RMS Titanic to Dunkirk – From one disaster to another

Just one of the hundreds of stories covered in Emanuel School at War: The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was is Charles Lightoller’s – the most senior surviving officer to survive the sinking of RMS Titantic –  Dunkirk odyssey. During Operation Dynamo Charles saved 130 men from the beaches of Dunkirk. In interviews after the Operation he attributed the safe return of those men in large part to his eldest son Brian Lightoller whho attended Emanuel School 1928-1929. Brian’s name appears on Emanuel’s Second World War memorial. The following is from the book Emanuel School at War:

H B Lightoller

Brian Lightoller

Herbert Brian, known as Brian, Lightoller was the son of Charles Lightoller, the most senior surviving officer of the sinking of the Titanic. Brian was a pilot of a Blenheim
Bomber, serial number N6189, part of 107 Squadron Bomber Command. In the opening salvo of the Second World War, Bomber Command sent out fifteen Blenheims and fourteen Wellington Bombers to attack German warships. Brian’s crew left for Wilhelmshaven, on the afternoon of 4 September in the second wave of bombers, where the German cruiser Emden had been spotted during reconnaissance operations. It is believed that Brian’s crew didn’t get a chance of firing upon the Emden and instead was shot down by anti-aircraft (flak) fire. 107 Squadron lost four of its five planes on the
raid. Brian was among the first British casualties of the Second World War.
At first, details were sketchy and it was hoped that Brian had survived but official German reports were received two months later confirming that Brian and his crew had all been
killed. They were initially buried with full military honours in the Naval Garrison Cemetery in Wilhelmshaven but Brian and his crew were later exhumed and reburied in the British
Military Cemetery at Oldenburg (Sage).

Nine months later on 31 May 1940, Charles Lightoller with his son Roger, left Cubitt’s Yacht Basin in Chiswick for Ramsgate. On his yacht Sundowner they made their way
to Ramsgate. At 10am on 1 June he sailed for Dunkirk. The resulting story of the rescue of 130 men, without loss, from the beaches of Dunkirk is one Charles Lightoller attributed in large part to Brian. The following account by Charles details how young Brian through conversations with his father before he was killed, contributed to saving men of the British
Expeditionary Force.

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. Casting off and backing out we entered the Roads
again, there it was continuous and unmitigated hell. 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.
My youngest son, Pilot Officer H. B. Lightoller (lost at the outbreak of war in the first raid on Wilhelmshaven) flew a Blenheim and had at different times given me a whole lot of useful information about attack, defence and evasive tactics (at which he was apparently particularly good) and I attribute, in a great measure, our success in getting across without a single casualty to his unwitting help. 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”. (She 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 1 June the Sundowner returned to Ramsgate with all 130 men, crew included, safely delivered.

Interestingly, Charles’s second son, Second Lieutenant R. T. Lightoller, had been evacuated from Dunkirk 48 hours previous to Charles arriving.

Listen to Charles Lightoller recount his Dunkirk experiences on the BBC Archive Dunkirk: A Personal Perspective

For more on the Sundowner see Association of Dunkirk Little Ships – Sundowner

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