Bert Trautmann: Reuniting Football Following World War 2

Bret Trautmann stands in front of the Manchester City crowd.

Football and war will most likely remind you of the famous Christmas truce of 1914, which saw English, French and German soldiers fighting in World War 1 call an unofficial ceasefire on Christmas, before venturing into No Man’s Land to partake in a game of football. However, wartime football wasn’t all fun and game.

September 1st 1939, World War 2 begins. September 8th 1939, the Football League suspends all football activity until further notice.

Many felt that football should have gone on, much as it did throughout the First World War, when Everton lifted their second league title in 1914/15, before the Football League declared that clubs could operate their own regional leagues until the war came to an end. However, the development and increased use of flying vehicles to commit aerial bombings would have made football grounds huge targets had they allowed the Football League to go ahead.

They later backtracked, allowing regional leagues to commence much like they had during World War 1. Yet, with enlistment to the forces by then compulsory, there were very few players around to play anyway. Athletes were a valuable resource for the army, who often used them as physical trainers to help to improve the physical abilities of their new recruits. As such, within a year, more than 600 professional football players had departed for war.

By the time the Football League recommenced with the 1946/47 season, a total of 80 footballers had lost their lives, while many others had suffered career-ending injuries or had been captured during battle.

The war was over, but it would be a long, tough struggle for football to get back to its feet. Bernhard ‘Bert’ Trautmann was one such man who helped to bridge the divides left behind by the violent battle.

Early Life: Joining the war

Born in Bremen in 1923 to a factory worker father and a caring mother who stayed at home to look after him and his brother, Karl-Heinz, Trautmann developed an interest in sport from an early age, playing football for local club Blau und Weiss, as well as frequently partaking in games of handball and dodgeball.

However, the impending war soon got in the way of Trautmann’s aspirations. The Great Depression had financial crippled many Germans, including the Trautmann family who had been forced to move out of their home into a smaller apartment, which gave Adolf Hitler the opportunity he needed to take control of Germany. By 1934, Hitler had risen to power and soon began to implement his twisted ideologies on Germany.

As an avid sports fan and player who had suffered loss and hardship during his early years, the young Trautmann was the ideal prospect for the Deutsches Jungvolk, a section of the Hitler Youth organisation which aimed to indoctrinate boys aged between 10 and 14 using sports and outdoor activities.

“Growing up in Hitler’s Germany, you had no mind of your own,” Trautmann later admitted. “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.”

Playing for the Jungvolk sports team, the youngster won various awards and trophies, before the commencement of World War 2 in 1941 saw him fast-tracked into the Luftwaffe, the air division of the German army, aged just 17.

Bert Trautmann stands in his Nazi uniform.

Bert Trautmann joined the German army at the age of 17.

He was initially handed the role of radio operator while training to become a paratrooper, before eventually serving in Poland and Ukraine. During his time in Eastern Europe, Trautmann rose to the rank of Corporal and earned plenty of war medals for his role in Nazi Germany’s advancements. After he was awarded the Sergeant rank, Trautmann moved to France to form a new unit ahead of the invasion of Normandy.

However, after many of his fellow soldiers were killed in action, Trautmann decided to flee the war and return home to Bremen. Unsurprisingly, he never made it back. Seeking to avoid detection, Trautmann was first captured by American soldiers, before fleeing right into the arms of a British soldier, who proceeded to ask him, “Hello Fritz, fancy a cup of tea?”

It was lucky for him that he ran into English forces, as he would have likely faced execution as a deserter had he made it back to Germany. Trautmann had escaped twice in the past, following captures by Russian and French troops, but he wouldn’t get away a third time.

Those like Trautmann were viewed to be worst than their fellow Nazis, due to the fact that they had been brainwashed and filled with hate from such a young age. Following an interrogation which revealed him to be a Hitler Youth graduate, Trautmann was soon transferred to a Lancashire based prisoner of war camp to await the end of the bloodshed.

It was here that Bert really started to take the game seriously. With little to do to pass the time, football was a regular activity in the camp and he was a regular player in many prisoner of war teams over the next few years, particularly so after he switched from a defensive position into the goal.

With the war drawing to an end, the law states that prisoner of wars would soon have to be returned to their country of origin. However, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee decided to bend the rules, insisting that the German soldiers would stay behind to clear up and rebuild the destruction that they had caused. Trautmann was one of those kept behind. However, upon completion of the job, he refused Britain’s offer to transport him back to Germany.

Beginning his life as a British citizen, Trautmann divided his time between working on a farm and playing for amateur side St Helens Town in Merseyside. A number of impressive performances meant that he would last just a season at the club, before a number of Football League sides expressed an interest in signing him.

Going professional

It was Manchester City, then playing in the First Division, who got their man. Frank Swift, one of the club’s greatest ever goalkeepers, had decided to hang up his boots at the age of 35. Trautmann was selected to take the torch. However, the German goalkeeper’s professional football career almost came to an end before it had even begun, as Manchester’s Jewish community and a number of fans, angry about the decision, set about protesting against the signing.

20,000 fans turned out to protest the decision, with many threatening to cancel their season tickets and boycott matches if Trautmann ever played for the club. Despite his teammates insisting that the fans should welcome Trautmann just as they had, the revolt continued, until an unlikely peacemaker stepped in. Dr Altmann, a local Rabbi, insisted that Trautmann should be given the chance to play, regardless of his country’s crimes - a plea which Trautmann himself believes saved his career.

Despite a torrent of abuse from the crowd, Trautmann made his Manchester City debut on November 19th 1949 in a league match against Bolton Wanderers. Despite a reluctance to accept a former Nazi into their ranks, Manchester City fans quickly warmed to their new shot-stopper following a string of impressive performances.

Bert Trautmann stand on the Manchester City pitch.

Bert Trautmann's signing was met by backlash from the Manchester City fans.

Manchester City suffered relegation that season, but they would bounce straight back, regaining their place in the top flight at their first attempt.

Over the next few years, Manchester City would become a dominant force in the First Division with Trautmann among their star players, finishing as high as 7th in the 1954/55 season. That season would be among their best, as they romped past Derby County, Luton Town, Birmingham City, Sunderland and city rivals Manchester United to set up a final meeting with Newcastle United.

1955 wasn’t to be their year, as Newcastle rampantly secured a 3-1 victory over Trautmann’s side to lift the cup. However, Manchester City were ready to bounce back the following season.

1956 FA Cup: A painful career high

Manchester City improved on their 7th place finish by coming in fourth in the Football League in the 1955/56 season, with just three points separating them from second and third placed Blackpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers. However, their best displays, once again, would come in the FA Cup.

Entering at the third round stage, the club were given a challenging test early on, when they were drawn against league rivals Blackpool. A 2-1 victory set up a clash with Southend, before they faced Liverpool in the fifth round. It took two legs City to secure the victory, before moving on to matches against Everton and Tottenham Hotspur.

The club faced one of the toughest routes to the final, but they came through unscathed. This time they would be coming up against Birmingham City and they were determined to give much more than they had the previous year.

Trautmann went into the game in a buoyant mood, having recently become the first ever goalkeeper to be awarded the FWA Footballer of the Year award, which has since been won by the likes of Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo and Eden Hazard, and he would put in one of his finest ever performances. However, his impressive showing came with a terrible price.

Manchester City took an early lead through Joe Hayes, before Birmingham City levelled up the score soon after. With normal time seemingly heading for a draw, City duo Jack Dyson and Bobby Johnstone netted quickfire goals to put their side ahead midway through the second-half. However, this prompted an onslaught from Birmingham that would push Trautmann to his limit.

With 15 minutes remaining, the German keeper was knocked unconscious by Birmingham’s Peter Murphy. However, substitutions were yet to make their way into the FA rulebook, which meant that Trautmann had to exit the field of play, leaving his club a man down, or get back up and fight on until the end.

Peter Murphy's knee strikes Bret Trautmann's head during the 1556 FA Cup final.

Trautmann played through the match with a broken neck following a clash with Birmingham's Peter Murphy.

Despite appearing dazed, Trautmann continued to make key saves up until the final whistle, which ultimately secured Manchester City their first FA Cup title in over 20 years. Upon collecting his medal, many, including Prince Philip himself, noticed that the goalkeeper’s head appeared to be out of place.

An X-ray later revealed that Trautmann has broken his neck in five places. Luckily, one of the broken vertebrae had snapped in such a way that protected him from further harm, ultimately saving him from a dire outcome.

“I still have pain if I make unexpected movements of my head,” Trautmann admitted some years later. “I was very lucky. The surgeons told me I could have died or been paralysed.”

Winding down

1956 was the highlight of Trautmann’s football career. Yet, it also proved to be one of the worst years of his life, as his serious injury was followed by the death of his young son, who lost his life in a car accident a few months later, aged just five. The death of their child took its toll on his marriage to Margaret Friar, the daughter of the club secretary at his first club, St Helens, and they soon divorced.

Incredibly, despite his injury, Trautmann went on to play another eight seasons with Manchester City before calling time on his playing career in 1964, having featured in more than 500 matches for the club.

Following his testimonial, which is said to have attracted more than 60,000 spectators, Trautmann tried his luck in management, finally returning home, more more than 15 years after the war had ended, to manage lowly German clubs Prussia Munster and SC Opel Russelsheim. However, that incredible FA Cup victory would always stand as the highlight of Trautmann’s incredible career.

Everything that Trautmann had given to the English game was eventually honoured in 2004, when he was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE). Despite more than 70 years having passed since the Second World War finished, it still seems a ludicrous decision to have hired a former Nazi soldier so soon after the war had ended. Yet, Trautmann’s appointment helped to bridge the crumbling relations between English and Germany and ultimately reunite the world of football.

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