Only three men have ever won double VCs, and the other two were medical officers: Col A Martin-Leake, who received the decoration in the Boer War and the First World War; and Capt N G Chavasse, who was killed in France in 1917. Chavasse’s family was related to Upham’s. Upham won his first VC in the Battle of Crete in 1941, the 70th anniversary of which has just passed. Paddy of course fought in the battle, and then continued the fight on the island with SOE.
First published in the Telegraph November 23 1994
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.
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.”
A great-great nephew of William Hazlitt, and the son of a British lawyer who practised in New Zealand, Charles Hazlitt Upham was born in Christchurch on Sept 21 1908.
Upham was educated at the Waihi Preparatory School, Christ’s College and Canterbury Agricultural College, which he represented at rugby and rowing.
He then spent six years as a farm manager, musterer and shepherd, before becoming a government valuer in 1937.
In 1939 he volunteered for the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force as a private in the 20th Battalion and became a sergeant in the first echelon advance party. Commissioned in 1940, he went on to serve in Greece, Crete and the Western Desert.
Upham won his first VC 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.
Taken prisoner, he proved such a difficult customer that in 1944 he was confined in Colditz Castle, where he remained for the rest of the war. His comments on Germans were always sulphurous.
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.
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.
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 and his wife had three daughters, including twins.