War veteran prepares to parachute again 75 years on from Battle of Arnhem

Former paratrooper Sandy Cortmann made an emotional return to the Netherlands to mark the anniversary of Operation Market Garden.

Press Association
Last updated: 20 September 2019 - 4.11pm

A 97-year-old Scottish Second World War veteran hopes to parachute again over the Dutch city he was dropped on to and captured in 75 years ago.

Former paratrooper Sandy Cortmann, from Aberdeen, made an emotional return to Arnhem in the Netherlands on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden.

He was just 22 when he parachuted over the city in September 1944, where he was taken prisoner by the Germans.

Operation Market Garden, portrayed in the 1977 Hollywood film A Bridge Too Far, saw 35,000 British, American and Polish troops parachute or glide behind German lines in a bid to open up an attack route for allied forces.

The fighting around Arnhem saw more than 1,500 British soldiers killed and nearly 6,500 captured.

On Saturday, if he passes medical checks, Mr Cortmann hopes to tandem parachute over Ginkel Heath and land on the same drop zone he jumped on to more than seven decades ago.

“When the fighting started we were just in amongst it,” he said.

Arnhem anniversary
Former paratrooper Sandy Cortmann talks to Canadian veteran Lloyd Bentley during a return to Arnhem in the Netherlands (Steve Parsons/PA)

“You can describe it as brave, you thought you were brave, but once you got down there, Jesus Christ, terrified, absolutely terrified.

“You just heard bangs and machine guns. I didn’t understand what that was all about.”

Allied soldiers had been parachuted in to secure bridges on the Dutch and German border, with the expectation of being relieved within 48 hours. Many ended up fighting for nine days.

Mr Cortmann remembered seeing treatment areas for the wounded “strewn with bodies” with “nobody complaining, nobody moaning, just lying still”.

He recalled one young solider calling out repeatedly for his mother and being told to help quieten him.

“I crawled out, I just touched his hand, grabbed it and he died,” he said.

“I thought, ‘what a thing to happen’. I was choking, but I was alive.”

Mr Cortmann said he felt “very emotional” when he earlier visited a cemetery where a fallen friend named Gordon Matthews is honoured.

His friend, who he said had a “happy smiling face”, was killed instantly by a mortar shell during the operation in the Netherlands.

“As far as I know a mortar bomb landed at Gordon’s feet and boom, blown Gordon to bits,” he said.

“Later on that day I was coming up the street there was a boot on the pavement and I sort of kicked it before I realised the foot was still in the boot, that must have been Gordon’s foot.

“Telling it now, shocking, at the time you just went ‘bye Gordon’. That was it.”

He added: “I often wonder if any of his family are still alive and if they are I would like to meet them just to say ‘I knew Gordon’.

Arnhem anniversary
Former paratrooper Sandy Cortmann is marking the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden (Steve Parsons/PA)

“I wanted to come back, I wanted to see Gordon’s stone so I could look at him and speak to him and just say ‘hi pal’ and think about him for a wee while.”

The veteran paratrooper and his comrades had tried to escape the fighting by crossing a river to safety, but Mr Cortmann was forced to admit he could not swim.

He said that instead of abandoning him his fellow soldiers put their clothes back on and remained.

Mr Cortmann was eventually captured and forced to endure a seven-hour train ride in a packed wagon to Germany where he was held for a year.

He worked as a plumber and had two children with his wife, all three of whom have now passed away.

Alana Davidson, 27, who helps look after the veteran at the Fairview nursing home in Aberdeen and travelled with him to the Netherlands, said he still led an independent life.

“I’ve never seen him this happy before,” she said of his trip.

“In the care home you don’t have much time to sit for ages, but you hear the stories. I never realised how much of a hero he was,” she said.

“It’s just unbelievable what they went to do at such a young age … It’s just crazy.”

A humble Mr Cortmann said the welcome he had received in Arnhem was “overwhelming” and that he had felt “happiness”.

“The attention I’m getting, I don’t think I deserve it,” he said.

He described his parachute training in the war as “pretty tough” but admitted he was trying not to think about his potential jump on Saturday.

“I hope I get a cup of tea from somebody,” he joked.

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