Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk

Larry Holzwarth - November 7, 2019

Charles Lightoller, the most senior member of the crew of RMS Titanic to survive the vessel’s sinking in 1912 had by then already lived a life of adventure which seems improbable. Then 38 years old, Lightoller had been a cowboy, a gold prospector in the Yukon, a veteran seaman on ships both steam and sail-driven, a shipwreck survivor, a cattle wrangler on a cattle boat, a hobo, and a respected navigator and ship’s officer. He survived the loss of the Titanic by riding out the night on the hull of an overturned collapsible lifeboat, saving 30 others as well as himself by constantly shifting the weight distribution of the passengers standing in the frigid weather.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Charles Lightoller (standing center) with the other three officers who survived Titanic’s sinking. Wikimedia

Following the sinking of the Titanic his adventures continued. During the First World War, he served in the Royal Navy, sinking a German U-Boat by ramming it with his ship, a small destroyer, and battling a German zeppelin intent on bombing targets in Southern England. Retired when World War II broke out, Lightoller commanded his own motor launch as one of the small boats which rescued the British Army from the beaches of Dunkirk. He rescued well over 100 British soldiers from France in his vessel, which was overcrowded and under fire. His remarkable life is little known and well worth remembering. Here is his story.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Lightoller first went to sea during the final days of sailing ships. Wikimedia

1. His nautical career began in sailing ships in the late 19th century

Charles Lightoller first went to sea at the age of 13, hoping to avoid a life in the cotton mills of his native Lancashire. During his apprenticeship he was shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean, stranded on an island with other survivors for eight days, rescued by an Adelaide-bound steamer, and returned to England aboard one of the last remaining clipper ships in service. On one voyage aboard a windjammer, a sailing vessel equipped with steel masts and hull, he saved the ship when the cargo of coal caught fire. Lightoller successfully fought the fire, and have already passed the examination for second mate, he was awarded that rank. By 1895 he held his mate’s certificate, making him eligible to serve as first officer.

Lightoller left the world of sailing ships that same year, shifting to the more scheduled world of steamships. At the age of 21, he signed on with the African Royal Mail Service, which made regular runs along the coast of West Africa. Exposed to various tropical diseases, Lightoller came down with malaria, during which, according to his autobiography Titanic and Other Ships, his temperature soared to 106 degrees. It was while recovering from malaria Lightoller learned of the gold strikes in Canada’s Yukon Territory. After regaining his health the young officer turned his back on the sea and headed for the Canadian goldfields.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
The promise of gold for the taking lured adventurers like Lightoller to the Yukon in 1898. Wikimedia

2. Lightoller became a cowboy while in Canada

Lightoller arrived in the Yukon in 1898, while the gold rush was at its height, though for the seaman prospecting was disappointing. In the absence of gold, Lightoller was forced to find other work, and for a time he worked driving cattle to the boom towns which emerged as a result of the influx of miners. Along with the miners came the con men, gamblers, prostitutes, thieves, and all of the detritus of the western boom towns. Lightoller worked to raise enough money for his passage to England, but the distractions of the towns made saving money a challenge. He finally left Alberta, virtually penniless, and hopped trains across Canada to Halifax.

Of his adventures in Canada Lightoller later wrote, “the bubble in this district had already burst” before he arrived. In order to get passage to England, he fell back on his brief experience as a cowboy and took a position on a cattle boat, caring for the animals as a wrangler. After arrival in England, he made for Liverpool, where another voyage on a cattle boat provided him with some funds. He then, armed with his officer’s certificate, approached White Star Line, then one of England’s most prestigious shipping lines, and was hired as the fourth officer of the steamer SS Medic, a new ship on the Liverpool – Cape Town – Sydney route.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Afterdeck of the White Star Line steamer Medic, in Sydney, Australia, in 1899. Wikimedia

3. Lightoller gained experience steaming on the Australian routes

Although Lightoller was an experienced sailor when he began with White Star Line he had little expertise with either steam or dealing with passengers. The period in Medic was a learning experience in both disciplines. Lightoller remained aboard the steamship – which was the largest vessel to have visited Australia to that time – for less than three years. In 1903 he was serving in SS Suevic, a sister of Medic, when he met a passenger aboard who was returning to her home in Sydney. When they arrived at that port Lightoller and the passenger, Sylvia Wilson, were married and she accompanied her new husband on the return voyage to Liverpool.

Lightoller next ventured to sea under the command of Edward J. Smith (who would later command Titanic), aboard Majestic. He left Majestic to accept the post of third officer of Oceanic, a coveted position as Oceanic was the flagship for White Star. He returned to Majestic as first officer (third-in-command after Captain and Chief officer), and from there he later returned to Oceanic as first officer, a prestigious position which allowed him to select his next with confidence of the line approval. In the early spring of 1912, Lightoller left Liverpool for Belfast, where he joined the crew of RMS Titanic as first officer, behind chief officer William Murdoch and Captain Edward Smith.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Shipyard workers stream from Harland and Wolfe with Titanic looming in the background, still on the way in 1911. Wikimedia

4. Titanic’s sea trials led to changes among its officers

When Lightoller reported to Titanic the ship was facing an improbably tight schedule. On April 1, 1912, the vessel was only nine days away from its scheduled departure on its maiden voyage, and yet the ship, the largest ever built up to the time, had not conducted its sea trials. Titanic was put to sea for the first time on April 2, operating in Belfast Lough and the Irish Sea, returning to its moorings that evening. Over the course of a single day, the ship was evaluated by its builders, crew, and representatives of White Star. It was determined to be seaworthy and accepted by White Star Line that evening. One of the issues which disturbed Captain Smith was the performance of the officers, none of whom were familiar with the ship.

Henry Wilde, then of Olympic, was ordered to remain in Southampton, rather than depart in Olympic on April 3, as he was scheduled. When Titanic arrived at Southampton on April 4, Wilde went aboard as chief officer, demoting Murdoch and Lightoller to first and second officer respectively. Former second officer David Blair was dismissed from the crew. Blair was the only of Titanic’s officers familiar with the new design of the lifeboat davits installed, the others had been aboard an insufficient amount of time to be acquainted with them, and they had not been tested during the total of twelve hours of sea trials conducted by the ship and White Star Line.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Titanic took on its crew and cargo in Southampton, including this load of bottled beer. Wikimedia

5. Lightoller was responsible for signing on a significant portion of Titanic’s crew

The first order of business for Titanic upon arrival in Southampton was signing on the majority of the ship’s crew. Titanic did not have a permanent crew, nor officers for that matter. Most of the crew, 699 of approximately 885, came aboard at Southampton, and most joined on April 6. Many of them weren’t employed by White Star, but rather came aboard as subcontractors, their value assessed by the ship’s officers. Among them were postal clerks, the waiters and other staff for the first-class restaurants and cafes, and the famous band which played as the ship slipped beneath the waves just over a week later. The radio operators were employees of Marconi.

It was the responsibility of the officers aboard, including Lightoller, to assess the credentials of those presenting themselves, hire them if desired, and assign them to their berths and duties. In addition to those duties, the ship had to be prepared in all aspects for sea. Lightoller had been aboard throughout the sea trials just a few days earlier and was aware that one problem which had arisen during the trials had not been addressed, nor would it be in the time remaining. Titanic had exhibited a reluctant response (a thirty-second delay) to its rudder when turned hard to either port or starboard, caused by the steam-driven mechanism which transferred steering inputs to the rudder itself.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Titanic sailed with a passenger list well below the ship’s designed capacity, though with a full crew. Wikimedia

6. Titanic faced a maiden voyage which was not fully sold out, to the disappointment of White Star Line

Despite the hype over the sailing of the Titanic, the ship was put to sea well under capacity. Designed to accommodate just over 2,400 passengers, the vessel carried just over 1,300. The reason the vessel carried so few passengers on its maiden voyage was a longstanding coal strike which had disrupted travel by rail and ship. Many potential travelers canceled their plans until the strike was settled. By the time Titanic moored in Southampton, the strike was settled, but coal was still scarce. Titanic took on coal scavenged from other ships moored in Southampton and from reserves held at White Star Dock.

Besides the duties of coaling the ship and assigning the crew, Lightoller, as second officer, was responsible for the appearance of the ship’s decks and fittings, which had to be spotless when the vessel took on passengers on April 10. The performance of his duties was hampered somewhat by the problems encountered as a result of the newness of the ship – problems common to any new ship – which were normally worked out as part of the sea trials which in its case were inadequate. Nonetheless, the ship took on its passengers and departed the pier at Southampton on schedule, the primary goal of its owners.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Crowds at Cunard’s Pier 54 awaited the arrival of Carpathia with survivors from Titanic, including Charles Lightoller. Wikimedia

7. Lightoller warned the bridge watch and lookouts to keep a sharp eye out for ice just hours before the collision

Titanic made two stops after departing Southampton (where it was delayed clearing the harbor by a near collision), one in Cherbourg, and its final stop at Queenstown, Ireland, before heading for the open sea and New York. On April 11 it sailed for New York, where it was scheduled to arrive on April 17. As it sailed a fire in a coal bunker which had started while in Southampton continued to burn, though the passengers were not informed of the problem. By April 14, the fire was reported to be out. On the evening of April 14, Lightoller stood his watch on the bridge before being relieved by Murdoch. He warned the crew on the bridge to be watchful for ice and passed the warning to his relief before retiring for the night.

Lightoller was in his cabin when he felt the collision. He was summoned to the bridge about thirty minutes later. He dressed, including his overcoat, and joined the other officers summoned by Captain Smith. Smith ordered that the passengers be mustered, with the stewards distributing life belts, but he did not order them into the lifeboats. That order was delayed for some time, as Smith seemed to lose control of the situation, according to survivors who observed him, including Lightoller. It was Lightoller, in charge of the port side boats, who suggested to Smith that “we better get the women and children into the boats” and Smith agreed.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Nearly all of Titanic’s boats left the sinking vessel with room for more passengers. Library of Congress

8. Lightoller dispatched several boats which were only partially filled

Lightoller interpreted the phrase “women and children first” to mean only women and children were to be loaded into the boats. The boats were nearly all lowered into the water under Lightoller’s supervision only partially filled. He later explained that he did so because he was unsure whether the davits could support the weight of the fully-loaded boats, and that he intended to fill them at the waterline using the ship’s gangway. When the boats hit the water, the passengers aboard quickly rowed away from the sinking ship, ignoring shouted orders to return for additional passengers. Only one male passenger was allowed to board a lifeboat under Lightoller’s supervision.

Lightoller found about two dozen men in Lifeboat 2, already aboard when he arrived, and he ordered them out of the boat at gunpoint (the gun was unloaded). Lifeboat 2 was later reported as leaving the ship with only 17 passengers aboard, though it could have accommodated 40. As the final boats bore away from the ship, which was by then sinking more rapidly, he attempted to release the collapsible boat stored above the officer’s quarters. He succeeded in freeing collapsible B, which floated away upended, before diving into the sea as the stern of the sinking liner rose into the air.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
RMS Titanic’s forward funnel collapsed into the water, creating a wave which thrust Lightoller away from the ship. Wikimedia

9. Lightoller was trapped by the ship as it went down

As Titanic broke apart and sank, Lightoller found himself sucked under and pressed by the inrushing water against a grate. When an internal explosion occurred (likely one of the ship’s boilers) he was pushed away from the vessel temporarily, before further suction dragged him down again. He discarded the pistol from his coat pocket and swam away from the vessel toward the collapsible which he had freed just moments before. He managed to grasp a line trailing from the upended boat, which was thrust further away from the ship when the forward funnel collapsed into the water.

The boat was surrounded by about 30 men, all of them clinging to it in some manner. Clear of the ship as it went down, in the dark, in frigid temperatures, and surrounded by the screams of the dying, Lightoller managed to climb aboard the vessel’s hull. Calming the remaining passengers surrounding it, he had them climb aboard in a manner which prevented the vessel from overturning. As they stood on the upended hull, Lightoller had them shout in unison in the hope of raising one of the other lifeboats, without success.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
A collapsible lifeboat with its sides extended, displayed in 1912. Wikimedia

10. Collapsible B was rescued by another boat

Throughout the night the survivors on collapsible B shouted in vain for another boat. How many were aboard the boat is uncertain, several collapsed and died during the night. The air pocket beneath the boat gradually subsided and it sank deeper and deeper into the water, which rose up the survivors’ legs until it reached their knees. As the night wore on the sea, which had been dead calm when Titanic struck the iceberg, began to develop a swell, which made maintaining the balance on the boat more difficult. When daylight came, about thirty were still alive on the hull of collapsible B.

Spotted by survivors in other boats, they were transferred to them and eventually RMS Carpathia. Lightoller was the last of the Titanic survivors taken aboard Carpathia, and the most senior of its officers to survive. Captain Smith was reported last seen swimming from the sinking liner, though other reports placed him on the bridge as the ship went down. Chief Officer Wilde was likewise reported last seen in several locations on the ship before it sank. Murdoch was reported by many to have committed suicide with his revolver, an act which Lightoller at first hotly denied, though years later he commented that he knew someone who had committed suicide that night. He did not name him.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Lightoller considered the US Senate investigation, here questioning Bruce Ismay, to be a waste of time. Library of Congress

11. Lightoller became a critical witness during investigations of the sinking

Both Great Britain and the United States Senate conducted inquiries into the causes of the sinking of Titanic, and the great loss of life which ensued. In his book Titanic and Other Ships, Lightoller described the American inquiry as a “farce”. In his treatment of the British inquiry, Lightoller described the necessity of defending both his employer, White Star Line, and the British Board of Trade. He wrote that it had been his desire that no “blame should be attributed to either”. Instead, he blamed the collision on the state of the sea. It had been, according to Lightoller, so calm that detection of icebergs was virtually impossible at a distance since the water was not breaking at their base.

Throughout both inquiries Lightoller defended White Star and the officers’ senior to him aboard Titanic, shifting the blame whenever possible to factors outside of their hands. He also directed the discussion into areas such as changing the requirements for the number of lifeboats being mandated by passenger capacity rather than total displacement of the ship, as it was prior to the disaster. He also recommended that wireless stations be mandatory on all ships carrying passengers, manned 24 hours per day while at sea.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Lightoller defended White Star Line during the investigations and remained with them afterward. Wikimedia

12. Lightoller returned to the sea with White Star Line

Following the boards of inquiry, Lightoller resumed his employment with White Star Line, confident that his vigorous defense of his employer would place him in good stead. He also remained in the Royal Navy Reserve. He was aboard Oceanic as first officer when World War I began, and remained in the ship when it was transferred to the Royal Navy, to be converted into an armed merchant cruiser. Oceanic had the distinction of being the first Allied passenger ship lost in World War I when it was wrecked on a reef near Scotland, in clear weather and calm water.

Lightoller was aboard Oceanic as first lieutenant. The ship’s position had been inaccurately recorded by the ship’s navigator, David Blair (the same David Blair who had been removed from Titanic in Southampton). Locked onto the reef with the hull punctured made the ship irretrievable, and the officers and crew were removed by small boats to other vessels standing by. Lightoller was the last man to be removed from the stricken ship, his second shipwreck in just over two years. Lieutenant Blair was reprimanded for his role in the loss of the ship. Lightoller was not charged in the event.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
RMS Oceanic was lost due to running aground in clear weather and calm seas. Wikimedia

13. Lightoller remained in the Royal Navy following the loss of Oceanic

Lightoller’s next assignment with the Royal Navy was as first officer in the former RMS Campania, which had been purchased by the Admiralty and converted into an aircraft carrier. The Royal Navy planned to have Campania steam with the battle fleet, its aircraft serving as scouts. Lightoller was aboard for sea trials following the conversion, during which time it was evident that the flight deck was too short for its intended purpose, and it was recommended that it be extended. Lightoller was removed from Campania before the conversion was completed, assigned to his first ship as commanding officer.

The ship was too small to merit its own name, and was commissioned as His Majesty’s Torpedo Boat (HMTB) 117. The boat was fast, armed with self-propelled torpedoes and light machine guns, and intended to strike against enemy merchant ships, small craft, and U-Boats. Lightoller uses the vessel and the assistance of a lightship to draw a German Zeppelin, L31, into an ambush in the Thames Estuary as the airship was attempting to reach and bomb London. Machine gunfire from HMTB 117 damaged L31 sufficiently to drive it off, and Lightoller was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
HMS Falcon was a C class destroyer commanded by Lightoller, and another ship which sank beneath him. Wikimedia

14. Lightoller was given command of HMS Falcon on the Dover Patrol

HMS Falcon was a Royal Navy destroyer based in Dover during the First World War, which served as part of the Dover Patrol. So-named because of its being based in Dover, the patrol’s primary reason for being was to prevent German shipping, primarily U-Boats, from using the British Channel to access the Atlantic Ocean and the shipping lanes to England’s west coastal ports. As part of the Dover Patrol, Lightoller held Falcon in readiness for deployment at all times, guns loaded, and the ship ready for action. He remained in command of the ship until it was lost on April 1, 1918.

On that date Falcon was convoying vessels in the North Sea when the armed merchant ship John Fitzgerald rammed the destroyer, severely damaging the hull and rendering the ship a complete loss. Lightoller and two of his officers were trapped in the stern of the ship. Nearly all of the crew escaped the forward section via the ship’s boats. Lightoller and the two officers with him remained in the stern section until it sank in the early morning hours of April 2. They were forced to take to the water in life belts, from which they were rescued by a British fishing boat about an hour later.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
World War I U-Boats were despised by Royal Navy commanders, who considered their use dishonorable. US Navy

15. Lightoller was exonerated for the loss of Falcon and given command of HMS Garry

Lightoller took command of HMS Garry in the summer of 1918, operating out of Portsmouth. In July Garry was patrolling off Yorkshire when it encountered a German U-Boat, UB-110. The U-Boat dove to escape and Garry attacked it using depth charges sufficiently to force it to surface. When the submersible emerged too close to allow a gunfire attack, Lightoller ordered his ship to ram the Germans. The attack ruptured the U-Boat’s hull, and it sank after most of its crew escaped into the water. From that point accounts of the battle conflict. The British claimed 13 German crewmen died in the sinking.

The German commander, who survived the action, later claimed that of the 36 member crew of the U-Boat, all but two survived the attack and abandoned ship, indicating that they had surrendered. According to the German account, which was made after the war, the British attacked the helpless crew in the water with small arms fire, before rescuing the 13 who survived. Lightoller later dismissed the accusation with an off-hand and somewhat oblique remark in his memoirs, Titanic and Other Ships. Lightoller was awarded a bar for his DSC in lieu of a second award for the action.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
A German U-Boat crew celebrates Christmas at sea in this painting. Lightoller considered such crews with contempt. US Navy

16. Lightoller expressed contempt for submarine officers and crews in his memoirs

Lightoller, and many surface naval officers of the time, were contemptuous of those who went to sea in submarines and considered the practice of submarine warfare cowardly and barbaric. In the early days of the First World War, the U-Boats (and surface raiders) warned commercial ships before attacking them. The warning allowed the civilian crews of the ships to abandon them prior to their being sunk by gunfire or torpedo. The British responded by arming merchant’s vessels, often in ways which were camouflaged, allowing them to respond to surrender demands with gunfire. The Germans responded with unrestricted submarine warfare, attacking without first demanding surrender.

British officers considered the practice uncivilized (as if war could be civilized in the first place) and beneath the honor of officers and gentlemen. In his memoirs, Lightoller offhandedly commented that he “refused to accept the hands-up business”. “In fact,” he wrote of the U-Boat crews in general, “it was simply amazing that they should have had the infernal audacity to offer to surrender, in view of their ferocious and pitiless attacks on our merchant ships”. Lightoller went on to say that warship against warship was fair game but that the submarines, “were nothing but an abomination, polluting the clean sea”.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
HMS Garry was a River class destroyer similar to this one, which steamed 100 miles in reverse to get home. Wikimedia

17. Ramming the German U-Boat nearly sank his own ship

After Lightoller rammed the German U-Boat, his ship’s bow was heavily damaged. According to his memoirs, Lightoller was faced with three options. The first was to deliberately ground his ship on the Yorkshire coast, to await rescue by a seagoing tug or civilian trawler. The survivors from the German vessel being held as prisoners made going ashore inadvisable. An examination of Garry’s bow made it clear that the temporary shoring to reinforce its watertight integrity would not hold against the beating of the water of the Channel. Garry’s homeport and safety were over 100 miles distant. Meanwhile, water continued to flood the bow, and the ship was gradually sinking by the head.

Lightoller made the decision to get Garry underway, steering towards its homeport, where the prisoners could be secured and the ship drydocked for repairs. With his crew manning the pumps around the clock to keep Garry afloat, Lightoller steered for Dover in reverse. To keep pressure off the damaged bow, the ship traveled in a backward direction at a speed little better than a crawl for the entire 100-mile journey into port, only accepting the aid of a tug as it drew near its pier. The ship arrived in port the following morning, and within weeks was ready for sea again, but by then the war was over.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
White Star Line’s financial condition suffered throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Wikimedia

18. Lightoller retired from the Navy after World War I

In 1919 Charles Lightoller, then in his mid-forties, retired from the Royal Navy, but not from the sea, at least not yet. Despite his loyal defense of White Star Line in the aftermath of Titanic, he found fewer opportunities for advancement with the company. The line itself suffered financial decline, in part due to the loss of ships during the war, and from its association with the Titanic disaster. An immediate post-war boom ground to a halt when the United States passed the Immigration Act of 1924, reducing the amount of immigration to America and severely curtailing profits by the shipping lines. Lightoller languished, unable to obtain posts suitable to his seniority and experience.

He resigned from White Star and turned to other pursuits, which included for a time raising chickens for market. For a time he managed a pub, and he began speculating in real estate during the 1920s. After years of urging on the part of his wife, he wrote Titanic and Other Ships. The book became popular in the 1930s before Marconi threatened to sue its author for comments regarding the Marconi wireless operators before and during the disaster aboard the Titanic. Faced with the threat of a lawsuit by the powerful corporation the book was withdrawn by its publishers.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Motor Yacht Sundowner moored at Ramsgate. YouTube

19. Lightoller purchased a motor launch and licensed it to carry passengers

In 1929 Lightoller purchased a 58-foot launch, which was rigged to carry sail, for £40. He named the vessel Sundowner, Australian slang for a hobo. By then Lightoller, in his mid-fifties, had survived being marooned on an island, failing as a gold prospector, two ships sinking beneath his feet, two other shipwrecks, crossing Canada by jumping trains, working his way across the ocean on a cattle boat, combat with Germans determined to kill him, and the loss of his reputation as a capable officer. Retirement likely seemed attractive. Sundowner offered an opportunity for a more sedate lifestyle. He quickly developed the reputation of offering a quick and comfortable trip from England to Europe’s north coast.

In Sundowner, Lightoller and his wife entered boating competitions in the 1930s, prevailing on several occasions. As Europe lurched towards war he enjoyed traveling across the channel in his boat, conveying tourists and sightseers, and developing the reputation as a reliable charter. Sundowner was licensed to carry up to 21 passengers (and a crew of three) and was in steady demand as a charter. No longer an officer of the Royal Navy (nor White Star Line, which merged with Cunard in the mid-thirties) Lightoller continued to make the sea his avocation.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
A British destroyer prepares to disembark troops evacuated from Dunkirk in the spring of 1940. Wikimedia

20. The Little ships of Dunkirk

Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany on September 3, 1939, just days after the German invasion of Poland. On September 4, 1939, Lightoller’s youngest son Brian was killed while flying with the RAF over Wilhelmshaven. (another son, Roger, was killed in the last months of the war, serving in the Royal Navy). With the rest of Britain, Lightoller sat out the so-called Phony War as the German Wehrmacht prepared itself for the invasion of France. When the Germans did strike, avoiding the Maginot Line and sweeping through the Low Countries, the British Expeditionary Force retreated rapidly before them.

By late May 1940, the British were pinned down along the French coast of the British Channel, with little air cover protecting them from the relentless attacks of the Luftwaffe. Primarily remembered as the evacuation from Dunkirk, the British were in reality removed from several Channel locations. German aerial attacks led to the losses of several destroyers of French, British and Polish origin, and troops forced to load aboard ships at the Dunkirk mole, or wharves and piers at other locations, slowed the withdrawal. At the end of May, the British Admiralty began to commandeer small craft to ferry soldiers from the beaches to large ships, or across the Channel to England.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
A French destroyer loaded with evacuating troops sinking off Dunkirk in 1940. Wikimedia

21. Sundowner was commandeered by the Admiralty to assist in the evacuation

Charles Lightoller was 66 years of age when British Naval officers demanded he turn over his boat to be ferried to France by Royal Navy coxswains. Reasoning that no navy coxswain knew the coast of France nor the characteristics of Sundowner as well as he, Lightoller decided to undertake the journey, accompanied by his son Roger and Gerald Ashcroft, a member of the British Sea Scouts. Undoubtedly, part of his motivation was the fact that yet another of his sons, Richard Trevor Lightoller, was serving with the BEF in France on General Bernard Montgomery’s staff (unbeknownst to the father, Richard had already been evacuated to England).

On June 1, 1940, Sundowner got underway for the French coast, departing from the port of Ramsgate. Around the mid-point of the British Channel, it encountered a small boat named Waverly, which had developed engine trouble and was afire. Taking its crew aboard, Lightoller continued to Dunkirk where he quickly ascertained that due to the state of the tide troops on the piers could not be embarked directly into Sundowner. Instead, Lightoller pulled alongside the British destroyer HMS Worcester and began embarking troops into Sundowner’s small cabin, and topside on its decks.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
Units of the British Army await their turn for evacuation from the French beaches in 1940. Wikimedia

22. Sundowner was strafed and bombed by German aircraft on the trip from France

When Sundowner was crowded with as many British soldiers as could be packed aboard, Lightoller turned the launch for home. Crossing the Channel, it was spotted by German aircraft. Despite the small boat being dangerously overloaded and susceptible to being swamped, Lightoller continued toward the British coast, his son Roger at the helm and Ashcroft beside him. Lightoller stood in the bow, his eyes on the German aircraft attacking the boat. In a version of the game of chicken, Lightoller remained erect, eyes on the diving aircraft until he was certain the pilot was committed to his dive. He then sang out a helm order to Ashcroft, who relayed it to Roger, and the boat turned sharply to port or starboard, causing the German to miss.

In such manner, according to Ashcroft’s later recounting, at least one Stuka dropped a bomb aimed at the launch, which was caused to miss by the abrupt maneuvers. Each time the boat was turned sharply it took on water, and in conditions almost too crowded to move the men aboard bailed it out. Barely able to make 10 knots in ideal conditions, the overloaded Sundowner crawled towards the British port of Ramsgate, several times nearly awash as larger ships sped past it in either direction. As it drew nearer to England, RAF aircraft afforded it some protection from the German Luftwaffe.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
A French coastal patrol ship, beached at low tide during the Dunkirk evacuation. Wikimedia

23. Sundowner retrieved over 100 men from the French coast

When Lightoller in Sundowner arrived at Ramsgate, 55 British troops were disembarked from the vessel’s exposed decks, having endured the trip in the open, exposed to spray and German fire. Another 75 men were evacuated from its small cabin and cuddy. Some reports dispute those numbers, claiming that Lightoller evacuated 127, 123, and 135 British troops. But all agree that the small vessel, which was licensed to carry no more than 21 people, had brought back at least five times that number. As the men were received by volunteers and nurses who distributed food and hot tea, Sundowner prepared for another journey to France.

As Lightoller was getting the vessel ready for another run across the Channel, this one to be attempted in the dark, Royal Navy officials seized the boat and informed its owner that only vessels capable of speeds above 20 knots would be allowed to continue in the evacuation. Sundowner remained in Royal Navy hands for the duration of the war, eventually serving as a patrol vessel in Scotland’s Clydebank. In 1946 the vessel was restored to its owner. One of his first cruises in his returned vessel was across the British Channel, to Dunkirk.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
The Great Smog of London in 1952 led to thousands of deaths in the city. NT Snobbs via Wikimedia

24. The Great Smog of London

In December 1952 an extraordinary weather event occurred which caused London to be covered for a four-day period in a blanket of heavily polluted air, most of which was smoke and particles released from burning coal. The smog covering London was the result of abnormally cold temperatures, which kept the pollutants nearer to the ground, coupled with an absence of any breeze for several days. The cold weather also caused residents of London to burn more coal for heat than was usual for the period. Londoners – all residents of Great Britain who relied on coal – usually burned cheaper coal which had a higher sulfur content, worsening the smog.

During the four-day Great Smog, more than 100,000 Londoners were made ill with various respiratory disorders, many of them the elderly. Those already suffering from respiratory and heart conditions found their symptoms much worse. At least four thousand deaths were attributed to the Great Smog, most of them from heart conditions or lung disease. One of them was Charles Lightoller, who had suffered from chronic heart disease. He died on December 8, 1952, at the age of 78.

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of RMS Titanic was Also a Hero on the Beaches of Dunkirk
The officers of RMS Titanic in April, 1912. Wikimedia

25. Lightoller’s remarkable life is only partially known

Charles Lightoller has been portrayed in films many times, nearly all of them centering on the night in 1912 when Titanic sank. Kenneth More played him in A Night to Remember in 1957, Jonathan Phillips in James Cameron’s Titanic four decades later. His role in the evacuation of Dunkirk was fictionalized (as Mr. Dawson) in 2017 when the character was played by Mark Rylance in the film Dunkirk. His service in the Royal Navy during World War I has seldom been presented, and the rest of his life is often ignored entirely, including his time spent in the Canadian Yukon and when shipwrecked for eight days in the Indian Ocean.

Following the loss of Titanic, he was briefly famous, and in a newspaper article he penned for the Christian Science Journal he attributed his survival of the disaster as “With God, all things are possible”. In his memoirs, he described another period of his life, the time spent in the Yukon prospecting, and then traveling across Canada by hopping trains, a bit more pithily. “I’d tried it out, I’d had a great time, and I’d got back…Admittedly I’d gone broke; on the other hand, I had got back”.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Titanic and Other Ships”. Charles Herbert Lightoller. 2003 Edition, Project Gutenberg Australia. Online

“The Second Officer Who Survived Titanic and Saved 130 Lives at Dunkirk”. History Channel Online

“Shipping Reports”. Sidney Morning Herald. October 9, 1900. Online

“A Night to Remember”. Walter Lord. 2005

“Titanic: Minute by Minute”. Jonathan Mayo. 2016

“Titanic: Why was lifeboat not full?” Belfast Telegraph Online. April 23, 2012

“Five Titanic Myths Spread By Films”. Rosie Waites, BBC News. April 5, 2012

“It is difficult to tell of the experience…” Charles Lightoller, Christian Science Journal. October, 1912

“Testimony of Charles Lightoller”. British Wreck Commissioners Inquiry, Day 11. 1912. Online

“White Star Line (Oceanic Steam Navigation Company)”. Duncan Haws. 1990

“The First Destroyers”. David Lyon. 2006

“How WWI’s U-Boats Launched the Age of Unrestricted Warfare”. Jordan Golson, Wired. September 22, 2014

“Fips: Legendary German U-Boat Commander”. Geoffrey Brooks. 1999

“Sundowner”. Article, Association of Dunkirk Little Ships. Online

“Pillar of Fire: Dunkirk 1940”. Ronald Atkin. 2000

“Ashcroft, Gerald Edward (Oral History)”. Gerald Ashcroft, Imperial War Museum (UK). Online

“Mr. Lightoller Goes to Dunkirk”. Martyn Day, St. Margarets, London. August 13, 2017. Online

“Extraordinary story of Titanic’s second officer Charles Herbert Lightroller”. Article, Irish Central Online

History Collection – Haunting Photographs and Quotes from Titanic Survivors

National Archives – They Said It Couldn’t Sink

Our Warwickshire – The Ss Suevic And The Aftermath Of Its Accident

RNLI Lifeboats – 1907: The Suevic Rescue

ThoughtCo – A Timeline of the Sinking of the Titanic

History Channel – Why Did the Titanic Sink?

The Guardian – Key That Could Have Saved The Titanic Goes Up For Auction