V.C. heroes honoured this week

A soldier who was awarded the VC in the Great War has been honoured with a re-enactment of his heroics by his school, 100 years after they occurred. The Right Hon. Sir John Smyth, Baronet, of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs (Indian Army) was recommended for the Victoria Cross for his actions in France on 18th May 1915, when he led a volunteer bombing party of 10 men bringing ammunition to captured German trench after two previous attempts had failed. He and two others made it over exceptionally dangerous ground, swimming a stream with their load, and successfully managed to deliver 96 bombs; their comrades were all killed or wounded. The exceptional soldier had already been awarded the Military Cross for gallantry earlier in the war, but reported that he would never have succeeded in this critical mission without the help of his fallen comrades.

Yesterday his actions were remembered at his former school, Dragon School in Oxford, with a re-enactment of the mission being put on for 12 and 13-year-old pupils by a group from the UK Punjab Heritage Association. The children also learned how to do a rifle drill. You can read more on the story here in the Oxford Mail.

Sir John Smyth isn’t the only soldier awarded the V.C. who will be remembered this week, as 22nd May marks the start of the period of action for which Second Lieutenant Charles Hazlitt Upham of 20th Battalion, 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (Canterbury Regiment) earned the first of two WW2 Victoria Crosses for his exploits in Crete in 1941. According to the London Gazette citation on the Forces War Records website, between 22nd and 30th May Charles was blown up by one mortar shell, badly wounded by another and again wounded in the foot, but despite being sick and injured refused to go to hospital. Instead, he carried a wounded man back to safety when his company was forced to retire on 22nd May and on the 30th beat off an attack at Sphakia.

The book ‘History of the Second World War, Vol 2’, available to view in our Historic Documents Archive, carries the following eye witness account by Lieutenant Colonel Howard Kippenberger, the commander of 20th Battalion, of what happened after his men spotted a party of Germans drawing close to Force HQ via the Sfakiano ravine:

“Upham’s platoon was slowing climbing up the steep 600 foot hill west of the ravine. The men were weak and weary but they kept slowly going, and we could see that Upham was working round above the Germans still in the bottom of the ravine and pinned down by Washbourn’s company and by fire from the eastern bank. Two hours after they had started to climb there was another sharp outburst of firing. It lasted about a minute, there were then some single shots, and then silence. A little later Upham’s platoon started to come back and then a message came that all twenty-two of the enemy party had been killed, completely helpless under his plunging fire.”

Upham was not yet done with heroics, but was awarded a bar to his VC in the attack on El Ruweisat Ridge in the Western Desert. The London Gazette citation on our site explains why:

“On 14th/15th July 1942 at El Ruweisat Ridge, Western Desert, Captain Upham, in spite of being twice wounded, insisted on remaining with his men. Just before dawn he led his company in a determined attack, capturing the objective after fierce fighting; he himself destroyed a German tank and several guns and vehicles with hand grenades. Although his arm had been broken by a machine-gun bullet, he continued to dominate the situation and when at last, weak from loss of blood, he had his wounds dressed, he immediately returned to his men, remaining with them until he was again severely wounded and unable to move.”

Captured by the Germans, Charles Upham still wasn’t ready to give up. He made no less than four different attempts to escape several Prisoner of War camps, before finally being liberated from the infamous Colditz Castle (Oflag IV-C) in April 1945. Apparently a guard manning the gun tower there told prisoners he had refrained from shooting Upham on his last bid for freedom out of sheer respect, as he could see that other German guards were coming down the road and were sure to catch the would-be-fugitive immediately. Upham was still keen to see action with the liberating US forces on release, but was instead sent back to Britain for the remainder of the war.

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