“From Tragedy to Redemption: Where to from Titanic Failure?”
“The Amazing Life of Charles Lightoller”
“Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, – act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead.
Lives of great men all remind us,
That we can make our lives sublime,
And departing leave behind us,
Footprints on the sands of time.
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again!”
– Several verses borrowed from Longfellow’s “Psalm to Life”
From the 100,000 foot level, in general, human lives by and large do not vary much from one to the next. On the one hand, we are all blessed with talents and gifts and opportunities; on the other, we all have handicaps and obstacles and unfair struggles. We rise, we fall. We try things, we experiment, we succeed, and we fail – sometimes titanic failures.
And yet, lives are not so much the same. It is in the periods of time following failure and doubt that separate lives of the ordinary from lives of the marvelous. Consider the time after disaster, after failure, after ignominy; these are the milestones where the gift of free will – about our attitude – can so affect our futures, … and the lives of others.
The courses of lives are then steered by answers to the question: how long are we able to persevere, to believe in ourselves and prepare ourselves, awaiting the opportunity for redemption – even if that opportunity is a truly singular moment? For some the answer is: as long as it takes.
It is a uniquely beautiful April night in the north Atlantic. Clear skies gaze down upon two young men, the lookouts in the Crow’s Nest, some 100 feet above the ship’s main deck. They eagerly await the passing of the next twenty minutes until midnight when their shift will come to a merciful end on this crisp, cold night. The atmosphere is so clear and calm that the multitudinous stars of God’s glorious and infinite creation are not even twinkling.
Below, on the main deck, most of the senior officers have just retired for the night, ending a long, exciting, exhilarating, yet stressful day. Command of the breathtakingly huge and beautiful ocean-liner is left to the first officer, third in command overall.
At 41.8 degrees north – farther south than the California/Oregon boundary – and nearly 51 degrees west, the crew has received, via Marconigram, reports of ice in the very area that they now traverse. Yet so confident are the senior officers, based on 100 years of North Atlantic experience and their crew’s ability to detect and avoid danger, that the magnificent vessel bounds along at 22.5 knots, her greatest possible speed.
A billion-to-one convergence of circumstances will soon prove that the crew’s confidence was wrong – in fact, dead wrong.
- Experience had shown that icebergs are easily spotted by their effect on the wind; the wind was absolutely dead-calm that night, a situation seldom before encountered.
- Experience had shown that icebergs are easily spotted by the waves that break against their sides; the ocean was – unprecedentedly – as calm as a monk.
- Experience had shown that icebergs reflected even the faintest moonlight; there was no moon that night.
- Experience had shown that experienced lookouts using simple optical aids could spot icebergs at night in clear skies by the faintest reflection of stellar light that originated millions of years distant; yet the ship’s equipment inventory lacked even a single set of binoculars for the Crow’s nest for this voyage.
No other nautical disaster has had so much written about it. The sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 remains undoubtedly one of the greatest stories of all time. Excitement, arrogance, glamour, disaster, death, larger-than-life characters: Titanic had it all. It even remains one of the greatest sources of stories-within-stories of all time.
- I enjoyed the 1995 movie Titanic, even though it was rife with factual error and fictional license, thanks to the totally fabricated abbreviated love-story portrayed by the absolutely breathtaking Kate Winslet (despite the portrayal of her opposite by Leonardo DiCaprio).
- Raise the Titanic, by Colorado’s own Clive Cussler was one of my favorite reads around 1980 – just about when I finally started steadily again – and was turned into a rotten move about the same time.
You cannot possibly read all there is to read about the Titanic, fiction OR non-fiction. But this is not about the Titanic. This is about redemption. This is about the infamous ship’s most senior surviving officer: Charles Herbert Lightoller.
He was the 2nd officer on ship, the fourth most senior officer. Just as “Lights” Lightoller was about to slide off to sleep, the lookouts spotted the iceberg. They immediately notified the bridge. About 50 seconds later, despite evasive maneuvers, the Titanic struck the iceberg along its starboard side.
Lights was, of course, immediately notified. In fact, he already had a sense of what had happened. There was not much for him to do at first, and he remained virtually alone for tens of minutes. Accounts vary, but it was surely evident within 40 minutes of impact that the “monument to hubris” was doomed to ultimate demise. In fact, merely two hours and forty minutes after impact, the Titanic was totally submerged.
Lights was given responsibility for loading of the portside lifeboats (the even numbered boats). By all accounts, he performed splendidly and calmly. He was persuasive, unnerved and professional: boats were loaded with women and children only. Some survivors recall that he did this to such an extent that some lifeboats were deployed less than full; but such accounts vary widely. Lights was provided a gun, which he was not loathe to display, to insure that men did not enter the lifeboats if women or children were available.
After all available women and children were safely away, he permitted the final lifeboats to be substantially loaded with men. He refused to enter a boat himself. And the band played on.
Shortly after 2 AM the final rigid lifeboat had put to sea, one last collapsible lifeboat was being filled. It was then that the Titanic – already listing and pitching heavily – lurched and took water across the deck. Lightoller was pitched into the ocean.
While trying to find his bearings in the 30F (-1C) degree water, Lightholler was sucked against one of the intake gratings of the Titanic’s boilers, their giant volumes creating a suction as they plunged beneath the water surface. While struggling mightily and vainly to free himself, one of the massive funnels (smokestack) began to come free, allowing water down into the boilers. This sudden reverse of pressure propelled Lightoller free of the intake, toward the surface and the final collapsible raft, which was floating upside-down in the water. While he and other survivors clung to the collapsible, wondering how to get away from the sinking ship, the loosened funnel fell from the Titanic, crashing into the water near the collapsible, and pushing them away from the ship as it eerily slipped into the calm sea, below calm skies.
Until the arrival of the RMS Carpathia, around 4 AM, Lightoller kept his fellow survivors calm. As night grew to early dawn, the ocean began to swell heavily; Ligholler kept the inverted lift craft stable by instructing the several dozen survivors to move from side to side across the still inverted boat. During those hours, some of the initial survivors perished. Near dawn, the Carpathia pulled 708 survivors from the water. He was the last. [Ironically, the Carpathia was sunk by U-boats in WWI off the coast of Ireland].
Charles Herbert Lightoller was born the last of seven children to Frederick and Sarah Jane (nee: Widdows) Lightoller, in Chorley, Lancashire, England, on March 30, 1874. Sadly, his mother died from the complications of his birth, aged only 31. His father re-married twice, outliving each wife, and fathered six more children with his third wife. Weary of the younger children and seeking adventure, his father abandoned Charles when he was only thirteen, moving half-way around the world to New Zealand.
Keeping the proverbial English stiff upper lip, determined to make something of himself, and determined to lead a life of excitement, young Charles signed on as a sea-faring apprentice aboard the Primrose when he was not quite 14. Thus began his life of excitement, indeed.
Heading to India, the Primrose was caught in a storm while rounding Cape Horn. Pushed to 65 degrees south in late June, Lightoller saw the ship skirt along Antarctic ice floes.
His second sea trip was as crew member of the sister ship Holt Hill. A terrific storm forced them to put into port in Rio de Janerio in the midst of a smallpox epidemic AND a revolution. Later the boat ran hopelessly aground on a tiny uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean.
By the time he was 21 he had also survived a case of African malaria and was recognized for fighting an on-board fire.
For some reason, many British were intrigued and drawn to the adventure of the Yukon Gold Rush. In 1898, Lightoller abandoned a promising sea career to prospect for gold. As with the vast majority of fortune hunters, and characters of Robert W. Service (Sam McGee, Dan McGrew), he ended up a dismal failure, broke, and thousands of miles from home. Returning through the plains of Canada, he worked as a cowboy for a while.
By age 24 Lightoller was back in England, penniless, and re-starting his life in a sea-faring career. In 1900, age 26, he started his employment with the famous White Star Line, which was to contract and own the famed Olympic class of trans-oceanic liners: the Olympic, the Britannic and the Titanic. These were designed and advertised as the most luxurious of all ocean liners.
Lightoller quickly became a highly regarded officer of the White Star Line, serving as high as first-officer (third most senior behind captain and chief officer) on many assignments. He was fun loving, well liked, and respected. He progressed well in his career, serving as first officer on such prestigious ocean liners as the Majestic and the Oceanic.For the honor of serving aboard the prestigious Titanic, Lightoller took a “demotion” to second officer.
Career after the Titanic.
Lightoller arrived in New York on April 18 with the other Titanic survivors. On and off for 14 days he was questioned and gave testimony before the US Congress. Shortly thereafter, an inquiry by the Board of Trade in England went on for 18 days.
A reading of the testimony and questions indicates that there was probably polite professional courtesy on all sides. Yet the content of many questions clearly showed a combination of ignorance about sea navigation and frustration at the lack of caution exhibited by the staff. And there were slight inconsistencies in his testimony describing some timing and where he was when certain events occurred. But he always kept his wits:
Senator Smith: “What time did you leave the ship?”
Lights: “I didn’t leave it.”
Smith: “Did the ship leave you?”
CHL: “Yes, sir.”
The hearings led to several useful recommendations regarding the use of wireless (continuous and not to be distracted by commercial traffic) and capacity of lifeboats (to be based on head count, not tonnage), briefing the passengers on lifeboats (like flight attendants today).
Lightoller returned to the White Star Line, although mention of his name usually caught attention. It is hard to imagine that Lightoller’s presence was anything more than barely tolerated in most company and general discussions. I’m thinking officer of Lehman Brothers, or AIG here. He was the walking, talking, living face of the arrogance, the hubris, that led to the Titanic disaster.
The Great War broke out in August, 1914. Lightoller, now age 40, was assigned as lieutenant on the Oceanic, the same ship he had been serving on, which was pressed into service and converted to an armed merchant cruiser. He served on several more ships before being given command of a destroyer and later a torpedo boat. He is credited with successfully driving away an attack of a Zeppelin on civilian sites and sinking a U-boat by ramming it. By war’s end he had earned two Distinguished Service Crosses and been promoted to commander.
After the armistice ended the Great War (See my essay 11th hour) Lightoller returned to his career with White Star. As with all surviving crew of the Titanic, Lightoller soon found that the event was an anchor on his career. As with the other surviving officers, White Star was unable to find worthy assignments for even such a distinguished and experienced seaman. Lightoller grew disillusioned and retired.
Retirement. Lights put himself to work in his post-sea career. He tried his hand at chicken farming, as hotelier, and even as real estate speculator. Based on his fame (or infamy) he wrote and successfully published his autobiography which was well received. For this he was successfully sued by the Marconi Company for some of his explanations about the Titanic – explanations that were interpreted as negative comments about the wireless operators, all Marconi employees. This is a bit odd, since the recommendations from the inquiries, which were implemented, in effect made the same insinuations about the wireless operators. He was forced to pull the book from publication. (However, I found it online )
He also bought a 50 ft boat that he used in a side business for tourists and sight-seers, and for the fun of getting out to sea whenever he could. His wife since 1903, an Aussie he had found and courted on one of his early round-the-world trips, named it Sundowner; Aussie-speak for “wanderer.”
Forward to 1940. Operation Sichelschnitt (Sickle cut)
World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland; quickly followed by the Soviet rush to claim her portion of that unfortunate country. Despite declarations of war by France and England, Europe went uneasily silent until April, 1940. Then the Third Reich moved quickly to take and occupy Norway and Denmark; while the Soviets expanded by forced annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
By May anything could happen, and on May 10 it did. The Nazi German army launched Operation Sichelschnitt – a clever facsimile of the Schlieffen Plan, a plan that had nearly won WWI in one fell swoop in 1914.
Early in WWI, the German’s Schlieffen plan called for a rapid surge against and through neutral Belgium, followed by streaking behind French lines to the west and south of Paris – which could be attacked from the rear. This nearly ended The Great War in the first weeks. Unfortunately for the Germans, they turned east too soon, and ended up meeting the French outside Paris on its Northern outskirts – a direct frontal battle ensued, rather than an attack against an unprotected flank and city.
Now, in 1940, the first major blows of Sichelschnitt were blitzkrieg attacks against neutral Holland and Belgium, luring the British and French into thinking this was a re-enactment of the Schlieffen Plan – an attempt to swing wide in order to attack Paris away from the Maginot line. By taking Holland, which they had not done in WWI, the Nazis enhanced the ruse, seemingly intent on firmly securing their right flank to anchor the wide sweep. (Not swinging wide enough is the main reason, according to many military historians, that Germany turned to soon and narrowly in WWI).
The Allies had studied history and were well prepared – for the last war. The British Expeditionary Force sent nearly a quarter million men, together with nearly as many French, from the France-Belgium border northward to protect Belgium’s neutrality and thwart the wide sweep before it could begin.
Once these Allied forces were fully committed, and began to engage, the Wehrmacht unexpectedly launched its main attack behind and to the right flank of the Allies – through the difficult terrain of the Ardennes. German modernized mechanized divisions were able to punch through this terrain in Luxembourg and race westward across the northern French countryside straight to the channel behind the British and French forces; – together with the first army group from Belgium this effectively trapped about 400,000 British, Canadian and French soldiers. The entrapped allied armies eventually withdrew to the small coastal town of Dunkirk near the France-Belgium border. A complete and total disaster – one that could force even a Britain led by the newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill to withdraw from the war – was imminent. [American participation, of course, was nowhere to be seen; Pearl Harbor was over 18 months away].
There was no way for the British armed forces to rescue all of these men, even at only a few miles away across the channel. Yet rescuing them was terribly crucial to continuing the war against Fascism, against Nazism. It was the last week of May, 1940; and it was nearly the last week of the war. And yet … Hitler left a small opportunity: To preserve his army for the later swing to Paris, he was persuaded by Hermann Göring, Field Marshall of the Luftwaffe, to hold the army back from administering the final, fatal blow. The Luftwaffe with near total air superiority would bomb and strafe the Brits to annihilation.
Thus the actions of men set up one of those magical moments in history: the people rise up to rescue their government.
Save an army, save the government.
Save the government, save the world.
In addition to several dozen ships of the Royal Navy, an armada of over 700 water craft – most of them owned by private citizens and private operations – engaged in the largest sea evacuation in history. Churchill called it “one of the greatest military defeats of the centuries”; he meant that as a good thing.
When the government came to appropriate Lightoller’s personal boat – his precious last connection to the sea, his Sundowner – his response was “no way.” He intended to pilot that boat himself. He and his oldest son set off for Dunkirk. Across the channel they went.
While waiting in the shallow harbor, a Luftwaffe bomb landed so near that seams of the wooden boat’s fittings shifted and began to leak. No worries; Lightoller loaded 137 men (140 total with his crew and himself) nonetheless onto a boat designed to carry no more than a few dozen.
Lightoller was age 66 and veteran of virtually every sea-adventure one could have; the best was the last. He set the leaky yet functional Sundowner toward England – the Luftwaffe overhead.
In the days of dumb-bombs and dumb ammunition, planes attacking ground and sea assets would line up their bombing and strafing runs moments ahead of the actual attack to “guide in” their delivery. Boats’ wakes left easily visible lines to help them do this.
Lightoller and his son kept a lookout for planes looping around on them. As each plane dove down, accelerating to a vector with such speed that they were fully committed, Lightoller suddenly turned the surprisingly responsive boat; every attack narrowly missied the Sundowner. Halfway across the channel, the Luftwaffe gave up – returning to Dunkirk.
After Dunkirk, Lightoller returned to a quiet private life. He ran a small boatyard. He remained married. He died in 1952.
Charles Herbert “Lights” Lightoller (1874-1952): Adventurer; survivor of epidemics and multiple shipwrecks including the Titanic; extinguisher of shipboard fires at sea; gold prospector; cowboy; world traveler; hotel operator; chicken farmer; real estate speculator; author; cruise boat owner and operator; shipyard operator; faithful husband (49 years); father; war hero in uniform and out of uniform; titanic failure and (most important) 28 years later, a national – if not world – redeemed hero.
May we always have real heroes, even if their stories are forgotten.
Joe Girard © 2009, 2017
- Immediate family: http://boards.ancestry.ca/surnames.lightoller/11/mb.ashx
- Read Lightoller’s autobiography: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0301011h.html
- And the band played on: http://www.titanic-titanic.com/titanic_band.shtml
- Boards of Inquiry Testimony: http://www.titanicinquiry.org/USInq/AmInq01Lightoller01.php
- Picture of Lightoller’s Sundowner: http://www.east-kent.freeserve.co.uk/PictureGallery/RamsHarb1/sundowner.htm http://www.janeandrichard.co.uk/photos/20021227/img_3777/
- Ancestry help: http://boards.ancestry.ca/topics.obits2/16435/mb.ashx
- Excellent on line essay: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa4442/is_200807/ai_n27899260?tag=content;col1
- The character Mr Dawson in the 2017 hit Movie “Dunkirk” played by Mark Rylance appears to be based largely on Charles Lightoller.
Afterward: I’ve read so much history, especially WWII stuff, that I am astounded that I have not come across the life of this astounding man until recently. There are other pretty good pieces on him. I just felt like I had to write one of my own.