Commander C.H. Lightoller R.N.R.
Charles Herbert Lightoller was born in Chorley in Lancashire on 30
March 1874. In February 1888, at the age of 13, he began a four-year
seagoing apprenticeship working on sailing ships. On only his second
voyage he was shipwrecked on an uninhabited island in the middle of
the Indian Ocean. On another trip the cargo of coal caught fire and
for his successful efforts in fighting the fire he was promoted to Second
Mate. In 1895 he obtained his Mate’s Ticket and left sailing ships for
steamships. After 3 years on the West African coast he nearly died from
a heavy bout of malaria.
Lightoller left the sea in 1898 and went to the Yukon to prospect for
gold in the Klondike Gold Rush. Unsuccessful in this, he worked as a
cowboy in Canada for a while before working his passage back to England
on a cattle boat. Back in England he obtained his Master’s Certificate,
and in 1900 he joined the White Star Line, working on passenger liners
to Australia and the USA. On the Atlantic run to New York he served
on the ‘Majestic’ and the ‘Oceanic’, pride of the White Star Line, and
eventually became First Officer on the ‘Oceanic’.
He sailed on the maiden voyage of the ‘Titanic’ as Second Officer.
On Sunday 14 April 1912, having been on watch from 6pm - 10pm, he was
just nodding off to sleep in his cabin at about 11:40pm when he felt
a grinding vibration. He ran onto deck in his pyjamas, initially nothing
appeared to be wrong so he returned to his cabin to await orders. Ten
minutes later another officer entered his cabin and informed him that
the ship was taking water. Pulling on his clothes over his pyjamas he
went onto deck.
Lightoller took charge of the lifeboats on the port
side of the ship, and as soon as he received orders
he started loading the first boat. He continued supervising
the lowering of the boats, strictly enforcing the code
of “women and children” first. At about 1:30 am the
officers were issued with revolvers and ammunition,
Lightoller at the time doubted the need for this. Shortly
afterwards, however, the need became clear when a group
of men took over one of the lifeboats, he jumped in
the boat and threatened them with his empty gun driving
them all out.
At around 2:00 am all the lifeboats had been lowered,
save for four collapsible boats with canvas sides lashed
to the roof of the officers quarters. Lightoller had
just managed to cut one of these free when the ‘Titanic’
took a great plunge forward. He dived into the water
but was sucked against the grating of one of the ventilator
shafts. Fortunately the blast, caused by the cold water
hitting the still hot boilers, blew him back to the
surface. As the ‘Titanic went under, the forward funnel
broke loose and toppled his way narrowly missing him.
He climbed onto the overturned collapsible lifeboat
and along with 30 other men, from where he was rescued
the next day by the ‘Carpathia’.
H.M.S. Falcon in 1917.
In 1913 Lightoller returned to sea as First Officer on the ‘Oceanic’.
When the First World War broke out in 1914 the ‘Oceanic’ became HMS
‘Oceanic’ and he became Lieutenant Lightoller of the Royal Navy. Just
before Christmas 1915 he got his own command, the torpedo boat HMTB
117, and in July 1916 attacked the Zeppelin L31 with the ships guns.
For this Action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and was
promoted to commander of the torpedo-boat-destroyer ‘Falcon’ with the
moved his family to Dover, renting a house at 8 East Cliff. In July
1918 his new command, the destroyer ‘Garry’, rammed and sank the German
submarine U-110, for which action he was awarded a bar to his D.S.C.
and promoted to Lieutenant Commander.
After the war he returned to the White Star line as
Chief Officer on the liner ‘Celtic’, having been passed
over for a post on the ‘Olympic’. The new management
of the White Star Line wanted to forget the ‘Titanic’
and everyone associated with her, and none of the surviving
officers ever got their own commands. Lightoller was
not interested in remaining the Chief Officer of the
‘Celtic’ indefinitely so, after more than 20 years of
service he resigned from the White Star Line. The first
few years were hard, he and his wife opened a guesthouse,
and after a few years had some minor success in property
In 1929 the Lightollers purchased an old Admiralty steam
launch, refitted her with a diesel engine and christened
her ‘Sundowner’. Throughout the 1930s she was used by
the Lightoller family for trips around England and Europe.
In July 1939 Lightoller was approached by the Royal
Navy and asked to perform a survey of the German coastline.
They did this under the guise of an elderly couple on
holiday in their yacht. Then in the closing days of
May 1940, with the British Expeditionary Force trapped
on the beaches at Dunkirk
the Admiralty again called on Lightoller. They asked
him to take the ‘Sundowner’ to Ramsgate, where a navy
crew would take her over and sail her to Dunkirk. He
informed them that nobody would take ‘Sundowner’ to
Dunkirk except him.
On 1 June 1940, the 66 year old Lightoller, with his eldest son Roger
and an 18 year old Sea-Scout named Gerald, took the ‘Sundowner’ and sailed
for Dunkirk. Although the ‘Sundowner’ had never carried more than 21 people
before, they succeeded in carrying a total of 130 men from the beaches
of Dunkirk. In addition to the three crew members, there were two crew
members who had been rescued from another small boat. There were three
Naval Ratings rescued from the sea off Dunkirk, plus 122 troops taken
from the destroyer HMS ‘Worcester’. Despite numerous bombing and strafing
runs by German aircraft, they all arrived safely back in Ramsgate about
12 hours after they departed.
"Sundowner" off Dunkirk.
Following Dunkirk, Commander Lightoller joined the Home Guard, but the
Royal Navy engaged him to work with the Small Vessels Pool until the end
of the War. After the War he went on to run a boatyard on the Thames building
motor launches for the London River Police. He died, aged 78, in December