Louise Patten, successful author and businesswoman, has been keeping a secret for 40 years. Her grandfather, Charles Lightoller, in addition to being a decorated hero in both world wars, was also the second officer of the RMS Titanic and although he was the most senior officer to survive the disaster, he only told one person what he knew about the sinking: his wife, Sylvia. Patten’s grandmother told Louise the story in the 1960s but swore her to secrecy.
Lightoller had lied to both the US Senate and the British Board of Trade official inquiries, telling them he knew nothing about how it all went down. White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay had told him on the rescue ship that if Lightoller told what he knew, White Star’s limited liability insurance wouldn’t pay out due to negligence and the company would go down with all hands. Out of loyalty to his co-workers and crew, Charles Lightoller covered up the truth for the rest of his life.
Sylvia and her daughter (Patten’s mother) were fiercely protective of Lightoller’s heroic reputation, so they maintained the cover up after he died in 1952, keeping this juiciest of all gossip within a tight family circle, even doubting whether they should tell Patten herself. They did, though, and Louise kept the secret too for over 40 years. Her mother and grandmother are dead now and realizing that she is the only living custodian of this holiest of holies, she’s decided to tear the veil.
Here’s what Lightoller told Sylvia really happened. He was in his cabin when Titanic hit the iceberg. After the collision, he was called to the bridge. There he joined the Captain Edward Smith and First Officer William Murdoch and they went to Murdoch’s cabin to arm themselves should violence break out when loading the lifeboats. They told him that steersman Robert Hitchens had panicked and turned the ship to the right instead of the left around the iceberg. How could a steersman mistake something as simple as turning right or left?
‘Titanic was launched at a time when the world was moving from sailing ships to steam ships. My grandfather. like the other senior officers on Titanic, had started out on sailing ships. And on sailing ships, they steered by what is known as “Tiller Orders” which means that if you want to go one way, you push the tiller the other way. [So if you want to go left, you push right.] It sounds counter-intuitive now, but that is what Tiller Orders were. Whereas with “Rudder Orders” which is what steam ships used, it is like driving a car. You steer the way you want to go. It gets more confusing because, even though Titanic was a steam ship, at that time on the North Atlantic they were still using Tiller Orders. Therefore Murdoch gave the command in Tiller Orders but Hitchins, in a panic, reverted to the Rudder Orders he had been trained in. They only had four minutes to change course and by the time Murdoch spotted Hitchins’ mistake and then tried to rectify it, it was too late.’
Ismay then compounded the error by ordering Titanic go Slow Ahead instead of staying put and waiting for rescue. The forward movement put enormous pressure on the damaged starboard bow. Lightoller thought the ship would have remained afloat for hours if it had been allowed to remain in one place. The Carpathia, the ship that would collect the survivors, was 4 hours away. There could have been no loss of life at all.
Lightoller was a witness to Ismay’s giving the Slow Ahead order. After that, he worked to load and lower the port lifeboats. He was apparently the strictest enforcer of the “women and children first” convention, so much so that he disobeyed a direct order to get in a lifeboat himself and instead dived into the ocean as the ship went down. He was sucked underwater by one of the forward ventilators until a blast of hot air thrust him back up to the surface where he saw an overturned lifeboat with a few dozen people clinging to its sides. He swam over, organized the survivors and taught the men how to counterbalance swells so they wouldn’t be thrown into the freezing water again.
He would be the last survivor of the RMS Titanic taken on board the Carpathia. His recommendations on how to avoid future such disasters — lifeboats based on passenger number instead of tonnage, lifeboat drills for both passengers and crew, manned 24-hour radio communications, mandatory transmission of ice warnings — would become standard practice in the industry.
You can see why his wife and daughter didn’t want so sterling a reputation for courage and sacrifice to be tainted by his one Titanic lie.