Belfast Telegraph

The story of the Munich Air Disaster when 23, including eight of Manchester United's Busby Babes, lost their lives

By John White - a lifelong Manchester United fan, author of over 30 sports books

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 game versus Dukla Prague on 4th December 1957, had been beset by problems.

A fog over England forced the aircraft transporting the Manchester United team to Manchester to divert to Holland where they landed in Amsterdam. Busby 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 FA who without hesitation would undoubtedly deduct the club points.

The FA were still smarting 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 FA maintained their strict stance that the Champions of England had no place competing in what they regarded as a circus of a European 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.

Meanwhile, Wolves who went on to clinch the First Division crown in 1957-58, won 2-1 away at Preston North End to take a nine point 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.

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 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.

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.

Having won the first leg 2-1 at Old Trafford, 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 en route to Manchester for refuelling as a non-stop trip from Belgrade to Manchester was not possible for British European Airways; (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 2pm 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 - assuming conditions were becoming 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 on board 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, eight][- of them Manchester United players, with 21 survivors.

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 Crickmere, 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 eight 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 eight 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.”

The time on the clock permanently reads 3.03pm, the exact time the plane crashed and burst into flames.  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 eight 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 European Cup glory. 

Fatalities of the Munich Air Disaster

Manchester United players

Geoff Bent

Roger Byrne

Eddie Colman

Duncan Edwards (survived the crash but died in hospital 15 days later)

Mark Jones

David Pegg

Tommy Taylor

Liam “Billy” Whelan

Manchester United Staff

Walter Crickmer – Club Secretary

Bert Whalley – Chief Coach

Tom Curry - Trainer

Journalists

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

Others

Bela Miklos -  Travel Agent

Willie Satinoff – a personal friend of Matt Busby (racecourse owner and Manchester United fan)

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