Trautmann’s Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA CUP Legend

Roger Moorhouse savours the story of a German footballing export

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Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Author: Catrine Clay
Publisher: Yellow Jersey
Price (RRP): £16.99

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In a summer in which Anglo-German footballing rivalry might well be rekindled in South Africa, it is perhaps timely that a new book should recall the remarkable contribution made to the English game by ‘Traut the Kraut’ – Bert Trautmann. One of the most iconic figures of domestic postwar football, Trautmann is the only man ever to have been awarded both the Iron Cross and the OBE, and is most famous for breaking his neck in the 1956 FA Cup Final – and playing on.

Catrine Clay’s new biography, Trautmann’s Journey, reveals a fascinating story. Born in Bremen in 1923, Trautmann was tall, blond and athletic. He joined the Hitler Youth, then the paratroopers, spending three years on the eastern front. Transferred to the west in 1944, he then fought in Normandy, Arnhem and in the Ardennes before stumbling into British captivity. He would be one of only 90 of his unit of 1,000 to survive the war. Yet, for all these experiences, Trautmann’s real education began when he reached English shores in the spring of 1945. Transferred into the POW camp system in the north west, he worked as a driver and later in bomb disposal and was consistently surprised by the kindness, forgiveness and understanding demonstrated by ordinary Britons.

His real passion was football, however, and he played his first game in goal in 1946, immediately showing the determination and athleticism that had earned him numerous accolades and awards as a youth in the Third Reich. From there, his ascent was swift. Signed by St Helens Town and then Manchester City, Trautmann would become one of the stars of the postwar game. Bobby Charlton would refer to him as the best goalkeeper that he had ever played against.

Trautmann’s Journey is a remarkable story, well told. Clay’s narrative moves along briskly, ably combining the narrow focus of her subject’s life with the broad sweep of events, and teasing out a number of salient themes. It is no uncritical hagiography, however. Trautmann emerges as an often equivocal character; a sport-obsessed curmudgeon with a quick temper and an apparent inability to accept authority. Even time has not mellowed him. In 1954, Trautmann was suspended for tangling with a referee, and in his very last game as a player, he was sent off for violent conduct.

Trautmann enjoyed an illustrious career, contesting two FA Cup finals and being the first foreigner to be named Player of the Year. But as this book demonstrates, he should also be hailed as a tireless ambassador for Anglo-German relations. And if those two countries resume their rivalry in South Africa this month, supporters of both sides should be united in raising a toast to his name.

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Roger Moorhouse is the author of Killing Hitler: The Third Reich and the Plots Against the Fuhrer (Vintage, 2007)