With typical British understatement the citation for New Zealander Charles Upham’s Victoria Cross termed his actions “a series of remarkable exploits.” Those May 1941 exploits in Crete included the single-handed destruction of enemy machine gun nests with hand grenades, the rescue of wounded men under fire and the retrieval of stranded friendly units from behind enemy lines.
A year later Upham earned a bar to his Victoria Cross, the equivalent of a second award. He remains the only combat soldier to have received a VC and bar—the other two double recipients were British army doctors. He was also the most highly decorated British Commonwealth soldier of World War II.
Born in Christchurch in 1908, Upham enlisted in the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in September 1939 and soon sailed for Egypt to complete his training. By May 1941 he was a second lieutenant serving in Crete. Over nine days of fighting that month, though suffering from dysentery and wounds, Upham pulled off his “remarkable exploits,” in addition to leading his platoon in ambush attacks on enemy positions, one of which killed 22 Germans and another more than 40. His VC citation noted his “superb coolness, great skill and dash, and complete disregard of danger.”
In the summer of 1942 Upham, by then a captain, earned the bar to his VC at the First Battle of El Alamein in Egypt, during which the 2nd New Zealand Division was assigned to clear enemy positions on Ruweisat Ridge. Earlier in the operation Upham had been twice wounded; regardless, he insisted on leading his men in the final assault in mid-July.
On the night of July 14 he was on his way forward in a jeep when his driver unwittingly entered an enemy sector and promptly bogged down in the sand. Betraying no fear, Upham hopped out amid the passing enemy infantrymen to shoulder the vehicle free. At dawn the next morning Upham led his company in an assault on two enemy strongpoints, during which he personally took out a German tank, several guns and assorted vehicles with grenades. Despite having his arm shattered by a machine-gun bullet, he again pressed forward to retrieve stranded men, then consolidated his position.
Pausing only long enough to have the wound dressed, Upham returned to his besieged company, which had come under intense enemy artillery and mortar fire. Though severely wounded in the legs by shrapnel, Upham continued to lead his handful of surviving men until overrun and captured. “Captain Upham’s complete indifference to danger and his personal bravery,” noted the citation for his second VC, “have become a byword in the whole of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.”
After several brazen but unsuccessful attempts to escape from various POW camps, Upham was sent to the forbidding—and reputedly escape-proof—Colditz Castle in Saxony, where he sat out the rest of the war.
Liberated by U.S. troops in 1945, Upham married his longtime fiancée—who, coincidentally, was a distant relative of Noel Chavasse, one of the other double VC recipients—and settled down in New Zealand as a farmer. Though he shunned publicity, he was said never to allow any German-manufactured automobiles or machinery on his farm. Some years later, as Britain deliberated entry into the European Union, he reportedly warned, “They’ll cheat you yet, those Germans.”
On his death in 1994 Upham, 86, was buried with full military honors.
First published in Military History Magazine’s January 2017 issue.