Although fit and healthy until near the end of his life, Stan Hilton, the 98-year old veteran of the Spanish Civil War as one of the almost 60,000 International Brigade members who travelled from around the world to join the fight against fascism who passed away on October 21, could no longer recall his four-month adventure in Spain in 1937 and 1938. Thankfully, his son, Gordon, and grandson, Adam, still keep alive the stories and recollections he told them over many years.
Stan was born into poverty and hardship. His first memories were of being dumped at a workhouse near Brighton. He was then fostered before ending up in a school where orphans were trained to be servants.
Things got even worse. Still a teenager, he began sleeping rough in Brighton, until one day a policewoman got him on a marine training course. This was around 1933. As a ship’s steward he served on several merchant navy ships, going to ports around the world.
It was in November 1937, while on the Oakworth, when he jumped ship at the port of Alicante. On the voyage south there had been an altercation with a ship’s officer, which ended in a punch up. The officer was “a real swine”, and Stan had a short fuse in those days – a bit of a fighter.
Ashore, he met a fellow Briton: “Why don't you come with me, I’m joining the International Brigades?” Stan immediately agreed.
“I saw people parading around and saw all these fellows who had been injured, and I felt pity,” he told an interviewer in 2010. “The Spanish people needed help. It was the right thing to do.”
Stan and his companion made their way to the British Battalion base near Albacete. There he remembered the Russian trainers. The International Brigades used a lot of the Soviet equipment, such as the Dikterov submachine-gun.
Unlike most of his comrades, Stan was not overly political. And the reality of going to war scared him. Despite this, Stan understood that the Republican side were the “underdogs” in the civil war and he instinctively felt compelled to fight on their side and against the fascists lead by Franco.
He was fond too of singing their songs, like the “The Internationale”, the world socialist anthem. At one point, he attended a concert by Paul Robeson when he was entertaining and visiting the International Brigades.
He fought at the Battle of the Teruel, managing to retreat after Franco’s fascist forces finally re-conquered the city in February 1938.
Then in March that year, with Franco’s forces launching a major offensive in Aragón, Stan and the rest of the British Battalion found themselves in full retreat and fighting a rearguard action. The battalion was scattered.
“It was every man for himself,” Stan recalled. Cut off and lost, he took shelter in a hut with two comrades. They were killed when the hut was attacked, but Stan, who happened to be outside, managed to flee.
Being a very good swimmer, he was able to swim across the River Ebro to safety. He reached Tortosa, from where he caught a train to Barcelona. He was there during the merciless bombing by Mussolini’s airforce. After a few days, he boarded a ship bound for England, the Lake Lugano, and the crew put him to work.
Some weeks after he landed in London, the MI5 came knocking on his door to question him about his time with the International Brigades. Thankfully, the threat of the wider war in Europe and the overall mood in Britain allowed Stan to put his skills and knowledge to use. Almost immediately, he enrolled into a naval college and eventually returned to being a ship’s steward.
He spent a lot of his time on tankers and tramp steamers, small cargo ships that would go from one port to another without going back to a home port for years. He was while serving on the oil tanker San Casimiro when it was captured by the German battle cruiser Gneisenau on March 1941. Stan and the other seamen were treated with a surprising amount of decency by the German officers, who allowed the them to take whatever they needed from the ship’s storeroom.
They were taken off San Casimiro and put on boats, and the tanker was rigged with explosive charges to be scuttled off the Azores. However, the British battleship HMS Renown arrived on the scene and captured the German crew.
Unfortunately all Stan’s possessions, including those from his time in the International Brigades, were lost with the San Casimiro and now resides on the bottom of the Atlantic.
After World War II, Stan joined the Royal Marines Reserves, taking the frogman’s course. He was also employed by a large number of construction companies, tasked with restoring and rebuilding bombed-out towns around the country.
Both Gordon and Alan recalled that Stan never held a grudge against anyone whose side he fought on or against -- be they Spanish, German or Japanese. He always knew they were in the same position as he was, and simply spoke a different language and were on different sides of an imaginary line.
Unlike a lot of his compatriots post-WWII, Stan developed a keen sense of egalitarianism and never succumbed to any type of anti-German sentiment. In another story from his WWII days, in December 1939, Stan was onboard one of the ships stationed at neutral port of Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay.
It was during that time that he came across a number of German sailors and naval crew who were brought onshore following the Battle of the River Plate and the scuttling of their cruiser, Admiral Graf Spee. Despite the war-time tension and hostility, at one point Stan shared drinks with some of them in the port clubs and bars. Recalling his internationalist experience in Spain, he came to realise that not everyone on the other side of a battle was a complete bastard.
In 1958, Stan moved to Australia, after his wife Syliva, his son Gordon, and their three other siblings had already moved there around 1956. During the 1950s, as part of a government scheme, whole families were able to secure passages to Australia. Stan and his family initially settled in Perth. But, after separating with Sylvia and seeing no more job prospects in Perth, he decided to move to Melbourne.
He spent the rest of his life as an artisan and tradesman, perfecting floor cutting and layering and tiling. In his final years, Stan’s memories started to fade and he was in an intensive full-time care unit in a nursing home in Ocean Grove, Victoria.
“He had the luck of the Devil”, says grandson Adam. “He’d jump ship in Spain and do alright, he’d return back to England and not get arrested, he’d get captured by Germans and turn out OK. Everything always seemed to work out well for him in the end.”