1911 - 1954 | VIC | War correspondent
Wilmot was an outstanding broadcaster for the ABC during World War II, being the first to report from both the Middle East and Papua New Guinea. He pioneered front-line interviews, often punctuated by the sounds of battle, during the campaigns in North Africa, Greece and Syria in 1941. Later, covering the Pacific war, he accompanied Australian troops during bitter fighting along the Kokoda Track. In 1944, reporting for the BBC, he landed in Normandy by glider on D-Day (June 6). His 1952 book The Struggle for Europe received wide acclaim.
Reginald William Winchester Wilmot never shied away from a good argument.
Born in 1911, he was the son of sports writer R. W. E Wilmot. He captained the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and studied Arts Law at the University of Melbourne.
His love of debating saw him put his nascent law career on hold so he could join a debating tour of Asia, Europe and the United States. The trip took him to Germany during the Munich Crisis of 1938 and he observed Hitler speak at one of the Nuremberg Rallies. The tour also introduced him to the ABC General Manager Charles Moses, who suggested that the forthright young debater should call him if he were ever interested in a career in broadcasting.
Wilmot returned home fired up by what he had seen in Europe and Japan but reluctantly submitted to family pressure to resume his law career as an articled clerk. Nevertheless, he continued his freelance contributions to The Star newspaper and the ABC.
When war was declared in 1939 he decided to take up Charles Moses’ offer and was sent to the Middle East with the ABC’s Mobile Recording unit, operating from a converted truck carrying an unwieldy machine that cut sound recordings into acetate disks.
His job was to record interviews with the troops and voice reports on their exploits but Wilmot experimented with using the sounds of war in his reports and was soon bringing the reality of warfare into Australian lounge rooms.
One of his most memorable stories was on the blowing up of a strategic mountain pass in Greece. The force of the explosion blew the cutting head off the disk and his fellow broadcasters had to run for their lives as tonnes of earth and rocks rained down on their position. As the dust cleared the recording resumed with a slightly out of breath Chester Wilmot describing the scene.
His powerful and articulate reporting on the campaigns in North Africa, Greece and Syria brought praise from listeners and the ABC, as did his inside reports of the siege of Tobruk. He was wounded by shrapnel as the British launched operation Crusader to end the siege. However, his outspoken criticism of some military blunders in Greece and Crete and his questioning of alleged corruption and profiteering by senior officers at the army high command in Cairo bought him a bitter argument with the Australian Commander in Chief, Sir Thomas Blamey.
When Japan entered the war Wilmot become the ABC’s principal war correspondent in the Pacific. He married his wife Edith in Adelaide in 1942 before embarking to cover the Papuan Campaign and with his friend Damien Parer and journalist Osmar White he followed Australian troops commanded by Brigadier A. W. Potts and his 21st Brigade up the Kokoda trail, and during their fighting withdrawal.
Wilmot wrote a report criticising the army high command’s failure to provide Potts and his men with adequate logistical support, equipment and camouflaged uniforms. Army censors killed the story.
When Blamey sacked the Commander of the New Guinea Operation, Lieutenant General Sydney Rowell, Wilmot protested to Prime Minister John Curtin. Blamey then cancelled Wilmot’s accreditation as a correspondent.
His biographer Neil McDonald says Blamey’s stated reason was that Wilmot was undermining his authority by continuing to express in public his suspicions that the Commander in Chief was involved in corrupt conduct in the Middle East. McDonald says it’s more likely that Blamey acted because Wilmot wrote a report for General Rowell implying inefficiency by Army Headquarters in supporting the Papuan campaign.
The ABC backed Wilmot but Blamey refused to reinstate his credentials.
He continued to report for the ABC from Sydney, published a book on Tobruk and scripted and narrated a documentary film called Sons of the Anzacs.
In 1944 Chester Wilmot was offered a job as a war correspondent by the BBC and despite attempts by Blamey to scuttle the appointment, Wilmot went into Normandy in a glider with the British 6th Airborne Division on D-Day and subsequently recorded the German surrender in May 1945.
Having made his name as a BBC war correspondent he decided to stay on in England as a BBC broadcaster. He chaired the first live television coverage of a British General Election in 1950 and wrote a controversial best-selling book called The Struggle For Europe two years later.
In 1953 he flew back to Australia for the BBC to take part in a special round-the-world Christmas Day Broadcast from Sydney.
On the return flight in January 1954 the Comet airliner he was travelling on suffered a disastrous decompression and crashed into the Mediterranean killing all on board. He left a widow and three children.
Peter Cave is a former foreign affairs editor and correspondent for the ABC.
Chester Wilmot, third from left, in the BBC studio commentating on the 1950 election.
Chester Wilmot as a war correspondent in Syria
Portrait of Chester Wilmot, by Athol Shmith. Courtesy National Library of Australia
‘Wilmot, Reginald William Winchester (Chester) (1911–1954)’, Neil McDonald, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, 2002
Chester Wilmot Reports: Broadcasts That Shaped World War II, Neil McDonald, ABC Books, 2004.
Witnesses To War: The History of Australian Conflict Reporting, Fay Anderson and Richard Trembath, Melbourne University Press, 2011
The Struggle for Europe, Chester Wilmot, Collins, 1952
Tobruk 1941: Capture, Siege, Relief, Chester Wilmot, Angus & Robertson, Sydney and London, 1945
This is the ABC, K S Inglis, Melbourne University Press, 1983