Munich: the trauma has endured
Neil Berry recalls his grief at the misery and loss caused by the crash that nearly killed his father
Time to appreciate the glorious temple Busby created
February 6, 1958:
I HAD returned home from school and was playing alleys (marbles) in our street in Davyhulme. My mother shouted loudly for me to come in. I went in thinking that I was going to get a telling off for something, because I was usually allowed to play out until tea-time, and that was still a long way off. But my mother told me that she had just heard on the radio that the plane my father was on had been involved in a crash.
I was eight at the time and I thought that this was tremendously exciting news. I imagined him and the other players falling from the sky in parachutes wearing their football kit, much more exciting than being a footballer.
My mother became more and more anxious and within a few minutes some of the other wives and our friends came around to sit and wait for news. It was a night that it is impossible for me to forget and it still lives with me today. Nearly everyone at United was on the plane and there was no ready source of information. We relied totally on the television and radio, and as communications were much slower in those days we had to wait for hours and hours.
Granada TV gave regular news flashes about the accident, which I still had not fully comprehended. The thought of any of the young men, who had been so good to me as a child, being killed never occurred to me. I still thought that they would fly home on another plane and be ready to play again on Saturday. Then the news started coming through. Players' names were given out as being dead or as having survived. This went on throughout the night.
My father's name did not come up as being a survivor until six hours after we first heard about the crash. You can imagine the state we were all in. Manchester City Hospital had sent round some nurses, who administered tranquilisers to those who needed them. My mother flew out to Munich the next day, and my brothers and I would not see her or my father for the next three months.
I was sent to school as usual the following morning while arrangements were made for my brothers and I to be looked after. Mum and the other wives and relatives flew to Munich.
I still had no idea that the events of the previous day were real. My favourite children's television programmes were Champion the Wonder Horse and The Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger, especially, was shot at almost every week, fell off his horse and was wounded, but arrived in perfect condition for next week's episode. I felt no real anguish over the crash because my reality consisted of television drama on children's television, where the 'goodies' were never killed. Manchester United were the goodies as far as I was concerned. So they were indestructible.
When I arrived at school I was met by a shocked and silent group of children. Not one of them spoke, which I found strange. I remember some of the boys in the group, Billy Broomhead, Bertie Billingsley and Tony Fearnley. They just stared at me in disbelief. Not being able to comprehend the situation I went up to my teacher, Miss Thornley, and said: "My dad's been in a plane crash."
"I know," she said with tears in her eyes, and took me to the head teacher, Mr Shaw, who asked me how I felt and then asked me to wait outside his room. Everyone who saw me that morning was very kind and I enjoyed the attention, although I was still not sure why I was being treated in this way.
At lunch-time I was taken to stay with Harry and Rene MacShane and their son Ian, who went on to become a well know actor of stage and screen. My brothers stayed with family friends until my grandmother and aunt arrived to take us to their home in Folkestone.
Within a week we were put into junior school. It was exceptionally cold in February 1958, but we nevertheless insisted that our aunt, Mrs Gwyneth Williams, took us for a walk every day on the beach with her Pekinese dog. This she did in rain, hail and snow in an attempt to create as normal a life as possible for us in Folkestone at what was obviously a very difficult time.
The true extent of the Munich crash only struck home when I persuaded her to take me to the cinema the following Wednesday and I saw the Pathe newsreel of the crash. I saw pictures of the United party in hospital, including Matt Busby in an oxygen tent, and heard them mention that my father was in a coma. I asked my aunt what this meant, and she told me it meant that he was asleep, which I took to mean that it was night time in Germany.
I now realised that many of the young men who had given me chocolate bars, played football with me and who had always been kind - the likes of Tommy Taylor, Duncan Edwards, Billy Whelan, Roger Byrne and Mark Jones - were now dead. While my mother was in Munich we received regular supplies of German chocolate and at Easter we were sent some special Easter eggs.
My aunt did not have a telephone, so we never had the opportunity to speak,
and perhaps this was just as well because much later I discovered that my father was not expected to live in the immediate aftermath of the crash and had been give the last rites by a German priest.
Mum told me later that she could scarcely recognise him when she arrived in Munich as his head was swollen to twice its normal size due to the crash impact. He was surrounded by ice to keep the swelling and bruising to a minimum.
The nature of my father's injuries were kept from me at the time and I simply thought he was asleep and slightly injured. He was, however, to remain in a coma for almost two months, would never play football again and suffered a complete change in his personality.
He went away to play football as one man and returned as a completely different person. He was never able to drive or concentrate for any length of time, and though as he grew older his injuries caused him increasing pain, he seldom complained.
When my parents returned to Manchester from Munich, my father still had no idea what had happened. He thought that he had been in a car crash and knew nothing of the death of his team-mates. On the flight back they sat in front of two young male nurses, who had a bag full of tranquilisers in case he had a sudden flashback to the disaster.
On his return he was was admitted to a hospital in Manchester to help him to continue recovering from his multiple injuries, which included a fractured skull, broken pelvis, jaw injuries leading to the removal of all his teeth, and a broken elbow.
We were allowed to see him for the first time in 13 weeks in May of 1958. I remember being very nervous as my brothers and I went into the room. He was, of course, very pleased to see us and made a great fuss of us. It was shortly after this visit that he picked up a newspaper for the first time since the accident and turned to the sports page.
There was a report of a United game and when he saw the team line-up he could not believe it. Where were all his team-mates? He asked the nurse and a doctor was brought in to explain what had happened: that was how my father first learnt about the crash.
Although he had been in the aircraft he must have been the last person in Britain to know about it. He went through the team name by name and the doctor told him whether they were alive or dead. It was very tough for him.
Within a month he had left hospital and began a prolonged period of convalescence. After about a year he began working for a tractor manufacturing firm, who were then based in Trafford Park. Shortly afterwards we all moved back to the Aldershot area - my father's home town - where my father opened a sports shop with his brother, Peter, a former professional footballer with Ipswich and Crystal Palace.
Their partnership lasted for about 20 years and my father eventually finished his working life as a television warehouseman with Radio Rentals. He died two years ago at the age of 68.
The Munich air crash changed the life of my family forever. We were all personally traumatised by it, suffered indescribable private grief, and it has taken me 40 years to be able to write this.
The time before Munich has left me with many happy memories and, as a consequence of my father's involvement with the club, I am still a United fan, as are my four children. Sadly, living in London, I don't get the opportunity to watch United much, but I was at Wimbledon with two of my children when David Beckham scored that goal from the halfway line last season.
Neil Berry is head teacher at Chesham Park Community College in Buckingham
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