This week sees the 60th anniversary of the Munich air crash. It is the fifth year in which the Manchester United defender Bill Foulkes has not been alive to take part in services remembering his friends who perished that day. Bill died in November 2013 at the grand age of 81.
Bill, a commanding defender, was on that plane and survived to live a full and happy life. But the events of February 6th 1958 were never far from his mind. He always remembered his friends, the young men who lost their lives on that fateful day.
I was born in 1958, a few months after the Munich air crash, writes Vernon Grant. I had two elder brothers who supported Manchester United, so I grew up knowing everything about the great team of the 1960’s and was fortunate enough to see them in action when they played in London. But I had only read about the Busby Babes.
Never could I have imagined that, years later, I would go on to interview, meet or work alongside some of the greatest Manchester United footballers of the 50’s and 60’s. The likes of Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best, Denis Law, Jackie Blanchflower and the gentle giant, Bill Foulkes.
It was 1997 when David Sadler, another fine Manchester United defender, invited me into his home to interview Bill Foulkes.
I have undertaken some emotional interviews on camera over the years. Also in the 90’s, I recall Jimmy Greenhoff admitting to me on camera that he had come close to taking his own life. But the day I sat down with Bill Foulkes still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up each time I watch the interview.
It was meant to be about the overall history of Manchester United, not specifically about the air disaster. After all, David Sadler had warned me thus:- “He won’t talk about Munich, Vernon. He never does.”
As it turned out I only had to ask one question: “What do you care to recall of that day?”
Bill finished his answer many minutes later. Only he spoke. I did not say another word. When Bill finally stopped recounting his memories from that tragic day, there wasn’t a dry eye in the Sadler household.
From the corner of my eye I was concious that David Sadler and his wife were sat spellbound, amazed that their friend had suddenly opened up. I’d like to think it was the manner in which I conducted the interview. Somehow I doubt it. More than likely it was the right time for Bill to open up. In the home of the Sadler family, he knew he was among friends.
After the camera had been turned off, Dave Sadler said to me: “I cannot believe it. In all these years, I have never heard Bill talk about the crash like that. In that detail.”
Here is the transcript of that answer to my one question, taken from my VHS copy. One day I may actually get around to having it transferred to DVD. Here is his very emotional account of the Munich air crash as remembered by one of the best defenders of his day.
“In those days I used to love flying and never thought anything of feeling fear. I thought happily that it would not be long before we would be back in Manchester.
“We came down in Munich to refuel. It was snowing heavily. We had a cup of coffee, a biscuit or two and then they asked us to go back in the aircraft. It tried to take off the first time and didn’t make it. It came back and tried again, pulled up short and went back to the terminal. We had a cup of coffee and I hadn’t finished my cup of coffee when they said we should get back on the plane as quickly as possible. It was then that I felt very nervous.
“I strapped myself in my seat and put my head just below the top of the seat. I felt that we weren’t going to get off. It just bounced. It had hit something and just bounced. It went up in the air and bounced for the second time. There was a tremendous thud.
“I lost consciousness for a couple of seconds. When I came to, the plane had split in half right underneath my feet, on a diagonal. I was sitting by the window. And the plane was cut in half on an angle.
“The plane had hit a fuel dump. It was a truck with big canisters of fuel. The back end of the plane went up into the air in a big flame and the front part of the aircraft just went spinning on and on.”
“I was sitting looking into space. There was nothing in front of me and nothing under my feet. I took my seatbelt off and just ran.
“I could see the whole thing as I turned around. The back end of the aircraft stuck in these flames and a lot of people thrown out. So I started to run back. I saw Harry Gregg with a baby in his arms. I didn’t know there was a baby on board.
“I can see Matt (Busby) sitting up on one hand. I saw a lot of the other boys. The ambulances came. We put Sir Matt on a stretcher. And Bobby was sitting in his seat. He got up and was just standing there dazed and shocked. Dennis Violet, Jackie Blanchflower the same.
“We went to the hospital. I remember asking the doctor there: ‘Where are all the other missing boys. Do you have another hospital?’
The doctor replied: ‘No, this is the only hospital.’
“I realised then that all the other boys had been killed. “It was terrible when I first realised.”
“Why they took off, I don’t know. Why they came to the decision to take off… why didn’t they say: ‘this is it, we’ll take off tomorrow if the weather is better.’
“I felt we were robbed. Whatever it was that took the team, a bad decision or bad luck, I don’t know.
“Afterwards, when I was back at the hotel, I took a deck of playing cards from my back pocket. The top of the pack of cards inside the box was sliced off, like by a razor, by a quarter of an inch. So whatever came past and did that, could have cut me in half.
“I’ve often thought about it. I still think about it.”
Vernon Grant adds:-
The best book I ever read about the events on that fateful day at Munich was written by Frank Taylor, a journalist who was there. He was the only journalist to survive the crash. Originally published in 1960, ‘The Day A Team Died’ it was reprinted in 2012. If you missed it, buy it via this link.
Recently John Ludden has written a short novel based around around the man who had to coach United in the immediate aftermath of the plane crash. The book is called Jimmy Murphy: Once Upon a Time in Munich and you can download the Kindle version or buy the paperback via this link.