On Sunday BBC broadcast a drama-documentary, United, starring David Tennant. Although heavily criticised by Matt Busby’s son for the portrayal of his father, the production was sensitive and powerful. The 1958 Munich plane crash that took the lives of so many players, reporters and crew has remained quietly controversial. What follows is a piece I wrote at the time of the 50th Anniversary intended to revisit those injustices and to silence those who use the horrors of death in disasters as expressions of hatred for the other’s team.
Munich – 6 February 1958
The remarkable sequence of events that led to the crash-landing of a highly sophisticated British Airways’ Boeing 777 at London Heathrow on 17 January 2008 has been greeted with astonishment by aviation specialists. Some two miles out from its destination, 500 feet above the ground, Flight BA038 lost the power necessary to land normally. It happened without warning and the alarm system also failed. The pilot at the controls manually glided the plane down, dipping its nose to maximise length and lifting at the last minute to hurdle the 3 metre perimeter fence. All energy lost to the final manoeuvre the plane literally belly-flopped from 10 feet onto grass, severing the undercarriage and ploughing a 400 foot furrow to the edge of the runway. It was a highly skilful sequence of flying demanding calm concentration. The two pilots and 14 crew undoubtedly saved the lives of the 136 passengers. In the immediate aftermath ‘experts’ theorised the most likely cause to be a freak, localised weather glitch or pilot error. Unanimously they agreed that a system failure within the plane was highly unlikely. They were wrong.
Over the last decade we have become so accustomed to flying, reassured by statistics proclaiming its impressive safety record, well ahead of road or rail travel. Planes are technologically so advanced, runways are kept in excellent condition, pilots are highly trained and the aviation revolution has opened access beyond all expectations. While the cost to the environment and to communities is hotly debated the advances in safety are uncontested. Fifty years ago, however, things were massively different with much of the technology experimental, knowledge limited and conditions arbitrary. Few people flew. As a young child I remember waving off my sister from Speke Airport, now a Marriott Hotel, as she left for Lourdes. She was the only person in our extended family to have boarded a plane. Most of the men had been to sea, docking in ports throughout the world, but none had flown. I have flown more air miles in the last 8 months than in the first 35 years of my life. Living in Belfast I fly far more than I use any other form of transport. Flying has become habitual and within advanced industrial societies it embraces all classes.
As a young child football was my passion and Billy Liddle my hero. We were in the Second Division and not doing so well. Most of my mates were Blues although those kids whose families were less committed supported Wolves or Spurs or whoever else was winning. When Dad took me he’d buy a seat in the main stand and lift me over the turnstile. I’d sit on his knee for the game. The Kop was unbelievable to watch from the stand and the Boys’ Pen up in the top right corner looked frightening but exciting. One day both would be my graduation although I’d sometimes slip into The Paddock, close to the halfway line. If Billy and Tommy Younger were special, I looked to Duncan Edwards as an inspiration. If he could play for England so young, so could I! We didn’t have a telly but I read the reports and out the back I imagined I had all the moves. How I wished he’d played for us.
It was a cold evening in February 1958 when the radio broke the news that a plane carrying Manchester United’s team had crashed at Munich airport. The manager, the likeable Matt Busby, and his renowned ‘Busby Babes’, were among the dead and injured. It was devastating news especially as playing in Europe was a recent development. We were stunned and I remember going to bed that night, looking at the pictures of the team in my Football Diary and praying that the great Duncan would be alright. Soon we knew. Seven players, three United staff, seven journalists and three others had died. Duncan Edwards and Matt Busby were critically ill. Among the journalists the legendary Frank Swift, former Manchester City goalie, had died. I’d heard stories about his incredible agility and massive hand span. Duncan passed away 15 days later and a co-pilot also died in hospital. Nine players, including the young Bobby Charlton, survived as did the Captain James Thain and eleven others. While I was oblivious to what was happening in Manchester – despite it being only the other end of the East Lancs I’d never been there – I recall being deeply upset for a long time afterwards.
The European Cup had been introduced only three years earlier and United were the first English team involved in the 1956-7 season. They made it to the semis and lost to the brilliant Real Madrid who went on to win the trophy. In the 1957-8 season, having won the First Division, the Busby Babes were favourites to win in Europe. They beat Dukla Prague, the Czech champions, 3-1 on aggregate and in the quarter finals returned to the Balkans to play Yugoslavia’s Crvena Zvezda, known to us as Red Star Belgrade. On 14 January they beat Red Star 2-1 at Old Trafford. The midwinter return was in Belgrade on 5 February. They chartered a British European Airways’ 47 seater plane for the players, staff and journalists and flew via Munich for refuelling. Both pilots were experienced full captains and knew each other well. They landed the plane in Belgrade in very demanding weather conditions. So serious was the situation that airport control was unaware of their arrival until the plane appeared out of the gloom at the arrival building. The match was played and despite being 3-0 up at half-time United were held to a 3-3 draw, winning the tie 5-4 on aggregate. Several people joined the return flight to Manchester bringing the passenger list to 38.
Landing at Munich the runway was laden with slush. It continued to snow. Before leaving for Manchester the crew checked the wings to ensure no ice had formed and the pilots agreed de-icing was unnecessary. As Captain Thain had flown the outbound flight his friend Captain Rayment was at the controls so they had changed seats. As the plane accelerated down the runway the pilots realised there were problems with the engines and the pressure gauges on the instrument panel. They abandoned take-off and braked heavily, skidding to a halt through the slush. Apparently the cause was ‘boost-surging’ within the engines, a problem previously experienced with this type of airplane. Clearance was given for a second attempt to take off but once again, as the plane picked up speed down, the pilots aborted. This time the plane returned to the parking bay for checks. Photographs show clearly that there had been a fresh fall of snow on the tarmac adding to the existing slush. The passengers disembarked and the pilots and the station engineer decided against retuning the engines. A third take-off attempt would be made. The wings were observed as ice free but the runway was holding more snow and slush. A quick inspection of the runway by airport staff gave the go-ahead despite there being an uneven distribution of slush.
Reluctantly the team and other passengers returned to the aircraft. To overcome the problem with the engines the pilot opened the throttles more slowly as the plane went down the runway. It picked up speed towards take off and the pilots successfully dealt with some engine surging but the plane lost speed when it reached the undisturbed slush. Running out of tarmac it ploughed across snow-laden grass, smashed the perimeter fence and hit a house, a tree and a garage. The plane caught fire in small pockets but the main fuel tank remained secure. What followed were great moments of heroism as uninjured staff and players climbed back into the plane to rescue those trapped and injured, including Matt Busby. Already 20 people were dead. Once the rescue services arrived the fires were doused and Captain Rayment was cut free. He died later.
The Geman accident investigators arrived that evening. Examining the wreck without proper lighting they determined the wings were iced up beneath the subsequent fall of snow. That was their early determination as the sole cause of the disaster. BEA sent an investigation team to Munich. The team found no problems with the engines. All indications, including the opinion of the station engineer pointed to the cause of deceleration as slush on the runway. This was also Captain Thain’s opinion. Yet the West German Traffic and Transport Ministry announced that ‘the aircraft did not leave the ground’ probably ‘as the result of ice on the wings’. Captain Thain was criticised for not providing a satisfactory explanation as to why he did not ‘discontinue the final attempt to take off’. This determination laid the blame entirely at the door of the pilots. Alternatively, any finding of accumulation of snow and slush on the runway and inadequate inspection would place responsibility on the authorities.
In April 1958 a full German Inquiry was held behind closed doors. Witnesses were selected by the German senior investigator and, remarkably, the airport controllers were not called to give evidence. After much controversy and contradiction by ‘experts’ over ice on the wings it became clear that the Inquiry judge favoured icing as the principal cause of the disaster. ‘Other circumstances’ might have contributed but it was too late to determine their relevance. A year and a month after the disaster the Inquiry report was released. Ice on the wings was the ‘decisive cause’ and the pilots, Rayment (dead) and Thain (alive), were held responsible. The BEA Safety Committee refuted the report’s conclusions although it accepted that icing on the wings might have contributed. Slush on the runway was a significant factor, Captain Thain was criticised for not occupying the seat in the cockpit appropriate for the overall captain of the aircraft. Thain, his career in ruins and under suspension, sought to clear his name. Yet a further hearing in 1960 criticised his failure to ensure that the wings were clear of ice and his employers sacked him, adding that he had breached regulations by being in the wrong seat. United’s negligence case against BEA was settled out of court.
Further investigative trials were held and expert opinion was sought as scientific knowledge moved on. In November 1965 a second inquiry was convened in Germany to consider the new evidence ands opinions. Some consideration of slush on the runway was accepted but ice on the wings ‘was still to be regarded as the essential cause …’ The following April the British Ministry of Aviation retorted that the ‘strong likelihood’ was ‘there was no significant icing during take off’ and ‘the principal cause of the crash was the effect of slush on the runway’. A decade after the disaster a British inquiry was convened. A key witness, previously not called – an aeronautical engineer first on the scene, stated categorically that the wings were not iced. Not only had the German authorities failed to call him to their inquiries but his written statement had been altered to omit a crucial element of his testimony. Photographic evidence, it seemed, had also been altered. In 1969 the British inquiry report concluded that slush had impeded the nose wheel of the aircraft and the subsequent drag on all wheels was the ‘prime cause’. Once deceleration had happened there was insufficient runway to pick up speed and ‘blame for the accident is NOT to be imputed to Captain Thain’. The German authorities rejected the findings. Captain Thain died of a heart attack at the young age of 54.
Mike Kemble, from whose research much of the above summary is derived, states that ‘there is no doubt … that a cover up was engineered by the West German authorities, possibly even as high as the Federal Government in Bonn. There was never going to be any doubt about the outcome from the first inspection of the crash site to the publication of the report’. He raises 10 important unanswered questions regarding the disaster and the aftermath and his detailed research has drawn on many other sources including Captain Rayment’s son, Steve. Mike Kemble’s excellent work, including photographic evidence and excerpts from the Captain’s log can be found at:
Reading Mike’s work and a range of other material for this overview has answered many of the questions and concerns I remember thinking about in the late 1960s. I have always been uneasy that Munich was considered an ‘accident’ due mainly to pilot error. My analyses of disasters over the last 20 years have shown a clear and unambiguous reluctance of authorities to accept responsibility for their culpable acts or omissions, for their institutionalised negligent custom and practice. It suits those in power, whether public bodies or private corporations, to lay blame with individuals at the coal face rather than look to their institutionalised failings. What is clear from the above is the depth of injustice endured by the bereaved and survivors of Munich, not least Captains Thain and Rayment and their families who fought for so long to clear their names. The parallels with Hillsborough are clear, right down to the failure to call witnesses and the review and alteration of statements.
It is my view, and I hope it is shared by all who read this, that our commitment to Justice for the 96 should bring compassion for all who died and suffered in Munich 1958; that our common purpose should unite us; and that life and justice is all and football is our shared passion. But that passion should never spill over into hatred, into the vilification of the dead or into exacerbating the suffering of the bereaved and survivors. As I write this my tears are in sadness for those lost and injured and for those whose lives have been cut short by their pain. They are in anger towards those from both cities who have dared taunt the memory of the dead and desecrate the experiences of the bereaved and survivors.
Justice for Munich; Justice for Hillsborough; and remembering those who died:
Roger Byrne (Capt)
Tom Cable (Club Steward)
Walter Crickmer (Club Secretary)
Tom Curry (Club Trainer)
Alf Clarke (Manchester Evening Chronicle)
Don Davies (Manchester Guardian)
George Follows (Daily Herald)
Tom Jackson (Manchester Evening News)
Archie Ledbrooke (Daily Mirror)
Bela Miklos (Travel Agent)
Capt Ken Rayment (Pilot)
Henry Rose (Daily Express)
Willie Satinoff (Fan)
Eric Thompson (Daily Mail)
Frank Swift( News of the World)
Bert Whalley (Club Coach)
© Phil Scraton 2008
Professor Phil Scraton is Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, School of Law, Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of two acclaimed works on the Hillsborough Disaster: “No Last Rights: The Denial of Justice and the Promotion of Myth in the Aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster” and “Hillsborough: The Truth”.