Charles Upham VC and Bar 1908-1994
The Victoria Cross - A simple bronze cross for valour is the Commonwealth’s highest decoration for gallantry by its military servicemen.
Enlisted in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II, Sergeant Upham left New Zealand with the advance party of the 20th Battalion in the 1st Echelon New Zealand Division. He saw active service in Greece, Crete and North Africa. Lieutenant Upham was awarded the Victoria Cross for 9 days of sustained and conspicuous heroism, skill and leadership in Crete in May 1941. He was badly wounded in his shoulder and arm on the 4th day.
The bar, or second Victoria Cross, was awarded to Captain Upham for battle actions in North Africa at Minqar Qaim on 28 and 29 June 1942 where he played a fearless and conspicuous role in observation when on defence and led his company when the encircled New Zealand Division successfully broke out in a night action.
Captain Upham’s use of hand grenades in this battle were legendary. Again at Ruweisat Ridge 14 - 15 July 1942 his role on attack and reconnaissance was outstanding. He was severely wounded during this action but kept with his men until captured by a German tank brigade.
Charles Upham was born in Christchurch on 21 September 1908 and educated at Christ’s College and Lincoln College where he earned a Diploma in Agriculture. In 1930 he began his life in the high country and hills of the Hurunui District where he mustered and shepherded. It built Upham into a man of wiry strength and great physical endurance. He learnt about the land and nature and improved his natural skills of observation and survival. He accepted difficulties as part of normal life as things one had to surmount, which he did with total disregard for personal comfort. He joined the Government Valuation Department in 1937 and continued to tramp the countryside where his physical toughness was legendary with his fellow workers. He returned to Lincoln College in 1939 but his studies were interrupted when he volunteered for the NZ Army at the outbreak of W.W.II in September 1939.
As soon as he was released from Colditz Prisoner of War camp Charles Upham went to New Milton, Hampshire, England to seek out Mary (Molly) McTamney, a girl he knew. Fr. Pinkman officiated at their wedding in Our Lady of Lourdes Church, New Milton, on 20th June 1945. From 1946 to 1993 they lived and farmed on their property ‘Landsdown’ at Conway Flat and raised three daughters. He made a valuable contribution to his local community but perhaps the lasting memory will be of a man who had forthright views but an ability to discuss issues with anybody.
Charles Upham was a shy, courageous, determined man whose principles are an example to everyone. We will remember him.
Charles Upham statue in Amberley
This bronze sculpture was crafted by Mark Whyte of Christchurch in 1997. It stands outside the Hurunui District Council buildings in Amberley, North Canterbury, New Zealand. The statue was unveiled on 10 December 1997 by the then Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Hon. Jenny Shipley. The statue depicts Charles Upham ‘the observer’, using the skill he practised in peace and war learnt while shepherding and mustering on the hill and high country properties of Island Hills, Glynn Wye, St Helens and Rata Downs.
Accurate observation and his natural ability to understand the lie of the land served Charles Upham equally well whether mustering sheep or planning a military attack. Many other New Zealand soldiers had also learnt about living with the harsh environment of the high country but Captain Upham adapted this knowledge and coupled with his calculated determination, loyalty and sense of what was needed to be done, became an exceptional leader as well as friend of his men.
The sculptor has captured these feelings and the strength of Charles Upham in the eyes and face of the statue. The water bottle on his belt is a reminder of his compassion. Even when seriously wounded on Ruweisat Ridge, North Africa, he gave wounded German soldiers water from his own water bottle. The grenades were his main battle weapon used so effectively in the battle of Crete and again at the New Zealand Division’s break-out of encirclement at Minqar Qaim.
Click on the following link to see a full-page article published in the Press Newspaper, in Christchurch on 23 November, 1994: Upham Newspaper Article
McLauchlan, Gordon (editor-in-chief). (1999) Illustrated History of New Zealand, Bateman, Auckland.
Grayland, Eugene. (1967) Famous New Zealanders, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, Christchurch.
Sandford, Kenneth (1963). The Mark of the Lion: Charles Upham, Victoria Cross and Bar, Washburn, Auckland. A book-length biography.