Charles Herbert Lightoller


      Upon reaching New York, Lightoller, as well as the other three surviving officers, was subpoenaed as a witness in the American Inquiry into the Titanic disaster. He faithfully stuck by the White Star Line and Bruce Ismay, whitewashing some of the facts and details so the blame would not fall solely on one man's shoulders. As long as lessons were learned from the Titanic disaster, he knew it was pointless to put the blame on one person. Roughly two months later, he returned to England to repeat the whole process all over again at the British Inquiry, answering some 1600 questions. This whole ordeal took its toll on Lightoller. One hot afternoon in 1913, Sylvia found her husband lying in the bathtub with a look of frozen horror on his face. Trying to cool off in a cold bath had brought back too many painful memories, sending him into a mild state of shock.

Herbert Pitman and Charles Lightoller
Third Officer Pitman (left) and Second Officer
Lightoller after their arrival in Liverpool

      Lightoller's adventures were far from over. In 1913 he returned to the Oceanic as First Officer. When World War I began in 1914, she became HMS Oceanic (Oceanic was specially built so that it could be outfitted with guns if need be) and Lightoller became Lieutenant Lightoller of His Majesty's Navy. He was once again working with Davy Blair who had been bumped off the Titanic the year before. Blair was now working as Oceanic's navigator.

"Her job was to patrol a 150-mile stretch of water in the area of the Shetland Islands. The 170,000 ton, 700ft. vessel was far too big and totally unsuited for the waters in which she was sailing. On September 8th, 1914, as a result of her unstable command and unsuitable role, she ran aground on the Shaalds near the island of Foula. Lightoller was off watch and in his cabin at the time. Once again he found himself supervising the lowering of lifeboats. Three weeks later the Oceanic broke up in a storm and was gone." (Philip Hind)

      This was a very sad moment for Lightoller. The Oceanic had always been his favorite ship. It was his love, an old friend, and to see her broken up on the Shaalads reef was almost too much to bear. He had some of his men row him back to the ship and he walked about her empty decks one last time, taking the clock from the navigation room wall as a souvenir.

      In 1915, Lightoller was working on a sea plane carrier called Campania and in June of that year was observing on the only plane that made it into the air. They became the first plane ever sent up at sea to locate an enemy fleet. Lightoller's plane, 184, did locate the enemy's fleet but his wireless messages never reached the Campania. The whole exercise had been worthless and Lightoller decided to get out of sea planes any way he could.

      By Christmas that year, Lightoller was commander of the torpedo boat HMTB 117, an old torpedo boat. It was the best Christmas present he could have ever asked for. Lightoller was a different sort of commander. He was not only admired by his thiry man crew, they also had affection for him. He made it his duty to get to know each and every one of those men individually, their stengths and weaknesses, and made them all feel like a vital part of his team. That way, when the time for action came, every man would know what to do and when to do it with no prompting. On July 31 1916, the 117 spotted a Zepplin (which turned out to be the L31, the biggest and most dangerous Zepplin the German army had) flying over London. They fired three shots at it and thought they hit it. It turned out that they did not and the Zepplin dropped bombs on 117. Fortunately, they all missed and even though they had failed to hit the Zepplin, they spared London from further bombings that night and Lightoller was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts that night.

      Lightoller's next command was of the destroyer Falcon, which had lived about fifteen years longer than it should have. On the night of April 1, 1917, Falcon was heading back to England from seeing a convoy to Norway. Lightoller was once again in his cabin when it happened- Falcon collided with another ship, the John Fitzgerald. The old ship was badly damaged and Lightoller got every member of the crew off to other ships, save himself, his first Lieutenant, and the gunner who was serving as officer of the watch at the time of the collision. The ship broke in half, but the rear portion stayed afloat and Lightoller hoped that it would remain that way until morning when she could be towed in. Unfortunately, this was not the case and the Falcon did sink, at just about 2:20 am, six years and eleven days after the Titanic sank. Lightoller and his two companions were picked up by a trawler that had been sent to look for them not long afterwards.

      In 1918 Lightoller was promoted again, this time to Lieutenant Commander, for his actions on the destroyer Garry when she rammed and sank a German submarine, the UB 110. The Garry was badly damaged but Lightoller was sure he could take her the 100 miles back to Humber. It was agonizingly slow, only 8 knots, but they did make it. By that time, Garry's stern was sticking so far out of the water the rudder was virtually useless. A few weeks later she was repaired and back in service and Lightoller was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Service Cross as well as a desk job.

      World War I ended that year and Lightoller came out of it as a full Commander. He returned to White Star for a brief time but it wasn't the same. Although few would have made a better captain, Lightoller never got any higher than Chief Officer, for the new management of the White Star Line wanted to forget all about the Titanic disaster and everyone who had been connected it. Strangely enough, the cream of the White Star crop who had been chosen for Titanic (Charles Lightoller, Herbert Pitman, Joseph Boxhall, and Harold Lowe) never received their own commands. They hoped by keeping Lightoller down he would resign on his own, since they could not call attention to themselves by firing him outright. They got their wish. With over twenty years of experience, Lightoller resigned without fanfare. No one even thanked him for his service.

      During the depression, the Lightollers raised chickens, did property speculation, and opened a boarding house, all with moderate success. It seems that Lightoller lived his life as a sort of Renaissance man!

      World War II was now close at hand. The Royal Navy was interested in using the Lightoller's family yacht, Sundowner, (which was bought in 1929 and christened by Sylvia) for undercover war maneuvers. In July of 1939, sixty five year old Lightoller and his wife surveyed the German coastline, posing as a couple on vacation. All their sketches and photographs were never used for much, but the Admiralty was very thankful for the Lightoller's efforts. But it was in June of 1940 that Lightoller would have his last and greatest sea adventure, as part of Operation Dynamo. German tanks had trapped 400,000 Allied troops (most of the British Expeditionary Force) near the French port of Dunkirk on the French/Belgian border. On May 31, Lightoller was asked to bring the Sundowner to Ramsgate where the British Navy would take her to Dunkirk. Lightoller told them that he would be the only one to sail the Sundowner to Dunkirk.

"On the 1st of June 1940, the 66-year old Lightoller, accompanied by his eldest son Rodger..., took the Sundowner and sailed for Dunkirk and the trapped BEF. Although the Sundowner had never carried more than 21 persons 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, the motor cruiser Westerly. There were another three Naval Ratings also rescued from the waters off Dunkirk, plus 122 troops taken from the destroyer Worchester. Despite numerous bombing and straffing runs by Luftwaffe aircraft, they all arrived safely back to Ramsgate just about 12 hours after they had departed." (Philip Hind)

      Although he expected it, Sundowner was never re-called back to Dunkirk. On June 4 it was taken and the troops that remained there were taken as POW's. But Lightoller had done what he could for England, rescuing over 100 Tommy's on a sixty foot family yacht.

      After Dunkirk, Lightoller continued to serve his country in the war effort. He joined his local Home Guard and worked once again for the Royal Navy. He was part of the Small Vessles Crew, made up of men who had not been on active duty because of their age or health restrictions. These men delivered many types of small crafts to ports all over the British coast. Lightoller worked up until the very end of the war and was 'demobbed' at the age of 72 in 1946.

      Not long after the war ended, the Lightoller's moved to Twickenham and opened a boatyard called Richmond Shipways and lived above the shop. With the help of his son Trevor, Lightoller's business specialized in motor launches, their biggest and most important customer being the London River Police.


      Commander Charles Herbert Lightoller DSC and Bar, RD, RNR (Retired) passed away quietly in the early morning hours of December 8, 1952 at the age of seventy-eight. He had been battling with heart disease and bronchitis for some time, but remained alert and alive up to the very end. His body was cremated at Mortlake Crematorium and the ashes scattered over the Garden of Remembrance.

      Two of Lightoller's sons were killed in World War II. Rodger, the oldest, followed his father's footsteps and joined the Royal Navy. The war was almost over when he was killed in a German raid on a village on the northern coast of France. Rodger's younger brother Brian was a pilot in the Royal Air Force and was killed the very first night of the war during a bombing raid on Wilhelmshaven.

"What I remember about that night- what I will remember as long as I live- is the people crying out to each other as the stern began to plunge down. I heard people crying, 'I love you.'"
-- C.H. Lightoller (Pelligrino 185)

More Pictures

Lightoller, Captain Rostron, and a Carpathian Officer shortly after the rescue
Lightoller in his later years
Lightoller talking to his wife Sylvia while at the British Board of Trade Inquiry
Lightoller and his son Roger
Sylvia Lightoller, in her later years

Contributing L/F writers: Michele Arsenault and Paula Martens     © 1998. The information presented here may not under any circumstances be resold or redistributed without prior written permission from the respective authors. Please respect our copyrights.

Works Consulted

John P. Eaton and Charles A. Haas. Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy
Philip Hind. RMS Titanic: Deck Crew: Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller
Tom Kuntz (editor). The Titanic Disaster Hearings: The Official Transcripts of the 1912 Senate Investigation
Walter Lord. The Night Lives On
Charles Pelligrino. Her Name, Titanic
Paul J. Quinn. Titanic At Two AM
Patrick Stenson. The Odyssey of CH Lightoller
Wyn Craig Wade. The Titanic: End of a Dream
Jack Winocour (editor) The Story of the Titanic as told by its survivors [includes accounts from Lawrence Beesley, Col. Archibald Gracie, Commander Lightoller, and Harold Bride]

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