Manchester United – Munich – and me

It was on Monday 6th February 1958 that the Munich air disaster occurred when British European Airways Flight 609 crashed on its third attempt to take off from a slush-covered runway at Munich-Rien Airport, West Germany. On that plane was the Manchester United football team, nicknamed the “Busby Babes”, along with supporters and journalists. Twenty of the 44 on the aircraft died at the scene. The injured, some unconscious, were taken to the Rechts der Isat Hospital in Munich where three more died, resulting in 23 fatalities with 21 survivors.

Dad was on a night shift this week and didn’t really become aware of the happening and situation until he got home.  That morning we were both very quiet.  Mum kept out of our way and Dad stayed up much longer than normal.  In the end he shrugged his shoulders; patted me on the back and said ‘Don’t worry son’ and went to bed.  There was nothing we could do.

Right now I could write a few thousand words about this happening – but I won’t.  There will be reminders in many newspapers I am sure – but I shall be taking some quiet moments of my own in my own house – moments that have happened, one way or another, on every February 6th since that fateful day in 1958.

I’m going back another 10 years to Saturday 24th April 1948 – a day when I was 6 years 5 months 1 day old – the day of the FA Cup Final; the day my Dad was supporting Blackpool FC because he – with some of his colleagues – had been given Blackpool shirts after playing a Blackpool team in Greece when they had visited the troops.  I just had to support this United team!  They had not appeared in an FA Cup Final for 39 years – but won 4–2, with two goals from Jack Rowley and one apiece from Stan Pearson and John Anderson. Eddie Shimwell and Stan Mortensen scored Blackpool’s goals.

Now their team – the Manchester team – my team – was returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade where they had eliminated Red Star Belgrade and were now advancing to the semi-finals of this European competition. The flight stopped to refuel in Munich because a non-stop flight from Belgrade to Manchester was beyond the “Elizabethan” Airspeed Ambassador’s range. After refuelling, the pilots twice abandoned take-off attempts but, fearing they would get too far behind schedule, Captain James Thain rejected an overnight stay in Munich in favour of a third take-off attempt.

By then snow was falling, causing a layer of slush to form at the end of the runway. The Ambassador hit the slush, ploughed through a fence beyond the end of the runway with the left wing being torn off after hitting a house. Fearing the aircraft might explode, Thain began evacuating passengers while Harry Gregg, United’s goalkeeper helped pull survivors from the wreckage.

An investigation by West German airport authorities originally blamed Thain, saying he did not de-ice the aircraft’s wings, despite eyewitness statements to the contrary. It was later established that the crash was caused by the slush on the runway, which slowed the plane too much to take off. However – James Thain was cleared in 1968, ten years after the incident but, despite this finding, German authorities continued to blame him. James retired to his poultry farm in southern England, and died in August 1975 after suffering heart attack.  He was 54.



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