Sunday, May 8, 2016

Remembering 1945, and Victory in Europe Day

On May 8th, 1945, World War II in Europe came to an end.  That date has been known ever since as Victory in Europe Day, or simply VE Day.

To commemorate this year's anniversary, the Telegraph has put up short obituaries of what it calls the 'Ten most inspiring World War II veterans'.  It provides an interesting European perspective to American readers, who've probably never heard of the people involved.  I highly recommend clicking over there to read it.

To whet your appetite, here's an excerpt from the obituary of Captain Charles Upham, one of the ten.  He earned not one, but two Victoria Crosses during the war (equivalent to two Medals of Honor, for US readers).

For all his remarkable exploits on the battlefield, Upham was a shy and modest man, embarrassed when asked about the actions he had been decorated for. "The military honours bestowed on me," he said, "are the property of the men of my unit."

In a television interview in 1983 he said he would have been happier not to have been awarded a VC at all, as it made people expect too much of him. "I don't want to be treated differently from any other bastard," he insisted.

When King George VI was conferring Upham's second VC he asked Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, his commanding officer: "Does he deserve it?"

"In my respectful opinion, Sir," replied Kippenberger, "Upham won this VC several times over."

. . .

Upham won his first VC on Crete in May 1941, commanding a platoon in the battle for Maleme airfield. During the course of an advance of 3,000 yards his platoon was held up three times. Carrying a bag of grenades (his favourite weapon), Upham first attacked a German machine-gun nest, killing eight paratroopers, then destroyed another which had been set up in a house. Finally he crawled to within 15 yards of a Bofors anti-aircraft gun before knocking it out.

When the advance had been completed he helped carry a wounded man to safety in full view of the enemy, and then ran half a mile under fire to save a company from being cut off. Two Germans who tried to stop him were killed.

The next day Upham was wounded in the shoulder by a mortar burst and hit in the foot by a bullet. Undeterred, he continued fighting and, with his arm in a sling, hobbled about in the open to draw enemy fire and enable their gun positions to be spotted.

With his unwounded arm he propped his rifle in the fork of a tree and killed two approaching Germans; the second was so close that he fell on the muzzle of Upham's rifle.

During the retreat from Crete, Upham succumbed to dysentery and could not eat properly. The effect of this and his wounds made him look like a walking skeleton, his commanding officer noted. Nevertheless he found the strength to climb the side of a 600 ft deep ravine and use a Bren gun on a group of advancing Germans.

At a range of 500 yards he killed 22 out of 50. His subsequent VC citation recorded that he had "performed a series of remarkable exploits, showing outstanding leadership, tactical skill and utter indifference to danger". Even under the hottest fire, Upham never wore a steel helmet, explaining that he could never find one to fit him.

His second VC was earned on July 15 1942, when the New Zealanders were concluding a desperate defence of the Ruweisat ridge in the 1st Battle of Alamein. Upham ran forward through a position swept by machine-gun fire and lobbed grenades into a truck full of German soldiers.

When it became urgently necessary to take information to advance units which had become separated, Upham took a Jeep on which a captured German machine-gun was mounted and drove it through the enemy position.

At one point the vehicle became bogged down in the sand, so Upham coolly ordered some nearby Italian soldiers to push it free. Though they were somewhat surprised to be given an order by one of the enemy, Upham's expression left them in no doubt that he should be obeyed.

By now Upham had been wounded, but not badly enough to prevent him leading an attack on an enemy strong-point, all the occupants of which were then bayoneted. He was shot in the elbow, and his arm was broken. The New Zealanders were surrounded and outnumbered, but Upham carried on directing fire until he was wounded in the legs and could no longer walk.

Taken prisoner, he proved such a difficult customer that in 1944 he was confined in Colditz Castle, where he remained for the rest of the war. His comments on Germans were always sulphurous.

For his actions at Ruweisat he was awarded a Bar to his VC. His citation noted that "his complete indifference to danger and his personal bravery have become a byword in the whole of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force".

There's more at the link.

We are honored and uplifted by the presence of such men among us.



Bibliotheca Servare said...

Sounds like a WW2 version of Alvin York! My jaw is currently resting on the floor at my feet as I process the degree of BAD@SS embodied in this guy...WOW!

Minion Beta said...

Read his biography, "The Mark of the Lion" some time. They wanted to give him a THIRD citation for the VC, but he had already recieved one and was nominated for a second.....

Dirk said...

This is what *I* think of when I think of the word "hero". That poor word is so over-used these days, often applied to people who just *barely* exceed ordinary, day-to-day, run-of-the-mill getting the job done.

LoFan John said...

I read about Upham's amazing career some 50 years ago. Later I learned that the New Zealand troops were considered by Rommel and most of his subordinates to be clearly the best of the British Commonwealth troops. Add to that their command by General Freyberg, who believed in leadership by example and who had an outstanding record from WW1 (as did Rommel). An exceptional individual from an exceptional group: that's where you get someone like Upham. [ A note about Freyberg: when General von Ravenstein was captured by NZ troops, he called himself Colonel Schmidt in hope of being less carefully guarded; but when he was unexpectedly introduced to the famous Freyberg, " I clicked my heels and bowed and before I could stop myself I had blurted out 'von Ravenstein'."]