Bert Trautmann: In a league of his own

Few FA Cup finalists have been more complicated than Bert Trautmann, the legendary Manchester City goalkeeper and ex-Nazi paratrooper, says Brian Viner
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The Independent Online

Even if Chelsea's Michael Ballack should score a hat-trick in tomorrow's FA Cup final, his name will never be as synonymous with English football's end-of-season showpiece as that of another German, Bert Trautmann.

It is 54 years since the Manchester City goalkeeper Trautmann, with his side 3-1 up in the Cup final and 16 minutes left to play, dived fearlessly at the feet of Birmingham City's inside-left Peter Murphy, and was briefly knocked unconscious. Moments later, Trautmann staggered to his feet and insisted on playing on to the final whistle. These days there would be no question of a player continuing after such an injury. Even in those days it was astonishingly brave, not to mention foolhardy. Trautmann made several more important saves to ensure that the Cup was won, but afterwards doctors discovered that he had broken his neck.

The Pathe News footage of Trautmann playing at Wembley with a broken neck duly became as famous as the even grainier pictures of PC George Scorey on his white horse, Billy, who enabled the 1923 final to take place by safely marshalling thousands of people spilling on to the pitch from overcrowded terraces. No less than the mounted policeman, Trautmann, with his head hanging to one side, somehow became a symbol of English pluck, even though his was German pluck. And that, of course, is what makes his story even more remarkable, for it was little more than a decade since the end of the Second World War, and the big blond fellow being embraced as a kind of English folk hero was a man who had been an enthusiastic member of Hitler Youth and had volunteered at 17 to serve the Third Reich, in due course becoming a Fallschirmjäger, a member of one of the Luftwaffe's elite paratroop regiments.

For the British, it is that 1956 FA Cup final that will forever define Trautmann, and yet a new biography by Catrine Clay pays considerably more attention to his life before that momentous day. In some ways, the 1956 match wasn't even the most significant FA Cup final in Trautmann's life. City had got to Wembley the year before, and the Manchester Evening Chronicle had paid for Trautmann's somewhat bewildered parents to fly over from his home town of Bremen. That 1955 final was lost, to Newcastle United, but at least Herr and Frau Trautmann had the pleasure of seeing their son play a blinder. "A man with wrists of iron, swooping on shots high and low like a predatory eagle," went the rather breathless report in The Times. At the end of that season, he was voted England's Footballer of the Year.

Nine years earlier, when playing at Wembley was beyond even the confines of a dream, another FA Cup final had loomed large in Trautmann's life. The radio commentary of the 1946 match between Charlton Athletic and Derby County was relayed over the speakers at a prisoner-of-war camp at Ashton-in-Makerfield, and when 100,000 people sang the traditional Cup final hymn "Abide with Me", POW Trautmann felt a shiver down his spine. He had never heard anything quite like it, except possibly the thunderous chants of "Sieg Heil!" at Nazi rallies.

Ah yes, Nazism. The story of Bert Trautmann is compelling for all kinds of reasons, and one of them is the way in which the first 25 years of it conform so exactly to that of thousands of other Germans born in the early 1920s, while later diverging so dramatically. He was born Carl Bernhard Trautmann into a working-class family crippled, like all other working-class families in Weimar Germany, by the disastrous economic consequences of the First World War. They were ripe for seduction by Adolf Hitler, although young Bert embraced National Socialism more eagerly than either of his parents. He loved the uniform, the discipline, and especially the emphasis on physical fitness. When in time he came to understand the more sinister tenets of Nazi ideology, he was in no way inclined to reject them. Indeed, one of the more uncomfortable messages of Clay's book is that Trautmann's faith in the Reich never wavered, not even when in a forest clearing on the Eastern Front he and a comrade surreptitiously watched SS men machine-gunning a group of Jewish civilians, including children, made to lie face-down in a trench.

Even when the war was lost, he evidently continued to believe in his racial superiority over Jews, although he later admitted to feeling humbled when, shortly after City had signed him in October 1949, a leading Manchester rabbi and refugee from Nazi Germany, Dr Altmann, wrote an open letter to the Evening Chronicle speaking up for the new recruit, and sternly resisting calls from within the Jewish community for a boycott of the club. Trautmann was astounded by the generosity with which, on the whole, he was treated in England. And he responded by performing like a lion for City. But despite his exceptional talent, courage, redoubtability and a good deal of natural charm and bonhomie, Trautman was also arrogance and, on occasion, nasty, ill-tempered aggression. Clearly, it was his deficiencies as well as his virtues that made him the goalkeeper he was, as well as the man he was, and is, for at 86 and living in Spain he is by all accounts in robust health.

One would hesitate to recommend it to the pampered professionals of today, but what also turned Trautmann, in the view of some, into the finest goalkeeper in the world – better even than his near-contemporary, the mighty Russian Lev Yashin – was his paratrooper training and five arduous years of military service. He was remarkably lucky even to survive a war in which he fought on both Fronts and was briefly captured by the Russians, and it's not hard to see why diving at the feet of a marauding striker might have held no fear for a man who, on the long retreat from the Eastern Front, had had to sleep in trees to stay out of the clutches of merciless partisans. Nor did he ever wear goalkeeping gloves; an English winter could throw nothing at him that the Russian winter hadn't.

Trautmann's experiences offer a more general history of some of the best-known wartime campaigns, as well as the less familiar subject of the post-war POW camps. After being captured by a British signals unit near the Rhine, just weeks before the German surrender, Trautmann was shipped to Britain and held initially in a makeshift reception centre at Kempton Park racecourse. He was then sent to Camp 180, Marbury Hall in Cheshire, which is where diehard Nazis were kept. Apparently, some archive film of those prisoners shows them greeting each other with the "Heil Hitler" salute; those who didn't or who offended the Nazi code of honour in some other way were tried by kangaroo courts in the dead of night, and were often found dead in the morning.

Trautmann's own pride in his Nazi past began to diminish, however, when he was among a contingent of POWs shown footage of the liberation of Belsen. At the same time, he started to reappraise his view of the British as the enemy. The feeling was mutual. On December 18, 1946, a formal ban on fraternisation was lifted, and every British family was allowed to invite two POWs into their homes for Christmas Day. There was hardly a POW in the land who didn't receive an invitation; Trautmann was overwhelmed. In 1948, when the time came for him to be repatriated, he decided to stay, and got a job with a bomb disposal unit on the Liverpool docks. By then he also had a local girlfriend, and, even more significantly, word of his prodigious goalkeeping ability, first exhibited for the Ashton POW team, had spread. He signed for the semi-professional St Helens Town. The following year, Manchester City, looking for a replacement for their great goalkeeper Frank Swift, came calling. And the rest is FA Cup final history.

It is hard to think of a footballer's story more extraordinary than Trautmann's, and Clay does it proper justice. There are, nevertheless, a few dreadful howlers in her book, and all football fans will spot the worst of them; when the brilliant Hungary team famously destroyed England at Wembley in 1953, the score was not 3-0 but 6-3. If Trautmann had dropped clangers like that, there would have been no testimonial game to mark his retirement, aged 41, in April 1964. As it was, he felt certain that teeming rain would stop large numbers turning out for the match between a combined Manchester City and United team and an international XI. He underestimated the desire of the English to pay tribute to their favourite German; no fewer than 47,000 people turned up.

'Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend' is published by Yellow Jersey Press (£16.99). To order a copy for the special price of £15.29 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit