Saturday 20 April 2024

Archibald Dickson - Hero of Alicante (new photos of the memorial added 20/04/24)

 Archibald Dickson - Hero of Alicante

Now SCW is a periphery interest of mine and the naval aspects of that conflict even more obscure. 

But living near Alicante one does stumble upon odd bits of history which stir the interest.

Near the casino carpark, at the castle end of the marina, there is a bronze bust of a naval officer. The plaque reads:

Archibald Dickson

Capitan del barque SS Stanbrook  

(Cardiff 1892 - Mar del Norte 1939)

The bust was erected on March 30th 2014

They have recently moved the whole monument so it faces the city as part of a major upgrade to the marina

Went down to Alicante today first time since Chrismas I think? Went to the tourist information office down by the cassino as we were looking for something. As we passed the memorial I saw they have added decoration and new plaques.

Capt Archibald Dickson

The SS Stanbrook (formally called Lancer) built in 1909

Dickson was the captain of the SS Stanbrook one of a number of blockade runners who during the civil war risked life and limb to bring cargo to and from Republican ports despite a blockade imposed by the rebel forces under Franco supported by the Italians and Germans with both aircraft and submarines. 

By 1939 things were going badly for the government forces and most of the country had fallen to the rebels. While on route to Alicante Dickson had been warned not to enter the port by a nationalist (rebel) destroyer, he did so anyway on March 19th, using bad weather as a cover. He was then delayed for several days, docked off the coast awaiting his cargo (oranges, tobacco & safron) to arrive at the port. when it finally did arrive so had a large number of refugees hoping for rescue from the advancing fascists.

Famous photo of the Stanbrook her decks packed with refugees
Another image showing the refugees leaving the ship at Oran
Another photo taken of the Stanbrook at Oran

1/35 scale model of the Stanbrook on display at the Civil War Interpretaion Centre, Alicante

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.

An excerpt for Dickson`s log:

"Amongst the refugees were a large number of women and young girls and children of all ages; including some in arms.

"Owing to the large number of refugees I was in a quandary as to my own position as my instructions were not to take refugees unless they were in real need.

"However, after seeing the condition of the refugees I decided from a humanitarian point of view to take them aboard...

"A troopship leaving England laden with troops was not to be compared with my vessel. In fact in all my experience at sea, covering some 33 years, I have never seen anything like it and I hope I never will again.

"We only just got clear of the port when the air raid rumour of bombardment proved to be true and within 10 minutes of leaving port a most terrific bombardment of the town and port was made and the flash of explosions could be seen quite clearly from on board my vessel and the shock of the exploding shells could almost be felt."

An extract from a letter from Cpt Dickson describing the incident which appeared in the Sunday Dispatch newspaper 

Just days later Alicante fell to the fascists, many Republicans and refugees were taken prisoner by the vengeful victors and suffered terribly, many died.

The fortunate passengers of the Stanbrook made it safely to Oran, though the ship was initially not allowed to dock until Dickson threatened to ram his ship into the harbour. Most refugees were eventually allowed to off the ship, male passengers of military age were interned.

Cpt Dickson was killed, along with his entire crew of 20, when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat in November 1939 as it made its way back from Antwerp, Belgium.

At 02.13 hours on 19 November 1939 the unescorted Stanbrook (Master Archibald Dickson) was hit on the port side in the stern by one G7a torpedo from U-57 (Claus Korth), broke in two and sank quickly west-northwest of the North Hinder Lightship. The master and 19 crew members were lost. The torpedo had been a tube runner and hit despite of being launched manually due to the short distance to the target.

Like I said naval is not my thing, but if you have an interest in SCW of pre-WW2 naval I highly recommend:

 "Spanish Civil War Blockade Runners" by Paul Heaton ISBN1-872006-21-3

Post script
This appeared in the local news just recently :
May 28, 1939
Helia González Beltrán was four years and three months old and her sister Alicia was 6.
We arrived at the port of Alicante by train from Elche (Alicante). When we arrived at the port, a crowd of people separated us from a ship that seemed huge to me with a strange name. We, like everyone else, feared not being able to reach the catwalk that would allow us to reach him, my parents went into that crowd with my sister and me until they reached the catwalk. We reached the catwalk where the struggle was so strong that people fell over the edges pushed by those behind. That's when my dad told me to take care of my little sister and released us, letting the crowd carry us up the catwalk. Before reaching the ship, a huge block of people formed, and when they fell they were footsteps, which caused more people to fall over the edges. I was about to fall and my sister and my mother did not know where I was because I could not move. When I was almost about to be trampled, someone grabbed my arm and pulled me out of that ruckus, strong arms lifted me. I saw a smiling face, a sailor's cap, and he gave me a kiss on the cheek. He didn't say a single word, but that hug, that look, promised something good... it was him, it was Dickson and there was no danger.
I remember a packed deck, with the dark sky overhead. It rained that night, not too much, but it was cold, and shortly after setting sail from the port of Alicante they began to bombard the city, everyone on the ship was silent looking at the lighting caused by the bombs that fell in the port, you could see the silhouettes between the explosions of the people running and a scream that shook all of us who were on the boat. Finally we left Alicante behind and it seemed that the danger had passed, although the boat was almost heeled over, and we could capsize at any moment. We were about to capsize when Franco's cruiser "Canarias" intercepted us, which was keeping watch in the vicinity of Alicante so that no one could escape. He started firing his cannons at us, but the captain managed to dodge him and continued on his way.

It turns out French records proved Helia and her sister Alicia were numbers 2277 & 2278 of the evacuees rescued by Cpt. Dickson and the Stanbrook 
Helia Gonzalez Beltran.
Elche (Alicante) 1934-2018

The story continues:

Welshman hailed for his great humanitarian action

Back in 2015, Labour International Costa Blanca Branch arranged for a delegation from the Alicante civic commission to visit Capt. Dickson’s home city of Cardiff where they presented a stainless steel plaque to the then Lord Mayor Margaret Jones, depicting an image of the Stanbrook in Alicante harbour and bearing an inscription in English, Welsh and Spanish.

Also present were Capt. Dickson’s two children, two great-grand-children of the ship’s engineer Henry Livingstone, and members of the Welsh section of the International brigades Memorial Trust.

First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford unveiled a plaque dedicated to Captain Dickson and the Stanbrook, now permanently displayed in Cardiff Bay’s iconic Pierhead Building.

New info

Whilst browsing the internet (as you do) I came across the story of the Stanbrook and how a street was named in her honour near the site of the infamous "Field of Almonds" prison camp which held Republican prisoners after the surrender of the city. 
The prison camp was situated between the Serra Grossa hills and where todays Avienda de Denia is, the site is marked by a rough stone monument.
Now just up the road from the monument you`ll find the Vithas International Hospital, across Avienda de Denia from the hospital you`ll see a petrol garage and the street leading directly from this garage is - Carrer Del Vaixell Stanbrook 
The Valencian translates (roughly) to Street of the Vessel Stanbrook


  1. Thanks for sharing this Richard, really interesting.

    1. I saw the bust back in December, but we hadn`t had the chance to go back to Alicante to photograph it until today. I read Heaton`s book ages ago (I think I reviewed it in The Journal?) and excellent read.

  2. Great little piece. Good to share and highlight little known exploits AND an interesting book too!
    Nice one, Richard. CarlL (Sotcw)

    1. Cheers Carl, this was the first time we`d been back to the city since Christmas (we tend to self isolate in these worrying times). I finally managed to take a few photos to add to the brief research I had done. An interesting story of civilian bravery :) The book is very good, naval is not my thing, but I learned loads and it is a good read.

  3. Super interesting Richard. Definitely a great hero, I'm glad to have learned this story. I tend to pay less attention to the SCW after 1937, as it's just so terribly depressing, but stories like this show us that hope can be found in the darkest of times and places, if you care to look closely.

    1. SCW gets very dark and depressing once the tide turns in Franco`s favour :( I do have a couple of games planned using the Italian CTV as opponents for my Republicans for a change. Dickson`s story in fascinating and of course very relevant to where we live and he was from Cardiff which is important to me being Welsh :)

  4. Again, returning to your piece and its 'living history' content. This brought to my mind my meeting at 'Battleground' show, today in Stockton of my meeting with two members of "la Columna" living history group and my regret that I could not make either talk at the show today (11am The Teesside International Brigade Memorial and 1pm Otto Estensen, International Brigade Volunteer) as I had previously arranged to meet so many gamers and model making friends that I spent half the show chatting to them and half the day enjoying the many games and traders present. But I note this, as it reminds me of other links to Spain and the Spanish Civil War from various parts of Britain. Well done once more for shining a light on this brave naval officer from Wales. Carl (from 'tuther' side of the border!)

    1. Yes I know some of the guys who were going and givin gthose talks - like you when I did get to shows, the games, traders and old friends took presidence and I rarely sat through lectures :) The guys from Stockton are very passionate about their memorial, I know them through FB. I was at the unveiling of the Welsh memorial (at the Big Pit Museum) and was lucky enough to meet a surviving Welsh Brigader - Alun Menai Williams and get an autographed copy of his book "From Rhondda to Ebro" :) Rhondda was where I was brought up, so that was something special.

  5. Nice dig out Richard...A good man. " Archibald " got to be a bit of Jock in there somewhere!!!

    1. I tracked down the street and photographed the sign just last weekend

  6. Well done Richard, up dating this interesting story, of ship, its master and its humanitarian work. Carl

    1. you know me carl always reading and researching, when i found there was a street named in the ships honour, I just had to track it down.