This year marks the 75th anniversary of a heroic deed which won Hartlepool man Thomas Hopper Alderson the first ever George Cross.
Thomas, an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) warden, risked his life three times in August 1940 to rescue people trapped in wreckage following Luftwaffe bombing raids.
“His courage and devotion to duty, without the slightest regard for his own safety, won him admiration at the highest level,” said local historian Bill Hawkins.
Thomas, the fifth of six children, was born to coachman Thomas Alderson and his wife Sarah (née Hopper) at Ashburne Stables, Sunderland, in September 1903.
But the family moved to Hartlepool when he was still young and, following a stint at a village school, Thomas become head boy at Elwick Road Senior Boys’ School.
“Aged just 11 he witnessed the 1914 bombardment of West Hartlepool by the German High Seas Fleet, in which over 100 people were killed,” said Bill.
“Then at 15 he started work as an office boy at an ironworks, but later became a draughtsman before completing a five-year engineering apprenticeship.”
Thomas went on to join the merchant navy, serving as an assistant engineer at first - but later qualifying as a first engineer after taking Board of Trade exams.
He then married Irene Johnson in 1932, and the birth of their daughter in 1935 prompted him to leave the sea and work for West Hartlepool Council as an engineer.
“Three years later, as Britain was starting to prepare for war, Thomas moved to Bridlington, where he worked as a council works supervisor,” said Bill.
“He also trained as an ARP instructor and, following the outbreak of war, his skills in tunnelling through wreckage after air raids proved much in demand.”
Indeed, on August 15, 1940, he dug through the debris of two collapsed houses to rescue a woman and, five days later, rescued 11 people trapped in a cellar.
“The wreckage was unsafe, gas leaks were a hazard and there was a danger of flooding - but Thomas refused to risk any rescuers other than himself,” said Bill.
“He got badly bruised, but rescued all 11. Just three days later, he tunnelled 14ft under the wreckage of another bombed out house to rescue two more people.”
Thomas’s “gallantry, enterprise and devotion” was recognised a month later by the award of the first George Cross - equivalent in status to the Victoria Cross.
“He was a very modest man, and always maintained that the award was for all the rescue team in Bridlington, not just him,” said Bill.
“Sadly, Thomas died from cancer at just 62, but his memory lives on through his medal - which is on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.”