The following story has been submitted by Anita York the daughter of Rosalie and Tom
Thomas George Bassett was born on the 1st of May 1918 in a tenement slum in Rutherglen, Glasgow. He was the first child of Reuben Bassett, a wire rope worker, and his wife Jessie. Tom was actually a twin, but his umbilical cord was wrapped around his brother’s neck, and so the second twin arrived stillborn.
A brother, Magnus, arrived on the scene three years later, but sadly he died when he was a toddler. Agnes, known as Nan, was born in November 1925 and shortly after this, the family moved from Scotland to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Ralph was born soon afterwards and the final brother, Jack, was born in 1935 when Jessie had remarried following the death of Reuben.
Tom was a choirboy at his local church in Rutherglen, though as an adult he would denounce his religion and God and become an atheist. He also had a talent for playing the piano, even though he had never been taught to play.
By the outbreak of World War Two Tom and his family, including his step father Fred Pearce, were living in James Mather Street in South Shields. Tom was working as a pianist. He did not volunteer to join the military but was conscripted into the Army on the 2nd of January 1940, aged 21 years. At the time many men enlisted under false names – whether to deny a criminal background, or to pretend to be single and enjoy that freedom, or just for a laugh, there were many reasons. Tom did the same. The three men in front of him in the queue gave their names as Smith. By this stage the enlisting officer was beginning to get suspicious, so when Tom stated that his name was Smith, the officer would not accept it. So Tom enlisted as Thomas Pearce, using his step father’s surname. There had been no choice of service; Tom was enlisted into the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) as a driver, a job he would hate for the rest of his life. His boyhood dream had been to become a jockey, but there was no call for jockeys in the Army at that point.
Private Thomas Pearce learnt to drive all manner of vehicles including small trucks, large trucks and amphibious trucks called Ducks because they could be operated on land as well as in water. Tom had never been excited about becoming a soldier or fighting in a war, and he was glad that most of his war was spent in the United Kingdom, carrying out routine tasks. He would have been happy to have spent the entire war in England.
However, in June 1944, a few days after the D Day landings had taken place, Tom’s unit was sent out to France to back up the troops who were consolidating the ground that the earlier regiments had secured. Not only did Tom hate driving, he discovered that he also hated sailing. Throughout the journey across the English Channel, he was violently sick. On arrival in France, with wobbly legs and feeling like death warmed up, he was expected to drive a fully loaded truck. To make matters worse, the French drove on the wrong side of the road!
Following the advancing troops, Tom’s unit slowly made its way northwards towards Belgium. He felt lucky that they were always several miles behind the action.
By 1945 Tom was stationed in Antwerp, Belgium. The city had been liberated, the bars sold decent beer, the local girls loved the Tommies and there was no fighting or danger – apart from the occasional V1 and V2 rockets that the Germans sent over. One particular bar that Tom and his comrades attended in their free time was Café Kreuzhof. There was a piano in one corner and Tom was in his element, tickling the ivories and playing the tunes and songs his fellow soldiers loved. A shy man, he was happy to be on the sideline, playing the piano, rather than being in the centre of a raucous group of beer fuelled men.
The eldest daughter of the café owner, Rosalie Gysen, was also shy and found it difficult to relate to the soldiers. However, in Tom she found a soul mate and was bowled over by his musical prowess on the piano. Likewise, Tom was equally bowled over by Rosalie’s beautiful singing voice. Despite being unable to speak more than a handful of words of each other’s language, romance blossomed.
On the 14th of August 1945 Tom was on a routine assignment transporting a group of Latvian Prisoners of War (POW’s) from one camp to another when he noticed that he had a flat tyre on his truck. He jumped out of the cab to deal with the tyre while his co-driver climbed into the body of the truck to operate the gas cylinder that pumped air into the tyres. When the offending tyre had reached the correct point of inflation, Tom shouted to his colleague to turn off the gas. Whether his colleague was too busy smoking and chatting to the prisoners, or whether he just didn’t hear Toms call, he failed to close the switch on the gas cylinder. Air continued to be pumped into the tyre. Tom shouted again but it was too late.
The tyre exploded sending Tom flying through the air. He landed on his back several feet away from the truck. A number of his bones were broken including his collar bone. His right arm was badly smashed up, but Tom was unaware of his injuries at this point as he was unconscious. When he came round in hospital, his upper body and right arm were encased in a plaster cast and he was blinded in one eye. After several days of rest he was allowed to return to his unit, where he discovered that his colleagues had sold all his belongings and bought themselves a few beers with the proceeds. They all thought that he had been killed by the tyre explosion.
In his current state driving was out of the question, which Tom was secretly pleased about. He was re-employed as a storeman within his unit. Frustrated that he could not play the piano, Tom was not too sad as it gave him time to get to know Rosalie and her family better. He hated his trouser pockets being laden down with “shrapnel”, the tiny, lower denomination coins that he acquired as change when he bought his beer. Irritated, he would sling the coins towards the fireplace in the living room of the flat above the bar. After he went back to barracks each night, Rosalie’s mother would get down on her hands and knees and rescue the coins.
Later that year Tom’s unit was posted to Germany. By this time he had proposed to Rosalie and she had accepted. She needed his birth certificate in order to make arrangements for the wedding, and this was the point where it transpired that Private Pearce was actually called Bassett. On the 7th of December 1945 Tom’s military records were amended to show his real name.
February 1946 – with a 48 hour pass in his pocket, Tom walked and hitched his way from his base in Germany to Antwerp to get married. On arrival, his uniform was covered in mud, so he had to borrow a suit from Rosalie’s brother and the couple were married on the 12th of February. After the ceremony Tom put his uniform back on (it had been cleaned by Rosalie’s aunt while everyone else attended the wedding) and he began the long walk back to his base in Germany.
In March 1946 Tom was posted back to England pending his demobilisation (demob) from the Army. He picked up Rosalie on the way; she had never been away from home before but was now making her way to a new life with Tom’s family in South Shields.
Tom rarely spoke about his time in the Army because he thought nobody would be interested. He did not see any action and had had an unexciting service career. There was nothing to talk about. In 1959 he was finally awarded a war pension to compensate him for his injuries.