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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor