The most distressing piece of news in our house in 1958 was most undoubtedly the Munich air disaster of 6th February when an air crash at Munich Airport in Germany caused the deaths of eight Manchester United players and several club officials and sports journalists. In 1958 the Manchester United team was one of the most talented in the World and was known as the Busby Babes, which was a reference to their manager Matt Busby and to the average age of the players, which at 24 was unusually young.
Manchester United had been to Yugoslavia to play the second leg of a European cup match against Red Star Belgrade. The match had ended in a 3-3 draw and United had won the tie 5-3 on aggregate. In the 1950s domestic league matches were played on Saturdays and European matches were played midweek and there wasn’t the same amount of flexibility around fixtures that there is today and having played the match there was no alternative but to return home to England immediately despite poor weather conditions.
The club had chartered an aeroplane to fly them home but the takeoff from Belgrade was delayed for an hour as one of the players had lost his passport, and then the plane made a scheduled stop in Munich to refuel. The plane was a British European Airways Airspeed Ambassador, which was an aircraft that had carried 2,340,000 passengers on eighty six thousand flights since it began service in 1952 and had an immaculate safety record.
After refueling the pilot tried to take off twice, but both attempts were aborted. When a third take off was attempted the plane failed to gain adequate height and crashed into the fence surrounding the airport, then into a house, and caught fire. Although the crash was originally blamed on pilot error, it was subsequently found to have been caused by the build-up of slush towards the end of the runway, causing deceleration of the aircraft and preventing safe flying speed from being achieved.
Seven players died in the crash, Roger Byrne, the captain, Mark Jones, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor, Liam Whelan, David Pegg and Geoff Bent. Probably the most famous Busby Babe of all was Duncan Edwards who was tipped at the time to become one of the World’s greatest footballers but although he survived the crash he died from his injuries a few days later in hospital. In 1953 he had become the youngest footballer to play in the Football League First Division and at the age of 18 years and 183 days, he had made his international debut for England in April 1955, and became England’s youngest post-war debutant. This record was not broken for forty-three years, when Michael Owen made his England debut in 1998.
Matt Busby who was himself very seriously injured in the crash resumed managerial duties the following season and eventually built a second generation of Busby Babes, including George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, who also happened to be one of the original Busby Babes, that went on to win the European Cup ten years after the disaster in 1968.
As a football fan this was devastating news for my dad who for many years afterwards always remembered the tragedy and spoke fondly of the Busby Babes. In a scrap book that he kept at the time he kept the front page of the Daily Mail which covered the story on the next day. The only other two newspaper front pages that he kept were those that reported the assassination of Kennedy and the death of Winston Churchill. That’s how much it meant to him. And he never bought me an Airfix model of the BEA Airspeed Ambassador either.
Other significant events of 1958 included a revolution in Iraq that overthrew the monarchy, murdered the King and triggered years of instability in the Middle East which continues today; Charles de Gaulle became President of France, which was bad news for those wanting to join the Common Market; and Nikita Khrushchev became President of the USSR, who although a liberal by Communist standards was the man who would later approve the construction of the Berlin Wall.
And Britain went to war again – this time with Iceland. The First Cod War lasted from 1 September until 12 November 1958 and began in response to a new Icelandic law that tripled the Icelandic fishery zone from four nautical miles to twelve to protect their fishing industry.
The British declared that their trawlers would fish under protection from their warships in three areas, out of the Westfjords, north of Horn and to the southeast of Iceland. All in all, twenty British trawlers, four warships and a supply vessel operated inside the newly declared zones. This was a bad tempered little spat that involved trawler net cutting, mid ocean ramming incidents and collisions. It was also a bit of an uneven contest and in all fifty-three British warships took part in the operations against seven Icelandic patrol vessels and a single Catalina flying boat.
Eventually Britain and Iceland came to a settlement, which stipulated that any future disagreement between the two countries in the matter of fishery zones would be sent to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the Icelandic Minister Bjarni Benediktsson hailed the agreement as “Iceland’s biggest political victory.” And it wasn’t the end of Cod Wars either because there was a second in 1972 and a third in 1975 when on both occasions Iceland further extended their territorial fishing waters and continuing to protect these is what keeps Iceland from joining the European Union even today.
Interestingly, and perhaps a little surprisingly, Iceland is now one of the most prosperous countries in the World and according to the 2008 UN index on human development overtook Norway as the World’s most desirable country in which to live. Following the Iceland economic crisis it has slipped back to third in 2009 with Norway back to top spot and Australia second and Canada and Ireland making up the rest of the top five.