The Remarkable Story of Commander Charles Lightoller DSC & Bar RNR

The Remarkable Story of Commander Charles Lightoller DSC & Bar RNR

28 Feb 23
Posted by: DAN CONLEY
Message from the Editor

By the Editor – Charles Lightoller’s story demonstrates the difference an individual can make during a crisis, given courage, versatility, commitment to duty – and a peculiar degree of luck. A 15 minute read.

Few know much about the life of Charles Lightoller. However, many will have seen his character portrayed in a number of major feature films. In this article I will briefly describe his remarkable career at sea from apprentice in a clipper in the 1880s to the rescue of soldiers from Dunkirk in June 1940. Much of the content below has been extracted from his autobiography, Titanic And Other Ships, produced in 1935, and a later biography – A Titanic Odyssey.

Early Life at Sea

Charles Lightoller was born in 1874 in Chorley, Lancashire. Tragedy struck very early in his life when his mother died of scarlet fever, as did two of his siblings. He was effectively orphaned at the age of ten when his father left home and, for a while, he lived with an uncle. At the age of 13 he had two options: go to work in the mills or go to sea. He chose the latter and joined as an apprentice in sailing ships. Charles’ first ship was the barque, Primrose Hill, and the young lad found himself confronting the hazards of working sails almost 200 ft up, in all weather conditions.

Lightoller’s second ship was another barque, Holt Hill. She was run very hard by her master and, when watch-on-deck, Lightoller was nearly killed by falling spars. During a storm in November 1889, Holt Hill ran aground on the uninhabited island of St Paul, situated in the middle of the southern Indian Ocean on the Trade-Wind routes. It was most fortunate that the barque grounded onto the one beach on the steep western side of the island and there was only one fatality, the mate who drowned in attempting to get ashore. The surviving crew had the good fortune to be rescued by a passing sailing vessel after eight days of being marooned.

His third sailing vessel, a four-masted barque, Knight of St Michael, carrying a cargo of coal, caught fire at sea off the coast South America and could easily have been totally destroyed. Lightoller was prominent in the successful fire-fighting effort and, in recognition, was promoted to Second Mate at the age of 19. In 1895, he changed his career to steamships and in due course worked for a company operating on the South West African run. But he continued to confront hazards: he survived a severe bout of malaria and very nearly drowned when the ship’s boat he was on capsized when embarking cargo in heavy surf. Several of his fellow crew perished.

In 1898, allured by the possibility of making a fortune, he left the sea and with several colleagues joined the Klondike Gold Rush in the Canadian Yukon. Lightoller and his compatriots survived the hazards of the harsh Arctic climate and the perils of crossing the Athabaskan River, where Lightoller’s good horsemanship saved the life of one of his group. However, like most prospectors, he was unsuccessful and, after a spell as a ranch-hand in Alberta, he worked his way back to the UK as a wrangler aboard a ship carrying cattle.

Serving in the White Star Line

In 1900 Lightoller joined the White Star Line and in due course was appointed First Officer of the liner Oceanic, under the command of Captain John Smith. In March 1912 he joined Titanic at Harland and Wolf’s shipyard in Belfast, serving as Smith’s Second Officer.

On 14 April 1912, on its maiden passage across the Atlantic at a speed of 22 knots Titanic, on a clear moonless night, struck an iceberg. Avoiding action had been urgently initiated when the iceberg was sighted, and the ship was turned hard to port but too late to prevent the iceberg from ripping open six compartments on the ship’s starboard side. With so many compartments open to the sea, Titanic was destined to sink less than three hours after impact. Lightoller was off-watch and had turned in when the collision occurred.

He soon however took charge of lowering the lifeboats on the port side. In the film Night to Remember he is portrayed as very much the hero by Kenneth More. But in James Cameron’s Titanic his character is played as losing self-control in the final stages of the sinking. This version, of course, was anything but the truth.

Many of the earlier lifeboats launched were far from being full, but the total lifeboat capacity of about 1,200 was well short of the ship’s 2,200 crew and passengers. As it was, with a limited complement of 40 deck crew, not all the lifeboats could be launched in the time available.

As the ship went under, Lightoller was, with others, attempting to launch a collapsible lifeboat situated behind the bridge. But as the sea poured onto the deck, he was sucked down under the surface and pressed hard against the grill of a boiler-room ventilation shaft. Fortunately for him, the boiler exploded as sea-water poured into it and he was blown back to the surface. Shortly afterwards the forward funnel collapsed, nearly hitting him, but in the process pushing him clear towards an upturned collapsible lifeboat. Lightoller managed to get onboard the inverted lifeboat with 20 or more others, before being rescued four hours later by the Cunard liner Carpathia. However, most on the lifeboat were to die of hypothermia before Carpathia could reach them.

Over 1,500 persons perished and only 711 survived. Lightoller, as senior survivor of the ship’s officers, attended the subsequent British and American boards of inquiry. These produced their findings and recommendations within three months. The two key recommendations to be implemented were:

  • All ships should carry adequate numbers of lifeboats for both crew and passengers.
  • Ocean-going vessels should maintain 24 hour listening on the international radio distress frequency.

Also, as a consequence of the disaster, iceberg patrol and reporting systems were established in 1914. In the same year the first Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) convention was held.

Early Service in the Royal Naval Reserve

In August 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, Lightoller was back at sea as Chief Officer of the White Star’s Oceanic. The liner had been requisitioned by the Admiralty as an armed merchant cruiser and he remained onboard with the rank of Lieutenant Royal Navy Reserve (RNR). Meanwhile, a Royal Navy captain joined the vessel, nominally in command, but the White Star master remained in post to run the ship. This arrangement naturally caused confusion and blurred the command structure.

In October 1914, in poor visibility conditions, Oceanic ran aground on rocks off the island of Foula to the west of the Shetland Islands and was totally wrecked. On this occasion it happened that benign weather conditions enabled all the crew to be rescued without any casualties. Poor navigation was the main cause of the loss but discord between the two captains about what actions to take when land was unexpectedly sighted was also a contributing factor.

Lightoller was then posted to Brixham to skipper a sailing fishing smack on a counter-espionage mission amongst the fishing fleet: It was thought that within the latter there could be individual vessels reporting naval movements to the enemy. This role did not last long before he was appointed to command a squadron of armed trawlers, which had the task of seeking out and destroying German U-boats operating in the Channel. After the battleship HMS Formidable was torpedoed off Start Point on January 1st 1915, with a very heavy loss of life, this tasking was accorded even greater importance.

Lightoller’s trawler command again did not last long, however, and in the Spring of 1915 he was posted to the Grand Fleet’s seaplane carrier HMS Campania as a watch-keeper. Campania was an old coal-burning Cunard liner, fitted with a take-off ramp forward of the bridge, but its maximum speed was only 18 knots.

Lightoller soon found himself in unfamiliar territory, in the rear seat of a Short 184 seaplane acting as observer. It had quickly been demonstrated that Campania’s ramp was too short and consequently many pilots on take-off, instead of going skywards, found themselves plunging into the sea. Therefore, the take-off ramp was abandoned and instead the aircraft were derricked into the sea. This arrangement often caused damage to the fragile aircraft, particularly to their floats, which made them likely to break away on take-off. Therefore, on more than one occasion, Lightoller once again found himself swimming for his life.

Lightoller’s moment of glory was almost realised in June 1915 when Campania took part in a major Grand Fleet exercise. The carrier had the role of locating and reporting the position of the ‘Red Fleet’. Alas, out of 12 aircraft embarked, only one managed to get into the air but it happened to be Lightoller’s. Once airborne, in due course, he spotted the ‘enemy’ force. Excitedly he unwound the wireless aerial and started transmitting the sighting to the Fleet Commander on his primitive wireless set. His elation was dampened however on his return to Campania, when he learned that his wireless signals had not been received.

As Campania’s take-off ramp was clearly too short, in August 1915 the carrier departed Scapa Flow and headed to Liverpool to be fitted with a longer one. Lightoller was left ashore and tasked to train prospective observers, a role he did not relish. Therefore, he was delighted four months later to be appointed as Commanding Officer of HM Torpedo Boat 117 as part of the Nore Defence Force based in the Medway.

Torpedo-Boat Command

Lightoller was very pleased to leave Scapa Flow but, in the absence of action against the enemy, he found routine patrolling in the Thames Estuary rather tedious. The tedium was broken by HMTB 117 taking part in trials of the ‘tethered goat’ scheme. This involved a coastal submarine (B- or C-class) being towed submerged astern of a trawler, with communications between the two vessels maintained by telephone line. The ploy was that the trawler would act as a lure for a U-boat. If the latter took the bait, and surfaced to sink the trawler by gunfire, the tow would be slipped thus allowing the supporting RN submarine the freedom it needed to conduct a torpedo counter-attack. The scheme had some successes in 1915, with two U-boat sinkings, but unsurprisingly it was hazardous for the towed submarine. Lightoller was tasked with trying to perfect the towing arrangement but, after several weeks of unsuccessful trials, the concept was abandoned.

He had his moment of action when one night on patrol in the Thames, his gunfire damaged Zeppelin L31 which had been on its way to bomb London. Due to the damage received, the Zeppelin commander (the distinguished Heinrich Mathy) aborted the raid, and jettisoned his bomb load. L31 was later shot down over Potters Bar, London, in October 1916. In recognition of his success in repelling the raid, Lightoller was awarded the DSC.

Destroyer Command 

Early in 1917 Lightoller was appointed CO of the 400-ton destroyer HMS Falcon. It was deployed on the Dover Patrol, escorting convoys of merchant ships through the Channel into the North Sea. At night, in the pre-radar era, manoeuvring around darkened merchant ships was a hazardous task, and collisions occurred regularly.

In April 1918, whilst at night escorting a convoy in the North Sea, the armed trawler John Fitzgerald collided with Falcon and virtually cut the latter in half. As in the case of Titanic, Lightoller had only just turned in. Having ensured the crew had been safely transferred to the trawler, he and two officers remained on the aft-end of the destroyer in the forlorn hope it might stay afloat long enough to be towed back to harbour.

The hull remained afloat for about two hours, and whilst awaiting the tow, Lightoller and his two colleagues kept warm around a coal stove in his cabin, drinking tea and listening to music from a wind-up gramophone. However, with the gramophone still playing, Falcon suddenly lurched and sank stern first. The three officers had to rapidly jump into the sea, praying that the depth charges had been properly set to ‘safe’. It was to be 30 minutes later when they were actually picked up. Lightoller afterwards recounted that it was the second time a ship sank under him to the sound of background music, recalling Wallace Hartley and his band playing on the deck of Titanic as it sank.

An unexpected outcome of the collision was the loss of most of Lightoller’s family furniture, including the gramophone. He was transporting this on the Falcon to his new family quarters in Humberside. Two weeks later he was given command of the 600-ton destroyer HMS Garry, now with the rank of Commander, and responsible for a North Sea convoy command. In May 1918 he almost certainly sank a U-boat off the Firth of Forth, but it was not accredited as a confirmed kill.

HMS Garry

A month later, off the Yorkshire coast, he definitely sank a U-boat – UB111. This was a confirmed sinking as Garry had rammed it causing it to sink. For this action Lightoller was awarded Bar to his DSC. The rescued U-boat captain later accused the naval forces present of shooting some of his surviving crew in the water. Whether true or not, by 1918 emotions were running high with respect to the large numbers of merchant seamen killed in the North Sea by U-boat attacks.

In 1919, after the end of the war, Lightoller went back to the White Star Company as Chief Officer of the Celtic. Due to the stigma of being associated with the Titanic sinking, he perceived little prospect for further promotion. Therefore in 1922, at the age of 48, he hung up his sea-boots and settled down to shore life, pursuing various business interests with varying degrees of success.

Service in the Motor Yacht Sundowner

For recreation, in 1929 Lightoller bought the 55 ft motor yacht Sundowner for £40 – about £3,000 in today’s money – but the boat was very much in a derelict state. A year later it was re-launched in prime condition, thoroughly refitted and with a new engine. Although only capable of 10 knots, the yacht proved highly responsive to the rudder.

In July 1939, at the Admiralty’s request, Lightoller took Sundowner, with his wife Sylvia, to the German coast to secretly chart the waters and naval installations situated around the Frisian Islands. To avoid alerting the Germans about what he was up to, where possible, he did his work below decks, making sketches and taking photographs through portholes. Sylvia meanwhile remained on deck knitting or doing domestic chores.

On one occasion, with as usual only Sylvia on deck, Sundowner was approached by a suspicious German patrol boat. Its commander demanded to see the ‘Kapitan’. Lightoller, after a brief interlude, staggered on deck clutching a gin bottle and faking being thoroughly drunk. The ruse worked and the patrol boat departed without further investigation. A few days later Sundowner returned to England with a large quantity of hydrographic and military installation data.

On 30 May 1940 the Admiralty requisitioned Sundowner to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation. The 66 year-old Lightoller nevertheless refused to give up the yacht, insisting that he personally take it across the Channel. In preparation, he and colleagues stripped out the interior of the boat of all excess fittings and two days later headed to Dunkirk with his son Roger and a friend. 

On the way across the Channel, Sundowner was bombed and strafed by a Junkers 87 dive bomber, but, due to Lightoller’s skilful manoeuvring, the only damage incurred was a few sprung hull planks. Before arriving at the Dunkirk beaches Lightoller briefly stopped to rescue two civilians and three ratings from a sinking motor-cruiser. He then berthed alongside the destroyer HMS Worcester, which was secured onto the harbour mole. He quickly embarked over 120 soldiers, below and on deck, into the 55 ft of Sundowner. On getting onboard, one was heard to quip “Just our luck the skipper was on the Titanic!” Another responded – “But he survived!”

Lightoller’s yacht, Sundowner

On the return passage Sundowner, leaking and heavily overloaded, was attacked and subject to several bombing runs by a Junkers 88 bomber. Stationed in the bow of Sundowner, to avoid the bombs, Lightoller directed course alterations to his son Roger at the wheel. As it lined up for a final approach, the Junkers 88 was attacked and downed by a nearby Spitfire, fortunately missing the motor yacht as it crashed into the sea close by. This scenario was played out in the Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk, where Lightoller’s character was played by Mark Rylance.

This event of valiantly rescuing 130 personnel from the beaches of Dunkirk, under almost constant fire, marked the final chapter in the sea-going career of a truly remarkable mariner. Lightoller, somewhat an unrecognised hero, clearly was highly courageous and extremely physically tough. Moreover, very adaptable, he was enthusiastic to accept or seek new challenges or to take part in the latest innovations. He died in 1952, a man who had enjoyed at least ‘nine lives’. Few could have experienced so many dangerous situations and survived such a wide range of near fatal misses.

Lightoller experienced two family tragedies in World War Two. His youngest son, Brian, was killed on the second day of the war when piloting a Bristol Blenheim on a disastrous RAF raid upon shipping in the port of Wilhelmshaven. Roger, who had bravely steered Sundowner in the Dunkirk rescue, as CO of a Motor Torpedo Boat, was killed in March 1945. As a footnote, one of his grandchildren, Captain Tim Lightoller, continued the family maritime heritage in joining the Royal Navy and taking up a career in submarines. His commands included the Porpoise-class diesel submarine HMS Rorqual and the newly commissioned SSN HMS Turbulent.