Football: The poignant legacy of Munich

A city remembers: Next week Manchester United return for the first time to the scene of the air disaster 40 years ago
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The Independent Online
THE RETIRED nurse still remembers the Busby Babes as if they had been here yesterday. "The injuries were worse than what I had seen on the Russian front," said Gerda Thiel, who is now 86 years old.

For Gerda Thiel and those of her generation the memories will come flooding back next week when Manchester United play their first match in Munich since the air crash 40 years ago which claimed the lives of eight members of Matt Busby's young team and left others with appalling injuries.

It is remarkable that it has taken all this time for United and Bayern Munich to face each other in European competition, but the two teams will finally meet next week in the Champions' League.

The Munich air crash, understandably, does not hold the same place in German sporting history as it does in England's. In particular, the event is of little significance to younger people here in the Bavarian capital.

However, for many older people here - particularly those who worked at the town hall 40 years ago, the fans of that generation and the scores of emergency workers who battled to save the lives of the players and other members of the United party - the visit by Alex Ferguson's team will be a poignant moment.

In particular, there has been much talk here of the strong parallels between the Busby Babes and Ferguson's young side. Just as Busby's team were, to quote one newspaper, "the flower of British football", so the current United side feature many of the best British players of today.

It was on 6 February 1958 that a twin-engined British European Airways plane, carrying 17 Manchester United players plus coaching staff, officials and journalists, landed at Munich airport in order to refuel. The party were returning to Manchester from Yugoslavia after beating Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup quarter-finals.

In heavy snow, the pilot twice aborted take-off because "the engines didn't sound right." On the third attempt the plane failed to gain enough speed as it left the runway. It crashed through a fence and burst into flames after hitting a house, a tree, a wooden hut and a parked truck. Ice on the wings was initially blamed for the crash, but later investigations showed that slush dragging on the wheels had been the cause.

Among those who died were the United captain, Roger Byrne, his England team-mate, Tommy Taylor, and Duncan Edwards, who many believed would have become one of the game's greatest players. Eight journalists also perished. Busby himself suffered terrible injuries but recovered to lead United to eventual European glory 10 years later.

An hour after the disaster, Gerda Thiel, the senior nurse at the Rechts der Isar hospital, received a phone call from one of the doctors who had been summoned to the scene of the crash. "He told me about the catastrophe and ordered me to organise as many of the young nurses as I could", she remembers. This was not easy because it was carnival time in Munich and many of the women were about to leave for one of the numerous parties in the city.

But Sister Gerda managed to contact most of the nurses living in homes on the hospital grounds. When the first ambulances from the airport arrived, they were ready.

Many of the younger staff had not been mentally prepared for the carnage. "Some of the injuries were so bad that one of our girls burst into tears in the operating theatre", Mrs Thiel says.

Nurse Katharina Koppe, now 66 and retired, was in charge of looking after Busby. He had severe chest injuries in addition to several fractures, but went on to make a remarkable recovery. Three months later he was a spectator on crutches at Wembley as United's makeshift team lost an emotional FA Cup final to Bolton.

"When he felt better, he started to joke with me. We laughed a lot," Mrs Koppe recalled. "After a while, he even tried to learn German and made me teach him simple sentences".

However, Busby never warmed to Bavarian food, she said. For breakfast, for example, he always preferred bacon and eggs to the German bread, butter and jam.

Busby's relatives who came to see him were "fine, nice people, who were very thankful for what we did," Mrs Koppe said. Busby's wife helped her to feed the patient and taught her how to make proper English tea.

This first intense contact with British people 12 years after the end of the war left a lasting impression on Mrs Koppe. Her fondness for Britain grew so strong, that after her retirement some years ago, she started to learn English properly for the first time in her life.

Relations between staff and the players receiving treatment were extremely good, cutting across suspicions that existed between the two nations in those days. "Maybe it was more effective than what the politicians sometimes tried to do," Mrs Thiel says. She recalled how some of the doctors and nurses were invited to Manchester about a month after the crash and were enthusiastically greeted at Old Trafford by 60.000 people.

"We are still thankful that the crash did not lead to a deterioration of the contacts between our city and Manchester," says Gertraud Burkert, Munich's deputy mayor. So soon after 1945 people could have connected the horrors of the war with another disaster taking place on German soil. "But the opposite was the case", Burkert said. "The emergency situation fostered close emotional ties."

In May 1997, the city invited all the United players who survived the crash to Munich for the Champions' League final between Juventus and Borussia Dortmund, which was staged in the Bavarian capital. At the suggestion of the seven former players who accepted the invitation a memorial stone was erected at the scene of the crash.

At next week's match, however, no official act of remembrance is planned. "A minute's silence for the victims would have been possible, but we don't want to do it," said Mr Burkert. "Bayern fans come from the whole of Germany, and many are young and therefore might not remember what happened here. This might not be the setting for a dignified commemoration."

However, for Gerda Thiel, Katharina Koppe and those of another generation, no ceremony will be necessary to bring back memories of one of the most traumatic episodes of their lives.