March 30, 1874 - December 8, 1952
Age at time of disaster: 38
Birthplace: Chorley, Lancashire, England
1912 Residence: Southampton, England
Salary/Month: 14.00.00 (in English pounds)
Berth before Titanic: Oceanic, First Officer
Description: "Charles Herbert Lightoller was very much the popular image of a steamship officer. Tall, sun-bronzed, handsome, and with a deep, pleasant speaking voice. Lightoller was a good officer and an outstanding seaman." (Daniel Allen Butler, "Unsinkable" The Full Story of the RMS Titanic, page 46)
James Cameron's Titanic
- Lightoller family motto
"Don't you bother, the sea isn't wet enough to drown me.
I'll never be drowned."
-- Charles Lightoller to his sister Janie
|[Before White Star Line]||[White Star Line]||[April 14, 1912]||[Afterwards]||[Goodbyes]|
Before White Star Line
Charles Herbert Lightoller was born in Chorley, Lancashire on March 30, 1874. A month after he was born, his mother died. Within a year one of his sisters and his grandfather also died, leaving Lightoller and his remaining sisters to be cared for by their father. But apparently the strain was too much for him because one day he simply up and left his children for New Zealand with his new life. The Lightoller children were left to be raised by an aunt and uncle who felt extremely burdened by this and never let Lightoller forget it. In turn, Lightoller would never forgive his father for the abandonment. Although the industrial revolution thrived in the northwest of England, Lightoller chose not to become just some ordinary factory worker like his forefathers, he chose to become a sailor and make a name for himself. He began his four year seaman's apprenticeship aboard the Primrose Hill at the age of thirteen. After that, Lightoller's life reads like a fascinating novel and reminds one of a plot for a blockbuster adventure film. Aboard the Primrose Hill he learned that life at sea was hard- rats, cockroaches, horrible food, scorching heat and freezing cold. But he loved it all the same. It was on this first journey that he encountered his first iceberg. His next would be many years later with disastrous results. The next ship he served on was the Holt Hill with Captain Jock Sutherland, the toughest there was. She was sailing through the South Atlantic when she ran into a violent storm and was demasted. The crew struggled her into Rio de Janeiro, a city under siege of both revolution and an epidemic of small pox. On November 13, 1889, the poor Holt Hill was again demasted in a storm and ran aground on a deserted island in the Indian Ocean called St. Paul. The Chief Mate was killed and the rest of the survivors had to wait eight days with hardly any food and water that Lightoller felt tasted like 'a mixture of rotten eggs and classroom chalk', until they were finally rescued by the Coorong and taken to Australia. They arrived on Christmas day, 1889, more than a month after the shipwreck. After spending some time enjoying Australia and the hospitality of its people, Lightoller signed aboard the Duke of Abercorn for his return home to England. Most people would be daunted by these unusual circumstances and tempted to leave life at sea, but not Lightoller. He signed back aboard the Primrose Hill and survived a cyclone on the journey to Calcutta, India. It was here that he received his Second Mate's Certificate, beating out the three other boys that were also up for it. After that, he became Third Mate on the Knight of St. Michael, which was carrying a cargo of coal. Wouldn't you know it but the coal caught fire. They reached the coast of South America and Lightoller helped his skipper find help while the crew put out the fire. For his efforts, coupled with the fact that the Second Mate had a drinking problem that the captain could no longer tolerate, Lightoller was promoted to Second Mate.
Lightoller's career on steamships began in 1895 at the age of twenty one when he joined Elder Dempster's African Royal Mail Service. Lightoller knew there was a better chance of promotion in steam and had found that sailing windjammers was becoming more and more hazardous to his health. He spent three years with Elder Dempster (mostly as Third Officer aboard the Niagara) and almost died from malaria as a result of his time sailing the coast of Africa. This was enough for Lightoller to rethink his decisions and leave the sea. But the adventure does not end here. He went to Canada in 1898 and joined the gold rush, prospecting for gold in the Yukon. Being unsuccessful in finding his fortune in gold and almost dying of starvation, Lightoller briefly worked as a cowboy in the Canadian west. Although he enjoyed working as a cowboy, he quickly found out there was no money in it. He had made a deal with himself before leaving England that if he failed he would simply return home. So, feeling no shame, that's what he did. He traveled as a hobo across Canada's railways as far as Winnepeg. When he arrived there the city was in the midst of a great international festival and Lightoller managed to make some extra cash painting and putting up spectator stands. After three weeks he got on a train for Montreal, this time as a paying passenger. In exchange for his passage back to England, he worked as a wrangler on a cattle boat. By the time he returned to England it was 1899. Lightoller was twenty five years old and penniless. The sea must have been calling again for he got his Master's Certificate (No. 029, 706), joined Greensheilds and Cowie, and briefly returned to cattle boats.
The White Star Line
Lightoller began his career with the White Star Line in January of 1900. White Star only employed the best and their officers had to be fully trained in sail, hold a Master's Certificate, and be prepared to join the Royal Naval Reserve upon joining the company. This was not a problem for Lightoller and it is no surprise that he was hired right away. It was here that he met the man who would be his longtime friend and colleague- William Murdoch. The two served on many of the same ships together. Lightoller started out as Fourth Officer on the Medic's Australian run. After this he switched briefly to Atlantic routes. Around 1903, after he had gone back to the Australian run, Lightoller met a woman named Sylvia Hawley-Wilson, an Australian returning home after a visit to England, on the Medic. She was the most beautiful woman Lightoller had ever seen . "As she could not walk easily owing to a foot deformity from childhood, and the motion of the ship taking her home to Australia constantly threatened to send her headlong, 'Lights' stepped forward and literally swept her off her feet to carry her up and down the companionways." (Stenson 127). By the time the two returned to England they were married. Eventually, the couple had five children: Roger, Trevor, Mavis, Doreen, and Brian. Throughout the years, Lightoller gained considerable experience at the sea. He became one of the best, an expert of his trade. He, like many sailors, dreamed of one day commanding his own vessel and it was a dream that seemed not too far out of reach.
He spent much of his career on the Majestic, working with Captain E.J. Smith, a man whom Lightoller both liked and admired very much. He was then promoted to Third Officer aboard the Oceanic, which at the time was the best the White Star Line had to offer. When its port of call was changed from Liverpool to Southampton in 1907, the Lightollers had to move. He was promoted: from Second Officer on the Oceanic, to First Officer on the Majestic, and then back to First Officer on the Oceanic.
In early 1912, Lightoller was serving as First Officer aboard the Oceanic. He was on his way up. In March he (along with other officers from the Oceanic; David Blair, Herbert Pitman, and James Moody) was transferred to the Titanic. This transfer (as with many others from ships like the Olympic and the New York) was partly due to the coal strike that put many ships temporarily out of service. Lightoller would be serving under Captian E.J. Smith and William Murdoch as Chief Officer. The original departure date for the Titanic was set for March 20 but was bumped up to April 10 because repairs had to be made on her sister ship the Olympic after a collision with the HMS Hawke. Lightoller arrived in Belfast on March 20, ten days before his thirty eighth birthday. Although a skilled seaman and familiar with many types of ships, it took him two weeks to become comfortable in finding his way around the massive Titanic. In his autobiography published years later he describes it this way:
Being a brand new ship, there was much to be organized. As First Officer, it was Lightoller's responsibility to make sure all the navigation instruments were in order as well as the firearms and ammunition. Firearms were merely ornamental on a modern passenger liner like the Titanic and were very rarely needed. Lightoller stowed them and their ammunition in a locker in his cabin.
After being delayed a day due to wind that dangerously stirred the waters of the River Lagan and the Victoria Channel, Titanic's sea trials began at ten am on Tuesday, April 2. She maneuvered, turned, and sailed all day and then returned to port for some last minute kitchen cargo and reception room chairs. She left Belfast at eight pm and arrived at White Star's Berth 44 just after midnight on April 3.
In Southampton, there was some rearrangement of the officers. The Olympic's Chief Officer, Henry Wilde was transferred to be Chief Officer aboard the Titanic to capitalize his knowledge of larger liners. This bumped Murdoch down to First Officer, Lightoller down to Second, and David Blair was bumped off the ship entirely. The rest of the officer's positions (Pitman as Third, Boxhall as Fourth, Lowe as Fifth, and Moody as Sixth) remained the same. After a few days everyone affected by the switch was settled in their new duties.
Titanic's first four days at sea were uneventful at most. The weather was fine and clear and her speed was good. The passengers marveled at this wondrous ship, happy to be aboard the maiden voyage of the most luxurious passenger liner in the world. They made wagers with each other on how many miles she had covered each day, which were posted in the main companionways and smoking rooms. Lightoller says in his biography, "As day followed day, officers and men settled down into the collar, and duty linked up with duty until the watches went by without pause or hitch." Things seemed very good to all aboard, passengers and crew alike. But things were about to change dramatically.
April 14, 1912
Sunday April 14 dawned calm and clear, like the others. Captain Smith presided over a church service at ten thirty that morning in the first class dining saloon for all passengers. Strangely enough, he had canceled the scheduled lifeboat drill to do so. At noon, the officers gathered on the wing of the navigating bridge to "shoot the sun" and calculated the ships position. As the day went on, the temperature dropped noticeably. "Between 5:30 and 7:30 pm, the air temperature dropped ten degrees, to 33 degrees F" (Eaton 114). Throughout the day, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, the wireless operators, received ice warnings from ships such as the Noordam, Amerika, Californian, and Mesba. The wireless had broken down early that morning and had taken quite awhile to fix it. This caused the personal messages from paying passengers to back up and Bride and Phillips were busy the rest of the day sending them. As a result many of the ice warnings did not reach the bridge. But the officers were aware that they would reach ice somewhere around eleven pm.
The night was cold and crisp. There was no moon, no wind. The sea was completely calm and flat like glass. Lightoller's schedule that evening is as follows:
Lightoller was just drifting off to sleep when he felt a slight but sudden jar in the ship's vibration. Knowing something unusual had happened, he hopped out of his bunk and went out on deck. He peered out into the cold darkness over the port side and, seeing nothing, he crossed over to the starboard side. Still, he saw nothing and returned to his quarters. About ten minutes later, Fourth Officer Boxhall entered his quarters and finding Ligtoller awake said quietly, "We have hit an iceberg" and informed him that the water was up to F deck in the Mail Room. Lightoller quickly pulled a sweater, trousers, and coat over his pajamas and hurried out on deck.
The night was very cold but the sky was filled with brilliant stars. The ship was stopped and, since she had been going at full steam all day, all the safety valves had been lifted and were letting off all the steam and exhaust with a deafening roar. It was impossible to be heard, so Lightoller, the other officers, and crew used hand gestures to communicate with one another while swinging out and uncovering the lifeboats. At around 12:25 am, Lightoller approached the Captain and yelled over the noise, "Hadn't we better get the women and children into the boats, sir?" The Captain nodded his permission.
At this time, Lightoller knew the situation was serious, but he did not actually think the ship would sink.
Listen to this wav from the real Lightoller (360 K). It talks about loading the lifeboats and seeing the Californian in the distance. By now, the noise had stopped and Lightoller took charge of the lifeboats on the port side. He began with #4, which he planned to load from the promenade deck. Unfortunately, the windows were locked so he moved on to #6.
Lightoller put about twenty five people in boat #6, among them Mrs. J.J. "Molly" Brown. On the way down, someone (presumably Quartermaster Hichens) called up, saying that there was only one seaman aboard. Lightoller called out for another and Major Arthur Peuchen, a yachtsman from Canada, volunteered. Lightoller told him, "If you are seaman enough to get out on those falls and get down into the boat you may go ahead." Peuchen did, becoming the only man Lightoller allowed into a lifeboat.
It was around this time that Chief Officer Wilde asked Lightoller if he knew where the firearms were. Originally being First Officer, of course Lightoller knew where they were. He brought Wilde to them. There, the Chief Officer handed him a revolver, just in case, which Lightoller slipped into his pocket.
Lightoller then loaded boat #8 with twenty four women and four members of the crew and sent them away. Then it was #12 at 1:25 am with about forty. At 1:30 am, #14 was loaded with about fifty with Fifth Officer Lowe in charge. At this time, Lightoller was loading women and children only. Under no circumstance (with the exception of Major Peuchen) would he let a man into the lifeboats.
Finally, the windows on the promenade decks were opened and Lightoller, aided by Colonel Archibald Gracie and Clinch Smith, could finish loading #4. With one foot in the boat and the other foot on the window sill, Lightoller helped such ladies as Madeline Astor, Mrs. Widener, and Mrs. Thayer to board. He tried to keep thirteen year old Jack Ryerson out but he was overruled by the boy's father.
Lightoller was now beginning to realize that Titanic was in serious danger.
Boat #2 was lowered at 1:55 am with thirty six aboard but only after Lightoller expelled the group of men that had tried to over take it. He threatened them with his unloaded revolver and they quickly jumped out.
By 2:00 am, all that were left were the four Englehardt collapsible boats. Lightoller loaded collapsible D (from the davits where #2 had been lowered) but he had a hard time finding women to fill it. He allowed some men in to fill the spaces. As he was loading, Chief Officer Wilde ordered Lightoller to go with D. "Not damn likely!" was Lightoller's reply and he jumped back on deck. Collapsible D was then sent away.
Collapsible B was the last boat left on the port side but it was lashed to the roof of the officer's quarters and the ship was going down fast. Lightoller climbed up on the roof and used a borrowed pen knife to cut the ropes and pushed it on to the deck below him. Crowds of people were beginning to surge towards higher ground (the stern) and the ship took a great plunge forward. Collapsible B was washed off the deck, the bridge dipped under, and water was now lapping at Lightoller's feet on the roof of the officer's quarters. He knew if he joined the mass of people racing for the stern, he would only be postponing the inevitable, so he did the only thing he could do- he jumped off the roof. The water was a frigid 28 degrees and because Lightoller had been sweating freely despite to cold night air, it hit him especially hard. He struggled against the shock to regain his bearings and began to swim away from the ship when he was suddenly sucked back and pinned against a ventilation grate. This grate was at the base of the forward funnel and went all the way down to boiler room 6. He was stuck, going down with the ship, and he was drowning. He silently prayed to himself, recalling Psalm 91. "He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways." As if God had answered him, a blast of hot air blew up from the belly of the ship, throwing Lightoller clear. No sooner had he gulped a lungful of air when he was dragged back down again, pinned to yet another grate. Although he is unsure exactly sure how, he miraculously got clear of this grate too. Read Psalm 91 and also find out about Lightoller's involvement with Christian Science here.
When he broke the surface, he was floating along side Collapsible B. It was upside down, exactly the way it had floated off the deck not long before. He grabbed a piece of rope attached to the side of the boat and floated with it.
As the Titanic's bow sank lower and lower, it caused the forward funnel to come crashing down into the water. It fell between the ship and Collapsible B, narrowly missing Lightoller by inches. This caused a huge wave that washed Collapsible B (and Lightoller) well clear of the ship, at least fifty yards or so. The rope was still in his hand and there were several men standing on top of the upturned boat. Lightoller pulled himself aboard as well. He turned and watched as Titanic's stern swung up in the air, exposing her massive propellers to those in the lifeboats and in the water. She did not stop until she was in what Lightoller described as "an absolutely perpendicular position." She stayed that way for only a minute or so, then she slowly sank down into the water, with only a small gulp as her stern disappeared beneath the waves.
There were about thirty men standing on top of the upside down boat, among them Colonel Arichibald Gracie, many firemen and other crewmen, the seventeen year old assistant cook John Collins, and the assistant wireless operator Harold Bride. Many have said that Jack Phillips, the senior operator, was also aboard and died during the night but no one knows for sure. The men recited the Lord's Prayer and Lightoller took command of the boat. It was slowly sinking and the waves were coming up again. To keep the boat from capsizing, Lightoller had the men lean with the waves- to the left, to the right, or standing straight. Bride informed Lightoller which rescue ships were responding, making Collapsible B the only lifeboat that knew that they would be saved.
By dawn, Carpathia's lights could be seen on the horizon. The men on the sinking Collapsible were finally transferred into two lifeboats and Lightoller was put into #12. He once again took command but found himself in a boat that was ten persons over its sixty five person capacity. Boat #12 rode low in the water as it approached the Carpathia. Wave after wave broke over its bow but soon it was in the shelter of the rescue liner. Lightoller made sure all his charges were safely aboard before he himself climbed the rope ladder up to Carpathia's decks. He was the last survivor to board.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lightoller, Captain Rostron, and a Carpathian Officer shortly after the rescue
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]