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Charles Lightloller

The officer who survived Titanic and saved lives at Dunkirk

To have witnessed one of these defining moments of the 20th-century first hand would be significant enough, to have witnessed both would be unthinkable.

Image: Charles Lightloller | Public Domain

Early in the morning on 15 April 1912, the unthinkable happened – R.M.S. Titanic, the largest and most luxurious liner that had ever sailed the Seven Seas found itself at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean. The British liner was said to be unsinkable, one employee even boasted at its launch that ‘not even God himself could sink this ship.’ In the end, it was an iceberg that dealt the fatal blow to the ‘The Queen of the Ocean’ during its maiden voyage. Of the 2,224 souls on-board, over 1,500 would perish.

On 4 June 1940, the unthinkable happened again - 338,000 B.E.F. and Allied soldiers were successfully rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo. Tragedy had been turned into triumph and Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the evacuation as a ‘miracle’.

To have witnessed one of these defining moments of the 20th-century first hand would be significant enough, to have witnessed both would be unthinkable, yet the unthinkable did happen during the eventful and often unbelievable life of Charles Herbert Lightoller.

Born in Lancashire in 1874, Lightoller had already experienced a lifetime’s worth of events by the time he took the position of Second Officer on board the Titanic in 1912. Not wanting to end up in a factory job, at age 13 Lightoller took a four-year seafaring apprenticeship instead. A short while later he found himself stuck in Rio de Janeiro whilst the boat he was on was undergoing repairs after it had sustained damage during a storm in the South Atlantic. At the time Rio was in the midst of two dangerous occurrences – a revolution and a smallpox outbreak.

It was a case of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire once Lightoller’s ship left Rio as the now repaired vessel found itself run aground and shipwrecked on a small unhabituated island in the Indian Ocean called Île Saint-Paul. After fending for themselves for eight days, Lightoller and the rest of the crew were eventually rescued by sheer chance after a small sailing boat passed close by the island.

Lightoller’s next voyage saw him sail to Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, India, where he survived a cyclone, a fire at sea and managed to keep all his fingers after a number of them became trapped inside the mouth of a captured shark. He then began a career on steamships and after three years of service on the West African coast, he almost died from a bad bout of Malaria. Writing in his book Titanic and Other Ships, Lightoller said of the event, ‘…my temperature soared to 106.2°. Down the coast, 105° is usually fatal, and on this day in particular, one of the crew passed out at 105°.’

After surviving the deadly disease he decided to put Africa and the sea behind him, setting off on an entirely new career path as a gold prospector. In 1898, he travelled to the Yukon in Canada to prospect for gold in the Klondike Gold Rush. The gold for Lightoller, however, would remain elusive and instead he became a cowboy in Alberta, Canada. A short while later he wished to return to England and so worked his way back as a cattle wrangler on board a cattle boat.

'I certainly did not make a fortune; in fact, not only made nothing but lost all I had. But I had a grand time.’

A year after he’d gone in search of gold Lightoller found himself back in England without a penny to his name. He didn’t regret his decision to go gold digging, writing in his book, ‘I have never regretted the decision that took me out to the Canadian North-West, nor one single experience with which the days were filled. I certainly did not make a fortune; in fact, not only made nothing but lost all I had. But I had a grand time.’

In 1900, he began his career with White Star Liner, the shipping company that operated and owned the Titanic. Twelve years later, Lightoller became the ill-fated liners Second Officer. On the night of 14 April 1912, Lightoller had returned to his cabin after handing over the bridge watch to First Officer Murdoch. Just before midnight he felt a small vibration and realised the ship had hit something. About ten minutes later he was informed that ‘water was up to the F deck in the Mail Room.’ He jumped into action.

Lightoller soon found himself in charge of lowering the lifeboats on the port side of the ship. Strictly interpreting Captain Smith’s order for the evacuation of women and children, Lightoller allowed just one man to board a port side lifeboat during the entire evacuation. That man was Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Peuchen, who was allowed to board a lifeboat to help command it in the absence of available Titanic crewmembers. This strict enforcement of the orders meant that some of the lifeboats launched by Lightoller were not filled to capacity.

In one instance he discovered that a number of men had occupied a lifeboat, he jumped aboard it and threatened them with the revolver he was carrying. Although this was a bluff, as the gun was not loaded, the men vacated the lifeboat and in this instance, Lightoller was able to fill it to capacity with women and children.

After the last of the lifeboats had been launched, Lightoller looked to get two collapsible canvas sided boats into the water. After the Chief Mate suggested he go with one of these boats, Lightoller turned to him and said, ‘Not damn likely.’

As the first collapsible was being lowered, two men jumped into it from the lower decks. Writing in his book Lightoller said, ‘This, as far as I know was the only instance of men getting away in boats from the port side. I don’t blame them, the boat wasn’t full, for the simple reason that we couldn’t find sufficient women, and there was no time to wait—the water was then actually lapping round their feet on “A” deck, so they jumped for it and got away. Good luck to them.’

Lightoller then rushed to the starboard side to assist there but discovered that all boats had been launched. At that moment the Titanic took a bit plunge forward and realising that nothing more could be done, he dove into the ocean and attempted to swim away from the sinking vessel. The force of the suction created by the sinking ship meant that he soon found himself being dragged underwater and pinned against the grating on a ventilation shaft. In his own words, this is what next. ‘The pressure of the water just glued me there whilst the ship sank slowly below the surface. Although I struggled and kicked for all I was worth, it was impossible to get away, for as fast as I pushed myself off I was irresistibly dragged back. I was drowning, and a matter of another couple of minutes would have seen me through….when suddenly a terrific blast of hot air came up the shaft, and blew me right away from the airshaft and up to the surface.’

That blast came from a boiler explosion from deep within the ship and when Lightoller surfaced he found himself next to one of the collapsible boats he’d just launched, although it was no longer the right way up. He grabbed hold of a rope dangling off the boat and just as he did one of the Titanic’s enormous funnels broke free, crashing into the water just inches from Lightoller’s position. The wave caused by the funnel pushed the collapsible some 50 yards away from the sinking liner. Lightoller scrambled on top of the collapsible and watched as ‘The Ship of Dreams’ sank into the depths below.

Thirty souls stood on top of that upturned collapsible until daybreak; Lightoller constantly instructing everyone to shift their weight to ensure the vessel didn’t get swamped. If it wasn’t for his instructions it’s likely all those on top of the collapsible would have perished that night. In the end, all but three would eventually transfer into other lifeboats. The one that Lightoller found himself on was dangerously overloaded and was minutes away from sinking before the people on board were hoisted onto the Carpathia, a passenger steamship that had responded to the distress calls of the Titanic.

Amongst the 705 survivors rescued from the ocean, Lightoller was the most senior officer and so played a key role in both the subsequent American and British inquiries. Many of his suggestions for avoiding such a disaster in the future would later become common practice.

For many, this disaster would have been enough to ensure their feet remained on solid ground for the rest of their lives. Not for Lightoller though, who returned to the ocean within the year and soon found himself as a Lieutenant of the Royal Navy as Britain entered the First World War. The next few years were anything but quiet.

In 1914, the boat he served on, R.M.S. Oceanic ran aground and sank, Lightoller once again found himself managing the lowering of lifeboats. In 1915, he found himself on a seaplane carrier and flew on reconnaissance missions trying to locate enemy fleets. Later that year he was finally given his own command, taking charge of the torpedo boat HMTB 117. In 1916, the 117 attacked a German Zeppelin and for his actions, Lightoller was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and appointed the commander of H.M.S. Falcon, a torpedo boat destroyer.

Two years later the Falcon was sunk after accidently colliding with a trawler in heavy fog, Lightoller was off duty at the time of the collision. He was then given the command of the destroyer H.M.S. Garry and in June 1918 Lightoller and his crew successfully depth-charged rammed and sunk a German U-boat off the coast of Yorkshire. The resulting damage to the bows of the Garry meant that it had to go in reverse for some 100 miles until it could dock for repairs. For his actions, Lightoller was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander.

The commander of the German U-boat would later claim in his memoirs that Lightoller had ordered his men to shoot the unarmed survivors of the U-boat as they came to the surface. In his own memoir, Lightoller made no mention of this event, instead saying that he left the rescue to his men and that 15 Germans were pulled from the wreckage. Without evidence to support the accusation, no charge was ever brought against Lightoller.

As the war came to an end, so did Lightoller’s time with White Star Liner after they passed him up for command of his own ship, the company wanting to forget the Titanic and all those associated with her. Instead, Lightoller and his wife set up a guesthouse and went into semi-retirement. In 1929, they purchased and did up a private 58ft motor yacht. They called it the Sundowner and it was because of this boat that Lightoller found himself taking part in another historical maritime event.

On 31 May 1940, 66-year-old Lightoller received a call from the Admiralty requesting that he sail the Sundowner to Ramsgate so that a Navy crew could use it as one of the ‘Little Ships of Dunkirk’ and sail to France to rescue the stranded B.E.F. and Allied forces. Lightoller agreed but on the condition that he would sail it with his son, Roger.

On 1 June, Lightoller, his son Roger and another young sailor set off for the beaches of Dunkirk. Twelve hours later the Sundowner, which had never carried more than 21 people before, returned to Ramsgate filled with 130 men crammed in. The motor yacht had picked up men from the destroyer H.M.S. Worcester as well as from other smaller stranded boats. Along the way, they’d taken fire from Luftwaffe fighters with Lightoller having to use evasive manoeuvres on countless occasions to avoid being hit. Not a single life was lost on board the Sundowner that day and Lightoller’s actions became the inspiration for Mark Rylance’s character in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 WWII epic Dunkirk.

After the war Lightoller ran a small boatyard in London, building boats for the river police. On 8 December 1952, at the age of 78, Lightoller passed away of chronic heart disease as London battled with the Great Smog of 1952. It seems that significant historical events were constantly intertwined with the eventful life of Charles Herbert Lightoller.