Gran Alacant’s privileged location high on the cliffs just south of Alicante city affords magnificent views over the city and its coastline. Looking out over the Mediterranean today one is able to watch a peaceful traffic of commercial shipping, ferries and pleasurecraft. Eighty five years ago in March 1939 the scene was quite different and was the setting for a famous act of heroic and daring courage by a Welsh sea captain and his crew.

Early 1939 saw the closing events of the Spanish civil war that had torn the country apart for three years. The coup d’etat launched by a group of army generals including Francisco Franco had achieved almost total military domination of Spain with scarcely any areas remaining under the control of the legitimate government. By the last days of March 1939 the only part of Spain not under the occupation and control of the rebel army forces was the port area of Alicante. The port was a scene of chaos and fear with thousands of Spaniards attempting to flee the country; amongst these were many who had been involved in the political life of the country and had opposed the army’s coup d’etat. The British and French governments refused to organise an evacuation by sea leaving crowds of desperate people attempting to gain passage on any ship leaving the port. The city and harbour were under constant bombardment from the army and rebel air force supported by Italian and German aircraft based in the Balearic Islands.

Into this bloody chaos arrived a small British freighter called the SS Stanbrook to collect a cargo of oranges and saffron. Built in 1909 on the Tyne she was 70 metres in length and just under 1400 tons, a minnow compared to today’s vast commercial ships but to the desperate people on the quayside a potential lifeline to avoid capture and execution. Everything depended on the decision of the ship’s Welsh captain Archibald Dickson. Captain Dickson was under instructions by the ship’s owners to collect the cargo and remain neutral, however seeing the desperate scenes in Alicante he abandoned the cargo and determined to take on board all those trying to flee. His little ship took on board around 2,500 people crammed into every inch of space and placing the ship at risk of capsize. Late on 28th March 1939 the SS Stanbrook left Alicante under fire from rebel warships and aircraft trying to force it to change course to Mallorca. The harassment of the ship continued until the Royal Navy finally decided to step in to protect the British flagged vessel and escort it away from Spanish waters.

22 hours later the Stanbrook arrived in the Algerian port of Oran. After negotiations with the French authorities the women and children were allowed to disembark. The 1,500 male passengers were left on board and were ultimately only allowed off of the ship a month later following a public outcry in France. The fate of many of these men was not immediately clear with most being kept in brutal internment camps and even being used as forced labour by the French colonial authorities; but they had at least kept their lives. For all of the Spaniards on board the SS Stanbrook the trip to Oran was only the first part of journeys that would scatter them to every corner of the world as exiles from the fascist dictatorship of Franco that would rule Spain for the next 36 years. Without the humanitarian decision of Captain Dickson many of those who escaped on the Stanbrook would without doubt have faced execution or imprisonment by General Franco, who immediately instigated a policy of vengeance and fear upon all of those who had opposed his illegal seizure of power.

Europe’s other dictators soon brought wars of domination to the rest of Europe. In November 1939 the SS Stanbrook was itself an early victim when it was sunk in the North Sea by a German U boat, Captain Dickson went down with his ship.

Alicante has not forgotten Archibald Dickson and his brave decision to save the desperate crowds on the quayside in late March 1939. The city of Alicante has named a street after the ship and erected a monument to the rescue in the old port area that is now the marina. Captain Dickson’s descendants have also been welcomed to commemorative events in the city. As the Valencia government is currently attempting to effectively rewrite the history of that period of Spanish history, now more than ever it is especially important to tell the story of the SS Stanbrook, its captain and the people saved by him in March 1939.


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