Charles Herbert Lightoller
Charles Lightoller.jpg
Born 30 March 1874(1874-03-30)
Chorley, Lancashire, England, UK
Died 8 December 1952(1952-12-08) (aged 78)
Richmond, London, England, UK

Charles Herbert Lightoller DSC & Bar, RD, RNR (30 March 1874 – 8 December 1952) was the second mate (second officer) on board the RMS Titanic, and the most senior officer to survive the Titanic disaster. Lightoller was decorated for gallantry as a naval officer in the First World War and later, in retirement, further distinguished himself in the Second World War by providing and sailing as a volunteer one of the "little ships" during the perilous Dunkirk evacuation.

Early maritime careerEdit

Charles Herbert Lightoller was born in Chorley, Lancashire, on 30 March 1874. His mother, Sarah Lightoller, died shortly after giving birth to him. He was born into a cotton family who owned the Lightoller Mill in Chorley. His father, Fred Lightoller, abandoned young Charles and left for New Zealand. Not wanting to end up with a factory job like most of Britain's youth at the time, at the age of 13 young Charles began a four-year seafaring apprenticeship on board the Primrose Hill. On his second voyage, he set sail with the crew of the Holt Hill. During a storm in the South Atlantic, the ship was forced to put in at Rio de Janeiro — in the midst of a small pox epidemic and revolution — where repairs were made. Another storm on 13 November 1889 in the Indian Ocean caused the ship to run aground on an uninhabited, four- and-a-half-square-mile island now called Île Saint-Paul. They were rescued by the Coorong and taken to Adelaide, Australia. Lightoller joined the crew of the clipper ship Duke of Abercorn for his return to England.

Lightoller returned to the Primrose Hill for his third voyage. They arrived in Calcutta, India, where he passed his second mate's certificate. The cargo of coal caught fire while he was serving as third mate on board the windjammer Knight of St. Michael, and for his successful efforts in fighting the fire and saving the ship, Lightoller was promoted to second mate.

In 1895, at the age of 21 and a veteran of the dangers at sea, he obtained his mate's ticket and left sailing ships for steamships. After three years of service in Elder Dempster's African Royal Mail Service on the West African coast, he nearly died from a heavy bout of malaria.

Lightoller went to the Yukon in 1898, abandoning the sea, to prospect for gold in the Klondike Gold Rush. Failing at this endeavour, he then became a cowboy in Alberta, Canada. He became a hobo in order to return home, riding the rails back across Canada. He worked as a cattle wrangler on a cattle boat for his passage back to England. In 1899, he arrived home penniless. He obtained his master's certificate and joined Greenshields and Cowie for whom he made another trip on a cattle boat, this time as third mate of the Knight Companion. In January 1900, he began his career with the White Star Line as fourth officer of the Medic.

Fort Denison incidentEdit

While on the Medic, on a voyage from Britain to South Africa and Australia, Lightoller was reprimanded for a prank he and some shipmates played on the citizens of Sydney at Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour.[1] In 1900, the Boer War was raging in distant South Africa, where Australian troops were fighting alongside British in the first war in which the colonies had taken part. As a result passions were high when the White Star Line's Medic sailed into Sydney Harbour and dropped anchor in Neutral Bay. Spending time ashore with shipmates the young sailor was amazed by the depth of concern expressed by locals concerning the South African conflict, so he decided to have some fun at their expense. In the pre-dawn darkness one morning, Lightoller – accompanied by four midshipmen – quietly rowed to the fortress and climbed its tower. They hoisted a makeshift Boer flag from its lightning conductor and loaded a cannon with 14 pounds (6.4 kg) of blasting powder. They added white cotton waste and poured in some fine-grain powder, then lit a 50 feet (15 m) fuse and quickly made their escape back to the Medic to watch the spectacle from its decks.

Lightoller's plan was to fool the locals into believing a Boer raiding party was attacking Sydney and had captured Fort Denison. When the heavy gun went off, the resounding bang blew out windows and woke residents who leapt from their beds to see what was happening. When a Boer flag was found fluttering in the dawn breeze there was panic. Unfortunately for Lightoller, passengers on the Medic had seen him and his party sneaking off the ship and returning back on board prior to the incident, as had watchkeeping sailors aboard other vessels at anchor nearby. Police and port officials were soon on deck questioning the crew.

Sydney at the turn of the century was a conservative city and its residents were extremely hostile to the prank carried out by the visiting sailors. The local press bayed for the blood of those responsible and the White Star Line was forced to pay damages and apologise to the city. Officers and crew of the Medic thought Lightoller's career was over, that he would be dismissed, but the fact that he took the blame and would not divulge the names of others who had taken part in the prank went in his favour. His superiors also tacitly appreciated the humour in his escapade – he was reprimanded and passed over for promotion before the Medic quietly left Sydney Harbour and the controversy behind it.

He later joined the Majestic under the command of Captain Edward J. Smith in the Atlantic. From there, he was promoted to third officer on the RMS Oceanic, the flagship of the White Star Line. He moved back to the Majestic as first mate and then back to the Oceanic as its first mate.


Two weeks before her fateful maiden voyage, Lightoller boarded the RMS Titanic in Belfast and acted as first officer for the sea trials. Captain Edward J. Smith gave Henry Wilde, of the Olympic, the post of chief officer, demoting the original appointee William McMaster Murdoch to first officer and Lightoller to second officer. The original second officer, David Blair, was excluded from the voyage altogether, while the ship's roster of junior officers remained unchanged. Blair's departure from the crew caused a problem as he had the key to the ship's binocular case. Because the crew lacked access to binoculars, Lightoller promised to purchase them when the Titanic got to New York.

On the night of 14 April 1912, Lightoller commanded the last bridge watch prior to the ship's collision with an iceberg before being relieved by Murdoch. Lightoller had retired to his cabin and was preparing for bed when he felt the collision. Wearing only his pyjamas, Lightoller hurried out on deck to see what had happened, but seeing nothing retired back to his cabin. Deciding it would be better to remain where other officers knew where to find him if they needed him, he lay awake in his bunk until fourth officer Joseph Boxhall summoned him to the bridge. He pulled on trousers and a navy-blue sweater over his pyjamas and also donned (along with socks and shoes) his officer's overcoat and cap. Once the fate of the ship became clear, second officer Lightoller immediately went to work assisting in the evacuation of the passengers into the lifeboats.

During the evacuation, Captain Smith failed to manage and coordinate the evacuation effort, also giving ambiguous and impractical orders. Lightoller took charge of lowering the lifeboats on the port side of the Titanic. He helped to fill several lifeboats with passengers and launched them. Lightoller interpreted Smith's order for "the evacuation of women and children" as almost to the point of "women and children only". As result, Lightoller lowered lifeboats with empty seats if there were no women and children waiting to board.[2] When he attempted to launched Lifeboat 2, he found it to be occupied already by 25 male passengers and crewmen. He ordered them out of the boat at gunpoint, telling them: "Get out of there, you damned cowards! I'd like to see every one of you overboard!". He then filled the boat with women and children, but could not find enough of them to fill the boat. At the end, Boat 2 was lowered with only 17 people aboard, out of a capacity of 40.[3]

As the ship began its final plunge, Lightoller saw Captain Smith carry out a final tour of the deck before heading towards the bridge. This was the last time Lightoller saw Smith. It was a few minutes before the bridge was engulfed by the sea.[4] As the water came up onto the boat deck and washed over the bridge, Lightoller attempted to launch Collapsible B, a smaller Englehardt lifeboat with canvas sides that was stowed atop the officers' quarters, on the port side. The collapsible boat fell onto the deck upside down. Lightoller then crossed over to the starboard side of the roof, to see if he could help with Collapsible A and saw Murdoch working on the falls when a huge wave washed him overboard into the sea. That was the last time Lightoller saw the First Officer. As the ship sank, seawater washed over the entire bow, producing a large wave that rolled aft along the boat deck. Seeing crowds of people run away from the rising water and Collapsible A washing away, Lightoller decided he could do no more, and dived into the water from the roof of the officers' quarters.

Surfacing, he spotted the ship's crow's nest, now level with the water, and started to swim towards it as a place of safety before remembering that it was safer to stay away from the foundering vessel. Then Lightoller was sucked under, as water flooded down one of the forward ventilators. He was pinned there against the grating for some time by the pressure of the incoming water. A blast of hot air from the depths of the ship erupted out of the ventilator and blew him to the surface. He was pulled down again against another grating. He did not know how he got away but he did. He came to the surface again and realized he couldn’t swim properly because of the weight of the Webley revolver he was carrying in his coat pocket, which he then swiftly discarded.[5] Following this, he saw Collapsible B floating upside down with several swimmers hanging on to it. He swam to it and held himself to it by a rope at the front. Then the Titanics Number 1 (forward) funnel broke free and hit the water, washing the collapsible further away from the sinking ship.

Second officer Lightoller climbed on the boat and took charge, calming and organising the survivors (numbering around thirty) on the overturned lifeboat. He led them in yelling in unison "Boat ahoy!" but with no success. During the night a swell arose and Lightoller taught the men to shift their weight with the swells to prevent the craft from being swamped. If not for this, they would have been thrown into the freezing water again. At his direction, the men kept this up for hours until they were finally rescued by another lifeboat. Second officer Lightoller was the last survivor taken on board the rescue ship RMS Carpathia.

Lightoller and Pitman

Lightoller, right, with third officer Herbert Pitman.

After the sinking, Lightoller published a testimony in the Christian Science Journal crediting his complete faith in God for his survival.[6]

Recommendations at inquiriesEdit

As the senior surviving officer, Lightoller was a key witness at both the American and British inquiries. In his autobiography he described the American inquiry as a "farce" due to the ignorance of maritime matters implicit in some of the questions. He took the British inquiry more seriously, and wrote "it was very necessary to keep one’s hand on the whitewash brush" as "I had no desire that blame should be attributed either to the B.O.T. (British Board of Trade) or the White Star Line", despite his belief that "one had known, full well, and for many years, the ever-present possibility of just such a disaster".[7]

Lightoller blamed the accident on the seas being the calmest that night that he had ever seen in his life and on the floating icebergs giving no tell-tale early-warning signs of breaking white water at their bases. He deftly defended his employer, the White Star Line, despite hints of excessive speed, a lack of binoculars in the crow's nest, and the plain recklessness of travelling through an ice field on a calm night when all other ships in the vicinity thought it wiser to heave to until morning. Later, however, in a recounting he gave of the night's events on a 1936 BBC "I Was There" programme he reversed his defences. Lightoller was also able to help channel public outcry over the incident into positive change, as many of his recommendations for avoiding such accidents in the future were adopted by maritime nations. Basing lifeboat capacity on numbers of passengers and crew instead of ship tonnage, conducting lifeboat drills so passengers know where their lifeboats are and crew know how to operate them, instituting manned 24-hour wireless (radio) communications in all passenger ships, and requiring mandatory transmissions of ice warnings to ships were some of his recommendations made at the inquiries and acted on by the Board of Trade, its successor agencies and their equivalents in other maritime nations.

First World WarEdit

Lightoller returned to duty with White Star Line, serving as a mate on RMS Oceanic (1899). He received a promotion from Sub-Lieutenant to Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve in May 1913.[8] At the outbreak of World War I, as an officer in the RNR, he was called up for duty with the Royal Navy, first serving as a lieutenant on Oceanic, which had been converted to an armed merchant cruiser, HMS Oceanic. He served on this ship until it ran aground and was wrecked on the notorious Shaalds of Foula on 8 September 1914. In 1915, he served as the first officer during the trials of another former passenger liner, RMS Campania, which had just been converted into an aircraft carrier. In late 1915, he was given his own command, the torpedo boat HMTB 117. Whilst captain of HMTB 117 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for engaging Zeppelin L31.[9] This action also resulted in his being appointed captain of HMS Falcon, a C-class torpedo boat destroyer. 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 subsequently given command of the River-class destroyer Garry and was awarded a bar to the Distinguished Service Cross for sinking, by ramming, the German U-Boat UB110.

On 10 June 1918, Lightoller was awarded the Reserve Decoration[10] He was promoted to acting Lieutenant-Commander in July[11] and was placed on the retired list on 31 March 1919, with the rank of Commander.[12]


After the war, despite loyal service to White Star Line and faithfully defending his employers at Titanic inquiries, Lightoller soon found opportunities for advancement within the line were no longer available. All surviving crewmembers would find that being associated with Titanic was a black mark from which they could not hope to escape. A disillusioned Lightoller resigned shortly thereafter, taking such odd jobs as an innkeeper and a chicken farmer and later property speculator, at which he and his wife had some success. During the early 1930s he wrote his autobiography, Titanic and Other Ships, which he dedicated to his "persistent wife, who made me do it." This book, after a few problems, was quite popular and began to sell well. However, it was withdrawn when the Marconi Company threatened a lawsuit, owing to a comment by Lightoller regarding the Titanic disaster and the role of the Marconi operators. The retired Lightoller did not turn his back on sailing altogether, however, as he eventually purchased his own private motor yacht, Sundowner, which he later used to help rescue soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation. He received a mention in despatches in 1944.[13] The boat is now preserved by Ramsgate Maritime Museum.

After the Second World War, Lightoller managed a small boatyard called Richmond Slipways in London, which built motor launches for the river police.


Lightoller's parents were Frederick James Lightoller and Sarah Jane Widdows. His siblings, Richard Ashton and Caroline Mary Lightoller, both died of scarlet fever in early childhood. On an Australian run on board the SS Suevic in 1903, Lightoller met Sylvia Hawley-Wilson on her way home to Sydney after a stay in England.[14] On the return voyage, she accompanied Lightoller as his bride. The couple had five children: Frederick Roger, Richard Trevor, Mavis, Claire Doreen and Herbert Brian. Their youngest son Brian, an RAF pilot, was killed in action in a bombing raid over Wilhelmshaven, Germany the first night of Britain's entry into the Second World War. Their eldest son, Roger, served in the Royal Navy and died in France in the final month of the war. Richard joined the army and gained the rank of lieutenant colonel, serving under General Bernard Montgomery's command for the duration of the war. Mavis served in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, and Doreen in the Political Intelligence Unit.


Lightoller died on 8 December 1952, aged 78, of chronic heart disease. A long time pipe smoker, he was living in London during that city's Great Smog of 1952 when he died from complications of his illness. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at Mortlake Crematorium in Richmond, Surrey.



  1. "News Reports". Sydney Morning Herald (John Fairfax & Sons): pp. 4. 12 October 1900. Retrieved 9 April 2012. "The Reported Gun Fire at Fort Denison" 
  2. Barczewski 2006, p. 21.
  3. Wormstedt & Fitch 2011, p. 140.
  4. Testimony of Charles Herbert Lightoller
  5. Titanic and Other Ships, Charles H. Lightoller, Chapter 34
  6. Lieut. C.H. Lightoller, RNR (October 1912), "Testimonies From the Field", Christian Science Journal XXX (7): 414–5,, "While the Titanic was sinking, and during the whole time I was working at the boats, I held to the truth, thereby eliminating all fear. I was on the port side where all boats were got away without a hitch, the last one, a flat-bottomed collapsible, floating off the deck. I called on men to follow me up on top of the officers' quarters to cut adrift the last boat. We had no time to open it up, so just hove her down to the deck. I ran across the deck and could see that all material work was finished, so from where I was above the bridge, I walked into the water. The sudden immersion in this penetratingly cold water for a few seconds overcame all thought, and I struck out blindly for the crow's-nest which is on the foremast and then just above the water. I found myself drawn with great force against the grating covering the mouth of the huge forward blower. In this position I went below the surface with the ship. I want to emphasize strongly this point, that as soon as I collected my thoughts after taking to the water, I remember saying to myself, "Now I'll see how much I have learned from Christian Science." A doubt never entered my mind as to the ability of divine power to save me. These words from the 91st Psalm came to me so distinctly: "He shall give His angels charge over thee." "Immediately, I think, I was thrown away from the blower and came up to find a piece of wood in my hand which seemed to be attached to the top of the funnel by a wire. A second time I went down and again came to the surface. My piece of wood was gone, but alongside me was the flat-bottomed collapsible boat which I had thrown down on the other side of the ship. This I laid hold of, but made no attempt to board it. It was clear to me there was a divine power and it seemed perfectly natural to rely on it with the spiritual understanding spoken of in the Bible. With the sinking of a great ship like the Titanic, there was also the fear of suction to overcome, and at this time the forward funnel fell, throwing the boat, me, and other survivors about twenty feet clear of the ship, so that of suction we felt nothing. About thirty of us floated the remainder of the night on the upturned boat. At daybreak we found two life-boats floating nearby, into which we were taken. Reaction or effects from the immersion were none; and though surprise has been expressed by very many, it only goes to prove that "with God all things are possible"." 
  7. Titanic and Other Ships (chapter 35), Lightoller, Charles Herbert, I. Nicholson and Watson (1935)
  8. London Gazette, 15 August 1913
  9. London Gazette, 2 May 1917
  10. London Gazette, 14 June 1918
  11. London Gazette, 2 July 1918
  12. London Gazette, August 1919
  13. London Gazette, 29 December 1944
  14. Winship, Pat, "Charles Herbert Lightoller", Encyclopedia Titanica


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