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The Sinking of the Titanic by Commander Lightoller

CH Lightoller's first-hand account of the sinking of the Titanic

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The Sinking of the Titanic by Commander Lightoller

Transcription of Commander CH Lightoller's first-hand account of the sinking of the Titanic from 1936.

Radio TimesAnnouncer:

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 15th of April nineteen hundred and twelve 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 fifteen hundred souls.

Commander Lightoller was Second Officer, and when he’d 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 were drowned. Commander Lightoller.

Commander 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 am 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 am pretty sure she would have proved the fastest. But let me say right here and now neither that night nor that voyage were we out for any record.

We ran our trials in Belfast Lough and then took her around to Southampton on April the 10th that’s, er, 1912, she sailed on her maiden and only voyage for New York.

From the moment we left Belfast we had marvellous weather and even when we got out on the Western Ocean, or Atlantic as you probably know it, it was as 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 Mesada 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, the man in charge of the ship when that Mesaba message came over, and I know perfectly well what I should have done if it had come into 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 of the watch by Murdoch (WM Murdoch.) He and I had been shipmates in many of the ocean greyhounds and 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 hear except the distant roar of the water at her bows, that and the half-hourly bells with a lookout man's cry of “all’s well.”

Of course, he knew nothing of the death trap lying ahead of us 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 on the Crows Nest bell followed by a cry from the lookout cage “ice right ahead sir.” Murdock evidently saw the mass of 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 believe he'd have done it. But going at that speed it was too late. As it was, her bow swung a bit but not enough. And she struck. She took the blow along 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 ran through the ship. Anyway, it was enough to bring me out of my bunk in one jump. Out on deck I ran 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 waited. 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 off watch, isn't exactly welcomed on the bridge either in pyjamas or anything else.

Anyway, it wasn't long before Boxhall, the fourth officer, poked his head around my door and said: “you know we've struck an iceberg?” “I know you've struck something,” I told him, not thinking it anything serious and feeling none too pleased. Then he said the water is up to F deck in the mailroom. 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’d been running under a big head of steam and a 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 there's 700-odd survivors of that night can thank God they don’t. Every man Jack just went about his job, well 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 onboard again at daylight or at the worst taken onboard 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'd personally witnessed one of the greatest tragedies of the sea.

Let it go back again up to 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 while there were actually cases where women absolutely refused to be put in a boat.

I remember one young couple, evidently not long married, walking up and down the boat deck. I asked the girl… she was only a girl (from the western states. I could 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 were 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, a far easier job than 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 unutterable disgrace of going down with boats still hanging at the davits we'd got, not only to take chances, but we’d got to work like blazes.

I've always admired the coolness and efficiency of the merchant service sailors in a tight corner, and I've seen a few. But that night, well, the Titanic's men set up a standard that'll 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 am pretty certain they knew, that she was definitely going down.

You've 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 on board.

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 on many of the mail boats, he and I cut 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 ticklish 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 noone's chances were going to be improved by getting mixed up in a struggling mass. Hemming, as I found out afterwards, headed for one of the after boat falls slid down, dropped into the water swam away, and was eventually saved. For my part I turned for'ard and took a header from the top of the wheelhouse. I started to swim away but got sucked down two or three day.times In fact I got mighty near the edge of things before I finally came up alongside the collapsible we'd hove into the water from the top of the officers' quarters and there I hung on.

A bit later the for’ard 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 by… and some of us hanging onto it, by inches. There were a good many it didn't miss. Next thing I remember I was still hanging on to a bit of a rope attached to the raft but 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 all together. 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 and when I said I didn't remember it he told me he’d 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 a scare that made everyone join in. But you would 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 the height of 6 [illegeible] but never with such intense earnestness as the surroundings lent to it that night.

However, when daylight did break 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 gunwales and no easy job to keep afloat in the rising sea. At last everyone was safely onboard and with a hundred-odd survivors of that night she turned away from that tragic spot and headed for New York.

The Radio Times, 30 October 1936, Vol.53, No. 683

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Charles Herbert Lightoller


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Comment and discuss

  1. Lucy Steigerwald

    Lucy Steigerwald said:

    Hey everyone, From what all I have heard about Lightoller's memorable voice, I have become very curious. I was wondering if there are any links online or any ways people are aware of that would let me purchase the interview? I know that the THS sells tapes with different survivor accounts, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how you know which tape has which interviews, because all it says is tape one, tape two, tape three as far as I can tell. Thanks, anybody!

  2. Dave Gittins

    Dave Gittins said:

    There is a tape called "That Fateful Night". I got one from Barnes and Noble in recent years. The commentary is as cheesy as an Amsterdam street market, but there's quite a lot from survivors.

  3. Lucy Steigerwald

    Lucy Steigerwald said:

    Ha, thanks Dave! For your help and your lovely analogy. I think it's an analogy?

  4. Ryan McKeefery

    Ryan McKeefery said:

    If you look up Titanic on Microsoft Encarta, you'll find a fragment of the BBC interview in which Lightoller describes the sinking. I'll try and find the link. Hang on a mo...

  5. Ryan McKeefery

    Ryan McKeefery said:

    Here it is - Was in me bookmarks. Duh! encarta man com/media_461576635_761564059_-1_1/Sinking_of_the_Titanic.html

  6. Peter Spielvogel

    Peter Spielvogel said:

    Thanks a thousand times for that link, Ryan. I've always wanted to hear that. Is that a standard Lancashire accent? He almost sounds American. I can picture him, puffing a pipe, wearing his cap, telling that story to his grandchildren.

  7. Lucy Steigerwald

    Lucy Steigerwald said:

    Thanks so very much, Ryan (it took me this long to have a listen, as the media player didn't work on my lap top), that just gave me a chill, hearing Titanic's last moments told in that voice. A very interesting accent. I am not skilled at recognizing accents, but Lightoller's does sound oddly American-Scottish-British to me, not the usual heavier British accent that I feel like I have heard the most. Certainly not how I imagined Lightoller speaking, somehow. Maybe I just heard a Kenneth More-ish voice or something. I assume if I buy one of those survivor account tapes with Lightoller, I would get more of the voice? Because I may not be able to resist now.

  8. Lynda Franklin

    Lynda Franklin said:

    Thanks for the link his accent sounds a little odd .I always wanted to hear Lights voice .

  9. Richard Edwards

    Richard Edwards said:

    If memory serves Commander Lightoller came from Lancashire but lived many years near Southampton. I can hear a kind of north/south mix in his accent. In later years he lived near Potters Bar in North London but I can't hear much of a London influence. I know he spent a couple of years gold prospecting in the Yukon so he could well have picked up an American purr to his voice at that time. Nevertheless, it's wonderful to hear him over the years. Love Rich x

  10. Marilyn Lena Penner

    Marilyn Lena Penner said:

    "North" American, please, Rich. I suppose the Klondike might straddle the border, but Yukon is on the Canadian side. T'is the first time I've heard my cousin's B.C. accent or Uncle Samuel's twang being described as a "purr".

  11. Richard Edwards

    Richard Edwards said:

    D'oh! Sorry about that. The Canadian accent is softer to us than the American accent, but compared to my North London bark it's definitely a purr! Something I forgot to suggest yesterday, Mrs Lightoller was from Sydney I believe (Good old "Syders-by-the-sea" to us Londoners) and he may have even picked up an inflection or two from her over time. Love Rich x

  12. Monika E. Simon

    Monika E. Simon said:

    "Something I forgot to suggest yesterday, Mrs Lightoller was from Sydney I believe (Good old "Syders-by-the-sea" to us Londoners) and he may have even picked up an inflection or two from her over time." Possible! After all, one of the 'great crimes' of Wallis Simpson was that Edward VIII started to sound American. It was apparently quite noticeable during the one State Opening of Parliament he did in his short reign. People were not amused. Of course, there was also the small problem that Wallis was still married. Sorry, tangent. Anyway, Syliva Lightoller was from Sydney (or environs) and her father was American, so perhaps Lightoller did pick up some Australian-American pronounciation from her.

  13. Ryan McKeefery

    Ryan McKeefery said:

    Yes, there's definitely a mid-Atlantic sort of accent on the chap, but his Lankie Twang is still quite prominent. Trust me - I hear it every day (Lankie Twang, that is - not the interview).

  14. Shea Sweeney

    Shea Sweeney said:

    I know nothing of the different types of British accents unfortunately. From a viewpoint of a young American into the Titanic, the only difference I know of British accents is from the Titanic movies where the guys in the boiler room spoke much differently than those in first class! I suppose you would call that cockney and "proper". Anyway, as an American I can say that when I heard the BBC interview I thought he sounded quite like an American. I could tell there was some British influence in his voice but he definitely mellowed his British accent down or picked up our accent over his years of travel.

  15. Stanley C Jenkins

    Stanley C Jenkins said:

    I doubt if there would have been many Cockneys in the boiler rooms of British ships in 1912 - many Merchant Navy firemen were Liverpool Irishmen, while seaman would often have had West Country accents which, to an American, would probably have sounded something like an old-time East Coast accent (think of some of the dialogue in Moby Dick!)

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2007) The Sinking of the Titanic by Commander Lightoller (BBC Radio, Sunday 1st November 1936, ref: #141, published 29 April 2007, generated 18th May 2022 12:51:08 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/charles-lightoller-bbc-recording.html