On the morning of 1st June 1940 an old Royal Navy steam launch which had been converted into a pleasure cruiser set off across the English Channel from Ramsgate. At the helm was a 66 year old retired seaman who had lived what could reasonably be called ‘a full life’.
That day the launch, called the Sundowner, rescued two crew from another pleasure boat that had caught fire. Then she picked up three naval ratings from the waters of the Channel and transported 122 soldiers who had been rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk back to the relative safety of Ramsgate harbour. On the return journey from Dunkirk the Sundowner had to frequently take evasive action when being attacked by German planes.
For the vast majority of people a day such as this would have been the most eventful of their lives; but for the Sundowner’s owner and commander, Charles Lightoller, it was just one of many memorable days.
Lightoller was born in the town of Chorley, Lancashire in 1874. Chorley isn’t particularly close to the sea and the main industry was cotton weaving. The young Charles Lightoller didn’t want to work in a cotton mill and at the age of 13 he signed up for a four-year apprenticeship at sea.
His first voyage, on a four-masted sailing ship, seems to have been relatively straightforward. He then changed ships to one called Holt Hill and things got a bit more eventful. The ship lost a mast in a south Atlantic storm and limped into port at Rio de Janeiro. When they arrived at Rio they found both a revolution and a smallpox epidemic underway. After repairs, the ‘Holt Hill’ set out again, heading for Cape Town. A few days later members of the crew began to fall ill and then die – the ship was infected with smallpox. Lightoller had not long turned 15, but “Twice I read the burial service, or such parts as I could find, in a gale of wind … Sometimes we couldn’t get the body over the rail, then it was beastly.”
After taking on new crew to replace those who had died, the ship set sail from Cape Town into the Indian Ocean. When heading for India, sailing ships used to head south from Cape Town to catch the strong trade winds that took them across the Indian Ocean. Ships used the tiny volcanic island of St Pauls as a marker for when they needed to turn north. Unfortunately the Holt Hill found this marker a slightly too accurately and finished up being driven onto the rocky coast of the island. All but one of the crew survived, but Charles Lightoller now found himself shipwrecked on a desert island. After eight days, as food was starting to run very short, they were picked up by a passing ship on its way to Adelaide, Australia. He arrived there at Christmas 1889, still three months short of his sixteenth birthday.
At that time a crew’s pay was stopped from the day a ship sunk, so Lightoller had to work his way back to Britain on a clipper ship. There he resumed his career on sailing ships and by 1895 had obtained his Mates ticket, having added surviving a cyclone and a slow burning fire of a cargo of coal to his CV. At this point he switched to steamships and spent three years travelling to and from the West African coast before nearly dying from a severe bout of malaria.
In 1898 Lightoller took a break from the sea and ventured to Canada with a friend on a failed trip prospecting for gold in the Yukon. He came back penniless after briefly working as a cowboy in Alberta and travelling back to the east coast as a hobo. He found the best way of staying undetected on a train was by “riding on the rods (suspension rods) under the car. That is where I usually parked, for although the least comfortable, I always found it the safest, and the place where one was sure to make the longest journey undiscovered.” Lightoller then worked his passage back across the Atlantic to England on a cattle boat and resumed his career at sea. In 1900 he joined the company that would bring him a fame he did not want – the White Star Line.
His first White Star ship was the Medic, travelling to and from Australia. On his second voyage on this ship he met and married his wife Sylvia. Soon Lightoller was working on the transatlantic route first with the Majestic then the Oceanic before being appointed first officer of the newly built Titanic. Just prior to the Titanic’s maiden voyage Lightoller had to move down to second officer as White Star transferred the first officer of the Olympic (Titanic’s sister ship) to provide more experience.
There are many detailed accounts of the sinking of the Titanic and the part Lightoller played, so I will just give a summary. Lightoller was off duty in his cabin when the ship struck the iceberg. When the severity of the damage to the ship was clear, he was given the job of supervising the launching of the lifeboats on the port side of the ship. He managed to get all of the lifeboats away whilst rigidly enforcing the ‘women and children only’ rule. This included chasing a group of men out of a lifeboat at gunpoint – although the gun wasn’t loaded. He also launched a collapsible lifeboat that was filled with both men and women, as only 15 women could be found to go in it. He was ordered by the First Officer to go in this boat but refused saying “Not damn likely”.
Lightoller was working on releasing another collapsible boat which was stored upside down when the ship began its final descent. He dived into the water as it rushed up the deck towards him. He later said “striking the water was like a thousand knives being driven into one’s body”. He was sucked against a ventilator grill and before being thrown clear by a blast of air from the ship’s boilers. Then a falling funnel narrowly missed him before he was able to climb onto the upside-down collapsible lifeboat.
By the time the Titanic had finally sunk, thirty or more men had climbed onto that lifeboat. As the hours passed, it became clear that it was slowly sinking and an increasing swell was threatening to throw the men off into the icy water. Lightoller organised them so that they stood in a line and leaned to the left or right as the waves arrived in order to keep the capsized boat stable. When dawn came Lightoller’s whistle attracted the attention of another lifeboat and the surviving men (at least three had died during the night) were able to climb into a boat that was the right way up. Then the liner Carpathia appeared and began collecting the survivors from the boats. When Charles Lightoller climbed onto the Carpathia he was the last person from the last lifeboat to be rescued.
As the most senior officer to have survived the disaster, Lightoller was a key witness at both the US and UK inquiries. He seems to have hated both the process and the brief celebrity it gave him and it was a relief when he was able to resume ‘normal’ work on board the Oceanic.
This normality was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. After the addition of some guns and repainting, the Oceanic became HMS Oceanic and was set to work patrolling waters near the Shetland Isles. On 8th September 1914, in heavy fog and whilst Lightoller was off-duty, HMS Oceanic ran aground. Lightoller had the now familiar job of supervising the loading of lifeboats. Everyone survived but the Oceanic broke up on the rocks.
His next job was on another former liner, the Campania, which had been converted to carry sea planes. This enabled Lightoller to add flying, as an observer, to his list of skills and experiences. Then he was given command of a torpedo boat. In July 1916 his boat attacked a Zeppelin airship over the Thames estuary. The Zeppelin was hit and forced to dump its bombs in the river instead of on London. Lightoller was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for this action and he was promoted to commander of a destroyer HMS Falcon.
In April 1918 the Falcon collided with a trawler and Lightoller (who was off watch again) had his third sinking in the space of six years. His next command was another destroyer HMS Garry, in July 1918 the Garry rammed and sank a German U-boat. After picking up survivors the destroyer had to travel the 100 miles to port going backwards as the ramming had damaged the bows so badly.
After the war ended Charles Lightoller returned to the White Star Line. However, it soon became clear to him that his connection with the Titanic meant that he would never be allowed to captain one of their liners. In 1920, feeling disillusioned with his treatment, he resigned.
Relatively quiet years followed; he ran a guest house with his wife, in 1929 he bought the Sundowner and in 1935 he published his memoirs ‘Titanic and Other Ships’. Then in July 1939, with another war looming, he received a call from the Admiralty. They wanted him to do a little job for them. He and his wife crossed the North Sea aboard Sundowner and took a ‘holiday’ cruising up and down the German coast. This elderly couple on vacation were carefully surveying the coast before reporting back all they had seen to the Admiralty.
Then in 1940 the Admiralty called again, asking for Sundowner’s help with the Dunkirk evacuations and Lightoller had yet another eventful day. He joined the Home Guard, but the Royal Navy wanted his services and he wasn’t officially ‘demobbed’ until 1946, by which time he was 72 years of age.
Charles Lightoller died in 1952. The Sundowner has been preserved by the East Kent Maritime Trust and can be seen at Ramsgate Maritime Museum. She crossed the channel to Dunkirk again in 2015 to mark the 75th anniversary of the evacuation.
Titanic and Other Ships – Charles Herbert Lightoller
A Night to Remember – Walter Lord