Memorial to the Stanbrook in Alicante harbour
The Telegraf - Trevor Baker 08 Apr 2015
Wales belatedly honours a home-grown hero who is worshipped in Spain
A Welshman revered on the Costa Blanca thanks to his rescue of more than 2,500 civil war refugees will be commemorated for the first time in Cardiff
Despite saving the lives of 2,638 people during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, ship captain Archibald Dickson’s name is virtually unheard of in his home city of Cardiff.
But 76 years on from his act of bravery amid scenes of chaos in Alicante, the people of the Welsh capital will gather on Sunday, April 12, for a long-overdue memorial service.
On March 29 1939, up to 30,000 supporters of the fallen Republic and their families arrived at the port in Alicante, in the hope of fleeing Spain and General Franco's approaching nationalist troops.
Unfortunately for them, a blockade by Italian destroyers prevented the arrival of almost all of the promised rescue vessels. Only one boat large enough to carry a substantial number of people made it through – the SS Stanbrook steam ship, captained by Dickson.
It doesn't appear, though, that 47-year-old Dickson (left) had any political motives for what he did. He'd come to Alicante to pick up a lucrative cargo of saffron and oranges. As more and more people arrived, however, the port authorities begged him to take as many as he could to Algeria. After witnessing the scenes of chaos and desperation he agreed to leave the saffron on the docks and take the refugees instead.
As a cargo ship, just 230 feet long, the Stanbrook only had accommodation for its 24 man crew. However, there were soon many hundreds, if not thousands, of people queuing to get on board.
According to historian Juan Martínez Leal, after customs officials had processed 900 of them in a relatively orderly fashion, there was a sudden panic, as rumours emerged of imminent attack by the Italian or German air forces who were supporting Franco.
Dickson considered withdrawing the gangplank but that might have meant tipping many of the refugees into the water. Instead he allowed 2,638 people on board.
“I was only four at the time but I still remember Captain Dickson receiving us as we went up the gangplank,” said Helia González, daughter of a prominent local supporter of the defeated Republic.
“I was holding my mother's hand and he picked me up and gave me a kiss on the cheek and put me on the deck. To me on that trip the captain was like God. Everywhere he went I was looking to see where he was because I thought that if he was there everything was all right.”
Ten minutes into the journey, fascist aircraft appeared overhead. The sound of explosions came from the port in Alicante and two bombs fell into the water behind the Stanbrook, causing chaos on board as passengers rushed to one side of the boat, causing it to list alarmingly. Conditions were horrendous as refugees were crammed into every corner, most of whom barely even had a change of clothes.
“We managed to sit on the curved top of a wooden trunk next to the chimney,” says González.
“There was a toilet next to us but you couldn't get in because so many people had gone in there to keep warm, they looked like worms, head to toe, on the floor.”
After 22 hours they arrived near Oran in Algeria but the journey still wasn't over. The French colonial authorities refused them permission to disembark. After Dickson went onshore to negotiate, they allowed the women, children, elderly and injured to leave but the men would remain there for almost another month. Even after that their suffering wasn't over. Many of them were interned in concentration camps.
Helia González with her younger sister Alicia and the rest of her family in Algeria in the 1940s (Helia González)
Although the González family was able to return to Spain in 1949 (thanks, says Helia, to the help of a grateful priest who her father had saved during the war), during Franco's dictatorship they weren't able to talk openly about what they'd been through. After the return of democracy there was still little official appetite to remember the past. The first plaque commemorating the refugees and Alicante's role as the last place to fall to Franco was erected in the port just last year by the Civic Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory.
Archibald Dickson's own family knew almost nothing about his heroism until just a few years ago. In November 1939, six months after returning from Algeria, the Stanbrook was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat and all onboard, including Dickson, were killed, taking their story with them.
The captain’s son, Arnold Dickson, now 80, still sounds emotional when he talks about the moment he first realised what the name of his father means to so many people in Spain. He and his sister Dorothy Richardson visited Alicante in 2009 for a ceremony remembering the Stanbrook, and he says they were “lionised”.
“I felt very humbled,” he says. “There must have been up to 3,000 people there. They wanted to thank my father but he wasn't there so we were the only way they could express their gratitude. I met two sisters who told me 'we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for your father'."
An extract from a letter sent by Dickson to the Sunday Dispatch newspaper in London on April 3 1939, outlining the circumstances of the rescue
As the last generation to remember the civil war passes, it is becoming easier for the descendants of the defeated to remember their heroes and those who were lost. As of 2011 there is, officially at least, a street named after the Stanbrook in Alicante, although it has yet to appear on most maps.
One day, survivors hope, Archibald Dickson will receive a similar honour. And this weekend, he’ll receive his first recognition at home, when a plaque to him is unveiled at the Mansion House in Cardiff. The event has been organised by the International Brigade Memorial Trust, which exists to keep alive the memory of the men and women from Britain, Ireland and elsewhere who volunteered to defend democracy and fight fascism in Spain from 1936 to 1939.
In the meantime, for a few very elderly people, who were very young at the end of the civil war, no memorial to the Welsh captain can ever repay the debt that they feel.
International Brigade Memorial Trust:
11-12 April CARDIFF
11/04/2015 to 12/04/2015
Programme of events to commemorate Archibald Dickson, Cardiff-based master of the Stanbrook, and other seafarers who ran the blockade of Spanish Republican ports. A delegation from the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory in Alicante (from where the Stanbrook rescued thousands of Republican refugees) will lay flowers at the International Brigade memorial in Peace Park, Cathays Park, Cardiff at 4.30pm on Saturday 11 April followed by a visit to Cardiff Bay to see the Memorial to Seafarers. A memorial plaque for Archibald Dickson and the crew of the Stanbrook will be unveiled at 10.30am on Sunday morning at Mansion House, Richmond Rd, Cardiff CF24 3UN. Café facilities at Unite (1 Cathedral Rd, Cardiff CF11 9SD) will be available from 12 noon to 5pm, during which the 1938 film "Britain Expects" (16 minutes) about attacks on British seafarers and ships during the Spanish Civil War will be shown. The Red Choir will perform at the Gatekeeper pub (9-10 Westgate St, Cardiff CF10 1DD) in the evening, between 7pm to 10.30pm.
|Homenaje en Cardiff su ciudad natal|