Charles Shelford, better known as Charlie, was born on 21 August 1920 in Te Kaha, Bay of Plenty, to Thomas George Shelford, a labourer, and his wife, Marauahatea Te Ōwaina Kirikiri. Both his parents had previously been married. He belonged to Ngāti Porou and Te Whakatōhea through his mother, and Te Arawa through his father. He also had links with Ngāti Ruanui of Taranaki and Ngāpuhi through his paternal grandmother, Iritana Shelford, and with Ngāti Tūpaea, Ngāti Tānewai and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui.
Because of his father’s death in 1932 and his mother’s eccentric behaviour, Charlie and his siblings were divided among various families. He was raised by Ātareta and Paratene Tūhaka and was educated to standard three, attending Te Kaha Native School, and Waiomatatini and Tikitiki native schools on the East Coast. As a young man he milked cows, worked as a horse breaker, and was employed as a labourer at Wainui Beach, near Gisborne.
In December 1939, several months after the outbreak of the Second World War, Shelford enlisted with the 28th (Māori) Battalion, giving a birth date of 22 August 1920. He began training at Palmerston North in January the following year. He did not adapt well to army life and was consistently ill-disciplined. As a result, when the battalion left for overseas in May 1940 he remained behind in detention. After completing his training at Papakura Military Camp he embarked for Egypt in November with the rank of private. While on active service he continued to defy authority. In May 1941, for example, he was incarcerated for 28 days for drunkenness and obscene language. His inclination to fight, however, was put to good use on the battlefield.
During the battalion’s night attack on Gazala, Libya, on 14 December 1941, Shelford showed outstanding heroism and courage. After the first entrenchments had been taken his section carried on for 300 yards to a ridge, where they discovered they were isolated and were being fired on from the right rear and the left flank. Shelford volunteered to cover the 300 yards to the Italian position and ‘clean it out’. Despite the intensity of enemy fire from anti-tank guns, machine-guns and small-arms, he covered the distance walking and running and firing his machine-gun from the hip. With about 20 yards to go he was blasted in the legs by a rain of grenades. Wounded and dazed, he attempted to bring his machine-gun into action, but it had been hit and the butt smashed. In spite of intense pain, he threw a hand grenade into the enemy trench. The surrender of the Italian commanding officer triggered the end of enemy resistance in that area, and altogether Shelford captured four officers and 36 other ranks.
After the attack Shelford’s D Company commander, Lieutenant F. R. Logan, and platoon commander, Second Lieutenant Jim Matahaere, together decided that Shelford deserved a Victoria Cross and wrote the citation. However, on 16 January 1942, after a month in hospital, Shelford was awarded the DCM. Later Logan could not understand how their recommendation for a VC was down-graded: ‘He was our bravest’, Logan stated ‘and deserved recognition as such’.
Shelford’s clashes with military authorities mainly stemmed from his penchant for absence without leave: within two weeks of receiving his DCM he went AWOL for four days. He saw no point in remaining at camp or at headquarters if there was no action, and therefore no booty. Without authority, and using official New Zealand army transport, he would infiltrate the German front line with an unerring instinct as to where the best loot – mainly readily saleable German pistols and rifles – could be commandeered. The legend of Shelford’s private armoury, from which he set up a lucrative business on the Egyptian black market and provided pistols for New Zealand non-combatants, is one of the most notorious of a battalion noted for such exploits. He continued to commit serious offences until his return home in October 1944.
After his discharge from the army in February 1945 DCM Charlie, as he was known, worked as a bushman at Mamaku, north-west of Rotorua. On 3 June 1948 in Auckland he married Lilas May Beazley; they were to have a large family. He then worked as a drainlayer in Auckland for nearly three decades. Shelford had a slight build and was of medium height. He gained a reputation as being quiet and aggressive, but had a ‘hardcase laugh’ and a powerful singing voice, and was a beautiful ballroom dancer. In later life he did volunteer work for the Auckland Māori Catholic centre, Te Ūnga Waka, and was affiliated with the Newmarket RSA. On 7 May 1984 Charlie Shelford was run over and killed while crossing a road, drunk, late at night in suburban Auckland. His wife had predeceased him in 1976, and he was survived by eight children.