b. 21/09/1908 Christchurch, New Zealand. d. 22/11/1994 Christchurch, New Zealand.
Charles Hazlitt Upham (1908-1994) was born at 32 Gloucester Street, Christchurch, New Zealand on 21st September 1908, the son of John Hazlitt, a British born lawyer, and his wife, Agatha Mary (nee Coates). He was also the great great nephew of William Hazlitt, the English writer, essayist and critic. He boarded at Waihi School, near Winchester, South Canterbury, between 1917 and 1922 and at Christ’s College, Christchurch, from 1923–27. He attended Canterbury Agricultural College (now known as Lincoln University) where he earned a diploma in agriculture in 1930. He represented Canterbury Agricultural College at rugby and rowing.
He worked first as a sheep farmer, later as manager, and then valuing farms for the New Zealand government. In 1937, he joined the Valuation Department as assistant district valuer in Timaru. The following year, he became engaged to Mary (Molly) Eileen McTamney (a distant relative of Noel Chavasse, VC and Bar). Sadly, shortly afterwards Molly left New Zealand, without them getting married. In 1939, he returned to Lincoln to complete a diploma in valuation and farm management.
In September 1939, Upham enlisted in the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) at the age of 30 and was posted to the 20th Canterbury-Otago Battalion, part of the New Zealand Division. Despite the fact that he already had five years experience in New Zealand’s Territorial Army, in which he held the rank of sergeant, he signed on as a Private. He was soon promoted to temporary lance corporal, but initially declined a place in an Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU). In December, he was promoted to sergeant and a week later sailed for Egypt. In July 1940, he was finally persuaded to join an OCTU.
Upham was awarded his first Victoria Cross 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.
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.
Having been taken prisoner of war (POW), he was sent to an Italian hospital where an Italian doctor recommended his wounded arm be amputated in view of their extremely scarce supplies and inability to prevent or treat gangrene. Upham strenuously refused, in no small part because the operation would have to be carried out without anaesthetic and he had witnessed other patients dying in agony under surgery. He remained in the hospital to recuperate but attempted to escape numerous times before being branded “dangerous” by the Germans.
One attempt to escape occurred when a group of POWs were being transported in open trucks through Italy. Upham jumped from the truck at a bend and managed to get 400 yards (370 m) away before being recaptured. He had broken an ankle in jumping from the moving truck.
Another attempt occurred when he was being moved between prison camps on a civilian train while guarded by two Germans. Upham was only allowed to visit the toilet when the train was travelling at high speed, to prevent him from jumping through a window. Nevertheless, Upham pried open the toilet window and jumped onto the tracks, knocking himself unconscious.
On a third occasion, he tried to escape a camp by climbing its fences in broad daylight. He became entangled in barbed wire when he fell down between the two fences. When a prison guard pointed a pistol at his head and threatened to shoot, Upham calmly ignored him and lit a cigarette. This scene was photographed by the Germans as “evidence” and later reprinted in his biography called “Mark of the Lion” by Kenneth Sandford.
After this incident, Upham was considered extremely dangerous and was placed in solitary confinement. He was only allowed to exercise alone, while accompanied by two armed guards and while covered by a machine gun in a tower. Despite these precautions, Upham bolted from his little courtyard, straight through the German barracks and out through the front gate of the camp. The guard in the machine-gun tower later told other prisoners that he refrained from shooting Upham out of sheer respect, and as he could see German soldiers coming up the road whom he expected to capture Upham. Upham was soon recaptured and sent to the infamous Oflag IV-C (Colditz) on 14th October 1944.
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”. 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. 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.”
With this award, Upham became the third man to be awarded a Bar to the VC. The previous recipients were Captain Arthur Martin-Leake and Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, both doctors serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Martin-Leake received his VC for rescuing wounded under fire in the Second Boer War, and the Bar for similar actions in the First World War. Chavasse was similarly decorated for two such actions in the First World War, subsequently dying of wounds received during his second action. Neither of these men were combatants, so Upham remains the only fighting soldier to have been decorated with the VC and Bar.
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. 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.
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. 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.” Upham for the remainder of his life had an intense dislike of all things German, even refusing to allow German cars onto his property in New Zealand, often taking a pot-shot at them with his shotgun.
Although somewhat hampered by his injuries, he became a successful farmer and served on the board of governors of Christ’s College for nearly 20 years. He and Molly had three daughters, and lived on their farm until January 1994, when Upham’s poor health forced them to retire to Christchurch.
He died in Canterbury on 22nd November 1994, surrounded by his wife and daughters. His funeral in the now-destroyed 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 5th 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.
In November 2006, Upham’s VC and Bar were sold by his daughters to the Imperial War Museum for an undisclosed sum. However, as New Zealand legislation prohibits the export of such historic items, the Imperial War Museum agreed to a permanent loan of the medals to the Waiouru Army Museum. On 2nd December 2007, Upham’s VC was among nine stolen from locked, reinforced glass cabinets at the museum. On 16th February 2008, the New Zealand Police announced all the medals had been recovered as a result of a NZ$300,000 reward offered by Michael Ashcroft and Tom Sturgess.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: QEII ARMY MEMORIAL MUSEUM, WAIOURU, NEW ZEALAND.
BURIAL PLACE: ST PAULS CHURCH, PAPANUI, NEW ZEALAND.
Army Museum of New Zealand – Image of the Upham VC and Bar Medal Group.