The Busby Babes & the Munich Air Disaster.
A plane accident in 1958 took the lives of eight football players from the Manchester United team. Two others were so badly injured that they never played again.
Staff from the football club died too, as did several respected sports journalists.
The football players in the Manchester United team who were killed were all in their twenties, the youngest being twenty-one.
The team was known as the Busby Babes as they had come up from the youth team and their manager was Matt Busby. Busby himself was badly injured in the crash.
But there was another, forgotten victim. He was:
Captain James Thain, the pilot
Two men were piloting the aircraft, Thain being the senior officer. His co-pilot, who was flying the plane at the time of the accident, did not survive the crash. Thain did however but was wrongly blamed for the accident.
Thain was thirty-six at the time of the accident (the following day was his thirty-seventh birthday) and he never flew again. He died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-four and it’s believed that the fact that he was initially blamed for the accident was a contributory cause.
February 6th, 1958 was a cold, wintry day. The Manchester United team were returning to England after playing a match in Belgrade. The plane stopped at Munich to refuel. Twice the plane attempted takeoff but there was a surging in one of the engines. On the third attempt, at which it was suggested that the co-pilot who was flying the plane opened the throttle more slowly, it was evident that it was not going to clear the runway.
The plane crashed through a fence, careened across a road and hit a house. The occupants of the house escaped.
The first inquiry was undertaken by the German authorities. They decided that Captain Thain was responsible for the accident because the wings had not been de-iced. This was despite eyewitness accounts from people who had seen the de-icing take place. They brought legal action against Thain and he was dismissed by the airline that employed him.
Captain Thain repeatedly insisted that the cause of the accident had been a build-up of slush on the runway. It was later proved that the plane had in fact almost reached the speed it required to take off – with plenty of runway to spare, but when it hit the slushy surface, it slowed to a speed that make takeoff impossible, hence the crash.
But it was claimed in 2004 that British authorities, who had conducted their own investigations, knew that Thain was correct but that a committee in London, which included the German ambassador, deemed it necessary to withhold their findings as the information would damage Anglo-German trade relations and cause damaging diplomatic rows between the two countries.
Documents were discovered in the archives that showed that the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, believed that Thain was not at fault and that he had been unjustly treated.
Thain was a broken man but worse, he received hate mail and even death threats because he had ’caused’ the deaths of beloved sportsmen.
After ten long years, he was finally absolved of responsibility but lived for only a further six years before dying of a heart attack.
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