In 1955, UEFA established the European Cup, a football competition for the champion clubs of UEFA-affiliated nations. However, the English league winners, Chelsea, were denied entry by the Football League, who believed it was in the best interests of English football and football in general for them not to enter. The following season, the English league was won by Manchester United, managed by the visionary Matt Busby. Originally, the Football League again denied entry to the European Cup, but Busby and his chairman, Harold Hardman, with the help of the Football Association's chairman Stanley Rous, defied the league and became the first English team to venture into Europe.
The Manchester United management had taken a chance, and it had paid off, with the young team – known as the "Busby Babes" for their youth – proving the Football League wrong by reaching the semi-finals of the 1956–57 competition, being knocked out by eventual winners Real Madrid. Winning the First Division title again that season meant that they secured qualification for the 1957–58 tournament, and their successful cup run in 1956–57 meant that they were one of the favourites to win it. Domestic league matches were played on Saturdays and European matches were played midweek, so, although air travel was risky at the time, it was the only practical choice if United were to fulfil their league fixtures.
After overcoming Shamrock Rovers and Dukla Prague in the preliminary round and the first round respectively, Manchester United were drawn with Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia for the quarter-finals. After beating the Yugoslavians 2–1 at Old Trafford on 21 January 1958, the club was scheduled to travel to Yugoslavia for the return leg on 5 February. On the way back from Prague in the previous round, fog over England prevented the team from flying back to Manchester, so they hastily made arrangements to fly to Amsterdam before taking the ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich and then the train up to Manchester. The trip took its toll on the players and they were only able to scrape a 1–1 draw with Birmingham City at St Andrew's.
Eager not to miss any of their Football League fixtures in the future, and also not to have to go through such a difficult trip again, the club chartered a plane from Manchester to Belgrade for the away leg against Red Star. The match itself was drawn 3–3, but it was enough to send United to the semi-finals. The takeoff from Belgrade was delayed for an hour as United outside right Johnny Berry had lost his passport, then the plane made a scheduled stop in Munich to refuel.
Captain James Thain, the pilot, had flown the plane out to Belgrade, but handed the controls to his co-pilot, Captain Kenneth Rayment for the return journey. At around 2:00 pm, the control tower at Munich airport was told that the plane was ready to take off, and they were cleared to attempt to get underway at 2:31 pm. However, Captain Rayment abandoned the take off after just 40 seconds after Captain Thain had noticed the port pressure gauge fluctuating as the plane reached full power and the engine sounded odd while accelerating. A second attempt was made three minutes later, but this too was called off before the plane got off the ground. The reason given for the failed attempts was that the plane had been filled with a very rich mixture of fuel, causing the engines to over-accelerate. After the second failure, all the passengers were told to disembark the plane and they retreated to the airport lounge. By then, it had started to snow heavily, and it looked unlikely that the plane would be making the return journey that day. Manchester United's Duncan Edwards took the opportunity to send a telegram ahead to his landlady in Manchester. It read: "All flights cancelled, flying tomorrow. Duncan."
Despite the snow, the passengers were called back out to the plane just 15 minutes later. A few of the players were not confident fliers, particularly Liam Whelan, who was heard to say "This may be death, but I'm ready" shortly before take off. Others, including Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones, Eddie Colman and Frank Swift moved to the back of the plane, believing it to be safer. After discussions with the airport engineer, Captains Thain and Rayment got the plane moving again for a third take off attempt at 3:04 pm. Once the plane reached , Captain Thain called out "V1", indicating that they had reached the velocity at which it was no longer safe to abort the take off. However, when he glanced back down to the speedometer, expecting the needle to continue to rise to V2, it suddenly dropped back down to , and then . Captain Rayment shouted "Christ, we won't make it!", as Captain Thain looked up to see what lay ahead of them.
The plane skidded off the end of the runway and, out of control, crashed into the fence surrounding the airport and then across a road before its port wing was torn off as it caught a house, home to a family of six. The father and eldest daughter were away at the time, and the mother and the other three children narrowly escaped with their lives as the house caught on fire. Part of the plane's tail was torn off too, before the left side of the cockpit hit a tree. The right side of the fuselage hit a Nissen hut, inside which was a truck filled with tyres and fuel, which exploded. 21 people were killed instantly, while Duncan Edwards and Captain Rayment died in hospital a few days later.
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 attained. During the take off, the aircraft had attained a speed of , but, on entering the slush, speed dropped to , too slow for the plane to leave the ground, with not enough runway remaining to abort the take off. Aircraft with tail-wheel undercarriages had not been greatly affected by slush, due to the geometry of these undercarriages in relation to the aircraft's centre of gravity, but newer types, such as the Ambassador, with nose wheel landing-gear and the main wheels behind the centre of gravity, were found to be vulnerable. The accident resulted in the instigation of operating limits for the amount of slush build-up permitted on runways.
Despite this conclusion, the German airport authorities (who were legally responsible for the state of the airport's runways, but generally not aware of the then unknown danger of slush on runways for aircraft like the Ambassador) took legal action against Captain Thain, as the one pilot who had survived the crash, claiming he had taken off without deicing the wings and that responsibility for the accident was his alone, despite several witnesses stating that this was not so. The basis of the German authorities' case relied on a photograph of the aircraft (published in several newspapers) taken shortly before take off, that appeared to show snow on the upper wing surfaces. When the original negative was examined, however, no snow or ice could be seen, the "snow" having been due to the published pictures being produced from a copy negative. The witnesses were not called to the German inquiry and proceedings against Thain dragged on until 1968, when he was finally cleared of any responsibility for the crash. As the official cause, British authorities recorded a build-up of melting snow on the runway which prevented the Elizabethan from reaching the required take-off speed. Thain, having been dismissed by BEA shortly after the accident and never reengaged, retired and returned to run his poultry farm in Berkshire. He died of a heart attack at the age of 53, in 1975.
There was speculation that the club would fold, but a threadbare United team completed the 1957–58 season, with Busby's assistant Jimmy Murphy standing in as manager; he had not travelled to Belgrade as he was in Cardiff managing the Welsh national team at the time. A team largely made up of reserve and youth team players beat Sheffield Wednesday 3–0 in the first match after the disaster. The programme for that match showed simply a blank space where each United player's name should have been.
United only won one league game after the crash, causing their title challenge to collapse and push them down to ninth place in the league, but they reached the final of the FA Cup, losing 2–0 to Bolton Wanderers. Busby resumed managerial duties the next season (1958–59) and eventually built a second generation of Busby Babes, including George Best and Denis Law, that ten years later won the European Cup in 1968, beating Benfica. Crash survivors Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes were two of the other players who lined up in that team.
The first three memorials at Old Trafford were unveiled on 25 February 1960. Placed above the entrance to the directors' box, the first plaque featured a supporter and a player with their heads bowed solemnly looking down onto a wreath, underneath which was a football bearing the date 1958 and beneath this was the pitch with the names of the dead inscribed. The second memorial was a bronze plaque, placed in the press box in memory of the eight journalists who died, and finally a simple clock was erected at the front of the stadium.
When building work began a decade later, the plaque could not be safely moved and was left in situ to be walled up inside the new construction. The club claims to possess this pitch aspect of this first memorial in storage, and also claims to be planning its placement in the on site museum. The manufacturers of the plaque actually made a second copy, but this was destroyed when the firm went out of business in 1983. The second plaque, similar but smaller, was installed in 1976 and a third plaque is on the front facade of the ground, installed in 1996. The clock has moved but is still visible and the press box plaque was stolen and replaced with a replica shortly afterwards.
There are also two memorials in Germany. First, in the village of Kirchtrudering, there is a small wooden trough memorial with the inscription: "In the memory of the victims of the air disaster of 6.2.1958 including members of the football team of Manchester United as well as all the victims from the municipality of Trudering". In September 2004, in the vicinity of Munich Airport, a granite memorial was unveiled which reads, in both English and German, "In memory of those who lost their lives here in the Munich air disaster on the 6 February 1958". Underneath is a plaque expressing United's gratitude to the municipality of Munich and its people.
A memorial service was held at Old Trafford on 6 February 2008. At the conclusion of the service, the surviving members of the 1958 team unveiled the renaming of the tunnel in the stadium's south stand as the "Munich Memorial Tunnel". As well as an "eternal flame", a series of plaques on the walls of the tunnel traces the history of the Busby Babes.
On 6 February 2008, the England national football team took on Switzerland at Wembley Stadium. Before the game, pictures of the players who lost their lives at Munich were displayed on big screens, and England players wore black armbands. Originally, a minute's silence was not to have been observed on the day, due to the Football Association's fears that the silence would not be respected by fans of Manchester United's rivals. However, they then agreed that a minute's silence should be held. In the event, it was generally well-observed, but a small number of supporters made whistles and cat-calls and the referee cut the silence short after less than 30 seconds. This led to speculation by the media as to whether the silence would be able to be completed at Old Trafford.
On 10 February 2008, at the derby match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford, both teams were led onto the pitch by a lone bagpiper, and the managers – Alex Ferguson and Sven-Goran Eriksson – each laid a wreath in the centre circle. This was followed by a minute silence, which, despite previous concerns, was respected by all the fans. United played in strips reminiscent of those worn by the 1958 team, numbered 1–11 with no advertising on the front or players names on the back, while City removed shirt manufacturers and sponsors logos from their kit and the image of a small black ribbon was embroidered to the right shoulder; both teams wore black armbands in tribute to the victims of the Munich disaster. Manchester City won 2–1 thanks to first half goals from Darius Vassell and debutant Benjani. Fans in attendance were given commemorative scarves, which were held up during the silence, and the match programme featured a 26-page booklet on the victims of the crash and a reprint of the programme from the first home match after the disaster, a league fixture against Sheffield Wednesday.
Bill Foulkes said that, if done right, the film could become a "tribute to the Busby Babes which could be seen for generations to come." However, he expressed concerns about the accuracy of the film, given the filmmakers' lack of first-hand sources about what actually happened in Munich. Fellow survivor Harry Gregg was more concerned about the portrayal of the players, particularly those who died, and whether their families' feelings would be respected.
John Doherty, a former United player who had left United only a few months earlier, was less restrained, saying that the filmmakers were only interested in making money off the back of the tragedy and that they couldn't possibly know what went on that day without having been there.
On 6 February 2008, the 50th anniversary of the crash, several television channels showed programmes about it: