Bert Trautmann: Separating Fact from Fiction

Alone. The soldier had begun to retreat deeper into Germany, his homeland. He had not been home for long. The war had chewed him up and spat him out of his comfort zone, yet called him back to the war-sickened streets when he was thrown into a unit made up of remnants of a plethora of old regiments, all of whom had been decimated on the Eastern Front.

These men now had a new calling, a new purpose. They had to forget the defeats that had betwixt the nation with the threat of an Allied invasion in Normandy that had been brewing since they had been driven off Dunkirk, and as each day pased, the idea became more and more plausible.

However, the new squad had never made it to their post. Instead, they were victims of an allied bombing raid in the town of Kleve. The soldier was one of a handful of survivors, somehow surviving under a collapsed school with tons of rumble on top of him. Without a unit left, without a purpose, he decided to head home, to Bremen. 

It wouldn’t be an easy journey home. Classed as a deserter, the solider would have to avoid troops on both sides of the war, in fear of death. That fear was soon realised when he sought refuge in a barn, only to be caught by two American soldiers, who deemed him as having no relevant information and forced him to march out with his hands on his head. The soldier, sensing his final moments approaching had no option but to run, and so he did. Fast. Without looking back or thinking ahead he jumped over a fence, only to land at the feet of a British soldier.

From there the soldier was taken to Ostend, Belgium, yet upon discovering the soldier was some-what of a serial escape artist after evading Russian and French captures, he was transferred to British shores, to Essex. 

Upon his arrival in England, he was interrogated. When asked his name the solider simply replied: “Bernhard Trautmann.”

He was slender, handsome and an image of peak fitness. Sat opposite the British forces, his blonde hair and blue eyes burned bright as ice. Trautmann embodied Hitler’s image of Nazi Germany, a greater Germany – he was the peak of the Aryan race. Upon further investigation, it was revealed Trautmann had been awarded the Iron Cross for the bravery he had shown on the Eastern Front. As a result, Trautmann was classified as a class “C” prisoner – a Nazi. He had volunteered to join the Third Reich and as a Hitler Youth had believed profoundly in the National Socialist Party. His faith in the Reich had been unwaved when he was deployed as a paratrooper on the Eastern Front – even when he witnessed a squad of SS soldiers kill a group of innocent Jews.

Bernhard Trautmann, aged seventeen (1941)

Trautmann was sent up north, to Cheshire, in particular, Northwich. On his way up to the prisoner of war camp, he would have seen signs for Manchester, a city that in under two decades time would come to adore the German. Yet for now, he had bridges to build – literally and figuratively.

As part of being a prisoner of war, Trautmann helped build the ring roads around Manchester airport before being confined back to the camp for the remainder of the day. There was no solitude and passing the time would have become as much a chore as much as relaxation.

Trautmann was submitted into Prisoner Camp 50 with fellow class “C” prisoners, however, his classification as a Nazi isn’t all cut and dry. Trautmann’s family suffered heavily due to World War I and the Treaty of Versailles; they wanted change and with the Nazi party came the promise of stable jobs. The family had already been forced to move out of their upper-middle-class estate in favour of a flat in working-class Bremen. Food, jobs and money becoming harder and harder to come by. As a child, Trautmann had joined the Hitler youth, not because of his political stance but, like every other teenager, loved sport and camping and when he turned 17 volunteered for the Luftwaffe, instead of leaving his life in limbo for six months only to be drafted then. Trautmann had followed in the footsteps of what every other young man in Germany had done in the early 1930s. He was too young to see the sinister undertones of the Nazi’s and saw an opportunity to play sport, to be a child, to have fun.

Once downgraded to a “B” class prisoner of war and living beneath the barbed wire fences of Prisoner Camp 50, Trautmann’s footballing career was born. He was originally deployed as a centre half, however, in the camp’s first friendly against amateur side Haydock Park, Trautmann suffered an injury. With no substitutes left to use, Trautmann swapped places with goalkeeper Gunther Luhr, taking up the position that he would redefine in the English game.

Even during his days under the blistering sun, where minutes seemed to be hours, Trautmann knew this wasn’t a life sentence and sensed a life beyond his barbed wire coup in England. Following Germany’s surrender and Hitler’s suicide, Trautmann declined repatriation to return home when offered by the British Government. He wanted to remain in England and got by as a labourer, remaining in the North-West.

Now a free man, the German joined St Helens Town, a non-league club in the Liverpool County Combination. Stories soon began to emerge of a mysterious keeper in the North-West, a keeper unlike any other, a keeper who was hauling St Helens Town towards an unlikely promotion. Trautmann has been accredited to a rise in attendances at St Helens Town – but with the crowds came scouts. Some of whom, crucially, represented Football League sides.

Personally, Trautmann’s time at St Helens was significant too through the club secretary he met his first wife, Margaret Friar. A woman who, eventually, saw past the war-scarred exterior and ‘he’s one of them’ mentality to love him for the man he had become in England.

Manchester City came in for the former prisoner of war following the retirement of club legend Frank Swift. Swift had served City loyally for well over a decade despite having a stint in the British army, so when the 1948/49 season rolled around, the Lancastrian native decided enough was enough and hung up his boots for the last time. For many City fans, Swift was the Britsh Bulldog spirit in flesh, a mortal representation of Uncle Sam, he was their’s and they were his. And for Swift to be replaced by a man so distinctly European, so distinctly German, it seemed as though the blue side of Manchester was stuck in some kind of alternative history ripped straight from the pages of The Man in the High Castle where the plucky Brit was usurped by the young cocky German.

Swift, in his heyday, was a trailblazer, throwing the ball out to teammates to retain possession instead of just hoofing in long, in a distinctly British fashion. But his days as an innovative goalkeeper were over, they had been for a while, and it was time for him to leave, and Swift recognised it. The Brit soon pursued a career in Journalism and became one of the few footballers to cross the border between red and blue as he reported on United games. Not long after embarking on his new career, Swift travelled to Munich with the United squad to report on the ill-fated trip to Red Star Belgrade. He never returned home. Swift received a fitting tribute in the 2008 Manchester Derby when, from all four corners of the ground, City and United fans joined in unison:

“There’s only one Frankie Swift!”

Meanwhile, Trautmann was still seen as the enemy by many City fans and as a result, a large proportion of the City faithful threatened to boycott matches for the upcoming season. How could they cheer on a man who just five years ago had fought on the other side of the war? A war which had claimed lives of loved ones and countless acquaintances.

The war had affected everyone across the globe, some in more ways than one, the City dressing room was no different. Across from Trautmann sat Eric Westwood, the club captain and Normandy veteran. 

“There’s no war in this dressing room,” proclaimed Westwood to the side as he welcomed Trautmann into the mix. The significance of this was huge – in an alternate scenario these two could have come face to face on the battlefield had Trautmann’s unit made it to Normany. Instead, a dressing room leader was squashing conflict before it could arise. The dressing room were on-side and the City supporters soon followed after a Mancunian rabbi pleaded with the Moss Side faithful to accept the keeper.

“Despite the terrible cruelties we suffered at the hands of the Germans we would not try to punish an individual German, who is unconnected with these crimes, out of hatred,” he wrote in the Manchester Evening News.

City started slowly and Trautmann’s inaugural season at City didn’t go as planned for the sky blues, even conceding seven against Derby when the boos got too much for him. Whilst the amount of boos ranged from city to city, they tended to be more pronounced in the harbour and port-side cities where German bombs had fallen.

Trautmann’s biggest test of character was yet to come in the form of a trip to London, where in January 1950, City’s next fixture came at White Hart Lane. Spurs were no strangers to political statements, as prior to World War II, White Hart Lane had hosted a friendly between Germany and England. The decision to host that match at White Hart Lane was intriguing as Tottenham, more than anyone else in the league, had a Jewish fanbase and the stood firmly against the Nazi party and their views. Prior to kick off a swastica was raised above the evergreen and Germany’s captain Fritz Szepan led the side in a Nazi salute. The swastica reportedly didn’t last long as Spurs fan Ernie Wooley climbed a drain pipe to cut the flag down.

Come January, Trautmann entered the pitch to cauldren of boos. London had been hit hard during the Blitz and claimed thousands of lives with thousands more being injured. For many of the fas in attendance, the war had claimed their childhood – forced to spend evenings in bomb shelters fearing for what they may reemerge to in the morning. The Spurs fans could now see someone that they thought was responsible for the disasters and treated him as such.

Amid the course of boos was a sense of expectation, the expectation of victory, a big one at that. And yet as Tottenham unleashed attack after attack at the City goal to no avail, something strange happened… the atmosphere began to shift. The boos died and worry set in – this should have been an easy three points for Spurs but Trautmann had other ideas with an inspired performance. Spurs eventually scored and order was resumed, but that wasn’t to be the story. At the end of the game, Trautmann received a standing ovation from all around the ground. 

Trautmann never represented his country, with the German national team coach citing distance and the current political problem between England and Germany as stumbling blocks. This could have all been resolved, mind you, when Schalke 04 showed interest in the keeper, but the German club found all their attempts in vain when City rejected their £1,000 bid, stating he was worth 20 times that value (the current British record was Trevor Ford at £30,000).

City began to gain stability with the introduction of the ‘Revie Plan’. Before Don Revie became an icon in Leeds as their manager, taking them all the way to the European Cup final, he was a marauding forward for a plethora of clubs in the North. The Revie Plan was based on the Hungarian national side, in particular, the role Nandor Hidegkuti undertook in the ‘Match of the Century’ where Hungary crushed England’s view on football in the historic 6-3 victory at Wembley. The tactic took City to two consecutive FA Cup finals in 1955 and 1956. City lost the ’55 final but it’s in ’56, a City legend was born. 

The Wembley turf is many a footballer’s dream, their ‘raison d’être’ for some. As Trautmann followed the City players onto the pitch he wore a sombre grin, making a bit of history in being the first German to play in the FA Cup final. Surely though, his mind drifted to his childhood friends, friends that barely made it to 20 – victims of the war. After disappointment in the previous year’s final, Trautmann was desperate to taste victory this time around, not just for him but everybody that had helped him restart life in England and repay the Manchester faithful for the forgiveness they showed him.

As the game rumbled into the second half, City were 3-1 up and their name was already being etched onto the cup. Birmingham City striker Peter Murphey found himself through on goal and an onrushing Trautmann rushed off his goalline to sweep up the ball. He dived at the Englishman’s feet with all intentions to wrap his hands around the ball and curtail another Brum attack all but securing the trophy.

As a goalkeeper, Trautmann had seen this situation play out a million times before, and they always ended the same with him picking himself, and the ball, up off the turf. However, this time was different. When Trautmann tried to get his feet he couldn’t, the ball wasn’t in is grasp and he couldn’t see it. In fact, he couldn’t see anything – it was all a blur, a haze. The medical staff were soon with Trautmann and he was soon back on his feet, City were permitted no substitutes for the game and so Trautmann had to continue, unsteady and almost out of it.

City held their nerve and went onto claim the trophy. When collecting his winner’s medal, Prince Phillip commented on how crooked Trautmann’s neck was. The pain hadn’t subsided since the collision and so the next day Trautmann went to the hospital only to be told he was fine.

But the pain wouldn’t go away and so three days later he was back. This time the results were different. Trautmann had dislocated five vertebrae in his neck. If the second hadn’t wedged against the third, he would have lost his life.

5th May 1956: FA Cup Final: Birmingham City v Manchester City. After helping Manchester City win the Cup 3-1 Bert Trautmann, injured during the match, is helped off the field rubbing his ‘sore” neck. It later transpired he had broken it. Trautmann was later named as player of the year. Mandatory Credit: Allsport Hulton/Archive

He was lucky to be alive and was now an FA Cup champion. However, three weeks later saw life hit Trautmann even harder, with his five-year-old-son John being knocked down and killed after buying sweets near his home in Bramhall, Cheshire. Trautmann spoke of how his first wife, Margaret, never recovered from the death of her son and died of a broken heart. 

Trautmann was never the same keeper after he broke his neck. He returned to City and continued to put on spectacle after spectacle but something was missing. 

When City sanctioned a testimonial for Trautmann in 1964, thousands of City fans packed into Maine Road to catch one last glimpse of their hero, before he rode off into the sunset. Like Frankie Smith had done all those years ago.

The Odyssey of Bert Trautmann is nothing short of incredible; the story of how a Hitler youth became a cult hero in Manchester via the Eastern Front and PoW camps. How he won the hearts of English fans and an English woman. It could have been different, had Trautmann not survived one of his close calls in World War II, had Man City accepted Schalke’s approaches for their fellow countryman Trautmann surely would have gone onto stand between the sticks in the 1954 World Cup and been part of the Miricle of Bern, immortalising him in his homeland.

Yet, Trautmann opted to stay – in many ways he was unceremoniously English. Had he moved to Schalke, he would have probably been consigned to the history books in England. Instead, British audiences will soon be able to watch a movie based on the life titled ‘The Keeper’.

On his retirement-bed, Trautmann admitted he supported England, even over Germany, he loved the British Isles and was even awarded an OBE for his aid in Anglo-Germanic relations. It was a reunion of sorts when he collected his medal, the first time he had seen the Queen was the 1956 FA Cup and almost half a century on the Queen smiled and talked about how she remembered him, asking him about his neck. Trautmann died peacefully in 2013 at his home in Castellón in Spain, aged 89.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – AUGUST 19: The players of Manchester City stand for a one minutes applause in memory of former player Bert Trautmann prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Newcastle United at the Etihad Stadium on August 19, 2013 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

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One Thought to “Bert Trautmann: Separating Fact from Fiction”

  1. […] As we have told in Bert’s story on our site, the German had a career few could comprehend. From 20,000 protesting his signing to 47,000 people attending his final testimonial match, Bert Trautmann will forever be close to blue hearts. […]

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