Phipps began his military career in 1928 when he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as an ordinary seaman. He was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant in 1930 and as a lieutenant in 1934.
In 1940, after the outbreak of war, he traveled to the United Kingdom where he was given his first command. This was the minesweeper HMS Bay which operated in the English Channel. Fifty aircraft attacked the convoy that Bay was helping escort and she was bombed. Phipps was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for bringing his damaged ship home.
Promoted to Lieutenant Commander, he took command of HMNZS Scarba, one of four Isles class minesweeping trawlers purchased for New Zealand. They carried out convoy duties en route to Auckland where they arrived 4 August 1942.
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