The Incredible Story of Charles Lightoller: the “Titanic” Officer who Saved Soldiers from the Shores of Dunkirk

For most of us, spending the night precariously perched atop an upturned lifeboat in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic would be enough to put us off the sea forever. The experience would stay with us forever, felt in our bones and etched into memory. But while our shared survivalist instincts sign us up to this “once bitten twice shy” philosophy, some are able to overcome trauma more easily than others. And one man who proved more able than most was Charles Herbert Lightoller (1874 – 1952).

Serving as the second officer aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic, the 38-year-old was already a seasoned veteran by the time of the disaster, just short of midnight on April 14 1912. The Lancashire born lad first went to sea at the age of just 13, and he had not yet celebrated his sixteenth birthday when he was first shipwrecked, washed up on an island in the South Indian Ocean after a fierce storm gutted his ship. After eight days on the island, Lightoller was rescued when a passing ship spotted the smoke from their campfire. He and the other survivors were taken to Adelaide, Australia, where he found passage for his return to England.

Charles Lightoller as a young man. Lancashire Telegraph

Lightoller’s promotion came when he was serving as third mate aboard the Knight of St. Michael. While out on the oceans the ship’s coal cargo caught fire, plunging the ship and her crew into grave danger. But Lightoller reacted quickly, and his success in dousing the flames and saving the ship earned him the respect of his fellow sailors and his promotion to second mate. Yet even this wasn’t the end of his early trials and tribulations. While working for the Elder Dempster’s Royal Mail Service off the coast of West Africa, Lightoller caught malaria. It wasn’t bad enough to kill him, but it was enough to kill his love for the life at sea.

In 1898, Lightoller tried his hand at gold prospecting during the Klondike Gold Rush. Rather than striking rich, however, the twenty-four year old Lightoller decided to count his losses and take up work as a cowboy in Alberta, Canada. Again, this was short lived. Lightoller had little aptitude for working with cattle, and just a year after arriving in Canada the destitute sailor was forced to begin his journey back to England, riding rails to the coast where, rather fittingly, he haggled his way onto a cattle boat bound for England.

Prospectors of the Klondike Gold Rush. Encylopedia Britannica.

Charles Lightoller started working for White Star Line in 1900. He first served aboard the passenger-cargo liner, the Medic before being transferred to the Suevic, and it was during his time working on the latter that he met his future wife, the Australian Sylvia Hawley-Wilson, who accompanied him to England. Lightoller then came under the captaincy of Edward J. Smith, working for him first on the SS Majestic, then on the RMS Oceanic and finally on the RMS Titanic.