The Stanbrook story: the unlikely British heroes of Alicante’s darkest hour

Eighty two years ago – in late March 1939 – the waterfront of Alicante was an absolutely desperate place to be.

The Spanish Civil War was almost over. Franco’s rebel armies were on the brink of victory. Alicante was the last port still held by the Republicans and it was thronged with thousands of refugees, all trying to escape the advancing Nationalists. 

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 that had definitely seen better days, just 230 feet long and weighing not much more than 1300 tons.

But Dickson and his 24-strong crew were to become part of Civil War history, rescuing thousands of  desperate refugees from the Alicante dockside, an act of selfless bravery still remembered with gratitude 82 years later.

Captain Archibald Dickson
The bust of Captain Dickson garlanded with flowers on the 80th anniversary of the Stanbrook rescue, March 28, 2019.

Dickson had brought the Stanbrook through Franco’s naval blockade into Alicante several 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 in and out of Republican ports – Bilbao, Barcelona and Valencia among them – and getting bombed several times for their trouble.

Capt Archibald Dickson
The master of the Stanbrook, Captain Archibald Dickson. His actions in March 1939 saved thousands.

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 hadn’t arrived. And while he tried to locate it, Alicante port was filling up with refugees.

The Stanbrook crammed with refugees, March 1939. The iconic image of the last days of the Republic in Alicante.

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 around 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.

Crowds of refugees on the upper decks of the Stanbrook in Oran harbour.

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, though historians say there were many more than that. I’ve seen a copy of the passenger listput together later by French colonial officials, with 2,638 names on it. It must have been – 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.

Stanbrook letter April 2 1939
Captain Dickson’s letter to the Sunday Dispatch describing in matter-of-fact tones the story of his heroic rescue of hundreds of refugees from the besieged port of Alicante.
Stanbrook letter page 2
How Stanbrook got away just in time from Alicante; Capt Dickson’s description to the Sunday Dispatch newspaper

Stanbrook was actually not the last ship to leave Alicante. Another vessel, the Maritime, left shortly afterwards. Shamefully, she had only 32 people on board; Republican government officials and their families.

For the Stanbrook, it was 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 about to end any time soon. The French authorities in Algeria prevented the refugees from landing. 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 all the refugees disembark when the ship became a health hazard. 

Although most of Stanbrook’s passengers were condemned to internment camps and years, often decades, of exile, those left behind in Alicante suffered even worse: vicious persecution from General Franco’s 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 II broke out. In the early hours of 19 November 1939, the Stanbrook was sailing back to England from Antwerp in Belgium when a torpedo from the German submarine U-57 struck her port side. She broke in two and sank quickly. None of the 20 crew members survived.

But the Stanbrook was not forgotten in Alicante, even after the long years of the Franco dictatorship. In April 2018, a bust of Captain Dickson was unveiled on the Muelle de Levante in the port.

The alcalde (mayor) of Alicante, Luis Barcala, at the  quayside ceremony remembering the Stanbrook, her crew and the refugees who fled aboard her. March 28, 2019, 80 years to the day since the Stanbrook rescue.

And on March 28, 2019 – exactly 80 years to the day since the Stanbrook rescue – the memory of Captain Dickson and his crew was honoured in a ceremony led by Alicante’s mayor. Flowers were cast into the water to remember the Stanbrook and those who fled into exile aboard her.

Sadly the Civil War still casts a long shadow – disgracefully, the Stanbrook monument was disfigured the night before the ceremony with the fascist Falange symbol and graffiti. Quick work by the city government cleaned up the sacrilege just in time.

Flowers for the Stanbrook
Flowers cast into the waters of Alicante port, exactly 80 years after the Stanbrook deliverance

Captain Dickson is still remembered fondly by those he rescued. Alicia González from nearby Elche was only a toddler when she and her older sister boarded the Stanbrook that day in 1939.

She came to the 80th anniversary ceremony on March 31, 2019 and told the crowd gathered in the port of Alicante; “Captain Dickson was the (Oskar) Schindler for the Spanish”.

Alicia González
Alicia González, the younger of two sisters saved by Captain Dickson in March 1939, addresses the commemoration ceremony in March 2019, 80 years on.

A street off the main Avenida de Denia is named Calle Buque (steamship) Stanbrook. It’s not the smartest address in town, but it’s the gesture that counts. There’s even a heavy metal rock band from Alicante named Stanbrook!

The Alicante street named after the Stanbrook, her heroic captain and crew. Buque is steamship in Spanish.

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 thousands of merchant seamen who died in World War ll. There are also plans for a memorial in Capt Dickson’s native Cardiff.

Stanbrook memorial

The Stanbrook remembered on the Merchant Navy memorial near the Tower of London. She was torpedoed by a German submarine and sank with all her crew on November 19, 1939.

Merchant Navy Memorial London
The Merchant Navy memorial in London; the Stanbrook is remembered here, along with the thousands of other sailors who died in WW2.

A tragic ending to the heroic story of a battered old ship, her British crew and captain, whose bravery and humanity changed the course of thousands of lives.  

If you’d like to know more about Civil War history in Alicante province, take a look at these posts:

© Guy Pelham 2018

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