20th May 1941, German forces parachute into Crete and attack British, Greek, and Anzac Forces on the Island.
Second Lieutenant Charles Upham of the Canterbury Regiment, New Zealand Army stood ready to defend Maleme Airfield, a vital tactical objective of the German Assault Forces.
The German paratroopers suffered greatly as they descended onto the Island with units taking massive casualties on landing. Many were mauled by New Zealand Army units of the 21st, 22nd and 23rd Infantry Battalions.
But this would not see off the German soldiers and despite the casualties they pushed on, re-organised and sowed confusion amongst the Allied defenders. Having cut communications between the New Zealand units around Maleme Airfield, the German paratroopers were able to seize the Airfield and call in reinforcements.
The British and New Zealanders quickly realised that the Airfield was key and earmarked 20th Battalion, including Lieutenant Upham’s platoon, for a counter attack. Owing to poor transportation of relieving units however, the 20th were not able to attack until early morning and by that point the Germans were ready.
The 20th Battalion, supported by the 28th Maori Battalion, launched a second attack on the airfield the following day, but were again repulsed by the dug-in paratroopers who could call in Air-Support on the attacking troops.
It was however during this attack that Lieutenant Upham was awarded his first VC. He showed consistent outstanding leadership, tactical skill and utter indifference to danger as he and his platoon fought in the counter attack, advancing over 3000 yards towards the enemy without support. His platoon destroyed numerous German strongpoints and machine gun nests, destroying two personally after they pinned down elements of his platoon.
As the British attack stalled and the engaged forces began to retreat, he helped to carry a wounded man out under fire, and together with another officer rallied more men together to carry other wounded men out. As if this wasn’t enough he was then sent back into the battlefield to rescue and company of men cut off by the Germans. With a Corporal in tow he went through enemy territory over 600 yards, killing two Germans on the way, found the company, and brought it back to the Battalion's new position.
Still this wasn’t enough for Upham and over the next 2 days, his platoon was bombarded by the ever-strengthening German force son the Island. Upham was blown over by one mortar shell, and painfully wounded by a piece of shrapnel behind the left shoulder, by another. He disregarded this wound, remained on duty, and almost single handedly defended his platoon’s position at Galatas on the 25th May.
He did all this despite suffering from Dysentry, unable to eat much and carrying the wounds of the previous few days fighting.
Crete would prove to be a lost cause for the British and Greek forces and they were evacuated to Egypt by the 31st May. But this is not the end of Lieutenant Upham’s story. Incidentally while in Egypt, he removed a bullet from a wound in his foot, incurred during the fighting for Crete. A week spent fighting and looking after his platoon with a bullet in his foot!
Upham was promoted to Captain following the Battle for Crete and went into action again in July during the First Battle of El Alamein. Now commanding a company of New Zealand Infantrymen, Captain Upham did it all again. He crossed open ground to inspect machine gun positions, destroyed an entire truckload of German soldiers with hand grenades, rescued forward reconnaissance troops when communications were cut off, destroyed a German tank and mobile guns with more grenades, and through it all despite being wounded numerous times again, stayed with his men. He only returned to the Regimental Aid Post to have a wound re-dressed, despite now exhausted from battle and suffering from Blood Loss.
Captain Upham was eventually captured after the Germans overran his company’s defensive positions. Only 6 of his comrades had survived the fighting.
He spent the remaining years of the war as a POW in Colditz Castle and Oflag IV-C. Several escape attempts resulting in him being put in solitary confinement and only let out to exercise with 2 Armed Guards and covered by a Machine gun tower. This didn’t stop him bolting from the courtyard one day however!
He was ultimately recaptured and was rescued by American Forces which liberated the Colditz POW facilities in 1945.
After the war, he returned to New Zealand and the community raised £10,000 to buy him a farm. However, he declined and the money went into the C. H. Upham Scholarship for children of ex-servicemen to study at Lincoln College or the University of Canterbury.
He instead obtained a war rehabilitation loan and bought a farm on Conway Flat, Hundalee, North Canterbury. It is said that for the remainder of his life, Upham would allow no German manufactured machinery or car on to his property.
He sadly died in Canterbury on 22 November 1994, surrounded by his wife Molly and his daughters. His funeral in the now destroyed Christchurch Cathedral was conducted with full military honours.
Captain Charles Upham VC* on Forces War Records
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