Feb. 6, 2023

The Munich Air Disaster

The Munich Air Disaster

February 6, 1958. Twenty-three people die, including eight members of Manchester United's championship-winning football team, when an airplane crashes on take-off in Munich.


Cold Open

It’s 3 PM on February 5th, 1958 in a football stadium in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Bill Foulkes glances up at the scoreboard that shows his team, Manchester United, are 3-1 ahead against the home team, Red Star Belgrade. United already beat Red Star 2-1 in the first leg of their quarter-final, so as long as they win or play to a draw, they will have the better aggregate score and proceed to the semi-finals of the European Cup. As one of his team’s defenders, it’s Bill’s job to stop Red Star from scoring three more goals to level it up.

Bill is intensely focused as a Red Star player begins an attack, launching the ball through midfield. Bill backtracks as the ball is passed to a Red Star forward. Bill shadows him, who dribbles the ball into United’s penalty area.

But the Red Star player loses his footing and slips to the ground… grabbing Bill’s shirt and pulling him over.

Bill picks himself up from the ground and tucks his jersey back. He takes a step back, ready to take a free-kick to restart the game after his opponent’s foul. But a Red Star player grabs the ball and gestures toward the referee.

Bill can’t believe it. The referee has given the foul against him, saying he tripped the Red Star player. Now, Red Star have a penalty kick and a chance to add to their score.

The Red Star forward lines up, takes a few quick steps, then kicks and the ball rockets past Harry Gregg, the United goalkeeper. Bill trudges back to his position for the kick-off. United are still ahead on aggregate score. But it looks like they’ll have to beat 11 opponents players and the referee if they’re going to win this game.

The tense game against Red Star ends 3-3, meaning that Manchester United win 5-4 on aggregate and go through to the semi-finals of the European Cup. They seem to be living up to the pre-season hype that saw them favorite to win the cup, the most prestigious competition in European football. This Manchester United team, led by manager Matt Busby, is so stuffed with young talented players that it has been nicknamed the Busby Babes. They are expected to dominate English and European football for years to come.

But the Busby Babes will not get the chance to live up to their promise. On the way home from Belgrade, tragedy will strike. Some of football’s most promising players will be killed and the future of their team will be cast into doubt after the airplane carrying them crashes in the Munich Air Disaster on February 6th, 1958.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 6th, 1958: The Munich Air Disaster.

Act One

It’s just after 3 PM on February 6th, 1958, the day after Manchester United’s game against Red Star Belgrade.

Bobby Charlton, who made two of United’s goals against Red Star, nervously clutches his armrest as the airplane he’s on accelerates down the runway of Munich-Riem Airport in Germany. The other passengers on the plane are eerily silent too. Nobody chats, as they did on the previous two attempts to take off.

Earlier that morning, United players boarded a charter flight in Belgrade for their return home. A little later, their aircraft landed on a snowy runway in Munich to refuel. Once that was done, the pilot taxied back to the runway to begin the last leg of their journey back to Manchester. But the airplane’s port engine failed to reach full power, and the pilot aborted the takeoff. He tried again three minutes later, but again he throttled back and then returned to the terminal so mechanics could check the plane. An hour later, passengers were asked to reboard the aircraft as now heavy snow fell. Sitting in the plane now tightening his seat belt, Bobby has an uneasy feeling as the pilot makes a third attempt to get airborne.

The plane rattles and vibrates gaining speed and the snow-covered airfield passes by Bobby's window, but it seems to him to be moving too slowly. But then there is a large jolt. And Bobby is momentarily relieved, thinking they’re airborne. But then the plane violently shudders like it’s shaking itself apart. Bobby looks out the window and is horrified to see that they are still on the ground. The high fence surrounding the airport clatters past the window, and the last thing Bobby hears before he blacks out is a almighty metallic screech.

A few moments later, howling wind fills Bobby’s ears. Slowly he opens his eyes. His head is slumped on his chest, and he is looking down at the snowy ground. Bobby raises his head and realizes he is still strapped in his seat. But the seat is no longer in the airplane. It’s on the runway. Confused, Bobby fumbles with the seatbelt and rests himself free. Behind him, the plane is a twisted mess of metal. The tail has been torn off. The port wing is snapped and its engine has disappeared. There’s a gaping hole in the fuselage. Debris and bodies are scattered everywhere.

Bobby unsteadily gets to his feet. He wipes sweat from his eyes, but then realizes he shouldn't be sweating when it’s so cold. He looks at his hand. It’s covered in blood. His head stingss as his fingers touch a deep cut on his scalp.

Another person lies still on the runway nearby, his head also covered in blood. Bobby moves closer and recognizes Dennis Viollet, the United player who scored the other goal against Red Star the day before. Bobby thinks he might be dead, but Dennis opens his eyes, and in a soft weak voice says: “What’s the matter, Bobby? What’s gone on?”

Bobby tries to answer, but he doesn't really know. Then he hears a familiar voice calling. Harry Gregg, United’s goalkeeper calling for help saying there are other people trapped inside. Bobby stumbles after Harry, toward the plane and into the wreckage. One of his teammates is lying on the floor, clearly dead. Next to him lies Matt Busby, United’s manager. He is unconscious. Bobby drops to his knees, unsure what to do. He calls his boss’s name, but Matt doesn't respond. He is breathing though it is weak and labored. So Bobby takes off his coat and drapes it over Matt’s chest.

Emergency vehicles race to the scene, sirens blaring. An ambulance stops nearby and a medic hustles over to Bobby. He drops to his knees and feels for Matt's pulse, calling out in German. But Bobby doesn’t understand what he is saying. He stands and wanders aimlessly until a different medic takes him by the arm and guides him toward a flatbed truck where an airport worker in a grubby uniform sits behind the steering wheel. Bobby squeezes in alongside two of his United teammates, Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg.

The medic shuts the door and the airport worker races through a blizzard to the nearest hospital. Bobby feels his eyes closing as he drifts into unconsciousness, but they snap open when Harry angrily shouts at the airport worker to slow down. They’ve already had one crash tonight, he says, and Harry doesn’t want another.

But thankfully, the truck arrives at the emergency room safely. Bobby will be hospitalized for the rest of the week, having suffered lacerations to the head and a concussion. But he will be one of the lucky ones. 23 people will die in what is now known as the Munich air disaster, including eight of Bobby’s teammates in the Manchester United team. And the loss of so many of the Busby Babes will put the future of the club in doubt. But United’s assistant manager will rally the team, taking charge while Matt Busby, their famous manager, will hover between life and death.

Act Two

It’s February 7th, 1958, the day after the Munich Air Disaster.

Jimmy Murphy, Manchester United’s assistant manager, strides through a ward of the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich. When he reaches the bed he’s looking for, Jimmy pauses, taken aback by the appalling sight of his boss and mentor, Matt Busby, fighting for his life.

Just yesterday, Jimmy sat in his office at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home stadium, awaiting the return of his team from their trip abroad. Normally, Jimmy will be with them as Matt Busby’s right-hand man on game days. But Jimmy is also manager of the Wales national team, and he missed United’s match in Belgrade because Wales had a match in Cardiff. But when his ashen-faced secretary knocked on his door and told him the team was involved in a plane crash, Jimmy immediately arranged a flight to Munich. Now, he’s here to offer whatever support he can to his team.

But Jimmy’s heart sinks when he sees Matt lying unconscious inside a plastic oxygen tent. He embraces Jean Busby, Matt’s wife, and asks about her husband’s condition. Through tears, she explains that Matt’s chest has been crushed. He’s not expected to survive. Jimmy bows his head for a moment as a Catholic priest quietly sidles up to the bedside. Jean tells Jimmy that Matt would want him to check on their players. Jimmy reluctantly agrees, but as he leaves he hears the priest begin administering the last rites.

Jimmy makes his way to a different ward, where a midfielder Duncan Edwards greets him with a weak smile. Both of Duncan’s legs are encased in plaster, and Jimmy immediately wonders whether Duncan will ever play football again. Duncan might be wondering the same thing. Because in jest he asks: “What time’s the kick-off, Jimmy? I mustn’t miss the match.” Jimmy forces a smile, but he’s in no mood for jokes.

Then Duncan asks Jimmy about the other players, complaining that the nurses won’t tell him how they are, Jimmy gets choked up revealing that seven of Duncan’s teammates did not survive the crash, nor is manager Matt Busby expected to live. Duncan’s head slumps back against the pillow and tears drip down his cheeks.

After a few minutes of stilted conversation, Jimmy reassures Duncan that he’ll have his place in United’s team back as soon as he recovers. But Jimmy wonders whether there will be a Manchester United team at all without its famous manager, and after the loss of so many players.

Leaving the hospital in Munich, Jimmy fields countless inquiries from journalists wanting to know whether Manchester United would withdraw from competition for the rest of the season—or whether the club would fold completely. It is a difficult decision, but Jimmy becomes determined that United should play on and return to normality as quickly as possible. So, he seeks permission from the Football Association to make emergency signings. Several clubs offer to loan them players, and Jimmy is able to field a team just in time for United’s game against Sheffield Wednesday.

12 days after visiting the injured team in Munich, Jimmy stands before his improvised team ready to give some last words of encouragement before their first game since the disaster.

Many unfamiliar faces now wear United’s iconic red shirt. Jimmy signed two new players altogether and promoted a raft of men from the reserve team. Several are playing in unfamiliar positions.

Commanding the team's attention, Jimmy holds up a copy of the matchday program and points to the back page, where the day’s teams are usually listed. The United side has blank spaces next to each position because the team came together at such short notice. But Jimmy says he’s proud of how quickly they’ve bonded. And then he glances over to the corner where Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes sit with their heads bowed - the only two crash survivors fit enough to play just 13 days after the accident.

Jimmy leads the other players in a round of applause for them. Then, he tells his makeshift team that they are the newest players to represent Manchester United, a club with a long and glorious history. They are keeping United alive despite the deaths of so many. And they are playing to honor their manager Matt Busby, who is still clinging to life. With a passionate roar, United’s players rise to their feet and take to the pitch.

In an emotional evening, the threadbare team beats their opponents 3-0. But the tragedy of the Munich Disaster is not over. The day after United beat Sheffield Wednesday, midfielder Duncan Edwards’s condition deteriorates, and he dies overnight.

But United’s manager Matt Busby will confound his doctors and recover, despite being given the last rites a second time. After spending two months in the hospital, Matt will finally be allowed to fly home. There, he will resume his duties as Manchester United’s manager and begin rebuilding a new team, one that will eventually emulate the Busby Babes and attain European football glory.

Act Three

It’s May 28th, 1968 at Wembley Stadium in London, England; ten years after the Munich Air Disaster.

Matt Busby sits in the Manchester United dugout, nervously clenching and unclenching his fists. On the pitch, his team is 20 minutes from victory against Benfica, the champions of Portugal. It’s the final of the European Cup, and Matt can hardly bear to look.

When he returned to work after the Munich Air Disaster, Matt spent the next few years slowly but surely rebuilding Manchester United, making them into championship contenders once again. A new generation of players helped United win the English League title in 1965 then again in 1967. But Matt built his new young team around two survivors of the air crash: Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes. Now, the players once dubbed the Busby Babes are veterans, finally achieving the success in the European Cup which was cruelly ripped from them ten years ago.

With United 3-1 ahead, Matt watches as the ball falls to Bobby Charlton. On the halfway line, directly in front of Matt, Bobby passes to a teammate who dribbles the ball down the side of the pitch. But Matt’s eyes stay on Bobby, who races up and waits in the penalty area near the Benfica goal. Soon Bobby is passed the ball. Matt grabs the arm of assistant manager Jimmy Murphy in anticipation. Receiving the ball, Bobby coolly flicks it past the goalkeeper and into the top corner of the net.

Matt pulls Jimmy into a bear hug. United are now three goals in the lead and about to become European Champions for the first time. And it is a player who survived the crash 10 years ago that is the one to score the final goal.

United will go on to win the match and become champions of Europe. Their success will mark the culmination of a decade-long period of rebuilding and recovery; a comeback that seemed unlikely after the team’s tragic loss of eight players in the Munich Air Disaster on February 6th, 1958.


Next onHistory Daily. February 7th, 2005. Sailor Ellen MacArthur sets a new world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.