HMS Sphinx was a Halcyon class steel minesweeper and was built by William Hamilton & Company Ltd at Port Glasgow and launched on the 7th February 1939. She was 245.0’ long, 33.5’ breadth and had a draught of 8.0’. She was powered by two Admiralty 3-drum water tube boilers, Parsons steam turbines constructed by J Samuel White of Cowes. The Sphinx was armed with 2 x 4inch Mk V guns, single mounts HA Mk III. Four Vickers machine guns, four Lewis machine guns and two depth charge rails.
HMS Sphinx was commissioned in July 1939, and assigned to the 5th Minesweeping Flotilla, based in Dover. The flotilla carried out minesweeping in the English Channel and the North Sea until December, when it was transferred to Rosyth.
At about 08.00am on 3rd February, 1940 HM Ships Sphinx, Speedwell, and Skipjack commenced sweeping operations north of Kinnaird Head. On board Sphinx Commander J R Taylor RN was in command and at his place on the bridge. At 09:12 the crew were called to action stations as an alarm bell rang out to announce the approach of a German air attack. Minutes later a massive explosion rocked the ship as one of the Germans made a successful first strike. The bomb ripped through the front of the bridge, through the forecastle deck and exploded as it hit the mess deck below. The damage was horrendous. The forecastle and foredeck were folded back onto the bridge and the whole front end of the ship was devastated. Thankfully, the forward boiler room bulkhead held firm for the moment and the ship was in no immediate danger of sinking.
On deck, the aft gun crew were quickly at their station but, after a few short bursts of the 4” anti-aircraft gun, it jammed leaving the ship even more vulnerable. The German aircraft by now had turned for a second run but the spread of five or six bombs mercifully missed and exploded harmlessly in the sea, rocking the ship and showering the decks and crew with spray. The Germans had not finished yet and one of the aircraft swung round for a machine gun attack from the starboard beam. They were met by fierce fire from the only remaining functional guns aboard Sphinx, two Lewis guns on the port side of the ship. As the German passed over the ship the trails of tracer bullets swept upwards into the sky from the crippled minesweeper and ripped into the side of the German plane. The Germans had had enough and climbed high into the clouds and disappeared but the damage was done – Sphinx was clearly very badly damaged.
The dead were placed in the Captain’s Cabin while the wounded were taken to the Ward Room which was hurriedly converted into a makeshift Sick Bay – the real Sick Bay was forward and had been destroyed in the explosion. Coxswain McDowell, an expert in first aid, took over the treatment of the wounded and earned high praise from the crewmen as he fought to save their lives – he was in fact to lose his own life going down with the ship as he struggled to the last minute to keep these men alive.
At about 12:00 Speedwell took Sphinx in tow and, with the line attached and both the Sphinx’s own engines running at slow astern, they began the long journey back to safety. The bulkhead was holding well and the surviving crew were optimistic that they would make it to shore. However all possible preparations were made in case a hasty departure from the ship was necessary. The two whalers were lowered to the level of the upper deck, the skiff was turned out and the Carley rafts were prepared for immediate launch if required. Only the ship’s motor boat was left in its place as this would cause a dangerous list if hung over the side of the ship. Only an hour into the trip the tow line parted but another line was quickly rigged and this time Skipjack took up the task. The tow proceeded successfully until 19:30 when the line parted once more. Again another line was rigged but by now it was dark and the task of picking up the line became much more difficult. The weather too had deteriorated making things even more problematic. However, the 4 “ line was paid out with a Dan buoy containing calcium flares to help locate the end of line. Unfortunately, when the buoy was finally picked up by HMS Harrier, which had now also arrived on the scene, the line had in fact parted from the buoy.
Aboard Sphinx the situation now was becoming more serious. Water was reported to be lapping over the top of the central store bulkhead and the starboard passage was beginning to fill. The weather was getting worse by the minute so the captain ordered all preparations to be made to abandon ship. The wounded were brought on deck and it was hoped that they might be transferred to another ship but, despite repeated efforts by Speedwell, the sea conditions now made it impossible for a ship to come alongside in any safety. By now, Sphinx had taken a twenty degree list to starboard as the passage below filled. The pumps were working flat out and the crew took to frantic bailing in the hope that she could be kept afloat until daylight. HMS Boreas made yet another attempt to come alongside and managed to come close enough for a number of men to jump across but by now a full gale was blowing and the conditions were terrible. Sphinx now lay bow towards the sea causing the waves to crash over the exposed bulkhead speeding the process of filling the ship – she was clearly going to go down.
The Carley floats were launched and streamed astern – one party of three men scrambled aboard one of the floats hoping to get a line to Boreas but they dropped the line. At about 04:30 a massive wave hit the front of the ship and she immediately lurched to starboard taking on a sixty degree list. As the ship shook herself and amazingly started to recover from the first wave another smashed into her and she capsized. The men were thrown into the sea and left to fight for their own lives and make their way to the floats as best they could. It was seventeen hours after the bomb had struck. Fifty-four men lost their lives in the incident. The wreck later drifted ashore one mile north of Lybster in approximate position 58°17.890’N 03°15.555’W
The wreck was visited on 7th February by the surveyor T M McKenzie to assess the possibilities of salvage but the following quote from his report made it clear that the ship was too badly damaged to recover anything:
“The vessel lies bottom up on a rocky shore about 1 mile north of Lybster. She is broadside on to the shore in a small gully at the foot of cliffs 100 to 150 feet high and is completely exposed to all winds from NE through E to SSW but sheltered from all other winds. The forward part of the vessel as far aft as station 25 bulkhead is broken completely off and was not visible in the vicinity.There was about 5 feet of water on the inshore side and about 9 feet on the seaward (port) side. The inshore side will ebb practically dry at low water. Two large vertical fractures 8 feet by 2 feet can be seen abreast the engine room, and the ships side is badly crushed and corrugated in the vicinity. All bridge superstructure and possibly part of the bridge deck appear to be torn away. Port propeller is broken and a 4” wire, presumably a towing hawser was wrapped around same”.
The ship was declared a constructive total loss and later broken up where she lay for scrap.