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George Hubert Wilkins was born on 31 October 1888 at Mount Bryan, South Australia, 100 miles north of Adelaide. He was the youngest of 13 children. His upbringing, on the lonely farm at the edge of the Australian outback where he witnessed devastating droughts, was a motivation for his life's work. In 1903 his parents moved to Adelaide and Wilkins enrolled in the University but never completed his courses. He became interested in cinematography and moved to Sydney where he worked in Australia's pioneer film industry. He then left for England to work as a newsreel cinematographer for Gaumont.
After moving to London in 1909 Wilkins worked as a Gaumont cinematographer covering many international events including the Balkans War in 1912. But he still wanted to become a polar explorer. He was offered his first trip to the Arctic as cinematographer with the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913 led by Vilhjamur Stefansson. He walked thousands of miles over unexplored territory, learnt to live off the polar ice and developed his revolutionary ideas for polar travel. In 1916 he returned to Point Barrow, Alaska, to learn the world had been at war for two years.
When he learnt about the war, Wilkins went to France where he was appointed an official photographer with the Australian War Records Office. From November 1917 until the end of the War Wilkins was responsible for Australia's photographic record of fighting at the Western Front. He constantly risked his life working forward of the front line and refused to carry firearms. He became the only Australian official photographer, in any war, to receive a combat decoration. He was awarded the Military Cross twice. At the end of the war he travelled to Turkey to make a photographic record of the battlefields of Gallipoli.
When he returned to England from Gallipoli, Wilkins learnt that the Australian government had offered 10,000 pounds for the first All-Australian crew to fly an aeroplane from England to Australia. The Blackburn Aircraft Company, which had developed a long range bomber during the war, had entered one of their planes. Wilkins was appointed navigator.
With the other members of the crew, the Blackburn Kangaroo left England on 21 November 1919. Problems were experienced with the engines and the plane was forced down over France. Repairs were made and the flight continued, but eventually, still with engine problems, the plane crashed landed in Crete.
After the Air Race Wilkins returned to England determined to continue polar exploration. He joined Dr John Cope on the Imperial Antarctic Expedition. It was Wilkins first trip to the Antarctic, but the expedition lacked funds and achieved little. Next Wilkins was appointed Naturalist on what was to become Sir Ernest Shackleton's last expedition to the Antarctic. This expedition left London on the Quest, a ship that had been hastily prepared and continually gave trouble. As it was being repaired in South America, Wilkins went on ahead to South Georgia Island to photograph the flora and fauna. When the Quest arrived six weeks later Wilkins learned that Sir Ernest Shackleton had died on the voyage
Wilkins work as Naturalist on the Shackleton expedition so impressed the British Museum of Natural History that they offered him an expedition of his own. The Museum wanted to collect flora and fauna specimens from outback Australia and the islands of Torres Strait. This became the Wilkins Australia and Islands Expedition and for two years Wilkins travelled to remote areas of Queensland, Northern Territory and the Torres Strait filming, photographing and collecting specimens for the Museum. At the end of the two years he wrote to the Museum saying he wanted to continue his work in the polar regions.
Wilkins planned to fly over the unexplored areas north of Alaska. He first purchased two Fokker aircraft but found them too large for landing on ice. He sold one to Charles Kingsford Smith who renamed it the Southern Cross and it became the first plane to fly the Pacific Ocean. Wilkins bought a Lockheed Vega. With pilot Carl Ben Eielson he flew across the Arctic Sea, from Barrow in Alaska to Spitsbergen, Norway. It was the first time such a plane flight had been made and the two men became international celebrities. Wilkins was knighted and chose to be known as Sir Hubert, rather than Sir George.
With the same Vega they had flown over the top of the world Wilkins and Eielson now travelled south to explore Antarctica. They arrived at Deception Island on the Graham Land Peninsula in November 1928. Their flights exploring the Graham Land Peninsula were the first time anyone had flown a plane in Antarctica. Wilkins had planned, if possible, to fly to the South Pole, but on Deception Island he was unable to find a runway long enough to get the Vega into the air with sufficient fuel to complete the distance. Nevertheless it was the first time in history undiscovered land was mapped from a plane.
Returning to America after his pioneering flight in Antarctica, Wilkins was invited to be aboard the largest airship of the period, the Graf Zeppelin, as it attempted the first around the world flight. Wilkins agreed and joined the flight to make a film record. The Graf Zeppelin flew from Lakehurst, New York, across the Atlantic to Germany. From Germany it made the longest non-stop flight up until that time - from Germany, across Russia to Japan. From Japan it crossed the Pacific and America to return to New York. Six years later Wilkins would be aboard the airship Hindenburg as it made its maiden voyage from Germany to America.
After a second season flying his Lockheed Vega in Antarctica Wilkins planned his most ambitious expedition. To take a submarine under the Arctic ice to the North Pole. Constant delays prevented the submarine getting away on time to reach the polar ice cap before winter and the submarine constantly broke down. Still determined to prove that submarine travel under the ice was possible, Wilkins continued north to the edge of the ice pack to discover his submarine had malfunctioned again. Nevertheless, with his partly disabled submarine he was still able to sail under the ice to prove it could be achieved.
After his Arctic submarine expedition, which many people considered a failure because he did not reach the North Pole, Wilkins organised three expeditions to the Antarctic to assist American millionaire explorer, Lincoln Ellsworth become the first person to fly across the Antarctic continent. When Russian aviators went missing while flying from Russia to America via the North Pole, Wilkins was called in to head the search.
In 1938 he returned to Antarctic with Lincoln Ellsworth, again assisting in the discovery of new land. At the outbreak of World War Two Wilkins immediately offered his services to the Australian Government, but it had no need for a polar explorer, now aged over 50.
Wilkins next offered his service to the U.S. Army which retained him to teach Arctic survival skill to U.S. soldiers. After the war he remained as a consultant to the U.S. Army. The United States Navy were developing nuclear submarines for sub ice travel in the Arctic and consulted Wilkins on his pioneering 1931 expedition. Wilkins died on 30 November 1958 in a hotel room in Massachusetts. As a mark of respect the U.S. Navy took his ashes to the North Pole in the nuclear submarine Skate. On 17 March 1959 the Skate became the first submarine to surface at the Pole, where it held a memorial service and scattered the ashes of Sir Hubert Wilkins.
Research was organised by John Hipwell, founder of HIPS - Hipwell International Production Services.
The documentary was created, produced, and directed by John Hipwell, and HIPS - Hipwell International Production Services.
The Search Begins.
Initial research has identified locations where there are people who knew Sir Hubert and artefacts that relate to him. Production Manager Kara Masters and Production Coordinator Natarsha Nicholson begin planning the trips that will get the team of researchers and camera crew to the various locations around the world.
The mysteries which surround the life of Sir Hubert Wilkins commence with his birth. Wilkins always claimed to be the 13th child in his family. However, the official records show that only 11 children were born to Harry and Louisa Wilkins and none of them are George Hubert Wilkins. (He was known as George until he was knighted at that time choosing to be known as Sir Hubert). The remains of the Wilkins homestead are located outside the town of Hallett, at an area known as Mount Bryan East. The Searching for Sir Hubert team spent time in Hallett and at the remains of the homestead interviewing people, filming the area and learning more about the early life of Sir Hubert Wilkins. Our thanks to the wonderful people who helped us.
Wilkins is the only Australian official photographer, in any war, to receive a combat decoration. Wilkins received his first Military Cross in October 1917 for his work as a photographer under heavy fire. A year later he received a bar to his Military Cross.
In part, the citation for his second decoration reads:
"Under machine gun fire at close range he worked forward into the trenches held by the Americans ... and on reaching the position organised the Americans, who had lost their officers, and directed operations until the German attack was checked and the supporting troops were arriving".
The small town of Hatton, North Dakota might seem like an odd place to go searching for a forgotten Australian polar explorer, but it's here that one of the most significant artefacts of Sir Hubert Wilkins' is kept.
When he was exploring the area between Alaska and the North Pole in 1926 and 1927 Wilkins bought and flew two Fokker planes, he named them "Alaskan" and "Detroiter." In 1928, having crashed and repaired both planes twice, Wilkins decided he needed a smaller, lighter plane, specifically a Lockheed Vega. To raise the funds to purchase the Vega he sold the Detroiter to Charles Kingsford Smith, who renamed it "Southern Cross" and flew it across the Pacific the same year. Today it sits in its own museum at Brisbane Airport, Australia.
The Lockheed Vega proved its worth and in 1928 Wilkins and Ben Eielson became the first people to fly a plane across the Arctic Sea. The following year Ben Eielson was killed in a plane crash in Siberia. As an act of respect for his great pilot friend, Wilkins gave Eielson's family the Alaskan. The family have looked after it ever since and today the "sister" of the Southern Cross is disassembled and kept in a trailer behind the Eielson family home in Hatton, North Dakota.
In 1928, after his flight across the top of the world, Sir Hubert Wilkins was given a ticker tape parade through the streets of New York. The parade ended at the town hall, where Mayor Jimmy Walker presented Sir Hubert with the keys to the city. In the following years many of Sir Hubert's expeditions either commenced or finished in New York.
His submarine, the Nautilus, was modified and christened in New York before its expedition to the North Pole. He was invited to travel on the the Graf Zepplin around the world flight which began its journey in New York. He kept an apartment in New York City and became a member of the New York Explorer's Club.
As part of the "Search for Sir Hubert" the crew visited 'the Big Apple' to film specific sites.
In the 1950's Sir Hubert worked for the Army Quartermaster's Department as a consultant on polar survival. While working there he chose to stay at the nearby Grand Central Hotel - Framingham (now known as the Old Colony Hotel), favoured for its peace and quiet rather than glamour.
In Framingham we were fortunate to meet Al Greco who used to run the hotel and knew Sir Hubert well, speaking of him as a modest man. When Sir Hubert died of heart attack in the hotel in 1958 Al was the one to discover the body. His vivid memories of the morning he and the maid found Sir Hubert, beautifully dressed and perfectly positioned, laying dead beside his bed had us all enthralled. In death, Sir Hubert was as incredible as he was in life.
Sir Hubert Wilkins' attempt to take a submarine beneath the North pole in 1931 reinforced his idea that submarines were the ideal way to travel in the Arctic Ocean. In the late 1930's he commenced plans to build a greater submarine in which to travel under the Arctic ice but World War Two put an end to this venture.
Although Wilkins himself never had the opportunity to build his 2nd submarine, his ideas were followed up by the US Navy. With the growing Cold War between the USA and the USSR, the Arctic Ocean became strategically important and many people recognised the significance of submarines. The US Navy commenced its nuclear submarine program in the 1950s and as the only man ever to take a submarine under the ice, Sir Hubert Wilkins was consulted by them.
In 1939 unknown to Sir Hubert, Lady Wilkins bought a property known as Cope's Tract in Susquehanna county, Pennsylvania. Sir Hubert first saw the property in August of that year. The solitude of the property appealed to Sir Hubert he said, "Its loneliness, if we could keep it so, was an asset. It was a place at which I imagined that, in the future, I could sit quietly and put together the material for several books I had been asked to write."
The property became a retreat for all of Wilkins' "society friends" with big stars of the New York stage visiting for weekends of rest and relaxation. The property was auctioned in October 1998. We met the auctioneers who sold it and they claimed that among the items auctioned were signed paintings by Clark Gable and Mary Pickford!
In London we were fortunate to obtain interviews with lead members of two organisations for whom Wilkins worked in the 1920's, the Quaker's (or Society of Friends) and the Natural History Museum.
Wilkins was employed by the Quakers in 1922 to produce a promotional documentary on the relief work they were undertaking in war torn Russia. The anecdotal documentary proved effective with enough funds being raised to continue relief work for many years to come.
In 1924 Wilkins accepted a position from the Natural History Museum of Great Britain to lead an expedition to Australia to study the native flora and fauna. He collected thousands of specimens for the Natural History Museum, among them was a new species of bird which was named after him, the Wilkins Bunting.
Wilkins also took advantage of the opportunity to study the Aboriginal people. He collected artefacts made and used by them for the museum but, more importantly, he studied their lifestyle. Wilkins concluded that their way of life was often far more advanced than our 'civilised' culture and came to believe that the Aboriginal people had telepathic abilities.
The whirlwind shooting schedule throughout the US and UK left the crew physically exhausted but excited about the material they had gathered on their trip. They had begun to understand the gruelling challenges Sir Hubert had faced during his adventures (and there were no cosy hotel rooms to return to at the end of every day in Antarctic!)
It wasn't long before the initial editing process began. Jeff re-drafted the script to incorporate much of the new information collected overseas. Kara and Tarsha were able to see everything the crew had shot during the long (but fascinating) tape logging process. John supervised everything and somehow also managed to attend two Australian film conferences to spread the word about Wilkins. It was an exhilarating time for us all - coming to terms with the enormity of Sir Hubert's life and the documentary we had at our finger tips.
Copyright © 2002 HIPS - Hipwell International Production Services ~ Last modified: July 2002
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