Portrait of George Hubert Wilkins. Expeditions: Wilkins-Ellsworth Transarctic Submarine Expedition Nautilus, Sir George Hubert Wilkins Papers, The Ohio State University, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program
1888-1958 | South Australia | War photographer & reporter
Wilkins was a reporter, cinematographer, polar explorer, naturalist, geographer, climatologist and aviator whose outstanding reputation was recognised internationally before it was at home. His principal fame was as a war photographer. He was one of the first photographers to take pictures from an aircraft and probably the first to take successful motion pictures of combat, often at great personal risk. As an official Australian photographer in the Great War, Lieutenant General John Monash described him as “the bravest man in the AIF”. In later life, Wilkins was knighted for exploring the Arctic by air from Alaska to Norway. His ashes were scattered at the North Pole by the crew of an American nuclear submarine.
George Wilkins had by any measure one of the most extraordinary lives of the 20th Century. Explorer, aviator, war correspondent, scientist, spy, altruist and visionary - labels alone hardly do his career justice.
Wilkins is honoured in many places across many fields. The British Museum considers him the finest expedition leader of his day. In aviation he is remembered for a series of pioneering polar flights that charted thousands of square miles of unknown territory. Lieutenant General John Monash called him the bravest soldier in his army. His remarkable films of the First World War and its aftermath have pride of place in the British archives. Polar institutes in Scandinavia and America revere him for his achievements at both ends of the earth. The US Navy carried his ashes aboard a nuclear submarine to the North Pole to honour his memory. His significant work as a reporter and photographer is, however, lesser known.
The simple cottage where he was born, at Mt Bryan East amid the abandoned homesteads of central South Australia, has now been restored and serves as a reminder of just how far Wilkins, the youngest of 13 children, would travel on his journey to become one of the most famous men of his times.
Ultimately his entrée to the wider world came through journalism and, in Wilkins’ case, specifically as a pioneer of filmed reporting. Captivated by the new technologies of electrification, moving pictures and aviation sweeping the world at the beginning of the 20th Century, Wilkins soon made his first mark as a newsreel cameraman. It was a job particularly suited to his talents for observation and curiosity - and his unflinching courage.
In 1908 the young apprentice electrician was asked to fix the generator at one of Australia’s first tent cinemas. He was immediately captivated by the possibilities of the then still crude apparatus that both captured and, with some tinkering, projected moving images. Wilkins knew these wheels of spinning acetate were the start of something extraordinary.
Travelling with the tent cinema, he arrived in Sydney at a brief moment when Australia led the world in filmmaking. More than 60 features were shot in 1911 alone, and Wilkins rushed from one production to the next as a cameraman on these rough and ready productions. A chance meeting with the founder of British Gaumont, A.C. Bromhead, led to an offer to join the company in London as a newsreel reporter.
Gaumont was locked in an epic competition with its great rival Pathé, producing weekly newsreels for cinemas around the world. The hectic newsreel offices were run by ex-newspapermen who exhorted their cameramen to be quick, cheap, and above all, smart, and Wilkins excelled.
In his first 18 months with Gaumont, the young Australian worked in 27 countries, never failing to get his precious images of wars, riots and royals back to London. While other newsmen were on a typical salary of just £3 per week, he was signed to a two-year contract for the unheard-of salary of £2000.
Gaumont agreed to share its star reporter with Britain’s then best-selling paper, the Daily Chronicle, to film the Balkans conflict of 1912, considered the beginning of modern technological warfare. Wilkins filmed battles from the air, the carnage of machine guns and heavy artillery, the mass evacuations of civilians. The old hands from Fleet Street had never seen anything like the brash colonial, whose bush skills with a horse, and mechanical skills with a motorbike saw him regularly scoop the competition.
Daily Mirror correspondent Bernard Grant wrote that the young Australian “had a gift of leadership, instant decision making in moments of peril … as though it all came natural to him”.
These skills would serve Wilkins well when, in 1917, returning from filming a long polar expedition, he joined the Australian troops on the Western Front on the eve of the bloody, muddy battle of Passchendaele. He was seconded to the official history unit of the AIF under Charles Bean. Along with the equally remarkable Frank Hurley, the pair became known as “the mad photographers” for their almost suicidal risk taking in pursuit of the images that would come to define the carnage of trench warfare, gas and fatal charges at enemy guns.
Captain Wilkins’ service record beggars belief. Wounded a dozen times, he was shot, gassed, shot down from a balloon, and blown up in months on unrelenting front-line filming and photography. Though never carrying a gun, he was awarded the Military Cross and Bar, becoming a legendary figure on the battlefield, admired even by his German adversaries. On more than one occasion they were kind enough to not shoot the crazy cameraman standing in no-man’s-land awaiting the troops’ charge over the top.
Wilkins would film the moment when King George V bestowed a knighthood on General Monash, the first time in two centuries that a reigning British monarch honoured a soldier on the field of battle. A decade later, the cameraman and King would meet again, and this time it was George Hubert Wilkins who would be receiving a knighthood.
By this time, Wilkins was a full-time explorer, leading pioneering flights across the polar regions, even attempting to take a leaky submarine to the North Pole. His exploits were splashed across the world’s front pages, and often the reports would carry a well-written eyewitness account from the man himself. For a period, he wrote exclusively for the Hearst stable of newspapers, though he would subsequently fall out with William Randolph Hearst, despite naming a sizeable chunk of Antarctica after the mogul.
Journalism was just one string in the rich bow of this remarkable man, though he was often more a feature of the newspapers than a feature writer. As The New York Times editorialised in 1929: “Wilkins has done what few men of his generation have been permitted to do: he has changed the face of the known earth”.
Simon Nasht, a former reporter for The Age and ABC, is author of The Last Explorer, Hubert Wilkins – Australia’s Unknown Hero (Hachette 2005). He also directed a documentary of Wilkins’ polar submarine expedition for National Geographic, The Voyage of the Nautilus.
Sir Hubert Wilkins with his wife, Lady Suzanne. Expeditions: Wilkins-Ellsworth Transarctic Submarine Expedition Nautilus, Sir George Hubert Wilkins Papers, The Ohio State University, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program
The Nautilus being outfitted in a dry dock. Expeditions: Wilkins-Ellsworth Transarctic Submarine Expedition Nautilus, Sir George Hubert Wilkins Papers, The Ohio State University, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program
Postcard of the Nautilus. Expeditions: Wilkins-Ellsworth Transarctic Submarine Expedition Nautilus, Sir George Hubert Wilkins Papers, The Ohio State University, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program
Arctic waters, Expeditions: Wilkins-Ellsworth Transarctic Submarine Expedition Nautilus, Sir George Hubert Wilkins Papers, The Ohio State University, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program
Portrait of Wilkins. Sir George Hubert Wilkins Papers, The Ohio State University, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program
'Wilkins, Sir George Hubert (1888–1958)', R. A. Swan, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
‘Captain George Hubert Wilkins’, Australian War Memorial, website profile.