In March 1939, in scenes reminiscent of today’s Kabul, Archibald Dickson sailed the SS.Stanbrook into the blockaded Alicante harbour. Rather than load up with the cargo he was there to collect he loaded 2600 refugees trapped there by Franco’s approaching army and took them to Oran, Algeria. Archibald Dickson and his family lived in Pen-y-Wain Road, Roath Park and was tragically killed later that year, aged 47, when the SS.Stanbrook was torpedoed at the start of WWII.
Archibald Dickson was born in Cardiff on 22 Jan 1892, one of thirteen children born to Robert Dickson, a stone mason, originally from Beer, Devon and Thirza Dickson née Hodges originally from Weston-super-Mare. He grew up in the Canton area. He joined the Merchant Navy at the age of 15 and gained his First Mate certificate in 1913, aged 21. He served as a temporary Lieutenant in the Navy in WWI before being discharged in 1919. In 1925 we pick him up sailing to New York on board the Majestic. His profession at the time is Ship’s Officer and his address 9 Princes Street, Roath. He married Rebecca Phillips and they had three children together, one of whom died in infancy. Archibald and Rebecca Dickson and his children lived at 77 Pen-y-Wain Road, opposite the church. He was tragically killed on 18 Nov 1939, aged 47, when the SS.Stanbrook was torpedoed in the North Sea. Archibald Dickson and 19 crew members were lost. He is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial for Merchant Seamen in London. Commonwealth War Graves Commission record. We have also remembered him on the Roath Virtual War Memorial.
My attention was initially drawn to the story of Archibald Dickson when reading the following piece by Ray Palmer who has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here:
Cardiff has many heroes, though some are better known than others.
For instance, have you heard of Archibald Dickson from Pen-y-Wain Road in Roath? Chances are if you live in Alicante in Spain you’re more likely to know the name than if you live in Roath.
His command was an old tramp steamer called The Stanbrook, which had seen better days. In March 1939 he sailed out of Cardiff to Alicante to pick up a cargo of fruit. But this was the time of the Spanish Civil War, and General Franco’s fascist army was on the brink of victory. His Italian ally Mussolini was blockading the port, making it virtually impossible for vessels to get through. But Dickson was a hardened sailor used to coping with difficulties in his 33-year service, and – anxious to fulfil his contract – he decided to run the blockade anyway, and was able to dock in Alicante.
But what he found there were nearly 30,000 refugees fleeing from Franco’s forces, expecting the town to be bombed, and hoping to catch a ship to safety. Dickson crammed almost 3000 of them onto his ship, and sailed out of the port. Just ten minutes later the expected bombardment of Alicante began in earnest. Dickson made a 20-hour run across the Mediterranean to French-controlled Oran.
But in Oran the authorities kept 1000 men on the ship for weeks, only permitting them to disembark when the ship became a health hazard. Most of the refugees were sent to internment camps and spent years in exile. But those left behind in Alicante suffered far worse at the hands of Franco’s vengeful Nationalists, and thousands were marched off to concentration camps on the outskirts of Alicante.
There was no happy ending for Dickson or his crew either. Just a few months later, World War II broke out. In the early hours of 19 November 1939, The Stanbrook was sailing back to England from Antwerp when a German torpedo hit her port side. She broke in two and sank quickly. Dickson and the 20 crew members died.
The sailor from Pen-y-Wain Road is still regarded as a hero in Spain today, and in April 2018 a bust of Captain Dickson was unveiled in the port. I believe there is also a commemorative plaque in Cardiff Bay.
Another interesting report of the Stanbrook at Alicante was written by Jack Troughton in the Costa Levante News:
SHIP’S Captain Archibald Dickson, his crew and the SS Stanbrook sailed into history when they snatched a cargo of desperate men, women and children from the stricken city of Alicante in the last days of the Spanish Civil War.
The 230ft-long ship left harbour with 2,643 refugees crammed on board; some of the 30,000 desperate supporters of the doomed Republic hoping to flee the country and escape the advancing forces of Nationalist leader General Franco and his fascist allies from Germany and Italy.
In April, a bronze bust of the Cardiff-born seaman was unveiled alongside the existing plaque on the docks, remembering the bravery of the skipper, his 24-strong crew and the ship in March 1939 – the war officially ended on April 1.
And yet the story of the Stanbrook remains largely unknown or forgotten in the United Kingdom; possibly, because the British government with Neville Chamberlain at the helm as prime minister was intent on a policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany at the time.
In Alicante and across Spain the name of Capt. Dickson, his ship, and tale of the maritime great escape are revered.
The Stanbrook sailed into Alicante on March 19, 1939, after a two day voyage from Marseille; using the cover of darkness to evade a naval blockade of the city. The ship remained tied up as the captain waited for instructions and was informed by the ship’s owners to proceed to sea “forthwith” unless he was likely to load a cargo.
A day later a lucrative cargo of tobacco, oranges and saffron arrived at the port – but so did a host of people looking to escape the fascist forces; many were soldiers and militiamen of the Republican army, along with trade unionists, international brigade members and foreign advisors.
Ignoring orders, Capt. Dickson crammed people onto the Stanbrook and, again at night, set sail for Algeria, bombs being dropped in an air raid as she headed out to sea.
Sadly, six months later in November 1939 and the start of the Second World War, the Stanbrook was lost, torpedoed by a German submarine as she headed to Tyneside from Antwerp. The 47-year-old captain and 22 officers and men perished after the ship broke in two. However, Capt. Dickson was able to tell the story before his death in an interview with the Sunday Dispatch newspaper in London; he said, “Amongst the refugees were a large number of women and young girls and children of all ages, even 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 on refugees unless they were in real need.”
“However, from seeing the condition of the refugees, I decided from a humanitarian point of view to take them aboard as I anticipated they would soon be landed at Oran in Algeria.”
He said the crowds at the port were made up of people of all classes; some very poor and “looking half-starved an ill clad, attired in a variety of clothing ranging from boiler suits to old and ragged pieces of uniform”.
The captain noted how some people seemed to be carrying their worldly possessions in suitcases, bags or “tied up in handkerchiefs”.
The Stanbrook’s gangplank soon became choked with people and the captain contemplated leaving the quay – but remained tied up because he was fearful people would be thrown into the water and drowned.
Numbers on board made it impossible for anyone to move, people refused to go down below deck into the hold and if any space was made, it was immediately filled with people.
“In all my experience at sea covering some 33 years, I have never seen anything like it and I hope I never will again,” said Capt. Dickson.
With rumours being spread of an impending air raid — two bombs later fell in the ship’s wake as she left – there was a last-minute rush to get on board before the Stanbrook was able to leave; steering a zigzag course to try and avoid warships mounting the blockade. Capt. Dickson said: “We had only just got clear of the port when the air raid rumour proved to be true and within 10 minutes or so 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 exploding shells could almost be felt.
“The refugees appeared to think that every vessel which moved in sight was a Franco vessel coming to intercept them; and as a large number of refugees were armed, I was rather alarmed at what might have occurred had we sighted a Franco ship.
“Many of the refugees stated that if a Franco vessel did intercept them, they were prepared to sell their lives dearly.”
It was a 22-hour journey to North Africa and conditions were atrocious; there were just two toilets on board and a shortage of both food and water.
When the Stanbrook steamed into Oran, the French colonial authorities first refused to allow her to dock – an angry Capt. Dickson first negotiating the landing of women, children and the elderly; men remained on board for days and were only allowed onto dry land when the seaman underlined the threat of a typhus outbreak.
Captain Dickson’s son Arnold and his daughter Dorothy visited Alicante in 2009 as guests of the Alicante Civic Commission for the Recovery of Historical Memory to attend a ceremony to remember the story of the Stanbrook.
Arnold said they were “lionised”; he said: “I felt very humbled. There must have been 3,000 people there – they wanted to thank my father but he wasn’t there; 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’.”
And 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.
The 1383 ton cargo steamer Stanbrook was built on the Tyne in 1909. It was originally called Lancer but in 1937 renamed Stanbrook, but the same year also carried the name Polyfloisvos for a short time when used by the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. The Stanbrook was a blockade-runner in the Spanish Civil War regularly breaking through Franco’s blockades to deliver food and essential materials. In August 1938 it was hit by bombs dropped by Italian warplanes and sunk at Vallcarca, 25 miles southwest of Barcelona. She was later refloated and repaired before once again suffering serious damage after being bombed in Feb 1939. It is not known if Archibald Dickson was Captain on these occasions. In March 1939 it was involved in the rescue of refugees from Valencia (described above).
The sinking of the Stanbrook in WWII is described on uboat.net and wrecksite . 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-boat U-57, 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.
The Memorial Plaque
A memorial plaque dedicated to Archibald Dickson and the Stanbrook was gifted to Cardiff by the people of Alicante. The Cardiff plaque was at one time unveiled at the Mansion House in 2015 but then there were reports that it would be mounted in a more central location. The idea now is to have it on display in the Pierhead building but plans have this far been delayed by Covid.
The story of the Archibald Dickson and the Stanbrook have been told on many occasions. Here are just a few more. Some are in Spanish but browsers are clever these days and often ask you if you want an English translation.
A Few Extra Pictures
Chair, Roath Local History Society