Munich Remembered (Irish Times)
Peter Byrne talks to Harry Gregg,
Crash survivor, about the events of February 6th, 1958.
Taken from the Irish Times - 31st January 1998
Harry Gregg has vivid memories of the moment when he looked across at the poker school aboard a twin-engined BEA Elizabethan aircraft and sensed that something was terribly wrong. It was February 6th, 1958, and Gregg and his Manchester United team-mates were on their way home from Belgrade where, the previous day against Red Star, they had qualified for the semi-finals of the European Cup.
After two abortive attempts to take off, Capt James Thain had requested permission for the plane to taxi back towards the terminal building at Munich-Riem airport and advised the 38 passengers that they would be disembarking, pending further instructions.
Now after a surprisingly short interval, the engines were firing again and the wheels rolling on a runway dusted with snow. But if those players involved in the card game felt reassured by the hasty running repairs, it didn't show.
"Roger Byrne, our captain, who was in the seat next to the window, looked terrified," recalls Gregg. "Beside him, little Johnny Berry turned to Liam Whelan and said: `We're all going to die'. "Liam's response was immediate. `Well, if that happens, I'm ready'. It was then that I decided to put down the book I was reading. By today's standards, The Whip by Roger MacDonald was pretty tame stuff, but back in 1958 it was regarded as a bit risqué. And I reckoned that if I died reading it, I'd go straight to hell. So I put it away and decided to look out the window at the wheels churning up the slush."
What followed were some of the blackest minutes of the sporting century. Where there had been only laughter on the first leg of the journey, from Belgrade to Munich, terror now prevailed. In scenes of appalling carnage, many of the players who had promised to redefine the standards of club football perished. The concept of pulling together the best young talent in Britain and Ireland and building a team for the new challenge of European football first came to Matt Busby in the mid-1950s. In the aftermath of World War Two, he had seen his team, captained by Jackie Carey, win both the FA Cup and League championship. He aspired to achieve even greater things by replacing maturity with young legs in a team which came to be known, affectionately, as the Busby Babes. Over a relatively short period of time, he unloaded almost all the senior professionals and by assembling players of the quality of Roger Byrne, Eddie Coleman, Tommy Taylor, Dennis Viollet, Bobby Charlton and the hugely-talented Duncan Edwards, set in train a sequence of events that captivated football people across the world.
Edwards, the youngest ever to do so, was just 17 when he won the first of his 18 England senior caps against Scotland in 1955. The man who took his place in the next major England rebuilding programme was Bobby Moore. There had always been a strong Irish influence at the club and Busby could boast of players from either side of the border. Harry Gregg and Jackie Blanchflower had formerly been colleagues in a Northern Ireland schoolboy team. Now they were together again after Busby signed the flamboyant goalkeeper from Doncaster Rovers.
>From Dublin came Liam Whelan. Some were critical enough to say that he lacked the extra half yard of pace that demoralises defenders. But if that was true, it was the only frailty in a make-up which encompassed skill, strength and perception in measures which, at 22, made him one of best inside forwards in football. Even by the most demanding standards, this was a team to excite and entertain. Championship wins in 1956 and '57 were interpreted as no more than the fulfilment of destiny and while Ray Wood's injury may well have cost them the 1957 FA Cup final against Aston Villa, it was merely interpreted as a blip. Busby marched on Europe for the first time in 1957. A 10-0 win over Anderlecht was described by the manager as "technically the best exhibition of football I've ever seen". That first sortie into the European Cup ended in a semi-final defeat by Real Madrid. Prophetically, it ended with players and officials having to shovel snow off the runway, before they could leave Madrid on the homeward journey.
Now, a year later, many of the players were recalling that incident as they picked their way through the snow and prepared to board the Elizabethan aircraft for a second time.
Gregg recalls: "We embarked through a side door at the back and the first thing I noticed when I got into the plane was the unusual sight of one of the crew securely strapped into the seat. It takes courage to be a coward, however, and if the person felt like that, who were we to complain. As I walked up the aisle of the plane, I noticed Bill Foulkes's head protruding above the top of the seat and I thought, `Hell, if anything goes wrong here, he's going to be decapitated'. I loosened my tie and my trousers, got low into my seat and sat with my legs propped against the seat in front of me. Directly across from me was a woman with a little girl and in front of them, on facing seats, the poker school. Roger, Johnny and Liam sat on one side, and on the other, Ray Wood and Jackie Blanchflower. A vacant seat was intended for me.
"All six of us had been playing poker the previous night and I virtually cleaned them out. I was intent on winding them up by refusing to give them the chance of getting their money back on the trip from Belgrade to Munich. They were giving me some stick over that, but the intention was to sit with them after we lifted out of Munich. We were just ready to start down the runway when there was a knock on the door. It turned out to be Alf Clarke of the Manchester Evening Chronicle, one of several sports writers travelling with us. The Press Ball was on in Manchester that night and Alf, who had bought tickets, had just rang his wife to inform her that because of the delay at Munich, we'd be late into Manchester. Then we were off and the sensation as the wheels cut through the slush was of being in a speed boat. This time, I was certain the plane cleared the ground and then . . . horror.
"Up front, the assistant captain, Ken Rayment, could see the perimeter fence and the outline of a house coming towards him and shouted: `Christ, we're not going to make it' There was no screaming, no crying, no moaning. Only the sounds of terrible tearing and ripping . . . and darkness . . . and sparks . . . and the stench of aircraft fuel. Something hit me on the head, blood ran down my face and for a split second I thought my head had come off. Then I seemed to alternate between darkness and light, consciousness and unconsciousness, until gradually the realisation dawned that I was actually alive.
"Through the darkness and the confusion I saw a shaft of light. And through a hole in the fuselage, I crawled out to be met by some terrible sights. People were lying dead or dying, but not everyone. With just one shoe on I dropped down into the snow outside. Bert Whalley, the club coach, was lying there in an airforce blue suit. He was totally unmarked, his eyes were open, but he was dead. Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet were also lying limp, half in, half out of the plane. I thought that they were dead and dragged them by the waistband of their trousers away from the plane.
"Round by the nose of the plane, came the captain, James Twain. `Run you stupid bastard', he shouted. "This plane is going to explode'. Of all the brave people in Munich that day, he was the bravest. He knew exactly the full extent of the danger, but he risked fires and explosions to stay at the scene in the hope of freeing Ken Rayment, who was trapped at the controls. I saw five survivors run away. But when we shouted after them that they were needed . . . that there were still people alive, they came back. I heard a baby cry and crawled back into what was left of the fuselage. In the darkness all I could find was an empty romper suit. But then, miraculously, there was the baby.
"The second time I went back in I found the mother, or rather she found me. Then, outside again, I tried to find my old friend Blanchy. Eventually, I came across him in a pool of water. Roger Byrne was lying across his waist - dead. Jackie's arm was in a terrible state, almost hanging off. I took off my tie to stanch the loss of blood, but tied it so tightly that the tie broke. I shouted for somebody to come and help me, looked up and then got the biggest fright of Munich. There, standing over me, were Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet.
"Part of the plane crashed through a house in a field next to the airfield. And it was there that I came across Matt Busby. His hands were across his chest and he was conscious. But his legs looked to be in a terrible state. That, as I remember it, was how it happened. In 40 years, there have been books, videos and countless newspaper articles on the Munich air disaster. And I have to say that in that time, I've come across a lot of poetic licence. For example, I read where a fleet of ambulances and fire tenders followed us down the runway on our third attempt to take off. If they did, I never saw them, then or afterwards. If there were ambulances about, how come that five of us - Jackie Blanchflower, Bobby Charlton, Dennis Viollet, Bill Foulkes and myself - were taken to hospital in a battered old Volkswagen van that somehow appeared out of the darkness."
After a protracted rehabilitation first in a Munich hospital, and later Manchester, Busby made a remarkable recovery and exactly 10 years after the carnage of Munich, led the club to their finest success when, with Gregg, Foulkes and Charlton in the team, they beat Benfica in the final of the European Cup at Wembley. His services to football would later be acknowledged with a knighthood and although he had resigned as manager by the early 1970s, he lived long enough to see Alex Ferguson build a new empire for Manchester United. Twenty-three of those who had set out with him, on what should have been a triumphant return to Manchester, never made it. Among the seven players who died at the scene was Liam Whelan. Duncan Edwards, with multiple internal injuries, lost his fight for life 15 days later and finally Capt Rayment died on March 13th. A second member of the crew, Tom Cable, was also killed, and among the eight sports writers who perished was the legendary Frank Swift, the only goalkeeper to captain England before taking up a second career in journalism.
In the inquiry which followed the disaster, Capt Thain had his licence revoked and never flew again. But a campaign to clear his name was launched and nine years after the crash, experts accepted his explanation that the slush created a drag factor and that this, rather than the wings becoming iced up, was the primary cause of the accident. In time, Harry Gregg's services to football and, in particular, his bravery at Munich was recognised with the award of an OBE. He accepted it, reluctantly, as a tribute to those who had lost their lives in the disaster.
"I did not particularly want the award - I was just happy to have got out of the crash with my life," he says. "Like many of the others, I at first felt a curious sense of guilt that I had survived when so many of my friends died. But life is sweet . . . "
Many years later, in the course of a television show, he was introduced to a Serbian woman, Vesna Lukic. She had been the baby he had pulled from the inferno and she thanked him profusely for saving the "three of us".
"But there were only two of you," he protested. "Yes, but my mother was six months pregnant with my brother, Stefan, who is now is the Yugoslav army."
Harry Gregg, who returned home to Northern Ireland and bought the Windsor Hotel in Portstewart in 1989, believes that heroes and cowards are not preordained. "People are faced with a particular situation and have to react in seconds. And until it happens, it's futile to speculate what the response will be."
That's why he refrains from dwelling on another air drama, also in 1958. Still shaken by the events of Munich, he declined to join his Northern Ireland teammates on their air journey to the World Cup finals in Sweden just four months later, preferring instead to go overland. It certainly didn't affect the level of his performance in the finals for by the time Peter Doherty's team was eliminated, he had done enough to earn recognition as the best goalkeeper in the championship. Conscious that he would have to fly again some day, he went to Doherty and sought permission to travel home by plane, a day ahead of the main party to avoid media attention. He was already safely down in Manchester when he heard on his radio that the plane carrying the Northern Ireland players had run into difficulties and had been forced to circle Stockholm's Bromma International airport for almost two hours while the pilot prepared for an emergency landing. Gregg is not too sure how he would have handled that situation. But when he goes back to Old Trafford next Saturday for a ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Munich disaster, he can do so in the consoling knowledge that when put to the test on a snow-covered airfield in Germany, his character was not found wanting.
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