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How disgraced United pilot Saved Lives

The infamous Munich plane crash was blamed on the pilot. A new book says otherwise.

The Munich Air Disaster: By Stephen R. Morrin
The Munich Air Disaster: By Stephen R. Morrin

By Laurence White

Aviation historian, Stephen Morrin, who has spent much of his life investigating tragic plane crashes, recently received a poignant artefact from one of the most renowned air disasters.

He was given a fragment of the wing of BEA Elizabethan aircraft which ploughed off the runway at Munich airport on February 6, 1958, claiming the lives of 23 people, many of them members of the famous Busby Babes, potentially the greatest Manchester United side of all time.

The fragment was given to him by the son of a BEA engineer who had worked at Munich airport at the time.

It is a particularly apt memento of the tragedy since, for many years, the official reason for the crash was ice on the wings of the aircraft. The surviving pilot, Captain James Thain, was made the scapegoat for the tragedy, being blamed by the German-led inquiries for not de-icing the plane before take-off.

But Morrin, in a new book on the crash - The Munich Air Disaster - points out that Captain Thain, rather than being the villain of the tragedy, was a hero, attempting to save passengers from the wrecked aircraft. It was only after a long fight that he was actually able to clear his name. Sadly, the struggle resulted in his untimely death from a heart attack in 1975, at the age of 54.

Morrin (57) has written what he calls "the definitive account" of the tragedy, starting with the appointment of Matt Busby as Manchester United manager in February 1945. The club in those days was a far cry from the world famous institution it is today - a club with little money and no ground, Old Trafford having been virtually destroyed by German bombers in 1941.

Busby's long-term plan was to assemble a team of the finest young players in the country, a task which had just come to fruition when the team was largely wiped out by the Munich air disaster on its way home from a European Cup match.

One of that team was Ulsterman Harry Gregg, another hero of Munich, who helped drag a pregnant woman and her daughter to safety from the crashed plane and who went back to the aircraft several times to look for team-mates in spite of fears of an imminent explosion and fire.

Morrin says that he spent some time going over his manuscript with Gregg, a man he describes as "the custodian of the memory of the Busby Babes" . Gregg can be notoriously prickly but, according to Morrin, they largely agreed on the facts as outlined in the book.

In the book Morrin goes into almost forensic detail on the crash and the subsequent inquiries.

During his two years of research on the book, Morrin, gained access to Captain Thain's private archives detailing his struggle to clear his name. He also liaised with the pilot's daughter, Sebuda, who recalled the trauma of the 11 years between the crash and the final British inquiry which pinpointed slush and standing water on the runway as the real cause of the crash. The slush and standing water produced a drag effect on the aircraft wheels which meant it did not have sufficient power to take-off, ploughing through a perimeter fence before hitting a house.

Morrin also interviewed the son of the other pilot, Captain Kenneth Rayment, who died from injuries sustained in the crash. His son, Steve, who later also became a pilot, recounted how he had been beaten up a few times as a young boy by other youngsters who blamed his father for the death of their footballing idols. "Surprisingly", Morrin says, "Steve today is a Manchester United supporter."

Morrin is scathing in his criticism of the German authorities in the aftermath of the crash. He accuses them of "suppressing, changing and manipulating" evidence to the inquiries and of refusing to call key witnesses. It was only when evidence of the effects of slush on aircraft take-offs was produced by American and British aeronautical experts that the theory of the ice on the wings was finally disproved.

His book is also unlikely to find great favour within Old Trafford. He accuses the club of largely ignoring the role of assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, who held it together while Matt Busby was recovering from the severe injuries sustained at Munich. "He saw the club become a big business, but he never got the recognition he deserved. He was a very skilled coach and several other big clubs wanted to appoint him as manager, but he was intensely loyal to Manchester United. I don't think Matt Busby would have achieved half of what he did without Murphy by his side."

Morrin says the club did not treat all the survivors of the Munich disaster well. One young player, 18-year-old Kenny Morgans, was picked to play in the FA Cup final against Bolton after Munich. On the morning of the match he was dropped. It was a disappointment that Harry Gregg said broke Morgans' heart and he never regained his previous form.

Like others he was quickly moved on to other clubs with little recognition of what they had been through. Morrin says: "You have to remember that there was not the same compensation culture in the 1950s as we have now. People felt that no matter what happened to them, they should just get on with life. It was only at the 40th anniversary of Munich that survivors asked Manchester United to remember them.

"The club, particularly through the then chairman, Martin Edwards, managed to foul up what was supposed to be an anniversary game for the original Busby Babes by allowing it to be billed as a farewell appearance by Eric Cantona. Cantona got £90,000 for appearing, and the surviving Busby Babes or dependants got £47,000 each. It was a disaster. It should be remembered that the money came from the pockets of the supporters, not from one of the richest clubs in the world.

"Harry Gregg had no intention of going to that game but went when he was informed that his great friend and former team mate Jackie Blanchflower, who was terminally ill, wanted to appear. Blanchflower died a few weeks later ".

Morrin, who is an architectural modeller working on television and film sets as well as models for exhibitions, has been interested in aviation history for almost 40 years. He has written two previous books on plane crashes, The Day the Sky Fell Down (on the Stockport air disaster of 1967) and The Devil Casts His Net (on the Winter Hill crash in 1958).

He spends much of his spare time taking part in digs at the scene of air crashes, including those of downed World War II aircraft.

The Munich Air Disaster by Stephen Morrin, published by Gill & Macmillan, £10.99

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