REMEMBERING A BRITISH HERO OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR
On the 28th of March, 1939, the British coal ship Stanbrook, with her 24 crew, took part in the last evacuation of refugees from the port of Alicante to Oran, a major city on the north-western Mediterranean coast of Algeria.
In March of 1939, Alicante harbour was blocked off by Franco´s troops, with air support for the blockade provided by German Nazis, thus preventing ships from entering and leaving the area and carrying out any kind of rescue operation.
With some 15,000 refugees trapped in the harbour, to be taken by soldiers of the División Littorio, an Italian unit strengthened by Franco´s troops, to concentration camps in Los Almendros, later to be taken to a similar prison in Albatera.
Anchored off the coast of Alicante, the Stanbrook was waiting to load oranges and saffron. The ship’s Welsh captain, Archibald Dickson, could see the thousands of helpless refugees in the port, and thus defied the orders of the ship´s owners, who were ceding to Britain´s policy of non-intervention, and moved to take as many on board his ship as he could carry.
Helia Gonzalez Beltran, now the honorary president of the memorial group, was just 4 years old at the time, who documented her experience of the event, saying, “We arrived at the port by train from Elx. Once there, a long line separated us from a boat that seemed huge with a strange name and with many people. We, like everyone else, were afraid we wouldn´t reach the walkway that allowed us to reach it”.
Continuing, “At last we reached the boat. Strong arms lifted me. I saw a smiling face, a sailor’s cap and he gave me a kiss on the cheek. He did not say a word, but that hug, that look, promised something good … he was Captain Dickson and there was no danger”.
Once on board, though the passengers were by no means safe.
Helia recalls, “I remember a crowded deck, with dark sky over our heads. It rained that night, not much, but it was cold. Dad told me to take care of my sister. My mother shared a tortilla with a family from Málaga”.
The Stanbrook set sail on the evening of March the 28th, with 2,638 people on board, dramatically dodging projectiles and artillery fire as the military cruiser Canarias blocked the port and the route of egress. A coal ship faces the might power of a military battleship, armed and firing, only luck, skill and fate could determine the outcome.
The ship avoided the projectiles, whilst continually splashed by the water dispersed by the artillery that had somehow missed its target, through which Captain Dickson continued, without fear, and once reaching the open sea heading south, changing the original route to avoid the looming aircraft, with a ship that weighed far more than she could carry, sailing below the waterline, plucking the lucky escapees away from a nightmare that was still gripping Spain, albeit, they were not to know, the event took place just 4 days before the end of the Spanish Civil war.
In March of this year, accompanying a street in Alicante already named after the Stanbrook, a monument was unveiled in the port area to the memory of those heroes of that night, as part of the 75th anniversary commemorations.
Last week, a ship set sail to re-enact the journey, with relatives, historians and even some of the original passengers on board, arriving in Oran where a monument was unveiled in the Jardín Sidi M’Hamed, fixing a line of memory from both ends of the journey of hope.
During the inauguration of that monument, a letter by Helia was read to those in attendance, not only detailing what she and so many went through, but sharing her emotive thoughts about the heroes who saved her, both on the Stanbrook, and other ships involved in the evacuation.
“On the night of March 28, 1939 more than 3,200 people came out from the port of Alicante with the longing and hope for refuge in a place where they could be free and lifesaving.”
Whilst detailing the actions of Captain Dickson, the letter read ”All passengers put their trust in him to save us from the danger of persecution in the sea of Franco’s allies.”, continuing, “This journey that you undertake in memory, in honour, in admiration for all (captain, crew, passengers …) should not be a sad trip for you. All who escaped knew that this was going to be our only hope.”
Whilst much of Spain is still divided between those who want to remember and those who want to forget one of the most horrific times in the country´s history, with many of the relevant documents and data destroyed, groups such as the one which organised this event, Operación Stanbrook, are keen to try to keep the memory alive.
On Sunday, as Spain watched the military parade in Madrid dedicated to the memory of those members of the armed forces who have fallen, along with those in service today, a memorial concert took place in Valencia to recognise those heroes of the Stanbrook, merchant sailors not in military service, who fought their own battle of will and courage and put their lives on the line to save so many from what could have been a fate of unbearable consequences.
Filed under: http://www.theleader.info/article/43895/
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