BERT TRAUTMANN – From Hitler Youth to Maine Road Legend
Tributes have poured in this week for former Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, the one-time Hitler Youth member and German paratrooper who died on Friday aged 89. The hugely-respected German played over five hundred games in a 15 year career at Maine Road and went on to become one of City’s most popular footballers in their history, despite his career at the club beginning in controversial fashion.
Trautmann was the unlikeliest of heroes, initially vilified by English football fans who had the losses of the Second World War still very much in their minds. Yet, by the time he left City in 1964, there were few players more popular – not even the great Frank Swift who Trautmann had succeeded in 1949. Trautmann had an extraordinary life, one that included incredible highs and devastatingly tragic lows, yet he remained a dignified and conscientious man through to the very end, which came on Friday at his home in the Spanish town of La Losa near Valencia.
Nevertheless, it all began so differently for Trautmann, the son of a Bremen dock worker. Born in the difficult years that followed the Great War, Trautmann’s family moved sporadically as reparation payments and the Wall Street crash of 1929 crippled Germany and its economy – eventually resulting in the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933. A gifted athlete, Trautmann joined the Hitler Youth in the summer of 1933 before enlisting in the Luftwaffe in 1941 when he turned 17-years-old.
The youngster soon volunteered to serve as a paratrooper and was subsequently decorated for bravery on the Eastern Front, where he received the Iron Cross First Class. The barbarity of war in the East was never far from the surface however, and Trautmann was witness to a SS Einsatzgruppen massacre which saw thousands of Jewish civilians shot and buried in mass graves in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. It was a life-changing moment for the then 21-year-old, who later revealed he had considered suicide such was his revulsion of the war and what he had seen.
“Growing up in Hitler’s Germany, you had no mind of your own,” Trautmann says. “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 1944, Trautmann had been transferred to France in preparation for the expected Allied invasion, which finally came on 6 June in Normandy. Trautmann later saw heavy combat during Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s ill-conceived airborne assault at Arnhem and then in the Ardennes, where Hitler launched one last desperate offensive to stem the tide of the war. Trautmann was finally captured just weeks before the end of the war, first by American troops who he managed to escape from, then by British forces who sent him to England, where he eventually ended up in a Prisoner-of-War camp in Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire.
Trautmann rarely spoke of his war time experiences, however, he did give a poignant insight into his experiences during one rare interview: “People say ‘why?’ [did he enlist] 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.”
His arrival in the north-west of England proved the start of an unlikely love affair with the region, one which would last the remainder of his life. Refusing repatriation on his release in 1948, Trautmann worked first on a farm and then in a bomb disposal unit as he helped his adopted countrymen and women try to return to some modicum of normality after six years of war. On 7 October 1949 Trautmann signed an amateur contract with Manchester City, after impressing in a friendly playing for St Helens Town, before going on to pen a professional deal soon after. It would prove to be one of the most pivotal moments in English football history.
City’s decision to sign Trautmann so soon after the War provoked outrage in many areas of society, not least in Manchester’s sizeable Jewish community. An estimated a crowd of 20,000 held a public demonstration against the German goalkeeper before Dr Alexander Altmann, the communal Rabbi, appealed for Trautmann to be offered a chance. It was a significant gesture from Altmann, who lost both parents and much of his family in the Nazi death camps of Poland. Trautmann never forgot what Altmann did and later went into the Jewish community to discuss his wartime experiences.
“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.”
Despite conceding seven goals in a match against Derby County just weeks after his City debut, Trautmann soon became a popular figure at Maine Road where fans warmed to his charismatic and all-action displays. In fact it is of great credit to Trautmann that he went some way to filling the massive void created by the retirement of the Frank Swift in 1949 (the club’s legendary goalkeeper who was to die in the Munich air disaster of 1958.)
For all Trautmann’s fine displays in over 14 years at City, he is best remembered by many for the 1956 FA Cup Final in which he played the last 15 minutes of the match with a broken neck after a heavy collision with Birmingham City’s Peter Murphy. Trautmann, understandably, grew tired of talking about the incident in later life, however, he once talked candidly about the incident in an interview with Four Four Two magazine: “If I had known I had broken my neck, I would have walked off. It was daft to play on but all I can recall was a grey fog around me and I had no idea who anyone was. I don’t have any memory of the saves and was surprised to see them later on the television. I can’t recall the pain because it is all such a blank. I came to when the final whistle went. Very strange.”
Tragedy then struck Trautmann and his wife Margaret just weeks after the FA Cup Final, when his six-year-old son John was knocked down and killed near his home. Although Margaret bore him two more boys, Trautmann says she never recovered from the incident. “Margaret didn’t get over John, she had no interest in life any more. When she died, it was of a broken heart.”
Trautmann returned to football soon after the accident and became the first foreigner to win the Football Writers’ Association player of the year award in 1956, going on to play over five hundred games for City before retiring in 1963. He then had a brief spell managing Stockport County before returning to Germany in 1967 to coach Preussen Münster. Trautmann’s extraordinary life continued after his retirement and he became an development worker for the German Football Federation.
His first role saw him travel to Burma, where he spent two years as the national team coach, guiding them to qualification for the 1972 Olympics Games. His work subsequently took him to Tanzania, Liberia, Pakistan and Yemen, before he retired in 1988. Trautmann received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1997, and was made an OBE in 2004 for his work in strengthening Anglo-German relations. He later launched his own sport-focused foundation with the same aim. Trautmann made many trips back to Manchester City in his later years and remained a popular figure at the club. He officially opened the new Kippax Stand at Maine Road in November 1995 and featured in the 1999 BBC Timewatch episode ‘The Germans we kept’, which examined the experiences of German prisoners of war who decided to remain in Britain after the war.
Trautmann’s death at his home in Valencia on Friday, brought tributes from some of the greatest players from the world of football – a testament to the high regard he was still held. Joe Corrigan, one of Trautmann’s successors as City’s keeper, said the German had been a “friend and mentor” who helped him with advice after he had broken into the first team. “Bert was a fantastic man and was one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, and I’m proud to have called him both a friend and a mentor. As a goalkeeper, Bert had everything. He was agile, intelligent, commanding and brave, and is a true legend in every sense of the word. A couple of years ago he wrote the foreword for my autobiography – the words he wrote still send a shiver down my spine.”
Those sentiments will be echoed by everyone who met Bert Trautmann – a remarkable man and a fantastic footballer.