Titanic (1912)
Commander Charles Herbert Lightoller, DSC & Bar, RD, RNR (1874-1952)

Titanic's surviving officers from left to right: Fifth Officer Harold G. Lowe, Second Officer Charles H. Lightoller,
Third Officer Herbert J. Pitman (seated) and Fourth Officer Joseph G. Boxhall.


Charles Herbert Lightoller was born in Chorley, Lancashire, on 30 March 1874. His mother, Sarah Lightoller, died shortly after giving birth to him. He was born into a cotton family who owned the Lightoller mill in Chorley. His father, Fred Lightoller, abandoned young Charles and left for New Zealand. Not wanting to end up with a factory job like most of Britain's youth at the time, at the age of 13, young Charles began a four year sea-faring apprenticeship onboard the Primrose Hill. On his second voyage, he set sail with the crew of the Holt Hill. During a storm in the South Atlantic, the ship was demasted and forced to put in at Rio de Janeiro - in the midst of a small pox epidemic and revolution - where repairs were made. 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.

Charles 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 onboard 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 the age of 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.

Lightoller went to the Yukon in 1898, abandoning the sea, to prospect for gold in the Klondike Gold Rush. Failing at this endeavour, he then became a cowboy in Alberta, Canada. He became a hobo in order to return home, riding the rails back across Canada. He worked as a cattle wrangler on a cattle boat for his passage back to England. In 1899, he arrived home penniless. He obtained his Master's Certificate and joined Greenshields and Cowie where he made another trip on a cattle boat, this time as Third Mate of the Knight Companion.

In January of the following year (1900), he began his career with the White Star Line as Fourth Officer of the Medic for a run from Britain to South Africa to Australia. Whilst on the Medic, Lightoller was reprimanded for a prank he and some fellow shipmen played on the citizens of Sydney at Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour. He later joined the Majestic under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith in the Atlantic. From there, he was promoted to Third Officer on the Oceanic, the flagship of the White Star Line. He moved back to the Majestic as First Officer and then back to the Oceanic as its First Officer.

Two weeks before her maiden voyage, Charles boarded the Titanic and acted as First Officer for the sea trials. Captain Edward J. Smith made Henry T. Wilde, of the Olympic, the Titanic's Chief Officer causing the original Chief Officer William McMaster Murdoch to drop to First Officer and Lightoller to Second Officer. The original Second Officer David Blair was dropped from the voyage altogether while the ship's roster of junior officers remained unchanged.

On the night of 14 April 1912, Lightoller commanded the last bridge watch prior to the ship's collision with an iceberg before being relieved by Murdoch. Lightoller had retired to his cabin and was preparing for bed when he felt the collision occur. Wearing only his pajamas, Lightoller hurried out on deck to see what had happened but after seeing nothing retired back to his cabin. Figuring it would be better to remain where other officers knew where to find him if they needed him, he lay awake in his bunk until Fourth Officer Boxhall summoned him to the bridge. He pulled on trousers and a Navy-blue sweater over his pajamas and also donned (along with socks and shoes) his officers' overcoat and hat.

Once the fate of the ship became clear, Lightoller immediately went to work assisting in the evacuation of the passengers into the lifeboats. Lightoller was notably stricter than some of the other officers in observing the rule of "women and children first", almost to the point of the rule being "women and children only." Lightoller lowered the lifeboats on the port side of the Titanic. The officer's last action was attempting to launch Collapsible B which was a smaller, Englehardt lifeboat with canvas sides that was stowed atop the officers' quarters on the hurricane deck on the port side. As the ship sank, sea water washed over the entire bow of the Titanic; producing a large wave that rolled aft along the boat deck. Seeing crowds of people run away from the rising water and the collapsible boat wash away upside down, Lightoller decided not to prolong it and dove into the water.

Once surfaced from his dive, he spotted the ship's crow's nest now level with the water and temporarily swam towards it as a place of safety before realizing that is was safer to clear away from the foundering vessel. Then Lightoller was sucked under as water flooded down one of the forward ventilaters. He was pinned there against the grating for a few seconds. Luckily, a blast of hot air from the depths of the ship erupted out of the ventilater and blew him to the surface. Following this, the officer saw Collapsible B, which the crew had unsuccesfully tried to launch earlier, floating upside down with several swimmers clawing to it. He stroked to it and held on by a rope at the front.

Then one of the Titanic's massive funnels broke free and hit the water, washing the collapsible further away from the sinking ship. Later on, Officer Lightoller took charge and was able to calm and organize the survivors (numbering around thirty) who were on the overturned lifeboat. He led them in yelling in unison "Boat ahoy!" but with no success. During the night the sea began to rise and Lightoller led the men in shifting their weight with the swells so that their craft would not be swamped. Had they not done this, they would have been thrown into the frigid water again. The men kept this up at his direction for hours in the freezing weather until they were finally rescued by another lifeboat. Second Officer Lightoller was the last survivor to come aboard the rescue ship Carpathia.

As the senior surviving crew member, Lightoller was a key witness at both the American and British inquiries. He blamed the accident on the sea that night being the calmest he ever saw in his life; the floating icebergs gave no tell tale early warning signs of breaking whitewater at their base. He deftly defended his employer the White Star Line despite hints of excessive speed, missing binoculars in the crows' nest, and the plain recklessness of traveling through an ice field on a calm night when all other ships in the vicinity thought it wiser to stop until morning. 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, lifeboat drills so passengers know where their lifeboats are and crew know how to operate them, manned 24 hour wireless (radio) communications in all passenger ships, and official ice warnings from the maritime board are some of his recommendation made at the inquires.

Lightoller returned to duty with White Star Line, serving as a mate on the RMS Oceanic. During World War I, he was assigned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, first serving on the Oceanic which was converted into an armed merchant cruiser. In 1915 he served as the first Officer during the trials of HMS Campania, another former passenger liner, the RMS Campania, that had just been converted into the Navy's first aircraft carrier. Later he was given his own command, first on torpedo boats and then as master of a RN destroyer. During the war, he won the Distinguished Service Cross twice and eventually finished with the rank of Commander.

After the war, despite loyal service to the White Star Line and faithfully defending his employers at the Titanic inquiries, Lightoller soon found that opportunities for advancement within the line were no longer available. All surviving crewmembers would find that being associated with the 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 and a chicken farmer and later property speculation, at which he and his wife had some success. During the early thirties he commenced writing his autobiography, "Titanic and Other Ships" which he dedicated to his "persistent wife, who made me do it".

This book, after a few problems, was quite popular and began to sell well. However, it was pulled from the shelves when the Marconi Company threatened a lawsuit, due to a comment by Lightoller regarding the Titanic disaster, and the role of the Marconi operators. The retired Lightoller did not turn his back on sailing altogether, however, as he eventually purchased his own private launch, which his wife, Sylvia, named the Sundowner, an Australian term meaning "wanderer", and which he later used in the evacuation at Dunkirk. After World War II he managed a small boatyard called Richmond Slipways in London , which built motor launches for the river police. Lightoller died on 8 December 1952 of heart disease. His body was cremated and his ashes were scattered at Mortlake Crematorium Richmond, London , England.

(Text courtesy of Wikipedia)


Page published Dec. 2, 2007