Charles Upham - Victoria Cross x 2.
What kind of windswept lunatic is considered so dangerous that even whilst held captive in a Nazi POW camp is placed in solitary confinement - only allowed to exercise alone under the supervision of two armed guards and a machine-gun tower.
Probably the same kind of lunatic that prefers to go alone against enemy machine-gun positions and Tanks. It may also be worth mentioning that the man in question was the recipient of two Victoria Crosses, and even amongst his enemy held quite the reputation for hard-fuckery.
May 1941 and things aren’t looking too good for the Allies in Greece. Having Suffered a crippling defeat from German forces resulting in the evacuation of 57,000 men, the island of Crete became the last remaining stronghold for the Brits, Kiwis, Aussies and Greeks alike - and for these said remaining forces? Well strategically speaking, they were all about to have to suck a massive bag of dicks; because unbeknown to them they were about to be on the receiving end of a large scale airborne invasion – the first ever in history.
If “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; and an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”, then Second Lieutenant Charles Hazlitt Upham - a former sheep farmer from New Zealand - was certainly one of the most fanatical optimists that ever lived.
Commanding a forward Platoon in an attack to re-take a strategically vital airstrip near Maleme on the island of Crete, this young Officer led his men forward over 3000 yards of ground with no support from any other arms. Had this taken place today, this band of around 30 Kiwis wouldn’t be able to find a single Bookie on the planet that would give them odds on winning. But instead of starting a Facebook petition asking for 147 signatures demanding the Government ask Hitler to maybe tell his Para-troopers to stop being Twats, they just cracked on straight up the middle. On three occasions however they found themselves temporarily held up. On the first occasion one of his sections were pinned down from a fortified machine-gun position, and under heavy fire Charles advanced upon the position alone. Using a pistol, grenades and raging optimism; he killed, maimed and turned the remaining occupants to raging pessimists – allowing his section to “mop up with ease”. On the second occasion another section was held up by two machine gun positions fortified in a building. Again, under fire Charles managed to get close enough to post a grenade through the window destroying one of the gun positions, allowing his section to take out the other. As for the third machine gun position that held up this band of Kiwis? Well the same cocktail of grenades and optimism was used by Charles – and the same outcome was achieved.
On the first day it seemed the Allies would be victorious in repelling the German Airborne assault. However due to a few strategic oversights the vital airstrip near Maleme was taken by German paratroopers, meaning a surge in German reinforcements to the island. In strategic terms this meant that the one massive bag of dicks was now an endless conveyor belt of even bigger bags of dicks – and even the world’s greatest optimist can’t beat off endless bags of dicks.
The Allies were in full retreat, and another Company had become isolated from the Kiwi Battalion. Charles and another Corporal found them and brought them back – Killing two Germans along the way. A few days later, still in retreat, his Platoon came under heavy machine gun and mortar fire. Charles, suffering a gunshot wound to the foot and shrapnel wounds to the shoulder, identified the enemy location and manoeuvred his men, who completely turned the tables and ended up killing around 40 of them. When his Platoon was finally ordered to retire he sent them back under the troop sergeant. Charles took it upon himself to go back alone and warn another Platoon they were about to be cut off. Along the way two Germans opened up on him. He fell and pretending to be dead crawled up to a tree; with the use of only one arm rested his rifle between branches and gunned down both assailants before they had a chance to get a single shot off. There was also an incident in a ravine that involved Charles, a Bren gun, an elevated position, optimism and 22 enemy dead.
For all his actions in Crete Charles was awarded the Victoria Cross, an award which he claimed was “meant for the men”. He was then evacuated to Egypt. Perhaps “evacuated” is the wrong word to use, as the first battle of El Alamein was about to commence – a battle he would be involved in.
Now in command of a company for the attack on El Ruweisat Ridge Charles was conducting a recce of front line positions which went as you would expect – he got injured whilst destroying a truck load of German soldiers with grenades. Clearly not your typical officer it should come as no surprise that Upham clean fucked off medical advice in order carry out the assault the following morning. Advancing forward the Company came close to reaching their objective when they came under extremely heavy fire from Tanks, mortars and machine-gun positions. Without hesitation Charles led his Company on an immediate left flanking mission to assault the two nearest enemy strong points – a pretty ambitious call bearing in mind the Kiwis had yet again no armoured support. Despite heavy casualties the company actually managed to take the position. This was probably helped by the fact that Upham personally destroyed a tank, as well as several machine-gun positions and vehicles with grenades. With slaying fascists still a higher priority than properly stemming blood flow from a gunshot wound and sorting out a broken arm – injuries sustained from impregnating Rommel’s Panzers with grenades – Upham opted to fight on. No doubt the final part of this chapter most of todays youth can relate too; the awkward moment you collapse due to pain and blood-loss; that fucking typical moment the Germans unleash their Artillery bombardment as you lay Quadra-spazzed under the Egyptian sun; the inevitable over-running of your position after being reduced to just 6 men – leading to four-years in captivity; and finally that “thanks, but no thanks” moment a stupid Spaghetti Fascist offers to amputate your arm with no anaesthetic - when you know full well a bandage will suffice.
Being the noble man he was, Upham refused to try and escape from hospital. However, he was soon listed as “dangerous” after several rather brazen escape attempts. As a VC winner and an Officer Upham was never going to be the “grey man”. The Germans first piece of evidence that this was a man who clearly gave no fucks was when he jumped from a moving prisoner transport truck, and with a broken ankle legged it over 400m before being re-captured. The next piece of damning evidence was actually photographed. In broad daylight whilst in the POW camp PG47 he scaled the perimeter fences, but unfortunately fell between the two outer fences and got tangled in the barbed wire. Despite the deep lacerations from falling into barbed wire from height and the abundance of armed aggressive Italians dishing out more death threats than in Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”, Upham calmly ignored them and lit a cigarette. Now regarded as “Very Dangerous” he was placed in solitary confinement. Whilst exercising alone under supervision of two armed guards and a machine-gun tower he made another characteristically ambitious move to do a runner. This achieved nothing but giving Charles the status of “Very Über Dangerous”, which meant a one-way ticket to the infamous Oflag IV-C (Colditz to you and I). During his prison upgrade via highspeed train the guards allowed him to go to the toilet alone, believing he wouldn’t try and escape due to the high speed of the train. They clearly hadn’t seen what these days would make a fairly badass Tinder profile picture of lighting up a cigarette in barbed wire. After exiting the train at high speed Upham swiftly knocked himself out after landing across the train tracks. He was recaptured 12 hours later and taken straight to Colditz. Here there was no chance for escape.
When Colditz Castle was finally captured by American forces the newly liberated inmates spread to the four winds to make their own ways home – no doubt a day many thought they would never see after years in captivity. Our former sheep farmer had the better idea of fighting on with the Americans. This former sheep farmer however had forgotten one small fact… he still had a girlfriend - He was immediately sent home and married within the year.
There are very few that have ever walked this planet brave enough to earn the Victoria Cross. There are even fewer brave enough to do it twice. Only three to be precise. Despite all the above acts of indescribable bravery Charles would end up living the rest of his days in peace, back in New Zealand. He would finally pass away on the 22nd of November 1944 - his wife and daughters at his bedside.
The day of his funeral saw the streets of Christchurch lined with thousands, paying their respects.