Many football fans will recall the 1981 movie, ‘Escape to Victory’, in which Pele, Michael Caine, Bobby Moore, Sylvester Stallone and others formed a football team inside a fictional World War II German Prisoner of War camp. It was an entertaining yarn, but far too fanciful to be taken too seriously, or was it?
Another movie could perhaps be made about the German Prisoner of War who almost ended up playing for Sheffield United. World War I had been over for just five years when Karl Witt was born on Armistice Day, November 11th, 1923, in Dillenburg. A keen footballer from a young age, he began his career at Germania Stolp who played in the Pomeranian Gauliga, a league which had been introduced by the Nazi Sports Office, and then represented SSV Dillenburg. However, he was taken away to serve in World War II almost as soon as his professional career began.
At the age of 17, budding young footballer Karl, like many other young men, volunteered to serve with Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht forces. In 1944, as part of a paratroop group, he was captured by the Allied forces in Holland and was transported by boat to England, eventually being held captive at Lodge Moor Prisoner of War Camp. This site housed more than 11,000 captives from Italy, Germany and Ukraine and conditions were grim, particularly in winter time. At one stage, rows of huts designed to accommodate 30 prisoners had more than 70 living in each of them. Others slept in tents.
Word reached Sheffield United that the ranks of prisoners included a particularly talented young footballer – Karl Witt. He had such prowess with the ball that he was given special dispensation from the prison camp to attend evening training sessions at Bramall Lane. United, recently promoted back to the First Division, included Karl in group sessions, with him lining up alongside professionals including Jimmy Hagan, Jack Pickering and goalkeeper Fred White.
Once the war was over, United trainer Doug Livingstone wanted Karl to be signed on. West Ham United were also aware of his talent and they offered him a contract, but the player chose to return to his homeland where he went on to represent Stuttgarter Kickers from 1947-50 and then Bayern Munich until 1953. A defensive midfield player who also weighed in with his fair share of goals, he helped Bayern to finishing places of ninth, eighth and seventh as football returned to normality following the war.
Karl later became a successful businessman, making pre-cast concrete in Munich for air shafts and ducts, but he retained fond memories of his evening training sessions at Bramall Lane and remained a firm friend of goalkeeper Fred White. The pair shared continental holidays with their families. Returning to Sheffield in 1968 to show his wife and daughter where he had been held prisoner, he explained at the time that he had enjoyed some of his days being a World War II prisoner in the city. Training with the United players was the highlight and he continued to look out for the club’s results.
So that was the story of Karl Witt… or so I thought. Intrigued that this last Armistice Day would have marked his 100th birthday, I decided to try to discover what happened to him. Nowhere could I find his death recorded and Stuttgarter Kickers, the German VDV players’ union, local newspapers and various fans’ groups were all unable to shed light on the whereabouts of Karl or his family. Apart from stark details about the number of appearances he made, there was no other information to be found.
I had been told that, after his playing days, Karl had made his living through a concrete business so was excited to discover a Witt prefabricated concrete company based in Florida but that was to prove another dead end in my investigation.
Just as I was beginning to think my search had drawn a complete blank I received contact from an equally curious journalist in Munich. Intrigued by my interest in Karl, Niko Heindl, editor of FC Bayern’s monthly magazine, got in touch. He said that although the time when Karl played for Bayern in the 1950s is not much in focus these days, the article I had written for Sheffield United’s matchday programme had piqued his interest.
“At his home club in Dillenburg, people were convinced that Karl had died some years ago,” Niko told me. “He apparently did not return to Dillenburg, but started a family in Munich. “Karl’s playing career ended in 1953 because of an injury. He played as a half-back and was feared for his shooting power. His name last appeared in old club magazines in 1970, when he was honoured for 20 years of membership.”
Editor-turned-detective Niko became curiouser and curiouser, quizzing former players who might have known Karl from the past, but again information was in short supply. He also failed to uncover anything when he asked the Munich cemetery administration whether the footballer was buried in the city. However, Niko’s determination paid dividends when he searched through business records and discovered Karl worked as a representative for Shell oil products in Munich and, in 1975, became a partner in a company that mainly produced concrete chimney stones.
Dismayed to see it no longer existed and the land had been built upon, but visiting nearby properties he discovered a woman who remembered Karl had a daughter, Karin, who was also involved in a local business. Said Niko: “The commercial register helped me again. There I found two companies in which Karin was a partner. I was able to contact her business partners via the Internet, one of them forwarded my message to Karin – and she called me.”
Now Karin Schleich, Niko visited her at home in Waakirchen, south of Munich. Not only was she able to provide information about her father’s links with United, she also showed Niko a scrapbook Karl had kept of his career. Karl was detained at the moorland camp high on the hills above Sheffield from 1944 until 1948, working mainly in the kitchen, and Karin recalled “He never said a negative word about his time in the camp. “Once, when Karl was allowed to visit the city centre, he watched a Sheffield United training session. Afterwards, he wrote a letter to the club and was allowed to attend evening training twice a week. At first, he wore his military boots because he had small feet and didn’t have any suitable football boots.
Said Karin: “He said that he was never ostracised and that he was made welcome. He was not allowed to take part in official matches due to the Geneva Convention which stipulated that Prisoners of War had to be protected from insults and public curiosity.”
In his scrapbook, Karl kept a photograph of the then Blades manager, Doug Livingstone, with a hand-written note (In German): “My English coach at Sheffield United, Mr Livingstone. He had a great influence on me being able to train with a professional team as a Prisoner of War. From this time, a great friendship developed between the goalkeeper of this team, Fred White, and us.” The scrapbook also contains a newspaper caricature of Fred who, apparently, was very keen that United should sign the young German.
Recalled Bramall Lane heritage manager, John Garrett: “Fred had an eye for a player, to say the least, and was always disappointed United didn ‘t take the plunge However, Karl returned to Germany, choosing to play for Stuttgart as he had been held captive with some players from the Kickers club at Lodge Moor. The Kickers were a leading club In southern Germany, playing In the Oberliga SUd which was the top league at the time.
In 1950, the Kickers were relegated and Karl and a few of his team-mates moved to Bayern Munich. He made a total of 56 appearances, scoring seven goals, for Bayern’s first team in three years. In the first two seasons he was a regular, in the third he was often injured and eventually had to finish his playing career.
However, that was not the end of his days as a sportsman. After football, he began playing tennis. “He was a sportsman through and through, but he also took up tennis for weight reasons,” explained daughter Karin, with a laugh. Karl proved to be very ambitious and talented on court and in the 1970s, he and his colleagues became German senior champions four times. Karin confirmed that Karl remained a firm friend of Fred White until the goalkeeper’s death in 2007. She later visited Sheffield when Fred’s widow, Margaret – who lived to be 104 – showed her where Fred’s ashes had been buried beneath one of the goalmouths at Bramall Lane. Karl died on September 3rd, 1999, and is buried at Waakirchen.
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