On 26th August 1945, Captain Charles Hazlitt Upham became the only WWII soldier to receive a second Victoria Cross for his military service – the highest award for gallantry in the face of war. It was so unusual that it caused King George VI to ask Major-General Howard Kippenberger if Upham truly deserved it. Kippenberger replied, “In my respectful opinion, Sir, Upham won the VC several times over.”
Upham was born at 32 Gloucester Street in 1908. He was from proud Canterbury stock, his family arriving on the historic Canterbury Association ship, the ‘Sir George Seymour’ on 17th December 1850. His ancestors (William Guise Brittan and Dr. Joseph Brittan) are mostly remembered for the naming of the suburbs of Linwood and New Brighton.
After his education at Christ’s College, Upham enrolled at Lincoln University to study farming. He soon found work in this role, being promoted to manager and eventually was a farm valuer for the New Zealand Government. He also found time for love, getting engaged and serving in New Zealand’s Territorial Army.
It was in 1941 that Upham went off to the war effort in Greece. Although his company was forced back to Crete and Upham was wounded, it was here that he earned his first Victoria Cross (pictured). In a letter to the King, the War Office wrote the following about Upham ‘…remarkable exploits, showing outstanding leadership, tactical skills and utter indifference to danger’.
With his second Victoria Cross in 1945, it was highlighted how Upham had destroyed numerous German posts, rescued wounded soldiers under heavy fire, rescued a whole company that had been trapped by German advancement, and fought with great ‘coolness, skill and dash’ all the while suffering from dysentery, bullet wounds and broken bones.
Unfortunately Upham did do time as a Prisoner of War. He tried numerous times to escape, from jumping from a transport truck (resulting in a broken ankle), climbing down a broken toilet on a moving train (knocking himself unconscious) and being tangled in barbwire while trying to climb the outer camp fence. There was a famous photo taken of Upham at the aforementioned escape attempt, lighting a cigarette in complete defiance as a gun was held to his head. Now considered dangerous, he was placed in solitary confinement. When he was allowed to exercise, it was with two armed guards and under a watchtower. This did not stop him though from bolting from his confinement, running past the German quarters and right out the front gate. The guards later said that it was out of ‘…sheer respect…’ that no one fired at him. This escape attempt also failed.
Upon liberation by the Americans, Upham wanted to join up with them to continue on with the war. But he was sent to Britain to recuperate. It was here that he was reunited with his fiancée, Molly McTamney, who was serving as a nurse. They were soon married. They returned to New Zealand separately and went on to have three daughters.
Upon his hero’s arrival back to New Zealand, he refused to accept the £10,000 that had been raised for him to purchase his own farm. Instead, he gave the money to the ex-servicemen who wished to attend Lincoln University. Upham did end up with his own farm in North Canterbury and was there until his retirement in 1994. Sadly, he died later that year on 22nd November in Christchurch. He is buried at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Papanui.
In 1992, Upham received the Order of Honour. In 1995, a New Zealand Navy Ship was named after him and a bronze statue pays tribute in Amberley. In Christchurch, there is a ‘Charles Upham’ Avenue.
Upham’s medals were stolen amongst others in the December of 2007 from Waiouru Army Museum. After a reward was offered, they were recovered the following year.
Curious about Upham’s ties with the Brittan family: http://www.peelingbackhistory.co.nz/new-brighton-william-guise-brittan-1809-1876/ & http://www.peelingbackhistory.co.nz/linwood-dr-joseph-brittan-1805-1867/
*image of full portrait of Captain Charles Hazlitt Upham courtesy of Badass Of The Week – http://www.badassoftheweek.com/upham.html
*image of Upham receiving first VC courtesy of Guther Prien – http://www.guntherprienmilitaria.com.mx
*image of Charles Hazlitt Upham’s grave taken by Annette Bulovic*