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Bert Trautmann - from the Iron Cross to the OBE

Andy Stevens / 28 January 2019

Football legend Bert Trautmann is an example of Boy's Own heroism, heart, courage, inner strength and modesty that so typifies his generation.

A retro football to represent the football career of Bert Trautmann

The life story of football legend Bert Trautmann - an incredible tale of Boy's Own heroism, triumph, tragedy, heart, courage, inner strength and modesty that so typifies his generation - is the subject of 2019 feature film, The Keeper.

Bert died in July 2013. One year earlier, prior to the release of a TV documentary and biography, Saga’s Andy Stevens spoke to this real-life Roy of the Rovers and discovered from the man himself how a prisoner of war became a sporting hero in his adopted country.

Mention Bert Trautmann to any football fan who knows their Pele from their Pop Robson, their Gerd Muller from their Gary Sprake, and then await the reply. It doesn't take long.

'POW. 1956 FA Cup Final. Man City goalkeeper. Broke his neck. But played on.'

Talking to Bert, at the time a lively and bright 88-year-old living happily - and who wouldn't be? - in Valencia, Spain, it seemed pat to dwell on this famous moment of a football career that is part of such an astonishing page-turner of a life. The 'incident', though, is never far away. Bert parried it away amusingly with typical fearlessness early in our conversation.

'How are you, Mr Trautmann? Lovely to talk to you. I hope you are keeping well.'

'Well, I had a bit of a fall on my terrace the other day - but as you know, I have been in bigger scrapes than that.' More of that soon.

From 1956, now rewind to the 1930s. Bremen-born Bert - Bernhard in those days - was a natural athlete: handsome, tall and blond, a textbook Aryan template when as an energetic 10-year-old he joined - like all energetic 10-year-old German boys in 1933 - the Hitler Youth.

"At that age you just want adventure," explains Bert in his documentary. 'It was just like the boy scouts. It was fun - sport, sport, sport. The idea that we were Nazis at the time is nonsense. The indoctrination came later. At 10 you have no mind of your own.'

As Europe plunged into calamitous war in 1939, Bert served as a paratrooper in the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front, witnessing, first-hand in 1941, the full horrors of the Fuhrer's masterplan in action when he stumbled across the grisly aftermath of a massacre of Russian Jews by a Nazi death squad. 'Of course it touched me seeing this. If I'd been a bit older I'd probably have committed suicide.'

Winning the Iron Cross in active service, Bert's life ultimately took a serendipitous turn after he was captured by the British on the Western Front as the war started to breathe its last. He was brought to Lancashire as a POW, and it was here that his love affair with his adopted land began.

'I remember being captured. A British soldier came up to me and said, "Oh Fritz, do you want a cup of tea?"'

Arriving in England on April 9, 1945, Bert and his fellow POWs were screened and interrogated, and as part of the process were show on film the visceral horrors of the concentration camps. 'I couldn't believe it. How could your own people do that to other human beings. It was terrible.'

As normality slowly emerged in the post-war peace, Bert's football prowess came to the fore, at first with amateur club St Helens Town, where he was soon to attract interest from the bigger fish of the Football League and ultimately sign in 1949 for Manchester City, where his legendary status was sealed as one of the greatest goalkeepers to grace the English game.

With the mental scars of war still raw among the British public, at first Bert had a rough ride. On joining City, Manchester's Jewish community staged a protest. But there was no such acrimony from his Maine Road team-mates: 'I walked into the dressing room and the club captain said to me, "There's no war here, Bert. You're one of the lads and one of the team. Good luck to you."'

A heroic display for City at Fulham won over both Fleet Street and a London populace still reeling in the bomb-ravaged capital - and this proved a turning point for a goalkeeper whose bravery would become the cornerstone of his reputation.

The first German to appear in an FA Cup Final, playing in front of royalty and his parents who came over from Bremen for the occasion, 1955's defeat to a Jackie Milburn-inspired Newcastle United was a prelude to Bert's incredible heroism in City's 3-1 win over Birmingham City a year later, when he broke his neck in a clash with the Blues' Peter Murphy but refused to leave the pitch, playing on to help secure victory for his club.

Had the injury been a millimetre either way, Bert would have been dead or paralysed, and he says: 'I played the rest of the match in a kind of fog, a grey; I didn't see any figures, nothing. I was very, very lucky.'

Two days later, after a parade and heroes' welcome in Manchester, the severity of Bert's injury finally started to receive the full weight of medical care it required. That season he won the Footballer of the Year trophy - the first goalkeeper to do so.

This was 1956. He recovered, played on, and didn't hang up his boots for Man City until 1964, after 508 matches for the club.

Bert's personal life has also been etched with sadness but many happy twists of fate. He had a lovechild, Freda, with his first English girlfriend - indeed, he says, his first girlfriend, full-stop - but as a young man at the time he was unable to support his girlfriend and child-to-be financially. He admits he panicked and left.

Happily, father and daughter were reunited 20 years ago and Bert says: 'It's something beautiful; it's like we've never missed a day. And we love each other very much.'

Bert and his first wife suffered the immeasurable tragedy of losing their first son John in a traffic accident when he was just five, an event from which he says his wife never recovered. He has two more sons in the UK, to whom he remains close, and is happily remarried in Spain.

In 2004, Bert received the OBE for his work with The Bert Trautmann Foundation, a charity which aims to forge Anglo-German friendship through football. An Iron Cross and an OBE on the mantelpiece might have seemed an uneasy mix in earlier times, but Bert's courageous life story, 55 years on from that famous Wembley final, continues to defy historical preconceptions. 'I can't say it often enough: I've always said my education began in the UK. The way I was treated - with fairness, kindness, tolerance - even as a prisoner of war - by the people of Lancashire, Mancunians and Great Britain.

'I am more English than German, even though I was born German. You are a special kind of people, and this is a special kind of island.'

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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