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Charles Lightoller and Titanic

Jim Harris aboard Lightoller's ship Sundowner in Ramsgate Royal Harbour Photo: ITV Meridian

Charles Lightoller was a Titanic hero. The ship's second officer showed inspiring leadership on the night of the disaster, helping to launch a number of lifeboats and then refusing an offer to go on board the last one. He remained on the ship as she sank into the sea.

By any reasonable reckoning he should have died that night but instead he saved himself and many others.

In a radio interview twenty years later Lightoller explained what happened.

''I started to swim away but got sucked down two or three times, in fact I got mighty near the edge of things and the funnel fell down and missed the craft and some of us hanging onto it by inches. There were a good many it didn't miss.''

The craft Lightoller mentioned was an upturned lifeboat which he climbed onto.

''He was a man with a thirst for adventure''.

– Jim Harris, Sundowner crew member

His grand-daughter Louise Patten said: ''He managed to get I think 30 people, whose lives he saved, on top of that hull and they managed to keep this upturned lifeboat afloat for several hours until they found another lifeboat that took them on board so it was two acts of heroism on that night.''

For most people the experience would have represented the pinnacle of achievement but the career sailor went on to carry out even more daring deeds. He commanded a destroyer which helped shoot down an airship in the Great War, went prospecting for gold in the Yukon, and survived more shipwrecks.

And then aged 66, when he should have been enjoying retirement, Lightoller took his motor cruiser Sundowner over to Dunkirk to join the little ships assisting Naval boats in rescuing tens of thousands of stranded Allied troops.

Captain Courageous: Charles Lightoller on Sundowner at the time of the Dunkirk rescue

Sundowner is moored permanently in Ramsgate, the port she left from and returned to during that remarkable week or so when 300,000 or so British and French troops were rescued.

Jim Harris, one of Sundowner's current crew members said: '''He need not have done it. He could have handed Sundowner over to a Naval crew. He said 'no no I'll go'. So he took his son Roger and a sea scout and off they went. Lightoller came across a stranded Navy ship and took 122 soldiers on board here. They were all lying flat and the ship was heavy. One of the crew knowing who Lightoller was said to his mate 'Do you think we ought to be on that boat since Lightoller went down with the Titanic?' And the other fella said 'No he's the right fella, he survived.'''

Every one of those soldiers came back across the English Channel to Ramsgate safely, praising Lightoller's remarkable seamanship, an uncanny ability to chart a safe course through seas strewn by bullets and with bombs dropping around him.

The sinking of Titanic as seen in the film ''A Night To Remember'' Credit: Rank Organisation

Despite these remarkable feats Charles Lightoller did not escape criticism. There were those who believed that he failed to get enough people into the Titanic lifeboats, and that more passengers could have escaped. And there has always been the suspicion that he was less than truthful at the public inquiries into the Titanic disaster.

This last point is confirmed by his grand-daughter, who revealed in her book Good As Gold that Lightoller had confessed to his wife that he did indeed cover up for mistakes made by the crew. Louise Patten says he knew that a crew member accidentally steered into the iceberg. And then a decision was made for the ship to continue slow ahead, a move that hastened Titanic's sinking.

''He was a straightforward old-fashioned hero, a really brave man who did what he thought was right.''

– Louise Patten, Lightholler's grand-daughter

Louise Patten said: ''He kept those two things secret, he kept them from the subsequent inquiries. He was given a straight choice by the chairman of the White Star Line. Bruce Ismay who was on Titanic and who got into a lifeboat and was saved. He said - If you tell the truth about what happened the White Star line will go bankrupt. People will go to prison and your colleagues will lose their jobs.' I think it was very difficult for him, he's the kind of man who would have hated to tell a lie.''

Jim Harris believes Lightoller would not have been affected by criticism and is unlikely to have felt any need to redeem himself if indeed he had been part of a cover-up.

Lightoller on Titanic's sister ship Olympic Credit: Rank Organisation

''I don't think they make them like that anymore.'' he said. ''I think they were real old sea dogs. He was a man who had a thirst for adventure and he loved it.''

''He took his little ship to Dunkirk when he didn't have to'', said Louise Patten. 'He went down with Titanic when he had the chance to go on a lifeboat. He was a straightforward old fashioned hero, a really brave man who did what he thought was right.''

The last words we leave to Charles Lightoller, the man who should have met his own end when Titanic met hers.

''Slowly she reared up on end, then quite quietly but quicker and quicker she seemed to just slide away under the surface and disappear. Everybody around me on the upturned boat said as if they just could not believe it - 'She's gone.'''