Charles Hazlitt Upham is probably New Zealand's most famous soldier. He became one of only three people ever to win the Victoria Cross twice for his actions in Crete in 1941 and Egypt in 1942. He is the only person to have achieved this as a combat soldier.
Born in Christchurch in 1908, Upham joined the 2nd NZ Expeditionary Force soon after war broke out in September 1939. He came to symbolise what many saw as the essential qualities of ‘the typical New Zealand soldier’. He developed these qualities as a musterer in the Canterbury high country, where men had ‘to match the ruggedness of nature with their own ruggedness of physique and temperament’.
Upham earned the VC for outstanding gallantry and leadership in Crete in May 1941, and his Bar at Ruweisat Ridge, Egypt, in July 1942. After being severely wounded in the latter engagement, Upham was captured by the Germans. After a failed escape attempt while recuperating in an Italian hospital, he was transferred to Germany in September 1943. A particularly audacious solo attempt to scale his camp's barbed-wire fences in broad daylight saw Upham become the only New Zealand combatant officer sent to the infamous Colditz camp for habitual escapers in 1944.
Upham was fiercely loyal to his comrades and shunned the limelight. When informed of his first VC he was genuinely distressed at being singled out. He believed that others deserved it more than he did. Only by seeing it as recognition of the bravery and service of his unit could Upham accept the award and the unwanted attention that went with it. Upham was presented with his first VC at Buckingham Palace on 11 May 1945.
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. It was decided to leave the matter until his release. In July 1945 Bernard Freyberg revived the question. The British thought Upham should be made a DSO. But further evidence was gathered by Major-General Howard Kippenberger and it was decided that his actions at Minqâr Qaim and Ruweisat Ridge merited the highest recognition possible. When the recommendation for his second VC was made later in 1945 King George VI said to Kippenberger that a Bar to the cross would be ‘very unusual indeed’. The king inquired, ‘Does he deserve it?’ − to which Kippenberger replied, ‘In my respectful opinion sir Upham won the VC several times over’. News of the second VC was released in September 1945.
After the war Upham returned to farming life in Canterbury, where he died in 1994. Modest and selfless, but extremely tough and single-minded, Upham came to symbolise the steely determination and professionalism of the New Zealand Division in the Second World War.