By Judy Chant
George Hubert Wilkins, known as Hubert, has to be Australia’s most unrecognised adventurer of all time.
During his remarkable life, he was a pioneer aviator, war correspondent, explorer and secret agent. Born in 1888 at Mount Bryan East, South Australia, Hubert was the thirteenth child of farmers Henry and Louisa Wilkins. As a young man, he studied electrical and mechanical engineering and pursued a growing interest in photography and cinematography, prior to sailing to England in 1908.
Developing a career as a reporter and cameraman, Hubert based his talents on first-person accounts and accompanying photographs of fighting and devastation during wartime. He learned to fly and experimented with aerial photography, which included being tied to the fuselage to film the first movie footage taken from an aircraft. Hubert became the first person to take motion pictures on the frontline of a war zone, covered the First Balkan War of 1912-13 and filmed battles from the air.
Returning to Australia in 1917, Hubert failed the medical examination for active service in World War I and instead, he was commissioned to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) as a war correspondent. He was appointed as photographer to military historian, Charles Bean. He photographed battle scenes on the infamous Western Front, including the Passchendaele Campaign and its aftermath of devastation. Hubert was wounded on at least nine different occasions and was awarded the Military Cross for helping wounded soldiers under fire. Known for his historical accuracy, he is the only Australian official photographer to have been decorated. He regularly flew over German lines to take aerial shots of the enemy, often returning to base with the aircraft riddled with bullet holes. He was there when the Allies attacked the Hindenburg Line, a German trench that stretched for 160km. He was also there to witness the wreckage of the Red Baron’s plane after being shot down.
In 1927, Hubert Wilkins and Ben Eielson ventured into largely unchartered territory when they flew further north than any pilot had been able to achieve. They made an emergency landing on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean, becoming the first aviators to land on an ice floe. While their sanity was questioned by fellow explorers in 1928, the pair succeeded in flying nearly 4,000kms over the Arctic in a modified Vega, from Point Barrow in Alaska to Spitsbergen, on the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago. Hubert was knighted by King George V for exploration of the Arctic by air, flying across the roof of the world. Wilkins Bay, Wilkins Point and Wilkins Strait were named after him. Hubert’s exploits were not confined to the Arctic region. Following several expeditions to Antarctica during the 1930s, where he undertook the role of aviator, cameraman and naturalist to Ernest Shackleton, Norwegian pilot Magnus Olsen, dubbed Wilkins the ‘King of the Antarctic’.
While little detail is publicly available, Hubert Wilkins was involved in a number of spy missions for the British and US government agencies. During Lenin’s reign between WWI and WWII, Hubert spent time in Russia for MI6, posing as a photographer for the Society of Friends (Quakers) and reporting on the Russian Famine Relief. He is believed to be the last Westerner to speak with Lenin before his death in 1924. During his lifetime, Hubert returned to Russia several times, including one time when he was honoured for attempting to find and rescue Russian pilots who were lost in the Arctic.
In the early days of WWII, while staying at the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore, Hubert was privy to information from a senior Japanese diplomat, who advised him about the upcoming bombing of Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. However, the US intelligence community did not believe his story and as a result, 3,000 lives, 5 battleships, 9 other vessels and 188 aircraft were lost on 7th December 1941. As an expert on survival, Hubert was appointed as consultant to the US Military Planning Division, to redesign equipment and military uniforms suitable for the war zones of WWII. He later undertook work for the US intelligence services in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, including the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Between his extraordinary ventures, in 1919 Hubert Wilkins participated in the 25,000km air race from London to Australia. He was also financed by the British Museum to undertake a nature expedition of northern Australia, a region with no roads or railways. Nevertheless, he managed to collect 6,000 specimens over a two year period. Next, he was invited by William Randolph Hearst to join the Graf Zeppelin on its inaugural flight to circumnavigate the world. After a few hiccups, the airship took off in 1929, successfully completing 31,500kms in 21 days. In the following weeks, Hubert married his finance Suzanne Bennett, and prepared for the next leg of his Antarctic expedition of charting the Antarctic coastline.
In 1931, Hubert returned to the Arctic, where he leased a decommissioned submarine from the US navy and renamed her the Nautilus. Due to the vessel being sabotaged, he unsuccessfully attempted to take the submarine under the Arctic ice to the North Pole. As a tribute to Wilkins, in 1958 the US Navy’s first nuclear submarine travelled under the Arctic Ocean. She was named the USS Nautilus. Hubert became an expert on survival in the polar regions and subsequently worked in defence related consultancy positions with the US Weather Bureau and the Arctic Institute of North America. He designed and tested hot and cold clothing and survival techniques. He always carried an Australian flag on his expeditions and in the race by nations to carve up Antarctica, Hubert claimed swathes of the icy continent for Australia.
Hubert Wilkins died on 30th November 1958 at Framingham Massachusetts, USA, his adopted home. Although he was not an American citizen, nor had he been in the navy, his ashes were scattered at the North Pole by the crew of the USS Skate, an American nuclear submarine. Three flags were flown from the masts – the Australian, British and American flags.
During his lifetime of pioneering exploration work, Hubert’s passion was for polar meteorological research. He flew over unchartered coasts and bodies of water, added hundreds of terrain features to maps of the known world and earned a number of awards from prominent scientific bodies, including the Royal Geographical Society of London and the American Geographical Society. He was an extremely humble man and while his successes were largely overlooked in Australia, his greatest compliment, I believe, was from Sir John Monash in 1918, who referred to Wilkins as “the bravest man I have ever seen”.