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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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