On Wednesday 4th December 1957 the Busby Babes came up against Dukla Prague in an away fixture in the European Cup in which they lost but went into the next round on aggregate. A few delays in the team return journey home almost caused the team to miss their league match against Everton FC the following weekend. For United’s next away tie against Red Star Belgrade the team had a plane chartered due to their previous problems.
On the 14th of January 1958 at Old Trafford, United defeated Red Star Belgrade 2-1 in the first leg of their second round European Cup tie.
Monday 3rd February 1958, Manchester United boarded their flight to Belgrade and arrives a few hours later to poor conditions. The visibility there was poor and it was snowing, the standards are below the average required by British European Airways. The airport engineer saw the plane only when it was parked on the apron.
On Wednesday 5th February 1958, the tie between United and Red Star Belgrade ended in a 3-3 draw which was enough to see them through to the semifinals of the European Cup for a second year running. The team celebrated their achievement with a cocktail party at the British Embassy.
February 6th 1958, the team along with five other people departs Belgrade in the sunshine as they head towards Manchester but the takeoff is delayed by an hour as Johnny Berry lost his passport. The plane then finally makes it trip to Munich for a scheduled refueling and arrives to an airport filled with snow, rain and low cloud. Captain James Thain was forced to use anti-icing equipment in order to make his descent into Munich.
During the refueling process some of the players headed into the airport terminal for refreshments while the others took the time to snowball the refueling team. After the refueling was finished the players returned and the flight crew made an inspection of the wings of the plane. For safety purposes the wings of the plane were to be snow brush clear or have de-icing fluid sprayed onto the wings, but under the circumstances they decided it wasn’t necessary.
At 2.20pm GMT the flight is cleared for takeoff but an uneven sound in the engines caused Captain Thain and his co-pilot, Captain Kenneth Rayment to abort the take-off. They both tried to take-off once again but had to abort for the same reason which caused them to abort the first takeoff.
Captain Thain told his passengers there was a slight engine fault, this required them to return to the plane to the apron for an engine check. Everyone leaves the plane so the engine check can be completed. Manchester United star player Duncan Edwards send a telegram to his landlady which said, “All flights cancelled. Flying home tomorrow. Duncan.”
A call to board the flight was made moments later and everyone re-enters the plane. A third take-off attempt is made a 3:04 pm, the plane fails to get high enough off the ground and crashes into a fence surrounding the airport then into a house, the port wing and the tail gets torn off and the house which was crashed into catches fire.
The port side of the cockpit of the plane is then shattered by a tree and the starboard side of the fuselage hits a wooden hut causing a truck filled with fuel and tyres inside of it to explode.
Emergency services rushed to the site of the wreckage but by the time they got there 21 people had already died which 7 Players, 8 Journalists, 1 Fan and the flight organizer were amongst the dead.
Two hours later the search for survivors ended but miraculously a German journalist discovered the body of Kenny Morgans five hours after the crash occurred. The survivors were taken to Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich. Amongst the survivors were Bobby Charlton, Albert Scanlon, Johnny Berry, Jackie Blanchflower and Manager Matt Busby. The injuries to the manager were so bad that last rites are given and a hospital statement says simply that “we do not have much hope of saving him”.
On February 7th 1958, the bodies of the deceased players were flown home to Manchester where they lie in the gym at Old Trafford overnight before being collected by their families.
Wednesday 19th February, 1958 news of the manager receiving his last rites for a second time were being circulated, the condition of Duncan Edwards and the co-pilot were getting worse as the days go by. On the same day United had a 5th Round FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday and a makeshift 11 was organized.
The match programme displayed “United will go on” and on the team sheet, there are 11 blank spaces to fill in on the front page. Manager Matt Busby calls his assistant Jimmy Murphy from his hospital bed and tells him to “Keep The Flag Flying”, United went on to win the tie 3-0.
21st February 1958 and more tragedy occurs as Duncan Edwards dies from his injuries, seven day later co-pilot Kenneth Rayment also dies from his injuries taking the death toll to a total of 23. It wasn’t all bad news as manager Matt Busby conditions improves and stabilizes
March 8th, 1958 a message from the manager is played throughout the stadium of Old Trafford.
April 18th, 1958 manager Matt Busby makes a return to Manchester 71 days after the crash from Switzerland by rail an sea.
3rd May 1958, Manchester United face Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup Final lead by Jimmy Murphy, manager Matt Busby slowly makes his way towards the bench with the use of a walking stick to take his seat.
Emblazoned of the jerseys of the United players was a phoenix rising from the flames. United went on to lose the match 2-0 and had to settle for the runners-up medal, the effort was a courageous one by the makeshift team.
May 18th 1958 United played the first leg tie of their semifinal European Cup at Old Trafford against AC Milan and won 2-1. The return leg was played on May 14th at the San Siro stadium in Italy and United lost the match 4-0 and were eliminated from the competition. The following season United were given the opportunity the enter the European Cup by UEFA as a tribute to the players and officials who died in the tragic air disaster but the club declined and the the league champions Wolverhampton Wanderers entered the competition.
This tragedy will forever be embedded in the rich history of the biggest club in world football and will never be forgotten.
Lest We Forget!
R.I.P. The Flowers of Manchester and all the other victims of the crash (Feb. 6th 1958)