Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, November 24, 2023

Remembering a Veteran: Charles Herbert Lightoller, RNR, Titanic Survivor & Naval Hero in Both World Wars

Commander Charles Lightoller, RNR

The roll of Titanic survivors includes one name whose military and naval service in the coming World Wars was truly extraordinary. Charles Lightoller (1874–1952) was second officer on the Titanic when she sank. He was the most senior officer to survive the sinking. Lightoller survived aboard Collapsible B. As the ship began its final plunge, Lightoller attempted to launch Collapsible B on the port side. This collapsible boat was one of the smaller Engelhardt lifeboats with canvas sides and was stowed atop the officers' quarters.

Called to active service in 1914, Lightoller's reputation survived the early grounding incident of  the armed merchant cruiser HMS Oceanic, on which he was serving as an officer, to give him subsequent command of a number of vessels. In 1916, his torpedo boat HMBT-117 attacked and drove off zeppelin L-31, earning him a DSC.  This action resulted in his being appointed captain of HMS Falcon, a C-class torpedo boat destroyer and for the next two years Lightoller served with the Falcon on the "Dover patrol," protecting the Dover Straits and engaging German destroyers conducting night time raids. Falcon was sunk on 1 April 1918 after a collision, in fog, with the trawler, John Fitzgerald, while both ships were acting as escorts to a convoy in the North Sea. Lightoller was quickly exonerated in a court martial for the loss of the ship, and he was commended for remaining on board the ship along with his first officer until the majority of the crew had been evacuated.

Later in the war, his destroyer command HMS Garry rammed and sank German submarine U-110, earning him a bar for his DSC. Ending the war as a full naval commander, he returned to work with the White Star Line. He was, however, denied a captaincy on a major ship—probably because of the taint of the Titanic disaster—and retired in 1926. 

Sundowner at Ramsgate Maritime Museum

In 1940, Lightoller would again serve in war, commanding his own vessel, the Sundowner, in the Dunkirk evacuation. He and his son rescued not only 130 soldiers from the beaches but also the crew of another rescue vessel that was sinking after taking enemy fire. Charles Lightoller's actions that day were the inspiration for the character Dawson in the film Dunkirk, who set sail on his private yacht with his son to rescue soldiers. During the threatened invasion of 1940–41, he was placed in command of a "Small Armed Vessel," patrolling the River Blackwater, Essex. Lightoller then ferried arms and ammunition for the Royal Army Service Corps until the end of the war. A long-time pipe smoker, he died during London's Great Smog of 1952.

Sources: Over the Top, March 2012; Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. Charles Lightoller lost two sons in WW2. His youngest son, a Blenheim bomber pilot, was killed right at the beginning of the war, on 4th September 1939 on a raid on the Kiel Canal. His oldest son, a Torpedo Boat Flotilla Commander, was killed almost at the end of the war, in the ground fighting during the German raid on Granville, France in March 1945.