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Charles Herbert Lightoller

Charles Herbert Lightoller was born on 30 March 1874 in  Chorley in Lancashire. In February 1888, at the age of 13, he  began a four-year seagoing apprenticeship working on sailing  ships. On only his second voyage he was shipwrecked on an  uninhabited island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. On  another trip the cargo of coal caught fire and for his successful efforts in fighting the fire he was promoted to Second Mate. In 1895 he obtained his Mate’s Ticket and left sailing ships for  steamships. After three years on the West African coast he  nearly died from a heavy bout of malaria.          Lightoller left the sea in 1898 and went to the Yukon to  prospect for gold in the Klondike Gold Rush. Unsuccessful in  this, he worked as a cowboy in Canada for a while before  working his passage back to England on a cattle boat. Back in  England he obtained his Master’s Certificate, and in 1900 he  joined the White Star Line, working on passenger liners to  Australia and the USA. On the Atlantic run to New York he  served on the ‘Majestic’ and the ‘Oceanic’, pride of the White  Star Line, and eventually became First Officer on the ‘Oceanic’. He sailed on the maiden voyage of the ‘Titanic’ as Second  Officer. On Sunday 14 April 1912, having been on watch from  6pm - 10pm, he was just nodding off to sleep in his cabin at  about 11:40pm when he felt a grinding vibration. He ran onto  deck in his pyjamas, initially nothing appeared to be wrong so  he returned to his cabin to await orders. Ten minutes later  another officer entered his cabin and informed him that the  ship was taking water. Pulling on his clothes over his pyjamas  he went onto deck. Lightoller took charge of the lifeboats on the port side of the  ship, and as soon as he received orders he started loading the  first boat. He continued supervising the lowering of the boats,  strictly enforcing the code of “women and children” first. At  about 1:30 am the officers were issued with revolvers and  ammunition, Lightoller at the time doubted the need for this.  Shortly afterwards, however, the need became clear when a  group of men took over one of the lifeboats, he jumped in the  boat and threatened them with his empty gun driving them all  out. At around 2:00 am all the lifeboats had been lowered, save for  four collapsible boats with canvas sides lashed to the roof of  the officers quarters. Lightoller had just managed to cut one of these free when the ‘Titanic’ took a great plunge forward. He  dived into the water but was sucked against the grating of one of the ventilator shafts. Fortunately the blast, caused by the  cold water hitting the still hot boilers, blew him back to the  surface. As the ‘Titanic went under, the forward funnel broke  loose and toppled his way narrowly missing him. He climbed  onto the overturned collapsible lifeboat and along with 30  other men, from where he was rescued the next day by the  ‘Carpathia’. In 1913 Lightoller returned to sea as First Officer on the  ‘Oceanic’. When the First World War broke out in 1914 the  ‘Oceanic’ became HMS ‘Oceanic’ and he became Lieutenant  Lightoller of the Royal Navy. Just before Christmas 1915 he  got his own command, the torpedo boat HMTB 117, and in July  1916 attacked the Zeppelin L31 with the ships guns. For this  Action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and  was promoted to commander of the torpedo boat destroyer  ‘Falcon’ with the Dover Patrol. Lightoller moved his family to  Dover, renting a house at 8 East Cliff. In July 1918 his new  command, the destroyer ‘Garry’, rammed and sank the  German submarine U-110, for which action he was awarded a  bar to his D.S.C. and promoted to Lieutenant Commander.   After the war he returned to the White Star line as Chief  Officer on the liner ‘Celtic’, having been passed over for a post  on the ‘Olympic’. The new management of the White Star Line  wanted to forget the ‘Titanic’ and everyone associated with  her, and none of the surviving officers ever got their own  commands. Lightoller was not interested in remaining the  Chief Officer of the ‘Celtic’ indefinitely so, after more than 20  years of service he resigned from the White Star Line. The first few years were hard, he and his wife opened a guesthouse,  and after a few years had some minor success in property  speculation. In 1929 the Lightollers purchased an old Admiralty steam  launch, refitted her with a diesel engine and christened her  ‘Sundowner’. Throughout the 1930s she was used by the  Lightoller family for trips around England and Europe. In July  1939 Lightoller was approached by the Royal Navy and asked  to perform a survey of the German coastline. They did this  under the guise of an elderly couple on holiday in their yacht.  Then in the closing days of May 1940, with the British  Expeditionary Force trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, the  Admiralty again called on Lightoller. They asked him to take  the ‘Sundowner’ to Ramsgate, where a navy crew would take  her over and sail her to Dunkirk. He informed them that  nobody would take ‘Sundowner’ to Dunkirk except him.   On 1 June 1940, the 66 year old Lightoller, with his eldest son  Roger and an 18 year old Sea-Scout named Gerald, took the  ‘Sundowner’ and sailed for Dunkirk. Although the ‘Sundowner’  had never carried more than 21 people before, they succeeded in carrying a total of 130 men from the beaches of Dunkirk. In  addition to the three crew members, there were two crew  members who had been rescued from another small boat.  There were three Naval Ratings rescued from the sea off  Dunkirk, plus 122 troops taken from the destroyer HMS  ‘Worcester’. Despite numerous bombing and strafing runs by  German aircraft, they all arrived safely back in Ramsgate  about 12 hours after they departed. Following Dunkirk, Commander Lightoller joined the Home  Guard, but the Royal Navy engaged him to work with the  Small Vessels Pool until the end of the War. After the War he  went on to run a boatyard on the Thames building motor  launches for the London River Police. He died, aged 78, in  December 1952. 
Commander Lightoller RNR. The Titanic. HMS Falcon, 1917. East Cliff c.1905. The house Lightoller rented is just above the white building on the beach. The Sundowner at Dunkirk, 1940. Sundowner at Ramsgate in 2010.