Forty years ago eleven British football players died in an air crash at Munich Riem Airport. A black day for all football fans. In a thick snowstorm Manchester United's charter aircraft exploded during take-off.

MUNICH (Associated Press/German Press Agency)

Forty years ago eleven players from the British team Manchester United and eight sports journalists died in an air crash.

The drama occured during a heavy snowstorm at Riem Airport. The two-engined propellor plane of the British airline BEA, with 44 passengers on board, made a scheduled stop there on the way back to Manchester. The previous day the team from England had reached the next leg of the European Cup and were now flying home.

The surviving pilot James Thain remembered: "Even during the first of two unsuccessful take-off attempts, both engines didn't sound right." After a quick repair however, an engineer had given the third go-ahead for take-off. While trying to get airborne, the shocked crew looked through the window and saw fire on the wing of the aircraft. Then the plane overshot the runway, crashed into a house and exploded. An eyewitness also gave an unconfirmed report that a wheel had fallen off the undercarriage while the plane was gathering speed.

A horrific scene

At the crash site rescuers were confronted with a horrific scene. Bodies lay everywhere on the runway. Among the 23 dead were legendary football players such as Duncan Edward, Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne and David Pegg, who should have formed the core of the English national team in the World Cup in Sweden later that year.

Fifty doctors battled at the Rechts der Isar clinic to save the lives of the injured. Often in vain: England goalkeeper Frank Swift died during an emergency operation. He was one of the most famous English football players. Survivors included Bobby Charlton and manager Matt Busby. The German national trainer Sepp Herberger visited his colleague shortly after in the hospital. FC Bayern Mčnchen and TSV1860 left flowers for the injured.

The cause of the tragic accident which brought such a black day for the world of football, could never be fully explained. The Federal Air Ministry in Braunschweig gave the cause of the crash as ice on the wings. But the British enquiry team said that slush on the runway was to blame, and exonerated pilot James Thain of any guilt.

ęNčrnberger Nachrichten

Translated from German to English by Aidan O'Rourke


The day a legend was born.

40 years ago, eight players from Manchester United died in Munich

Harry Gregg prepared himself in all honesty for death. He put down the book which he had been reading on the flight from Belgrade to the stopover in Munich, and pushed it as far away as possible. It was "The Whip" by Roger McDonald. "Not exactly the kind of book a religious person is supposed to read" says Gregg. "If I'd died with that book in my hand, I'd have ended up in hell." Then the goalkeeper of the English football champion team Manchester United loosened his tie, opened his shirt collar and trousers, "so the clothes would't be restrictive during an accident", and waited for the aircraft to take off.

Like Gregg, many people on board the charter aircraft "Lord Burleith", which was to bring the United team home from the European Cup match with Red Star Belgrade, feared the worst. Originally they had intended only a quick refuelling stop. Now take-off from the snow-covered runway had been aborted twice . Mechanics checked the aircraft, but it remained unclear what was wrong. Captain James Thain nevertheless wanted to try another take-off. In the passenger cabin, someone cracked a joke to lighten the mood. John Berry, United's little outsider, hissed nervously: "Shut your mouth!". When the airfcaft finally started its take-off for the third time, there was silence: Until the crash.

On the 6th of February, 1958, at 16.03 hours, Lord Burleigh overshot the runway at Riem Airport, Munich, careered through the fence and 250 metres further on, crashed into a house. The wings had been covered in ice, and for that reason the plane had not been able to take off: This was the explanation provided later by the Federal Air Ministry. 23 passengers lost their lives, including eight players who the night before had reached the semi-final of the European Cup. "The day a team died", wrote the sports journalist Frank Taylor, who was on board and survived. In reality it was the moment a legend was born. The tragedy made Manchester United into the most popular team in Britain, the most popular team in far-off countries like India and Thailand. Many teams win cups and championships, but here was a club who had apparently lost everything. That was the thing that made Manchester United different.

A fortieth anniversary is seldom cause to look back, but never before have the dead been remembered with so much intensity as this year. Today (Friday) a service of remembrance takes place in Manchester Cathedral. In about two weeks there will be a charity match for the benefit of the surviving relatives. It is the team of the present which arouses memories. In 1958 the average age was 24. The young players were called the "Busby Babes", after their trainer Matt Busby. In 1998 United again has a team full of youth and elegance - a team which looks like being strong enough to win the European Cup, which the Busby Babes were so close to winning 40 years ago, but which, tragically, remained so far away.

At the Hotel Windsor, Portstewart, the pictures from that time are still current - the Babes, together for the last time, in Belgrade, boarding the plane; Then Lord Burleigh in Munich, little more than a wreck. Goalkeeper Gregg has them hanging on the wall of the breakfast room. He's now 65 and for nine years has been a hotel owner in his native Northern Ireland. It's probably true to say that most people would rather to forget their memories of a terrible occurrence. For Harry Gregg, the accident has provoked the opposite feelings. Like a treasure, he defends the memory of Munich. He reacts almost with jealousy when others remember the accident. He calls the planned charity match "a circus I'd rather have nothing to do with". The authors of the many books about the Busby Babes are for him people, "who weren't there and now are trying to be a part of us."

With a bloody nose and a ringing head Gregg clambered out of the wreckage. He rescued the wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat, and baby, out of the remains of the aircraft, "I couldn't manage it with my hands so I had to push them out with both feet." Outside he saw two other members of the team, Bobby Charlton and Denis Viollet, lying motionless in the slush. Gregg dragged them 20 metres away from the wreck, which could have exploded at any time. "I thought they were dead and got the shock of my life then I turned round moments later and there they were, standing and staring at the burning aircraft."

Years later, Harry Gregg wrote his thoughts down. He has kept the paper, on which is written: "They said everything ended on the icy, windy runway. This cannot be true, for why are all the great football players coming to play with United? Why are there people coming from all over the world to see United? Munich wasn't the end, it was the beginning".

By Ronald Reng. Translated from German to English by Aidan O'Rourke.

Join Aidan on his Manchester Photo Walk.
Eyewitness in Manchester Home Page | Aidan O'Rourke on Twitter and Facebook | Contact

Join Aidan on his Manchester Photo Walk.
Eyewitness in Manchester Home Page | Aidan O'Rourke on Twitter and Facebook | Contact