Munich: A Defining Moment In Time

Manchester United

Today, the 6th day of February, will forever be synonymous for those of us who love Manchester United Football Club with tragic events that played out on a frozen, desolate airfield in Munich, Germany exactly 60 years ago. On that fateful day, our Club, and indeed our home city, lost many precious people, people who had devoted their lives (both young and somewhat older) to the Club….whilst others who survived the horrors of that day were scarred, both physically and mentally, forever.

United, early pioneers of European football for English clubs under the watchful guidance of manager Matt Busby (who had defied the wishes of the leading individuals of the time in the Football League by taking United into the fledgling continental competition called the “European Champions Clubs’ Cup”, then a trophy competed for only by those who had won their national league championship the previous season), had just overcome the stubborn challenge of leading Yugoslavian side Red Star of Belgrade in the Quarter-Final of the 1957-58 competition by a narrow margin of 5-4 on aggregate, and now travelled home, future Semi-Final dates with the mighty champions of Italy, A.C. Milan, secured.

United, by 1958, were a renowned, formidable team packed with extravagantly talented young players, players who had carried the Club to the English First Division title in both seasons preceding this one, and were amongst the favourites to make it 3-in-a-row, a feat only previously achieved by Huddersfield Town and Arsenal. They had been christened with the name “The Busby Babes”  by the British press and public, such was the youthful nature of the team, and the fact the players had been coached through underage teams into the 1st team set-up by Busby and, in particular, his assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy.

Unlike modern times, when larger aircraft routinely travel several thousand miles on a single ‘top up’ of fuel, air travel in 1958 remained much more laborious and “stop-start” in nature due to having to refuel the aeroplanes on a more frequent basis, and so United’s return flight to Manchester was scheduled for a short layover at Riem Airport in Munich to allow the chartered British European Airways “Elizabethan” craft to take on more fuel, as it couldn’t complete such a long journey without doing so.

Onboard were not only the United playing squad, along with manager Busby, Club secretary Walter Crickmer, trainer Tom Curry and coach Bert Whalley, but a plethora of Manchester-based journalists, a supporter (Willie Satinoff), the five-man crew and several other travellers, 44 people in total. Despite his protestations that he should be with the team in Belgrade, Busby had told his trusty assistant and proud Welshman Jimmy Murphy that his duty as Wales manager meant Murphy needed to be in Cardiff for their game against Israel more than in Belgrade, and so Murphy had not travelled to Eastern Europe.

When the flight landed to refuel in Munich after lunchtime, there had already been light dustings of snow earlier in the day, and after the passengers boarded again for take-off at 2.20 pm, Captain James Thain instructed co-pilot Kenneth Rayment to abandon their first take-off attempt as the port engine ‘sounded odd’; again, they abandoned a second attempt minutes later as the engines were over-accelerating on the throttles.

The pilots instructed everyone to return to the terminal while they had the problem investigated, and United’s star midfielder Duncan Edwards (21) used that time to send a telegram to his landlady, advising that “all flights cancelled, flying tomorrow. Duncan.”

A quarter-hour after leaving the plane, the passengers were told to return, as the pilots believed they had fixed the problem, and their journey could continue as planned. By now, snow was falling heavily and the temperatures had dropped noticeably. The runway was covered in heavy, slushy snow.

Several of the group, already not confident flyers, decided they would prefer to sit to the rear of the cabin…unbeknown to them, for many it would turn out to be a fatal error. This group included Edwards, forward Liam Whelan (22), striker Tommy Taylor (26), centre-half Mark Jones (24), winger Eddie Colman (21) and former Manchester City goalkeeper, now journalist, Frank Swift.

Pilot Rayment started down the snow-bound runway at 3.04 pm, but once the engines had reached 117 knots, and it was no longer an option to abort take-off, suddenly instead of increasing to 119 knots (which was the speed required to lift off the ground), the engines died suddenly back to 112 knots, then 105, and as the boundary fencing came into view Rayment shouted: “Christ, we won’t make it!”. Unfortunately, he was right.

The Elizabethan skidded off the end of the runway, through the fencing and crossed a road, before hitting a house and tearing into a hut that stored a truck filled with fuel and tyres, its fuselage ripping apart with the collisions.

Twenty people died almost immediately as the plane broke apart and exploded in a ball of flames. Those victims included Whelan, Taylor, Colman, Jones, full-back and club captain Roger Byrne (28), full-back Geoff Bent (25), left-winger David Pegg (22), Crickmer, Curry, Whalley, Satinoff, and six of the journalists travelling with the team.

Of the remaining twenty-four people on the flight, several can thank the quick-thinking, selfless actions of goalkeeper Harry Gregg for their survival. As he ‘came-too’ after a brief state of unconsciousness, Gregg realised the imminent danger of the broken fuselage exploding further as it burned, and he set about pulling as many people as he could to the relative safety of the cold, sodden ground. Those survivors included the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat and her baby daughter.

Eventually, the remaining grievously-injured survivors were ferried to the nearby Rechts der Isar Hospital for emergency treatment. Frank Swift never made it, dying from his injuries in the ambulance on the journey. Amongst the most badly injured were Edwards and Matt Busby, who as a devout Catholic was given The Last Rites by a local priest, since the doctors did not expect the Scot to survive more than a few hours.

As that day and the next progressed, and news filtered back to Manchester that the boys had met with an unspeakable tragedy, people tearfully, solemnly filed to Old Trafford to lay flowers, hug each other in vain attempts at comfort, or simply tuned in for radio updates whilst they waited for the latest press releases…. Who had died? Who was still alive? How had this happened? Was this for real and not some hellish nightmare? No-one thought about football, rightly relegated for now to a position of no importance whatsoever.

As the days passed, the initial overwhelming grief and sadness over those who had perished (as funeral procession was followed by yet another funeral procession) was joined by a lingering hope that perhaps Matt Busby and his young colossus Duncan Edwards might yet live. Of the players who had survived, it had become clear that right-winger Johnny Berry (31) and young half-back Jackie Blanchflower (24, and younger brother of Danny, who would go on to become a legend for Tottenham Hotspur and Northern Ireland) were so badly injured that they would never kick a football in a competitive fixture ever again. Gregg, Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, Kenny Morgans, Albert Scanlan, Dennis Viollet and Ray Wood had survived physically intact, though they all had mental pictures and nightmarish memories they would be condemned to carry in their heads for the rest of their lives.

And then, fifteen days after the crash, on 21st February, the desperate, dreadful news filtered through that young Edwards, despite appearing to rally in the days immediately afterwards, had finally lost his battle for life. It was a numbing, crushing blow, rubbing salt into the open wounds of the United faithful (and indeed football fans and ordinary people much further afield than south-west Manchester), who had so fervently prayed that their star player, along with his manager, might at least be spared such an untimely death. In the aftermath, the doctors admitted that only Duncan’s phenomenal physical strength had enabled him to sustain his fight against the inevitable as long as he had. That was no surprise to those who had flocked to watch him grace many a football pitch across the length and breadth of England for the previous three or four years, but it did nothing to ease the fresh grief that washed over the Red family.

Busby, by contrast, and after having been given The Last Rites twice, finally did make a more or less full physical recovery from his life-threatening injuries… though, of course, the anguish the man must have felt and carried within him every time his thoughts returned to the scene of the loss of his ‘Babes’ must have been a terrible burden on him for the rest of his life.

Besides the eight journalists, two crew members (co-pilot Rayment being the final victim, 23 days after the crash), team supporter Willie Satinoff and a travel agent who were killed that day, United lost their secretary (Walter Crickmer), much-loved team trainer Tom Curry, chief coach Bert Whalley, and eight young men, kids really, with fabulous footballing abilities: Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam “Billy” Whelan. Their names have adorned plagues and memorial stones, at Old Trafford, Munich, Belgrade and elsewhere, ever since. Whilst the premature loss of any human life is a terrible thing, the sudden, shocking loss of such youthful, exuberant lives on a snow-covered runway far, far away from their homes was a horror too awful to comprehend.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, February 1958 was a defining moment in time for Manchester United. Prior to the crash, the Club had been through many turbulent times both on and off the pitch, but were largely regarded as just another progressive, regional team from North-West England, much like neighbours and rivals Manchester City, Bolton Wanderers, Everton and Preston North End. After 6th February, Manchester United meant something much more than that, and the teams that Matt Busby went on to build in the 1960s, sides which integrally included Munich survivors Charlton, Gregg and Foulkes, continued to try to play football in the ‘right’ way, the way it had been played by Edwards, Colman, Whelan and their youthful team-mates.

Ten years after the Munich Air Disaster, Matt Busby achieved his life’s ‘dream’, the burning ambition that had driven him and all those young lads on to make that ill-fated journey to freezing Belgrade in the first place – at Wembley, Manchester United became Champions of Europe, the first English side ever to achieve that feat. I’m sure that even on that famous night in North London, Matt’s thoughts were never far from his lost boys. His team that evening contained Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes, two men who knew only too well what the triumph had cost their manager.

All that has followed on since 6th February 1958, in terms of glory for the Red Devils (and there has been plenty of that to enjoy, especially over the past 30 years under Sir Alex Ferguson), has been achieved under the all-encompassing shadow of that fateful day. If you become a supporter of Manchester United, you will inevitably get taught to know the history of the Club, a history that will always reverberate around the events of February 1958, just as it should.

“The Flowers of Manchester” will live on forever in our hearts, even though the majority of us who now solemnly remember them every 6th day of February were not yet born into this world when they took their untimely leave of it. We’ll keep the Red Flag flying high, because, for us, they will never die. Today I’ll have a tear not far from my eye, a lump not quite out of my throat.

About the Author

Rodney McCain
A passionate supporter of Manchester United since I was 6 years old. In life I'm a consulting civil engineer, but that's only to pay the bills. Originally from Northern Ireland, I was a regular at Old Trafford for many years, but now reside in the United States, which makes getting to games a tad difficult.... I love to write about football, which hopefully comes across to readers on these sites.