In early 1945 German paratrooper Bernhard Trautmann was captured by two Americans soldiers inside a barn, then forced to walk at gunpoint with his hands up. A veteran of the eastern front, Trautmann had recently survived a ferocious Allied bombing that had killed most of his comrades, and had also escaped capture by the Russians and French.
He was now going to be executed, he believed, and so made a run for it — jumping over a fence, only to land at the feet of a British soldier who captured him with the quintessentially Anglo-Saxon words “Hello Fritz, fancy a cup of tea?”
Sent to a POW camp in Lancashire, Trautmann had begun playing as goalkeeper for local non-league side St Helen’s Town while working on a farm, staying on after the other inmates had been repatriated. Large crowds had started to gather to watch the brilliant German keeper, until eventually that crowd included a scout from Manchester City — who signed him.
The move provoked outrage in Manchester, which had suffered heavy casualties in the Blitz — indeed City and United then shared Maine Road after Old Trafford had received a direct hit. Hostile protests greeted the new arrival, with up to 20,000 fans shouting “Nazi” outside the ground. But in a touching move, this anger eased when local rabbi Alexander Altmann, a refugee from Nazi Germany whose parents had been murdered in the Holocaust, wrote a letter in Trautmann’s defence. He was just a man, and shouldn’t carry the guilt of a whole nation.
The rest is football legend, and the subject of a charming biopic The Keeper.
“Bert” Trautmann would overcome anti-German hostility to help City win the FA Cup in 1956, despite breaking his neck 15 minutes from full time. After the game Trautmann was congratulated by the Duke of Edinburgh, who asked him in classic Philipesque style “why is your neck so crooked?”
His story resonates as a beautiful microcosm of how Anglo-Germany rivalry was played out on the football pitch; football both aggravated tensions, and helped to resolve them. It showed how the individual could overcome hostility to the group in the general, the Man City keeper becoming a model of Anglo-German reconciliation.
Trautmann would become the first foreigner to be awarded FA Footballer of the Year, indeed the last for another 40 years, and was made an OBE in 2004, before his death in 2013. To this day he is the only man to have won both the Iron Cross and an FA Cup winner’s medal — a record I imagine he’ll hang onto for some time.