Despite being a hero who saved over 2,000 lives, Captain Archibald Dickson’s name was, until quite recently, virtually unheard of in his native Wales. It was much better known in the Spanish port city of Alicante, however, where his ship is remembered in the name of a city street and even a local rock group.
Dickson was the Welsh captain of the SS Stanbrook, a ship that was built in 1909 to transport coal. But by the late 1930s the Stanbrook was one of the so-called “blockade runners” of the Spanish Civil War. Under General Francisco Franco’s fascist forces, the Spanish ports were blockaded by Italian destroyers and Nazi German aircraft, and ships carrying goods to and from the Republican-held areas of Spain came under the constant threat of air raids by the fascist forces.
As the conflict neared the end, about 500,000 had died and things were going badly for the army of the democratically elected Republican government. While en route to the port of Alicante, Dickson had been warned not to enter the city by a Nationalist destroyer. He did so anyway on March 19, 1939, using bad weather for cover. He was then delayed for several days, docked off the coast of Alicante awaiting his cargo of tobacco, oranges, and saffron. The cargo finally arrived at the port, but so did a huge number of refugees—thousands and thousands of people hoping for rescue from the fascist forces.
Many of the refugees were soldiers of the Republican army (including International Brigade members), but there were also trade unionists, politicians, foreign advisers, and women and children of all ages. Dickson was told by the British owners of his ship to leave the harbor and not intervene, but he defied the order. Instead, he risked his life to save as many people as the ship could carry. An estimated 2,638 refugees were taken aboard the Stanbrook. The ship left Alicante at night, dodging Nazi artillery as it headed across the Mediterranean to the French port of Oran, Algeria.
Just days later, Alicante fell to the fascists. The remaining refugees were captured and taken (initially) to a notorious concentration camp at the Campo de Los Almendros in Alicante. Many were executed or died from starvation, disease, and exhaustion from forced labor. But the fortunate passengers of the Stanbrook made it safely to Oran, though the ship was initially not allowed to dock. After Dickson threatened to ram the ship into the harbor, most of the refugees were eventually allowed off the ship, while the male passengers of military age were interned.
Less than six months after the evacuation of Alicante, the Stanbrook was torpedoed by a German submarine while heading from Antwerp to England. The entire crew was killed, including Captain Dickson. In Alicante, he has been remembered as a hero ever since. In 2014 a memorial bust of the captain was installed on the quayside to honor him and the Stanbrook crew. It was unveiled on March 30, almost exactly 75 years after the ship set sail from the port of Alicante.
Know Before You Go
There is underground parking right next to the quay.