Just over 80 years ago on March the 29th, 1939, a Welsh, Merchant Navy captain rescued over two and a half thousand Republican refugees from the Port of Alicante.
Nearly 30,000 refugees fleeing from the advancing Franco forces in March 1939 were crowded into Alicante Port, hoping to catch a ship to freedom. The trouble was that Franco’s facist ally, Italy under Mussolini, was blockading the port with its destroyers, making it virtually impossible for rescue vessels to get through.
But impossible it wasn’t for one British merchantman, SS Stanbrook steam ship, under the command of a 47-year-old Welshman, Captain Dickson. He hadn’t gone there to rescue anybody, though; he’d gone there to pick up a cargo of saffron and oranges, but what he saw there changed his life and the life of everybody that he managed to cram aboard.
He was about to load this valuable cargo when the port authorities begged him to take as many refugees as possible to Algeria. Seeing the misery and desperation on the faces of so many men, women and children, he decided to leave the cargo on the dockside and load as many people as he could onto his 230ft-long freighter.
It was an ageing ship built to carry a crew of 24… and not precisely in luxury, yet there were hundreds of people arriving every hour.
The customs officials managed to let 900 refugees board in an organised manner despite the desperation of the crowds but everybody panicked when the rumour of an approaching air raid by Nazi & Italian bombers spread like wildfire amongst them.
At that point he could have jettisoned the crowded gangplanks, which would probably have resulted in dozens of refugees drowning. Instead, he waited and managed to get a total of 2,638 people onboard before casting off.
The rumour was accurate because within ten minutes of setting sail, bombers appeared over the port and started bombing and strafing the port, packed with civilians. A couple of bombs just off the starboard side caused all those on the crowded deck to rush to the other side, nearly causing the ship to capsize.
They reached the Port of Oran in Algeria after 22 hours of nerve-racking tension, expecting an attack from the air or under the surface at any moment. Yet, they were far from home and dry.
This was French North Africa and the colonial authorities refused to allow the refugees to disembark. Captain Dickson, determined to take his charges to safety, went ashore to plead with them. Finally, after lengthy negotiations, the Port Authorities allowed women, children, the elderly and injured to leave the ship but all rest of the males had to remain onboard.
And there they remained for over a month before being allowed to disembark into internment. With the fall of France to the German invasion and the creation of the rump Vichy state, many ended in concentration camps.
In Franco’s Spain, any mention of the fate of those who had opposed him was forbidden. Many who stayed behind hid in tiny hiding holes within their homes for decades, not daring to come out unless it was in the dead of night when a nosey neighbour wouldn’t be awake to inform on them.
Alicante had been the last city to fall to Franco’s forces and it was there, long after Democracy had returned, that the first plaque was placed, commemorating those tragic last days of the Republic before it was extinguished by Franco’s facists troops.
Yes, it wasn’t until April 2014 that the plaque was erected in the port by the Asociación Cívico por la Recuperación de la Memoria Historica.
Even then the story of Captain Archibald Dickson was little known in Alicante; not even to his own descendants back in Wales, in fact. The reason that his family had no knowledge of his mercy mission was because he never returned to tell the tale.
Luck had run out for this courageous man and his crew in November 1939 when on their way back from Algeria SS Stanbrook was torpedoed by a U-boat – the ship was lost with all hands, including their captain.
But hundreds of the refugees remembered him and what he had done and it was those survivors, now in the late years of their lives, who moved heaven and earth to have a plaque in his memory.
Arnold Dickson, the 80-year-old Captain’s son, together with his sister, Dorothy visited Alicante in 2009 for a ceremony in their father’s memory and they were stunned by how people received them, so much so that Arnold said he felt very, very humbled by it all. They met people amongst those gathered – several thousand – who wept when they told the two offspring that they would not be there that day if it had not been for their father, Captain Archibald Dickson.
Recognition for their father’s rescue mission was also made in Cardiff where a plaque was unveiled at the Mansion House, which had been organised by the International Brigade Memorial Trust.
(News: Feature, Archibald Dickson, SS Stanbrook)