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Photo, c. 1920
Charles Herbert Lightoller
30 March 1874
|Died||8 December 1952 (aged 78)|
Richmond, London, England
|Spouse(s)||Iowa Sylvania Zillah "Sylvia" Hawley-Wilson (1885–1965)|
Charles Herbert Lightoller, DSC & Bar, RD, RNR (30 March 1874 – 8 December 1952) was the second officer on board the RMS Titanic and a decorated Royal Navy officer. He was the most senior member of the crew to survive the Titanic disaster.
As the officer in charge of loading passengers into lifeboats on the port side, Lightoller strictly enforced the "women and children first" protocol, not allowing any male passengers to board the lifeboats unless they were needed as auxiliary seamen. Lightoller stayed until the last, was sucked against a grate and held under water, but then was blown from the grate by a rush of warm air as a boiler exploded. He found refuge on an upturned collapsible boat with 30 others, showing his fellow survivors how to shift their weight to avoid being swamped, until their rescue at dawn.
Lightoller served as a commanding officer of the Royal Navy during World War I and was twice decorated for gallantry. First while in command of a motor torpedo boat he engaged German Zeppelin L31 during a night time raid on Southern England. Second whilst in command of destroyer HMS Garry protecting a merchant convoy, Lightoller's ship rammed and sank the German U-Boat UB-110. The captain of UB-110 later claimed that some of the German survivors were massacred by Lightoller's crew, an allegation never officially substantiated. In his 1935 memoir Titanic and Other Ships, Lightoller wrote of the incident that he "refused to accept the hands-up business", but did not go into further detail on the matter.
Later, in retirement, he further distinguished himself in World War II, by providing and sailing as a volunteer on one of the "little ships" that played a part in the Dunkirk evacuation. Rather than allow his motoryacht to be requisitioned by the Admiralty, he sailed the vessel to Dunkirk personally and repatriated 127 British servicemen.
Charles Herbert Lightoller was born in Chorley, Lancashire, on 30 March 1874, into a family that had operated cotton-spinning mills in Lancashire since the late 18th century. His mother, Sarah Jane Lightoller (née Widdows), died of scarlet fever shortly after giving birth to him. His father, Frederick James Lightoller, emigrated to New Zealand when Charles was 10, leaving him in the care of extended family.
Early maritime career
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At age 13, not wanting to end up with a factory job like most of Britain's youth at the time, young Charles began a four-year seafaring apprenticeship on board the barque Primrose Hill. On his second voyage, he set sail with the crew of the Holt Hill, and during a storm in the South Atlantic, the ship was forced to put in at Rio de Janeiro. Repairs were made in the midst of a smallpox epidemic and a revolution. Another storm, on 13 November 1889 in the Indian Ocean, caused the ship to run aground on an uninhabited four-and-a-half-square-mile island now called Île Saint-Paul. They were rescued by the Coorong and taken to Adelaide, Australia. Lightoller joined the crew of the clipper ship Duke of Abercorn for his return to England.
Lightoller returned to the Primrose Hill for his third voyage. They arrived in Calcutta, India, where he passed his second mate's certificate. The cargo of coal caught fire while he was serving as third mate on board the windjammer Knight of St. Michael, and for his successful efforts in fighting the fire and saving the ship, Lightoller was promoted to second mate.
In 1895, at age 21 and a veteran of the dangers at sea, he obtained his mate's ticket and left sailing ships for steamships. After three years of service in Elder Dempster's African Royal Mail Service on the West African coast, he nearly died from a heavy bout of malaria.
Abandoning the sea, Lightoller went to the Yukon in 1898 to prospect for gold in the Klondike Gold Rush. Failing at this endeavour, he then became a cowboy in Alberta, Canada. In order to return home, he became a hobo, riding the rails back across Canada. He earned his passage back to England by working as a cattle wrangler on a cattle boat and arrived home penniless in 1899. He obtained his master's certificate and joined Greenshields, Cowie & Co, for whom he made another trip on a cattle boat, this time as third mate of the Knight Companion. In January 1900, he began his career with the White Star Line as fourth officer of the SS Medic.
Fort Denison incident
While on the Medic, on a voyage from Britain to South Africa and Australia, Lightoller was reprimanded for a prank he and some shipmates played on the citizens of Sydney at Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour. In 1900, the Boer War was raging in South Africa, where Australian troops were fighting alongside British in the first war in which the colonies had taken part. As a result, passions were high when the White Star Line's Medic sailed into Sydney Harbour and dropped anchor in Neutral Bay. Spending time ashore with shipmates, the young sailor was amazed by the depth of concern expressed by locals regarding the distant South African conflict, so he decided to have some fun at their expense.
Soon after midnight on Saturday 6 October 1900, Lightoller, accompanied by two shipmates, quietly rowed to the fortress and climbed its tower. They accessed the fort by means of the lightning conductor and hoisted a makeshift Boer flag on the tower.
They loaded a cannon with 14 lb (6.4 kg) of blasting powder and a similar amount of fine-grain powder and rammed in a harmless wad of white cotton waste. They lit a 50 ft (15 m) fuse, and while in retreat, their small rowboat became holed by rocks. The three managed to row to shore, run through Government House grounds, and reach Circular Quay by the time the cannon went off with "a huge flash", followed by "a crash like thunder" ... "just as the Post Office clock had struck the hour of 1 a.m."
Lightoller's plan was to fool the locals into believing a Boer raiding party was attacking Sydney and had captured Fort Denison. When the heavy gun went off, the resounding bang blew out windows and woke residents, who leapt from their beds to see what was happening. When a Boer flag was found fluttering in the dawn breeze there was panic.
The local press dismissed the episode as "a foolish and mad brained business", for which the culprits were never found. The only reported damage was the breakage of some windows at Fort Denison. Lightoller's only admission was to the line's Marine Superintendent, "Daddy" Hewitt in Liverpool, who laughed, tore up Lightoller's resignation, and told him to get back to his ship. He was transferred from the Australia route to the Atlantic; "in effect, I got slight promotion", Lightoller noted. His optimism notwithstanding, in 1903 he found himself in Sydney again, having been transferred to the SS Suevic — possibly as punishment for another indiscretion. During the voyage, he met Sylvia Hawley Wilson, a returning Australian whom he married in St James' Church, Sydney and took back to England on the return passage.
He later joined the SS Majestic under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith in the Atlantic. From there, he was promoted to third officer on the RMS Oceanic, the flagship of the White Star Line. He returned to the Majestic as first mate and then back to the Oceanic as its first mate.
Two weeks before the sinking, Lightoller boarded the RMS Titanic in Belfast, acting as first officer for the sea trials. Captain Smith gave the post of chief officer to Henry Wilde of the Olympic, demoting the original appointee William McMaster Murdoch to first officer and Lightoller to second officer. The original second officer, David Blair, was excluded from the voyage altogether, while the ship's roster of junior officers remained unchanged. Blair's departure from the crew caused a problem, as he had the key to the ship's binocular case. Because the crew lacked access to binoculars, Lightoller promised to purchase them when the Titanic got to New York City. Later, the missing key and resultant lack of binoculars for the lookouts in the crow's nest became a point of contention at the U.S. inquiry into the Titanic disaster.
On the night of 14 April 1912, Lightoller commanded the last bridge watch prior to the ship's collision with the iceberg, after which Murdoch relieved him. An hour before the collision Lightoller ordered the ships lookouts to continually watch for 'small ice' and 'particularly growlers' until daylight, he then ordered the Quartermaster Robert Hitchens to check ship's fresh water supply for freezing below the waterline. Lightoller had retired to his cabin and was preparing for bed when he felt the collision. Wearing only his pyjamas, Lightoller hurried out on deck to investigate, but seeing nothing retired back to his cabin. Deciding it would be better to remain where other officers knew where to find him if needed, he lay awake in his bunk until fourth officer Joseph Boxhall summoned him to the bridge. He pulled on trousers and a navy-blue sweater over his pyjamas and donned (along with socks and shoes) his officer's overcoat and cap.
During the evacuation, Lightoller took charge of lowering the lifeboats on the port side of the boat deck. He helped to fill several lifeboats with passengers and launched them. Lightoller interpreted Smith's order for "the evacuation of women and children" as essentially "women and children only". As a result, Lightoller lowered lifeboats with empty seats if there were no women and children waiting to board, meaning to fill them to capacity once they had reached the water. Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Godfrey Peuchen has the distinction of being the only adult male passenger Lightoller allowed into the boats on the port side evacuation, due to his previous nautical experience and offer of assistance when there were no seamen available from the Titanic's own compliment to help command one of the lowering lifeboats. There were fears from some of the officers that the davits used for lowering the boats would not hold the weight if the boats were full, but they were unaware that the new davits on the Titanic had been designed to do so. Under this misapprehension, Lightoller's plan was to fill the lifeboats from the waterline and sent 10 men to open the gangway doors in the ship's port so that passengers would have access. The men failed in this task and were never seen again (presumed drowned carrying out this final order). The under-capacity boats then pulled away from the ship as soon as they hit the water, rendering the plan a failure. At least one boat is confirmed as wilfully ignoring officers' shouted orders to return.
When he attempted to launch Lifeboat 2, he found it was occupied already by 25 male passengers and crewmen. He ordered them out of the boat and threatened them with his unloaded revolver, allegedly saying: "Get out of there, you damned cowards! I'd like to see every one of you overboard!" He then passed the duty of loading of Lifeboat 2 over to Fourth Officer Boxhall. While initial accounts varied, it is now believed there were only 17 people aboard, out of a capacity of 40.
As the ship began its final plunge, the water came up onto the boat deck and washed over the bridge. Lightoller attempted to launch Collapsible B on the port side. This collapsible boat was one of the smaller Englehardt lifeboats with canvas sides and was stowed atop the officers' quarters. The collapsible floated off the deck upside down. Lightoller then crossed over to the starboard side of the roof, "to see if there was anything further to be done there". As the ship sank, seawater washed over the entire bow, producing a large wave that rolled aft along the boat deck. Seeing crowds of people run away from the rising water, Lightoller decided that he could do no more and dived into the water from the roof of the officers' quarters.
Surfacing, Lightoller spotted the ship's crow's nest, now level with the water, and started to swim towards it as a place of safety before remembering that it was safer to stay away from the foundering vessel. Then, as water flooded down one of the forward ventilators, Lightoller was sucked under. He was pinned against the grating for some time by the pressure of the incoming water, until a blast of hot air from the depths of the ship erupted out of the ventilator and blew him to the surface. The suction pulled him down again against another grating. He did not know how he got away, but he resurfaced. He realized he couldn't swim properly because of the weight of the Webley revolver he was carrying in his coat pocket, so he swiftly discarded it. Following this, he saw Collapsible B floating upside down with several swimmers hanging on to it. He swam to it and held on to a rope at the front. Then the Titanic's Number 1 (forward) funnel broke free and hit the water, washing the collapsible further away from the sinking ship.
Lightoller climbed on the boat and took charge, calming and organising the survivors (numbering around 30) on the overturned lifeboat. He led them in yelling in unison "Boat ahoy!", but with no success. During the night a swell arose, and Lightoller taught the men to shift their weight with the swells to prevent the craft from being swamped. If not for this, they likely would have been thrown into the freezing water again. At his direction, the men kept this up for hours until they were finally rescued by another lifeboat. Lightoller was the last survivor taken on board the RMS Carpathia.
Recommendations at inquiries
As the senior surviving officer, Lightoller was a key witness at both the American and British inquiries. In his autobiography he described the American inquiry as a "farce", due to the ignorance of maritime matters implicit in some of the questions. He took the British inquiry more seriously and wrote "it was very necessary to keep one's hand on the whitewash brush" as he "had no desire that blame should be attributed either to the B.O.T. (British Board of Trade) or the White Star Line", despite his belief that "one had known, full well, and for many years, the ever-present possibility of just such a disaster".
Lightoller blamed the accident on the seas' being the calmest that night that he had ever seen in his life and on the floating icebergs giving no tell-tale early-warning signs of breaking white water at their bases. He deftly defended his employer, the White Star Line, despite hints of excessive speed, a lack of binoculars in the crow's nest, and the plain recklessness of travelling through an ice field on a calm night when all other ships in the vicinity thought it wiser to heave to until morning. Later, however, in a recounting he gave of the night's events on a 1936 BBC I Was There programme, he reversed his defences. Lightoller was also able to help channel public outcry over the incident into positive change, as many of his recommendations for avoiding such accidents in the future were adopted by maritime nations. Basing lifeboat capacity on numbers of passengers and crew instead of ship tonnage, conducting lifeboat drills so passengers know where their lifeboats are and crew know how to operate them, instituting manned 24-hour wireless (radio) communications in all passenger ships, and requiring mandatory transmissions of ice warnings to ships were some of his recommendations made at the inquiries and acted on by the Board of Trade, its successor agencies, and their equivalents in other maritime nations.
First World War
Lightoller returned to duty with White Star Line, serving as a mate on RMS Oceanic. He received a promotion from Sub-Lieutenant to Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve in May 1913. At the outbreak of the First World War, as an officer in the RNR, he was called up for duty with the Royal Navy, first serving as a lieutenant on Oceanic, which had been converted to an armed merchant cruiser (HMS Oceanic). He served on this ship until it ran aground and was wrecked on the notorious Shaalds of Foula on 8 September 1914.
In 1915, he served as the first officer during the trials of another former passenger liner, RMS Campania, which had just been converted into an aircraft carrier. In late 1915, he was given his own command, the torpedo boat HMTB 117. Whilst captain of HMTB 117 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for engaging Zeppelin L31 in a prolonged night battle. With the assistance of a lightship, Lightoller and his crew laid an ambush at the mouth of the Thames Estuary, waiting until L31 was directly above the HMTB. Lightoller opened fire on the "Zepp" with tracer rounds eventually hitting its tail and forcing the airship's withdrawal. This action resulted in his being appointed captain of HMS Falcon, a C-class torpedo boat destroyer and for the next two years Lightoller served with the Falcon on the "Dover patrol", protecting the Dover straits and engaging German destroyers conducting night time raids. Lightoller wrote that whilst in command of the Falcon, he kept the ship in a constant state of readiness, the ship’s guns were loaded and cleared for action at all times. He expected his men to think and act for themselves in times of an emergency. Falcon was sunk on 1 April 1918 after a collision, in fog, with the trawler, John Fitzgerald, while both ships were acting as escorts to a convoy in the North Sea. Lightoller was quickly exonerated in a court martial for the loss of the ship, and he was commended for remaining on board the ship along with his first officer until the majority of the crew had been evacuated to the boats (apart from three officers who were left trapped in the stern and had to be rescued by a trawler). Lightoller was subsequently given command of the River-class destroyer HMS Garry.
Sinking of UB-110
On 19 June 1918, the German U-Boat UB-110, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Werner Fürbringer, was depth charged, rammed and sunk off the Yorkshire coast by Lieutenant Commander Lightoller and the crew of HMS Garry.
In his 1933 memoirs, Kapitänleutnant Fürbringer accused Lightoller of heaving to (stopping) and ordering his crew to open fire on the unarmed survivors of UB-110 with revolvers and machine guns. During the alleged ensuing engagement, Fürbringer claimed he had seen the skull of an 18-year old member of his crew being split open by a lump of coal hurled by a Royal Navy sailor. When Fürbringer attempted to help a wounded officer to swim, he was told, "Let me die in peace. The swine are going to murder us anyhow." The shooting only ceased when the convoy the Garry had been escorting, which contained many neutral-flagged ships, arrived on the scene. Fürbringer later recalled, "As if by magic the British now let down some life boats into the water."
Geoffrey Brooks, who translated Kapitänleutnant Fürbringer's memoirs into English, later commented, "Regarding the alleged atrocity committed against survivors of UB-110, the normal procedure would have been to report the matter to the German military legal authorities at the earliest opportunity. Depositions would then have been taken from all available witnesses. One can imagine how far it would have proceeded subsequently. It is not, and never has been, the practice of the British military authorities to try British service personnel for alleged war crimes committed against enemy belligerents in wartime no matter how strong the evidence."
Lightoller does not go into detail of the incident in his memoir, but he does confirm that he 'refused to accept the hands up air' business. "In fact it was simply amazing that they should have had the infernal audacity to offer to surrender, in view of their ferocious and pitiless attacks on our merchant ships. Destroyer versus Destroyer, as in the Dover Patrol, was fair game and no favour. One could meet them and take them on as a decent antagonist. But towards the submarine men, one felt an utter disgust and loathing; they were nothing but an abomination, polluting the clean sea."
Lieutenant Commander Lightoller was awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Service Cross for sinking SM UB-110. At the time of the engagement, UB-110 had two confirmed hits on British ships, and a total kill-count of 30 civilian seamen.
Subsequent wartime service
On 10 June 1918, Lightoller was awarded the Reserve Decoration He was promoted to acting Lieutenant-Commander in July and was placed on the retired list on 31 March 1919, with the rank of Commander.
After the war, despite his loyal service to White Star Line and having faithfully defended his employers at Titanic inquiries, Lightoller soon found opportunities for advancement within the line were no longer available. All surviving crewmembers would find that being associated with Titanic was a black mark from which they could not hope to escape. A disillusioned Lightoller resigned shortly thereafter, taking such odd jobs as an innkeeper, a chicken farmer, and later property speculator, at which he and his wife had some success.
During the early 1930s, he wrote his autobiography, Titanic and Other Ships, which he dedicated to his "persistent wife, who made me do it".
This book eventually became quite popular and began to sell well. However, it was withdrawn when the Marconi Company threatened a lawsuit, owing to a comment by Lightoller regarding the Titanic disaster and the role of the Marconi operators.
Second World War
The retired Lightoller did not turn his back on sailing altogether, as he eventually purchased a private motor yacht, Sundowner in 1929. In 1940, he, together with his son Roger and a young Sea Scout named Gerald Ashcroft, crossed the English Channel in Sundowner to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation. In a boat licensed to carry 21 passengers, Lightoller and his crew brought back 127 servicemen.[note 1] On the return journey, Lightoller evaded gunfire from enemy aircraft, using a technique described to him by his youngest son, Herbert, who had joined the RAF and been killed earlier in the war. Gerald Ashcroft later recalled "We attracted the attention of a Stuka dive bomber. Commander Lightoller stood up in the bow and I stood alongside the wheelhouse. Commander Lightoller kept his eye on the Stuka till the last second – then he sang out to me "Hard a port!" and I sang out to Roger and we turned very sharply. The bomb landed on our starboard side." 
At the time of the evacuation Lightoller's second son Richard Trevor was a serving Second Lieutenant with Bernard Montgomery's 3rd Division which had retreated towards Dunkirk. Unknown to Lightoller senior, Richard had already been evacuated 48 hours before Sundowner reached Dunkirk.
For his actions during the evacuation, Charles Lightoller received a mention in despatches in 1944. His actions inspired the character of "Mr. Dawson" in Christopher Nolan's 2017 film, Dunkirk, portrayed by Academy Award Winner Mark Rylance. Sundowner is now preserved by Ramsgate Maritime Museum.
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Lightoller's parents were Frederick James Lightoller and Sarah Jane Widdows. His siblings, Richard Ashton and Caroline Mary Lightoller, both died of scarlet fever in early childhood. On an Australian run on board the SS Suevic in 1903, Lightoller met Australian Iowa Sylvania Zillah Hawley-Wilson, known as "Sylvia", on her way home to Sydney after a stay in England.
On the return voyage, she accompanied Lightoller as his bride. The couple had five children: Frederick Roger, Richard Trevor, Mavis, Claire Doreen, and Herbert Brian (1917–1939). Their youngest son Herbert Brian, an RAF pilot, was killed in action on 4 September 1939 in a bombing raid over Wilhelmshaven, Germany, on the first night of Britain's entry into the Second World War.
Their eldest son, Roger, served in the Royal Navy and was killed in March 1945 during the Granville raid whilst commanding a Motor Torpedo Boat. Richard joined the army and gained the rank of lieutenant colonel, serving under General Bernard Montgomery's command for the duration of the war. Mavis served in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, and Doreen in the Political Intelligence Unit. His grandson, A.T. Lightoller, served in the Royal Navy, commanding the submarine HMS Rorqual in the early 1970s.
Lightoller died of chronic heart disease on 8 December 1952, aged 78. A long-time pipe smoker, he died during London's Great Smog of 1952. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at the Commonwealth "Garden of Remembrance" at Mortlake Crematorium in Richmond, Surrey.
- Herbert Tiede (1943) — Titanic (German film)
- Edmund Purdom (1953) — Titanic (American film)
- Neil North (1956) — Kraft Television Theatre : "A Night to Remember" (American TV)
- Kenneth More (1958) — A Night to Remember (British film)
- Malcolm Stoddard (1979) — S.O.S. Titanic (TV film)
- Sigmar Solbach (1984) — Titanic (German film)
- Malcolm Stoddard (1995) — No Greater Love (TV film)
- Kevin McNulty (1996) — Titanic (TV miniseries)
- John Bolton (1997) — Titanic (Broadway musical)
- Jonathan Phillips (1997) — Titanic (Film)
- Tim Curry (1999) — The Titanic Chronicles (TV film)
- Jesse Baker (2003) — Ghosts of the Abyss (Documentary)
- Steven Waddington (2012) — Titanic (TV series/4 episodes)
- Mark Rylance (2017) — Dunkirk (renamed Mr. Dawson in the film)
- Sources vary slightly. The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships says, "Sundowner embarked 130 men." A member of Lightoller's crew says he "counted 129 troops aboard." In a radio interview, Lightoller says, "We tallied up 130." A commemorative plaque outside Lightoller's former home in Richmond says he "rescued 127 men." Stenson (2011) says, "Including the three-man crew and the five men rescued from the [sinking ship] Westerly she now had exactly 130 on board."
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The Reported Gun Fire at Fort Denison
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- Lightoller, Charles H. Titanic and Other Ships, Chapter 34
- Lieut. C. H. Lightoller, RNR (October 1912), "Testimonies From the Field", Christian Science Journal, XXX (7): 414–5
- Titanic and Other Ships (chapter 35), Lightoller, Charles Herbert, I. Nicholson and Watson (1935)
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