article first appeared in the John O’Groat Journal, Friday,
February 7, 2003
(Photos added from ADM
The Sinking of the SPHINX
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.
minesweeper HMS SPHINX was one of
the ships which searched in vain for survivors of
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.
the scale of the Exmouth disaster was
immense then the events that followed would only heighten the grief.
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rescinded the order and got under way again.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
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
Prince started her engines and resumed course for Scapa Flow with
her cargo of munitions – leaving sailors crying for help in the water.
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
and crew had perished, either when the destroyer exploded or in the icy
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”.
of them could have imagined that the tragic scenario was to be repeated
within such a short time.
Halcyon-class SPHINX had been in
service for less than a year when she was lost.
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
(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
and Speedwell but was transferred to
Invergordon soon afterwards.
Speedwell and another Halcyon-class ship,
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
passing through her bridge and upper deck and exploding in her forward mess
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.
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.”
SPHINX’s engines had been
knocked out of action and she was taken in tow for Invergordon accompanied
by HMS Boreas and
Brazen. Twice the tow rope parted in heavy seas. It was
reconnected but subsequently parted again at about 10pm.
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.
managed to take four of the crew off and Boreas
a further seven. at 4.55am the SPHINX
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.
oil had earlier been deliberately pumped from the
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
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
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
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
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
was floating bottom up. Parts of the hull were salvaged by a firm of
contractors, Metal Industries. [
These were loaded onto barges and brought
into Lybster harbour for transportation south.
were washed ashore at Wick and as far away as Walls in Orkney.
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.
of the SPHINX crew were buried in
mass graves, next to the Exmouth
colleagues they had searched in vain for only two weeks earlier.
of Enquiry Report