Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Archibald Dickson - Hero of Alicante

 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

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

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


  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.