A Titanic Hero at Dunkirk: Charles Lightoller – Rewind
Originally released October 18, 2021. Charles Lightoller was the Second Officer on board the ill-fated maiden voyage of the H.M.S. Titanic. Only saved by an exploding boiler, he went on to a notable life and may have been responsible for saving hundreds of lives during the World War II evacuation of Dunkirk. In this episode, we talk about the Titanic, Charles Lightoller and the heroic actions in Dunkirk, France. Then we invite Comedian and Circus Performer Jonathan Burns on to play the quick quiz!
In America, we tend to focus on World War Two stories that occur after Pearl Harbor – that is, after America was provoked into becoming involved in the war. But one of the most amazing stories of heroism during the second World War happened during the Battle of Dunkirk between May 26th and June 4th of 1940.
The Allies were losing the war. Nazi Germany had invaded Poland the previous September and by early May, they had now entered Belgium, the Netherlands and France. The British Expeditionary Force was sent to help defend France. But Germany’s powerful Panzer Tank divisions had trapped The BEF, a small contingent of Belgian Troops and three French field armies against the Northern Coast of France. There was no safe land route for escape and it was determined that the only course of action was a full evacuation from the nearest port city, Dunkirk France to safety in Dover, England.
To explain the events leading up to the evacuation of Dunkirk, I’d have to take more time than I’m allowed on the podcast because I’d have to explain the Battle and the conditions that left the troops stranded, so we’ll just skip past a fierce battle and jump forward to the point where the German tanks were stopped by canals outside of the port city and now it was up to a powerful German Luftwaffe air attack to drop bombs and complete strafing runs on the surrounded troops. They had all mostly filed out to the beaches, waiting without cover for ship transport to Dover – a passage that, at its shortest, was 39 nautical miles. There were somewhere around 400,000 troops waiting to evacuate Dunkirk. They were surrounded by twice that many German troops. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that with the available ships, he thought they would only be able to evacuate around 45,000 troops.
What occurred next has been referred to as the “Miracle at Dunkirk.” The official codename was “Operation Dynamo.” The word was spread that the troops needed help and a giant flotilla of boats started arriving to aid in the evacuation – not just military ships either! Anyone who could take on passengers started showing up and picking up the soldiers wading in knee deep water. 1 cruiser, 39 destroyers, 9 gunboats, 36 minesweeper boats, 13 torpedo boats, 8 hospital boats, 34 tugboats, 113 trawlers and more than 311 personally owned small watercraft came to the rescue. 693 boats in all. 223 of those boats were sunk by the Germans. Around 61,000 were killed or wounded. But miraculously, 338,226 allied troops were rescued and arrived safely on the other shore.
So what does this have to do with the Titanic?
There’s not much I can say about the Titanic that hasn’t been said by the many documentaries, not to mention the James Cameron blockbuster movie in 1997. At least that’s what I thought. But I had never heard the story about Charles Lightoller.
He was born in in Lancashire in 1874 and his naval career began as early as the age of 13 when he apprenticed on board a large sailing ship. The drama that would follow his career started during that early apprenticeship when they sailed into a horrible storm in the South Atlantic and had to make repairs in Rio de Janeiro despite the country ragging with a smallpox epidemic while struggling through a revolution. Soon after that, a fire broke out on a ship where he was serving and he was promoted for his bravery in putting out the fire to save the ship.
He started working on board steam ships at the age of 21 and during that time sailing around Africa, almost died from Malaria. He took some time away from sailing to try his hand at mining for gold and wrangling cattle, but the sea called him back when the White Star Line hired him as an officer.
That’s how he came to be involved in the H.M.S. Titanic. On the fateful night of April 14, 1912, Lightoller was the Ship’s Second Officer and had commanded the bridge watch late into the evening. Before retiring to bed in his cabin, he had told the ships lookouts to watch out for small ice in the ocean ahead. But it wasn’t until he felt the collision that he knew something was wrong.
This is where, according to some, Lightoller was a hero. According to others, he was a murderer. As the ship began to sink, his first job was to get the women and children into the light boats on the port side of the ship and lower them into the ocean. And that he did. He evacuated every woman and child into the ships on that side until there weren’t any more. And that’s why he faces criticism. Only allowing women and children on the boats meant that some of them had room to spare for the men aboard. His instructions were to only allow women and children, and Lightoller followed them strictly – So strictly, in fact, that when a man tried to board one of the boats, he jumped on board and threatened the man with his revolver – a scene which was dramatized in James Cameron’s 1997 film.
After the ships’ life boats were all lowered, there were only a couple small collapsible rafts left and those were sent away as well with as many as could occupy them. Lightoller now found himself in the icy water as it crept up the Titanic’s many staircases and hallways. He tried to swim to the ship’s crows nest, which he could see peeking above the surface, but remembered that a sinking ship created suction that would pull him under. He tried to swim away, but he couldn’t. It was too late. The suction of the sinking ship pulled him underwater and pinned him against a grate. He tried to push away, but couldn’t.
A large boiler explosion deep in the ship underwater sent a rush of hot air upwards and had enough force to throw Lightoller away from the ship. He ended up finding himself underneath an overturned light raft. He would be the most senior member of the Titanic’s crew to survive.
Long after the Titanic, long after Lightoller played an important part in the investigations into what went wrong, he found himself fighting for Britain in World War One. From his actions during the war, he was awarded on two separate occasions for gallantry – one being for sinking German U-Boat UB-110.
Charles Lightoller retired in March of 1919 and just ten years later, returned to the sea on his own private yacht, the Sundowner. The Sundowner was a 58 foot motor yacht with a 72hp diesel engine and top speed of about 10 knots. It was a ship purchased for enjoyment and nothing more. Until a call went out in late May of 1940 about small ships being needed for a massive rescue effort from the shores of Dunkirk France.
On June 1st, Lightoller and his son Roger left the Port of Ramsgate and sailed to Dunkirk. Crossing the channel, they rescued the crew of a motor cruiser that was on fire. That was just the beginning of what they would face. Sailing past sunken ships and with the threat of the Luftwaffe overhead, the Sundowner wasn’t able to board soldiers from the piers at Dunkirk because they were too high. Instead, Lightoller pulled up next to the HMS Worcester and began taking soldiers that were crammed on board. A total of 130 men squeezed on the Sundowner and she returned to England to bring them to safety.
Charles H. Lightoller had seen his share of high drama in his naval career. But none as heroic as being one of the hundreds of ships put into service of the War that day.
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