I have the honour to forward the
following report on the loss of HMS SPHINX
on 4th February 1940.
At about 0800 on 3rd
February 1940, HM Ships SPHINX, Speedwell
and Skipjack commenced sweeping north of
Lieutenant A H Nicholls, RN (Navigating Officer), Lt
A L Tessier, RNR (First Lieutenant), Commissioned
Engineer F A Braham, RN, Paymaster Sub Lt D
V D Heathcote, RNR and myself were in the Ward Room when the
alarm bell rang.
A few minutes later I had reached
the wheelhouse on my way to the Rangefinder Director, when a bomb struck
the ship forward. I saw that the Bridge was wrecked and so went aft.
Just outside the wheelhouse, I met Lt Nicholls,
now Commanding Officer. He shouted aft for the .5” guns crew to close
up. The crew had already arrived and closed up immediately. After a few
bursts the gun jammed and could not be got into action again. I
controlled the after gun using barrage C21 but without any success.
After about six bombs had been dropped, we were subjected to a machine
gun attack from the starboard beam.
As this machine passed overhead, Chief
O A Ralls brought the port pair of Lewis guns into action and,
standing behind him, I observed his shots penetrating the machine (we
kept the Lewis guns loaded with tracer). The planes soon afterwards made
The bomb which struck
had, apparently gone through the back of the T.S. (killing O.D. Skiggs
outright), 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 and Sub-Lieutenant Confort
RNVR (lent by the Contraband Control Base, Invergordon) was badly
One stoker (who I believe was on the
Mess Deck at the time) was killed and another mortally wounded (he died
a few hours after). There were about six wounded. The behaviour of the
wounded was in accordance with the highest traditions of the service.
The Engineer Officer, Mr Braham,
then reported to the Captain, Lieutenant Nicholls,
that the bulkheads forward were perfectly intact and that the ship was
in no danger of sinking. The foremost Boiler Room was evacuated since
that bulkhead would have been one of the first to go, and the situation
forward was not exactly known. The ship was able to steam on both
engines with one boiler.
The Coxswain, CPO
McDowell, although his sick bay forward had been wrecked, at once
took the wounded to the Ward Room (on the Captain’s orders). The dead
were placed in the Captain’s Cabin.
From this period CPO
McDowell worked ceaselessly until the ship went down, a period of
17 hours, tending the wounded. He proved himself an expert in first aid
using the limited resources at his disposal. He displayed the most
exemplary disregard for his own personal comfort and safety. He had not
even time to put on a lifebelt, and from reports of survivors he must
have lost his life trying to save the wounded. He deserves the highest
He was assisted in this work by Able
Seaman Murray, the Captain of the hold, Able
Seaman Gregson and many others, including Officer’s
Steward Regan who acted in the same exemplary fashion as the
Coxswain and lost his life in a similar way.
An explanatory diagram of the damage
to the ship is attached.
Every preparation was then made to
be towed stern first. Towing spans, shackles, grass lines, etc were
brought up on to the Quarter Deck.
At about 1100 Speedwell took
in tow, using 3½“
wire from Speedwell. Sinkers were slid down the tow to give it added
spring. The tow passed, we proceeded slow astern on both engines,
keeping out on the quarter of the towing ship. The Engineer Officer all
this time, and subsequently, was making frequent visits to the bulkheads
forward and reporting to the Captain that the bulkhead appeared
Both whalers were lowered to the
level of the upper deck and the skiff turned out. The Motor Boat was
left turned in on account of the list it gives the ship when turned out.
Carley rafts were also prepared for putting over the side. The O.O.W.
was kept on the Flag Deck and a Quartermaster closed up in the
The tow unfortunately parted early
in the afternoon – about 1300. SPHINX
then prepared her own 3½”
wire aft and Skipjack proceeded to take her
in tow. Sinkers were placed on the wire as before.
was then in tow again, and an inspection of the bulkheads forward gave
us no reason to suppose that we should fail to reach harbour safely.
After dark the Captain stayed on the
Flag Deck and told me to get some sleep in the Charthouse bunk. The
First Lieutenant was aft watching the tow. The Engineer Officer was
advising the Captain. Chief ERA Ashby, Chief
Shipwright Walls and Chief Stoker Kenny
were ordered to work in three watches inspecting the bulkheads forward
every ten minutes and to report to the Bridge after each inspection.
These inspections were all satisfactory, although later on in the
evening water began to lap over the top of the Central Store bulkhead
and fill up the starboard passage. This was not considered serious at
The tow parted again during the last
dog watch about 1930 and SPHINX again
prepared to be taken in tow. A grass 3½” or 4” was prepared with a dan buoy fitted with calcium
flares and the end of this streamed. The grass was tailed with a smaller
(2”) one and paid out. The sea at this time was considerably rougher
than it had been during the day and the wind made conditions very
difficult. At this time it was very noticeable the number of non-seamen
ratings who were lending a hand on the upper deck in the general spirit
which existed, and that everyone was doing his utmost, no matter whit
his rank or rating to save the ship. In this respect the Writer Poulson deserves special mention (see
This grass was picked up by Harrier
but unfortunately the smaller grass must have parted as it was not found
on the end of the larger one. SPHINX did
not think Harrier was able to pick this grass up, the conditions were so
All possible preparations were then
made to abandon ship. Every possible floating object was lined up along
the port side.
The Confidential Books in the
Captain’s cabin were left there, locked up in steel chests. Two
CB’s, H A Firing Manual and Destroyer Manual which I had on loan, I
locked together with other Confidential matter in my cabin in a
combination safe. All loose books on issue to the Navigating Officer,
Yeoman and P O Tel together with Schedule G24 awaiting distribution to
the Flotilla were tied up in bags, each bag with enough weighted books
in to ensure it sinking.
The wounded were got up on deck with
a view to transferring them to another ship, should one be able to come
alongside. Six bags of CB’s were also brought up with the object of
throwing them aboard the ship coming alongside.
made repeated efforts to get alongside and no praise can be high enough
for the magnificent way in which she was handled by her commanding
officer, Lt Commander Maunsell RN. Four men managed to jump on
With no tow out
was now lying almost head to sea, and the starboard passage was filling
up, giving a list of 20°
or 30° to starboard. To counteract this the Engineer Officer had
pumped over all available oil fuel and fresh water and had done
everything possible to lighten the ship forward.
The starboard passage was filling up
with water as the waves broke over the top of the central store forward.
All available hands were bailing and the pumps were being worked by the
Chief Stoker under the supervision of Mr Braham,
the Engineer Officer.
About midnight the Captain reported
that we might have to abandon ship, although he still thought, as we all
did, that we could hold out till daylight. The wounded had been placed
in the Ward Room again.
who had been screening us was asked to come alongside. The wounded were
brought up to the boat deck again, and the ship’s company ordered to
jump for it if they had the chance.
The way in which Boreas
came alongside in the sea which was then running – a whole gale was
blowing at the time- was a superb example of seamanship, and a number of
men managed to jump aboard her.
gave us a Coston Line gun with a view to passing a wire in, but this was
The Captain ordered the Carley
floats to be streamed, and six volunteers to make an attempt to reach Boreas
from the stern. I went aft for this operation and Petty
Officer Bell, AB Poore and AB
Panton managed to get into a float which we veered astern. Their
only thought were not to save themselves, but to bring back the wire
from Boreas to pull the stern round into the sea. In this they were
We now got the other Carley Float
astern and prepared to send another party over. Had this proved
successful we should have evacuated the wounded in the same fashion.
The ship now had a bad list to
starboard and at about 0300 the boiler rooms and engine room were
evacuated, but pumping and bailing continued. The ship could not be
steered on main engines alone and it was impossible to hold her stern to
sea on the engines alone.
At about 0430 a large wave struck us
forward and. filling up the starboard passage, we rolled about 50 or 60
to starboard. The ship had just righted herself when another even larger
wave swamped her and completely filled the starboard passage. The ship
immediately capsized. I was fortunate in being near a Carley float and
with about six others we made out way to the destroyer. The remainder of
the ship’s company were clinging to Dan Buoys, etc and wreckage.
The way Boreas
came alongside the men in the water was astonishing, and the way her
ship’s company worked to save the survivors deserves the highest
possible praise. The conduct of those on board SPHINX
was of the highest possible praise.
The conduct of those on board
was of the highest standard. The young ordinary seamen behaved with
complete calm throughout.
I consider that this conduct was
inspired by the cool bearing of Lieutenant A H
Nicholls and First Lieutenant, Lieutenant A
L Tessier RNR. These officers spared themselves nothing to save
the ship. Lt Nicholls was on the upper deck
taking charge as Captain of the ship from 0915 until the ship capsized.
Although he had had nothing to eat and must have been
exceedingly cold after 17 hours on the upper deck, his cheerful
disposition encouraged everyone. The safety of the ship was his only
The Engineer Officer, Mr Braham,
was equally energetic in his efforts to save the ship and equally
regardless of his own personal safety. He built the ship and would have
done anything to save her. He could have done no more than he did.
Sub-Lieutenant D W D Heathcote RNR, an officer new to H M
Service, assisted on the upper deck though naturally ignorant of
seamanship matters. He also voluntarily collected the CB’s and placed
them in suitable bags. In addition to this by his personal example he
encouraged and cheered the wounded in the Ward Room.
Confort RNVR was an example by his conduct to all the wounded. He
was badly hurt in the hand and the leg, but never once complained. When
brought up in a stretcher preparatory to abandoning ship, he asked to be
released from the stretcher to take his chance with the rest. He had no
lifebelt on but cheerfully awaited his turn.
The following ratings I consider
worthy of a special mention:
CPO McDowell for his attention to the
wounded (see previous)
Acting Yeoman of Signals, Yallop.
He stayed alongside the Captain from the time of being bombed until we
were forced to abandon ship. He worked ceaselessly with the lamps at his
disposal, and generally conducted himself with the utmost coolness and
fortitude. He might have been doing an exercise at the signal school
instead of being in imminent personal danger.
Signalman Woods showed the same
unselfish devotion to duty as the Yeoman. After having abandoned ship he
saw Stoker Blackburn caught in the A bracket.
He immediately swam back to the ship, climbed up the side, and freed him.
‘Come on Blackburn’ he said, ‘We’re
going back to the destroyer together’. Blackburn was rescued but no more
was seen of Woods.
PO Fedarb (Chief Boatswain’s Mate)
worked on the upper deck passing wires etc without ceasing the whole 17
hours. He displayed magnificent technical ability and complete disregard
for himself. He greatly encouraged those over whom he had charge in these
Leading Stoker Ashdown worked down in
the boiler room from when we were struck by a bomb until ordered to
evacuate the boiler room. He would not hear of being relieved, but worked
continuously on the pumps to save the ship. He was a source of great
encouragement to those with him.
OD Wentworth: this young Ordinary
Seaman had just reached the TS when the bomb struck us. All the fingers of
his hand were severed. This he completely disregarded, saying, ‘They
don’t even give you time to close up do they?’ He then went aft, and I
heard him remark upon being asked how he was: ‘Don’t worry about me,
what you have to do is shoot them blighters down’. The last time I saw
him he was swimming in the water alongside the destroyer, not in the least
concerned about himself, but patiently waiting his turn. He unfortunately
was not saved.
Writer Poulson. This man is deserving
of the highest possible recommendation. Although not a seaman rating, he
worked continuously on the upper deck to save the ship. This was not his
normal job, but he put more energy and devotion into it than I would have
thought possible. In assisting with the handling of wires and hawsers he
literally worked his hands raw. He proceeded to joke about this and think
nothing of it. Just before the ship capsized he went to the boiler room to
see if he could do anything there. When eventually forced into the sea his
only thoughts were still for his shipmates. He, and three others, were
holding on to a lifebuoy when he was heard to say ‘There is not room for
four of us, one of us will have to go, so cheerio’. He then swam to a
piece of wreckage and was not seen anymore. I consider this man should be
worthy of a high award.
A report from Paymaster
Sub-Lieutenant DWD Heathcote RNR is enclosed. [See
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your obedient servant
A W G Bellars
Sub Lieutenant RN (Senior surviving Officer)
of Paymaster Sub
Lieutenant DWD Heathcote RNR on the conduct of certain members of the crew
of HMS SPHINX
All concerned appeared
to me to work with the utmost fortitude and coolness throughout the
W Poulson (Writer) worked with all his
might throughout the day, doing everything in his power to help save the
ship. He not only worked as a Seaman, but even went down to the Boiler
Room at the last moment to see if there was anything he could do there.
When in the water, he told another to take a lifebuoy rather than himself.
He was seen no more.
Coxswain CPO W McDowell, gave his life for the wounded and tended
them until the very last moment, not even sparing himself the time to don
a life belt.
Steward Regan worked in the same way, and made it his duty to
attend Sub-Lieutenant Confort RNVR, who had
been badly wounded by the explosion throughout the day.
Others whom I noticed
to be excelling themselves in their efforts to save the ship and the lives
of their fellows were:- all the Officers, Yeoman of
Signals Yallop, Chief Boatswain’s Mate
Fedarb, Signalman Woods and Ordinary
Finally I think it is
my duty to report on the
conduct of Sub-Lieutenant AGW Bellars RN who
carried out his duties in the ship with most marked coolness and
efficiency. When in the Carley Float he kept all cheerful there by singing
and directing operations. He undoubtedly saved one man’s life, and this
man has since told me that ‘had it not been for Sub-Lieutenant Bellars I should not have been talking to you now’.