Charles Upham VC and Bar by Peter Scott



Charles Upham VC and Bar

In the history of the Victoria cross there have been only three men to be awarded it twice. To be awarded a VC is incredible but to be awarded it twice is amazing.  Charles Upham was the only combat soldier to be awarded it twice during the second world war.

Upham was born on the 21st of September 1908 at 32 Gloucester Street in Christchurch.  He went boarding to Waihi Prep School, Winchester  then boarded at Christs College, Christchurch (ironically just down the end of the street where his family lived)  he was known for his high jinks as well as defending people being bullied at school.

With a diploma in Agriculture from Canterbury Agricultural College in 1930 he worked on farms, became a farm manager, then a farm valuer.

In 1938 he became engaged to his future wife Mary (Molly) McTamney (she was a distant relation of Noel Chavasse VC and Bar). In 1939 Upham went back he Agricultural college to complete a Diploma in valuation and farm management.

When war was declared Upham joined the 20th Battalion and even though he held rank in the territorials he went in as a private. His leadership skills were noted, and he ended up as a sergeant although not keen on being an officer but later on he went through officer training.

He was put in command of a group of tough South Island west coasters. There is the famous story that the commanding officer told the officers to inform the men that there was too much swearing going on.  Apparently Upham lined them up and told them “Right I have been told there is too much bloody swearing going on and you bloody well have to stop it.

Upham, and the other 39ers, were known as the Originals and were off to war. Their first action would be in Greece, where Upham would suffer from dysentery whilst fighting.

Crete would be where he would earn his first Victoria Cross.  I will let the citations speak for them selves.

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 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.

From the London Gazette, 14 October 1941

Back in North Africa he was informed that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross. He is said that he would only accept it on behalf of his men. In the book “Mark of the Lion” Kippenberger I think states he had to order the reluctant hero to parade.

At one stage the New Zealand division was pulled out of the Desert to train and guard in Northern Syria.  Then the call came for them to quickly return. The Afrika Korps had broken through and were on their way towards Cairo.

The New Zealanders ended up at Minqar Qaim, where they were surrounded by the 21st Panzer Division. Upham would be awarded his second Victoria cross for this action and also at El Alamein for the actions at Ruweisat Ridge where he became a Prisoner of War.

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 counterattack 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.

From the London Gazette, 26 September 1945.

Note the king asked Major-General Howard Kippenberger (first Commander of the 20th and   then 2 I/C 2nd NZ division) if Upham had earned two VCs? Major-General Howard Kippenberger said he had earned it many times over. Many thought he should have had three being that the Minqar Qaim and Ruweisat Ridge actions were rolled into one.

Upham after being captured tried to escape a number of times, the first being jumping from a truck as it went up the bank as it was crossing the river Po in Italy.  Eventually he was taken to Colditz Castle to curb his appetite for freedom.

After the war he came home to a hero’s welcome and the people of Canterbury raised a lot of money to honour him but being the man he was he would never accept it nor a knighthood. He was always humble and did not like the fuss.  They, with him, arranged that the money be set up as a trust to help children of soldiers who were killed in action originally, it later became a charitable trust.

As a young man I went along with my Dad to the 20th Battalion and Armoured Regiment National Reunions where I first got to meet Charles Upham. Naturally, I was in awe of the man.

Photo below left to right, Brigadier Jim Burrows, Peter Scott, Charles Upham VC, and bar.

Here is a picture of his VC and bar with his other medals (there are only three VC and bar’s in existence). In December 2007 Charles Upham’s medals were stolen along with other VC’s from our National Amy Museum but were luckily recovered in February 2008. His three daughters then decided to sell his medals. Uproar. Our gutless government at the time would not buy them for the nation but your wonderful Lord Ashcroft bought them, and they are on loan to NZ for 999 years.

The full list of the medals above from left to right are:

  • The Victoria Cross and Bar
  • The 1939-45 Star
  • The Africa Star
  • The Defence Medal
  • The War Medal 1939-45 (with Mention in Dispatches Oakleaf)
  • The New Zealand War Service Medal
  • The Coronation Medal 1953
  • The Silver Jubilee Medal 1977
  • The New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal

In 1992, he was presented with the Order of Honour by the Government of Greece, in recognition of his service in the Battles of Greece and Crete.

There are two books written about him. The first biography called “Mark of the Lion” by Kenneth Sanford and a recent one called “Searching for Charlie” by Tom Scott. Apparently when Sandford went to interview him, he was reluctant but accepted.

Also here is a link to  the ‘This is Your Life’ programme Charles Upham    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzfCc28zPCQ  .

Peter Scott, New Zealand Branch Chairman

Editors note.

The theft of the medals from New Zealand’s National Army Museum included nine Victoria Crosses in the haul of ninety six stolen medals.

I feel that it is important to mention the only other men to have been awarded the VC twice. Both were officers in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, VC & Bar, MC (9th  November 1884 – 4th August 1917 died of his wounds received two days earlier). First award for his actions on 9th August 1916. The second award was for his actions between 31st July and the 2nd August 1917.

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Martin-Leake, VC & Bar, VD (4 April 1874 – 22 June 1953) First award for his actions on 8th February 1902 during the Second Boer War. The second was for his actions between 29th October and 8th November 1914.

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