Talk with Charles Upham

Charles Upham was an extraordinary New Zealand soldier who earned the Victoria Cross twice for his outstanding bravery and leadership during World War II.


How has Charles Upham been honored in New Zealand posthumously?

Charles Upham, as one of New Zealand's most venerated war heroes and the only combat soldier to have received the Victoria Cross twice during World War II, has been commemorated in various significant ways in New Zealand:

  1. Statues and Memorials: Upham's bravery is solidified in stone and sentiment through various statues and memorials. For instance, a bronze statue of him stands in Amberley, his hometown. His alma mater, Christ’s College in Christchurch, also honors him with a statue.

  2. Educational Institutions: Christchurch has a school named Charles Upham School, commemorating his legacy and imparting his values of courage and resilience to future generations.

  3. Military Honors: His name is often invoked in military contexts, with awards and honors established in his name to inspire ongoing excellence and bravery in service.

  4. Upham’s Portrait on Currency: Reflecting his iconic status in New Zealand’s collective memory, Charles Upham’s portrait was featured on the New Zealand $20 note from 1990 until 1999, symbolizing his national importance and valor.

  5. Books and Biographies: His life and exploits have been extensively documented in biographies, most notably in "Mark of the Lion" by Kenneth Sandford, which provides detailed insights into Upham's life, both during and beyond the war.

  6. Posthumous Decorations: In addition to his Victoria Crosses, other posthumous honors help to keep his memory and achievements alive in national history and educational discourse.

Through these forms of commemoration, Charles Upham’s ethos and exploits continue to inspire and hold a place of high respect within New Zealand culture and beyond.

What were Charles Upham's actions during the Battle of Crete?

During the Battle of Crete in May 1941, Captain Charles Upham, serving with the New Zealand 2nd Division, was instrumental in demonstrating exceptional bravery and leadership which were pivotal in the defence of Crete against German paratroopers.

One of his most notable actions during this battle occurred near Maleme, where he displayed extraordinary courage and tactical acumen. Captain Upham commanded a platoon that was critical in defending the Maleme airfield, one of the primary objectives of the German forces due to its strategic importance.

During the defense, Upham continuously exposed himself to enemy fire to go to the aid of his wounded men and to lead aggressive counter-attacks. On one occasion, he advanced alone against enemy positions, armed with grenades and a pistol, destroying multiple enemy machine-gun nests and inflicting significant casualties. His actions were not only pivotal in disrupting German assaults but also served to inspire his men to hold their positions under extreme adversity.

Moreover, despite being wounded during these engagements, Upham refused evacuation and continued to lead and encourage his men. His leadership during the battle contributed significantly to the temporary halting of German advances, although the Allies were eventually forced to evacuate the island.

For his valor during the Battle of Crete and later in North Africa, Charles Upham was awarded the Victoria Cross, and he remains one of the very few to have received this prestigious award twice for his actions during World War II. His first award was directly attributed to his actions in Crete, citing his tenacity, tactical skill, and unwavering bravery under fire.

How did Charles Upham earn his first Victoria Cross?

Charles Upham earned his first Victoria Cross during the Battle of Crete in May 1941. During this battle, his actions were a remarkable showcase of bravery, leadership, and tactical skill. Upham was a Second Lieutenant in the 20th Battalion of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force at the time.

His citation for the Victoria Cross outlines several instances of extraordinary valor over the course of the battle. Some of the key actions included:

  1. Leadership and Bravery Under Fire: Upham commanded a platoon and was pivotal in attacking and destroying enemy positions with grenades and bayonets, under heavy fire and against superior numbers.

  2. Rescuing Wounded Soldiers: Despite being wounded himself during the engagements, Upham carried a wounded man to safety under heavy fire, displaying a great degree of personal courage and disregard for his own safety.

  3. Strategic Impact: His actions had a significant impact on the success of his unit’s operations, disrupting enemy plans and inflicting heavy casualties.

  4. Continued Combat Effectiveness: Even after being wounded, Upham continued to lead his men and maintain a high level of combat effectiveness, inspiring his troops and significantly contributing to the overall fighting spirit of his unit.

Upham's blend of aggressive tactics, fearless leadership, and unyielding perseverance under extreme conditions distinguished him as a soldier and marked his first Victoria Cross award as a testament to his remarkable character and military prowess.

Describe a specific instance of Charles Upham's bravery.

A particularly notable instance of Charles Upham's bravery occurred during the Second World War in Crete in May 1941. During the Battle of Crete, Upham displayed extraordinary courage under fire. Despite being under constant heavy fire, he carried out a series of brave acts including the destruction of enemy positions, providing effective leadership, and maintaining morale amongst his fellow soldiers.

One specific act of valor during this battle was when he advanced alone over exposed ground to rescue wounded men. Despite suffering from bullet wounds himself, he continued to lead and inspire his men. His actions during these days played a significant role in the defense against the German forces.

For his outstanding bravery and leadership in Crete, along with his actions later in North Africa, Charles Upham was awarded the Victoria Cross. Remarkably, he was awarded this highest military honor twice, becoming one of only three double recipients of the Victoria Cross, and the only one to earn both during the Second World War. His repeated acts of heroism and disregard for his own safety in the face of extreme danger set a profound example of bravery in military history.

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