War veteran Sandy Cortmann described himself as “just a humble private” – but to the people of Aberdeen, he represented so much more.
The 97-year-old, who passed away on Saturday at Fairview House care home, hit the headlines last September when he parachuted into the Netherlands for a second time, exactly 75 years after he dropped into the country as part of a daring mission in the latter stages of WW2.
Sandy took part in Operation Market Garden, dropping into Arnhem at the age of 22 in a bitter battle documented in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far.
He was captured by the Germans and held for a year before returning home.
Sandy won the hearts of people across the north-east – and beyond – when, with the help of friend Gary Haughton and carer Alana Davidson, he returned the Netherlands for the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden last year.
He took part in a tandem jump to mark the occasion with current paratroopers, otherwise known as “red devils”, and was welcomed by a crowd of well-wishers including Prince Charles.
Upon his arrival back at Fairview House, a beaming Sandy was met with a hero’s welcome at a special reception organised in his honour.
Sandy was sent a copy of a book about the operation by author Dilip Sarkar MBE, and after footage of his jump went viral online, thousands of messages of support poured in – including many from Dutch people thanking him for playing his part in liberating the country from the Nazis.
But the modest veteran chose to use the occasion to pay tribute to his staff and friends who helped make the occasion possible.
He said: “They are incredible. Saying thank you just doesn’t do it justice. I’m overwhelmed by everything they do for me. If I had a million dollars I’d give it straight to them because they deserve it.
“They are truly amazing.”
Since news of his passing broke, tributes have poured in from across the north-east and around the world, with many describing the humble hero as “inspirational”.
Aberdeen’s Lord Provost Barney Crockett said: “Sandy was a completely inspirational figure. The story of what he did is amazing.
“He played a big role at Arnhem and the way he dealt with his experiences was fantastic.
“The response he got from the people of the Netherlands was outstanding – and that was down to his personality as well as his exploits.
“Sandy’s contribution was fantastic and we will never forget him. He was a great man who did great things and it sums up the north-east that we produce people like that. Sandy was everything we should aspire to be.
“There aren’t many people out there like Sandy.”
The Lord Provost was joined by Peter Wilson, the UK’s ambassador to the Netherlands, who said he was thinking of Sandy “with gratitude and respect”.
He added: “Sandy Cortmann made his first return to Arnhem last year, for the 75th anniversary.
“He marked it by parachuting from a plane, aged 97.
“He spread joy to whomever he spoke with, including me.”
Sandy Cortmann made his first return to Arnhem last year, for the 75th anniversary. He marked it by parachuting from a plane, aged 97. He spread joy to whomever he spoke with, including me
— Peter Wilson (@PeterWilson) May 24, 2020
West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine MP and former Royal Navy officer Andrew Bowie said: “Some 75 years ago, British and Polish forces fought against overwhelming odds to shorten the war and save tens of thousands of lives.
“Many of Sandy’s brothers in arms made the ultimate sacrifice in the attempt to liberate Arnhem.
“His return by parachute was a spectacular highlight of last year’s commemorations.
“It is right and proper that his memory and valour is marked in Aberdeen, and elsewhere.”
A spokeswoman for Fairview House said: “We would like to extend our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Sandy.
“He was much loved by everyone who knew him and always had a smile to give and a story to tell from his past.
“He had a remarkable life and will be sorely missed by the team at Fairview.”