War veteran, 97, meets Charles after parachute jump to mark Arnhem operation

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Martha Fairlie

A 97-year-old Second World War veteran who parachuted out over the Dutch city of Arnhem where he was captured in 75 years ago has been congratulated by the Prince of Wales.

A crowd of thousands applauded Sandy Cortmann, from Aberdeen, as he tandem dropped with the Red Devils on to Ginkel Heath, near Arnhem in the Netherlands, on Saturday.

He was just 22 years old when he parachuted on to the same drop zone in September 1944 as part of Operation Market Garden, one of the war’s most significant and ill-fated operations.

The Prince of Wales, the Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment, accompanied by Princess Beatrix of The Netherlands, met veterans of the operation on Saturday, to mark its 75th anniversary.

After landing Mr Cortmann, still wearing his red flight suit and returning to the area for the first time since the war, waved to onlookers and a mass of cameras from his wheelchair as he took his place for a memorial service on the heath.

The Prince of Wales, wearing a multi-terrain patterned shirt and trousers and maroon beret of the Parachute Regiment, laid a wreath during the service bearing the handwritten message: “In everlasting remembrance, Charles.”

He later shook Mr Cortmann’s hand as he met several of the last band of surviving veterans from Operation Market Garden.

97-year-old ex-para Sandy arrives at the commemorations in style. Credit: PA

After speaking to the Prince of Wales, Mr Cortmann described his jump as “thoroughly terrifying”, adding: “When the door opened I thought, Christ, what a way down.”

But he said it was “absolutely wonderful to see the ground so far below, my God”.

Sandy Cortmann at the Ginkel Heath commemorations. Credit: Arthur Edwards/PA

Asked if the parachute drop had been like the one he made more than seven decades before, he said: “I can’t remember much about the jump in 1944, we were just a bunch of young lads out for a good time if you like, but it turned out rather terrifying in the end with the guns and mortars and things opened up. They were all aimed at us.”

Mr Cortmann’s friend and ex-paratrooper Gary Haughton, 52, who lives in Aberdeen, said the Prince of Wales had congratulated the veteran and said: “He puts me to shame, I should have been up there with him.”

Veterans attend a commemorative service and wreath-laying at Ginkel Heath Credit: Arthur Edwards/PA

“He can’t be everywhere,” Mr Cortmann joked.

Mr Haughton said watching the war hero take to the skies was “breathtaking” and it had left him with the “biggest smile”.

He added: “His teeth were intact, his glasses were intact, his hearing aid was intact and he wants to do it again next year.”

During the memorial service civilian and military dignitaries gave moving speeches before the laying of wreaths.

Prince Charles attends a commemorative service and wreath-laying with Princess Beatrix of The Netherlands Credit: Steve Parsons/PA

Charles held a salute and veterans were helped to stand, some holding hands, as a lone bugler played the Last Post and a minute’s silence was observed.

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 subsequent fighting around Arnhem saw more than 1,500 Commonwealth soldiers killed, nearly 6,500 captured and five Victoria Crosses awarded.

On Saturday, three jump waves were due to take place involving 1,500 parachutists from the UK, Netherlands, US, Germany, France, Poland and Belgium who will drop on to Ginkel Heath.

Charles talks to a Parachute Regiment veteran. Credit: Arthur Edwards/PA

One joint-nation jump was to form the culmination of Exercise Falcons Leap, hosted by the Royal Netherlands Army, to train Nato airborne forces to launch parachute operations together.

Minister for Defence People and Veterans Johnny Mercer also completed a tandem parachute jump with Mr Cortmann and the Red Devils before the memorial service started.

The parachute jumps are part of a host of commemorative events in and around the Dutch city of Arnhem this week, the site of bloody fighting during Operation Market Garden.

Speaking ahead of the service, John Jeffries, 97, from Richmond in North Yorkshire, said he was injured dropping on to Ginkel Heath 75 years ago.

“I got shot here, I couldn’t get up. I had to lay there almost three quarters of an hour before medics came to pick me up.

“I got shot coming down as I came out the plane.

“I was bleeding quite profusely.”

On the flight over Mr Jeffries remembered German anti-Aircraft fire shaking the plane.

“We had ack ack firing to the plane and making it rattle, we didn’t expect to get here the way things were happening.”

The war veteran said it was “absolutely brain numbing” to return to the Netherlands and praised the support of the Dutch people.

Of their commemorations he said: “So many people and so much love, care about it.”

A large crowd witness 1,500 paratroopers from Great Britain, USA, the Netherlands and Poland drop onto Ginkel Heath Credit: Steve Parsons/PA

Mr Jeffries was later applauded by the service crowd as two young children helped him lay a memorial wreath.

Albert John Few, 94, originally from Tottenham in London, was on a Dakota aircraft landing jeeps during Operation Market Garden.

He was sent into a forest to recover panniers and later woke up in hospital.

Today he can not remember how he got there and how long he had been receiving treatment.

He praised the “kindness” of the Dutch during the war.

“They got nothing and they wanted to give everything,” he said, holding back tears.

Isobella Few, nine, hugs grandfather Albert Few, 94, an Arnham veteran. Credit: Arthur Edwards/PA

Also at the ceremony was Joe McAllister, 95, from Aughton, Ormskirk, Lancashire, who dropped into Ginkel Heath on the first day of the operation.

He was later hit by shrapnel and wounded in the legs.

Lying in a ditch for six hours he was eventually taken to hospital by German soldiers.

His wife Florence, 81, said: “He saw a car coming and he thought that was it. It was SS men and they sought help for him.”

Charles later joined 94-year-old Frank Ashleigh, who piloted one of the gliders during the assault.

During the operation, around 600 gliders landed in the area of Renkum, next to Arnhem, transporting soldiers, vehicles and supplies.

Charles shares a laugh with glider pilot veteran Frank Ashleigh. Credit: PA

Mr Ashleigh said the replica glider was “perfect”, recalling that the plane had been “beautiful” and “very docile” to fly.

Commenting on Operation Market Garden, he said: “We were told it was going to be a fairly easy operation, it was in fact very tough, we were outnumbered and gunned.”