aircraft from rising. At 2.34pm air traffic control radioed the plane and gave Captain Rayment permission for BEA Flight No.609 Zulu Uniform to attempt a second take-off but once again the plane came to a halt. After the second aborted attempt to take-off the players and other passengers returned to the airport lounge and the plane was inspected by the airport ground crew. By this time it had started to snow heavily.
Seeing the snow start to fall quite heavy a number of the players thought that they would be stopping off for the night at a nearby hotel thinking conditions were starting to become too bad to fly home. Indeed, Duncan Edwards sent a telegram to his landlady in Manchester which read: “All flights cancelled, flying tomorrow. Duncan.” After a further 15 minutes wait in the airport lounge everyone got back onboard the plane with a number of the passengers including Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, Tommy Taylor and Frank Swift opting to move to the rear of the aircraft where they felt it to be a much safer place to be seated.
Following discussions between Captain Thain, Captain Rayment and the airport engineer, William Black, 609 Zulu Uniform was on the move once again at 3.01pm. As the plane sped down the runway the air speed indicator quickly dropped from a reading of 117 knots to 105 knots. The Elizabethan airplane shot off the slush covered runway crashing through a fence before sliding across a road where its port wing struck a nearby house. Upon impact part of the tail and wing were instantly ripped off, the cockpit hit a tree, the starboard side of the fuselage hit a wooden hut housing a truck loaded with fuel and tyres and Lord Burleigh burst into flames. It was 3.03pm.
Twenty of the 44 people onboard the aircraft died instantly in the crash whilst the injured, many of them unconscious, including a seriously injured Matt Busby, were taken to the nearby Rechts de Isar Hospital in Munich. Busby had fractured ribs, a punctured and completely deflated lung and injuries to his legs which led to a member of the hospital’s medical staff informing journalists: “We do not have much hope of saving Mr Busby.” For two days his life hung in the balance whilst Matt, a devout Roman Catholic, was given the Last Rites on two separate occasions in hospital.
However, it was not until the morning of 7th February 1958, that the world became aware of the true scale and horror of what happened at Munich airport. Meanwhile, Duncan’s telegram was delivered at approximately 5.00pm, less than two hours after the crash. Matt Busby lay in an oxygen tent, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet suffered a gashed head, Ray Wood suffered a cut face and concussion, Albert Scanlon fractured his skull, Duncan Edwards’ injuries were very serious whilst Johnny Berry and Ken Morgans lay motionless in their hospital beds. Berry broke his jaw, elbow, pelvis, leg and cracked his skull and a surgeon had to remove all of his teeth in order to repair his jaw.
Remarkably despite his horrendous injuries Berry survived. Meanwhile, Belfast’s Jackie Blanchflower suffered horrendous injuries including a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, severe kidney damages, a severed arm and many other fractures to his battered body. Jackie almost missed the trip to Belgrade and was only declared fit the day before the team set off and travelled as back-up to Mark Jones. Eventually Matt Busby’s name was removed from the Danger List whilst the hospital staff under the leadership of Professor George Maurer, the Chief Surgeon, worked tirelessly day and night to save the lives of many of his injured players and passengers in their care.
Three more people died at the hospital from their injuries including Duncan Edwards who lost his brave battle for life 15 days after the plane crash and Captain Raymet (he died on 28th February 1958) resulting in a total of 23 fatalities, 8 of them Manchester United players, with 21 survivors. The doctors at the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich were of the opinion that Busby was not strong enough to know the full extent of the air disaster and so, it was three weeks before he knew the truth. Towards the end of February 1958, Busby asked a Franciscan friar at the hospital how Duncan Edwards was doing. The friar was unaware that the news of Duncan’s death on 21 February 1958, had been kept from him and he felt that it was his duty to inform Busby that his brightest star had lost his brave battle for life. His wife Jean, a constant companion at his hospital bedside, informed him of the other 7 players and club officials who had perished on that slush covered runway at Munich-Riem Airport.
The Busby Babes killed instantly in the crash were: Geoff Bent aged 25, Roger Byrne the Manchester United captain aged 29, Eddie Colman aged 21, Mark Jones aged 24, David Pegg aged 22, Tommy Taylor aged 26 and Ireland’s Liam Whelan aged 22. Walter Crickmer, the Club Secretary, first team trainer Tom Curry and coach, Bert Whalley lost their lives in the disaster. Eight of the nine journalists on the flight (Alf Clarke, Don Davies, George Follows, Tom Jackson, Archie Ledbrooke, Henry Rose, Frank Swift and Eric Thompson) perished in the crash as did one member of the aircrew, the travel agent who organised the trip, a Manchester United fan and two other passengers. Post the disaster Bill Foulkes recalled hearing a bang before being knocked out cold for a few minutes and when he awoke he said he saw a hole in the plane directly in front of him. Foulkes and the United and Northern Ireland international goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, performed heroics helping their team-mates and passengers from the burning fuselage time after time.
The tragedy became known as the Munich Air Disaster and is without question one of football’s blackest days. The subsequent investigation into the plane crash cited the cause of the accident to be a build-up of snow on the runway which had caused the aircraft to lose speed and crash. What happened in Munich was the most tragic day English football had ever witnessed and followed the 1949 Superga Air Disaster in which the entire Torino team died. The world reported the tragedy of Munich, flags were flown at half-mast, a minute’s silence was held before the next round of English League games and players wore black armbands in memory of those who perished in the disaster. However, whereas the world could mourn the loss of 8 Busby Babes, only Manchester United could celebrate them.
Today all fans of Manchester United regardless of their nationality can pay their own personal tribute at Old Trafford to the 8 Busby Babes who lost their lives in the Munich Air Disaster. High up on the curved wall where the East and South Stands of the stadium meet, a two-faced clock can be found (“The Munich Clock”) with the date at the top of its square face reading “6th February 1958” and an inscription at the bottom of it reading “Munich.”
Perhaps the quote which appeared in the International Herald Tribune can best sum up the significance of this permanent memorial at the Theatre of Dreams: “Time stopped for Manchester United.’ The loss of the 8 famous Busby Babes was described by The Times newspaper the day after the crash as: “The blackest hand yet set upon football in these islands.”
This clock was paid for by the Ground Committee and was unveiled on 25th February 1960 by Dan Marsden, the Chairman of the Ground Committee. On 6th February 2008, a memorial service was held at Old Trafford and following the service the surviving members of the 1958 team were the guests of honour at a ceremony to rename the tunnel under the stadium’s South Stand as the “Munich Tunnel.”
Anyone who visits Old Trafford, whether it is on a match day or to go to the Megastore, is instantly drawn into the tunnel where they can read all about the famous Busby Babes including how they lost their lives on a cold night in Munich on 6th February 1958. I visit the Munich Tunnel every time I go to Old Trafford and it is nice to see just how respectful the fans are as they stand in front of the various displays inside the tunnel which pay a fitting tribute to a team that surely would have won the European Cup in 1958 and possibly claimed the first Double of the 20th century only for the cruel hand of fate that befell them.
Matt Busby once said: “I never wanted Manchester United to be second to anybody. Only the best would be good enough.” At the time of the Munich Air Disaster George Best was just 11-years old and playing football on a pitch near his family home in Burren Way, Castlereagh, Belfast. However, despite his tender age the young Best, who would not only go on to become the greatest ever footballer to have played for Manchester United but the best player in the world (well according to the legendary Pele he was), later wrote about the disaster in his autobiography: ‘The crash had happened in the middle of the afternoon and I remember people talking about it as I came home from school on the bus. I then turned on the radio when I got home and heard all the details. The whole thing had an air of unreality about it because for most normal people then, flying was a fantasy in itself.’ And fittingly it would the young Belfast boy who would form part of Matt Busby’s third great Manchester United side and help his manager achieve his dream of achieving European Cup glory.
Fatalities of the Munich Air Disaster
Manchester United players
Duncan Edwards (survived the crash but died in hospital 15 days later)
Liam “Billy” Whelan
Manchester United Staff
Walter Crickmer – Club Secretary
Bert Whalley – Chief Coach
Tom Curry – Trainer
Alf Clarke – Manchester Evening Chronicle
Don Davies – Manchester Guardian
George Follows – Daily Herald
Tom Jackson – Manchester Evening News
Archie Ledbrooke – Daily Mirror
Henry Rose – Daily Express
Eric Thompson – Daily Mail
Frank Swift – News of the World (former Manchester City & England goalkeeper)
Flight Crew Members
Kenneth Rayment – the British co-pilot (survived the crash but died in hospital 21 days later)
Tommy Cable – Steward on the flight
Bela Miklos – Travel Agent
Willie Satinoff – a personal friend of Matt Busby (racecourse owner and Manchester United fan)
Matt Busby said of the young side he had built: ‘In all modesty, my summing up of 1955-56 and 1956-57 must be that no club in the country could live with Manchester United.’ No one can really say just how good the Busby Babes would have become. But in the short time they were together, they had become a team that had attracted fans not just from all over England, but from around the world.
In closing, I would like to share a conversation I had with Sir Alex Ferguson when I was editing the match programme for The Harry Gregg Testimonial game on Tuesday 15 May 2012 and the Boss spoke about the Munich Air Disaster.
Harry Gregg – My Hero
It was with the greatest pleasure that I immediately accepted an invitation to bring Manchester United to Belfast and play in a Testimonial Match for Harry Gregg. We received the request on 7th January 2012 from The George Best Carryduff Manchester United Supporters Club and 12 days later the Board met and unanimously gave their seal of approval. All too often the word Legend is used in football but more often than not the word is merely used to describe a player who left an indelible mark on the world of football. Harry Gregg’s exploits for Manchester United and Northern Ireland, voted the best goalkeeper in the world at the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden, are beyond legendary and his place in the illustrious history of Manchester United football Club is enshrined. And so I am absolutely delighted to bring my Manchester United side to Windsor Park, Belfast this evening to honour Harry the footballer but much more importantly than that, to honour Harry the true gentleman and a true hero to many Manchester United fans in word and deed.
“I was a 16-year old schoolboy playing for Drumchapel Amateurs, and training every Thursday night with Benburb Juniors, when news of the Munich Air Disaster became known. I made my way to training at Benburb and when I got there I saw the senior players crying. It was at that moment I realised the seriousness of the disaster. When I got home my Dad was staring into the fire, everyone was numb with the shock. My brother, Martin, and I went to our bedroom and it was quiet place in our house at the time. Over the course of the next two days the full extent of the tragedy unfolded with the local paper listing the names of the people who lost their lives in the disaster including 7 Busby Babes who died instantly: club captain Roger Byrne, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Ireland’s own Liam Whelan. Duncan Edwards became the eighth Busby Babe to die when he lost his brave battle for life 15 days later.
Harry Gregg was on the flight and after regaining consciousness he felt the blood trickling down his face but was too afraid to put his hand up to his head thinking that part of it may be hanging off. Upon seeing a shaft of light he kicked a hole wide enough to crawl through and make his way on the snowy runway. Most mere mortals would have run for their lives but Harry Gregg does not fall into this category of man. Despite his own injuries, and warnings not to go anywhere near the burning fuselage, Harry made his way into the smoldering aircraft time and time looking for fellow survivors who were in need of help. Harry’s unselfish bravery in putting his own life on the line to save others, including a pregnant Mrs Vera Lukic (the wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat) and her daughter, Vesna, his fellow Northern Ireland international and best friend, Jackie Blanchflower, rightfully earned him the title of “The Hero of Munich.”
I first met Harry when I was the manager of Aberdeen. It was near the end of the 1980-81 season and Harry was a coach at Manchester United under manager Dave Sexton. We had invited United to participate in a 1981-82 pre-season Summer Tournament at Pittodrie which also included Southampton and West Ham United. Harry was asked by Martin Edwards, Chairman of Manchester United at the time, to carry out a sort of reconnaissance trip ahead of the tournament. Harry was, and to this day, remains an absolute gentleman and the consummate professional. We had a long chat about numerous subjects with the exception of The Munich Air Disaster which I would have liked to have asked him about but dared not to given the level of respect I had for him. Nowadays Harry will jokingly tell you that he was sent to Aberdeen to suss me out as a replacement for Dave Sexton who regrettably was sacked at the end of the 1980-81 season. However, I still had so much more I wanted to achieve at Aberdeen and very much doubt if it would have been the right time to move south of the border had the opportunity presented itself. Needless to say when Manchester United did approach me in November 1986 I had no hesitation in accepting the job as the manager of the greatest football club in the world.
Harry Gregg has always been a most reluctant hero and the description does not sit comfortably for him on his big broad Irish shoulders. I will forever remember what Harry said when he went back to Munich on the 50th anniversary of the disaster and met Zoran Lukic (the little boy who was in his Mum’s womb at the time of the plane crash). Zoran looked at Harry and said: “I have always wanted this moment, to look into your face and say to you, ‘thank you’. I was the third passenger you saved, but, at the time, you were not to know that.” Typically Harry replied: “You’ve nothing to thank me for. I did what had to be done without thinking about it. “I’ve lived with being called a hero but I’m not really a hero. Heroes are people who do brave things knowing the consequences of their actions. That day, I had no idea what I was doing.”
Harry once said that the Munich Air Disaster changed Manchester United from a football club into an institution. Few will disagree with Harry’s view and even fewer will disagree with the part a young man from Tobermore, Northern Ireland played in the aura and mystique which resulted in the worldwide following that Manchester United enjoys today. If I was asked to describe Harry I would call upon the words from a beautiful poem by Nicola Burkett:
A hero thinks of others before they think of themselves
A hero will die to protect
A hero can be of any age, any colour
A hero can be man, woman or child
A hero is courageous, loving and brave
A hero will never complain
A hero can be made in one act of compassion
Or years of tender loving care
Some heroes are remembered, whilst many are left forgotten
Heroes are angels in disguise, saving precious innocent lives
Harry for this 16-year old boy from Govan you were and remain my Hero. I wish you and your family a most enjoyable evening and on behalf of Manchester United Football Club, thank you for the part you personally played in making Manchester United the greatest football club in the world.”