Sunday, November 30, 2008

The first aerial explorer

Sir George Hubert Wilkins, one of the most successful and versatile of 20th century explorers, died exactly 50 years ago today. He was not only a pioneer in aviation and aerial photography, but he was also the first person to show submarines could operate under the polar ice cap. Although there are no published editions of his diaries, two recent biographical books rely on them extensively.

Wilkins was born in 1888 in South Australia, the thirteenth (!) child of a farmer. He studied engineering at South Australian School of Mines and Industries, then followed an interest in photography and cinematography before sailing to England in 1908 to work for Gaumont Film Company. Subsequently, as a newspaper reporter and cameraman, he learned to fly and began experimenting with aerial photography. In 1912, he worked as a war correspondent in the Balkans, but in 1913 he joined an expedition to the Arctic - led by the Canadian Vilhjaalmur Stefansson - which lasted until 1916.

In the latter years of the First World War, Wilkins was appointed as an official war photographer, a job that placed him in combat areas, and which led him into taking heroic action on at least two occasions - for which he was awarded a military cross and bar. After the war, he took part in two Antarctic expeditions (one as a naturalist with Shackleton); and then took on a project for the British Museum to study the fauna and tribal life of North Australia.

By 1926, Wilkins was testing the feasibility of air exploration in unknown Arctic regions of Alaska. In 1928, he and copilot Carl Ben Eielson pioneered cross-Arctic aviation by making the first ever flight across the Arctic - from Alaska to Spitsbergen, north of Norway. The New York Times called it ‘the greatest flight in history’; and, because of it, Wilkins was knighted in the UK. Moreover, as is well noted in biographies, he met his future wife while celebrating in New York. explains that later the same year Wilkins was back in the Antarctic, with Eielson, making the first ever exploratory flight in the area on 20 December (1928). Wilkins wrote in his diary, ‘For the first time in history, new land was being discovered from the air’; and ‘We had left at 8:30 in the morning, had covered 1300 miles - nearly a thousand of it over unknown territory - and had returned in time to cover the plane with a storm hood, go to the HEKTORIA, bathe and dress and sit down at eight o’clock to dinner as usual in the comfort of the ship’s wardroom.’

Three years on, Wilkins led a failed attempt to take a submarine - one he supposedly bought for a dollar and named Nautilus - beneath the ice to the North Pole. But the old ship broke down, endangering its crew and earning Wilkins some adverse publicity. Despite the failure, however, he did show that submarines were capable of operating beneath the polar ice cap. says this was Wilkins’s last individual and private expedition, and that, thereafter, he accepted a post as manager to his friend and supporter, US millionaire Lincoln Ellsworth. During the Second World War, Wilkins worked for the US government, though he never relinquished his Australian citizenship. He died exactly 50 years ago today, on 3o November 1958.

The World Adventurer website concludes an article on Wilkins by saying this: ‘Despite his impressive list of firsts and pioneering adventures, the proudly patriotic Sir Hubert Wilkins remains sadly overlooked by a country that so reveres its heroes. In the end, it was the US who took his ashes to the North Pole aboard the submarine USS Skate on 17 March 1959.’ That said, however, there is lots of information about Wilkins on the internet: Wikipedia’s article includes links to other resources; Hipwell International Production Services hosts a site with lots of photographs; and the Government of South Australia has a history/culture website also with photographs.

None of these latter three websites, though, has any information about the diaries Wilkins kept. In fact, a collection of his diaries are housed in the Stefansson Collection, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, some handwritten (in difficult script) and some typed. Wilkins, himself, did consider a book based on them, but never completed it. They remained unused for half a century until Stuart Jenness interpreted them for his book - The Making of an Explorer: George Hubert Wilkins and the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-1916 - published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2005.

Another book - Simon Nasht’s The Last Explorer: Hubert Wilkins, Hero of the Great Age of Polar Exploration published by Arcade Publishing in 2006 - also quotes extensively from Wilkins’s diaries. Much of it can be viewed at Googlebooks, including this quote from Wilkins’s diary about the Nautilus expedition: ‘Without exception, the others in the vessel wanted to immediately turn back; to make no further attempt to go into the ice this year. To do so would be to admit complete failure. As commander of the expedition I ordered the trials to continue . . . I am determined the vessel will go under the ice and that as many experiments as possible will be made.’

On 25 August 1931, Nasht explains in the book, Wilkins sent a dispatch, printed in the New York American and other Hearst papers (Hearst being his main sponsor), telling the world they were ‘about 350 miles from the North Pole’. It was an exaggeration by 200 miles, and, although he later corrected the claim, the mistake ‘was used against him by those who claimed the expedition was little more than a publicity stunt’.

Nevertheless, this was one extraordinary man, as says, and an official biography should list his career as ‘war correspondent, polar explorer, naturalist, geographer, climatologist, aviator, author, balloonist, war hero, reporter, secret agent, submariner and navigator’.

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