Charles Upham: VC and Bar
September 21 1908 - 22 November 1994
Captain Charles Upham, who has died aged 86, twice won the Victoria Cross.
Only three men have ever won double VCs, and the other two were medical officers: Col A Martin-Leake, who received the decoration in the Boer War and the First World War; and Capt N G Chavasse, who was killed in France in 1917. Chavasse's family was related to Upham's.
For all his remarkable exploits on the battlefield, Upham was a shy and modest man, embarrassed when asked about the actions he had been decorated for. 'The military honours bestowed on me,' he said, 'are the property of the men of my unit.'
In a television interview in 1983 he said he would have been happier not to have been awarded a VC at all, as it made people expect too much of him. 'I don't want to be treated differently from any other bastard,' he insisted.
When King George VI was conferring Upham's second VC he asked Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, his commanding officer: 'Does he deserve it?'
'In my respectful opinion, Sir,' replied Kippenberger, 'Upham won this VC several times over.'
A great-great nephew of William Hazlitt, and the son of a British lawyer who practised in New Zealand, Charles Hazlitt Upham was born in Christchurch on Sept 21 1908.
Upham was educated at the Waihi Preparatory School, Christ's College and Canterbury Agricultural College, which he represented at rugby and rowing.
He then spent six years as a farm manager, musterer and shepherd, before becoming a government valuer in 1937.
In 1939 he volunteered for the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force as a private in the 20th Battalion and became a sergeant in the first echelon advance party. Commissioned in 1940, he went on to serve in Greece, Crete and the Western Desert.
Upham won his first VC on Crete in May 1941, commanding a platoon in the battle for Maleme airfield. During the course of an advance of 3,000 yards his platoon was held up three times. Carrying a bag of grenades (his favourite weapon), Upham first attacked a German machine-gun nest, killing eight paratroopers, then destroyed another which had been set up in a house. Finally he crawled to within 15 yards of a Bofors anti-aircraft gun before knocking it out.
When the advance had been completed he helped carry a wounded man to safety in full view of the enemy, and then ran half a mile under fire to save a company from being cut off. Two Germans who tried to stop him were killed.
The next day Upham was wounded in the shoulder by a mortar burst and hit in the foot by a bullet. Undeterred, he continued fighting and, with his arm in a sling, hobbled about in the open to draw enemy fire and enable their gun positions to be spotted.
With his unwounded arm he propped his rifle in the fork of a tree and killed two approaching Germans; the second was so close that he fell on the muzzle of Upham's rifle.
Citation for Victoria Cross
War Office, 14th October, 1941.
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve of awards of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned: —
Second Lieutenant Charles Hazlitt Upham (8077), New Zealand Military Forces.
During the operations in Crete this officer performed a series of remarkable exploits, showing outstanding leadership, tactical skill and utter indifference to danger.
He commanded a forward platoon in the attack on Maleme on 22nd May and fought his way forward for over 3,000 yards unsupported by any other arms and against a defence strongly organised in depth. During this operation his platoon destroyed numerous enemy posts but on three occasions sections were temporarily held up.
In the first case, under a heavy fire from a machine gun nest he advanced to close quarters with pistol and grenades, so demoralizing the occupants that his section was able to "mop up" with ease.
Another of his sections was then held up by two machine guns in a house. He went in and placed a grenade through a window, destroying the crew of one machine gun and several others, the other machine gun being silenced by the fire of his sections.
In the third case he crawled to within 15 yards of an M.G. post and killed the gunners with a grenade.
When his Company withdrew from Maleme he helped to carry a wounded man out under fire, and together with another officer rallied more men together to carry other wounded men out.
He was then sent to bring in a company which had become isolated. With a Corporal he went through enemy territory over 600 yards, killing two Germans on the way, found the company, and brought it back to the Battalion's new position. But for this action it would have been completely cut off.
During the following two days his platoon occupied an exposed position on forward slopes and was continuously under fire. Second Lieutenant Upham was blown over by one mortar shell, and painfully wounded by a piece of shrapnel behind the left shoulder, by another. He disregarded this wound and remained on duty. He also received a bullet in the foot which he later removed in Egypt.
At Galatas on 25th May his platoon was heavily engaged and came under severe mortar and machine-gun fire. While his platoon stopped under cover of a ridge Second-Lieutenant Upham went forward, observed the enemy and brought the platoon forward when the Germans advanced. They killed over 40 with fire and grenades and forced the remainder to fall back.
When his platoon was ordered to retire he sent it back under the platoon Sergeant and he went back to warn other troops that they were being cut off. When he came out himself he was fired on by two Germans. He fell and shammed dead, then crawled into a position and having the use of only one arm rested his rifle in the fork of a tree and as the Germans came forward he killed them both. The second to fall actually hit the muzzle of the rifle as he fell.
On 30th May at Sphakia his platoon was ordered to deal with a party of the enemy which had advanced down a ravine to near Force Headquarters. Though in an exhausted condition he climbed the steep hill to the west of the ravine, placed his men in positions on the slope overlooking the ravine and himself went to the top with a Bren Gun and two riflemen. By clever tactics he induced the enemy party to expose itself and then at a range of 500 yards shot 22 and caused the remainder to disperse in panic.
During the whole of the operations he suffered from dysentery and was able to eat very little, in addition to being wounded and bruised.
He showed superb coolness, great skill and dash and complete disregard of danger. His conduct and leadership inspired his whole platoon to fight magnificently throughout, and in fact was an inspiration to the Battalion.
— London Gazette, 14 October 1941
During the retreat from Crete, Upham succumbed to dysentery and could not eat properly. The effect of this and his wounds made him look like a walking skeleton, his commanding officer noted. Nevertheless he found the strength to climb the side of a 600 ft deep ravine and use a Bren gun on a group of advancing Germans.
At a range of 500 yards he killed 22 out of 50. His subsequent VC citation recorded that he had "performed a series of remarkable exploits, showing outstanding leadership, tactical skill and utter indifference to danger". Even under the hottest fire, Upham never wore a steel helmet, explaining that he could never find one to fit him.
His second VC was earned on July 15 1942, when the New Zealanders were concluding a desperate defence of the Ruweisat ridge in the 1st Battle of Alamein. Upham ran forward through a position swept by machine-gun fire and lobbed grenades into a truck full of German soldiers.
When it became urgently necessary to take information to advance units which had become separated, Upham took a Jeep on which a captured German machine-gun was mounted and drove it through the enemy position.
At one point the vehicle became bogged down in the sand, so Upham coolly ordered some nearby Italian soldiers to push it free. Though they were somewhat surprised to be given an order by one of the enemy, Upham's expression left them in no doubt that he should be obeyed.
By now Upham had been wounded, but not badly enough to prevent him leading an attack on an enemy strong-point, all the occupants of which were then bayoneted. He was shot in the elbow, and his arm was broken. The New Zealanders were surrounded and outnumbered, but Upham carried on directing fire until he was wounded in the legs and could no longer walk.
Taken prisoner, he proved such a difficult customer that in 1944 he was confined in Colditz Castle, where he remained for the rest of the war. His comments on Germans were always sulphurous.
For his actions at Ruweisat he was awarded a Bar to his VC. His citation noted that "his complete indifference to danger and his personal bravery have become a byword in the whole of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force".
Citation for Victoria Cross
War Office, 26th September, 1945.
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of a Bar to the VICTORIA CROSS to: —
Captain Charles Hazlitt UPHAM, V.C. (8077), New Zealand Military Forces.
Captain C. H. Upham, V.C., was commanding a Company of New Zealand troops in the Western Desert during the operations which culminated in the attack on El Ruweisat Ridge on the night of 14th–15th July, 1942.
In spite of being twice wounded, once when crossing open ground swept by enemy fire to inspect his forward sections guarding our mine-fields and again when he completely destroyed an entire truck load of German soldiers with hand grenades, Captain Upham insisted on remaining with his men to take part in the final assault.
During the opening stages of the attack on the ridge Captain Upham's Company formed part of the reserve battalion, but, when communications with the forward troops broke down and he was instructed to send up an officer to report on the progress of the attack, he went out himself armed with a Spandau gun and, after several sharp encounters with enemy machine gun posts, succeeded in bringing back the required information.
Just before dawn the reserve battalion was ordered forward, but, when it had almost reached its objective, very heavy fire was encountered from a strongly defended enemy locality, consisting of four machine gun posts and a number of tanks.
Captain Upham, without hesitation, at once led his Company in a determined attack on the two nearest strongpoints on the left flank of the sector. His voice could be heard above the din of battle cheering on his men and, in spite of the fierce resistance of the enemy and the heavy casualties on both sides, the objective was captured.
Captain Upham, during the engagement, himself destroyed a German tank and several guns and vehicles with grenades and although he was shot through the elbow by a machine gun bullet and had his arm broken, he went on again to a forward position and brought back some of his men who had become isolated. He continued to dominate the situation until his men had beaten off a violent enemy counter-attack and consolidated the vital position which they had won under his inspiring leadership.
Exhausted by pain from his wound and weak from loss of blood Captain Upham was then removed to the Regimental Aid Post but immediately his wound had been dressed he returned to his men, remaining with them all day long under heavy enemy artillery and mortar fire, until he was again severely wounded and being now unable to move fell into the hands of the enemy when, his gallant Company having been reduced to only six survivors, his position was finally overrun by superior enemy forces, in spite of the outstanding gallantry and magnificent leadership shown by Captain Upham.
The Victoria Cross was conferred on Captain Upham for conspicuous bravery during the operations in Crete in May, 1941, and the award was announced in the London Gazette dated 14th October, 1941.
— London Gazette, 26 September 1945
After his release from Colditz in 1945 Upham went to England and inquired about the whereabouts of one Mary ('Molly') McTamney, from Dunedin. Told that she was a Red Cross nurse in Germany, he was prepared, for her sake, to return to that detested country. In the event she came to England, where they were married in June 1945.
Back in New Zealand, Upham resisted invitations to take up politics. In appreciation of his heroism the sum of £10,000 was raised to buy him a farm. He appreciated the tribute, but declined the money, which was used to endow the Charles Upham Scholarship Fund to send sons of ex-servicemen to university.
Fiercely determined to avoid all publicity, Upham at first refused to return to Britain for a victory parade in 1946, and only acceded at the request of New Zealand's Prime Minister.
Statue in Amberley, New Zealand
Four years later he resisted even the Prime Minister's persuasion that he should go to Greece to attend the opening of a memorial for the Australians and New Zealanders who had died there – although he eventually went at Kippenberger's request.
In 1946, Upham bought a farm at Rafa Downs, some 100 miles north of Christchurch beneath the Kaikoura Mountains, where he had worked before the war. There he found the anonymity he desired.
In 1962, he was persuaded to denounce the British government's attempt to enter the Common Market: 'Britain will gradually be pulled down and down,' Upham admonished, 'and the whole English way of life will be in danger.' He reiterated the point in 1971: 'Your politicians have made money their god, but what they are buying is disaster.'
He added: 'They'll cheat you yet, those Germans.'
He died in Canterbury on 22 November 1994, surrounded by his wife and daughters. His funeral in the Christchurch Cathedral was conducted with full military honours. The streets of Christchurch were lined by over 5,000 people. Upham is buried in the graveyard of St Paul's Church Papanui. His death was also marked by a memorial service on 5 May 1995 in London's St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, attended by representatives for the Royal Family, senior New Zealand government and political figures, senior members of the British and New Zealand armed forces, Valerian Freyberg, 3rd Baron Freyberg, grandson of VC holder Lord Freyberg, the commander of Allied forces in Crete and 7th Governor-General of New Zealand, representatives of veterans' organisations and other VC and George Cross holders.
Upham and his wife had three daughters, including twins.
Published November 23 1994
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Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.