Charles Herbert Lightoller is a name you may have heard of. He was ranked as the second officer in the Titanic crew and actually was the highest crew member to survive the tragedy. Later, he participated in World War I as a Royal Navy officer.
Lightoller is also well known for his bravery during the Dunkirk evacuation, where he volunteered and saved the lives of many men with his private boat.
Charles Lightoller stepped on to Titanic’s deck in Belfast just two weeks prior to the collision, and was appointed as the first officer during the testing of the ship in real conditions. Later Captain Smith decided that Henry Wilde should be the chief officer of the vessel, thus leaving William McMaster Murdoch as the first officer and Lightoller as the second. David Blair was originally appointed as the second officer, but he dropped from the crew.
This later became a problem, because when Blair left, he took the key for the binocular case, and as we now know, having access to them would have changed the outcome of the ship’s journey. Lightoller intended to buy new binoculars upon arrival in New York, as they were essential for the lookout crew members.
On the fatal night of 14th of April 1912, the last bridge watch was under Lightoller’s command, and Murdoch relived him after it ended. LIghtoller was just getting ready to go to sleep when he felt the collision with the iceberg. He rushed to the deck to see what happened, but he returned to his room almost immediately because he did not notice anything unusual. He thought that it was better for him to be where he would be found easily in case of an emergency. That happened while he was still lying awake on his bed. Lightoller was needed at the bridge. He managed to quickly put some clothes over his pajamas and rushed upstairs. He soon knew the fate of the ship not good and proceeded with the evacuation of passengers. He supervised the lowering of lifeboats and in ordered for only women and children to be boarded, despite the fact that the captain’s order was only to give them the priority to board.
This misinterpretation created a situation in which boats with empty spaces in them were lowered if there were no other women of children waiting on deck.
Lightoller allegedly forced 25 male passengers to get off the second lifeboat, threatening them with his unloaded gun and calling them ‘cowards’. The boat is believed to have been lowered with only seventeen people aboard, which is less than half of its capacity.
Moments before the ship sank completely, water rushed over the bridge and Lightoller tried to launch the Collapsible B lifeboat, which was one of four small Englehardt lifeboats, but it was washed away from the deck upside down. At that point the water washed everything from the entire boat deck and the second officer decided that there was nothing more to be done, so he jumped in the water from the roof of the officers’ cabins.
When he surfaced, Lightoller decided to swim towards the ship’s crow nest, but soon realized that it was safer to get away from the sinking ship. He got sucked by water flooding one of the forward ventilators and was blocked by the water pressure, until a hot air blast from inside the sunken part of the ship propelled him to the surface. The suction effect of the sinking itself pulled him down again. However, he somehow managed to resurface and immediately saw the capsized Collapsible B lifeboat with a few people hanging on to it. He held to a rope attached to it when the first funnel of the Titanic broke off the ship, and created a wave when it fell into the water. Thus, washing the collapsible away into a safer area.
He climbed on the lifeboat and took charge. Later in the night he managed to organize the men on the boat to evade sinking when a swell arose. It is likely that they would not have survived if the skilled officer had not been on the boat with them. Eventually they got on another lifeboat.
Lightoller was the last Titanic survivor to board the RMS Carpathia, and later in his testimony in the Christian Science Journal, he stated his faith in the divine power is what saved him.
He also turned out to be was the most important witness as the senior surviving crew member and later wrote in his autobiography that the American side of the investigation was nothing more than a “farce” because of their ignorance, unlike the British part of it. He stated that neither the British Board of Trade, nor the White Star Line should be blamed.
He insisted that only the sea was to blame, because the tragedy occurred on the calmest night he had ever seen. The usual white water indication on the base of the floating icebergs was simply not there to be seen. Despite the lack of binoculars, the excessive speed, and the decision to travel through the night, while all other ships decided to wait until sunrise, Lightoller continued to defend his employer. That is, until he took part in the “I Was There” BBC TV production in 1936, when he reversed his position.
His recommendations for preventing such tragedies from happen again helped turn the public outcry into something positive. He suggested that lifeboat capacity should be based on the number of passengers and not on the ship’s weight, and proposed lifeboat drills for both passengers and crew to go through, so they can all be prepared for a quick evacuation in case it is needed.
He also advised that all ships should have a 24-hour radio connection between them, regularly transmitting warnings and weather conditions.
Years later, when Lightoller had already retired, he was still in love with sailing, and he often took his motor yacht, Sundowner, out. He used this boat to cross the English Channel in 1940, along with one of his sons, Roger, and Gerald Ashcroft, a 22-year old Sea Scout. They did this to support the Dunkirk evacuation. While Sundowner had a 21 person capacity, Lightoller and the boys were able to bring back 130 men. On the way back they managed to evade enemy gunfire with a maneuver technique that Lightoller’s youngest son had taught him, before he was killed in the war.
Lightoller got the credit he deserved for his bravery, and his participation in the Dunkirk evacuation inspired Christopher Nolan for the character of Mr. Dawson in his 2017 movie Dunkirk.