A Titanic Connection: Second Officer Charles Lightoller 1874 – 1952
by Steve Williams
It is amazing what history is to be seen in Brindle and surrounding area, yet we can walk by it without realising. There is a little known connection between Brindle and the R.M.S Titanic, the famous liner that sank on its maiden voyage in April, 1912. The family of Second Officer Charles Lightoller are buried in Brindle St. James’ churchyard, although they were originally from Yarrow Bridge at the other side of Chorley.
Charles Herbert Lightoller was born in Chorley, on 30th March 1874, and a mere thirteen years later, he had gone to sea. His early career was packed with near-disaster and high-drama, which he came through unscathed, although it must have made a much better man of him. Charles Lightoller’s career with the White Star Line began in 1900, and from that point on, as is the case with all good officers, he would be posted aboard bigger and better vessels, and at the same time, all being well, he would rise through the ranks with the eventual aim of being given his own command.
Lightoller was assigned the post of Fourth Officer aboard Medic, a 12,000 ton passenger liner that was also equipped with 7 refrigerated holds, allowing her to carry cattle carcasses and suchlike on the long haul to South Africa and Australia. His next ship was the Majestic and he served under Captain Edward Smith, a partnership that would recur again before too long aboard Titanic. His next posting was a promotion, as he was made Third Officer of the Oceanic II, which at the time was the ship to be on, as she was without doubt the pride of the White Star Line.
On the Titanic, Lightoller was known to all as “Lights”, and after his heroic efforts on that fateful night he was the last Titanic survivor taken aboard Carpathia. Soon afterwards, “Lights” became the First Officer of Oceanic, which he was onboard when the ship ran aground in the Shetlands. He was then assigned to the seaplane carrier Campania, a former Cunard ship.
During World War One, Lightoller became commander of torpedo boat HMTB 117 in 1915. He destroyed Zeppelin L31 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was also given command of the torpedo-boat-destroyer Falcon, which eventually sank on the sixth anniversary of the Titanic disaster. Then he was given command of the destroyer Garry, which rammed and sank the German submarine UB-110. For this heroic effort, Lightoller was awarded a bar to his DSC and promoted to Lieutenant-Commander; by war’s end, Lightoller was a full commander.
When Lightoller returned to White Star Line in 1919, he was given the position as Celtic’s Chief Officer. He almost became commander of ‘Olympic’, but he was passed over. The reason why the company for whom he had served twenty years had forgotten him was rather simple – the White Star Line was superstitious about having any Titanic officer become a captain of any ship of theirs; disgusted, Lightoller quit.
In 1929, he purchased a discarded Admiralty steam launch, which was refitted, lengthened, converted to diesel, and renamed ‘Sundowner’. When 400,000 Allied troops were cornered by the Germans at the French port of Dunkirk, Lightoller and his ‘Sundowner’ took action. On 1st June 1940, Lightoller and several other small-boat sailors headed towards the trapped troops and took part in “Operation Dynamo.” Even though Sundowner’s capacity was limited to 21, Lightoller somehow managed to fit over 130 men in his yacht. When one soldier heard that Lightoller had been an officer on Titanic, the soldier almost jumped overboard until he was persuaded that Lightoller was lucky due to the fact that he survived. Despite attempts from Luftwaffe airplanes to sink Sundowner and other rescue ships, they all arrived safely back to Britain only 12 hours after they had departed. In the next 11 days over 338,000 men were taken safely to England, making Operation Dynamo one of the greatest rescues of all time.
Commander Lightoller died on 8th December, 1952. Before his death, he had published his own account of the sinking of the Titanic. Although the book is riddled with factual errors, it offers unique insight into Lightoller’s mind that fateful night. He was cremated at Mortlake Crematorium and the ashes scattered in the Garden of Remembrance there.
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