As an officer in charge of loading passengers into lifeboats, Lightoller not only enforced with utmost strictness the "women and children first" protocol; he also effectively extended it to mean "women and children only". In pursuance of this principle, Lightoller lowered lifeboats with empty seats if there were no women or children waiting to board. Indeed, Lightoller is known to have permitted exactly one adult male passenger to board a lifeboat, namely Arthur Godfrey Peuchen, who was permitted to board lifeboat no.6, that was otherwise full of women, because he had sailing experience and could help navigate the boat. Lightoller stayed until the last, was sucked against a grate and held until he was under water, but then was blown from the grate by a rush of warm air as a boiler exploded. He clung to a capsized collapsible boat with 30 others until their rescue.
Lightoller served as an officer of the Royal Navy during World War I, and while commanding HMS Garry, rammed and sank the German U-Boat UB-110, for which Lightoller was decorated for gallantry. The captain of UB-110 would later claim that some of the German survivors were massacred by Lightoller's crew, an allegation never substantiated.
Later, in retirement, he further distinguished himself in World War II, by providing and sailing as a volunteer on one of the "little ships" that played a part in the Dunkirk evacuation. Rather than allow his small motoryacht to be requisitioned by the Admiralty for military service, he sailed the vessel to France and back with a small crew, and repatriated over 120 British servicemen.
Charles Herbert Lightoller was born in Chorley, Lancashire, on 30 March 1874, into a family that had operated cotton-spinning mills in Lancashire since the late 18th century. His mother, Sarah Lightoller, died shortly after giving birth to him. His father, Fred Lightoller, abandoned young Charles and left for New Zealand.
At age 13, not wanting to end up with a factory job like most of Britain's youth at the time, young Charles began a four-year seafaring apprenticeship on board the barque Primrose Hill. On his second voyage, he set sail with the crew of the Holt Hill, and during a storm in the South Atlantic, the ship was forced to put in at Rio de Janeiro. Repairs were made in the midst of a smallpox epidemic and a revolution. Another storm, on 13 November 1889 in the Indian Ocean, caused the ship to run aground on an uninhabited four-and-a-half-square-mile island now called Île Saint-Paul. They were rescued by the Coorong and taken to Adelaide, Australia. Lightoller joined the crew of the clipper ship Duke of Abercorn for his return to England.