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.

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