Halcyon Class Minesweepers HMS Leda
Lt Hans Cato Aall

Source: ‘PQ17’ by Godfrey Winn


The pilot of the LEDA made plenty of noise that night, but he drank nothing stronger than lime juice, either. It was something to do with a vow, in his case. A vow never to drink even a glass of beer in harbour until he was reunited with his wife in their own country, then overrun by the Nazis. For Lt Aarl came from Oslo, and his wife had won a national competition as "Miss Norway" for her beauty before he carried her off to be his bride. He himself was fair and good looking in the way that film stars so seldom are in the flesh, and he carried himself with great dignity and with very real respect for the uniform that he wore, and he never went ashore, they told me, even to visit the Welcome Inn. Whenever I, in my turn, visited the ship, he always seemed to be there on the quarter‑deck, pacing up and down, up and down, as though the ship itself was his sheet‑anchor, a substitute love for the wife whose cardboard picture, looking a little like Garbo, he took me below that night to see in his cabin.


I was very touched by his confidence, for he had a reputation for reticence and I wished that there was something that I could do to ease the burden of which he could only haltingly speak. I have a feeling now that our friendship blossomed in that short time, when I crossed the edge of his orbit, because he recognized in me a special kind of exile, too, though it may well have been simply that he could not bare his heart to those with whom he came in daily and continuous contact.


I said: "Pilot, when you get back to England next time, you will promise to come and see me, won't you? And stay as long as you like.”




Later that day, a telegram arrived for me at the flat. I am looking at it now, and it still states the same simple fact.





It was not till three days later that he came, and I remember how he was dressed in a borrowed Civvy suit, and started to apologize for that, as soon as he was inside the door.


"But my new uniform will be ready on Saturday," he went on, quickly. "I have already been to the Admiralty to ask when I can have another ship, but they say I've got to wait a fortnight at least ...” I started to get Aarl a drink, until I remembered that was no use. "Nice place you've got here.” I don't think I made any reply, standing, there by the fireplace, awkwardly waiting. There was a pause. We both knew what in the other's mind. The Roll Call. "We lost the Doc.," Pilot said, at last.


As he spoke, he was holding his two hands very tightly clasped together against his knees. I've seen other men make the same movement when they are talking of the same thing.


"They got us in the dawn. You know how it is yourself, those hours at sea the dusk and the dawn. I was asleep in my cabin and the next thing I remember was being on the quarterdeck and the ship split in half. Yes, right in half. Afterwards they said it was a tremendous explosion, but the funny thing is I can't remember any noise at all, I only remember the oil everywhere and a kind of numbness, as though I was still asleep ... we tried to launch a whaler ... the one you went sailing in sometimes, in the dog‑watches ... but it was too badly damaged by the explosion ... so in the end I shouted out to Pen, who was on a Carley float, 'Any room there?' and he shouted back, 'Come on,' and I dived over the side into the oil.  There were quite a few of the crew on the Carley float, and later we fished the Sub. out of the water. When he came round at last on board the rescue ship, he kept on saying, 'Please take me out of the Drink, please take me out of the Drink!' No one could make him understand at first that he was O.K., among   friends. . . .”


 "Did you save anything, Aarl?" I suddenly asked. "Not even the photographs of your wife?" But he only shook his head and with an abrupt movement jumped to his feet.


"Come on, what show are we going to? Fine and Dandy. That's a good title, anyway! Do you know, it is the first time I have ever seen a show in London!"


And for the first time, as one scene followed another, and the music and the lights began to act like a drug, while the dancing girls passed like phantoms of enchantment ‑across the stage‑for this must always be the mirage, the other the reality now I saw his bands relax, slide off the side of his knees, and with a sigh, rubbing his back against the comfortable stall, he exclaimed softly:


"This is what they all used to talk about out there, at the Welcome Inn. A show, and Big Eats afterwards. . . ."


Later on, when there was a topical sketch with Leslie Henson, attired in full feathered regalia as a hen, egg‑bound through too much blitzing, he turned to me again: "Do you know, the night before we sailed, I managed to scrounge fifty pounds of potatoes. Fifty pounds! It was marvellous. We planned it all out that it would be a potato for every chap, every day until we got home."


I wish, in a way, he hadn't said that. It would have made it easier now to turn over the page. Instead, I know it's foolish of me, but I still cannot get out of my mind the potatoes that were wasted, in the end.




..Commander Wynne-Edwards (of the recently sunk HMS LEDA) turned up too, not looking in the least like a survivor who, a fortnight before, had been clinging to a Carley float, but in a brand new uniform, and with a brand new ship awaiting his command, to take over from a Yankee shipyard, and yes, he had equally positive news of Aarl. “He's got promotion. He is to be the Pilot of the Bramble, when she goes back to Russia. He's tickled to death,” his late Captain added. 




Lt. Aall lost his life when HMS Bramble encountered the Hipper on 31st December 1942 and she was sunk with all hands.