“Upham was wounded three times in the next two days, but refused to leave the front line.”
By Rafe McGregor
CHARLES UPHAM is usually referred to as either ‘New Zealand’s war hero’ or the ‘outstanding British soldier of World War Two.’
Both phrases imply a unique position and the only reason he is not as well known as less remarkable soldiers is his deliberate avoidance of publicity. Upham may have shunned the spotlight, but he was a fierce warrior and a natural leader when the bullets were flying.
Despite his relative obscurity, he remains the only combat soldier ever awarded the Victoria Cross twice. And what makes his achievement even more impressive is that he was only on active duty for two years, spending 1942 to 1945 as a prisoner of war in the infamous Colditz Castle.
Here’s a quick rundown of the life of this remarkable, yet humble hero.
An Unlikely Soldier
Born on Sept. 21, 1908 in Christchurch, New Zealand, Upham was an indifferent student and a mediocre athlete. He loved the outdoors and hated schoolyard bullies. After graduating from Canterbury Agricultural College, he worked in the farming industry and was in government employ as a valuer when war broke out in 1939. Upham, now 30, volunteered immediately, declining selection as an officer candidate in the belief that it would delay him from getting at the enemy. Despite this, he rose through the ranks quickly and was already a sergeant by the time the New Zealand Division arrived in Egypt in February 1940. In North Africa, he applied for a commission and in November took command of 15 Platoon, C Company, 20th Battalion (Canterbury Regiment) as a 2nd lieutenant.
The First VC
In March 1941, his division was transferred to Greece, but evacuated to Crete when the Nazis invaded the following month. It’s then that Upham contracted dysentery. The disease would plague him for the whole of May.
On May 20, the Axis launched its last major airborne operation of the war, dropping 3,000 paratroopers on Crete to secure the island’s three airfields. Two days later, Upham’s battalion was ordered to retake Maleme airfield.
His platoon advanced three kilometres under heavy machine gun fire and were pinned down on three occasions. Each time, Upham used covering fire to crawl to within grenade range of the enemy positions. After tossing his Mills bombs, Upham rushed in to finish off any enemy survivors with his service revolver. Ultimately, the battalion’s assault on the airfield failed and amid the confusion of the retreat, Upham ordered his platoon to withdraw. He later returned to the airfield with a corporal to lead a cut off company to safety. During the ensuing rescue, Upham killed two Germans in a desperate close quarter battle.
Upham was wounded three times in the next two days, but despite the worsening situation for the Greek and Commonwealth forces on Crete, he refused to leave the front line.
On May 25, he duplicated his earlier feat of arms: commanding an unsuccessful counter-attack during which was wounded in the arm while crossing no man’s land to warn the rest of the company they were about to be cut off.
While awaiting evacuation in Sfakia harbour on 30 May, Upham led his exhausted men in a devastating ambush of a German reconnaissance, killing 22 in the opening salvo. Two days later, he left Crete for Egypt, with multiple wounds… and still battling a nasty case of dysentery.
VC Number Two
Upham’s battalion spent most of the next year in reserve, during which time he was promoted to captain and awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in the Battle of Crete. He bristled at the thought of being singled out and refused to take any personal credit for the performance of his platoon.
By the spring of 1942, Upham’s unit, C Company, 20 Battalion, was back in action as part of the British Eighth Army.
While fighting in the Battle of Mersa Matruh, Upham sustained yet another injury. This time it was fragments from his own grenade that clipped him.
The wounds were superficial and by July, Upham and his men were among the first troops in action at El Alamein
On 14 July, C Company was placed in reserve for the midnight assault on Ruweisat Ridge. Tasked with finding an incommunicado battalion in the pitch dark, Upham fought and then bluffed his way through enemy patrols while behind the wheel of a jeep. He made contact with the wayward unit and returned unharmed.
C Company joined the attack just before dawn with Upham once again leading from the front, with a sackful of grenades in hand.
During the second phase of the assault, he was shot through the arm, which was left broken and useless. He ignored the pain and remained in the line. C Company was bombarded by artillery all afternoon and Upham sustained another shrapnel wound. When the German counterattack came that evening, the captain was one of only six survivors of C Company, all of whom were taken prisoner by the enemy. He would eventually be awarded the bar to his Victoria Cross for his actions in the First Battle of Ruweisat Ridge.
Unfortunately, as a POW in German captivity, he’d have to wait until after the war to receive this second commendation.
A Resident of Colditz
Upham was so badly wounded that it took him the better part of a year to recover, most of which was spent in a prisoner of war camp in Modena, Italy.
In July 1943 he began the first of many vigorous, but ill-conceived attempts to escape and was removed to Weinsberg in Germany for his efforts. Further escape attempts resulted in his transfer to Colditz Castle in October 1944. He’d remain there for much of the rest of the war.
Upham would eventually be awarded a Mention in Despatches for his relentless and reckless efforts to return to active service.
With the German surrender, Upham took his demobilization and returned to his native New Zealand. He bought a derelict farm near Christchurch and returned to rural life with his new wife, Molly McTamney.
He seemed almost entirely unchanged by the war, except for a deep prejudice against all things German. Over the years, he managed to evade most of the media attention that was directed his way and lived out his years in relative obscurity. He died in Christchurch on Nov. 22 1994, aged 86.
- Glyn Harper & Colin Richardson, In the Face of the Enemy: The complete history of the Victoria Cross and New Zealand (Auckland: HarperCollins, 2006).
- Rafe McGregor, “The Soldier who Won the VC twice!” Military Illustrated 230 (2007), 24-31.
- Kenneth Sandford, Mark of the Lion: The Story of Captain Charles Upham VC and Bar (London: Hutchinson, 1962).
Rafe McGregor is the author of The Value of Literature, The Architect of Murder, six collections of short fiction, and 150 magazine articles, journal papers, and review essays. He lectures at the University of York and can be found online at @rafemcgregor.