“Tell me Kippenberger” said the king, “what do you think of Upham yourself? Does he deserve another VC?” … Kippenberger replied slowly and carefully: I was his Brigadier in North Africa sir. He did so many brave things, in my opinion, Captain Upham won the VC several times over.”

Looking for the real hero

By Roger Childs

Tom Scott has always been a quality writer as a journalist and author, and he doesn’t disappoint with Searching for Charlie in Pursuit for the Real Charles Upham VC and Bar. This is an excellent biography of the double Victoria Cross winner, but is also about how the author researched the man throughout New Zealand and in Greece, North Africa, Italy, Germany and England.

Early on there is reference to the only other biography of Upham – Mark of the Lion by Ken Sandford which was a runaway best seller in the early 1960s. It was one of my favourite books when I was at college and I was very careful about who I lent it to.  Reading about the extraordinary wartime exploits of Charles Upham was exhilarating stuff.

Half and half

Tom Scott has a long and distinguished history as a journalist, cartoonist, playwright and author. His autobiography Drawn Out is a classic and covers his highly eventful life from his poverty-stricken upbringing in the Manawatu to fame and fortune as a writer and critic. 

He knew that in trying to uncover the real Charles Upham he had set himself a huge challenge. The double VC who died aged 86 in 1994 was a complex character who had shunned the limelight and usually brushed away would-be interviewers, photographers and biographers, often with highly colourful language.

Whereas Sandford had met Upham and ultimately gained his confidence – admittedly with plenty of conditions, Scott needed to track down his descendants and other people who knew the man, as well as trawl through the historical records, family papers, memoirs, wartime diaries and press reports. He also felt that to understand Upham he needed to visit the places where he had lived, the battlefields where he had fought, and the prisoner-of-war camps such as Colditz where he was interned.

Some have criticized Searching for Charlie because there is too much about Tom Scott, but these detractors miss the point. It is a “book of two halves” as the full title makes clear, and covers the Upham story in detail from childhood to old age, as well as the author’s researching, travels and contacts with those who knew the great man. He also includes plenty of relevant historical information such as the origins of the Victoria Cross, the background to the German invasion of Greece and Crete, and the unfolding of the North Africa campaign.

The book is highly readable with many relevant excerpts from the primary sources, and Scott’s trademark humour often comes through as a foil to the grim detail of wartime action. There are 20 compact chapters, each one having a relevant quotation as a heading, and there are many sketches and photos. However, a few maps of the theatres of war and the locations of the POW camps would have been helpful. 

Comprehensive characterization

Charles Hazlitt Upham was a complex character who never suffered fools gladly. He could be abusive, angry, ruthless and intolerant. However he could also be kind, generous, caring and considerate. For example, in October 1945 he wrote an eight page letter to the father of a friend who had been killed in Greece.

He was fiercely loyal to the men who served with and under him, and believed strongly in equality and fair play. This even extended to the enemy. In one engagement in North Africa he came across German soldiers who were surrendering and was horrified when he witnessed other advancing Germans shooting their compatriots in the back. Two days later Upham and his men found a house where they recognized the trucks of those German forces and found that soldiers were asleep in them. They crept close and hurled grenades. Trucks burst into flames… ammunition and petrol tanks started exploding. Men started screaming. A German officer dashed out on to the balcony cursing and damning the New Zealanders.  Charlie’s men grabbed him by his arms and legs and tossed him over the balustrade into the fireball.

 In Searching for Charlie Tom Scott is thorough in analyzing the complex character of the man; in dispelling the myths and in detailing the achievement of this natural born soldier. Upham was a risk-taker and although he was wounded a number of times, he remained impervious to danger. One soldier observing Upham carrying a wounded man out of an olive grove in North Africa with bullets flying around him, remarked: he’ll either get a wooden cross or a Victoria Cross.

The reluctant hero

Upham did not like being in the public eye and always gave credit to his men whenever it was suggested he should be decorated. His wife Mollie’s reaction to hearing that a second Victoria Cross was to be awarded to her husband was Another VC, Oh poor Charles! 

Basically he hated being singled out for commendation or special treatment. When it was suggested that he might get priority for a rehab farm after the war he responded angrily I don’t want to be treated different to any other bastard!

Tom Scott does find the real Charles Upham and he sums that up at the end of chapter 20. Charles Upham believed that all human beings were equal and defended this principle with an all-consuming passion, fury and courage on a scale that did the very thing he hated most – it set him apart.

Whether people liked him or not, he was a man who was universally respected for what he had achieved. When he died there were four death notices in the Christchurch Press. The fourth one read:

UPHAM, Charles Hazlitt (VC and Bar)

One of the bravest and best soldiers — in deep respect. Sympathy for family and friends on behalf of the Association of former Afrika Korps, –Karl Heinz Boettger (Col Ret’d), Hamburg Germany.