‘Munich pilot was made a scapegoat’

Former Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg at his home on the outskirts of Coleraine, Co Londonderry.
Former Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg at his home on the outskirts of Coleraine, Co Londonderry.

MANCHESTER United goalkeeping legend Harry Gregg has contributed to a fresh re-examination of the Munich air crash, insisting the pilot blamed was made a scapegoat.

The 79-year-old former Northern Ireland international, who was hailed a hero after returning to the wreckage of the plane to save fellow passengers, said he believed Captain James Thain was hung out to dry in the wake of the February 1958 disaster.

Twenty-three people, including eight members of United’s famous “Busby Babes” team, died after their plane ploughed off the runway and crashed into a building on the third attempt to take off in wintry conditions.

They had stopped off in Munich to refuel on the way back from playing a European Cup quarter final in Belgrade, in the then Yugoslavia. Gregg has taken part in the new documentary produced by

the National Geographic Channel into the events of that fateful day and Capt Thain’s subsequent decade-long battle to clear his name.

“He was badly treated,” said the Ulster man. He was made the scapegoat.”

The pilot’s daughter Sebuda has also been interviewed for the programme, while expert air crash investigators re-examined the evidence.

A German investigation in the wake of the disaster blamed Thain, whose co-pilot died, claiming a failure to de-ice the wings was the cause of the crash.

After a 10-year campaign by the pilot, British investigators set up their own inquiry and concluded that slush on the runway was the real cause – with the airport held responsible.

However, the German authorities have never accepted that finding.

Gregg, who lives on the outskirts of his native Coleraine, said blaming the pilot was a “conviction of convenience”.

“It didn’t matter who they hung out to dry and he was hung out to dry,” he said.

The club’s newly-signed goalkeeper returned to the wreckage to haul passengers to safety despite warnings that the tangled fuselage could explode at any time.

But he says he has never been happy with being tagged a hero. “It’s not a matter of, ‘I think he doth protest too much’,” he said.

“I am not John Wayne, I have never been John Wayne, I don’t want to be John Wayne.”

Gregg said one of his most painful memories of Munich was the loss of England star Duncan Edwards, who died in a German hospital 10 days after the crash.

“When I left Duncan I had no doubt he would be okay in my mind, my simple mind,” he said.

“And all of a sudden I found I couldn’t find the papers one morning and I kept saying ‘where’s the papers?’ and nobody would tell me and eventually I found one of the papers hidden – Duncan had died and nobody would tell me.”

Gregg said it took 40 years before he was prepared to speak publicly about the crash. “I talked about it when it suited me,” he said. “I didn’t even talk to other people, to survivors about it, it was something that wasn’t talked about.

“I know what happened, I was there, that’s all that matters to me, I was there.

“Munich was an accident and a lot of friends of mine and press men died.” Manchester United are travelling to Belfast on May 15 to play a testimonial match for Gregg against an Irish League select side.

The star insists it is his playing career he wants to be remembered for, not that dark day in Munich.

“That is more important to me than what happened in an accident,” he said.

“I represented my country at every level.

“To me that’s been a pleasure. I have been good at something.”

**Air Crash Investigation: Munich Air Disaster will be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel on Monday (April 16) at 9pm