The sinking of RMS Titanic is one of the most infamous events in maritime history. Widely believed to be unsinkable, it was the largest ship afloat in the world when it was launched in 1912. Nevertheless Titanic sunk during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York when it struck an iceberg in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. Thanks to an insufficient number of lifeboats around 1,500 people drowned or froze to death in the icy waters. The most senior surviving crewmember of the disaster was Second Officer Charles Lightoller, a man who led an action-packed life both before and after that fateful night.
Lightoller was born in Chorley, Lancashire on 30 March 1874. His maritime career began at the age of 13 in February 1888 when he undertook a four-year apprenticeship at sea. After a year he was serving on the Holt Hill and it was on this vessel that he found himself involved in a shipwreck for the first time.
Holt Hill ran aground on the tiny island of Île Saint-Paul in the Indian Ocean on 13 November 1889. The Chief Mate was killed and the survivors were marooned on the island for eight days before being rescued. Lightoller qualified as a Mate aged 21 in 1895. By 1907 he had been promoted to First Officer on the ships SS Majestic and RMS Oceanic. In early 1912 he received his next assignment: RMS Titanic.
Lightoller was onboard Titanic two weeks before it’s maiden voyage and sailed as First Officer for its sea trials. However, as sailing day approached Captain Edward Smith made Henry Wilde his Chief Officer and Lightoller became the Second Officer. When Titanic sailed from her last port at Queenstown, Ireland on 11 April she was carrying 2,224 passengers and crew, expecting to dock in New York on 17 April.
At around 11.40pm on 14 April Lightoller was about to fall asleep having been on duty when he felt a grinding vibration. Walking out on deck in his pyjamas he was informed that the ship had struck an iceberg. After quickly returning to his cabin to put some clothes on, Lightoller immediately started helping to load lifeboats. He knew the situation was serious when he heard F Deck was flooding and the ship’s steam was pumping out of every exhaust.
He supervised the loading of women and children into Lifeboats 4 and 6. He got 25 people into Lifeboat 6 and began lowering it. First Officer Wilde was cautious about lowering the boats so soon. Lightoller, drawing on his experiences from Holt Hill, recognised the signs of imminent shipwreck and immediately asked Captain Smith’s permission to lower the boats.
Lightoller was stricter than other officers in upholding the rule of “Women and children first” into the lifeboats. While loading Lifeboat 4 he initially removed the 13 year-old John Ryerson from the small vessel, only readmitting him when Ryerson’s father persuaded Lightoller to allow him to stay. The only man Lightoller willingly let into a lifeboat was Major Arthur Peuchan who had sailing experience and volunteered to help the crew. At around 1.25am Wilde handed Lightoller a gun saying, “You might need this”.
By now the water was approaching A Deck and Lightoller noticed a group of men taking over Lifeboat 2. Jumping into the boat, Lightoller threatened the men with his gun and drove them all out. He then loaded 36 women and children into this boat and lowered it at 1.55am at a height of only 15ft. Normally the height would have been 70ft.
Five minutes later Lightoller was filling Collapsible Boat D when Wilde told him to get in. Lightoller replied, “Not damn likely!” and stepped back onto the sinking deck using the final moments of the sinking ship to launch Collapsible Boat B using a borrowed pen knife to cut the ropes.
Collapsible B slipped down the flooding deck. Titanic then surged forward and Lightoller dived into the water. A ventilation shaft sucked him underwater but then an exploding boiler propelled him to the surface near to Collapsible B.
As Titanic went under Lightoller was nearly killed by the ship’s collapsing forward funnel. Collapsible B was now capsized but 30 men, including Lightoller, climbed on top of it and paddled away. Three men died on Collapsible B in the hours before being rescued by RMS Carpathia.
When the rescue ship reached the lifeboats at dawn Collapsible B was slowly sinking. Lightoller transferred the survivors aboard two other lifeboats and then assisted in getting all the survivors on board the Carpathia before climbing up the ropes himself. He was the last Titanic survivor taken aboard and the most senior surviving officer. Consequently he found himself defending Captain Smith and other crewmembers at the New York inquiry into the sinking against some of the more serious charges.
After Titanic Lightoller distinguished himself as a naval officer in World War I. Whilst commanding the torpedo boat HMTB 117 in 1916 he attacked a German Zeppelin with the ships Hotchkiss guns. For these actions he was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross and promoted to Lieutenant Commander. When he was commanding the destroyer HMS Garry in 1918, Lightoller rammed and sank the German submarine UB-110. Garry’s bow was so damaged that Lightoller was forced to steam 100 miles in reverse to return to port for repairs. Nonetheless he was again decorated with a bar for his DSC and ended the war as full Commander.
Lightoller’s adventures were still not over. During the interwar years he had acquired a private 16 metre-long motor yacht called Sundowner. At the age of 66 in 1940, the old seaman found himself once more taking part in history during the most famous rescue mission of World War II: Operation Dynamo.
Thanks to a rapid Blitzkrieg campaign, 400,000 Allied soldiers were trapped on the beaches near Dunkirk. German tanks were only 10 miles away and the British Admiralty sent out requests for private vessels to help with the evacuation. These became known as the ‘Little Ships’. On 30 May the Admiralty tried to requisition Sundowner to go to Dunkirk but Lightoller insisted on piloting it himself with his eldest son Roger and an 18 year old Sea Scout called Gerald Ashcroft.
On 1 June Sundowner sailed out of Ramsgate with five other ships. On the way Lightoller encountered a motor cruiser called Westerly, which was on fire. Sundowner picked up its crew and proceeded to Dunkirk. Coincidentally Lightoller’s second son Trevor had been evacuated from the beaches 48 hours previously.
Sundowner only had a capacity for 21 people but at Dunkirk Lightoller squeezed in 130 men onto the boat. When one soldier heard that Lightoller had been an officer on Titanic he tried to jump overboard. However one of his comrades said that if Lightoller could survive the Titanic, he could survive anything. The soldier stayed.
On the return voyage, enemy aircraft attacked Sundowner but it avoided being hit thanks to Lightoller’s skilful evasive techniques. Sundowner’s greatest threat came from the wash of fast moving British destroyers. The excess weight of the soldiers meant that Sundowner lay deep in the water and was at constant risk of being swamped. Luckily the little ship made it back to Ramsgate and the soldiers were safely disembarked.
Lightoller was determined to go back to Dunkirk but by then only ships capable of doing 20 knots could go. Thanks in part to the little ships 338,000 soldiers were evacuated to England in what became known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk”. Lightoller spent the rest of the war engaged in the Small Vessel Pool of the Royal Navy. He was ‘demobbed’ in 1946 and died in 1952 at the age of 78 having led a remarkably eventful life.