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

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

Alexander Meddings - February 1, 2018

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).

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