The Munich Air Disaster – Manchester United’s darkest day


On Wednesday 5 February 1958, Manchester United faced Red Star Belgrade in the quarter-final second leg of the European Cup in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia). At Old Trafford, United win 2-1with goals from Sir Bobby Charlton and Eddie Colman. However, it was going to be a tense fixture with a place in the semi-finals at stake. United took a strong squad and were seeking to get what they needed – a victory.

It was a 3-3 draw in the match, with Charlton scoring a brace and Dennis Viollet scoring the other, putting United through to the semi-finals after a 5-3 aggregate scoreline. United were to face AC Milan in the semi-finals, a match the majority of the players who walked out onto the pitch in what turned into their final game, would not take part in. The last lineup, as the picture will always be known, became symbolic.

United stayed at The Majestic Hotel in Belgrade, which would have looked after the players of that time. They will have arrived back at the hotel celebrating reaching a European Cup semi-final with a team that could well have gone on and dominated for years to come. The return back to Manchester will have been something this team would have been excited for, to be welcomed home because of the feat they had achieved.

The United players, management, staff, journalists, photographers, crew, and other passengers – 44 people in total, left Belgrade Airport, in Yugoslavia on a British European Airways Airspeed AS-57 Ambassador. The flight was due to stopover in Munich, Germany in order to refuel as the range of the plane would not have reached Manchester on a non-stop flight. This turned out to be one of the aspects of the tragedy.

The flight twice abandoned on take-off as the pilot, Captain James Thain and co-pilot Kenneth Rayment recorded boost surging in the left engine. They were offered a night in Munich, but so that there was no delay, Thain decided to continue the flight. By this time, snow was falling in the Bavarian city and id made things all the more difficult to say the least. It was this that helped things become more disastrous.

A layer of slush formed at the end of the runway. On take-off, the plane hit the layer of slush, forced the plane off the runway, through a fence which is where the left win was torn off after hitting a house. Thain survived the crash and began evacuating the passengers, helped by the hero of the moment, goalkeeper Harry Gregg. Twenty people were killed instantly in the crash with one more dying on the way to hospital.

Those who died were; cabin steward, Tom Cable, United players, Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan. Three members of United staff, club secretary, Walter Crickmer, trainer, Tom Curry, and chief coach, Bert Whalley also died. Journalists, Alf Clarke, Donny Davies, George Follows, Tom Jackson, Archie Ledbrooke, Henry Rose, and Eric Thompson also died.

Two passengers; travel agent, Bela Miklos and supporter, Willie Satinoff were also killed in the tragedy. Journalist and former Manchester City goalkeeper, Frank Swift died en-route to the hospital, United player Duncan Edwards died 15 days later in hospital and co-pilot Captain Kenneth Rayment died five weeks later suffering from a brain haemorrhage. A total of 23 people were killed as a result of the crash.

There were 21 survivors from the crash; pilot, Captain James Thain, stewardessed, Margaret Bellis and Rosemary Cheverton, radio officer, George William “Bill” Rodgers, United players, Johnny Berry, Jackie Blanchflower, Bobby Charlton, Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Kenny Morgans, Albert Scanlon, Dennis Viollet and Ray Wood. United manager, Matt Busby, journalists, Ted Ellyard, Peter Howard, and Frank Taylor.

Four passengers also survived; Vera Lukić and her baby daughter, Vesna (although Lukić was pregnant with son, Zoran at the time), Eleanor Miklos, the wife of deceased Bela Miklos, and Yugoslavian diplomat, Nebojša Bato Tomašević. Initially Thain was blamed for the disaster but was cleared ten years later. By then, he had been dismissed by BEA and never recovered, dying in 1975.

A broken plane, a broken dream, a broken heart, a broken team, no word said, a silent vow, we loved you then, we love you now. We’ll never die.

Written by John Walker

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