Saturday, June 23, 2012


The Victoria Cross is (to those of my fellow colonials who do not speak the Queen's English), the British equivalent of the American Medal of Honor.  It is only awarded in recognition of acts of conspicuous valour "in the face of the enemy".  Unsurprisingly, most of the medals are given to the recently deceased.  As the saying goes, there are old Marines, and bold Marines, but not a lot of old, bold Marines.  And so with VC awardees.

Captain Charles Hazlitt Upham was awarded the VC twice.

The first was in Crete in 1941.  He led his platoon, and being a "lead from the front" type of officer personally destroyed several machine gun nests with grenades.  But this part is what struck me as badass:
When his platoon was ordered to retire he sent it back under the platoon Sergeant and he went back to warn other troops that they were being cut off. When he came out himself he was fired on by two Germans. He fell and shammed dead, then crawled into a position and having the use of only one arm rested his rifle in the fork of a tree and as the Germans came forward he killed them both. The second to fall actually hit the muzzle of the rifle as he fell.
Since he almost certainly was using a bolt action Enfield, he had to shoot and cock the rifle one handed.  And still greased Fritz.

The second VC award (technically the "bar" - seems a bit disrespectful, sort of like saying ibid) was in Africa fighting Rommel.  This is the bit where he dialed badass up to eleven:
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.
But this is the part where the story gets good.  Badly wounded in the action against the tanks, Upham was captured by the Bosche.  Sent to a hospital in Italy, he tried to escape so many times that he was sent to the maximum security POW prison in Colditz Castle.  There he tried to escape when he was transported on a truck (he jumped from the truck, breaking his ankle), another time when he was being transported on a train (jumping from the train and knocking himself out), and a third time when he went over the fence in broad daylight.  Caught between the inner and outer fence, he found himself staring down the barrel of a guard's pistol.  The guard announced he was going to shoot Upham.

And so Upham lit himself a cigarette and stared the guard down.

Placed in solitary confinement after all this, he tried to escape again, running through the guard's barracks and out the main gate.  Soon recaptured, the guard in the machine gun post overlooking the exercise yard was asked why he didn't shoot Upham down.  The guard replied that he respected the Captain too much to do that.

And here is where the story gets really good (no, we're not done yet).  When the Allies liberated Colditz, most of the prisoners headed home to see their families.  Not Upham, who broke into a German armory to arm himself, and go out hunting Germans.

Wow.  I believe that this qualifies Cpt. Upham as the most badass man who ever lived.  Only two other men have been awarded the Victoria Cross twice, and neither of them were combat soldiers (both were doctors).  Astonishingly, nineteen men have been awarded the Medal of Honor twice.

But back to Upham, because this is where the story gets really, really good.  He married a pretty nurse in 1945 and returned to his native New Zealand where his fellow countrymen were, as you can imagine, pretty thrilled by his exploits.  They raised £10,000 (perhaps a half million dollars in today's money) to buy him a farm.

He turned it down.

Instead, he used the money to set up a scholarship for the children of war veterans.

It seems that he lived a quiet life until the end of his days in 1994, his only apparent quirk was that he wouldn't allow a German to set foot on his farm.  At his death, he had simultaneous funerals - one in Christchurch, and one in London's St. Martin-In-The-Fields (attended by the Royal Family).

Holy cow, what a man.


Bob said...

Great story. The Brits, as I have been given to understand, have higher standards for awarding of medals than we do here in the US, not giving them out just for graduating from boot camp and frivolous things like that. So, although they might not have the gaudy displays of ribbons that a US serviceman will, the ones they do show mean a lot more in comparison. (The top 3 US awards, though, we have very high standards for, so a winner of the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross or Silver Star has nothing to be ashamed of).

Borepatch said...

Interestingly, all of the double recipients of the MoH were from the 19th Century. Most of the awards sound like something that would result in a much lesser citation these days.

Rev. Paul said...

"...thank God that such men lived."

Walter Zoomie said...


The Brits don't hand out their "gongs" like early chow passes like we do.

Suggest to a "squaddy" that the MOH is equal to the VC and he'll likely tell you to "wind your neck in."

I dig Brit slang.

Can you tell? ;)

RabidAlien said...

They knew how to build Men back then. :salute:

If you haven't, check out Henry Chancellor's book "Colditz". Every man in that place tied up some decent German troops, and performed some amazing feats of engineering and subterfuge and pure, sheer brilliance in their attempts to escape. BTW, an engineer got ahold of photos and drawings of the glider found when the castle was liberated, and rebuilt the thing. It flew.

Chad said...

Man, talk about having a pair that clanked when he walked.

wolfwalker said...

Borepatch: "Interestingly, all of the double recipients of the MoH were from the 19th Century. Most of the awards sound like something that would result in a much lesser citation these days."

They are. For about forty years, including the entire Civil War, the Medal of Honor was the only combat award/citation that the US Armed Forces gave out. Starting sometime around 1900, other awards were authorized, and the requirements for the MoH were tightened sharply. Today, a soldier, airman, or marine can only receive (never, ever say 'win') the MoH for acts of conspicuous gallantry in combat, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Only a Navy sailor can receive the MoH for non-combat actions.

A couple of years back, John Donovan at the Armorer's Castle did a series of posts on the Medal of Honor: one post per day, detailing all the men who received the MoH for actions on that day, complete with their medal citations. The first one in the series is here. Many genuine badasses are described therein, and some possibly as badass as Captain Upton.

sargelarry said...

Upham's biography, MARK OF THE LION is an excellent read.

Anonymous said...

Here is the place where most VC's were ever won in a single action....

Borepatch said...

Knottedprop, that was one of the finest war films ever made. Never in a million years get made today.