In a clearing in a forest, a gravel path gives way to a square of tarmac that is about the size of a football pitch. It is all that is left of what was once the runway at Munich-Riem airport. It was from a point near there that the Busby Babes began their final journey on February 6th 1958.
There are two thick white lines running down the middle of the tarmac, the remnants of airport markings. But there is not much else to identify it. Even those lines are stained by tyre tracks, tell-tale signs of kids finding a hidden spot to spin cars in roaring circles, doing doughnuts after dark.
The echoes of the saddest moments in Manchester United’s history whisper at you as you stand there, gazing into the distance where the runway once led. ‘It’s now or never,’ Roger Byrne, United’s skipper, said as the British European Airways twin-engine Elizabethan sat there on the tarmac, preparing to make its third take-off attempt.
When Sir Bobby Charlton, the last living survivor of the disaster that killed eight Manchester United players, regained consciousness as he lay in the snow amid the plane’s wreckage at the other end of the runway, he saw Byrne still strapped in his seat and realised straight away that he was dead.
The old control tower, an ochre outlier beside the glass frontages of the shopping mall and the international congress centre that have been built on the old airfield, is the only other remnant of Munich-Riem. To stare up at it is to imagine the horror that gripped the people who occupied it that February evening and saw the Elizabethan ploughing through the snow.
23 lives were taken by the Munich Air Disaster, including eight Manchester United players, when a British European Airways plane crashed at Munich-Riem Airport as it tried to take off
Mail Sport’s Oliver Holt visited the site of what was once the runway at Munich-Riem airport
It is still hard to reconcile the horrors of those moments 65 years ago with the everyday life that unfolds around the crash site now. In late afternoon on Monday, boys spilled out of primary school on their scooters and sang and laughed as they made their way home. One stopped briefly and reached up to pull fruit from the low-hanging branches of a quince tree.
It rained in squalls on Monday afternoon. At the crash site, a bouquet had been placed at the foot of the plinth that commemorates the 23 footballers, club staff and journalists, who died. The little square, which sits at the edge of a ploughed field, was renamed Manchesterplatz in honour of those who did not come home.
There was no one else there on Monday, Cars hurried past on a busy road but it is still a peaceful place. The plinth, and a display case filled with tributes to the ‘Flowers of Manchester’ sheltered from the rain beneath the kindly and noble boughs of four lime trees.
More will visit on Tuesday and more still on Wednesday, the day when the successors to Byrne and Charlton and Eddie Colman and Harry Gregg and David Pegg and Duncan Edwards and the rest of them take on Bayern Munich in their first match of this season’s Champions League group stage.
This is a place of pilgrimage for United fans, a place where you can still feel the soul of the club as well as the sorrow of what happened and the way the memory of those who died here drove United on to win the European Cup at Wembley ten years later.
Everyone whose family comes from Manchester has a story about the Babes and the crash and how it touched them. My mother’s family lived in Denstone Avenue in Urmston and, in the days before footballers lived behind the locked gates of mansions, Dennis Viollet and his family lived in a club-owned terraced house opposite them.
When the plane crashed, Viollet’s wife, Barbara, was desperate for news but the club had not provided them with a phone line. My grandmother and grandfather relayed what news they could. Finally, she was able to make a call from their house that told her Dennis had survived relatively unscathed.
United legend Sir Bobby Charlton, now 85, remains the last living survivor of the tragic crash
Former Manchester United and Ireland keeper Harry Gregg was hailed a hero of the disaster after he twice returned to the burning fuselage to drag team-mates and strangers to safety
My dad’s story was more straightforward. He rode his bike from Stockport up to Ringway Airport and waited by the side of the road to pay his respects as the coffins of the dead players were taken by car into Manchester city centre.
The modern United was built on the legend of Matt Busby, who was gravely injured in the crash, and of those brilliant young players who perished. They built the club that became the biggest in the world, and Sir Alex Ferguson nurtured it before things began to change so that now supporters wonder what has happened to their club’s soul.
Out here in Bavaria, with the memories of the boys who died, sometimes feels like as good a place to locate it as any. ‘We’ll Never Die,’ the words written on a scarf in the display case under the lime trees say and for all the sadness of this spot, there is something wonderfully uplifting about it, too.
As United prepare to play Bayern, reeling from scandal after scandal with Mason Greenwood, Antony and Jadon Sancho, struggling to come to terms with the manner of their defeat to Brighton at the weekend, starting to ask questions about Erik ten Hag, lost in anger at the dereliction wrought by the Glazers, this place stands for something else.
Sure, United will be desperate to win in the Allianz Arena on Wednesday evening and others will be delighted if Harry Kane puts one over on the team that that had flirted with buying him in the past and should be regretting not doing so amid all the mediocrity they have injected into the side.
But what is left of the old airfield at Munich-Riem is not the place for such worries and fretting. There is a timelessness about this place that make rivalries seem petty and inconsequential. There is a Manchester City scarf among those in pride of place in the memorial display. There are pictures of players immortalised by what happened here.
The world of film has its picture of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause as its version of a star who never got old. Football’s James Dean is Duncan Edwards, his chest puffed out, standing at the end of the line of United players before a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade, their last before the crash. For all of us who never saw him play, he will always be a 21-year-old hero, a player who could have been the greatest ever.
Sir Matt Busby (pictured in 1991) was United manager at the time of the devastating crash
There is a timelessness about this place that make rivalries seem petty and inconsequential (pictured – Man City staff lay a wreath at the memorial stone in 2011 in memory of the victims)
Edwards died at the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich 15 days after the crash and this month, the hospital’s in-house magazine published an interview with Elisabeth Weber, one of the nurses who treated the injured United players and Busby and became known as The Angels of Munich.
When Elisabeth spoke to the interviewer, the interviewer noted that she was wearing a United scarf with the words ‘Lest we Forget’ emblazoned on it. She, and others, were honoured by the Queen for the care they gave to United’s stricken team.
And so there will be rivalry when the clubs meet on Wednesday but there will be something deeper that is shared, too, something which is always shared when United visit this beautiful city whose name looms so large in its history.
‘Thank you to the wonderful citizens of Munich for 60 years of respect and compassion,’ a message from United fans reads at the crash site. Underneath the limes, there is a bench with a plaque on it, too. ‘To the Munich citizens in thanks,’ it says, from the ‘supporters of MUFC.’
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