Charles Herbert Lightoller

Date of birth: March 30 1874
Place of birth: Chorley, Lancashire, England
Marital status: Married
Spouse: Sylvia Hawley-Wilson
Children: 5 children: Roger, Trevor, Mavis, Doreen and Brian
Address (at time of Titanic disaster): Nikko Lodge, 110 Station Road, Netley Abbey village, Hampshire, England
Crew position: Titanic's Second Officer
Date of death: 8 December 1952, Richmond
Cause of death: Chronic heart disease, aged 78

"I Was There - The Sinking of the Titanic"
by Commander Lightoller
Full audio and transcript of the 1936 BBC broadcast

24 years after the sinking of the Titanic, Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller recounted his experiences for a 1936 BBC broadcast, allowing us to hear him describe his experience in his own words. The following is the complete audio and a transcript of the broadcast.


Note: I recommend watching the film in "Full Screen Mode," with speakers/headphones turned on for the full experience. To activate "Full Screen Mode," you need to click on the video title which will take you to YouTube and then click on the lower right hand box.

Audio Transcript

BBC Interviewer: "I Was There." Talks by men who saw the making of history. Nowadays a passenger to America has no misgivings, but nearly a generation ago a terrible catastrophe in mid-ocean had to mark the end of an era of peril in Atlantic transport. On the fifteenth of April 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg. And in a couple of hours a Great Liner had sunk on her maiden voyage at a cost in human life of 1500 souls. Commander Lightoller was Second Officer and when he had seen the last of the insufficient lifeboats pull away from the ship he plunged into the sea and was ultimately rescued. All the other officers who went down with the ship, but drowned. Commander Lightoller:

C.H.Lightoller: Altogether I have had four shipwrecks and a fire. During my 30 odd years at sea, but by far and away the worst of them all was the one I'm going to tell you about now: the loss of the Titanic. I joined her in Belfast while she was still in the builder's hands, the biggest and finest ship in the world and given the normal life of a ship, I'm pretty sure she would have proved the fastest. But let me say right here and now: neither that night nor that voyage where we out for any records. We ran our trials in Belfast Lough and then took her around to Southampton. On April the 10th, that’s 1912, she sailed on her maiden and only voyage for New York.

From the moment we left Belfast we had marvelous weather. And even when we got out on the Western Ocean or Atlantic as you probably know it, it was a smooth as the proverbial millpond. Not a breath of wind and the sea like a sheet of glass. In any other circumstances those conditions would have been ideal. But anyone with experience of ice at sea knows that those very conditions and the moonless night only render the detection of icebergs all the more difficult and calls for additional alertness on the part of both officers and men. Speaking for myself, I knew only too well that there were chances, if long ones, of sighting an iceberg. But as I reckon in ample time to clear it with a turn of the wheel.

On that night of April, the 14th, we all, that is the captain and officers, knew perfectly well that we were just about entering the region where ice might be sighted at that particular time of the year and had taken all necessary precautions. Now throughout the day there had been the usual wireless messages from different ships reporting the weather on icebergs and so forth. But as none of these bergs reported lay on our course, well, they didn't directly concern us.

But when the evidence came to be sifted out at the Inquiry held in London afterwards it then came out that one very vital message received in the Titanic's wireless room that night had never been delivered to the bridge. That message came from a ship called the Mesaba warning all ships of heavy pack, ice icebergs and field ice in an area then lying right ahead of the Titanic and what was still worse, not far away.

Those immense quantities of ice were abnormal for almost any time of the year and the significance we should have attached to that report can hardly be exaggerated. In my opinion, it was a warning of the most vital importance. You see I was officer of the watch and in charge of the ship when that Mesaba message came over and I hope perfectly well what I should have done if it had come to my hands. Without a shadow of doubt, I should have slowed her down at once. That would have been imperative and sent for the captain. More than likely in fact almost certainly. he would have stopped the ship altogether and waited for daylight to feel his way through. Anyhow the long and short of it is neither, he nor I nor any other officer of the ship got that message.

Now to go on. We were steaming that night at a good 22 knots. At ten o’clock, I was relieved as officer the watch by Murdoch, W.M. Murdoch. He and I had been ship mates on many of the ocean greyhounds. I've bulldozed across this ice region times without number both in clear weather and what's more in fog. After the usual formalities, I handed over, wished him joy of a few perishing cold hours and went below.

I expect his watch went on as mine had done. Nothing to see and nothing to here, except the distant roar of the water at her bows. That and the half-hourly bells when the lookout would cry "all's well." Of course, he knew nothing of the death trap lying ahead of this any more than I did. And so, five bells, six bells and seven bells went by. But barely ten minutes had passed after the sound of the last bell when there were three sharp clangs of the crow's nest bell followed by a cry from the lookout cage: "Ice right ahead, sir."

Murdoch evidently saw the mass of ice practically at the same time as the lookout men and shouted "Hard-a-starboard, full speed astern." His idea was to swing her bow clear and then put the helm hard over the other way and so swing her stern clear. And given half a chance, I'd believe he'd have done it, but going at that speed it was too late. As it was, our bow swung a bit, but not enough and she struck. She took the blow on her starboard side masses of ice actually falling on the foredeck. But what was worse, though we didn't know that till it came out of the inquiry, she was pierced below the waterline in no less than six compartments. And from that moment nothing could have saved her.

I was lying in my bunk when I felt the slight jar, not any sense of collision, but more a kind of shiver that run through the ship. Anyway, it was enough to bring me out of my bunk in one jump out. Out on deck I run over one side and then to the other but there wasn't a trace of anything we'd struck. So back I went to my bunk and just wait. If I was wanted, naturally my cabin would be the first place where anyone sent for me would look. You see apart from being nearly frozen even an officer when on watch isn't exactly welcomed on the bridge either in pajamas or anything else. Anyway, it wasn't long before Boxhall, the fourth officer poked his head round my door and said, "You know, we've struck an iceberg?"

"I know you've struck something". I told him. Not thinking of anything serious and feeling none too pleased. Then he said the water's up to F deck in the mail room. There was no need for him to say anything more. I was into a pair of pants, sweater and bridge coat and out on deck almost as soon as he was.

Now we've been running under a big head of steam and the sudden stopping of the engines lifted every safety valve. And as a result, the steam roared off at all exhausts. The row was absolutely deafening. Added to that the engineers started to blow the boilers down. Shout as loud as you like. No one could hear a word.

At the same time that Boxhall had called me, the order had been given "all hands on deck" and I met my watch tumbling up on the boat deck just as I got there. And the boat deck just in case you don't know is the top deck of all. I got hold of the bosun's mate and sort of showed him with my hands that I wanted him to start the men stripping off the boat covers.

Now in the merchant service men are taught to think and if necessary, act for themselves. They don't wait for pipes or bugles. And I can tell you the 700 odd survivors that night and thank God they don't. Every man, just went about his job, as if it were an everyday occurrence. When the boats were stripped and cleared, they were swung out and lowered to the level of the boat deck.

Just a little while before they were ready to swing out, I happened to meet the captain and I asked him, by cupping my hands over his ear and yelling at the top of my voice, "Shall I get the women and children away sir?" He just nodded. So, I started to fill the first boat. Just about now thank goodness, the roar of escaping steam stopped and passengers now, they could hear themselves think started asking me.: "Why are you getting the boats out? And why are you putting women and children in them?" I told them it was merely a precaution and that very likely they'd all be taken on board again at daylight or at the worst taken on board the ship everyone could clearly see only a few miles away. We could see all her lights quite plainly.

But here again, we were up against it. That ship was the Californian and though her lights were plain to everyone on board the Titanic, she seemed to pay not the slightest heed either to our wireless calls or to the distress signals we were firing every minute. The reason why she didn't answer our wireless calls, which other ships heard halfway around the Earth, was because she only carried one wireless operator and when we struck the iceberg, he'd just gone off watch. So, it was no fault of his. But why no notice was taken of our distress signals, shells that are fired hundreds of feet up into the air to explode with a cascade of stars, heaven only knows. What a chance her Captain missed. He could have laid his ship right alongside the Titanic and taken practically every soul on board. However, he didn’t, and the two ships gradually drifted further and further apart. And according to the officer of the watch of the Californian the Titanic's lights disappeared at 2:40 a.m. They did and with his own eyes, he personally witnessed one of the greatest tragedies of the sea.

But to go back again. At the time of getting away the first few boats, no one believed that the ship was actually in any danger. I'm afraid my own confidence that she wouldn't or couldn't sink rather conveyed itself to others for there were actually cases where women absolutely refused to be put in a boat. I remember one young couple, happen to be not long married, walking up and down the boat deck. I asked the girl - she was only a girl, from the western states, I should say - if I should put her in a boat. But no, she wouldn't be parted from her husband, "not on your life" she said, “We’ve started together, and we'll finish together." Brave girl, but she didn't know how near that finish was. Certainly, I didn't.

As time went on, I could see the bows of the ship getting steadily lower and lower in the water. Now between lowering one boat and another, I frequently took a run forward and a quick look down a long stairway that led from the boat deck three or four decks down. Frankly, I'm never likely to forget the sight of that cold greenish water creeping step by step up that stairway. Some of the lights were shining down on the water and others already submerged were giving it a sort of ghastly transparency. But for my purpose I could tell by that staircase measurement exactly what was happening, how far down she'd gone and how quickly she was going. Just when I first realized how desperately serious things were, I don't know, but I do know that before many boats are away. I got to piling more and more people into them, partly because I now knew she was going and partly because the boats were not remaining by the ship to be filled to their full capacity when waterborne. It was a job lowering them with their full complement from that tremendous height. Another thing, it was plain to me that if we were going to avoid the unalterable disgrace of going down with boats still hanging in their davits, we got, not only to take chances, but we got to work like blazers.

I've always admired the coolness and efficiency of the merchant sailors in a tight corner, and I've seen a few, but that night well the Titanic's men set up a standard that will never be beaten. Every single boat was filled and lowered from davit head to water and got away without an accident of any kind. And that despite the pitch-black night and the conditions we were working under. The same tribute must be paid to the passengers for the courage they showed. For by the time little more than half the boats had gone, I knew and I'm pretty certain they knew. that she was definitely going down. You got to remember the Californian had drifted away. There weren't enough boats to take half the people and the chances of the other half in that icy cold water were absolutely nil. Yet, there was never the slightest attempt to get into a boat out of turn. In fact, with the last couple of boats, it was even difficult to find women to fill them. Though, of course, there were still a good many onboard.

Then came the very last boat of all and it was a sort of raft with collapsible canvas sides stowed upside down on top of the officers’ quarters and that's above the boat deck. A seaman named Hemming, he'd been with me in many of the mail boats, he and I got this one adrift and threw it down on the water which was now about two feet above the boat deck. Hemming by the way had earlier on given up his place in a boat after being told off to take charge of it and unbeknown to me had followed round helping me with the lowering, a trickish job even in daylight.

Having dumped this collapsible, there was not a thing further we could do on that side, so both of us went over to the starboard side, but we found all the boats were away from there too. Of course, there were still hundreds of people around. As Hemming and I looked down from the top of the officers’ quarters where we were standing the ship took a sudden dip and a sea came rolling up carrying everyone with it.

Many were drowned there and then. Everyone that could just instinctively started to scramble up towards the after end of the ship. But that was only putting it off. In fact, it was lessening their chances. The plunge had to come and that I could see was pretty soon and no one's chances were going to be improved by getting mixed up in a struggling mess.

Hemming as I found out outwards, headed for one of the after boat falls slid down dropped into the water swam away and was eventually saved. But for my part I turned forward and took a header from the top of the wheelhouse. I started to swim away but got sucked down two or three times. In fact, I got mighty near the edge of things before I finally came up alongside the collapsible.

We'd hoved into the water from the top of the officers’ quarters and their I hung on. A bit later the forward funnel guys carried away and the funnel weighing perhaps 50 or 60 tons fell down with a crash on the water. It missed the raft and some of us hanging on to it by inches and there were a good many it didn't miss.

Next thing I remember I was still hanging on to a bit of rope attached to the raft about some 30 or 40 yards away from the ship. The wash of the falling funnel had evidently picked us up raft and all and flung us clear of the ship altogether. Several of us scrambled up onto the slippery bottom of the raft.

And it was from there I saw the Titanic sink. As I watched I could see her bow getting deeper and deeper in the water with the foremast sticking up above the surface whilst her stern lifted higher and higher till it was right out of the water. When she got to an angle of about 60 degrees there was a sullen sort of rumbling roar, as her massive boilers all left their beds and went crashing down through the bulkheads and everything that stood in their way. Up to that moment, she had stood out as clear as clear with her rows of electric lights all burning. When the boilers broke away, she was of course plunged into absolute darkness. Though her huge black outline was still perfectly distinct up against the stars and sky. Slowly she reared up on end till at last she was absolutely perpendicular. Then quite quietly, but quicker and quicker, she seemed just to slide away under the surface and disappear.

As she vanished, everyone around me on the upturned boat, as though they could hardly believe it, just said "She's gone."

Some little time later. I found that the senior wireless operator was standing just behind me. And from the wireless messages, he told me he'd received from different ships, I figured up in my mind that the Cunard liner Carpathia one that he said was coming to our rescue should be up about daylight.

It was then I first heard of the Mesaba message. When I said I didn't remember it, he told me he put it under a paperweight at his elbow and never sent it to the bridge. Many died from cold during the night, the wireless operator amongst them, and a mighty long time it seemed before daylight broke standing wet through and up to our knees in icy water on that upturned boat.

Frankly, I don't think many of us expected to see daylight. At one time during the night, someone suggested we should say "Our Father" and I don't think it was exactly scare that made everyone join in. But you'd need to be in somewhat the same fix. Where a couple of minutes may mean all the difference between well here and Hereafter. to understand the feeling we put into it. I've heard that prayer ever since I was a child, but never with such intense earnestness, as the surroundings lent to it that night. However, when daylight did break most of us most of us were still heads up and we of the upturned boat transferred to one of the lifeboats.

At full daylight, there was the Carpathia steaming toward us. I needn't say just what sort of a welcome sight it was either. Cruising slowly around she collected the boats one by one. Mine I know was loaded down to the gunnels and no easy job to keep afloat in the rising sea. At last everyone was safely on board and with the seven hundred odd survivors of that night, she turned away from that tragic spot and headed for New York.