Disaster at Munich

Another chapter from “Special Assignment” by my uncle John Alldridge
(published in 1960 and now long out of print)

A good reporter must be impersonal. He must write the story as he finds it, without fear or favour, his judgment unclouded by emotion. And sometimes that isn’t easy. For sometimes tragedy lands on your doorstep. And your own life becomes part of it.

At three minutes past three o’clock on the afternoon of February 6th, 1958, a B.E.A. Elizabethan aircraft crashed and burst into flames after taking off from Munich airport. On board were a crew of six and thirty-eight passengers. Among them the Manchester United football team on their way home from Belgrade. On board too, were sports writers representing the pick of Manchester journalism.

The Munich disaster was a stunning blow to a great city: but it was also front-page news. There was a job to be done. And almost at once reporters from every newspaper in the city were on their way to Munich.

Among them was Douglas Slight, of the Manchester Evening News. Doug Slight was at that time a colleague of mine, so I know him well. He is typical of the young reporter you will find on any newspaper: quick-witted, full of fun, a little cynical, perhaps. But like all good newspapermen, dedicated to his job.

Many reporters covered the long-drawn-out agony of Munich; and each, in his own way, covered it splendidly.

But for young Slight it was different. This was his first big assignment. His reputation as a news-man would depend on the way he tackled it. He knew that. He knew, too, that once he had left the office and started half-way across Europe he was on his own. And that once he had reached Munich he would be competing against the pick of Manchester and Fleet Street.

So this is his story. And I have asked him to tell it in his own words because in it you will find the three essential qualities that make a first-class reporter – intelligence, imagination, integrity:

Tired after a sleepless night, I was snapped awake by the pilot’s voice over the airliner’s public address system. “Hello, everybody. This is the captain speaking. We are now over Munich but I am afraid we cannot land. The airport has been closed, because of heavy snow, and we have been diverted to Frankfurt.”

I looked across at Jack Abell, sitting opposite, and he gave me a wry smile and flipped me a cigarette. The news was a terrible blow, but Jack was taking the right attitude. There was absolutely nothing we could do about it.

I eased my adjustable seat back a notch and peered out of the window, at the Viscount’s powerful engines thundering through the murk. I could still hardly believe what had happened. To think that only yesterday I had been quietly spending my day off at my home in Southport. But then, life is full of surprises – particularly when you are a newspaper reporter.

I had been looking forward to an evening watching television, but all such plans had been shattered by a telephone call in the middle of the afternoon. It was Andy Harvie, my news editor, who told me in his clipped, Scottish accent the news that was to shake the nation.

An Elizabethan airliner with the entire Manchester United team and officials on board had crashed on take off at Munich. Many were dead, it was already known, and many more were injured. “Is your passport in order?” asked Andy. I told him it was. “Right,” he said, “get packing. You are flying to Munich tonight. Get here as fast as you can.”

I packed some kit into my valise with my thoughts in a turmoil. I was feeling shocked at the terrible news and at the same time highly excited at the job which lay ahead. As I worked I tried hard to absorb all the advice my brother was firing at me. As luck would have it he was at home on leave from his job as an inspector of aviation accidents in Kenya. His experience in that field, plus years as a flyer with the R.A.F. and B.O.A.C., meant there was little he did not know on the subject. He was able to tip me off who were the best people to talk to, and what to look out for at the scene of the disaster.

It was evening by the time I got to the office. Usually, by that time, everybody would have been at home and the editorial room would have been in silence. But not so on this occasion. Everybody from the editor downwards was still there. Special editions of the paper were still being rushed off as the people of Manchester clamoured for the latest news of their heroes – the United football team.

The first thing I did was to ask about Tom Jackson, our ace football writer, who had been a member of the large press party on the plane. Still nothing was known of him. Plump, jovial Tom was one of the most popular men on the staff. That anything could have happened to him seemed unbelievable.

As soon as I arrived the editor took me aside and gave me my orders. It seemed that plans to charter a plane to rush us out to Munich had proved impossible. There was nothing for it but to take the overnight train to London and fly out with the first scheduled service.

It was then that I learned that Jack was to be my companion on the trip – and I was mighty thankful to hear it. Not only is he a crack photographer, but also he had covered United for years, and knew most of the players and officials well. A Rugby Union follower myself, I knew precious little about soccer at all, let alone about United. I reasoned that Jack’s knowledge and contacts could prove useful. Just how useful I was to find out later.

The set-back about our departure and now the closure of Munich airport had robbed us of a great deal of a newspaperman’s stock in trade – time. It was agony to be sitting there, right over Munich, only to be snatched away from our objective again.

We had heard a rumour at London Airport that Matt Busby – the fabulous, Scottish soccer genius who managed United – had died of his injuries. It was Busby’s policy of recruiting young, highly talented players and welding them into a slick soccer machine that had made United world-famous, and won for them the title of “The Busby Babes”.

The importance of our assignment could not be over-rated. And from my own point of view it was a tremendous chance to prove my ability. It was by far the biggest job I had ever been given in my eight years of journalism. I just could not afford to fall down on it.

The flight to Frankfurt took one hour precisely. The rail journey back to Munich was a soul-destroying thirteen hours, with the train making its weary way through appalling conditions and the snow lashing in between the carriages.

When we reached Munich it was the early hours of the morning. It was too late to do anything, so we set about finding somewhere to sleep. A taxi driver took us to the Park Hotel, one of the biggest in the city. It was full, but they fixed us up temporarily in the assistant manager’s room. Just where the assistant manager slept we never discovered.

We were called early and after a hasty breakfast we made our way to the Rechts der Iser Hospital, where most of the injured were detained. While Jack went in search of pictures I asked to see Dr. Maurer, the brilliant surgeon who was head of the hospital, and who was later to be awarded the C.B.E. for the magnificent work he did for the injured of the United disaster.

He could not see me as he was operating. I was later to find out that he had been operating all night and most of the previous day.

Instead I was sent to see another surgeon who gave me a complete analysis of everyone’s injuries, and their conditions – in perfect English. I was very glad of that. My German is all right for everyday use, but when it comes to medical terminology I am a non-starter.

Two facts were quickly established. Tom Jackson had been killed outright, when the plane crashed. This was sickening news, but we had no time to brood on it. The other was more heartening. Matt Busby was not dead, but was grievously injured and his survival was still touch-and-go.

I grabbed a taxi and raced back to the hotel to phone my story to Manchester. Meanwhile Jack had managed to get some good pictures of the survivors who had not been injured and he was busily wiring them from the local newspaper office.

This system of wiring pictures is one of the wonders of science, and a tremendous boon to modern newspaper production. A telephone connection is first of all made with the newspaper office that is to receive the pictures. They are then placed in a machine, and, through a series of electrical impulses, they are automatically reproduced in the receiving office.

I had just finished putting my story over when Jack arrived back at the hotel. He was looking a bit shaken. In colourful language, he told me the reason why. It turned out that while he was at the local newspaper office he had made his first encounter with a German paternoster elevator system.

These lifts are found in quite a lot of German business offices. They are a series of compartments on a continuous belt so that one half is going up while the other is corning down. They never stop, so you have to hop into a compartment as it goes past and then jump out at whichever floor you want.

Coming down, Jack had missed the ground floor and the lift had taken him down into the bowels of the earth and pitch darkness. “It was awful,” he said. “There seemed to be clanking machinery all around me. I thought the darn thing was going to fold up and squash me to pulp.”

All that happened, however, was that the lift shifted to one side in a couple of bone-jarring jerks and then commenced the upward journey. When the ground floor drew level once more Jack was out in a flash.

He had another interesting experience at the newspaper office. He met a chap working in the photographic department who spoke some English and bombarded him with interested questions about Manchester. His knowledge of the city seemed so intimate that Jack asked him if he had ever been there. “Never been there,” said the man thoughtfully, “but often seen it – through a bomb-sight.”

The way Jack got on with the natives was a constant source of amazement and amusement to me. He did not speak a word of the language, but this proved no barrier. As well as being a photographer, he is also quite good at drawing, so whenever his elaborate sign language failed to get across he used to whip out his caption pad and make a few quick sketches. This never failed to make the point, whether he was booking a priority picture line at the post office or asking the housemaid to wash his shirt.

The following day was Sunday, and as we had no editions to catch we had more time to dig up information. We went out to the airport, to take a look at the wreck. With us went officials of the airline, and two of the players who had not been injured when she crashed. They were Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper, who had done some magnificent rescue work and Bill Foulkes, later to become United’s skipper.

It was a terrible sight. Wreckage was scattered over a huge area. The plane had plunged off the runway, bounced over the boundary fence, ploughed through a shed and crashed into a house.

A thaw had set in, and we waded ankle-deep through the icy water of the melting snow, recovering belongings that lay scattered about. I saw something sticking through the snow, and dragged it out. It was an expensive-looking leather jacket. Foulkes recognised it immediately. “That was Tommy Taylor’s,” he said. “He bought it on one of our overseas tours.”

A little further on I came across a spectacle case. The name was inside. They had belonged to Henry Rose, the famous Daily Express sports writer. Gregg crawled into the wreckage and was amazed to find that a bottle of gin, which had been in the rack over his head, was still unbroken.

The task of sending my copy back to Manchester became a lot easier when I found that the hotel was fitted with a Telex machine. With this wonderful device I was able to sit in the hotel typing my copy in the normal manner, knowing it was being reproduced simultaneously in my newspaper’s head office.

Eventually things became more organised. The airline laid on a system of three press conferences a day to keep us informed of events inside the hospital. The airline’s two doctors did a wonderful job. Not only did they keep us up to date with the patients’ conditions but they also trotted out interesting tales about things the players had said and done – meat and drink to a newspaperman.

They told us, for instance, of the mixed reception some of the more style-conscious players had given to the new suits the airline had bought for them, principally under their wives’ guidance.

They told us, too, how Bobby Charlton, the United ‘wonder-boy’, was now one of the ‘walking wounded’ and had taken on the job of postman – handling the hundreds of letters and gifts that were pouring in for the injured.

One sad task we had was the coverage of the simple, moving ceremony at the airport when the bodies were flown back to England for burial. Acting on behalf of my firm I was one of the many who placed wreaths on the freighter plane before she took off with her cargo of tragedy.

Jack was recalled after twelve days. He had done a wonderful job and I was very sorry to see him go. I do not know how I would have managed without him. His work in Munich far exceeded the normal orbit of a press photographer.

By this time Matt Busby was virtually off the danger list, having made an astonishing recovery after being practically given up for lost. Now the main drama of the story centred round the equally amazing fight for life being put up by Duncan Edwards, the brilliant young international whose kidney had been severely crushed.

An artificial kidney had been rushed from Freiburg by police car, but it had a weakening effect and could only be used sparingly. That he lived as long as he did was only due to his tremendous physical strength and fitness.

One night I got back to the hotel about 10 pm and flopped down on the bed, fully dressed, intending to go to the last press conference of the day in an hour’s time. I was awakened by the telephone bell, and looked at my watch to find it was three o’clock in the morning.

Speaking in precise, impersonal tones that I knew were hiding his true feelings an airline official told me that Duncan had died. I slowly replaced the receiver. I had followed Duncan’s battle with death so closely that it was as if I had lost a real friend, although I had never actually met him.

Straightening my tie I went down to the hotel lobby, and loudly demanded tea, the Englishman’s panacea in moments of stress. The night porter’s eyes positively boggled to see me fully clothed. As he had only put the call through to me two minutes previously he must have thought I was the world’s record quick-change artist.

Refreshed by the tea, I went back to my room and got out my typewriter. Between four and five that morning I wrote the story of Duncan’s death. It was easily the best piece of writing I did on the whole assignment. I don’t know why. It was almost as if the story wrote itself.

After a month, all the injured were off the danger list and there was no longer any need for me to stay in Munich. I took one day off to go skiing in the Bavarian mountains and then caught the plane back to London.

Let’s face it. I was feeling pretty smug. It had been a tough job and I knew I had come out on the credit side. I took the overnight train to Manchester and deliberately delayed my arrival at the office so I could make an “entrance”.

As I strolled in with what I fondly hoped was a nonchalant expression, Andy Harvie looked up from his desk. “Oh,” he said. “You’re back, are you?” I said: “No, but you can expect me any minute.”

He ignored my impudence and looked at me thoughtfully for a minute before speaking. Then he said: “O.K. Pop over to the Post Office and pick up the Premium Bond results.”

Like I said – a newspaperman’s life is full of surprises.

Jerry F, Going Postal
An Airspeed Ambassador similar to the one involved in the crash.
BEA Airspeed Ambassador G-AMAG,
Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Jerry F 2022