Birthday greetings

Post date: 31/12/2014

Happy birthday to Stan Hilton, the last surviving British International Brigader, who is 97 today (31 December 2014). Here is an article by David Leach about Stan Hilton, which first appeared in 2013 in IBMT Newsletter no.1-13. Since it was written, Stan has moved from Yarrawonga to a nursing home at Ocean Grove, Victoria, to be closer to his family.



Stan Hilton: last man standing


Stan Hilton was 19 when he jumped ship in the Spanish port of Alicante and joined the fight against fascism.


Of the 2,500 British, Irish and Commonwealth men and women who served in Spain, Stan is literally the last man standing. He is now 95 and lives in Yarrawonga, a small town in Victoria, Australia.


Stan was no left-wing activist, nor Cambridge poet. A ship’s steward from Sussex, he was a tough young man, an orphan who grew up in care homes and took to swimming and boxing. Not to mention ducking and diving.

“I liked mucking about,” he recalls over a glass of red wine at home in Yarrawonga. 


“I didn’t like being ordered around.”


On the cargo ship Oakworth heading for Spain, Stan attracted the attention of the ship’s second officer. “He used to call me the ‘Brighton Bastard’. The man was a bully,” he says. “So I hit him.”


His mates suggested it would be wise for Stan to “scarper”. When the ship docked at Alicante, Stan went over the side and promptly enlisted in the International Brigade. It was 22 November 1937.


“The Spanish people needed help,” he says. “It was the right thing to do.”

After 75 years, Stan’s memories of the war are understandably sketchy. Early on, he had a run-in with a Russian instructor. “Bloke had a sword. Pushed me around,” he says. “So I hit him too.”


Did the sunshine and high blue Yarrawonga sky remind Stan of Spain?

“No,” he says. “I arrived in winter. It was freezing. I was always bloody cold.”

Stan saw action with the British Battalion that winter in deep snow on the Aragon front. Then in the spring of 1938, rebel forces broke through towards the Mediterranean. In the chaos that followed, Stan says: “It was every man for himself.” 


Cut off and lost, he took shelter in a remote hut with two comrades. “I went outside for some reason,” he says. “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 River Ebro. A wide, swift-flowing natural barrier, its 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.


“I was a strong swimmer,” Stan says. “But the current swept me downstream. When I came out of the river, I was on my own.”


For Stan the war was over. He made his way north to the docks in Barcelona and stowed away on a ship bound for England. He got home safely, although the ship – the Lake Lugano, with a cargo of medical supplies – was later sunk by Italian aircraft off Catalonia.


In the Second World War, Stan served in the merchant navy. In peacetime, he moved with his young family to Australia.


Stan puts down his wine glass and looks into the distance, his blue eyes as clear as a teenager’s.” You know,” he says, “I haven’t been sensible in my life.”


To survive two wars and reach the age of 95, trim and fit and with faculties intact, suggests – to the contrary – that he has been very sensible indeed.


David Leach is a broadcaster, writer and former IBMT Trustee, now based in Melbourne. His acclaimed film, “Voices From a Mountain”, about British volunteers at the Battle of the Ebro, can be viewed at [] or go to YouTube and search “Voices From a Mountain”.

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