Market Garden Profile of Courage: Flying Officer Otto Hjalmar Antoft

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News Article / August 29, 2019

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By Major (retired) William March

2019 marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, the audacious and ultimately unsuccessful
push to secure bridges over several rivers in Holland and thus open a corridor through which the Allied ground forces could sweep, with the goal of ending the war by Christmas 1944.

Flying Officer Otto Hjalmar Antoft’s path took him from Denmark to Nova Scotia to the skies over Arnhem, Holland, and the desperate struggle to secure “a bridge too far”.

Otto Antoft, born in Denmark on February, 11, 1919, was one of three sons—his brothers were Finn and Kell—of Otto Hugo and Asta Sigrid. Otto and Kell both served with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during the Second World War.

His parents immigrated to Canada when he was 11 years old, settling first in Winnipeg then moving to Lakeville, Kings County, Nova Scotia, in 1933. While in Nova Scotia he attended Kings County Academy in nearby Kentville, winning a scholarship to King’s College in Halifax. He graduated in 1941 with a Bachelor of Arts in public administration and went to work as a secretary and researcher for the small three-person Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) caucus within the provincial House of Assembly. A socially conscious young man, Otto Antoft entered the RCAF recruiting centre in Halifax on March 5, 1942—determined to do what he could both for his native Denmark and his adopted Canadian home.

Training to become a navigator / bomb aimer

He began his basic military training at No. 5 Manning Depot, Lachine, Quebec, on April 20. After completing his training, he went to No. 31 Operational Training Unit in Debert, near Truro, Nova Scotia, in June to await further training as aircrew. Finally, on the first day of August, he was posted to No. 3 Initial Training School in Victoriaville, Quebec, where he embarked on more intensive training in basic aviation subjects, as well as a battery of tests to determine his aircrew occupation.

Over the next 10 months, he completed his training as a navigator / bomb aimer at No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School in Jarvis, Ontario; No. 10 Air Observers School in Chatham, New Brunswick; and No. 31 Operational Training Unit in Penfield Ridge, New Brunswick. At last—his training completed—he departed for England on June 23, 1943. Although he was a member of the RCAF he was also a Danish citizen and proudly wore “Denmark” on his uniform.

Various advanced training courses follow before he arrived at No. 1665 (Heavy) Conversion Unit at Royal Air Force (RAF) Station Woolfox Lodge in Rutland. There he “crewed up” with six other members of the RCAF and RAF. Over the next several months these men formed bonds that made them as close—if not closer—than family. Together they were posted to No. 190 Squadron in February 1944, flying the four-engine Short Stirling bomber. They initially operated out of RAF Station Leicester East, Leicestershire, before being relocated to RAF Station Fairford, Gloucestershire, in March. No. 190 Squadron was part of 38 Group.

The Stirling had entered frontline service with RAF Bomber Command in early 1941 but, by 1943, it had been regulated to so-called “secondary duties”, flying missions in support of special and airborne operations. Often operating alone, solitary aircraft would be called up to drop agents, saboteurs or supplies to resistance units throughout Occupied Europe. The best defence for the big aircraft, and the fragile humans within, was stealth.

Flying Officer Antoft and his crew faced a completely different challenge when called upon to support airborne operations. Flying low and slow as part of an “aerial armada”, the lumbering Stirling was at its most vulnerable to both flak and enemy fighters. If the aircraft was hit, there was little time to recover before bracing for a crash landing. It is understandable, then, that Flying Officer Antoft and his crew embarked on an intense period of training before delivering troops belonging to 7th Parachute Brigade early on the morning of June 6, 1944—D Day. Although they came come with a few extra holes in their aircraft, courtesy of German anti-aircraft gunners, they safely completed their assigned tasks. During the remainder of the Normandy campaign, the crew flew 14 missions, delivering supplies to the French resistance and special operations personnel behind enemy lines.

Operation Market Garden

September 1944 found Flying Officer Antoft still with No. 190 Squadron and tasked to support Operation Market Garden, the combined airborne and armoured thrust into occupied Holland. It is a busy time for the crew, which flew their first mission flown on September 17: towing a glider packed with troops and equipment landing and drop zones around Arnhem in Holland. They were part of a large formation of 25 Stirlings from Nos. 190 and 620 sSuadrons. Although the crew encountered some flak, they returned to their home base safely.

The next day, they took off again at 12:10 p.m. towing a Horsa glider carrying supplies to the airborne landing zone near Arnhem. Enemy activity was not the only threat as crowded skies brought its own element of danger. Flying Officer Antoft and his crew were thrown about the aircraft when the pilot took violent evasive action to avoid a mid-air collision with a Dakota aircraft. The tow rope snapped, freeing the Horsa glider well before its scheduled release point. Fortunately, the glider pilot landed safely, albeit several kilometres away from intended location. The crew returned to Fairford, shaken by the near miss but thankful to be alive.

Up again on September 19, they delivered supply containers to the Arnhem area. This time the squadron encountered heavy flak and two Stirling aircraft fail to return. Flights planned for the next few days were curtailed due to inclement weather over the target area. However, on September 21, Flying Officer Antoft and his crew climbed into Stirling LJ 943 as part of a major effort to drop supplies to the now hard-pressed forces near Oosterbeek, just west of Arnhem.

 There was no way of knowing exactly where the Allied forces were located, so no pre-designated drop zone was given. Instead the big aircraft were to overfly the battle area at a height of 300 metres and drop their loads when signalled by friendly troops. The low attitude meant that the airmen had a better chance of making an accurate drop.

It also meant that they would be easy targets for German flak.

Ten Stirlings would be shot down that day—seven were from 190 Squadron. Despite intense flak and small arms fire, Flying Officer Antoft and his crew made a successful drop, but their aircraft was hit multiple times and set on fire. The aircraft commander gave the order to bail out but only the flight engineer, Sergeant L.G. Hillyard, and air gunner Warrant Officer J.C. Thomas (both RCAF) made it; they were taken prisoner by the Germans. Flying Office Antoft and the remainder of the crew—Pilot Officer Robert Blair Herger (pilot, 23, Vancouver, British Columbia), Flying Officer John Kenneth MacDonnell (bomb aimer, 21, Windsor, Ontario), Warrant Officer Class II Leslie Innes Whitlock, (wireless operator, 20, London, Ontario), along with Flying Officer H.A. Thornington (air gunner, RAF) and two Royal Air Service Corps dispatchers (Drivers E.Noble and C. Parker), were killed when the aircraft crashed near the village of Zetten.

Flying Officer Anton Hjalmar Antoft, and his crewmates, are buried in the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.

He was 25.

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