Stan Hilton (1917-2016) – Merchant Seafarer and Sussex Brigader
Born in Newhaven, East Sussex on New Year’s Eve 1917 Stan Hilton’s first memories were of being dumped at a workhouse near Brighton. Stan grew up in care homes before ending up at a school which trained orphans for domestic service.
Stan was a tough young man and took to swimming and boxing, sleeping rough on Brighton’s streets until a policewoman got him a place on a maritime training course in 1933. Stan served as a ships steward on several merchant vessels until in 1937 he was on the cargo ship Oakworth heading for Spain. The ship’s second officer called Stan the “Brighton Bastard”, he later recalled, “the man was a bully, so I hit him”. His shipmates suggested it would be wise for him to “scarper” when they reached Alicante and Stan duly went over the side when they docked.
There he met a fellow Briton who said: “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. The Spanish people needed help. It was the right thing to do” he told an interviewer in 2010.
Stan and his companion made their way to the British Battalion base near Albacete, enlisting in the International Brigade on 22nd November 1937. Unlike most Volunteers Stan was not overtly political and the reality of going to war really scared him. Despite this Stan understood the Republican side were the underdogs and felt compelled to fight on their side.
Stan fought in the battle of Teruel in February 1938 and when Franco’s fascist forces re-took the city he was part of the retreat. In March Franco launched a major offensive in Aragon, where Stan and the British Battalion found themselves in full retreat fighting a rearguard action. The Battalion was scattered.
“It was every man for himself”, Stan recalled. Cut off and lost, he sheltered in a remote hut with two comrades who were killed when the hut was attacked. “I went outside for some reason, I heard shots. When I got back, my mates were dead. I ran into the woods and hid”.
Joining a small group of hungry and exhausted soldiers, Stan retreated through Southern Catalonia to the wide, swift flowing River Ebro. The far bank promised safety and respite, if they stayed put the men faced capture and execution. Stan volunteered to swim across and retrieve a rowing boat but the current swept him downstream and when he finally got out of the River he was on his own. Stan got to Tortosa, caught a train to Barcelona and was in the City when it was bombed by Mussolini’s air force.
For Stan the war was over, some history books list him among the fallen at the battle of the Ebro. He made his way to the docks in Barcelona and stowed away on the Lake Lugano bound for England. Some weeks after he got back to London MI5 agents came knocking on his door to question him about his time with the International Brigades. (Later that year the Lake Lugano was sunk by Italian aircraft off Catalonia with its cargo of medical supplies for the Republic).
In the Second World War Stan served in the merchant navy on oil tankers and tramp steamers. After the War ended Stan joined the Royal Marine Reserves moving with his young family to Australia in the 1950’s working mostly as a tiler in the building trade.
Stan Hilton died aged 98 on 21st October 2016 at a nursing home in Ocean Grove, near Melbourne, one of the last survivors of the legendary anti-fascist International Brigades.
(Stan Hilton’s profile is based on an interview in 2013 with David Leach and a 2016 obituary by Denis Rogatyuk)