Two New Zealand V.C.s in one day

Official portrait of Keith Elliot VC, after he had recovered from his wounds in October 1942.

There was fierce fighting as British forces sought to improve their positions east of El Alamein. The attacks had successfully prevented Rommel from mounting his assault into Egypt but he had now bolstered the Italian positions with German troops – the defending forces were now a more difficult proposition. The battle was for the advantage of small rises in the rocky desert terrain that could give either side the advantage of a more easily defended position overlooking their enemy. In the thick of the action – at the infamous El Ruweisat Ridge – were the New Zealanders.

Remarkably on this day two New Zealanders were to distinguish themselves and be recognised with the Victoria Cross.

At Ruweisat at dawn on 15 July 1942 the battalion to which Sergeant Elliot belonged was attacked on three flanks by tanks. Under heavy tank, machine-gun and shell fire, Sergeant Elliott led the platoon he was commanding to the cover of a ridge three hundred yards away, during which he sustained a chest wound.

Here he re-formed his men and led them to a dominating ridge a further five hundred yards away, where they came under heavy enemy machine-gun and mortar fire. He located enemy machine-gun posts to his front and right flank, and while one section attacked on the right flank, Sergeant Elliott led seven men in a bayonet charge across five hundred yards of open ground in the face of heavy fire and captured four enemy machine-gun posts and an anti-tank gun, killing a number of the enemy and taking fifty prisoners.

His section then came under fire from a machine-gun post on the left flank. He immediately charged this post single-handed and succeeded in capturing it, killing several of the enemy and taking fifteen prisoners. During these two assaults he sustained three more wounds in the back and legs.

Although badly wounded in four places, Sergeant Elliott refused to leave his men until he had reformed them, handed over his prisoners, which were now increased to one hundred and thirty, and arranged for his men to rejoin the battalion.

Owing to Sergeant Elliott’s quick grasp of the situation, great personal courage and leadership, ninteen men, who were the only survivors of B Company of his battalion, captured and destroyed five machine-guns, one anti-tank gun, killed a great number of the enemy and captured one hundred and thirty prisoners. Sergeant Elliott sustained only one casualty amongst his men, and brought him back to the nearest advanced dressing station.

After the action Keith Elliot was to emphasise that the award was a reflection of the actions of his entire platoon. Elliot survived the war to become a clergyman.

In the First World War two members of the Royal Army Medical Corps had twice been given the V.C.. Now uniquely in the history of the Victoria Cross, Charles Upham became the only combatant to be awarded the honour for a second time. He had first won his Victoria Cross in Crete.

Charles Upham VC, a portrait taken at the time of the first award, in late 1941.

Captain C. H. Upham, V.C., was commanding a Company of New Zealand troops in the Western Desert during the operations which culminated in the attack on El Ruweisat Ridge on the night of 14th-15th July, 1942.

In spite of being twice wounded, once when crossing open ground swept by enemy fire to inspect his forward sections guarding our mine-fields and again when he completely destroyed an entire truck load of German soldiers with hand grenades, Captain Upham insisted on remaining with his men to take part in the final assault.

During the opening stages of the attack on the ridge Captain Upham’s Company formed part of the reserve battalion, but, when communications with the forward troops broke down and he was instructed to send up an officer to report on the progress of the attack, he went out himself armed with a Spandau gun and, after several sharp encounters with enemy machine gun posts, succeeded in bringing back the required information.

Just before dawn the reserve battalion was ordered forward, but, when it had almost reached its objective, very heavy fire was encountered from a strongly defended enemy locality, consisting of four machine gun posts and a number of tanks.
Captain Upham, without hesitation, at once led his Company in a determined attack on the two nearest strongpoints on the left flank of the sector. His voice could be heard above the din of battle cheering on his men and, in spite of the fierce resistance of the enemy and the heavy casualties on both sides, the objective was captured.

Captain Upham, during the engagement, himself destroyed a German tank and several guns and vehicles with grenades and although he was shot through the elbow by a machine gun bullet and had his arm broken, he went on again to a forward position and brought back some of his men who had become isolated. He continued to dominate the situation until his men had beaten off a violent enemy counter-attack and consolidated the vital position which they had won under his inspiring leadership.

Exhausted by pain from his wound and weak from loss of blood Captain Upham was then removed to the Regimental Aid Post but immediately his wound had been dressed he returned to his men, remaining with them all day long under heavy enemy artillery and mortar fire, until he was again severely wounded and being now unable to move fell into the hands of the enemy when, his gallant Company having been reduced to only six survivors, his position was finally over-run by superior enemy forces, in spite of the outstanding gallantry and magnificent leadership shown by Captain Upham.

After recovering from his wounds Charles Upham was to make several attempts to escape from German prisoner of war camps, finally being sent to Colditz as too troublesome. Even here he made escape attempts and was eventually given solitary confinement. When Colditz was eventually liberated by American troops he tried to join them – but was returned to the United Kingdom. He became a successful farmer in New Zealand after the war, dying in November 1994, aged 86.

On 5 May 1995 Field Marshal Lord Bramall gave the eulogy at the memorial service at St Martin-in-the—Fields, London for Charles Upham, VC and bar, the only combat soldier ever to be so decorated.

I only met Charles Upham once, and although that for me was a very significant and memorable experience in itself, I do feel very unqualified, as well as most unworthy, to talk about his qualities as a soldier (a truly remarkable wartime one) and as a man, and I am sure that others among you will share my misgivings.

I have, however, been asked to say something about the impact of his deeds and warrior reputation on the traditions and inspiration of the profession of arms, in which I have spent over forty years, and this I am proud to attempt perhaps most particularly as we are starting the 50th anniversary commemoration events, when to the older generation memories of World War II inevitably come flooding back, and when everyone, of all ages, will be remembering with thankfulness and pride the efforts and sacrifices of those, under the Crown, who made victory possible.

What, of course, all of us here this afternoon know, without a shadow of doubt, is that Charles Upham had all the qualities and indomitable spirit of the true warrior — the will to face danger, take risks and overcome obstacles; the will to decide under pressure and the will to Win; and above all in the execution of his perceived duty as a New Zealand officer, at war against th most evil regime, something in which he believed passionately, and in support of his comrades for whom he felt a total responsibility, the will, if need be, to lay down his life.

As a result, although by nature a very shy, modest, at times almost gentle person, he became on the battlefield, with his men’s lives at stake and duty to be done to the utmost, a warrior of heroic proportions — always remaining to fight with his men without any heed whatsoever to wounds or any debilitating illness, however severe these might be, and, apparently, utterly indifferent to danger and his own personal safety.

As a result, he was able, in a way that would have eluded so many lesser men, to seize fleeting tactical opportunities and, by remarkable personal feats of bravery, to achieve significant local success for his unit in the face of very considerable odds. These encounters, against a brave, determined and resourceful enemy may not have changed the course of any campaign, but in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, itself remarkable for its gallantry and battlefield effectiveness, they became a byword which inspired all ranks to even greater efforts.

Not surprisingly therefore that a New Zealand Generall told the late King, George VI, that in his opinion Captain Upham had earned the VC not just twice (a feat achieved only twice before, by two medical officers) but several times over.

This is really the point, because however much Charles Upham would have been horrified with any undue fuss being made over him, or any over—the-top glorification of his prowess on the battlefield, always preferring to be treated, in his own immortal words as a true West Coaster Kiwi, ‘like any other bastard’, his memory will always be held in awe and admiration by those who admire courage, patriotism and unselfishness, and who look upon the bearing of arms in the service of your country as an honourable estate.

We all need heroes to look up to, to point the way and set us an example to try, however inadequately, to follow. Nations need them to foster national pride and esprit de corps, although more and more of these, perhaps thankfully, will in future be emanating from the sports field rather than the battlefield; and armies, navies and air forces certainly need them to incorporate into their traditions of service and sacrifice and to provide inspiration for future generations; for without them, and the events surrounding them, something will always be lacking in the creation of the highest morale and loyalty to the group or unit which is so essential to success in battle.

As the famous old song, The British Grenadiers, goes:

Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules,
Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these.

This reference to, and seeking after, heroes has continued throughout history. Look how Nelson has inspired and motivated the Royal Navy for nearly two centuries, and how the names of Ball, Bader, Gibson and Cheshire will never be forgotten by future members of the Royal Air Force. While the Army’s history from Hougoumont to the Falklands, and from Rorke’s Drift to Sidi Rezegh, Kidney Ridge and Arnhem is littered with events and heroic deeds occurring within them which have made the Regiments and Corps what they are, and this inspires recruits from the moment they join not only to do their level best but to put duty and service to their units and their comrades before the purely selfish ones of self-preservation.

The strength of any unit depends so much on what has gone before, good and bad, and the more good and gallant there is to record with honesty, the stronger that unit will be in the service of its country, and often of mankind — not only on the battlefield but in peacetime and when peacekeeping as well.

So, whether he likes it or not, Charles Upham VC and bar has now entered the military Valhalla, and, long after the actual engagements in which he took part with such professional skill and ferocious dedication have been absorbed into the mists and the myths of history, his name will be remembered by the military profession with awe and the greatest respect.

As one who could not possibly have emulated him, but, knowing something of the pressures and environment of the battlefield, admires him more than I can possibly say, I, on behalf of the British Armed Forces, salute him.

An excerpt from “The Bramall Papers” reproduced by kind permission of the publishers.

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