Charles Upham was the son of John Hazlitt Upham, a lawyer, and his wife Agatha Mary Upham (nee Coates). He was the second of four children.
Attended Waihi School in South Canterbury and at Christs College in Christchurch.
He enrolled for a Diploma of Agriculture at Canterbury Agricultural College; now Lincoln University, graduating in 1930. He then worked as a Canterbury high country farm manager and musterer for six years before becoming a farm valuer. Having joined the Government Valuation Department he was attending a course in land valuation and farm management at Lincoln College when war was declared and he enlisted immediately.
Upham was 30 years old, and engaged, when he joined the 20th Battalion at Burnham camp under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Howard Kippenberger. While training in New Zealand, Upham was promoted to Lance Corporal, then Sergeant and in December 1939 embarked for Egypt with the 1st Echelon.
In Egypt Upham was selected for the Officer Cadet Training Unit where his rejection of what he thought were outdated and obsolete ideas meant he graduated bottom of his class! Being bottom of the officer list meant that Kippenberger could get his former NCO, now Second Lieutenant Upham, returned to the 20th Battalion where he took command of the West Coasters.
In early 1941, after a confused withdrawal of Allied soldiers from mainland Greece, some New Zealand Division units were taken to the island of Crete, Upham included. General Freyberg, Commander of the New Zealand Division, was ordered to defend Crete but his soldiers were inadequately armed. Upham played a major part in a number of fierce battles on Crete, including one battle during which he wiped out a group of German attackers threatening the evacuation of his fellow Kiwi soldiers. Despite the bravery of soldiers such as Upham, Crete was lost to the better-equipped Germans. Upham returned from Crete a walking skeleton due to dysentery and spent time in hospital recovering from the rigours of the campaign. Kippenberger meanwhile had recommended Upham for the Victoria Cross for his gallantry on Crete. Upham was genuinely distressed to be singled out for the award, believing that many others deserved it more than he did. Only by seeing it as a recognition of the bravery and service of his unit could Upham cope with the award and the unwanted fame that went with it.
In 1942 Upham was sent to Minqar Qaim in command of C Company. Under heavy German fire he continually encouraged his men and the Germans were beaten back without the Kiwis conceding any positions to the enemy. At one point they had been surrounded by the enemy, but Upham led a daring night time charge, hurling grenades and firing his pistol to break through the enemy encirclement. Kiwi casualties were light but the German Panzer Grenadier 1st Battalion was cut to pieces.
Despite small victories such as this, the Allied High Command began preparations to withdraw entirely from North Africa. The British 8th Army retreated to a final defensive position at El Alamein, Egypt. The New Zealand Division was ordered to capture Ruweisat Ridge, a small rise on an otherwise featureless landscape. After a confused battle, Upham decided to reconnoiter the position and stumbled directly into the enemy. After reporting back that the Kiwis had actually captured the ridge, Upham returned to his company to lead it in a frontal assault on the German positions. The company took heavy casualties, Upham among them, his left elbow being smashed by a machine-gun bullet. Upham refused to leave his men and was later hit in the leg by shrapnel, immobilising him. Along with 1000 other New Zealanders, Upham was taken prisoner during a German counter-attack on 15 July 1942.
Upham was sent to a makeshift hospital at Mersa Matruh, where he narrowly escaped having his arm amputated. He was then shipped to a POW camp at Modena in Italy. When Italy capitulated, the Germans rounded up the POWs, including Upham, and sent them north to Germany. Upham began to cause trouble for his captors, first attempting to escape by sawing through the floor of a truck with a sharpened kitchen knife. When this failed, he simply threw himself off the truck and ran for it. He was shortly recaptured and interned at the Weinsberg, Oflag VA Camp.
In Germany, Upham plagued his captors by taking every opportunity to escape, whether it be by tunnelling under or climbing over fences. The German guards even took a photo of Upham lighting a cigarette in a tangle of wire after one abortive escape attempt. The Germans used this evidence to have Upham shifted to the "escape-proof" Colditz Castle. While en route to Colditz, Upham flung himself from the speeding train and managed to avoid capture for twelve hours. The only New Zealand Division combatant to be sent to Colditz, Upham found life there more than frustrating, having to give up the idea of escaping as the POWs' Escape Committee refused to approve any ideas.
When the Americans arrived at Colditz on 15 April 1945, Upham was eager to rejoin the fight, but an order soon came through forbidding freed POWs to return to active service. Instead, he was sent to the UK, where he was reunited with his fiancee, Molly McTamney, who was serving as a nurse. In May, he attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace, where he finally received his first Victoria Cross from King George VI. On 20 June, Upham and McTamney were married at New Milton, Hampshire. They returned to New Zealand shortly thereafter.
In September 1945, Upham received word that he had been awarded a second Victoria Cross for his actions at Minqar Qaim and Ruweisat Ridge. Recommendations had been written out for two additional Victoria Crosses, but these had been combined into one award for Upham's extraordinary deeds in the Western Desert campaigns. He was only the third person ever to receive the Victoria Cross twice, and the very first combatant to do so.
Typically humble and shunning any celebrity status, Upham returned to civilian life as a farmer. He never acknowledged his hero status and always said that the soldiers under his command were the real heroes. He and his wife Molly raised three daughters and eventually retired to Christchurch in 1994. He died later that same year. Thousands of New Zealanders came to see his funeral procession and to pay their last respects to a great New Zealander.
His medals are held by the National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand.
Upham is related through his maternal side to Captain Noel Chavasse (VC and Bar, WW1) AWMM