Voices from the Past

Charles Upham: New Zealand’s Greatest War Hero

Upham’s Early Years

Charles Hazlitt Upham was born in Christchurch on 21 September 1908. He was educated at Waihi School near Timaru, Christ’s College, and Canterbury Agricultural College (Lincoln). In his twenties he spent some time as a high country shepherd, a musterer, and farm manager. In 1935 Upham met Molly McTamney, a dietitian at Christchurch Hospital.  They were engaged in 1938, but a few months later Molly left New Zealand to visit family, first in Singapore and then in England. In 1939, now with the Government Valuation Department, Upham completed further study passing a post-graduate course in valuation and farm management.

At the outbreak of World War II Upham volunteered for service and his personality and determination marked him as a leader from the outset. After joining 20th Battalion at Burnham Camp, he was sent to Egypt in December 1939 seeing him quickly advance to Sergeant, gaining a reputation for training both his men and himself pretty hard. In August 1940 he entered an Officer Cadet Training Unit, graduating as a Second Lieutenant.

Back with 20th Battalion, he and the rest of the New Zealand Division was sent to Greece and then onto Crete. During the early days on Crete Upham was sick and weak from a stomach illness picked up in Greece, but this did not slow him down. He drove himself hard in preparing for combat spending hours perfecting his knowledge of various weapons. His practical common sense and a strong sense of duty were inspirational to his men.

Upham’s First Victoria Cross

Upham and an unidentified soldier eating out of a tin at Baggush 1941

In May 1941, Upham was to win his first Victoria Cross for his actions during an airborne attack on Crete. On the night of 21 May, Upham led his platoon during a counter-attack on Maleme airfield. He destroyed four enemy machine guns with hand grenades, carried out a rescue of an injured man, and then led out a group of isolated men trapped in enemy territory. Over the next few days he repeatedly went forward and engaged the enemy with grenades. On one occasion he was shot by two Germans and, feigning death, he killed them as they drew close. On 30 May, now exhausted from his wounds and dysentery, he and three others ambushed a German force killing many and preventing the New Zealand rear-guard from being cut off. When the Division were finally evacuated off Crete, Upham, twice wounded, was one of the last to leave.

Upham’s Second Victoria Cross

In 1942, Upham would win his second Victoria Cross for his actions from 27 June to 15 July. He was a company commander in the Western Desert and on the night of 27 and 28 June, during the Division’s desperate breakout at Minqar Qaim, Upham again excelled in the close quarter fighting. He attacked German guns and trucks with hand grenades, receiving wounds from fragments of his own bombs in the fury.

Major Cliff Wilson and Captain Charles Upham in Greece

At Ruweisat Ridge on 14 and 15 July 1942, Captain Charles Upham went forward in a vehicle to reconnoitre the enemy positions. When 20th Battalion was ordered to attack, he led a fierce assault on the German positions during which he was wounded in the arm. Exhausted and suffering from blood loss, he had his wounds dressed and he was ‘back into it again.’ He received a further major injury, this time to his leg from an exploding mortar shell and he could go no further. He and the few survivors of his company were taken prisoner and after hospitalisation, Upham was sent to Prisoner of War (POW) Camps in both Italy and Germany. 

Upham as a POW and Beyond

In typical Upham ‘style’, he made several attempts to escape until the Germans, sick of his efforts, sent him to the infamous Oflag IV-C, or more commonly known as Colditz Castle. On being liberated from Colditz by US troops in 1945, Upham tried to join the Americans to continue the fight. This was not permitted and he returned to England where he was reunited with Molly. On 11 May 1945 Upham received his first Victoria Cross from King George VI at Buckingham Palace, and a month later Molly and Charles were married at Barton on Sea, Hampshire. After only a few weeks together, Upham was posted home on a troopship on which wives were not permitted to accompany their husbands. So Molly was left in England as her new husband sailed for New Zealand. On 26 Sep 1945, less than a month after arriving home, Upham was awarded a Bar to his Victoria Cross (for actions at Minqar Qaim, Western Desert).

Upham at Baggush

In civilian life, he was an extremely modest man, shunning publicity and happy to concentrate on family and his North Canterbury farm. He always maintained that others had contributed as much as he, but without reward.

On 22 November 1994, Charles Upham died aged 86, and New Zealand paid their last respects to one of only three men who have ever been awarded the highest honour for gallantry, a Victoria Cross, twice. We are very proud here at the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa to have Charles Upham’s medals on display. If you wish to see them, they are in the Valour Alcove in our Medal Repository.