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Many sportsmen fought in World War II

Athletics

The sportsmen who went to war

LONDON, United Kingdom, May 8Many sportsmen were forced to put their careers on hold to fight in World War II.

The conflict cut short the lives of some, including England Test cricketer Hedley Verity and German Olympic long jumper “Luz” Long, but others survived to forge careers after the conflict ended in 1945.

AFP Sport looks at the careers of sportsmen who made an impact in the post-war world as Europe marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day.

Crash survivor

Stan Mortensen — the only man to score a FA Cup final hat-trick and England’s first-ever goalscorer at a World Cup — became a giant of the post-war game but only after a lucky escape.

Serving as a wireless operator in the Royal Air Force, he survived when his plane crashed into a forest, killing two crew members.

Doctors believed Mortensen’s head injuries were too severe for his football career to continue, but he was allowed to return for the RAF team and went on to build an impressive legacy at Blackpool.

His crowning achievement came in the 1953 FA Cup final, often referred to as the “Matthews Final” due to the performance of his Blackpool teammate Stanley Matthews.

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However, Matthews said in his autobiography that it was Mortensen who was the star of the show as he scored a hat-trick in Blackpool’s 4-3 win against Bolton in front of 100,000 people at Wembley.

Mortensen was inducted into the English football hall of fame in 2003, 12 years after his death at the age of 69.

Prisoner of war

Bert Trautmann became one of English football’s most unlikely heroes after time spent as a German prisoner of war.

When the former paratrooper was released in 1948, he declined repatriation, instead combining working on a farm with playing in goal for St Helen’s Town in England’s northwest.

Manchester City players pay tribute to their late goalkeeper Bert Trautmann in 2013 © AFP/File / ANDREW YATES

Word of his outstanding ability quickly spread and Manchester City snapped him up in 1949 despite protests at the signing of a former German soldier for a club with a large Jewish following.

He is remembered for a remarkable performance in the 1956 FA Cup final when he helped City lift the trophy after a 3-1 win against Birmingham City despite playing for the final 17 minutes with a broken neck.

That same year, Trautmann became the first player who was not British or Irish to win the Football Writers’ Association player of the year.

In 2004, he was honoured by Britain for his efforts to promote Anglo-German relations through football. He died in 2013 at the age of 89.

All-round Australian hero

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Glamorous Australian all-rounder Keith Miller caught the eye when making 181 runs for Victoria on his first-class cricket debut in 1938.

All-rounder Keith Miller is honoured with a statue outside the MCG in Melbourne © AFP/File / WILLIAM WEST

He was a fighter pilot who flew night missions over Nazi Germany in the war.

Asked later about the pressure of playing in a Test match, Miller famously replied: “Pressure? There’s no pressure in Test cricket. Real pressure is when you are flying a Mosquito with a Messerschmitt up your arse!”

A generation of cricket fans revelled in Miller’s seemingly carefree approach to the game, whether as a dynamic fast bowler or as a dashing batsman.

Miller’s new-ball partnership with Ray Lindwall was a central feature of the 1948 Australian “Invincibles” who swept all before them on an Ashes tour of England.

Tales of how he would turn up for a match straight from an evening out socialising became the stuff of legend, with Miller’s movie-star good looks and rumours of an affair with Princess Margaret, the younger sister of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, providing copy for the gossip columnists.

Miller’s statistics for Australia were impressive but his contribution to cricket cannot be measured in figures alone. He died in 2004, aged 84.

‘Greatest Living Welshman’

Tasker Watkins, who played for Glamorgan Wanderers, was never a famous rugby player and many newcomers to the Principality Stadium may wonder why there is an imposing statue of him outside the ground.

Watkins achieved distinction in World War II when he was awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honour, for leading a bayonet charge against a machine-gun post, which he eventually silenced, in Normandy in 1944.

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A statue of former Welsh rugby union president Tasker Watkins outside the Principality Stadium in Cardiff © AFP/File / LOIC VENANCE

The citation said his “superb leadership not only saved his men, but decisively influenced the course of the battle”.

After the war, Watkins started a legal career and rose to become one of the most senior judges in England and Wales.

An 11-year stint as president of the Welsh Rugby Union that started in 1993 encompassed rugby union’s transition to professionalism and the move from club to regional rugby in Wales.

Shortly before his death in 2007, at the age of 88, Watkins gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph.

“Leadership and patriotism are two virtues that translate wonderfully well from the rugby pitch to battle… (so) that top rugby players had an independence of thought and deed that marked them out as leaders.”

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