Valor Friday

| October 4, 2019


Victoria Cross

Mason today brings us a unique Valor Friday post, with a synopsis of the Victoria Cross, and recognizing the valor of three men who were awarded the Victoria Cross for heroism not once, but twice.

Mason

The Victoria Cross (VC) is Britain’s highest honor. As with the American Medal of Honor (MoH), it is not only the country’s highest award overall, but is awarded solely for combat bravery. Both awards were instituted about the same time, with the VC being created in 1856 and the MoH in 1861. Since then 1,358 VCs have been awarded compared to 3,524 MoHs. While there have been 19 double MoH recipients, only three men have earned a second VC. These are my subject today.

Arthur Martin-Leake hailed from Hertfordshire, England where he was born in 1874. Schooled as a physician, he enlisted with the Imperial Yeomanry during the Second Boer War that started in 1899.

The Yeomanry was a volunteer mounted infantry force that first left for South Africa in 1900. The Boers were Dutch-speaking inhabitants of the eastern parts of South Africa that did not take kindly to British rule. During the First Boer War, the Boers had won some independence and created the self-governing states of the South African Republic (aka Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. The Second Boer War eventually resulted in a defeat of the Boer forces, a collapse of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, and the eventual unification of all of South Africa as we’d recognize it on the map today.

After his year of service with the Yeomanry, Martin-Leake remained in South Africa as a civil surgeon. He then joined the newly established South African Constabulary, a paramilitary gendarmerie-type organization, created to police and control areas seized from the Boers.

It was with the South African Constabulary where the 27 year old doctor received his first Victoria Cross. On February 8, 1902, while attached to a field ambulance unit, Martin-Leake, a surgeon-captain in rank, was with an eight man team under the command of a Lieutenant Abraham. They had been sent out in search of some Boer forces and upon finding them, opened fire only to find that the enemy force was significantly stronger. This necessitated a fighting retreat for the men.

The doctor tended the wounded, including tending to one wounded soldier while being targeted by 40 Boer soldiers from only 100 yards away. The entire squad having been either killed or wounded, Martin-Leake was himself shot three times while tending to the mortally wounded Lt Abraham when he was trying to place the lieutenant into a more comfortable position.

Upon arrival of relief forces several hours later, Martin-Leake refused water and care until all of the other men had been attended to. For his bravery under fire and selflessness in the care of his patients, he was awarded the Victoria Cross by King Edward VII himself on June 2nd of that year.

While convalescing from his wounds, Martin-Leake would become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. After the Boer War he took an appointment as a company doctor with an Indian rail line and served with the British Red Cross during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

When the First World War broke out, Martin-Leake returned to British service with the 5th Field Ambulance of the Royal Army Medical Corps as a lieutenant.

From October 29 to November 8, 1914, the 40 year old doctor impressed his compatriots by continually and repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire to rescue wounded near enemy trenches. For this he received a bar (to represent a second award) for his VC, the first person to be so honored.

Martin-Leake continued to serve throughout the war. He was promoted to captain in March 1915, Major in November 1915, and took command of a field ambulance unit in April 1917 at the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war he returned to his company job in India before retiring in 1937 and returning to England. During WWII he commanded a civilian Air Raid Precautions post. He passed of natural causes at age 79 in 1953.

Noel Godfrey Chavasse, also of England, was born in 1884 to a reverend in the Church of England. His father would later be Bishop of Liverpool and would found St Peter’s College, Oxford. Both Noel and his twin brother Christopher were skilled athletes and represented the UK at the 1908 Olympic Games in the 400 meter track event.

Both men attending Oxford, Noel joined the Officers’ Training Corps medical unit in 1909 while Christopher was studying to become a minister. In 1912 Noel was certified as a doctor then commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Medical Corps in 1913.

When the First World War started, he was called to service full time and given the rank of captain. It was while in Belgium on the Western Front that he first distinguished himself in battle. He received the Military Cross, roughly equivalent to the American Bronze Star w/ “V”, for battlefield gallantry that occured in June 1915. He was also mentioned in dispatches in December of that year, a MiD being roughly equal to an American Commendation Medal w/ “V”.

On August 9th, 1916 Chavasse was outside Guillemont, France. His unit was under heavy attack. The doctor tended to wounded throughout the day, often in sight of the enemy trenches.

As night fell, Noel used the cover of darkness to crawl out in search of wounded. For a full four hours he crawled through the battlefield rendering aid to men as he found them.

The next morning he took a stretcher-bearer in advance of the friendly trenches. Together the men carried a severely wounded comrade 500 yards through intense enemy shell fire. During this, Noel was wounded in the side by a splinter from one of the German shells.

That evening he gathered a group of 20 volunteers to go out in search of casualties. They rescued three men who had sought shelter in a shell hole 25 yards from the enemy trenches. They buried the bodies of two officers and collected numerous identity discs. All of this was accomplished while under continuous enemy fire.
Altogether in that span of two days, Chavasse is credited with saving the lives of 20 men, in addition to the countless more “routine” cases of battlefield injury that he would attend to in a given day. For this, he received the UK’s highest honor, the Victoria Cross.

Almost a year to the day later, from July 31st to August 2nd, 1917, at Wieltje, Belgium Chavasse was involved in a battle. Severely wounded early in the encounter while carrying a wounded soldier to an aid station, for two days, he refused to leave his post.

As if tending to the wounded and dying while being injured yourself isn’t enough, Noel repeatedly left the relative safety of the aid station to search the battlefield for casualties. With little food and water for the duration of the battle, the injured captain helped carry several wounded men over rough terrain back to safety.

Captain Noel Chavasse eventually was evacuated after his own injuries overtook him. He died in hospital from wounds suffered here. For his gallant actions and devotion to duty he was awarded a bar to his Victoria Cross. He was the only soldier to receive a VC and bar during the First World War.

Noel’s brother Christopher would also serve during the war, as a chaplain. Rising to the rank of Chaplain of the Forces 2nd Class (equivalent to a lieutenant colonel), he would also earn a Military Cross for his gallant performance in tending to wounded men on the battlefield during the war.

Our final subject is Charles Upham. From New Zealand he was a 30 year old sheep farmer and government assessor from Christchurch when World War II started. He had previously served in New Zealand’s Territorial Army (akin to the National Guard) for five years and had held the rank of sergeant. Despite that, he signed on as a private with the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) in 1939.

He was quickly made a temporary lance corporal, but refused to attend officer training when selected. He sailed with the 2NZEF in December 1939 for Egypt. July of 1940 saw him accept appointment to attend officer training and he was subsequently commissioned a second lieutenant.

March 1941 saw Upham’s battalion as part of the Battle of Greece. Greek forces, being reinforced by the British, Australian, and New Zealanders, were trying to fight off a massive German invasion. The Nazis’ won on the mainland, driving the 2NZEF and other Allied units back to the island of Crete in May.

May 22nd, 1941 saw Upham in charge of a forward positioned platoon. The German invasion of Crete had commenced two days prior with history’s first large scale airborne assault operation. On the defensive after having retreated from the mainland, the Allied forces were again in a fighting retreat.

Upham however saw things differently. He led his platoon, unsupported by any other unit, 3,000 yards forward into a heavily defended and well coordinated enemy position. The results of his charge were numerous enemy stations and posts destroyed. During his push forward however, Upham’s platoon was thrice held up.

In the first instance his men were confronted with a German machine gun. Upham personally closed ranks with the enemy, close enough that he used his pistol and grenades, to disorient and disorganize the enemy long enough that his men were able to clean up further resistance with ease.

The second hold on their advance occured when two enemy machine guns took them under fire from inside a house. Rushing to the house, Upham lobbed grenades in through a window, killing one gun crew and several other men in the residence. Upham’s platoon was then able to silence the remaining machine gun.

Lastly, when again confronted with an enemy machine gun nest, Upham crawled to within 15 yards of the gun, throwing grenades until the position was destroyed.

After that, his company retreated to Maleme, during which Upham carried an injured soldier to safety. He and another officer then rallied additional volunteers to go aid other wounded. During the battalion’s retreat a company had been left stranded. Upham and a corporal volunteered to cross 600 yards of enemy held terrain (killing two Germans along the way) to locate the company and then lead them back to friendly lines. Without Upham this company would have been routed and either captured or killed.

Over the course of May 23rd and 24th Upham’s unit would take a semi-exposed position on a slope at a forward position to hold back the Germans. Continuously under enemy fire over these days, Upham refused to leave his post or seek medical attention despite being blown over by a mortar shell, receiving shrapnel from another shell explosion, and being hit in the foot with a bullet (that remained in his foot until he removed it in Egypt some time later).

On the 25th, his platoon was again heavily engaged by the enemy. Upham crawled forward to a place where he could observe the enemy positions. Returning to his men, he led them on an assault that saw them repulse the German advance. Killing 40 men and causing the rest to fall back, Upham’s platoon was ordered to retreat. He sent his platoon back under command of his platoon sergeant while he remained forward to tell other units that they were at risk of being cut off.

As he was headed back to his platoon he came under fire from two Germans. He fell to the ground and played dead. He then crawled to a position where he could rest his rifle in the crook of a tree, since he had the use of only one arm due to injuries from the previous few days. When the German soldiers came back through he was able to shoot them both.

As is common during such combat operations, Upham was able to eat very little and was suffering from dysentery. Though fatigued, he kept up the fight and valiantly led his men, inspiring them to fight all the harder.

On May 30th he was tasked with eliminating an enemy force which had worked its way down a ravine and was threatening the Force Headquarters of the 2NZEF. Though weak and wounded, he led his men up the steep slope of the ravine and positioned them. He then took two men and a Bren light machine gun to the crest of the hill.

From the top of the hill Upham used the machine gun and his riflemen as bait to draw out the enemy forces. Once exposing the enemy positions, Upham used his machine gun to mow down 22 enemy soldiers at a distance of 500 yards! The remaining enemy broke ranks and fled.

For everything he did over the course of this week and a day Charles Upham was awarded the Victoria Cross. When told of the award, he said “It’s meant for the men.”

Due to all of his injuries, Upham was evacuated to Egypt. Promoted to captain he was back in combat a year later. During the First Battle of El Alamein, Egypt on the 14th of July 1942 Upham was in command of a company of Kiwi soldiers in the Western Desert that culminated in the attack on El Ruweisat Ridge on the night of the 14th to the 15th.

Upham was twice wounded before the assault on the ridge could commence. First, he was hit by enemy fire while crossing open ground inspecting the placement of troops defending Allied mine fields. Second, he injured himself with shrapnel while single handedly attacking a truck of German soldiers, completely destroying it, using only hand grenades. Despite his injuries he insisted on remaining with his men.

As the night’s battle began, Upham’s company was held in reserve. When communication broke down with forward units, Upham was ordered to send an officer forward to relay back what the situation was. It will surprise nobody that Upham went himself. Armed with a German MG 42 “Spandau” machine gun he went forward. Despite several encounters with enemy machine guns, Upham was able to reach the forward lines and then return to his battalion to report on the progress of the attack.

Just before dawn on the 15th, the reserve battalion (of which Upham’s company was a part) were called forward. As they were reaching their objective they came into a heavily defended enemy force. Consisting of four machine gun posts and a number of tanks, Upham led his men on a charging attack against the two nearest positions without hesitation.

Taking out those first two machine gun posts gave his men the positioning needed to, despite heavy casualties, eliminate the other two positions and capture the objective. It is said that during the battle, Upham’s voice could be heard cheering on his men over the din of war.

During the battle Upham himself had destroyed a German tank and took out several guns and vehicles with grenades. He was shot through the elbow by a machine gun round, breaking his arm. Despite that impairment (and his existing fresh injuries from the day prior) he went forward to retrieve some of his troops who had become isolated from friendly forces.

Upham’s calm and inspiring leadership not only took the objective that morning, but held it against heavy enemy counterattack. Exhausted from his wounds and blood loss he was evacuated to an aid station. However, as soon as his wound was dressed he returned to his men. For the remainder of the day he stayed with them, under heavy enemy artillery and mortar fire.

It was during these heavy barrages that Upham was again seriously wounded, to the point that he was unable to move. The valiant company he had led throughout the day had been reduced to six survivors and fell to an enemy advance. He and his surviving men were captured by the Germans.

The battle resulted in a stalemate, but it halted the Germans’ advance on Alexandria (and thus later Cairo and the Suez Canal).

Upham was sent to an Italian hospital as a prisoner of war (POW). The Italian doctor wanted to amputate his arm, but having seen men die from unbearable pain in similar surgeries when no anesthetic was used, he elected to have an Allied POW doctor dress the wound. Eventually his arm recovered.

A principled man, he refused to try to escape from the hospital, but once out of hospital he tried to escape repeatedly. Eventually he was labeled “dangerous” by the Nazis.

Upham’s first escape attempt saw him jump from a moving truck that was carrying POWs. Breaking his ankle in the jump, he managed to make it 400 yards off the road before being recaptured. Another escape attempt saw him climb the fences of the prison camp in broad daylight. He became entangled in the barbed wire and fell between the inner fence and outer fence, hanging from his ensnarements. When a German soldier pointed a pistol at his head and threatened to shoot him, Upham calmly ignored him and lit a cigarette.

Now considered dangerous, Upham was placed in solitary confinement. Escorted everywhere by two armed guards, he was only allowed to exercise alone in a small courtyard under his guard and a machine gunner in a tower. Despite these ample precautions, Upham again escaped. He bolted from his exercise yard, through the German barracks, and right out the front gate. He was quickly recaptured and sent to the infamous Oflag IV-C, better known by the name of its location, Colditz Castle.

On the train headed to Colditz he made his final escape attempt. As a precaution to prevent his escape, Upham was only permitted to use the lavatory when the train was at speed. Upham didn’t let this deter him and crawled out a window in the bathroom and jumped from the high speed train onto the tracks. He hit so hard that he was knocked unconscious. Able to recover, he fled through a nearby orchard where he was captured some 12 hours later.

Few men escaped Colditz. Upham was liberated with the rest of the camp in 1945 by American forces. Despite now being able to find his way home, Upham wanted to continue the fight and took up arms with the Americans before being sent to Britain.

King George VI, after presenting Upham with his first VC on May 11, 1945 was given the recommendation for the bar to the VC for Upham. The King said a bar to the cross would be “very unusual indeed. Does he deserve it?” He asked one of his generals. His general replied, “In my respectful opinion, sir, Upham won the VC several times over.”

Awarded a bar for his VC, Upham became only the third man to receive two Victoria Crosses. Since both Lieutenant Colonel Martin-Leake and Captain Cavasse were medical doctors they were not considered combatants. That leaves Captain Charles Upham as the only fighting soldier double VC recipient. He was also mentioned in dispatches in 1946 for wartime activities.

After the war, Upham married in 1945 and returned to New Zealand. Refusing the £10,000 gift that the community raised for him (he donated it to charity) he took out a war rehabilitation loan and bought a farm. Despite lingering issues from all his war injuries he was a successful farmer and sat on the Christ’s College board of governors for 20 years. Upham had three daughters and lived on his farm until early 1994 when Charles’ ill health necessitated a move into the city. He passed in November 1994 at age 86, surrounded by his wife and daughter.

Thanks again, Mason.

Hand salute. Ready, two!

Category: Valor

Comments (9)

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  1. 11B-Mailclerk says:

    Wow.

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    Reading of the exploits of men such as these make the work of outing Stolen Valor Vultures that much more critical. And to parrot my man 11B… WOW!

    Thanks Mason, I really look forward to these after action reports.

    Battery Salute…Fire by the piece…from right to left…Commence Firing!

  3. ninja says:

    Mason:

    Everything you wrote was worth the read. Agree 100% what 11B-Mailclerk and the King of Battle commented. They nailed it.

    Thank You for sharing.

    Welcome Back, AW1Ed. *grin*

    • AW1Ed says:

      By that I take it you mean the dirt digging’ doggy cannon cocker?
      Thanks, nice to be home.
      *grin* back at’cha.

  4. Mason says:

    I’m glad you guys like it. The positive feedback keeps me plugging away at it.

  5. harrisonflint says:

    I read a short history of the VC some time back, and it indicated they are made from a Russian cannon captured during the Crimean War. Quite a read above, thanks for posting and sharing with us.

  6. West Point 1987 says:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnson_Beharry

    Got to meet this guy and spend some time with him during my time as an attache in London back in the 2007-2010 timeframe…very impressive. He asked me about immigrating to the States and joining our Army. The British Army was not amused…he never got back to me about it.

  7. West Point 1987 says:

    I also got to meet this gentleman…he was over 90 at the time and told me his story of hiding in a cupboard for 11 days, while his mates were being brutally interrogated by the Germans in the same room. He survived on two sips of water per day from his canteen. He was listed missing in action presumed dead three separate times. His wife nearly remarried the first time, she learned to doubt the reports the next two times.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Deane-Drummond

    He only got the Military Cross, kind of a Silver Star equivalent. Somebody needs to make a movie on his story…