Halcyon Class Minesweepers HMS Sphinx 1940
Sphinx 1939
Sphinx 1940
Sinking Reports
Sphinx - Crew



Date of Arrival


Date of Departure

Orders, Remarks etc




2/1 From C in C Rosyth: SPHINX to proceed with Harrier and Speedwell to Aberdeen where further orders will be given.










HMS Exmouth (Captain R.S.Benson), was torpedoed 20 miles off Wick by the U-22 (KL Karl-Heinrich Jenisch) at 04.44 hrs on 21 January 1940. The destroyer HMS Sikh, the minesweeper HMS SPHINX, the tug St.Mellons, the A/S trawlers King Sol, Loch Monteith, St.Elstan and St.Cathan, and the Wick lifeboat City of Edinburgh immediately rushed to the area and an air search was made. St.Mellons reported large quantities of oil fuel and surface wreckage, but no survivors. One lifebuoy from the Exmouth was found floating amongst a handful of orange crates and other flotsam. HMS SPHINX picked up the lifebuoy.










At about 0800 on 3rd February 1940, HM Ships SPHINX, Speedwell and Skipjack commenced sweeping north of Kinnaird Head. At 0912 a bomb struck the SPHINX forward. It went through the back of the T.S. , through the front of the bridge, through the forecastle deck and burst on the Mess Deck. The explosion folded the forecastle back on to the bridge and badly crippled the whole fore end of the ship. The Captain (Taylor) was killed outright on the bridge. Attempts were made to tow the ship. At about 0430 on 4th February a large wave struck the ship forward and the ship immediately capsized. Five officers and forty nine ratings were killed.

HMS Sphinx after bombing

Source: This article first appeared in the John O’Groat Journal, Friday, February 7, 2003
(Photos added from ADM

The Sinking of the SPHINX  

HMS Sphinx - Halcyon Class Minesweeper

The minesweeper SPHINX was one of two British warships lost off the Caithness coast during the Second World War. It brought the grim reality of naval warfare to Wick’s very doorstep, as some of the sailors who perished were buried in the local cemetery. Noel Donaldson has been looking back at the second disaster to hit the royal burgh within a fortnight, 63 years ago this week.

The minesweeper HMS SPHINX was one of the ships which searched in vain for survivors of HMS Exmouth after it had been torpedoed by a German U-boat on January 21, 1940, some 20 miles off Wick. Her entire crew of 189 died after Captain Karl-Heinrich Jenisch unleashed a single torpedo which blew the 1475-ton destroyer apart.

If the scale of the Exmouth disaster was immense then the events that followed would only heighten the grief.

The Cyprian Prince, a merchantman the Exmouth was escorting, stopped its engines with the intention of picking up survivors from the freezing waters. Its captain, Benjamin T. Wilson, instructed members of his crew to stand by the lifeboats, then rescinded the order and got under way again. He decided that the consequences of disobeying a standing order in Admiralty regulations was too great.

The devastating rule was that ships should not stop under such circumstances for fear of them leaving themselves sitting ducks, resulting in a greater loss of life and vital wartime resources. So the Cyprian Prince started her engines and resumed course for Scapa Flow with her cargo of munitions – leaving sailors crying for help in the water.

The 875-ton SPHINX was one of several vessels, naval and civil, which converged on the area. Another was the Wick lifeboat, City of Edinburgh. But all they found was wreckage – the SPHINX picked up a lifebuoy. All of the Exmouth’s officers and crew had perished, either when the destroyer exploded or in the icy waters.

Fifteen bodies were washed ashore at Lybster three days later and were buried in a mass grave following a moving church service at Wick. Townspeople wept openly as the cortege passed through the streets to the cemetery. The John O’Groat Journal reported at the time that although the men had no connection with Caithness, they were honoured by local people as if they had been their own sons in what was reckoned to have been “the saddest scene in the history of the town”.

None of them could have imagined that the tragic scenario was to be repeated within such a short time.

The Halcyon-class SPHINX had been in service for less than a year when she was lost.

Built by William Hamilton & Company Ltd, she was launched on the Clyde on February 7, 1939, and cost in excess of £100,000. She was the last of four commissioned two years earlier to be lost in World War Two. Initially the SPHINX (the word originates from a monster in Greek mythology) worked out of the English east coast ports of Sheerness, Harwich and Grimsby. On January 3, 1940, she moved north with her sister ships Harrier and Speedwell but was transferred to Invergordon soon afterwards.

Speedwell and another Halcyon-class ship, Skipjack, were “sweeping” with her when they suddenly came under aerial attack from two Dornier aircraft, 15 miles north of Kinnaird Head, at 9.15am on February 3rd . [See Speedwell's Report ] One of the bombs hit the SPHINX, passing through her bridge and upper deck and exploding in her forward mess deck. [ See Sphinx's Report ]

Despite wartime censorship on press coverage of casualties, the Groat managed to secure an interview with a 19-year old seaman, one of the 46 survivors. Forty-nine ratings died.

HMS Sphinx - Halcyon Class Minesweeper

He told a reporter: “The two planes dived at the ship. Their machine guns started and a bomb hit the ship. Commander Taylor and four other men were killed. The whole forecastle seemed to lift up and fold back without breaking into fragments. I was amidships, dodging machine-gun bullets. So far as I could tell, only one bomb actually hit the ship and we retaliated with our guns.”

The SPHINX’s engines had been knocked out of action and she was taken in tow for Invergordon accompanied by HMS Boreas and HMS Brazen. Twice the tow rope parted in heavy seas. It was reconnected but subsequently parted again at about 10pm.[ See Harrier's Report

HMS Sphinx - Halcyon Class MinesweeperAt 1am on the 4th, the SPHINX asked for her wounded to be taken off but none of the vessels present could get alongside as the stricken minesweeper was in danger of sinking. It was proving impossible to keep the minesweeper’s bow to the wind and two hours later the order to abandon ship was given.

Speedwell managed to take four of the crew off and Boreas a further seven. at 4.55am the SPHINX capsized. Boreas managed to pluck 30 more survivors from the water, but those who managed to keep afloat became covered in oil and choked to death before they could be rescued. [ See Boreas's Report ]  

HMS Sphinx - Halcyon Class Minesweeper

The oil had earlier been deliberately pumped from the SPHINX’s tanks to calm the sea but proved to be tragically counter-productive. Captain Hamish Moore, who served in the merchant navy during the war and was formerly harbourmaster at Wick, explained that as well as creating problems for the men in the water, the loss of oil would have made the SPHINX more unstable.  


HMS Sphinx - Halcyon Class MinesweeperThe 19-year old rating who was first interviewed by the Groat continued his first hand account: “A huge wave hit us broadside and capsized the SPHINX. It all happened suddenly. I felt her going on her side and could not even shout out before I found myself bobbing in the water. Heads kept bobbing up all around and men kept calling out odd words about their families at home.”

“Then a searchlight showed on the water amidst us. I struck out and caught hold of a line that had been thrown out. I was pulled on board a ship, absolutely exhausted.”  

The minesweeper, minus her bows, was swept ashore beneath the cliffs at Occumster. The story that spread through the community at first was that it was a submarine which had been hit, probably because the SPHINX was floating bottom up. Parts of the hull were salvaged by a firm of contractors, Metal Industries. [ See Wreck Report ] These were loaded onto barges and brought into Lybster harbour for transportation south.

Bodies were washed ashore at Wick and as far away as Walls in Orkney.

Members of the Royal Air Force were pallbearers and carried the coffins of 26 crewmen down the aisle of Wick Old Parish Church. Officers representing the Navy and the RAF attended the service. Crowds lined the streets as the cortege made its way through the town to the cemetery, Union Jacks draped over the coffins which were interred.

Some of the SPHINX crew were buried in mass graves, next to the Exmouth colleagues they had searched in vain for only two weeks earlier. [See Board of Enquiry Report ]

 Eighteen Bodies Washed Ashore


The bodies of 18 British sailors belonging to the minesweeper Sphinx which sank in the North Sea on Saturday, were washed ashore on the North-East Coast this week, and 15 are to be buried to-day (Friday) in the same cemetery as the 15 men from the destroyer Exmouth whose bodies were recovered in a similar manner. These 18 bodies were found at different parts of the coast. Three of them it is understood have been claimed by relatives and the remains of one were sent south yesterday (Thursday). The wreck of the Sphinx has been found on the beach, thrown onto the rocks bottom up, in the vicinity of Occumster. 


  Wreck of HMS Sphinx - Halcyon Class Minesweeper









The sombre spectacle of the wrecked minesweeper HMS Sphinx - minus her bow section - at the foot of cliffs at Occumster. Evidence of leaked oil is apparent on the shingle beach and from the sheen on the surface of the sea. This photograph was loaned by Lybster man George Carter.

Source John O'Groat Journal Feb 7th 2003




My father didn't have much to say about that night but imprinted on his mind was the terrible injuries sustained by some of the men after the ship was bombed. Also the frightening size of the waves as they abandoned ship.

Source: Doreen Jackson, daughter of PO Norman Bell

  HMS Sphinx sinking report from War Illustrated 23rd Feb 1940
Article from The War Illustrated 23rd February 1940

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