Seventy nine years ago this month – late March 1939 – the waterfront of Alicante was an absolutely desperate place to be.
The Spanish Civil War was moving inexorably towards its bloody conclusion. Alicante was the last port still held by the Republicans and it was thronged with thousands upon thousands of refugees, all trying to escape the advancing Nationalist armies.
Into this chaos of despair stepped a rather unlikely hero. His name: Archibald Dickson. He was the Cardiff-born captain of the British cargo ship ‘Stanbrook’. His command wasn’t anything special; a 30 year old tramp steamer, just 230 feet long, not much more than 1300 tons and with a crew of 24.
He’d brought the Stanbrook through Franco’s naval blockade into Alicante a few days earlier to pick up a cargo of tobacco, oranges and saffron. The Stanbrook’s crew were old hands at dodging Nationalist warships. They’d been doing it since 1937, running their cargoes into Republican ports – Bilbao, Barcelona and Valencia among them – and getting bombed several times for their trouble.
Getting into Alicante was no picnic either. Dickson wrote to the Sunday Dispatch newspaper rather coolly afterwards; “we had some trouble avoiding a Franco Destroyer which had instructed us not to go into Alicante. However, with the aid of a rain squall and some bad weather we eluded the destroyer and entered Alicante at about 6pm on 19th March”
Nobody would have blamed Dickson for loading his cargo and getting out of Alicante as fast as possible. But according to Dickson’s account, his cargo wasn’t there. And while he tried to locate it, Alicante port was filling up with refugees.
The port authorities asked him to take 1,000 people to safety in Algeria, including children and even babes in arms. Dickson agreed. But with about 8-900 refugees on board, he described later how the authorities on shore lost control of the crowds. Even more desperate people clambered aboard…including some of the customs men and guards who’d thrown away their weapons.
In the end, he decided to take everyone he could and abandoned all thought of his cargo on the quayside. On Dickson’s own estimate, over 1,800 people were crammed in; some historians say there were many more than that. It was quite literally standing room only on deck.
Dickson wrote; “in all my experience at sea covering some 33 years, I have never seen anything like it and I hope I never will again.”
Stanbrook finally cast off around 1030 pm on the 28th and headed for the open sea. Ten minutes later, Dickson witnessed “ a most terrific bombardment” of the town and port. They’d got away just in time. On March 31, Alicante fell.
Rather shamefully, Stanbrook was not the last ship to leave. Another vessel, the Maritime, left shortly afterwards with only 32 people on board; Republican officials and their families.
It was only a 20 hour run across the Mediterranean to French-controlled Oran. Dickson wrote later; “the night was clear but cold and I think the sufferings of these people standing on deck all night must have been pretty bad”.
But their torment wasn’t to end any time soon. The French authorities in Algeria forbade the refugees to land. Three weeks after the Stanbrook arrived, the Manchester Guardian reported there were: “still 1,000 men on the ship who since they left Spain have had no opportunity to wash or change their clothes and have hardly enough space to lie down. They are never allowed on the deck for exercise….their food consists of half a loaf of bread a day and either tinned sardines or tinned paste.”
In the end, the French only let the all refugees disembark when the ships became a health hazard.
Although most of Stanbrook’s passengers were condemned to internment camps and years of exile, those left behind in Alicante suffered even worse: vicious persecution from the vengeful Nationalists. Thousands were marched off to concentration camps, particularly the notorious Campo de los Almendros on the outskirts of Alicante.
There was no happy ending for Dickson or his crew either. Just a few months later, World War ll broke out. In November 1939, the Stanbrook was sailing back to England from Antwerp in Belgium when she was torpedoed by German submarine U-57. None of the crew survived.
But the Stanbrook was not forgotten in Alicante, even after the long years of the Franco dictatorship. In 2014, a plaque was unveiled on the Muelle de Levante quayside, remembering the bravery of her crew. A street off the main Avenida de Denia is named Calle Buque Stanbrook. It’s not the smartest address in town, but it’s the gesture that counts.
Distressingly, the Civil War still casts a long shadow. In 2017, the memorial plaque in the port was torn from its mountings, though it has now been replaced.
The crew and captain of the Stanbrook are also remembered in London. Their names are inscribed on the Merchant Navy war memorial, a stone’s throw from the Tower of London, along with all the other Merchant Navy seamen who died in World War ll.
Next year will see the 80th anniversary of the Stanbrook deliverance. The remarkable story of a battered old ship and her British crew, whose bravery and humanity changed the course of thousands of lives.
© Guy Pelham 2018