The Flowers of Manchester
The 6th February 1958 is a black day in the history of football. The legendary Manchester United “Busby Babes” team were in a plane crash at Munich-Riem Airport. Twenty-three people died, including eight players. Yet 65 years later, the tragedy also represents friendship and reconciliation.
An entire team crashed
When Manchester United beat Benfica 4-1 after extra time in the 1968 European Cup final, the seven-year-old Patrick Burns sat spellbound in front of the TV at home. “My team were the first English club to ever win a European Cup, the holy grail, exactly 10 years after our club was almost wiped out. That has stayed with me all my life,” he says now. What fascinated him so much was not the sheer triumph, but the phoenix-from-the-ashes story, which began with the biggest catastrophe that can happen to a football club: an accident involving an entire team.
And it wasn’t just any team – it was the “Busby Babes”, a side predominantly made up of homegrown players, including some of the greatest English talents, named after their manager Matt Busby. They were English champions in 1956 and 1957, with an average age of 21.22 years. The Babes were seen as the team that would dominate European football over the coming years, but then came this stopover in Munich on 6 February 1958. On their flight home from a European Cup away match at Red Star Belgrade, where United reached the semi-finals thanks to a 3-3 draw (5-4 on aggregate), the aircraft had to refuel at Munich-Riem. When the plane was about to continue its journey, it was snowing heavily, slush was on the runway – and the plane did not reach the necessary speed to take off. Instead, it shot over the runway, broke through the safety fence, crashed into trees, a nursery, a house, a shed, a concrete base. The plane was torn apart and caught fire.
„At Manchesterplatz, you feel the magnitude of the disaster. For the fans, it’s as if they lost family members.”
Twenty of the 44 passengers were immediately killed, one died in an ambulance and two more in hospital. Eight players were among the victims, along with two coaches, the club secretary, eight journalists plus two other passengers and two crew members. Northern Ireland goalkeeper Harry Gregg, who himself was unhurt, rescued two of his teammates, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Violett, who were unconscious, from the wreckage as well as a pregnant passenger and her daughter. The survivors were treated at the Rechts der Isar Hospital, including Matt Busby who was seriously injured. The “father“ of the Babes was twice given the Last Rites, but was able to leave hospital after nine weeks and returned to the dugout the following season. Of the 17 players on board, only seven were able to continue their careers. It took seven years until Manchester United were English champions again under Busby in 1965, before they lifted the European Cup in 1968.
“Many of us became Manchester United fans because of the Busby Babes,” says Burns. “The fact they weren’t able to fulfil their potential is one of the saddest chapters in English football. We still don’t forget it today.“ Burns is chairman of the Manchester Munich Memorial Foundation, which is committed to commemoration. “Every United fan should make a pilgrimage to Munich at least once in their life,” he thinks. Indeed, many supporters of the Red Devils still visit the site of the accident in the Trudering district of Munich. Initially, a wooden wayside cross commemorated the catastrophe, then in 2004 a memorial stone was erected, initiated by long-time FCB advisory board member Hermann Memmel. In 2008, on the 50th anniversary, the square was renamed Manchesterplatz.
In 2020, the foundation stone was laid for a commemorative showcase, which will be ceremoniously inaugurated at this year’s commemoration on 6 February as it wasn’t previously possible due to the pandemic. The showcase will display items that fans from all over the world left at the site of the accident: scarves, letters, pictures and much more. They are collected and archived by the FC Bayern fan club “Red Docs Munich”, whose chairman Mark Salzmann was one of the people who proposed the showcase. It’s intended to make the significance of the place even more vivid, he explains: “Many people from England and all over the world come here. When you see what they leave behind, you feel the magnitude of the disaster. It's as if they lost family members.” That is especially true of the commemorations on the anniversary. Several hundred Man United fans then gather at the memorial stone; this year, 65 years after the disaster, a thousand visitors are expected. They read out the names of the victims and sing “The Flowers of Manchester”, many with tears in their eyes.
Angels of Munich
The fact that the "Red Docs" have taken on the care of the memorial is to do with the fact that Salzmann grew up in Trudering. There he witnessed early on how Manchester United fans commemorated the Busby Babes. In 2012, he was a founding member of the fan club, which wanted to be active beyond supporting FC Bayern. So it made sense to take care of Manchesterplatz, the commemoration and the fans of the Red Devils. Salzmann says that he always notices how grateful the people from Manchester are for this. The fact that many founding members of the Red Docs have a medical background is “perhaps fate”, says the orthopaedic surgeon. For the tragedy of the Busby Babes is also a story of the doctors and nurses of the Rechts der Isar Hospital. With their selfless care of the injured, they restored humanity to the image of the Germans in Britain, 13 years after the end of the Second World War. In England they were hailed as the “Angels of Munich”, and head physician Prof. Dr. Georg Maurer was even awarded a medal by the Queen.
A special relationship also developed between Manchester United and FC Bayern. The FCB president at the time, Alfred Reitlinger, visited the injured in hospital with managing director Walter Fembeck. And just six months after the accident, in August 1958, there was a sporting reunion. At a sold-out Grünwalder Stadion, Manchester United played against a city team of players from Bayern and 1860, with the Munich XI winning 4-3. Four more friendlies between Bayern and the Red Devils followed before 1966. The special bond between the two clubs lives on to this day, especially at Manchesterplatz in Trudering, where Bayern help to remember the occasion. Therefore, at the end of the Busby Babes’ story there is not a catastrophe, but reconciliation and friendship. Bridges were built between two clubs, two cities and two countries that have endured to this day. This will be felt again when the commemoration takes place in Trudering on 6 February. “Football is more than just sport here,” says Salzmann. “It’s about history, society and emotion away from the actual game.” Salzmann will say a few words to the attendees, as will Burns. FCB president Herbert Hainer, Munich mayor Dieter Reiter and Manchester United ambassador Bryan Robson are also among the speakers. “The love and respect between the two clubs and their fans is incredibly special,” Burns believes. “I have no doubt that this special bond will continue to grow and be maintained for generations to come. We will be eternally grateful.”
© Photos Felix Brandl, imago
On the anniversary of the air disaster, Manchester United have also reported on their club channels about FC Bayern's commitment to commemoration of the tragedy. Read here.