Costa Levante News
True British heroes
Captain Archibald Dickson of the SS Stanbrook and his crew rescued hundreds of desperate republican refugees fleeing Alicante in the last days of the Spanish Civil War
By Jack Troughton SHIP’S Captain Archibald Dickson, his crew and the SS Stanbrook sailed into history when they snatched a cargo of desperate men, women and children from the stricken city of Alicante in the last days of the Spanish Civil War.
The 230ft-long ship left harbour with 2,643 refugees crammed on board; some of the 30,000 desperate supporters of the doomed Republic hoping to flee the country and escape the advancing forces of Nationalist leader General Franco and his fascist allies from Germany and Italy.
In April, a bronze bust of the Cardiff-born seaman was unveiled alongside the existing plaque on the docks, remembering the bravery of the skipper, his 24-strong crew and the ship in March 1939 – the war officially ended on April 1.
And yet the story of the Stanbrook remains largely unknown or forgotten in the United Kingdom; possibly, because the British government with Neville Chamberlain at the helm as prime minister was intent on a policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany at the time.
In Alicante and across Spain the name of Capt. Dickson, his ship, and tale of the maritime great escape are revered.
The Stanbrook sailed into Alicante on March 19, 1939, after a two-day voyage from Marseille; using the cover of darkness to evade a naval blockade of the city. The ship remained tied up as the captain waited for instructions and was informed by the ship’s owners to proceed to sea “forthwith” unless he was likely to load a cargo.
A day later a lucrative cargo of tobacco, oranges and saffron arrived at the port – but so did a host of people looking to escape the fascist forces; many were soldiers and militiamen of the Republican army, along with trade unionists, international brigade members and foreign advisors.
Ignoring orders, Capt. Dickson crammed people onto the Stanbrook and, again at night, set sail for Algeria, bombs being dropped in an air raid as she headed out to sea.
Sadly, six months later in November 1939 and the start of the Second World War, the Stanbrook was lost, torpedoed by a German submarine as she headed to Tyneside from Antwerp. The 47-year-old captain and 22 officers and men perished after the ship broke in two. However, Capt. Dickson was able to tell the story before his death in an interview with the Sunday Dispatch newspaper in London; he said, “Amongst the refugees were a large number of women and young girls and children of all ages, even including some in arms.
“Owing to the large number of refugees, I was in a quandary as to my own position, as my instructions were not to take on refugees unless they were in real need.
“However, from seeing the condition of the refugees, I decided from a humanitarian point of view to take them aboard as I anticipated they would soon be landed at Oran in Algeria.”
He said the crowds at the port were made up of people of all classes; some very poor and “looking half-starved an ill clad, attired in a variety of clothing ranging from boiler suits to old and ragged pieces of uniform”.
The captain noted how some people seemed to be carrying their worldly possessions in suitcases, bags or “tied up in handkerchiefs”.
The Stanbrook’s gangplank soon became choked with people and the captain contemplated leaving the quay – but remained tied up because he was fearful people would be thrown into the water and drowned.
Numbers on board made it impossible for anyone to move, people refused to go down below deck into the hold and if any space was made, it was immediately filled with people.
“In all my experience at sea covering some 33 years, I have never seen anything like it and I hope I never will again,” said Capt. Dickson.
With rumours being spread of an impending air raid – two bombs later fell in the ship’s wake as she left - there was a last-minute rush to get on board before the Stanbrook was able to leave; steering a zigzag course to try and avoid warships mounting the blockade. Capt. Dickson said: “We had only just got clear of the port when the air raid rumour proved to be true and within 10 minutes or so of leaving port, a most terrific bombardment of the town and port was made and the flash of explosions could be seen quite clearly from on board my vessel and the shock of exploding shells could almost be felt.
“The refugees appeared to think that every vessel which moved in sight was a Franco vessel coming to intercept them; and as a large number of refugees were armed, I was rather alarmed at what might have occurred had we sighted a Franco ship.
“Many of the refugees stated that if a Franco vessel did intercept them, they were prepared to sell their lives dearly.”
It was a 22-hour journey to North Africa and conditions were atrocious; there were just two toilets on board and a shortage of both food and water.
When the Stanbrook steamed into Oran, the French colonial authorities first refused to allow her to dock – an angry Capt. Dickson first negotiating the landing of women, children and the elderly; men remained on board for days and were only allowed onto dry land when the seaman underlined the threat of a typhus outbreak.
Captain Dickson’s son Arnold and his daughter Dorothy visited Alicante in 2009 as guests of the Alicante Civic Commission for the Recovery of Historical Memory to attend a ceremony to remember the story of the Stanbrook.
Arnold said they were “lionised”; he said: “I felt very humbled. There must have been 3,000 people there – they wanted to thank my father but he wasn’t there; we were the only way they could express their gratitude. I met two sisters who told me ‘we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your father’.”
And in 2015, Labour International Costa Blanca Branch arranged for a delegation from the Alicante civic commission to visit Capt. Dickson’s home city of Cardiff where they presented a stainless steel plaque to the then Lord Mayor Margaret Jones, depicting an image of the Stanbrook in Alicante harbour and bearing an inscription in English, Welsh and Spanish.
Also present were Capt. Dickson’s two children, two great-grandchildren of the ship’s engineer Henry Livingstone, and members of the Welsh section of the International brigades Memorial Trust.