HISTORY | MILITARY
New Zealand’s Greatest War Hero
“On 14/15 July 1942 at El Ruweisat Ridge, Western Desert, Captain Upham, in spite of being twice wounded, insisted on remaining with his men. Just before dawn he led his company in a determined attack, capturing the objective after fierce fighting; he himself destroyed a German tank and several guns and vehicles with hand grenades. Although his arm had been broken by a machine-gun bullet, he continued to dominate the situation and when at last, weak from loss of blood, he had his wounds dressed, he immediately returned to his men, remaining with them until he was again severely wounded and unable to move.” — Citation from Officers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
Charles Upham was mad. His soldiers often referred to him as crazy. Not in the sense of being incoherent with delusions but more in line with being reckless, impulsive, quick-tempered, and rebellious.
He was a man who led by example and never, ever gave up. Fiercely determined to do the ‘right thing’ and stand-up for justice.
Upham was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1908. A simple man, he longed to become a farmer and live out his years, alone, on a farm, preferably in isolation.
Having graduated from Canterbury Agricultural College, Upham worked as a musterer, shepherd, and farm manager for six years. When the war was declared in 1939, he immediately signed up.
Leading by example, Upham rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant at the age of 33. He had developed a reputation for being ‘obstinate, pugnacious, independent, blunt, tactless, hard-swearing, highly strung and careless in dress’. Yet, despite all this, his superior commanders recognized what a superb junior leader he was. A man who took great care of the men under his command.
Upham was first dispatched to Greece but he saw very little fighting. It was here that he developed a severe case of dysentery that would plague him throughout that campaign. At times, he was so weakened by the ailment he could barely walk.
On Crete, his platoon was ordered to retake Malene airfield with his platoon used as a counterattack. The attack was launched too late and immediately his platoon came under fire from a German heavy machine gun concealed behind a tree.
Pinned down, returning fire on the stomachs, Upham decided to take action. He moved around the open right flank, behind the machine-gun position, and attacked it lobbing three grenades. He then charged firing his pistol, storming the position, and killing eight Germans in the process.
“…then he jumped forward with his revolver blazing. Single-handed he wiped out seven Jerries with their Tommy guns and another with a machine gun.” — Eyewitness.
The grenade was fast becoming Upham’s weapon of choice. His platoon came under fire again. This time there were Germans concealed in a shed and the adjoining house.
Fearless (and reckless), Upham, bending low, dashed ahead and reached a spot where he was safe. He then pulled the pin on one of his grenades, grabbed a dead German, placed the grenade in the dead man's hand, and shoved the corpse back into the shed.
The surviving Germans quickly surrendered. Upham then ran towards the house where the second machine-gun was firing. It had already hit one of his men in the stomach. Carrying a grenade, he lobbed that through the window and quickly secured the area.
Upham was always the first man to lead the line and take on the enemy. Eventually, they cleared the village of Pirgos house by house with Upham’s platoon taking heavy casualties.
Inevitably, further progress was impossible and the order was given to retreat. One company had become isolated and cut-off and Upham was sent back to warn them it was time to leave. Almost 600 yards of exposed enemy territory with pockets of Germans firing on anything that moved.
Upham killed two more German soldiers. Upon his arrival, he found that D Company had already retreated. It wasn’t in vain. Making his way back, he found several isolated men from B Company and brought them back to his battalion’s new position.
He then returned to the village saving wounded men left behind carrying them on improvised stretchers made from doors. Twice that morning he went back.
All this within 24 hours. He would also have time to be wounded in the left shoulder by shrapnel. Doggedly, he asked his platoon sergeant to cut the shrapnel from his shoulder so he could continue to fight. The man obliged with no more than his pocket knife. Upham had to be ordered forcibly to go seek further treatment by his captain.
Even with only one arm, Upham was still a force to be reckoned with. He killed two more Germans after crawling to a position where he could shoot his rifle. The citation described the scene:
“When his platoon was ordered to retire he sent it back under the platoon Sergeant and he went back to warn other troops that they were being cut off. When he came out himself he was fired on by two Germans. He fell and shammed dead, then crawled into a position and having the use of only one arm rested his rifle in the fork of a tree and as the Germans came forward he killed them both. The second to fall actually hit the muzzle of the rifle as he fell.”
Day six in Crete and Upham was wounded again. This time in the leg and the ankle. He ignored the injuries and continued fighting. The bullet remained lodged in his ankle for a fortnight until he finally squeezed it out in Egypt. After nine days of superb leadership, courage, and endurance, Upham was reduced to the state of a walking skeleton. The company was evacuated to Egypt.
This action in Crete was to be his first Victoria Cross citation. The citation summed it all up:
“During the whole of the operations he suffered from dysentery and was able to eat very little, in addition to being wounded and bruised.
He showed superb coolness, great skill and dash and complete disregard of danger. His conduct and leadership inspired his whole platoon to fight magnificently throughout, and in fact was an inspiration to the Battalion.” Source — London Gazette.
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