“A number of appeals for recruits have been issued today. The Admiralty want men experienced in marine internal combustion engines or have served as enginemen in yachts or motorboats. Others who have had charge of motorboats and have good knowledge of coastal navigation are needed as uncertified second hands. Applications should be made to the nearest Registrar, Royal Naval Reserve or to the Fishery Officer.”
BBC NEWS – 29th May 1940
Is courage something that is always there – flowing constantly and always on hand when needed – or is it something that we must go looking for inside ourselves, in the hope that we’ll find it?
For local resident Charles Herbert Lightoller, late of No. 1, Duck’s Walk, East Twickenham, courage was always there. In 1912, serving as Second Officer aboard the apparently unsinkable ‘Titanic’ he helped save 30 survivors by encouraging them to cling to an upturned boat. Second Officer Lightoller was the last survivor to be pulled from the water.
During World War 1 Lightoller served on torpedo boats and destroyers and finished up as a Commander with two Distinguished Service Crosses to his credit, one for sinking a German U-Boat.
In 1929 Lightoller and his wife Sylvia bought a former Admiralty steam pinnace which they named “Sundowner” – the Australian term for a tramp or hobo. Over the next 10 years the Lightollers regularly cruised the northern coast of Europe in “Sundowner” – and in 1939, with the threat of war looming, conducted a secret survey of that coast for the Admiralty.
At 5.00pm on 31st May 1940, ‘Sundowner’ was requisitioned by the Admiralty to sail from her berth at Cubitt’s Basin in Chiswick to Ramsgate to assist in the evacuation of the British and French armies that were massing at Dunkirk in retreat from the advancing Germans. On arrival in Ramsgate, Lightoller was told that a Royal Navy crew would take his boat over to Dunkirk but he insisted that if anyone was to take her it would be him.
At 10:00am on 1 June, Lightoller, then 66 years old, assisted by his eldest son Roger and an 18-year-old Sea Scout Gerald Ashcroft took the ‘Sundowner’ across to Dunkirk. After rescuing the crew of the motor cruiser ‘Westerly’ that was on fire. Lightoller drew alongside the destroyer ‘HMS Worcester’ and started to take on soldiers…
“During the whole embarkation we had quite a lot of attention from enemy planes, but derived an amazing degree of comfort from the fact that the ’Worcester’s’ Anti-Aircraft guns kept up an everlasting bark overhead. The troops were just splendid and of their own initiative detailed look-outs ahead, astern and abeam for inquisitive planes as my attention was pretty wholly occupied watching the steering and passing orders to Roger at the wheel. Any time an aircraft seemed inclined to try its hand on us, one of the look-outs would just call quietly, “Look out for this bloke, skipper”, at the same time pointing. One bomber that had been particularly offensive, itself came under the notice of one of our fighters and suddenly plunged vertically into the sea just about fifty yards astern of us. It was the only time any man ever raised his voice above a conversational tone, but as that big black bomber hit the water they raised an echoing cheer. On one occasion an enemy machine came astern at about 100 feet with the obvious intention of raking our decks. He was coming down in a gliding dive and I knew that he must elevate some 10 to 15 degrees before his guns would bear. Telling my son “Stand by”, I waited till as near as I could judge, he was just on the point of pulling up and then “Hard a-port”. (‘Sundowner’ turns 180 degrees in exactly her own length). This threw his aim completely off. He banked and tried again. Then “Hard a-starboard”, with the same result. After a third attempt he gave it up in disgust. Had I had a machine gun of any sort, he was a sitter – in fact there were at least three that I am confident we could have accounted for during the trip."
Late on the evening of 1st June the ‘Sundowner’ returned to Ramsgate with 130 soldiers aboard, 75 men in the cabin and 55 on deck. In an interview that he gave to the BBC in 1950 Lightoller said the one thing that he remembered about his safe arrival in Ramsgate was a petty officer commenting as he watched the men disembark… “My God, mate! Where did you put ’em all?” Interestingly, Lightoller’s second son, Second Lieutenant R. T. Lightoller, had been evacuated from Dunkirk 48 hours previous to his father arriving.
After the war, Commander Charles Herbert Lightoller DSC and Bar, R.D and his wife Sylvia moved to 1 Ducks Walk, East Twickenham where he managed a small boatyard building motor launches for the River Police. He died on 8 December 1952 aged 78, of heart disease exacerbated perhaps by the Great London Smog which had begun 3 days earlier. A commemorative memorial erected on Duck’s Walk now celebrates this brave man’s long and eventful life.
As for courage – or at least the ability to overcome fear – Mr. Lightoller did say…
“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 do not pretend that any man can go down on a ship at midnight, in mid-Atlantic, and succeed in eliminating fear, without hard work. It was hard work… "
Charles Herbert Lightoller
Newsreel footage of the Dunkirk Evacuation
INCIDENTALLY The 18 year old Sea Scout Gerald Ashcroft who went to Dunkirk with Lightoller in 1940 became a naval officer and in 1944 commanded LCT 507, 20th Flotilla during the Normandy landings.
— from Martyn Day