The Incredible Story of Charles Lightoller: the “Titanic” Officer who Saved Soldiers from the Shores of Dunkirk

The Incredible Story of Charles Lightoller: the “Titanic” Officer who Saved Soldiers from the Shores of Dunkirk

Alexander Meddings - February 1, 2018

For most of us, spending the night precariously perched atop an upturned lifeboat in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic would be enough to put us off the sea forever. The experience would stay with us forever, felt in our bones and etched into memory. But while our shared survivalist instincts sign us up to this “once bitten twice shy” philosophy, some are able to overcome trauma more easily than others. And one man who proved more able than most was Charles Herbert Lightoller (1874 – 1952).

Serving as the second officer aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic, the 38-year-old was already a seasoned veteran by the time of the disaster, just short of midnight on April 14, 1912. The Lancashire-born lad first went to sea at the age of just 13, and he had not yet celebrated his sixteenth birthday when he was first shipwrecked, washed up on an island in the South Indian Ocean after a fierce storm gutted his ship. After eight days on the island, Lightoller was rescued when a passing ship spotted the smoke from their campfire. He and the other survivors were taken to Adelaide, Australia, where he found passage for his return to England.

The Incredible Story of Charles Lightoller: the “Titanic” Officer who Saved Soldiers from the Shores of Dunkirk
Charles Lightoller as a young man. Lancashire Telegraph

Lightoller’s promotion came when he was serving as third mate aboard the Knight of St. Michael. While out on the ocean, the ship’s coal cargo caught fire, plunging the ship and her crew into grave danger. But Lightoller reacted quickly, and his success in dousing the flames and saving the ship earned him the respect of his fellow sailors and his promotion to second mate. Yet even this wasn’t the end of his early trials and tribulations. While working for the Elder Dempster’s Royal Mail Service off the coast of West Africa, Lightoller caught malaria. It wasn’t bad enough to kill him, but it was enough to kill his love for life at sea.

In 1898, Lightoller tried his hand at gold prospecting during the Klondike Gold Rush. Rather than striking rich, however, the twenty-four-year-old Lightoller decided to count his losses and take up work as a cowboy in Alberta, Canada. Again, this was short-lived. Lightoller had little aptitude for working with cattle, and just a year after arriving in Canada the destitute sailor was forced to begin his journey back to England, riding rails to the coast where, rather fittingly, he haggled his way onto a cattle boat bound for England.

The Incredible Story of Charles Lightoller: the “Titanic” Officer who Saved Soldiers from the Shores of Dunkirk
Prospectors of the Klondike Gold Rush. Encylopedia Britannica.

Charles Lightoller started working for White Star Line in 1900. He first served aboard the passenger-cargo liner, the Medic before being transferred to the Suevic, and it was during his time working on the latter that he met his future wife, the Australian Sylvia Hawley-Wilson, who accompanied him to England. Lightoller then came under the captaincy of Edward J. Smith, working for him first on the SS Majestic, then on the RMS Oceanic and finally on the RMS Titanic.

The Incredible Story of Charles Lightoller: the “Titanic” Officer who Saved Soldiers from the Shores of Dunkirk
Titanic’s officers: Lightoller stands second from the left at the back. William Murdoch

When Titanic struck the iceberg, Lightoller had just been relieved from commanding watch on the bridge by first officer William Murdoch. He had been getting ready for bed when he felt the collision, and made his way onto deck in his pajamas to see what had happened. Having missed sight of the iceberg by mere minutes, he returned to his cabin where he waited for his crewmates to summon him. This they duly did; and pulling on a blue sweater and officer’s coat and hat over his pajama top and bottoms, Lightoller made his way to the bridge where he and his fellow officers were briefed on the gravity of their situation.

Charles Lightoller must be commended for the diligence with which he worked as he lowered women and children into the lifeboats. He took charge of filling several of Titanic‘s 20 lifeboats while his captain—almost certainly in the midst of a serious mental breakdown—went about relieving men from their duties and shouting orders via a megaphone from the bridge. It must be said, however, that Lightoller also gravely misinterpreted Smith’s order of “women and children first” to mean “women and children only”.

The result of this misunderstanding was that several boats were lowered with empty seats, Lightoller having ordered their male passengers out at gunpoint. Contemporary accounts report him screaming, “Get out of there, you damned cowards! I’d like to see every one of you overboard!” However you might fault him for this, he was at least no hypocrite. Charles Lightoller remained on board the foundering ship for as long as he could until, while working away at releasing Collapsible Boat B, he was forced to dive into the water.

While swimming away from the ship Lightoller was pulled under by the suction. Held under by the weight of his revolver, he may well have drowned had it not been for a blast of warm water from the ship’s exploding boilers pushing him up back towards the surface. Eventually, he fought his way through the water and grabbed ahold of the upturned Collapsible B. Thirty other men had had the same idea, including the two wireless operators Jack Philips and Harold Bride and the first class passenger Colonel Archibald Gracie (whose account of the sinking remains one of the most authoritative).

The Incredible Story of Charles Lightoller: the “Titanic” Officer who Saved Soldiers from the Shores of Dunkirk
Titanic’s Collapsible B: the upturned boat on which Lightoller and others spent the freezing early hours of April 15, 1912. Wikimedia Commons

Lightoller worked through the night instructing the men on how to balance themselves evenly to prevent the boat from capsizing. By the time the Carpathia came to their rescue at dawn, three men had died from hypothermia, including Philips. As it transpired in the British and American inquiries into the disaster, had it not been for Lightoller’s cool and composed leadership it could have been many more.

After Titanic, Lightoller returned to the seas aboard the Oceanic. These were the war years, however, and rather than serving aboard a passenger liner Lightoller was put to work on a seaplane carrier, the Campania. In late 1915, Lightoller was given command of the torpedo boat HMTB 17, and for attacking the German Zeppelin L31 Lightoller was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He went on to command another successful warship, the destroyer Garry, which rammed and sank a German U-Boat in July 1918. At the conclusion of the war, he returned to White Star a decorated man. But after more than 20 years of service, he retired and opened a guesthouse.

The Incredible Story of Charles Lightoller: the “Titanic” Officer who Saved Soldiers from the Shores of Dunkirk
Charles Lightoller (right) with his eldest son Fredrick “Roger” Lightoller. St Margaret’s Community Website

As storm clouds gathered over Europe, the elderly seamen was called upon once again. In July 1939 the Royal Navy asked him and his wife to perform a reconnaissance of the German coastline. This they did under the disguise of an elderly couple on vacation, returning to England in time for the war’s outbreak. Lightoller spent the first year of the war tending to his chickens on their farm in Hertfordshire. But as the extent of the British Expeditionary Force’s peril over in France became ever clearer, he rose from retirement to serve one last time.

Shortly after the launch of Operation Dynamo in May 1940, in which the British government resolved to rescue as many of the 400,000 allied troops trapped on the beach of Dunkirk on the French-Belgium border as possible, Lightoller received a phone call. It was the Admiralty. They wanted to requisition his Sundowner, a 58-foot steamer he had bought in 1929, and sail it across the channel to ferry troops back to England. Lightoller agreed to give them his vessel. But he was damned if anyone other than him was going to sail it.

And so on June 1, 1940, the sixty-six-year-old Charles Lightoller set off across the channel with his eldest son Roger and eighteen-year-old Sea Scout Gerald Ashcroft. His steamer, a vessel built for 21 passengers, managed to pick up 130 stragglers from the motor cruiser Westerly and the sinking destroyer, HMS Worcester. He achieved a feat so staggering that it elicited the stunned remark of a petty officer back in Ramsgate, “My god, mate! Where did you put ‘em all!”

The Incredible Story of Charles Lightoller: the “Titanic” Officer who Saved Soldiers from the Shores of Dunkirk
Lightoller was the inspiration for the character of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 movie. New Times San Luis Obispo.

The 12-hour round trip wasn’t all plain sailing. As with all the other British vessels, Lightoller’s was the subject of considerable attention from German aircraft. But the seasoned sailor’s expert captaincy, combined with the supporting fire of the Worcester Anti-Aircraft Gunners, ensured that he, his passengers, and his crew all made it back in one piece. By some small stroke of fortune, among the survivors to be rescued 48 hours before was his second son, Second Lieutenant R. T. Lightoller. Roger and his youngest son Herbert would however count among the final casualty list of the most destructive conflict in human history.

There’s little doubt Lightoller experienced the same fear aboard the Sundowner as he did aboard the Titanic 28 years earlier. But fear was something Charles Lightoller had learned to deal with. After all, as he was to reflect later in life: “I do not pretend that any man can go down on a ship at midnight, in mid-Atlantic, and succeed in eliminating fear, without hard work. It was hard work.” Charles Lightoller passed away on December 8, 1952, aged 72. His ashes were scattered in Mortlake Crematorium in Richmond, Surrey. But his legacy lives on: manifesting itself most recently through the character Mr. Dawson in Christopher Nolan’s epic “Dunkirk” (2017).