On Apr. 15, 1912, Charles Lightoller was the second officer aboard the ill-fated Titanic. After helping as many passengers and crew as he could into lifeboats, he refused an order to escape on one of the final boats to make it off the ship. As Titanic’s bridge began to sink, he attempted to dive into the water and to the safety of one of the crew’s collapsible boats.
Except the Titanic sucked him down with her.
Two lifeboats carry Titanic survivors toward safety. April 15, 1912
Lightoller was no landsman. He had been at sea for decades and, as a result, he’d seen and heard everything. Titanic wasn’t even his first shipwreck, but it was the first time a sinking ship tried to take the officer down with it. As a grating pulled him to the bottom, the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean finally reached the ship’s hot boilers, and they exploded. The force propelled Lightoller to the surface and to the safety of his fellow crew’s boat.
He was the last Titanic survivor rescued by the RMS Carpathia the next day. He was also the most senior officer to survive the shipwreck. Later, during World War I, Lt. Lightoller would take command of many ships in the Royal Navy, leaving the service at the war’s end. By the time World War II rolled around, Lightoller was just a civilian raising chickens. His seaborne days confined to a personal yacht.
The Titanic’s officers. Lightoller is in the back row, second from the left.
While he did survey the German coast in 1939 for the Royal Navy while disguised as an elderly couple on vacation, his fighting days were long gone. But the very next year, the British Army in France was on the brink of ruin, as 400,000 Allied troops were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. The Royal Navy could not reach them, and they were slowly being annihilated by the Nazi forces that surrounded them. Operation Dynamo was on.
The Royal Navy ordered Lightoller to take his ship to Ramsgate, where a Navy crew would take control and ship off to Dunkirk to rescue as many Tommies as possible. But Lightoller wasn’t having it. He would take his ship to Dunkirk himself. The 66-year-old and his son departed for France as soon as they could in a 52×12-foot ship with a carrying capacity of 21.
The Lightollers picked up 130 British soldiers.