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, 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