Bert Trautmann, Who Won Iron Cross and F.A. Cup, Dies at 89
Press Association, via Associated Press
Published: July 19, 2013
Bert Trautmann had jumped out of planes as a paratrooper in Hitler’s Luftwaffe, endured capture by Russian, American and Free French troops, and escaped from them all until the British finally seized him and locked him in a prisoner of war camp.
European Pressphoto Agency
But it was his exploits on the soccer field that built his legend — and not in Germany, but in England.
There were, for example, those last extraordinary minutes of a championship game on May 5, 1956: “I flew forward, and he came into me — it was like a train crash. I got his thigh in my neck and in a moment I was gone.”
Trautmann, the goalkeeper for the English soccer team Manchester City, was describing a punishing on-field collision in which he had made a save late in the game.
He staggered. He could not straighten his head. He could see only fuzzy black-and-white silhouettes. But he stayed on the field — substitutes were not permitted in those days — for 17 more minutes, making more spectacular saves, unaware that he had broken his neck.
And so it was that Manchester City defeated Birmingham City that day, 3-1, and won England’s prestigious Football Association Cup. Trautmann learned of his neck injury in that “train crash” of a play three days later. Doctors said he had barely escaped paralysis or even death.
Manchester City said Trautmann died on Friday in La Llosa, Spain, the town near Valencia where he lived. He was 89.
Tall and blond, Trautmann had grown up in Germany as an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth, then served with a Luftwaffe paratrooper unit on the Russian front. He was awarded five medals, including the Iron Cross.
On his fourth and final capture by Allied troops, a British soldier greeted Trautmann with the words “Fancy a cup of tea?”
As a prisoner of war in England, Trautmann began kicking a ball around with other prisoners, and soon local people were coming to watch him. After his release in 1948, he chose not to go back to Germany and hooked up with a local semiprofessional team. In 1948, Manchester City, a member of England’s First Division, a precursor of today’s Premier League, signed him.
More than 20,000 people demonstrated against his hiring. Season ticket-holders threatened a boycott. Letters of protest poured in. “Does City expect supporters to go and watch a German playing football with men the Germans tried to kill?” one letter writer asked. Taking the field for his first match, Trautmann was met by chants of “Sieg heil!”
But the unmistakable soccer prowess he had gained in Germany soon won over the fans. After City visited London to play Fulham and lost, 1-0, sportswriters concurred that the score could have easily been 6-0 had Trautmann not made a number of dazzling saves. Players from both teams lined up to applaud him.
Trautmann’s acceptance by fans was aided by Dr. Alexander Altmann, a Manchester rabbi who had fled from Hitler. Rabbi Altmann issued a statement saying that Trautmann should not be punished for his country’s crimes. Manchester City’s captain, Eric Westwood, who had fought at Normandy, calmed the team by saying, “There is no war in the dressing room.”
When Trautmann returned to Germany to visit his parents at the end of the season, Manchester fans sent along a trunk of condensed milk, homemade cakes, bacon and other foods for them. They also gave him an envelope addressed to “Mum and Dad.” It contained 50 one-pound notes
By season’s end, Trautmann was called “Britain’s best-loved German,” though even his biggest fans conceded that it was not a hotly contested title in those years.
Bernhard Carl Trautmann was born in Bremen, Germany, on Oct. 22, 1923. He enrolled in a Hitler Youth division when he was 10, part of the first generation to join. He loved the uniform and the emphasis on athletics. He joined the Luftwaffe at 17.
He later said that his training as a paratrooper had made it easy to perform acrobatic dives as a goalkeeper. He knew how to fall to the ground without hurting himself, he explained.
As German forces began their long retreat from the Russian front, he slept in trees to stay out of the clutches of partisans. The experience made him fearless, he said. When he began playing for Manchester, he declined to wear goalkeeping gloves; the English winter was mild compared with Russia’s, he said.
In his first six years with the team, Trautmann was the rock of its improving defense, missing just five league games. In 1955, Manchester City made the F.A. Cup final but lost to Newcastle, 3-1. The next year, Trautmann was named “footballer of the year,” the first goalkeeper to win that distinction.
Bobby Charlton, one of England’s soccer greats, called Trautmann “the best goalkeeper I ever played against.” Charlton played for Manchester United, City’s crosstown rival.
“We always said, ‘Don’t look into the goal when you’re trying to score against Bert,’ ” Charlton added. “Because if you do, he’ll see your eyes and read your thoughts.”
Lev Yashin, a Russian whom many consider the best goalkeeper in soccer history, said: “There have only been two world-class goalkeepers. One was Lev Yashin; the other was the German boy who played in Manchester.”
After his playing days, Trautmann coached and managed soccer teams and headed an effort by the German soccer federation to promote the game in developing countries like Burma and Tanzania.
He is survived by his third wife, Marlis, and several children.
In 2005, Queen Elizabeth made him an honorary officer of the Order of the British Empire.
“Ah, Herr Trautmann,” the queen said at the time. “I remember you. Have you still got that pain in the neck?”