'I've been called a hero after Munich air disaster, but I'm not really a hero'
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, in which eight of Manchester United's Busby Babes perished. John White recalls the tragedy and the heroism displayed by Harry Gregg, the Old Trafford club’s Northern Ireland-born goalkeeper'
When Manchester United play Huddersfield Town at Old Trafford today, United fans across the globe will be commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Munich air disaster.
In their first two away fixtures of the 1957-58 European Cup (versus Shamrock Rovers and Dukla Prague), Manchester United used scheduled airline services so the players could avoid the fatigue of long journeys by road, rail and sea.
However, their return journey from the Czechoslovakian capital, Prague, after a first-round game against Dukla Prague on December 4, 1957, was beset by problems. Fog over England forced the aircraft transporting the team back to Manchester to divert to Holland, where they landed in Amsterdam.
Manager Matt Busby was concerned that his side would not be able to return home in time to play their next First Division game away to Birmingham City on Saturday, December 7, and would face the wrath of the FA.
Thankfully, club secretary Walter Crickmer managed to book the team on a ferry that brought them from the Hook of Holland to Harwich on the morning of their visit to Birmingham.
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.
Manchester United officials were adamant that their Czech experience would not be repeated when they travelled to Yugoslavia. The club chartered a 47-seater Air Ambassador Elizabethan class airplane (called Lord Burleigh) from British European Airways for the 2,000-mile round trip from Manchester to Belgrade.
The Manchester United team were on their way home from Belgrade, having drawn 3-3 with the famous Red Star Belgrade the night before in the quarter-finals of the European Cup, when their chartered flight had to stop off at Munich-Riem Airport en route to Manchester.
When the plane touched down in Munich, the weather conditions were extremely poor with a chill-factor wind swirling around the airport. Around 2pm, the twin-engine Lord Burleigh 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.
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 rolling down the runway, Captain Rayment abandoned take-off.
After a second abortive attempt to take off, the players and other passengers on board returned to the airport lounge while the plane was inspected by the airport's ground crew. By this time, it had started to snow heavily.
After a further 15-minute wait in the airport lounge, everyone got back on board. As the plane once again sped down the runway, the air speed indicator quickly dropped from a reading of 117 knots to 105. The plane 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.
Twenty of the 44 people on board died instantly, while 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 deflated lung and injuries to his legs, which led to a member of the hospital's medical staff to inform journalists: "We do not have much hope of saving Mr Busby."
Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet suffered gashes to their heads, Ray Wood had a cut face and concussion, Albert Scanlon fractured his skull, Duncan Edwards' injuries were very serious, and Johnny Berry and Ken Morgans lay motionless in their hospital beds.
Belfast's Jackie Blanchflower suffered horrendous injuries including a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, severe kidney damage, a severed arm and many other fractures to his battered body. Jackie had almost missed the trip to Belgrade and was only declared fit the day before the team set off.
Three 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 Rayment, resulting in a total of 23 fatalities - eight of them Manchester United players - with 21 survivors.
The Busby Babes killed instantly in the crash were Geoff Bent (25), Roger Byrne, the Manchester United captain (29), Eddie Colman (21), Mark Jones (24), David Pegg (22), Tommy Taylor (26) and Liam Whelan (22).
Walter Crickmer, the club secretary, first team trainer Tom Curry and coach Bert Whalley also lost their lives.
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.
On one of my many visits to Manchester, researching my Irish Devils book, a friend of mine, Bill Clarkson from Dukinfield, took me to see a friend of his, Fr David McGarry, from St. Catherine's of Siena in Didsbury. I asked Fr McGarry and Bill to tell me about Jackie Blanchflower. "Jackie was an attacking midfielder, a class-touch player," he said. "If anything, maybe he was too classy for the position. 'Stylist' is the word I would use to describe Jackie, who was the brother of the great Danny Blanchflower, and Jackie was up there with his brother in terms of ability and an excellent passer of the ball.
"It was tremendous loss to both Manchester United and Northern Ireland when Jackie was forced to retire prematurely as a result of the awful injuries he sustained in the Munich air disaster."
After the disaster, centre-half Bill Foulkes recalled hearing a bang before being knocked out cold for a few minutes. When he woke up, he said he saw a hole in the plane directly in front of him. Foulkes, along with the United and Northern Ireland goalkeeper, Magherafelt-born Harry Gregg, performed heroics helping their team-mates and passengers from the burning fuselage time after time.
Harry, who had clambered out of the hole in the fuselage, dragged fellow United players Bobby Charlton, Dennis Viollet and Jackie Blanchflower from the plane. He also saved Vera Lukic, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat, and her daughter, Vesna, as well as his badly injured manager.
Harry risked his life with his rescue heroics, as the burning fuselage could have exploded at any time. Vera later gave birth to a baby boy, Zoran.
In an interview with The Times some time later, Harry said he could still remember how dark and silent it was after the plane crashed. "I thought I was dead until I felt the blood running down my face," he explained. "I didn't want to feel my head because I thought the top had been taken off like a hard-boiled egg. I was so confused. It was total darkness, yet it was only three in the afternoon. The first dead person that I saw was Bert Whalley, the chief coach. At first, I thought I was the only one left alive.
"At that moment, the aircraft captain came around from what had been the nose of the aircraft, carrying a little fire extinguisher. When he saw me, he shouted, 'Run, you stupid b******, it's going to explode'."
Harry then recalled how he heard the sound of a baby crying: "The crying seemed to bring me back to reality and I shouted at the people running away to come back, but they were still shouting at me to run. I could hear the child crying and felt angry they were running away, so I shouted again, 'Come back, you b*******, there's people alive in here.'"
So, Harry, without a care in the world for his own life, climbed back into the burning aircraft and found the baby. "She was beneath a pile of debris and, remarkably, she only had a cut over her eye," he said. "I scrabbled back to the hole with her and got her out."
After Harry handed the baby to someone close by, he returned to the smouldering wreck and pulled the baby's mother, Vera Lukic, out of a hole in the fuselage. Harry then made a third trip back to the plane, ignoring cries for him not to.
This time, he was looking for his team-mate and close friend Jackie Blanchflower. "I began to search for Jackie and I shouted out his name," he said. "Blanchy and I had been friends since we played together for Ireland schoolboys as 14-year-olds and I was desperate to find him."
In his frantic search for Blanchflower, he soon came across Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, both of whom were unconscious. Harry dragged his two team-mates out of the plane and laid them on the snow a short distance from the aircraft before resuming his search for Jackie. Much to his utter relief, he found him.
"When I found Blanchy, the lower part of his right arm had been almost completely severed," he said. "It was horrendous, a scene of utter devastation."
In January 2008, Harry made an emotional return to Munich Airport and stood at the scene of the crash for a BBC television documentary called One Life: Munich Air Disaster. It was the first time that he had returned to Munich and, during the filming, he met Zoran Lukic, the son of Vera Lukic, who was still in his mother's womb at the time of the disaster.
Lukic, then aged 49, walked slowly up to him 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."
Harry blushed slightly, before softly responding: "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."
Today, all fans of Manchester United - regardless of nationality - can pay their own personal tribute at Old Trafford to the eight Busby Babes who lost their lives at Munich. 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".
The time on the clock permanently reads 3.03pm: the exact time the plane crashed.
John White is branch secretary of Carryduff Manchester United Supporters' Club. Adapted from his official Manchester United book Irish Devils: The Official Story of Manchester United and the Irish (Simon & Schuster)
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, in which eight of Manchester United's Busby Babes perished. John White recalls the tragedy and the heroism displayed by Harry Gregg, the Old Trafford club's Northern Ireland-born goalkeeper