When considering the most courageous and indomitable soldiers of World War II, the likes of Jack Churchill, Leo Major, and Audie Murphy come to mind. But New Zealand had their own contribution to that list: Charles Upham.
If it hadn’t been for the outbreak of World War II, Charles Upham would have likely passed his days in anonymity on a farm in New Zealand.
Instead, when war broke out in Europe, Upham, despite being college educated and 30 years old, enlisted as a private in the New Zealand Army. He was assigned to the 20th Battalion before accepting a position in an Officer Cadet Training Unit from which he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant.
Upham rejoined the 20th Battalion before they shipped out for Greece in 1941. In the face of an overwhelming German invasion, Upham and other Allied forces were evacuated to Crete, where they awaited an inevitable Axis offensive.
In May 1941, German Fallschirmjager (paratroopers) conducted a parachute assault on Crete. Upham was part of the heavy fighting around the Maleme Airfield.
During an attack by his battalion on the airfield, Upham led his platoon at the front of the assault. Through his undaunted courage, he and his men advanced over 3,000 yards against the Germans. During the advance, Upham single-handedly attacked three separate German machine gun positions, silencing two of them with grenades and allowing his men to take out the other.
As his platoon withdrew, he carried a wounded soldier from the field under heavy fire.
Upon his return to friendly lines, Upham was sent back to return a beleaguered company to the battalion’s new position. Without Upham’s effort, the company likely would have been cut off and annihilated.
But Upham was far from done on Crete.
Over the next two days, Upham and his men endured bombardment by the Germans, during which time he was wounded by shrapnel in the shoulder and shot in the foot. However, he remained on duty with his men and refused to be evacuated.
On the fourth day, Upham led his platoon against a German attack and drove them back. He then moved forward to, once again, pull back another unit. During his withdrawal, he was fired upon by two Germans. Upham feigned death before crawling into a firing position. With his arm disabled by the shrapnel wound, he cradled his rifle in the crook of a tree branch and gunned down his attackers as they charged him.
Finally, Upham led his men one more time against the Germans as they attempted to assault the Force Headquarters and utterly annihilated the attacking unit.
Despite Upham’s valiant efforts, the Allied forces on Crete were defeated and he and his unit were evacuated to Egypt.
While in Egypt, Upham was promoted to Captain and placed in charge of a company in the 20th Battalion.
In October 1941, Upham was conferred the Victoria Cross for his actions on Crete.
But back in Egypt, Upham would once again distinguish himself. This time, during the fighting at El Ruweisat Ridge during the First Battle of El Alamein. Early in the fighting, Upham was wounded twice, once while crossing open ground under fire and again when he personally attacked and destroyed a truckload of Germans with hand grenades.
Despite his wounds, Upham stayed with his men.
After personally conducting an information gathering mission armed with an MG42, Upham led his unit against a strongly defended German position. Through force of personality and an indomitable spirit, Upham motivated his men forward to seize the positions. During the attack, Upham personally destroyed a German tank as well as several other vehicles. During his daring offensive, he was wounded a third time by a bullet to the elbow.
Upham continued to lead his men in a courageous defense of their hard-won position from a German counterattack. Finally, weakened by blood loss, Upham was evacuated to the Regimental Aid Station. However, as soon as his wound had been dressed, he left the aid station to return to his men. When a final German counterattack severely wounded him and decimated his company, Upham fell into German hands as a prisoner of war.
For most soldiers, their story would end here. But Upham was not “most soldiers.” Discontent with being a POW, Upham tried numerous times to escape. He jumped from a moving truck in one instance and from a moving train in another. He tried to climb over a fence, in broad daylight, before being caught. And even once, while placed in solitary confinement, made a run for it and was able to clear the gates before being recaptured.
Upham’s repeated escape attempts earned him a spot at the notorious Colditz Castle in late 1944.
When Colditz was liberated by American forces, Upham declined immediate repatriation and instead insisted on fighting with the Americans who gladly accepted him.
However, he was soon returned to Britain where he married his sweetheart, a nurse from New Zealand, in June 1945, shortly after the end of hostilities.
Upham was presented his first Victoria Cross in May 1945 by King George VI. When another recommendation came through for Upham’s actions at El Alamein, King George questioned whether he deserved a bar to his Victoria Cross as it has only been done twice before. Major General Howard Kippenberger replied, “in my respectful opinion, Sir, Upham won this VC several times over.”
He received a bar, indicating a second award of the Victoria Cross, in September 1945.
Upham returned to New Zealand and took up farming, avoiding the fame that came with his exploits during the war as much as possible.