On Monday, 30th September 1940, the names of the first recipients of a brand new gallantry award, the George Cross, were announced. They were Thomas Hopper Alderson, a part-time worker (Detachment Leader), Rescue Parties, Bridlington, and two Royal Engineers, Sapper George Cameron Wylie and Temporary Lieutenant Robert Davies. The latter two had acted above and beyond their duties, bravely searching out, transporting and defusing a bomb that had fallen near St Paul’s Cathedral, but it was Thomas Alderson’s award that really captured the public’s imagination. He was a civilian, not a member of the forces, and it was to honour men like him that the award had really been created.
Even before the dawn of the Second World War in September 1939, the government had been preparing for battle. In April 1935, the Air Raid Precautions Department was formed by the Home Office. With aeroplane designs improving every day, and the projected importance of aerial battles and attacks in future conflicts increasing all the time, the people-in-the-know felt it wise to prepare accordingly. At first only a dozen people were employed, tasked with drafting contingency plans in case of attack, but in 1936 instruction courses for councils were started, and in December 1937 the Air Raid Precautions Act was passed. Slowly, councils nationwide began to recruit volunteer fire-fighters, ambulance drivers, rescue and first aid workers.
At first, many felt that this was an over-reaction to the threat of Hitler’s Germany, feeling that, though he might bully smaller nations, Britain could be in no real danger from the Fuhrer. However, the Nazi menace grew and expanded, and finally in 1939 war with Germany became a reality. Still, for the first two years of World War Two, many civilian volunteers were under-valued, ridiculed and even criticised for taking the government’s money when there was no real need for them. The expected concentrated air raids did not materialised, and London stood intact and waiting.
Suddenly, in September 1940, the peace of the British Isles was shattered; by now Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway, and even France, Britain’s staunch ally, had fallen. This meant that the Nazis had airbases near our shores from which to fly. All at once, the long-anticipated Blitz hit London, and when it did, the people were ready. Workers all over the country who had previously merely acted out the role of wardens, defenders and rescuers were suddenly pressed into very active service. They threw themselves into rescuing their fellows from burning buildings, patching up the wounded as the air raid sirens wailed, shooting at fast and well-armed German bombers and defusing the bombs they dropped, all at great personal peril. It was their courage that inspired King George VI to create the George Cross, since there were no other gallantry medals for which civilians and home defenders were eligible.
He said, in his broadcast to the nation about the award on 23rd September: “To the men and women who carry on the work of the Air Raid Precautions services, I should like to say a special word of gratitude. The devotion of these civilian workers, firemen, salvage men and many others in the face of grave and constant danger, has won a new renown for the British name.”
The London Gazette carried, on 30th September, a glowing description of Thomas Hopper Alderson’s work that left no one in any doubt of his fitness to receive the George Cross. First, he had tunnelled under the wreckage of a pair of semi-detached houses in the town of Bridlington, Yorkshire, to rescue a trapped woman without further injury. Just days later he had again headed a rescue, this time clearing a path through 13 feet of rubble after the demolition of two five-story buildings to reach a cellar where 11 civilians were trapped. The wreckage was unsafe, with coal-gas leaks and the threat of flooding, but he carried on labouring regardless. Working in a cramped position for 3 ½ hours, he again managed to get everyone out without further injury. Finally he had helped to rescue five more people, again trapped in a cellar, from the wreckage of some four-story buildings. He had personally pulled two casualties, one of whom later died, from beneath a refrigerator, ignoring the threat of collapse and hostile aircraft overhead.
The London Gazette said: “By his courage and devotion to duty without the slightest regard for his own safety, he set a fine example to the members of his Rescue Party, and their team work is worthy of the highest praise.” Mr Alderson later went on the radio, and said that he accepted the award on behalf of all the rescue workers of Bridlington.
Hutchinson’s Pictorial History of the War, Series 8, No. 6
British Gallantry Awards by PE Abbott and JMA Tamplin