Born in 1888 and raised in South Australia, George Hubert Wilkins is unknown to most Australians. Simon Nasht’s well-documented book ‘The Last Explorer: Hubert Wilkins, Australia’s Unsung Hero’ recounts the literally incredible story of the twentieth century’s greatest explorer – pioneer photographer, pioneer aviator, genuine war hero, reporter, writer, scientist and spy.
As an unarmed frontline photographer in World War I, he took the first ever film of battle and moving images from an aircraft. Wounded nine times, he was twice awarded the Military Cross for bravery, helping wounded men and leading a leaderless contingent of Australian troops in a safe retreat. Monash said he was the bravest soldier in his army.
Intrigued by both polar regions, Wilkins led expeditions by sea and by air, including the first flight over the uncharted Arctic Ocean, and in 1928 the first flight across the Arctic from America to Europe (‘the greatest flight in history’ – NYT). Awarded a knighthood by King George and humbled by the honour, Wilkins requested use of his middle name, and when His Majesty asked ‘Well George, why Hubert?, he mumbled something about presuming to use the king’s name, and henceforward it was Sir Hubert.
A gifted amateur naturalist he conducted a survey of the tropical north of Australia for the Natural History Museum in London. For two and a half years from 1921 he trekked thousands of kilometres, often on foot and alone, and compiled a detailed report on the ecological and aboriginal calamity. He later published it as a book ‘Unknown Australia’, which received a cool reception amongst his countrymen.
From an early age George was fascinated by meteorology, and as a scientist way ahead of his time, tried to organise a global weather monitoring system through the Royal Meteorology Society – to help mankind predict weather trends for agricultural and other purposes.
In 1930, to prove airship capability Wilkins captained an amazing first-ever round world flight of the famous Graf Zeppelin in 21 days. Sir Hubert was also famous around the world.
He had an exceptionally charmed life. He travelled through every continent, survived crashes and disasters, firing squads and sabotage, living long enough to be honoured by kings, presidents and dictators.
His Arctic exploration took on a new dimension when he led the first attempts at taking primitive submarines below the ice for science and navigation. In his later years he did work for the US military and intelligence, and in 1958 was buried at sea at the North Pole by the US Navy.
I’ve only touched on some of his achievements – for more about Wilkins’ exceptional character, driven personality and much more, the book is highly recommended.
I agree with Dick Smith, that every Australian should know about Sir (George) Hubert Wilkins.