Captain Charles Hazlitt Upham
Victoria Cross and Bar
Greece and North Africa
May 1941–July 1942
Charles Hazlitt Upham, a self- effacing New Zealand sheep farmer, was the Commonwealth’s most highly decorated combat soldier of World War II, one of just three soldiers ever to have earned a Victoria Cross and Bar (subsequent awards of British decorations are indicated by a bar attached to the first medal’s ribbon). Upham actually earned three VC nominations, but the War Office combined his second and third recommendations.
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Sept. 21, 1908, Upham acquired the schoolboy nickname “Puggie” for his pugnacious response to authority. In his youth he herded sheep on New Zealand’s rugged South Island, developing the stamina to weather harsh conditions—a skill that would serve him well in wartime.
In early 1940, Upham shipped to North Africa with the 20th Battalion, 2nd New Zealand Division. His unit was on Crete when German paratroopers invaded in May 1941. On May 22, 2nd Lt. Upham, toting a sandbag full of hand grenades, led a nighttime assault of Máleme airfield. He rushed a German machine-gun position, lobbing grenades and finishing off holdouts with his pistol. In the village of Pirgos, Upham cleared more German strongpoints with his grenades and took several prisoners. At dawn the Kiwis remained shy of the airfield and were forced to pull back. While carrying an injured soldier to safety, Upham was himself wounded.
Three days later, Upham’s platoon killed more than 40 Germans in a firefight at Galatas on the northwest coast. As the Allies fell back to the south side of the island, the platoon fought a running rearguard action, and while blocking the German advance down a gorge near Sfakion, Upham personally shot 22 Germans before the rest retreated in panic. He was awarded the Victoria Cross while recovering from his wounds in Egypt.
Promoted to captain, Upham was commanding a company of New Zealanders at Minqar Qaim, near Mersah Matruh in the Western Desert, on June 27, 1942, when they were surrounded. During the ensuing breakout, Upham was leading from the front with his trademark grenades, when his company ran into a German column strung out along a wadi. Upham attacked the enemy vehicles, tossing grenades into trucks and firing his pistol. The Kiwis broke through, and Upham, wounded by his own shrapnel, was nominated for a second VC.
Two weeks later, the Kiwis joined a force trying to hold the line from the coastal village of El Alamein to Ruweisat Ridge. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps Panzers overran the ridge on July 13. The Kiwis counterattacked the following night, against withering resistance. Upham ordered a frontal assault in the face of heavy machine gun fire. Two of his platoon leaders died in the first minute, and a bullet shattered Upham’s left elbow, but his men kept advancing. Bleeding and weak, Upham rushed one machine gun position after another, taking them out with grenades. By dawn the Kiwis had prevailed, capturing 100 Italians, 40 Germans and a truckload of intelligence maps. The captain had earned his unprecedented third VC nomination.
Returning from an aid station later that day, Upham was wounded in the leg by an incoming mortar round. Counterattacking German forces soon swarmed over the ridge, capturing the injured captain and some 1,200 fellow New Zealanders.
Upham spent the rest of the war as a POW. Repeated escape attempts eventually earned him a transfer to Oflag IV-C—the infamous Colditz Castle in Saxony. During the transfer, Upham leapt from a train window and eluded a German platoon for 12 hours before being recaptured. He arrived in Colditz handcuffed to one of his guards. American forces liberated the camp on April 16, 1945.
Upham learned of his second VC after returning to New Zealand. When reporters descended on his mother’s house to interview him, Upham locked himself in the bathroom. Lionized as the greatest hero in New Zealand’s history, he could have pursued any number of lucrative ventures. But Upham returned to sheep farming on the South Island. He died on Nov. 24, 1994, at the age of 86. His VC and Bar were among a dozen sets of medals stolen last year from New Zealand’s Army Museum Waiouru (see News, P. 9).
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.