A Legacy of Rescue(s)
Charles was born in Chorley, Lancashire on March 30, 1874. His maritime career began at the age of 13, in February 1888, when he undertook a four-year apprenticeship at sea. A natural seaman, he was serving on the Holt Hill within a year. It was on this vessel that he found himself involved in a shipwreck for the first time.
Holt Hill ran aground on the tiny island of Île Saint-Paul in the Indian Ocean on November 13, 1889. The Chief Mate was killed and the survivors were marooned on the island for eight days before being rescued.
By 1907, still a young man, he was promoted to First Officer on the ships SS Majestic and RMS Oceanic. He was serving in the Royal Navy Reserve, and was called up to duty during the first World War. He served as First Lieutenant on the RMS Oceanic, a transatlantic ocean liner turned wartime armed merchant cruiser.
Charles distinguished himself as a naval officer in the Royal Navy in World War I. For his superior command of the torpedo boat HMTB117, he was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross and promoted to Lieutenant Commander.
While commanding the destroyer HMS Garry in 1918, he rammed and sank the German submarine UB-110. He was again decorated with a bar for his Distinguished Service Cross and ended the war as a full Commander.
After the war, Charles was prepared to return to the service of the White Star Line, the fleet under which he had sailed on the SS Majestic and the RMS Oceanic. He found, however, that his services were not desired aboard the ships of the White Star Line. For in 1912, after his first shipwreck and before his distinguished performance in the first World War, Charles Lightoller survived a second shipwreck, from which he emerged alive but marked. Eventually it would also make him famous.
Charles Lightoller was the most senior surviving crew member of the Titanic.
The sinking of RMS Titanic is one of the most infamous events in maritime history. When Titanic sailed from her last port at Queenstown, Ireland, on April 11 1912, she was carrying 2,224 passengers and crew, expecting to dock in New York on April 17.
Widely believed to be unsinkable, RMS Titanic was the largest ship afloat in the world when she was launched in 1912. Nevertheless, Titanic sank during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York when she struck an iceberg in the mid-Atlantic Ocean.
Around 1,500 people drowned or froze to death in the icy waters.
Lightoller, drawing on his previous shipwreck experience aboard the Holt Hill, recognized the signs of imminent shipwreck. He supervised the loading of the lifeboats, strictly adhering to “women and children first,” and immediately asked Captain Edward Smith’s permission to lower the boats.
As Titanic went under, Lightoller was nearly killed by the ship’s collapsing forward funnel. He managed to board Life Boat Collapsible B which promptly capsized. Thirty men, including Lightoller, climbed on top of the life boat and paddled away. Three men died on Collapsible B in the hours before being rescued by RMS Carpathia.
When the rescue ship reached the lifeboats at dawn, Collapsible B was slowly sinking. Lightoller, ever a survivor, transferred the survivors from two other lifeboats to Carpathia before climbing up the ropes himself. He was the last Titanic survivor taken aboard. Posthumously, he was made famous by the release of the film Titanic in 1997.
Lightoller’s adventures at sea did not end after the sinking of RMS Titanic, or after World War I, or even after White Star Lines refused to employ sailors associated with the Titanic debacle. Nor did Lightoller’s legacy in film stop with those events. Charles Lightoller’s legacy was still in the making in 1940.
At 66 years old, Lightoller was a retired Royal Navy veteran, enjoying the peacefulness of life with his newly acquired private yacht, Sundowner. Little did he know, his adventures at sea were far from over. The year 1940 did not remain peaceful for long, for a scourge had fallen upon Europe and was moving over the globe at an unprecedented speed. That scourge, of course, was the Nazi Party and the beginnings of World War II. That year, the old seaman found himself once more taking part in history during the most famous rescue mission of World War II: Operation Dynamo.
Due to a rapid Blitzkrieg campaign, 400,000 Allied soldiers were trapped on the beaches near Dunkirk, France. German tanks were only 10 miles away and the British Admiralty sent out requests for private vessels to help with the evacuation. On May 30, 1940, the Admiralty tried to requisition Sundowner to go to Dunkirk. Lightoller, however, insisted on piloting the yacht himself, alongside his son and another young sea scout.
On June 1, Sundowner sailed out of Ramsgate, East Kent, England, with five other ships. On the way, Lightoller encountered a motor cruiser called Westerly, which was on fire. Sundowner picked up its crew and proceeded to Dunkirk. Sundowner only had a capacity for 21 people, but at Dunkirk, Lightoller squeezed in 130 men onto the boat. When one soldier heard that Lightoller had been an officer on Titanic he tried to jump overboard. However, one of his comrades said that if Lightoller could survive the Titanic, he could survive anything. The soldier stayed.
On the return voyage, enemy aircraft attacked Sundowner, but it avoided being hit, thanks to Lightoller’s skillful evasive techniques. Sundowner’s greatest threat came from the wash of fast moving British destroyers. The excess weight of the soldiers meant that Sundowner lay deep in the water and was at constant risk of being swamped. Luckily, the little ship made it back to Ramsgate and the soldiers were safely disembarked. Lightoller spent the rest of the war engaged in the Small Vessel Pool of the Royal Navy. He was demobilized in 1946, and died in 1952, at the age of 78, having led a remarkably eventful life.
Commander Lightoller survived several close calls with death and several successful, daring rescue missions. Eventually he also became the unwitting star of two Hollywood blockbuster stories, Titanic, and Dunkirk, released in 2017.
Where would thousands of people be if it were not for the heroism, the fight, and skill of Charles Lightoller? What made him ready for those missions and the outcomes of those missions? What prepared a man like that? What did he think about his purpose in life after his first shipwrecking? How did he manage to overcome it? We may not know the answer to all those questions, but we do know this: he kept getting back into the boat.
And this is why, Legacy Matters...
Featurette No.13 (c) www.legacyletters.xyz
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