Source: ADM 1/10785
Report of HMS Speedwell
On the morning of
Saturday 3rd February 1940 HM Ships SPHINX,
Speedwell and Skipjack
were in the position 57°
37’ north, 1° 59’ west,
carrying out a searching sweep. Ships were in ‘H’ formation, line
abreast to port, in order SPHINX, Speedwell,
Skipjack, five cables apart with both
sweeps out. Course was 017 degrees, speed 11 knots giving maximum speed
through the water of six knots.
were: Wind SSE force 5, sea 46, sky overcast with low cloud.
At 0915 two aircraft
were sighted to the southward. They were challenged and as no reply was
received were assumed to be the enemy. The aircraft were flying at a
height of about 1,000 feet, steering a northerly course. They resembled
the Dornier D.O. 17 type.
A few minutes after
the first aircraft were sighted a third machine, unidentifiable, was
sighted 3 or 4 miles to the northward flying very low, (50 – 100
feet). This machine turned away almost at once and was not subsequently
At about 0918 the
two Dorniers carried out a glide bombing attack on SPHINX
in line astern formation approaching her from aft at a height of about
1,000 feet, descending to about 300 feet. One bomb was seen to be
dropped by each machine at the bottom of the glide. One bomb missed
ahead and to port, failing to explode, the other hit SPHINX
but did not appear to explode until several seconds after hitting her It
is understood that this bomb passed down through the bridge and upper
deck, exploding in the fore mess deck. Both these bombs appeared to be
large ones. As a result of the explosion the whole of the fore part of
between the bridge and stem, was destroyed. The upper deck of the
forecastle was folded back against the bridge. The stem piece and keel
held till some hours after.
Fire was opened by
all ships on attacking aircraft immediately before the first bombing
After delivering the
first attack the aircraft circled round to the east, gaining height, and
approaching from the southward delivered a second attack on SPHINX.
Each plane dropped one bomb, which seemed a large one. One of these
bombs missed ahead and to port , about 100 feet away, and exploded under
water with much the same effect as a depth charge exploding at a depth
of 100 feet. The other bomb fell a few feet away from SPHINX,
and astern, failing to explode.
aircraft split up and carried out individual bombing and machine gunning
attacks on both SPHINX and Skipjack.
Two more bombs were dropped at SPHINX but
both missed, one ahead and one astern about 100 feet, both failing to
attacks were made on Skipjack, the first
and last from aft and the second from ahead, with intervals of about
five minutes between attacks. In the first attack two bombs were
dropped, one large and one small, both missed on either quarter at about
10 feet distance. In the second attack one small bomb was dropped which
missed about 30 feet on the starboard bow. Each attack on Skipjack
was accompanied by intense machine gun fire, the ship being repeatedly
hit though no casualties were sustained.
Two or three machine
gun attacks were made on SPHINX, all from
aft. These alternated with the attacks on Skipjack.
It is understood that casualties on SPHINX
were four dead (killed by bomb explosion) and three injured, two by bomb
explosion and one by machine gun fire.
No determined attack
was made on Speedwell though toward the end
of the raid one aircraft approached from astern, as if to carry out an
attack. This machine was seen to be hit by 0.5” machine gun fire from Speedwell,
it then turned away and dipped sharply. Black smoke was seen coming from
this machine somewhere amidships. Skipjack
reports that she hit one machine during the third attack on her,
probably with 0.5” machine gun or lewis gun fire and that white smoke
could be seen issuing from her.
Both planes flew
away to the eastward at about 0940.
avoiding action was taken during the attacks. Speedwell:
Both sweeps were cut at the outset and the course was frequently
altered. Skipjack: was hove up and the ship
steered a zigzag course.
During the attack,
fire was kept up on the enemy planes with 4”, 0.5” and lewis guns
whenever the guns would bear or aircraft were in range. Speedwell’s
foremost 4” gun was out of action after firing two rounds, due to a
defect in the recuperator. Fire in Speedwell
and Skipjack was in quarters firing
throughout, using fuze setting ‘2’ (short barrage).
was taken in tow stern first by Speedwell
at 10.50. Considerable difficulty was experienced in passing the tow
owing to the state of the sea. Course was shaped
w230 degrees and speed was gradually worked up to 110 revolutions
giving approximately 3 knots It was intended to get under the lee of Kinnaird Head. The
tow was proceeding easily until 1250 when the 31/2” wire parted.
Skipjack, who was in company , was
ordered to take SPHINX in tow and tow was
passed at 1500. At 1800 course was altered to 280 degrees in order to
close the land more quickly. Tow proceeded easily, speed about two
knots. At 1315 contact was made with HM Ships Boreas
and Brazen. They were asked to stand by in
case assistance was required and they proceeded to screen the ships of
the 5th MSF at 1905 contact was made with HMS Harrier
who had come from Invergordon to assist.
At 2200 the tow
parted and SO 5th in Harrier was
informed. Harrier then attempted to take SPHINX
in tow but this was unsuccessful. At 0100 a signal was intercepted from
asking for a ship to go alongside to take off the wounded. Speedwell
was the nearest ship and made two attempts but owing to the heavy seas
and danger of sinking SPHINX, the attempt
was abandoned. SPHINX appeared to be
floating well and reported that she was comfortable.
At 0245 Harrier
again attempted to get a wire to SPHINX in
order to hold her stern to wind. Speedwell
and Skipjack were ordered to form a lee.
At 0300 information
was received from Harrier that SPHINX
was going to abandon ship and Speedwell was
told to go alongside her . The
first attempt was made at 0316. This failed, a second attempt was made
immediately after and four men were taken off SPHINX.
A third attempt to get alongside was made at about 0333, but this failed
. It was then seen that Boreas was standing
by to go alongside SPHINX and Speedwell
then lay off to give her room. Boreas made
repeated attempts to get alongside SPHINX
and it is understood that she was able to take off a few men.
At about 0445
capsized and a search for survivors was made until daylight. Three men
on a Carley float were picked up by Speedwell
but no further survivors were seen.
Throughout the night
the weather deteriorated considerably and at the time when SPHINX
capsized the seas were very high and a full gale was blowing.
From my own personal
observations and accounts and remarks made to me by my own officers I am
able to state that the behaviour of the officers and ship’s company of
HMS SPHINX after she was bombed and
subsequently until she foundered, is deserving of the highest praise. I
can only compare their ordered ship in HM Navy carrying out evolutions
during a general drill, in harbour in peace time. During the period when
attempts were made by Speedwell to take the
crew off, their behaviour was exemplary. All men were fallen in in an
orderly manner and every effort was made to tranship the wounded before
any others. I consider from my own observations, that Sub-Lieutenant
AGW Bellars is deserving of great praise for his coolness and
devotion to duty. I have no doubt in my own mind that all the other
officers of SPHINX are equally deserving of
praise, but I cannot say that I was able to observe any individual
It is considered
that Yeoman of Signals C Yallop did very
excellent work throughout the day and night keeping communication with
other ships without a break.
R G Maunsell