In an era within which the powerful fall over themselves to claim that they are the victims of misinformation and disinformation it is revealing to read Phil Scraton’s eloquent and painstaking dissection of the cover-up, following the tragic 1958 Munich air crash, an event deeply embedded in sporting history. It confirms the necessity to be ever wary of the official narrative, to preserve an intuitive mistrust of the State. In addition, see the post, Perverting the course of justice: “cover-up of the cover-up of the cover-up” which contains Phil’s chapter ‘Sanitising Hillsborough’ from his acclaimed book, ‘Hillsborough: the Truth’.
6 February 1958
The remarkable sequence of events that led to the crash-landing of
a highly sophisticated British Airways’ Boeing 777 at London
Heathrow on 17 January 2008 was greeted with astonishment by
aviation specialists. Some two miles out from its destination, 500
feet above the ground, Flight BA03Munich lost the power necessary to
land normally. It happened without warning and the alarm system
also failed. The pilot manually glided the plane down, dipping its
nose to maximise length and lifting at the last minute to hurdle the
3 metre perimeter fence. All energy lost to the final manoeuvre, the
plane literally belly-flopped from 10 feet onto grass, severing the
undercarriage and ploughing a 400 foot furrow to the edge of the
runway. It was highly skilled flying demanding the calmest
concentration. Without doubt, both pilots and the 14 person crew
saved the lives of 136 passengers. In the immediate aftermath
‘experts’ theorised the most likely cause to be a freak, localised
weather glitch or pilot error. Unanimously they agreed that a
system failure within the plane was highly unlikely. They were
Over the last decade we have become so accustomed to flying,
reassured by statistics proclaiming an impressive safety record well
ahead of road or rail travel. Planes are technologically so advanced,
runways kept in excellent condition, pilots highly trained and the
aviation revolution has opened access beyond all expectations.
While the cost to the environment and to communities is hotly
debated the advances in safety are uncontested. Fifty years ago,
however, things were massively different with much of the
technology experimental, knowledge limited and conditions
Few people flew. As a young child I remember waving off my sister
from Speke Airport, now a Marriott Hotel, as she left for Lourdes.
She was the sole member of our extended family to have boarded a
plane. Most of the men had been to sea, docking in ports
throughout the world, but none had flown. I have flown more air
miles in the last eight months than in the first 35 years of my life.
Living in Belfast I fly far more than I use any other form of
transport. Flying has become habitual and within advanced
industrial societies it embraces all classes.
Back then, football was my passion and Billy Liddell my hero.
Liverpool were in the Second Division and not doing so well. Most of
my mates were Blues although those kids whose families were less
committed supported Wolves or Spurs or whoever else was winning.
When Dad took me to Anfield he’d buy a seat in the main stand and
lift me over the turnstile. I’d sit on his knee for the game. From the
Main Stand, the Kop was unbelievable to watch. In the top right
corner the ‘Boys Pen’ – girls not welcome – looked frightening but
exciting. Wee scallies flicked lit matches down onto cloth-capped
heads below safe in the knowledge that they were untouchable in
One day both would be my graduation although I’d sometimes slip
into the Paddock, close to the halfway line. If Billy and our yellow
jerseyed goalie, Tommy Younger, were special, I looked to United’s
Duncan Edwards as an inspiration. If he could play for England so
young, so could I! We didn’t have a telly but I read the reports and
out the back of our house I imagined I had all the moves – I still do.
How I wished Duncan had played for us …
It was a cold evening in February 1958 when the radio broke the
news that a plane carrying Manchester United’s team had crashed
at Munich airport. The manager, the likeable Matt Busby, and his
renowned ‘Busby Babes’, were among the dead and injured. It was
devastating news especially as playing in Europe was a recent
development. We were stunned and I remember going to bed that
night, looking at the pictures of the team in my Football Diary and
praying that the great Duncan would be alright. Soon we knew.
Seven players, three United staff, seven journalists and three others
had died. Duncan Edwards and Matt Busby were critically ill. Among
the journalists the legendary Frank Swift, former Manchester City
goalie, was gone. I’d heard stories about his incredible agility and
massive hand span. Duncan passed away 15 days later, and a co-
pilot also died in hospital. Nine players, including the young Bobby
Charlton, survived – as did the Captain, James Thain, and eleven
others. While I was oblivious to what was happening in Manchester
– despite it being just ‘up’ the East Lancs I’d never been there – the
tragedy left an indelible impression on my childhood.
The European Cup had been introduced only three years earlier and
in the 1956-7 season United were the first English team involved.
They made it to the semis and lost to the brilliant Real Madrid who
went on to win the trophy. The following year, having won the First
Division, the Busby Babes were favourites. They beat Dukla Prague,
the Czech champions, 3-1 on aggregate and in the quarter finals
returned to the Balkans to play Yugoslavia’s Crvena Zvezda, known
to us as Red Star Belgrade. On 14 January United beat Red Star 2-1
at Old Trafford.
The midwinter return was in Belgrade on 5 February. The club
chartered a British European Airways’ 47 seater plane for players,
staff and journalists and flew via Munich for refuelling. Both pilots
were experienced captains and knew each other well. They landed
the plane in Belgrade in challenging weather conditions. So serious
was the situation that airport control was unaware of the plane’s
arrival until it appeared from the gloom taxiing across the tarmac.
The match was played and despite being 3-0 up at half-time United
were held 3-3, winning the tie 5-4 on aggregate. Several others
joined the return flight to Manchester bringing the passenger list to
Landing at Munich the runway was laden with slush. It continued to
snow. Before leaving for Manchester the crew checked the wings,
ensuring no ice had formed. The pilots agreed de-icing was
unnecessary. As Captain Thain had flown the outbound flight his
friend Captain Rayment was at the controls and they had changed
seats. As the plane accelerated along the runway the pilots realised
there were problems with the engines and the pressure gauges on
the instrument panel. They abandoned take-off and braked heavily,
skidding to a halt through the slush. Apparently the cause was
‘boost-surging’ within the engines, a problem previously
experienced with this type of airplane.
Clearance was given for a second take off attempt but again, as the
plane picked up speed, the pilots aborted. This time the plane
returned to the parking bay for checks. Photographs show clearly
that there had been a fresh fall of snow on the tarmac adding to the
slush. All passengers disembarked. The pilots and the station
engineer decided against retuning the engines. A third take-off
attempt was agreed. The wings were considered to be ice free but
the runway was holding more snow together with an uneven
distribution of slush. A quick inspection by airport staff, however,
gave the go-ahead.
Reluctantly the team and other passengers returned to the aircraft.
To overcome the engine problem the pilot opened the throttles
slowly as the plane sped down the runway. It picked up speed
towards take off and the pilots successfully dealt with some engine
surging. Hitting the undisturbed slush, the plane lost speed, and
running out of tarmac it ploughed across snow-laden grass,
smashed the perimeter fence then hitting a house, a tree and a
garage. The plane caught fire in small pockets but the main fuel
tank remained secure.
What followed were moments of great heroism as uninjured staff
and players climbed back into the plane to rescue those trapped
and injured, including Matt Busby. Already 20 people were dead.
Once the rescue services arrived the fires were doused and Captain
Rayment was cut free. He died later.
That evening the German accident investigators arrived. Without
proper lighting, they examined the wreck concluding that the wings
were iced up, covered by the subsequent fall of snow. This early
determination was established as the sole cause of the disaster.
BEA sent an investigation team to Munich. It found no engine
deficiencies. All indications, including the opinion of the station
engineer, was that slush on the runway had caused the plane’s
deceleration. Captain Thain agreed.
Yet the West German Traffic and Transport Ministry announced that
‘the aircraft did not leave the ground’ probably ‘as the result of ice
on the wings’. Captain Thain was criticised for not providing a
satisfactory explanation as to why he did not ‘discontinue the final
attempt to take off’. Thus the blame was laid entirely at the door of
the pilots. A finding of snow accumulation and slush on the runway,
alongside inadequate inspection would have placed responsibility on
In April 1958, behind closed doors, a full German Inquiry was held.
The German senior investigator selected witnesses and, remarkably,
the airport controllers were not called to give evidence. After much
controversy and contradiction by ‘experts’ regarding ice on the
plane’s wings it became clear that the Inquiry judge favoured icing
as the disaster’s principal cause. ‘Other circumstances’ might have
contributed, but it was now too late to determine their relevance. A
year and a month after the disaster the Inquiry report was released.
Ice on the wings was the ‘decisive cause’ and the pilots, Rayment
(dead) and Thain (alive), were held responsible.
The BEA Safety Committee, however, refuted the report’s
conclusions although it accepted that icing on the wings might have
been a contributory factor. Slush on the runway, however, was
judged crucial. Captain Thain was criticised for not occupying the
seat in the cockpit appropriate for the senior captain. A devastated
Thain, under suspension and his career in ruins, was determined to
clear his name. Yet a further hearing in 1960 criticised his failure to
ensure that the wings were free of ice and he was sacked. He had
breached regulations by occupying the wrong seat. Manchester
United’s negligence case against BEA was settled out of court.
As scientific knowledge developed further, investigative trials were
held. In November 1965 a second inquiry was convened in Germany
to consider the new evidence. Some consideration of slush on the
runway was accepted but ice on the wings ‘was still to be regarded
as the essential cause’. The following April the British Ministry of
Aviation retorted that the ‘strong likelihood’ was ‘there was no
significant icing during take off’ and ‘the principal cause of the crash
was the effect of slush on the runway’. A decade beyond the
disaster a British inquiry was convened. A key witness, previously
not called – an aeronautical engineer first on the scene, stated
categorically that the wings were not iced. Not only had the German
authorities failed to call him to their inquiries but his written
statement had been altered to omit a crucial element of his
Photographic evidence, it seemed, also had been altered. In 1969
the British inquiry report concluded that slush had impeded the
nose wheel of the aircraft and the subsequent drag on all wheels
was the ‘prime cause’ of its failure to lift off. Once deceleration had
happened there was insufficient runway to pick up speed and ‘blame
for the accident is NOT to be imputed to Captain Thain’. The
German authorities rejected the findings. Captain Thain died of a
heart attack at the young age of 54.
Mike Kemble, whose research has been extensive, states: ‘there is
no doubt … that a cover-up was engineered by the West German
authorities, possibly even as high as the Federal Government in Bonn. There was never going to be any doubt about the outcome
from the first inspection of the crash site to the publication of the
report’. He raises ten important unanswered questions regarding
the disaster and its aftermath. His detailed research has drawn on many other sources including Captain Rayment’s son, Steve.
Reading Mike’s work and a range of other material for this overview
has answered many of the questions and concerns that troubled me
in the late 1960s. I have always been uneasy that Munich was
considered an ‘accident’ due mainly to pilot error. My analyses of
disasters over the last 20 years have shown a clear and
unambiguous reluctance of authorities to accept responsibility for
their culpable acts or omissions, for their institutionalised negligent
custom and practice. It suits those in power, whether public bodies
or private corporations, to lay blame with individuals at the coal
face rather than look to their institutionalised failings.
What is clear from the above is the depth of injustice endured by
the bereaved and survivors of Munich, not least Captains Thain and
Rayment and their families who fought for so long to clear their
names. The parallels with Hillsborough are clear, right down to the
failure to call witnesses and the review and alteration of statements.
It is my view, and one I hope that is shared by all who read this,
that our commitment to Justice for the 96 should bring compassion
for all who died and suffered in the cold of Munich 1958. Our
common purpose should unite us. Life and justice is all – and
football is but our shared passion. That passion, however, should
never spill over into hatred, the vilification of the dead or
exacerbating the suffering of the bereaved and survivors.
As I write this my tears are in sadness for those lost and injured
and for those whose lives were cut short by their pain. They are
tears also in anger towards those from both cities who have dared
taint the memory of the dead and desecrate the experiences of the
bereaved and survivors.
Justice for Munich – Justice for Hillsborough
Remembering those who died
Roger Byrne (Capt)
Tom Cable (Club Steward)
Walter Crickmer (Club Secretary)
Tom Curry (Club Trainer) Alf Clarke (Manchester Evening Chronicle)
Don Davies (Manchester Guardian)
George Follows (Daily Herald)
Tom Jackson (Manchester Evening News)
Archie Ledbrooke (Daily Mirror)
Bela Miklos (Travel Agent)
Capt Ken Rayment (Pilot) Henry Rose (Daily Express)
Willie Satinoff (Fan)
Eric Thompson (Daily Mail)
Frank Swift( News of the World)
Bert Whalley (Club Coach)
© Phil Scraton 2008
Professor Phil Scraton is Professor of Criminology at the Institute of
Criminology and Criminal Justice, School of Law, Queen’s
University, Belfast. He is the author of two acclaimed works on the
Hillsborough Disaster: “No Last Rights: The Denial of Justice and
the Promotion of Myth in the Aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster”and “Hillsborough: The Truth”.