Charles Hazlitt Upham was born in Christchurch on 21 September 1908, the son of John Hazlitt Upham, a lawyer, and his wife, Agatha Mary Coates. He boarded at Waihi School, Winchester, South Canterbury, between 1917 and 1922 and at Christ’s College, Christchurch, from 1923 until 1927. From an early age he was a quiet and unusually determined boy, and on more than one occasion he intervened to defend schoolmates who were being bullied.
Upham was keen to pursue a farming career, and completed a diploma of agriculture at Canterbury Agricultural College, Lincoln, in 1930. For the next six years he worked on high country sheep stations in Canterbury. During this time he acquired a large vocabulary of expletives, which he regularly put to good use. In 1937 he joined the Valuation Department as assistant district valuer in Timaru, and the following year he became engaged to Mary (Molly) Eileen McTamney. In 1939 he returned to Lincoln to complete a diploma in valuation and farm management.
Upham enlisted in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) in September 1939 and was posted to the 20th Canterbury–Otago Battalion. He was of average height, with a wiry build, flashing blue eyes and great powers of endurance. From the beginning of his military service he displayed tactical flair and an intense desire to master the practical skills of the soldier’s craft. He was soon promoted to temporary lance corporal, but he declined a place in an Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU), fearing that it would delay his departure overseas. In December he was promoted to sergeant and a week later sailed for Egypt with the advance party of the 1st Echelon. In July 1940 he was persuaded to join an OCTU. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant on 2 November and given command of a platoon in 20th Battalion which consisted mainly of tough West Coasters. Upham quickly won the respect of his men as a capable officer who was greatly concerned for their safety and comfort.
He served with the New Zealand Division in Greece during March 1941, and was evacuated to Crete the following month. During the night counter-attack on Maleme airfield by the 20th and the 28th (Maori) Battalion on 22 May, Upham led his platoon in an advance of more than 3,000 yards over heavily defended ground. After four of his men were shot at the beginning of the attack he was possessed by ‘an icy fury’. Three times when his platoon was held up by enemy fire he made skilful use of available cover and destroyed machine-gun posts with his favorite attacking weapon, the hand grenade. After the failure of the attack he helped evacuate wounded soldiers and later penetrated 600 yards into German-held territory to bring out an isolated New Zealand company. Already weakened by dysentery, he was wounded in the shoulder by mortar fire.
At Galatos on 25 May Upham skilfully deployed his platoon to smash a German attack. He was hit in the foot by a spent bullet, which he removed two weeks later. On 30 May he led his men up a steep hill to outflank and help destroy an enemy force threatening the Allied headquarters at Sphakia. Much against his wishes he was among those evacuated to Egypt. In October 1941 he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his exceptional gallantry on Crete. Upham was genuinely distressed to be singled out for the award, believing that many others deserved it more than he did. Only by seeing it as a recognition of the bravery and service of his unit could Upham cope with the award and the unwanted fame that went with it.
In November 1941 he was mortified when his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel H. K. Kippenberger, decided to leave him out of the second Libyan campaign. Kippenberger believed that Upham ‘was fretting for more action’ and ‘would get himself killed too quickly’. The battalion suffered heavy losses in the campaign and Upham helped rebuild it as commander of C Company. He was promoted to lieutenant in November 1941 and to captain the following May.
On 27 June 1942 German forces attacked the division’s positions at Minqâr Qaim. Throughout this action Upham fearlessly moved about in the open under heavy fire, encouraging and checking on his men. The following night he distinguished himself during the division’s famous breakout from Minqâr Qaim, leading his men ‘in inspiring fashion’ and overrunning several enemy posts. During vicious fighting, Upham and one of his men braved intense fire to destroy with hand grenades a truck full of German soldiers. Upham was slightly wounded in both arms by his own grenades.
During the New Zealand Division’s disastrous attack on Ruweisat Ridge on the night of 14–15 July his company was initially in reserve. He was ordered to send an officer forward to gather information from the battalions leading the assault. Typically, Upham went himself in a jeep, and after several adventures returned with the information required. Later, while he was leading a successful bayonet charge against enemy positions, his left arm was shattered by a bullet. After having his wound dressed he returned to his company, but was then wounded by shrapnel in the leg. Unable to walk, he was captured when German armour counter-attacked the New Zealand infantry.
Upham was seriously injured and probably saved his life by refusing to allow his arm to be amputated without anaesthetic. He was sent to a prison camp in Italy, where as soon as his health permitted he began to make increasingly daring, almost desperate efforts to escape. After his transfer to Germany in September 1943 he was involved in several escape plots, including an audacious solo attempt to scale his camp’s barbed-wire fences in daylight. In 1944 Upham became the only New Zealand combatant officer to be sent to the special camp at Colditz for habitual escapers. Throughout his incarceration he frequently defied and showed utter contempt for those guarding him. He was later mentioned in dispatches for his efforts to escape. When Colditz was liberated in April 1945 Upham was keen to see action again, but was instead sent to Britain. There he was reunited with Molly McTamney, who was then serving as a nurse, and they were married at New Milton, Hampshire, on 20 June 1945. He returned to New Zealand in early September, and Molly followed in December.
After Upham’s capture officers of 2NZEF had begun collecting evidence to support the award of a bar to his Victoria Cross. The British authorities considered it unlikely that a bar would be awarded, and it was decided to leave the matter until his release. In July 1945 Bernard Freyberg revived the question. Initially, the British thought Upham should be made a DSO, but after further evidence was gathered by Kippenberger it was decided that his actions at Minqâr Qaim and Ruweisat Ridge merited the highest recognition possible. Upham was only the third man (and the only combatant officer) to be awarded a bar to the Victoria Cross.
When the award was announced in September 1945 he reacted quietly, telling a reporter: ‘Naturally I feel some pride in this distinction, but hundreds of others have done more than I did. They could have given it to one of them’. He found the intense public and media attention difficult to deal with. A group of prominent Christchurch citizens raised more than £10,000 to purchase a farm for him, but he refused the money, and instead it was used to establish a scholarship fund for the sons of servicemen. In November Upham was discharged from 2NZEF.
At the end of 1945 Upham purchased a farm at the mouth of the Conway River in North Canterbury. Although somewhat hampered by the injuries to his arm, he was a hard-working and successful farmer. He served on the board of governors of Christ’s College for nearly 20 years. He and Molly had three daughters (including twins), and lived on their farm until January 1994, when Charles’s poor health forced them to retire to Christchurch. He died there on 22 November that year, survived by Molly and his daughters. More than 5,000 people lined the streets of central Christchurch and filled the city’s cathedral for his funeral, which was conducted with full military honours.
Charles Upham was a natural leader who knew how to get the best out of the men under his command and always showed sound common sense in his approach to military problems. In action he was able to shrewdly assess situations, weigh up risks and quickly decide on a course of action. He had a consuming drive to destroy the enemy and was utterly fearless. The inner forces that made him such a formidable soldier are difficult to discern, but his single-mindedness and his implacable hatred of Nazi Germany and its allies, which mellowed only slightly with the passing of years, certainly played a part. Upham was an honourable, tough man with a strong sense of duty, who was also devoted to his wife and family. Modest and selfless, he always enjoyed the company of his old comrades, and was keenly aware of the sacrifices his generation had made to ensure that New Zealanders could live, as he put it, ‘in peace and plenty’.