The remarkable true story of Mr Dawson in Nolan’s Dunkirk

Dunkirk itself is one remarkable story. But In Nolan’s epic one character in particular stood out beyond the rest, Mr Dawson. But it turns out Mr Dawson played by Mark Rylance is in fact inspired by a chap called Charles Herbert Lightoller. When I looked into Lightoller I was blown away by this mans incredible life, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to showcase this remarkable true story.

Charles Herbert Lightoller was born in Lancashire, England in 1874. During his extraordinary life he served aboard the RMS Titanic, as second officer being the most senior member of the crew to survive the tragedy. He continued his maritime service in the Royal Navy during the First World War as an officer on a variety of naval vessels which earned him a Distinguished Service Cross. Finally in retirement he later assisted in the evacuation at Dunkirk during the Second World War. So where do we start.

The Titanic

On the night of 14 April 1912, Lightoller commanded the last bridge watch before the ship’s collision with the iceberg, after which first officer Murdoch relieved him. Lightoller had retired to his cabin and was preparing for bed when he felt the collision. Wearing only his pyjamas, Lightoller hurried out on deck to investigate, but seeing nothing retired back to his cabin. He was later summoned to the bridge when the fate of the ship had become clear. As second officer, Lightoller immediately went to work assisting in the evacuation of the passengers into the lifeboats.

During the evacuation, Lightoller took charge of lowering the lifeboats on the port side of the boat deck. He helped to fill several lifeboats with passengers and launched them. Lightoller had interpreted Captain Smith’s order for “evacuation of women and children” as essentially “women and children only”. Reportedly, when he attempted to launch Lifeboat 2, he found it was occupied already by 25 male passengers and crewmen. He ordered them out of the boat at gunpoint. He then filled the boat with women and children, but could not find enough of them to fill the boat. When Lifeboat 2 was lowered, there were only 17 people aboard, out of a capacity of 40.

He survived aboard the Lifeboat Collapsible B after having been knocked into the water and sucked down with parts of the ship as it was submerged. He took charge of the boat which had been overturned, calming and organising the 30 survivors on-board.  Eventually, Lightoller and the others were rescued and taken on board the RMS Carpathia. After the sinking, he published a testimony in the Christian Science Journal crediting his faith in a divine power for his survival, concluding: “with God all things are possible”.

The First World War

Lightoller served as an officer of the Royal Navy during the First World War, first serving as a lieutenant on Oceanic, which had been converted to an armed merchant cruiser, HMS Oceanic. In 1915, he served as the first officer during the trials of another former passenger liner, RMS Campania, which had just been converted into an aircraft carrier. In late 1915, he was given his own command, the torpedo boat HMTB 117. Whilst captain he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for engaging Zeppelin L31. This action also resulted in his being appointed captain of HMS Falcon, a C-class torpedo boat destroyer which was sunk on 1 April 1918 after a collision, in fog, with a trawler, while both ships were acting as escorts to a convoy in the North Sea. Finally Lightoller was given command of the River-class destroyer HMS Garry, during which he oversaw the ramming and subsequent sinking of the German U-Boat UB-110, for which Lightoller was decorated for gallantry.


Finally we come to Dunkirk. Following retirement Lightoller continued to sail for pleasure, purchasing a private motor yacht named the Sundowner. It was this very motor yacht that he used to help rescue soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation. For is contribution to the effort, Lightoller was mentioned in dispatches in 1944. It is this moment that inspired the character of Mr Dawson (played by Mark Rylance), an elderly Englishman who, along with his son and another hand, rescue dozens of men in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The Sundowner is now preserved by Ramsgate Maritime Museum.

And there you have it, the life of Charles Lightoller.