Sir Hubert Wilkins (1888-1958)

Hubert Wilkins 1931

Sir Hubert Wilkins in 1931.

RSGS Livingstone Medallist 1931

by Jo Woolf (February 2015)

Caught in a hurricane one day, the crew watched in horror as Wilkins was swept overboard by a giant wave.  “Somebody yelled: ‘Wilkie’s gone!’  We all gave a look and sure enough he had disappeared.”  Miraculously the next wave crashed over the ship, dumping Wilkins back on deck, pretty wet but not at all discouraged. [Douglas Jeffrey, navigator on board Shackleton’s ship, the Quest]

The Australian explorer George Hubert Wilkins was one of those people who just seem to have been born lucky.  During the First World War he was an official cameraman in the Belgian trenches and he regularly went ‘over the top’ with the soldiers as they made their charge.  He covered every battle fought by the Australians, and he refused to carry a firearm.  Somehow, miraculously, he survived.

A contemporary of Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton, Wilkins seems to have missed – or evaded – the limelight and the enduring glory that continues to shine around these great heroes.  The cynical explanation is that, unlike them, Wilkins didn’t die on an expedition; but he took on so many challenges, and there were so many completely different facets to his life, that to describe him simply as an ‘explorer’ seems hopelessly inadequate.  He was an aviator, a naturalist, a cinematographer, and a pioneering meteorologist; he even warned about the consequences of receding Antarctic ice, long before the world had grasped the concept of climate change.

“Early in life I was steeped in what we like to call adventure… it was in the blood and bone of our family.”

What also sets Wilkins apart is his background.  In the early 20th century, inherited wealth and a private education gave explorers an undeniable head start, but Wilkins was raised on a poor sheep farm on the edge of the Australian outback.  Born on Hallowe’en, 31st October 1888, he was the 13th child, the youngest of the family.  When a summer of exceptional drought brought ruin and imminent starvation, he was horrified by the suffering of both humans and animals.  From that time, he vowed that he would find a way of forecasting the weather so that poor farmers like his parents could take a firmer control of their fortunes.

“While it might not be possible for man, with his limitations, to control the weather, it might be possible to learn something of its laws and movements.”

Fate would lead him up some very strange paths, but this was the one enduring quest that governed his life.

Wilkins’ story is peppered with the kind of escapades that should have turned his mother’s hair white with worry, but it seems that she was made of sterner stuff.  While he was ‘lost’ in the Australian bush for two years on a British Museum expedition, attempting to record its dwindling wildlife species before they became extinct, this resilient 82-year-old matron declared to the press: “I am not alarmed regarding my son’s safety.  I have such confidence in his ability to accomplish anything he undertakes.”

She was right, of course; but perhaps it was just as well that she didn’t know the details.  Wilkins remembered waking one night alone in his tent, hearing stealthy footsteps approaching, and opening his eyes to see the gleam of two Aboriginal spears pointing at his chest.  He decided to remain still and quiet, hoping that the men couldn’t hear the hammering of his heart.  After a few unbearable seconds the weapons were withdrawn and the footsteps retreated again into the night.

And just a few years before, there had been the cannibalism incident.  As a newsreel photographer, Wilkins had been given a three-month mission in Russia, where a programme of famine relief was being organised by the Society of Friends.  The blood of the Tsar and his family had scarcely dried in Yekaterinburg, but now another evil stalked the land and the people were dying in their millions from disease and famine.  Wilkins’ task was to make a film about the charity’s efforts, with a full remit to shock the Western world into action.  It would be dangerous work, so to give himself an air of authority he grew a black beard to rival that of Lenin.

Throughout Russia, Wilkins discovered scenes of unspeakable suffering.  Desperation was driving people to all kinds of crime, but he had no fear about travelling unprotected.  It was at Buzuluk, a city on the Samara River, that a gruesome rumour reached his ears.  In this region alone it was estimated that around half a million people were starving, and there was a dark story going around of an old woman’s house where many people had inexplicably disappeared.  The inference was that they had been killed and eaten.

Curiosity was one of Wilkins’ abiding qualities, and he couldn’t just walk away.

“Still believing in the inordinate luck that had seen me through many an apparently hopeless situation, I set out alone, carrying what little food we could spare.”

This was asking for trouble, and about half an hour later Wilkins was waking up on someone’s porch with a painful lump on his head and the signs of cannibalism all too evident around him.  As he came dizzily back to consciousness, he heard a number of people arguing loudly over his fate.  He was saved only when they discovered he had brought food, and they made him promise faithfully to bring them some more.

 Wilkins met Lenin shortly afterwards, in one of the Russian leader’s last interviews with a Westerner before his death.  It comes as no surprise that there was ‘little small-talk’; it is tempting to wonder whether Wilkins favoured Lenin with some characteristic Australian frankness.  In any event, he was allowed to leave… and then another epoch of his life began, which was polar exploration.

“Traversed course outlined.  One stop account bad weather.  Arrived twenty and half hours flying time.  Five days Barrow.  No foxes seen.  Wilkins.” [Telegraph from Svalbard to American Geographical Society of New York, 21st April 1928]

On 15th April 1928, Wilkins and the American aviator Carl Ben Eielson took off in a Lockheed Vega monoplane from Barrow, Alaska.  The next day, after nearly 21 hours of flying time, they arrived in Spitsbergen.  Their journey took them over 2,200 miles of unknown seas and reinforced Wilkins’ already steadfast belief in the future of aerial exploration; it also earned him a knighthood.  The phrase “no foxes seen” was a secret code, agreed between Wilkins and the American Geographical Society: it simply meant “no land found”.

In view of Sir Hubert’s propensity to survive against the odds, the nickname coined by his critics for his most ambitious expedition – ‘The Suicide Club’ – must have seemed like a particular insult.  His vision was extraordinary: he wanted to sail a submarine under the Arctic ice, while conducting a wide range of scientific experiments.  One of the sponsors was Lincoln Ellsworth, the American millionaire who had also supported the ventures of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.  By this time Wilkins had dedicated several years of his life to polar exploration, and he was confident of success:

“My mind is at rest, for although we go to parts unknown, we shall be meeting conditions with which I am familiar.”

Sadly, the voyage of the Nautilus seemed doomed from the outset, claiming the life of a crew member before the submarine had even left New York Harbour.  On her voyage across the Atlantic she suffered storm damage and then engine failure, and when she reached Norway it was found that her diving rudders had been broken off: Wilkins suspected sabotage by the crew.  It was only through his ingenuity, by filling the ballast tanks and setting the trim at 2.5 degrees, that she was able to dive at all.  But it was a daring attempt, and it paved the way for others to follow.  In fact, the aptly-named nuclear submarine USS Nautilus made the first Arctic crossing via the North Pole in August 1958.  Luckily, Wilkins lived just long enough to know about it.

Did this thirteenth child possess the gift of foresight?  Some of his companions hinted that he did, and his long-suffering wife, who saw little of him for years at a time, was convinced of it.  Uncannily, one of his ancestors, the philosopher John Wilkins, who was one of the founders of the Royal Society, predicted in 1648 that a submersible ship would travel to the North Pole.

And Sir Hubert had another rare ability:

“One extraordinary fact about Wilkins was that he seemed to be… a natural receiver of radio.  Bemused, the crew would put him to the test and sure enough, he seemed to be able to receive signals from a distance.  He could be far away from the radio room and pick up the radio messages as they came over the receiving sets inside the room.  I’ve heard of this quality in people before, but only saw it in his case.”

For a few brief years Sir Hubert Wilkins was one of the most famous men on the planet, and he deserves to be remembered for so many reasons.  He made pioneering flights in both the Arctic and the Antarctic; he crossed the Atlantic four times by air, and he circumnavigated the globe on board the German airship Graf Zeppelin.  He travelled with Shackleton on his last voyage, and after Shackleton’s shocking and unexpected death it was Wilkins who filmed the crew building his memorial cairn above the whaling station in South Georgia.  He discovered more uncharted land than any man of his era.  Wherever he went, men warmed to him and accepted him as a friend.

“He lived his dreams waking.”

In 1931 Sir Hubert Wilkins was awarded the Livingstone Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society “for his exploration work in the Arctic and Antarctic regions and in Central Australia.”