Sir George Hubert Wilkins 

Wilkins as a young cinematographer. For 50 years he would carry a movie camera on his adventures

George Hubert Wilkins was born on 31 October 2020 at Mount Bryan, South Australia, 100 miles north of Adelaide. He was the youngest of 13 children. His upbringing, on the lonely farm at the edge of the Australian outback where he witnessed devastating droughts, was a motivation for his life's work. In 1903 his parents moved to Adelaide and Wilkins enrolled in the University but never completed his courses. He became interested in cinematography and moved to Sydney where he worked in Australia's pioneer film industry. He then left for England to work as a newsreel cinematographer for Gaumont.

Wilkins with his camera aboard the expedition ship Karluk. In the Arctic he developed his revolutionary ideas for polar travel.

After moving to London in 1909 Wilkins worked as a Gaumont cinematographer covering many international events including the Balkans War in 1912. But he still wanted to become a polar explorer. He was offered his first trip to the Arctic as cinematographer with the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913 led by Vilhjamur Stefansson. He walked thousands of miles over unexplored territory, learnt to live off the polar ice and developed his revolutionary ideas for polar travel. In 1916 he returned to Point Barrow, Alaska, to learn the world had been at war for two years.

Wilkins in World War One. Unarmed he led troops into battle and became the only official Australian photographer in any war to receive a combat decoration.

When he learnt about the war, Wilkins went to France where he was appointed an official photographer with the Australian War Records Office. From November 1917 until the end of the War Wilkins was responsible for Australia's photographic record of fighting at the Western Front. He constantly risked his life working forward of the front line and refused to carry firearms. He became the only Australian official photographer, in any war, to receive a combat decoration. He was awarded the Military Cross twice. At the end of the war he travelled to Turkey to make a photographic record of the battlefields of Gallipoli.

When he returned to England from Gallipoli, Wilkins learnt that the Australian government had offered 10,000 pounds for the first All-Australian crew to fly an aeroplane from England to Australia. The Blackburn Aircraft Company, which had developed a long range bomber during the war, had entered one of their planes. Wilkins was appointed navigator

Wilkins replaced the Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith in the England Australia Air Race, but the Blackburn Kangaroo plane crashed with mechanical problems in Crete.

With the other members of the crew, the Blackburn Kangaroo left England on 21 November 1919. Problems were experienced with the engines and the plane was forced down over France. Repairs were made and the flight continued, but eventually, still with engine problems, the plane crashed landed in Crete.

After the Air Race Wilkins returned to England determined to continue polar exploration. He joined Dr John Cope on the Imperial Antarctic Expedition. It was Wilkins first trip to the Antarctic, but the expedition lacked funds and achieved little. Next Wilkins was appointed Naturalist on what was to become Sir Ernest Shackleton's last expedition to the Antarctic. This expedition left London on the Quest, a ship that had been hastily prepared and continually gave trouble. As it was being repaired in South America, Wilkins went on ahead to South Georgia Island to photograph the flora and fauna. When the Quest arrived six weeks later Wilkins learned that Sir Ernest Shackleton had died on the voyage.

Wilkins work as Naturalist on the Shackleton expedition so impressed the British Museum of Natural History that they offered him an expedition of his own. The Museum wanted to collect flora and fauna specimens from outback Australia and the islands of Torres Strait. This became the Wilkins Australia and Islands Expedition and for two years Wilkins travelled to remote areas of Queensland, Northern Territory and the Torres Strait filming, photographing and collecting specimens for the Museum. At the end of the two years he wrote to the Museum saying he wanted to continue his work in the polar regions.

Wilkins planned to fly over the unexplored areas north of Alaska. He first purchased two Fokker aircraft but found them too large for landing on ice. He sold one to Charles Kingsford Smith who renamed it the Southern Cross and it became the first plane to fly the Pacific Ocean. Wilkins bought a Lockheed Vega. With pilot Carl Ben Eielson he flew across the Arctic Sea, from Barrow in Alaska to Spitsbergen, Norway. It was the first time such a plane flight had been made and the two men became international celebrities. Wilkins was knighted and chose to be known as Sir Hubert, rather than Sir George.

Wilkins was the first person to fly a plane in Antarctica. Unable to find runways long enough he was beaten in the race to be the first to fly to the South Pole.

With the same Vega they had flown over the top of the world Wilkins and Eielson now travelled south to explore Antarctica. They arrived at Deception Island on the Graham Land Peninsula in November 1928. Their flights exploring the Graham Land Peninsula were the first time anyone had flown a plane in Antarctica. Wilkins had planned, if possible, to fly to the South Pole, but on Deception Island he was unable to find a runway long enough to get the Vega into the air with sufficient fuel to complete the distance. Nevertheless it was the first time in history undiscovered land was mapped from a plane.

Wilkins (left) aboard the Graf Zeppelin when it made the first round the world flight in 1929.

Returning to America after his pioneering flight in Antarctica, Wilkins was invited to be aboard the largest airship of the period, the Graf Zeppelin, as it attempted the first around the world flight. Wilkins agreed and joined the flight to make a film record. The Graf Zeppelin flew from Lakehurst, New York, across the Atlantic to Germany. From Germany it made the longest non-stop flight up until that time - from Germany, across Russia to Japan. From Japan it crossed the Pacific and America to return to New York. Six years later Wilkins would be aboard the airship Hindenburg as it made its maiden voyage from Germany to America.

Wilkins' Nautilus submarine in the Arctic in 1931. His pioneering submarine expedition under the Arctic ice was 25 years ahead of its time.

After a second season flying his Lockheed Vega in Antarctica Wilkins planned his most ambitious expedition. To take a submarine under the Arctic ice to the North Pole. Constant delays prevented the submarine getting away on time to reach the polar ice cap before winter and the submarine constantly broke down. Still determined to prove that submarine travel under the ice was possible, Wilkins continued north to the edge of the ice pack to discover his submarine had malfunctioned again. Nevertheless, with his partly disabled submarine he was still able to sail under the ice to prove it could be achieved.

After his Arctic submarine expedition, which many people considered a failure because he did not reach the North Pole, Wilkins organised three expeditions to the Antarctic to assist American millionaire explorer, Lincoln Ellsworth become the first person to fly across the Antarctic continent. When Russian aviators went missing while flying from Russia to America via the North Pole, Wilkins was called in to head the search.

Wilkins Catalina Flying Boat during his search for missing Russian aviators in 1937

In 1938 he returned to Antarctic with Lincoln Ellsworth, again assisting in the discovery of new land. At the outbreak of World War Two Wilkins immediately offered his services to the Australian Government, but it had no need for a polar explorer, now aged over 50.
Wilkins next offered his service to the U.S. Army which retained him to teach Arctic survival skill to U.S. soldiers. After the war he remained as a consultant to the U.S. Army. The United States Navy were developing nuclear submarines for sub ice travel in the Arctic and consulted Wilkins on his pioneering 1931 expedition. Wilkins died on 30 November 2020 in a hotel room in Massachusetts. As a mark of respect the U.S. Navy took his ashes to the North Pole in the nuclear submarine Skate. On 17 March 2020 the Skate became the first submarine to surface at the Pole, where it held a memorial service and scattered the ashes of Sir Hubert Wilkins.