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

"The Man on the Bridge" by Commander Lightoller

A note from the webmaster: This is a curious article written by Charles Herbert Lightoller for the June 1936 edition of The Blue Peter magazine. It is likely written in response to the maiden voyage of the RMS Queen Mary a month before, on the 27th May 1936. His overall message seems to be that no matter the size or technological advancement in shipbuilding, the overall safety of the ship relies on the experience and instinct of "The Man on the Bridge." He uses two very curious incidents to prove this, neither of which instills confidence. The first involving a near grounding of an "Atlantic greyhound" in fog due to Lightoller mistaking the echo of their whistle as another ship. And the second a botched lowering of a lifeboat in a display before royalty. Considering that Lightoller was officer of the watch during the estimations of approaching ice aboard Titanic and also mismanaged the lowering of lifeboats during the portside evacuation, these are curious moments to retell indeed. And even more interesting, perhaps, is the acknowledgement that "as speed increases, so the seconds available for what may be, perhaps, a life and death decision decrease." A truth that he never admitted in relation to Titanic.

Lightoller on the bridge of the Oceanic, 1910.
(Click to enlarge)

The ambition of ninety per cent of those who go to sea is either to get in a bigger and faster ship, chuck up the sea and buy farm. If the leanings of those who will serve in the Queen Mary are in the in the former direction —as no doubt they were— then they've certainly realized their ambition.

Still, we sailors being what we are, I wonder at times if that proverbial "Last ship" saying will not find a voice amongst them, for, with a sailor, it is always "the Last ship." The skipper was a better man, the mates were finer fellows—or harder cases. In rig and speed, of course, she surpassed, and the food—that all-important item—was far and away better.

With officers of even Atlantic liners the traditional growl is much the same. Personally, I think that there never was a ship like the R.M.S. Oceanic —" Queen of the Seas,' as she was very rightly called—despite the Titanic's magnificence. The former was a "casualty" of the War, the latter the victim of an iceberg. I suppose it was natural, after serving in her for seven years, that I should look on the Oceanic as the ship—certainly I was never in a happier or, for that matter, harder vessel, for in those days they were driven whatever the weather.

In their individual loss, one experience was almost as bad as the other. In the former I was losing an old, old friend ; in the latter there was the tragic and terrible loss of life. Yet, even that tragedy has served its useful purpose, for a repetition of such an occurrence has been rendered, humanly speaking, impossible. The officer of the watch to-day no longer cocks his eye aloft to catch the lift on the leech of the mizen skysail ; a highly technical instrument has taken its place. Trained "look-outs" sharpen their eyes with powerful glasses, promptly reporting all and sundry that breaks the dark edge of the horizon's rim. No longer is there a need of the " Blue Pigeon," as the 28-lb. deep-sea lead was called in the days when the ship had to be stopped for every cast. Even Thompson's—later Lord Kelvin's—patent sounder has given place to the Echo Sounder that plots the bottom of the sea like a barograph the weather.

Directional wireless—in which we British, as usual, are far behind—stops such tricks as are too often played by the Reynolds' Current on home-coming Atlantic greyhounds making Channel. A south-west gale down in the Bay may still send that unreliable "set" shooting north across the chops of the Channel, and the fact remains that instances have been many of ships making mid-Channel that have left their bones on the redoubtable Scillies.

One such instance is enough. A crack Atlantic liner of very modern days, whose name was a household word —her commander, furthermore, was one of the most capable and careful of all the mail-boat captains—in making the Channel, suddenly sighted the Seven Stones light Ship, and that is *north* of' the Scillies. By good fortune, if you like, she got an extra bit of current all to herself, and that bit saved her.

So much for our well-lighted, badly-protected and much worse equipped coast ; at any rate, as far as any help one got from directional wireless in those days. And there is nothing to sing great praises about even to-day. No wonder we are considered a conservative nation. Where we should be spendthrift we are economical, and, to outsiders, mighty comical!

A natural conclusion many people will jump to is that, with the numerous modern inventions, the responsibilities of a captain and officer of the watch arc considerably lightened ; but far from it. With the increase of speed and tonnage responsibilities have increased. Apart from the eccentricities of old friend Reynolds. which might aptly he named Reynard, for no gyro compass ever built will compensate for its vagaries, there always is and, of necessity, must remain, the human element. Admitted that wind, weather and " mountainous " seas can have little effect on such an immensity as the Queen Mary, yet the chance of what the " other fellow " is going to do, particularly during the dark hours and, worst of all in fog, must still be left to the seaman-like instinct of the Man on the Bridge. Such instinct, trained by numberless " incidents," becomes at times almost second sight.

I well remember one such "incident," as officer of the watch on the bridge of a redoubtable Atlantic greyhound. We were making the Irish coast and the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse in particular—or where it would have shown up had the Fastnet not been, as we were, encased in thick fog. I was relieved by the officer coming on duty and, amongst the items of interest, such as course, speed etc., called his unhappy attention to what was obviously a steamer's whistle off our port bow—and getting distinctly closer. Every sixtieth second our great three-toned monstrosity blared its electrically-controlled warning. Just as insistently came back the answering blast—it being the common practice and an unwritten rule of the sea for one ship to take time by the other. thereby preventing the coincidence of sound and the curses of men.

Having cheerfully and very willingly relinquished my watch, I proceeded to encompass a welcome lunch. Half-way through it and vividly aware of our twenty odd knots, to say nothing of the other fellow's approaching speed, I liked still less the sound of things. Throwing down my table-napkin, I betook myself quickly to the port door of our quarters and stared into the blinding fog in the direction of that answering whistle. A moment later I saw—but it was no steamer that met my concentrated gaze. Dimly through the fog I beheld the cold, green Atlantic rollers lashing themselves against a precipice of rock—the selfsame precipice which had been playing a beautifully timed echo to our five-second roar.

Off watch one is not welcome on the bridge ; a man thinks more quickly and more clearly alone. God knows there are often enough times when he needs to, and this was one.

A wave of the arm, pointing, and an answering nod confirmed that the captain and O.O.W. had seen what I had, as was now evident by the ship heeling and swinging on a hard-over helm. Her stern cleared with quite a few feet to spare and, providentially, there was deep water and no outlying rocks.

The passengers were at lunch, and such of the ship's crew that saw ("look-outs" and quartermasters) said nothing. The "incident " was closed and never anyone a penny the worse or wiser. It was just the fruits of a tail-end touch of our old friend, Reynolds, who had been at his tricks again Unbeknown to us, we had been flicked those few precious miles north of safety.

With most Atlantic liners, and in particular the Queen Mary, to be set out of one's course in such a manner is now impossible ; the Echo Sounder alone would soon reveal what friend Reynolds was up to. Despite the honour and glory of "the biggest and fastest ship," one still wonders if the captain and officers of the Queen Mary are to be altogether envied. Their position—yes ! Their responsibility—no ! Their responsibilities begin from the day they join—long before she is even handed over by the builders.

I was fourteen long days aboard the Titanic before I could say with confidence that I could find my way by the shortest route from any one given point of that ship to another. What, then, of the Queen Mary ? A sailor doesn't carry a Blue-print in his pocket, hence he has got to carry knowledge of his ship to the minutest detail in his mind ; not only her ways, but her workings, and they are multitudinous. Telegraphs, telephones, water-tight door mechanism, fire-fighting indicators and equipment, compasses, chronometers, charts, signals for sending and receiving both night and day—apart from wireless—boats, their equipment and lowering gear ; all must come under his scrutiny and care. All must fulfil their tests. This in addition to any individual idiosyncrasy, such as may develop unknown in some particular part ; as, for instance, did actually occur some years ago, when a certain British Royalty was making a private inspection of the then biggest and fastest liner afloat.

Being a sailor, his interest was naturally centered in the boats and their gear rather than below decks. The ship was fined with new-tangled boat lowering and releasing gear. Would they give him a demonstration?

Of course the response was eager and immediate.
"Which boat, sir?"
Pointing to the boat nearest them, he suggested "This one."

The gods were not kind that day, for the one the Royal Sailor had chosen was No.2, which out of all the score or so of life-boats had developed some cussedness in the brakes that held the wire-drum. Notwithstanding all efforts to effect a remedy, and prevent the brakes acting instantly instead of gradually, success had not been achieved. Normally the Able Seaman, whose particular job it was to handle those brakes when lowering the boat and boat's crew, would have taken up his appointed station. But Royalty being present, and human nature what it is an ambitious Petty Officer pushed himself into the limelight and the A.B.'s. place.

With the boat swung out, manned by the crew and coxswain, the order was given, "Lower away." Instantly the P.O. turned the brake wheel, but with more vigour than caution. The net and immediate result was that boat, crew and coxswain took the whole seventy-five feet between davit-head and water at one fell drop.

Officers and officials on deck stood aghast, the former knowing the consequences and awaiting the tragic crash. Meanwhile crew and cox just sat and waited their end, simply petrified into immobility. By the grace of Providence, the P.O. managed to retrieve his wits and jamb on the brakes, bringing the boat to a stop within a bare six inches of the water. The coxswain, regaining his breath, had the presence of mind to gasp to those on deck: " Let go," and, as she dropped gently on the water, to the bow oarsman: " Shove off."

The relief of everyone concerned may well be imagined when the Royal Sailor turned, with pleased amazement, and said: "Well, I've never seen anything smarter than that even in the Service."

Such episodes are not sought, but without unremitting care on the part of the ship's officers they come without seeking.

As long as a ship is a ship, the last analysis of her care and safety must rest in the long, scrupulous and exacting experience of the officer in command. A hazy night, a light barely seen ; then the quiet, precise order to the helmsman, instantly obeyed, can alone avoid disaster.

As speed increases, so the seconds available for what may be, perhaps, a life and death decision decrease. All I the gyro compasses, echo sounders, wherewithals of equipment and what not, although helping, can only play a part in ensuring the safety of those thousands who willingly place their lives in the hands of The Man on the Bridge.

This picture accompanies The Blue Peter article but is without any caption to identify its connection to Lightoller's article.