Today marks 58 years since the Munich air disaster on the 6th February 1958. The crash killed 23 people including 8 Manchester United players and 3 members of club staff. A BBC TV show that aired the day after the disaster said that “British sport has never known a day sadder than yesterday” and the country as a whole was in shock. The show tried to raise the countries spirits by including clips of the great victories and games that the Busby babes had played in over the preceding decade.
Despite being devastated by the disaster Manchester United managed to survive and even reached the FA Cup Final in the 1958 season losing 2-0 to Bolton. The story of how Manchester United recovered is told in a blog by a former Archives+ volunteer John Yiasoumis here.
Recently, I was looking through the Greater Manchester Sound Archive collection and found a couple of recordings of interviews with people who were actually present at the Munich air disaster and I wanted to bring them to the attention of a wider audience as they really help to describe the horrific events of that day in 1958.
The first set of clips come from an oral history interview with James Westwell who was a member of the RAF based at Wildenrath which is about 400 miles away from Munich. His squadron attended the crash site. James talks in detail about the weather in the days leading up to and on the day of the crash. The terrible weather James describes shows just what the plane and its crew were up against.
James goes on to describe arriving at the crash site in the evening and how the scene looked at this point with the plane split in half. By the time James and his squadron arrived the survivors had already been taken to hospital, leaving only the dead and the plane itself. His description is very moving and transports you to the horrible scene that awaited the squadron upon their arrival.
James later explains how they didn’t find out who had been on the plane until at least 2 days after the crash when the British newspapers arrived at Wildenrath, which is a really interesting thing to hear especially for modern ears where news is available 24/7 in so many different formats.
The next clips are from an interview with Rosemary Cheverton who was an Air Stewardess on both the flight out to Belgrade and the ill fated flight back to Manchester, both of which stopped to refuel in Munich. Rosemary shares her memories of the players talking about how they were a very focused group but polite young men who spent time playing cards. She recounts a nice story of News Chronicle journalist Frank Taylor calling her ‘Miss Devon’ due to her accent and also mentions how tall the former Manchester City goalkeeper Frank Swift seemed to be (he was 6 feet 2).
The final clip is Rosemary’s recollections of the crash from the attempted take off until she was able to leave the wreckage for safety. This clip is very harrowing and describes the wreckage in great detail including stories of survivors and those who died. She talks about the Manchester United Goalkeeper Harry Gregg emerging from the wreckage handing her a baby he had just saved. She also refers back to an earlier story as she recalls talking to Frank Taylor who still called her ‘Miss Devon’ as he lay injured in the wreckage. Her recollections of the crash end with a heartbreaking and poignant memory of Captain Kenneth Rayment, who would later die of his injuries in hospital, winking and smiling at her as he was trapped in the wreckage.
These oral history clips really help to build a picture of what happened at the Munich air disaster, and bring the horror of the disaster straight to the listeners mind. At 2.45pm today there will be a commemoration event under the Munich Plaque at Old Trafford.
The clips used in this blog come from oral history recordings owned by the Manchester United Museum. If you are interested in the history of either Manchester United or the Munich air disaster then it really is worth visiting the museum
You can listen to a variety of sound recordings relating to the Munich air disaster (including an audio recording of the TV show referenced at the start of this blog) at the Greater Manchester Sound Archive without an appointment.