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Bert Trautmann’s American captors stood him against a tree. He couldn’t understand their words, but the meagre light from a farmhouse enabled him to see their instructions. He was to turn around and put his arms above his head. “Then I heard their guns click,” remembers the one time Nazi paratrooper. “They were about to shoot me.”
Trautmann’s capture was not implausible. Having lost most of his friends on the German Eastern Front, he’d begun to question the futility of war long before he was shunted to the Western Front to try and stem the Allied advance that commenced on D-Day. Spying the “confident and organised” British paratroopers for the first time hardly raised his morale either. Disillusioned, Trautmann risked being shot for desertion by the SS and capture by Allied troops when he left the front line in a desperate attempt to walk back to his home city of Bremen.
“I wandered through fields until night fell. I found myself close to a village. It was unerringly quiet,” he recalls. “Something didn’t quite seem right and I went into a farmhouse for shelter. From nowhere, Americans jumped on me.”
That’s when the guns clicked.
“I’ve no idea why, but the officer just told me to clear off. So I did. I ran and ran, over hedges and through fields…I ran straight into six camouflaged British soldiers. They were less forgiving.”
Trautmann’s active service was over and he was taken a British prisoner. How was he to know that capture would alter his life more profoundly than almost every other soldier? That he would go onto make England’s northwest his home when Anglo/German relations were almost irresolute? That he would play 545 games in goal for Manchester City? Become the first foreigner to be crowned Football Writers’ Player of the Year in England, the first player to wear adidas boots in Britain thanks to his friendship with Adi Hassler? And, most famously, continue to play on despite breaking his neck in the 1956 FA Cup final?
“Oranges. Everywhere,” remarks Trautmann as he surveys the flat, dusty, landscape through the windscreen of his 12-year old Golf. We’re weaving our way towards his beachside home in rural Valencia. With a healthy crop of light hair, blue eyes and a svelte frame, his appearance belies that of an octogenarian whose English is pockmarked by the flat vowels of the South Lancashire proletariat. Most who grafted on the coalface or in the glass factory didn’t reach 80. Had it not been for the whim of an American officer, Trautmann wouldn’t have seen 20.
“I don’t want to be remembered as the man who broke his neck in the cup final, I want to be remembered as a bloody good goalkeeper,” fulminates Trautmann, his mind as sharp as his eyes, as he sits down in the sunshine outside his single story home. Manchester City fans remember him as a great alright - one fanzine was even named ‘Bert Trauntmann’s Helmet’.
Born in the northern port of Bremen in 1923, Trautmann can thank Adolf Hitler for his popularity in Manchester. Had it not been for the Fuehrer, he wouldn’t have ended up in England. In fact, it’s unlikely that he would have even been a goalkeeper.
Trautmann was raised in the seething political climate of 1920’s Germany, a country brought to its knees after defeat in the First World War. Stagflation crippled the economy and he remembers his father, a docker and Great War veteran, seeing the value of his wages halved in half an hour.
“I joined the Hitler Youth in 1933, the year that the Brownies (Hitler’s NSDAP, later known as the Nazi’s) came to power. It was like boy scouts,” he attests. “Hitler seized his chance in a country in turmoil. He said: ‘If you vote for me I’ll get you this and I’ll do that’. People had no idea that he was preparing himself for war and to occupy Europe. They just wanted food and prospects for their families.
"Although you didn’t know it, your mind was influenced by the Nazi propaganda. You listened to the political speeches. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed. People have an affinity towards their own and the Nazi’s were telling us that German people were suffering apparent atrocities in Poland or wherever. We didn’t realise the power of propaganda.
“At 16, after war had broke out, I volunteered. Most of my friends did too, we didn’t think why or for what. Hitler had influenced the education system to such an extent that we didn’t form opinions. We were indoctrinated. There was peer pressure to join the Hitler Youth and then the forces proper.
"After training but failing to be a radio operator, I trained as a paratrooper and was drafted to Zamos on the Polish/Russian border. We didn’t appreciate the size of the military build-up, nor did we think we were going to attack Russia because Hitler had a pact with Stalin, that’s how little the soldiers on the front line knew.”
The Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa at 4am on the morning of June 22nd 1941, without making any claims on the Soviet Union and without any declaration of war. Trautmann’s war, just a month after getting his paratrooper’s wings and aged just 17, had commenced.
“We advanced quickly and were soon deep into Soviet territory with long supply chains to protect. We just followed orders, we didn’t know that Moscow was the ultimate target and we seldom had face-to-face contact with the enemy. You could hear the guns but you never saw people die. It became very hard in the winter and we encountered conditions of minus 35 degrees, surviving only because of our excellent team spirit.”
Barbarossa was initially so swift, so successful, that large groups of Russian partisans - non-army regulars - found themselves trapped behind the German front. They succeeded in causing major problems.
“I was captured by partisans on a reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines in May 1942,” remembers Trautmann. “Eleven of us, at night. They hid in forests and crept up to us. I was scared to death, but after 14 days of labour, the Germans attacked again and we were left near the front line. We escaped back to our side.
“We were a special action unit who helped surrounded troops to break out. We’d fight the partisans who disrupted our supply lines and blew up trains. They were doing great damage you know.”
The propaganda saw that the public in Germany didn’t.
“Our families thought that our armies were only victorious. They didn’t realise the conditions we were in, that we had to be de-loused whenever we returned from Russia.”
Trautmann spent two years and 11 months on the Eastern Front, much of it in retreat after the attack floundered and turned into a desperate retreat after Stalingrad.
“From the 6,000 men in our regiment who went into Russia, there were fewer than 100 left when we were switched fronts in 1944. I had lost many friends and I began to question why I was fighting,” he adds sagaciously. But fight he did. In Cherbourg and Caen, trying to stop the Allies. In Arnhem and the Ardennes too.
“Eventually, we retreated back over the Rhine. It was demoralising and I realised that war wasn’t good. You couldn’t desert though because the SS would pick you up if you strayed too far. They would shoot you or send you to the front with the youngest soldiers. We had intelligence that the Allied troops had congregated for one final push into Germany.”
Despite the risks, that’s when Trautmann made his attempt to walk home, an attempt which led to his capture. Trautmann was put on a ship from Ostend to London and then transferred to a POW camp at Kempton racecourse. After a week, he was sent to Camp No.180 in Northwhich, Cheshire.
“There was animosity amongst the Germans in the camp,” avers Trautmann, “So the British divided us into three categories.”
Following the end of the war, more than 400,000 German prisoners were still being held in Britain, with POW camps on the outskirts of most towns. Attlee’s Government deliberately ignored the Geneva Convention by refusing to let the Germans return home after the conflict. One fifth of all British farm work was done by prisoners and they also repaired roads and worked on building sites, with repatriation a dream for most.
The British classified the German prisoners according to political opinion. Group A was for convinced Anti–Nazis who had always been opposed to the ideology. Group B was for non-political and non-Nazis who were lukewarm to the Nazi conditioning. Group C was aimed at young German soldiers who from the age of eight had never known anything but the Nazi way of life. Most of these were made up from the SS and paratroopers. Trautmann was put in Group C.
“The British told us that we had to learn about the concept of democracy. They did allow us to play sport though. There was a camp football ground in the east camp, the anti-Nazis section. In the west camp were us Nazis. We played them at handball and the antis abused us. Our own people, calling us Nazi scum. There was so much fighting that we couldn’t finish the game.”
Trautmann eventually got a job as a driver and moved to Camp No.50 opposite the Haydock racecourse, equidistant between Manchester and Liverpool. He was one of the few Germans in a camp of 1,300 Italians.
“The Italians didn’t work because they were clever, they wanted to be of no use so they could be repatriated. The Germans knew only how to work – which the farmers loved. The British were fair. They asked us to report to them if the farmer wasn’t treating them well. I’ve spent most of my life defending the Germans to the English and the English to the Germans.”
In one game of football in the prison camp, Trautmann was asked to go in goal to cover for an injured goalkeeper. He did, and never played outfield again. After the war finished, prisoners slowly started to fraternise with locals.
“When I came to England I was a boy of 22. Not yet a man. My education began in Britain because people understood the predicament we were in. They showed forgiveness,” he attests.
Whilst most prisoners were eventually allowed to go back, hoping to build a new, democratic Germany, Trautmann was one of the 24,000 Germans who decided to stay in Britain after the final repatriations in 1948. Some had fallen in love with British girls; others had different reasons for staying, like work.
Trautmann worked for the British government in bomb disposal in Liverpool and kept goal for St. Helens Town, an amateur team who attracted crowds of 2,000. He was popular with fans who, knowing that he was returning to Germany for Christmas in 1948, presented him with butter, flower, sugar and bacon to take back.
Following impressive performances for St. Helens, Manchester City signed Trautmann in 1949. His acceptance into a smaller community counted for little in Manchester and there was an outcry that a German had been signed. Newspapers were full of letters of condemnation - one wrote: “When I think of all those millions of Jews who were tortured and murdered I can only marvel at Manchester City’s crass stupidity.”
Whilst some fans threatened to boycott the club and ripped up their season tickets, others were more understanding, including Manchester’s Communal Rabbi Dr Altmann, who commented: “Despite the terrible cruelties suffered at the hands of the Germans, we would not try to punish an individual German who is unconnected with these crimes of hatred. Each must be judged on its merits.”
Within a month, the criticism subsided, thanks to Trautmann’s impressive performances. He was still regularly interrogated by Britain’s security services, but he went on to serve City with distinction for 14 years and still stands fourth in their all time appearance table.
Despite regular articles in Germany’s Kicker football magazine, Trautmann, like the other top German players who played outside the country at the time, was never capped for Germany. Recognition was never short in England though and his name remains familiar, chiefly for that broken neck. No matter how much he would have liked it to be different.
RIP Bert Trautmann, 1923-2013
- Bert Trautmann
- Adolf Hitler