Almost eighty years ago – in 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 in and out of 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 hadn’t arrived. 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 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.
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. I’ve seen a copy of the passenger list, put 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.
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.
For the Stanbrook, 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 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 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 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 apparently 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 quayside.
Dickson is still remembered fondly by those he rescued. Alicia González was only a toddler when she and her older sister boarded the Stanbrook that day in 1939. She came to the unveiling ceremony and told Información newspaper; “Captain Dickson gathered us into his arms. He lifted us up onto the ship. My sister Helia was four years old and I was only two, but we will never be able to forget this moment”.
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 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.
2019 will see the 80th anniversary of the Stanbrook deliverance. The remarkable story of a battered old ship, her British crew and captain, whose bravery and humanity changed the course of thousands of lives.
© Guy Pelham 2018