Operation Market Garden Veteran Sandy Cortmann Dead at 97

Image: UK Ministry of Defence 2019
Image: UK Ministry of Defence 2019

At the 75th anniversary commemorations of Operation Market Garden at Arnhem in the Netherlands in 2019, Sandy Cortmann relived the adventure in a tandem parachute jump, alongside some 1500 other parachutists, the footage from which went viral.

His family said in a statement released to the press that he had died peacefully at his Aberdeen care home.

Such was the emotional impact of the spectacle of the 97-year-old veteran on his tandem jump that Dutch well-wishers organised a campaign to send thank you letters. Thanks also to social media, on his return home to Aberdeen after the event, Sandy received hundred of letters and emails from the Netherlands and around the world.

The WWII veteran was just 22 when he first parachuted into the European battleground in 1944, which he described as terrifying.

“When the fighting started, we were just in amongst it.” He said, “You just heard bangs and machine guns. I didn’t understand what that was all about.”

Operation Market Garden involved more than 35,000 American, British and Polish troops dropped behind Nazi lines in an attempt to break open a route of attack and capture and secure bridges and crossing points on the German-Dutch border.

Sandy Cortmann did the tandem jump last year. UK Ministry of Defence 2019
Sandy Cortmann did the tandem jump last year. UK Ministry of Defence 2019

During the fighting some 1,500 British soldiers lost their lives and another 6,500 were taken prisoner.

Cortmann recalled the hell of battle, seeing treatment areas for wounded soldiers ‘strewn with bodies’ and one young soldier, who kept calling out for his mother.

Cortmann was told to quiet the man. “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.”

To evade capture Sandy Cortmann and his fellow paratroopers had to cross a river, but as Sandy could not swim, they remained on the riverbank and were eventually captured by German forces.

They spent seven hours crammed into a Nazi transport train and spent the following year in a prison camp before the end of the War in Europe.

At the time, Operation Market Garden was the largest airborne drop to date. It was part of a northern pincer movement that was designed to encircle and finally cut off the industrial Rhur region in Northern Germany.

The plan to capture all of the crossing points of the Maas, the Waal and associated canals, was only a partial success however, with the Allied advance halted at the River Rhine.

Montgomery’s hopes for an end to the War by Christmas 1944 were dashed by a powerful counterattack from Nazi Panzer divisions, isolating British paratroopers and resulting in heavy Allied casualties.

At Arnhem, the 1st Parachute Brigade and the 2nd South Staffordshires were pinned down, fired on from three sides and eventually overwhelmed, their attack lines disintegrating in the face of the German onslaught.

In the aftermath of the offensive many questions were asked regarding the wisdom of the operation in light of the failure of the Allies to make the expected inroads in German held territory.

On top of heavy losses, the American 1st Airborne Division sustained more than 8,000 casualties alone, raising the question of whether the bridge at Arnhem was simply one too many, a ‘Bridge Too Far’.

British paratroopers in Oosterbeek
British paratroopers in Oosterbeek

Montgomery, while wholeheartedly advocated Operation Market Garden, did admit that he may have “underestimated the difficulties of opening up the approaches to Antwerp”, but qualified this admission with the assertion that had his forces been properly backed up it would most certainly have been a success.

In the end it took a winter of hard fighting by the Allies before the 1st Canadian Corps were finally able to take and liberate the town of Arnhem on April 14th, 1945.

Sandy Cortmann’s friend, and member of the Aberdeen Airborne Alliance, Bob Crocker, paid tribute to the veteran paratrooper describing him as a brother, friend and gentleman.

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“It was a privilege knowing and spending time with him,” he said, “we’ll all miss him and his spirit. Rest in peace warrior.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE