No.51: Charles Lightoller RNR

One of the early Wreck of the Week entries looked at Charles Lightoller, a Lancashire lad who went to sea, and I’d like to revisit his story by looking at his wartime service, as we anticipate the commemoration of the First World War.

Lightoller was one of at least two known survivors of the Titanic, both of whom survived further wreck incidents during the Great War, as it was called by contemporaries. Following the loss of the Titanic, in 1913 Lightoller rejoined the Oceanic, her sister ship, upon which he had served earlier in his career.

Both ships and men were forced to adapt to the conditions of war. Civilian ships were turned over for warlike purposes: Oceanic was requisitioned as an armed merchant cruiser, and Lightoller likewise became part of the Royal Naval Reserve aboard the ship. Oceanic too was wrecked when she struck the Shaalds of Hoevdi Grund, Foula in the early stages of the war in 1914, recorded here on the Canmore database, which records shipwrecks in Scotland in a very similar way to those in English waters on the PastScape database of English Heritage.

His wartime career encompassed at least two more wrecks in the closing stages of the war, both on the north-east coast. As commander of HMS Falcon, he was aboard when she sank after a collision in fog with the armed trawler John Fitzgerald off Flamborough Head in April 1918, but with no loss of life. Her stern section has been located and identified by her name inscribed on interior fittings, and, broken in two, she stands a mute testimony to the effects of the collision in which she was lost.

In July 1918 Lightoller, in his new command HMS Garry, was the cause of, rather than the survivor of, a wreck: a nearby patrol vessel spotted the periscope of UB-110 which was preparing to attack a convoy off Yorkshire. The convoy’s escorts zoomed to the U-boat’s position and depth-charged her: as she struggled to the surface, she was then rammed by the Garry. The position of her sinking is recorded, although it seems that she was raised and broken up shortly before the end of the war: some archaeological evidence may yet remain on the seabed.

Lightoller also went to sea during the Second World War, but that, as they say, is another story. Shipwrecks were an occupational hazard in times of peace and war: what is unusual about Lightoller is that his high profile following the loss of the Titanic makes his career and involvement in further wreck events more visible.

No.50 The Helverson

Wreck-on-Wreck Collision

There’s a reason why wrecks have always been marked on Admiralty Charts as a navigational hazard – for their potential to cause more wrecks. Superstructure sticking up out of the water might be a clue, but, as with icebergs, the most dangerous part is under water.

Wreck-on-wreck collisions are relatively common and are, perhaps, the seaborne equivalent of a motorway pile-up, although any subsequent wrecks may happen much later than the original wreck.

A concatenation of events led to the collision of the English Third Rate Helverson with the wreck of the Norway Merchant in the Medway on 22 July 1667. That summer was one of panic in and around the Thames, following the Raid on the Medway on 9-14 June 1667, the raid being known in Dutch as the Tocht naar Chattam (Fight at Chatham). In response, a number of ships, both merchantmen and warships, were deliberately sunk in and around the Medway as blockships to prevent any further Dutch incursions.

The Norway Merchant was one of these, and it was upon her broken stump that the Helverson, being brought to act as an accommodation hulk for the men employed in raising as many of the ships sunk as possible, became impaled. According to the Masters in Attendance at Chatham Dock, ‘she sank upright.’ It was blamed on the pilot, ‘one Basford of Stroud’ because the previous pilot had left her, suggesting he perhaps didn’t give the Norway Merchant enough clearance or was unaware of her extent. By January 1668 they had ‘got her out of the wreck on which she was sunk’, but she thereafter disappears from history. (Quotes from the Calendar of State Papers Domestic.)

Ironically, this ship created more work for the already overworked men who were busily trying to raise as many ships as they could (many of which were beyond repair anyway). And the next day there was a further flashpoint at the Hope near Tilbury between the English and Dutch fleets, with another action fought off Sheppey on 26 July, which caused yet more wrecks. Peace was concluded at the Treaty of Breda on 31 July.

Perhaps you might think Helverson is an unusual name. In a further irony, she was ex-Dutch Hilversum, captured as a prize at the Battle of Lowestoft in 1665. She started the Second Anglo-Dutch War as a Dutch ship, and ended the war as an English one. Who better to draw her portrait than Willem van de Velde the Elder, who recorded the First and Second Anglo-Dutch Wars for the Dutch, but the Third War on the English side as a pensioner of Charles II?

Portrait of the Hilversum, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, 1655,
Portrait of the Hilversum, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, 1655,
(For heritage buffs: according to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, her stern decoration preserves an image of the manor house at Hilversum, later consumed by fire.)