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Bert Trautmann – A Journey From Villain To Hero

When a German paratrooper and holder of the Iron Cross transferred to Manchester City in the 1950’s thousands took to the streets in protest; but just a few years later Bert Trautmann was universally lauded for his heroics in the 1956 FA Cup Final.

The moment which guaranteed Bert Trautmann’s place in the annals of footballing folklore occurred in the 73rd minute of a pulsating 1956 FA Cup final at Wembley. As Manchester City’s much-admired and uncompromising goalkeeper, Trautmann had experienced the bitter taste of defeat in the previous years Cup Final when City lost to a Newcastle United side led by striker Jackie Milburn. In his second successive final, Trautmann was determined that history would not repeat itself. With his side enjoying a 3-1 lead, Trautmann dived valiantly at the feet of the onrushing Birmingham City striker Peter Murphy to make yet another crucial save. However, the resulting heavy collision had catastrophic repercussions – Murphy’s right knee crashed against the goalkeeper’s neck and Trautmann was knocked unconscious by the blow. At that time no substitutes were permitted to replace injured outfield players, so Trautmann, dazed and unsteady on his feet, carried on. For the remaining 15 minutes he defended his net, making a crucial interception to deny Murphy once more. Manchester City held on for the victory, and Trautmann was the hero of the final because of his spectacular saves in the last minutes of the match.

His neck continued to cause him pain, and Prince Philip commented on its crooked state as he gave Trautmann his winner’s medal. Trautmann attended that evening’s post-match banquet despite being unable to move his head, and went to bed expecting the injury to heal with rest. As the pain did not recede, the following day he went to St George’s Hospital, where he was told he merely had a crick in his neck which would go away. Three days later, he got a second opinion from a doctor at Manchester Royal Infirmary. An X-ray revealed he had dislocated five vertebrae in his neck, the second of which was cracked in two. The third vertebra had wedged against the second, preventing further damage which could have cost Trautmann his life. Trautmann’s trademark fearlessness had brought him close to death, but his Cup winner’s medal was a source of huge pride and solace in the painful months of convalescence ahead. In recognition of his heroics and for his consistently excellence between the sticks for Manchester City, Trautmann was the worthy recipient of the FWA Footballer of the Year Award. It was the latest dramatic episode in a life  characterised by a succession of unlikely, controversial and sometimes horrific twists and turns.

Bert Trautmann was born in Bremen in North-Western, Germany in 1923. Like many others, his family were adversely affected by the harsh economic climate which prevailed in Germany at the time, as the country struggled to recover from the punitive financial measures imposed by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. The family were forced to relocate to a poor, working-class district of Bremen, where young Bert soon began to demonstrate a strong aptitude for sports, particularly handball and football. At the age of 10, just as Hitler’s Nazi Party completed their unlikely rise to absolute power in Germany, Trautmann joined the Jungvolk, a precursor of the Hitler Youth, where his indoctrination into the poisonous ideology of National Socialism began in earnest. He endured a childhood of brainwashing,  exposed to years of racial biology and ideology lessons in which messages that Jews were responsible for wrecking Germany’s economy, that Poles were an inferior people and Aryans the master race had been repeatedly rammed home.

“Growing up in Hitler’s Germany, you had no mind of your own,” he later said. “You didn’t think of the enemy as people at first. Then, when you began taking prisoners, you heard them cry for their mother and father. You said ‘Oh’. When you met the enemy, he became a real person. The longer the war went on, you started having doubts. But Hitler’s was a dictatorial regime and you couldn’t say what you wanted. In the German army, you got your orders and you followed them. If you didn’t, you were shot.”

By the breakout of war in 1939, Trautmann left his job as a motor mechanic to sign up as a radio operator with the German Luftwaffe. During his subsequent experiences  he witnessed the full carnage of combat and the horrors of the Holocaust during an incredible odyssey that swept the one-time Hitler Youth prodigy into active service in Russia and later France. “I volunteered when I was 17,” he says. “People say ‘why?’, but when you are a young boy war seems like an adventure. Then, when you’re involved in fighting it’s very different, you see all the horrible things that happen, the death, the bodies, the scariness. You can’t control yourself. Your whole body is shaking and you’re making a mess in your pants.”

When Trautmann came to Manchester in 2006 to promote Catrine Clay’s excellent biography Trautmann’s Journey, he reminisced not only on the famous Wembley moment which made him a household name, but also on the full horror of his wartime experiences and on his childhood, growing up under the totalitarian rule of the Nazis.

“I still have pain if I make unexpected movements of my head,” said the one-time Luftwaffe paratrooper and holder of the Iron Cross.. “But I was very lucky: surgeons told me I could have died or been paralysed.”
Instead, Trautmann, in infinitely better shape than most men a decade younger, was able to continue living what he acknowledges is an “extraordinary, sometimes mad” life to the full.

Many of its happiest moments arrived in later years when, employed by the German government on a third-world initiative, he lived in Burma, Tanzania, Liberia, Pakistan and Yemen. “Excellent times,” he says. “I was teaching people how to be football coaches, but they all taught me a hell of a lot about life, about tolerance and thinking differently. Travelling is the best education, it teaches tolerance and understanding.”

Trautmann was one of only 90 members of his original 1,000-strong regiment still alive in 1945. Several fellow survivors were left badly maimed. “I kept nothing from the war,” he says. “I don’t have my Iron Cross any more.”

After he escaped from the Russians and then the French resistance, the British finally captured him properly. “When they got me [after he had hurdled a fence leaping straight into an ambush] the first thing they said was: ‘Hello Fritz, fancy a cup of tea,'” recalls Trautmann.
It was the start of an unlikely love affair. “I feel British in my heart now,” he says. “When people ask me about life, I say my education began when I got to England. I learnt about humanity, tolerance and forgiveness.” Not to mention that Jews were human, too.

Trautmann was told of concentration camps and the Holocaust in an English PoW camp, but his first intimation that something had gone very wrong came when, fighting in Ukraine, he and a friend inadvertently stumbled across a massacre of Jews by SS officers in a forest. After being herded into trenches, they were systematically shot. Terrified, the pair escaped undetected and never spoke of the incident. Trautmann bows his head at the memory: “I was 18.”

German PoWs were routinely shown a film about Belsen. “My first thought was: ‘How can my countrymen do things like that?'” he says. “But Hitler’s was an utter totalitarian regime.”

Later, the then 22-year-old worked as a driver for Jewish officers on the camp. “They wanted to know what you thought about Nazis and the Jewish community,” says Trautmann, who admits that “deep down” he then still viewed Jews as moneylenders and profiteers.

“Sometimes their questioning was quite nasty, your pride was hurt and I lost my temper.” So much so that after one called him a “German pig” Trautmann punched him.

Subsequent driving service for another Jew, Sergeant Hermann Bloch, proved much happier. “I quickly came to see Bloch, and every other Jew, as human beings. At first I sometimes lost my temper with him, but, in time, I talked to him as if he was just another English soldier. I liked him.”

He also enjoyed playing centre-half for Prisoner-of-War teams across north-west England, only being persuaded to move into goal after one day becoming embroiled in an outfield fight. A star was born and, with Trautmann declining repatriation to Germany, a stint at non-League St Helens prefaced a high-profile move to Manchester City.

Manchester boasted a sizeable Jewish community, and 20,000 people turned out to demonstrate against City’s controversial new signing. Tensions were eventually defused by Dr Altmann, the communal Rabbi, who appealed for the German player to be offered a chance, reminding everyone that an individual should not be punished for his country’s sins.

“Thanks to Altmann, after a month it was all forgotten,” says Trautmann. “Later, I went into the Jewish community and tried to explain things. I tried to give them an understanding of the situation for people in Germany in the 1930s and their bad circumstances. I asked if they had been in the same position, under a dictatorship, how they would have reacted? By talking like that, people began to understand.”

Trautmann’s personal world turned dark and unfathomable a month after the 1956 FA Cup final, when his six-year-old son John was run over and killed. Although his then wife Margaret bore him two more boys, she never recovered. “Margaret didn’t get over John, she had no interest in life any more,” says Trautmann, who, after an unhappy stint managing Stockport – where he was horrified to discover Coronation Street actors influenced the chairman – would eventually walk out on her and into that German government job. “When she died, it was of a broken heart.”

Tall, blond and  handsome, Trautmann caused his fair share of emotional grief. After getting his first girlfriend, Marion, pregnant, he abandoned her and baby Freda shortly after the birth. “Marion didn’t have an easy life. I left her with a PoW’s bastard daughter and, although I gave her maintenance, it was very little. The most I ever earned at City was £35 a week,” Trautmann admits. “But I was terrified of being trapped.”

A decade ago, Freda traced him, they are now close and he has been re-introduced to Marion: “She told me, ‘You did the right thing, I can’t blame you’. Imagine having such generosity.”

Always close to his mother, Trautmann is haunted by the repercussions of that post-war refusal to return to Bremen. “Mutti’s relationship with my father wasn’t so good and my decision to stay in the UK was another hardship,” he says. “I think she died of a broken heart.”

Such brutal honesty and acute self-awareness is rare, but he is an unusual man. If his private life – Trautmann is happily married to his third wife, Marlis, and living in a modest bungalow on the Spanish coast near Valencia – has not always been exemplary, he remains a peerless ambassador for international reconciliation.

In 2004, Trautmann was appointed an honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for promoting Anglo-German understanding through football. Now 89 years old, Trautmann still has an open invitation to the director’s box at the Etihad Stadium. In 2006, reflecting on the experiences of a dramatic life, the old Luftwaffe paratrooper said, “We never, ever, want another world war, it absolutely must not happen.”

While his wartime memories will always haunt him, Trautmann’ tale is one of redemption; a man who overcame suspicion and hostility to become a sporting hero through sheer talent and application. His story, and in particular the tale of his exploits in that dramatic 1956 Cup Final, is one which will be told over and over by generations of football historians.


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