The Firsts of Wilkins

A chapter from Dr Chrystopher Spicer’s fantastic book Great Australian World Firsts. We found it to be an excellent introduction to the life of Wilkins. Kindly supplied by Allen & Unwin. Purchase the book here



Sir Hubert Wilkins, polar explorer and photographer


  • The first person to traverse the Arctic Circle, cross the Arctic Sea, and fly over the Arctic ice cap in an aeroplane (with pilot Carl Ben Eielson)
  • The first person to fly over Antarctica (with Eielson) in an aeroplane and to explore and map areas of that continent from the air
  • The first person to take a submarine to the Arctic ice cap
  • The first person to film actual combat in progress from the ground and the air as a cinematographer and official war photographer
  • The first person to discover the Wilkins’s Bunting (or Wilkins’s Finch)

With a sharp crack, the featureless expanse of ice suddenly fractured as a massive black steel pillar thrust its way through it, sending large blocks of ice tumbling over the long, humped hull of the nuclear submarine USS Skate. As Commander James Calvert looked out from the bridge through a howling gale into the dim twilight, he could barely see the featureless expanse of ice around him. From here, 90 degrees north latitude, every direction was south. While Calvert and his crew could celebrate that they were the first submarine to surface at the North Pole, they were also there for a more personal reason: to honour a fellow submariner and visionary explorer who had attempted the same voyage before them. Sir Hubert Wilkins, once described by General Sir John Monash as the bravest man he’d seen, was an extraordinary man who during his life was a war correspondent, polar explorer, naturalist, geographer, climatologist, aviator, war hero, secret agent, submariner, navigator, author and journalist. He made some thirty-three expeditions to polar regions, and was knighted by the king of England and honoured by the leaders of a number of nations; yet, to this day, he remains largely forgotten in his own country.

George Hubert Wilkins’s home was a long way from any ice and snow in a lonely South Australian stone homestead sitting in an open expanse of red dirt and rock behind Mount Bryan East, near Hallett, about 150 kilometres north of Adelaide. His birth occurred on Halloween 1888, and he was the thirteenth and youngest child, born when his mother was 50. His grandparents, William Wilkins and Mary Chivers, had arrived in South Australia on board the brig Emma in 1836, one of the nine ships bearing the first two hundred settlers. It’s highly likely that his father, Henry, who was born only three days after the settlement’s proclamation, was the first surviving settler child born in the colony. After spending some time on the Victorian goldfields as a teenager, Henry became a successful drover and married Louisa Smith. Eager to find land where they could establish a profitable sheep and cattle farm, the family piled their possessions on a bullock cart and travelled 200 kilometres inland to take up land in the Mount Bryan area. Unfortunately, Henry’s land was beyond what would be known as Goyder’s Line, the invisible line surveyed a few years later by George Goyder beyond which there is insufficient rainfall for successful agriculture. Wracked by successive droughts and the deaths of children, the family’s venture was fated from the outset to be one of hardship.

George Wilkins grew up helping his father and brothers on the property, learning from an early age how to become self-sufficient in a savage climate and an empty land. He formed friendships with the local Aboriginal teenagers, camping and living with them, learning how to hunt and live off the land and taking a great interest in their spirituality and mysticism. Such empathy with indigenous people would later save his life in a far different place. Although he had some schooling, he was largely self-taught, reading voraciously during the day while out ploughing vast paddocks alone with just the horse and dog for company or at night by kerosene lamp in the homestead. Given the importance of the weather in his family’s life, it is really not so surprising that George Wilkins became fascinated as a young teenager by long-range forecasting and the sources of weather patterns, about which very little was known in those early days of the twentieth century.

After years of struggle in an unforgiving geography, the final straw for the Wilkins family was the great drought of 1901. Four years later, Henry was forced to sell the 400-hectare farm to pay the debts, and they moved to Adelaide. George was apprenticed to electrical engineers to pay for his study at the Conservatorium of Music, from where he moved on to learn mechanical engineering at the University of Adelaide and electrical engineering at the South Australian School of Mines. Then one day, while he was installing lights in an Adelaide theatre, a man from a travelling picture show asked him for help with a faulty generator. When they offered him a free seat in thanks, Wilkins stayed to watch the movies and never left. During the next eighteen months he travelled around the country with them, discovering a passion for photography and cinematography.

By 1911, Wilkins was working in film studios in Sydney when he was offered a job with the Gaumont newsreel company in London. According to Wilkins, while on his way there he was kidnapped in Tunis by gun-runners from whom he escaped with the help of a young Arab girl who arranged to smuggle him to safety. Eventually reaching London, Wilkins went to work as a cameraman for Gaumont and also as a reporter for the London Daily Chronicle. During the next eighteen months he travelled through twenty-seven countries on assignments throughout Europe, including the 1912 Turko–Bulgarian War (or First Balkan War) in which he became the first official war photographer to shoot actual combat footage, mostly on horseback while dodging bullets, and the first to fly over a front line in an aeroplane. He photographed massacres, helped bandage the wounded and was very nearly executed after being arrested as a spy. It was during his time with Gaumont that he met the famous pioneer English aviator Claude Grahame-White, who inspired George to learn to fly.

While on assignment in Trinidad, Wilkins was asked by Gaumont to join the Canadian Arctic Expedition of veteran polar explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson as official cameraman, cinematographer and journalist. An extended mission to explore 100 000 square kilometres of the Arctic from the Alaskan border to the Beaufort Sea, this would be the largest and best-equipped polar expedition to venture into the region, but it would still eventually cost a number of lives. Aboard the old, square-rigged, retired whaler Karluk, Wilkins went north with Stefansson and between 1913 and 1916 captured in some 1200 photographs and 3000 metres of motion picture film the Arctic mammals, birds and plants, as well as the indigenous peoples and their way of life. His and Stefansson’s party became separated from their ship, which was later crushed by the ice, and had to trek for three weeks across the ice with dog teams to Point Barrow; Wilkins’s facial frostbite was so severe it took a year to heal and he nearly lost his sight due to snow blindness. His film footage was the first to be shot in the central Arctic and his photographs of Banks and Melville islands were the first taken there. In recognition of his efforts on behalf of the expedition, Stefansson promoted him to second-in-command of the Northern Party and during long periods sheltering from storms together, the two men often debated whether aeroplanes or submarines could be the ideal future methods of polar exploration. But, events had overtaken the debate; when the men finally emerged from their frozen isolation in 1916, it was into a world in the grip of war.

When he returned to Australia, Wilkins was accepted into the Australian Flying Corps as a Second Lieutenant in 1917 despite being colourblind. However, he didn’t become a pilot. Possibly because of the influence of his friend and fellow cameraman Frank Hurley, Wilkins was appointed instead as a war photographer to the Australian War Records Section in London headed by historian C.E.W. Bean. During World War I, Wilkins took around 3000 still photos and many hours of motion picture film. Working frequently with Hurley, he soon gained a reputation for his charmed life while taking photographs under fire. Blown off his feet by shells, nicked by bullets and shrapnel, gassed and nearly run down by tanks, he was wounded nine times yet never carried a gun. ‘It seemed like a trip into Hell,’ he once remembered. In June 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross for rescuing wounded soldiers during the Third Battle of Ypres. He was then promoted to captain and became Commanding Officer No. 3 (Photographic) Sub-section of the Australian War Records unit, work that often took him into the thick of combat. During the Battle of Hindenburg, Wilkins temporarily took command of a company of American soldiers whose officers had all been killed in action, for which he was subsequently awarded a Bar to his Military Cross.

When it was all over, Bean and Wilkins led one last photographic mission to Gallipoli in 1919 to gather and record evidence of that disastrous campaign. Then, although still officially in uniform, Wilkins returned to flying and journalism. Still talking of exploring the North Pole by air, he joined the Royal Navy’s Lighter-Than-Air Command and learned to navigate airships. When Prime Minister Billy Hughes announced a prize of £10 000 (around $2.8 million today) for the first crew to fly the 18 000 kilometres from England to Australia in 1919, when an aeroplane was yet to cross any major ocean, Wilkins just had to be in the race as navigator in a plane called the Blackburn Kangaroo, only to be forced to retire from the contest after they crashed in Crete.

The following year, Wilkins became involved with the ill-starred British Imperial Antarctic Expedition that, although touted as a grand five-year exploration of the continent making use of twelve aeroplanes, turned out to be little more than a con man’s fantasy. Wilkins quickly left for New York, where he was contacted by Sir Ernest Shackleton to join his Antarctic circumnavigation expedition aboard the Quest as a naturalist and cameraman. When they were forced into Rio de Janeiro for repairs, Wilkins sailed on ahead at Shackleton’s suggestion to the island of South Georgia where for six lonely weeks he photographed and recorded the flora and fauna. His joy when the Quest finally arrived there was crushed by the news that Shackleton had died suddenly the night before. After burying the great explorer on the island, they all agreed that Shackleton would have wished the expedition to continue, and so they sailed on to explore some of the least-known islands on Earth, including the Tristan da Cunha group. There on tiny Nightingale Island, occupied by more than three million pairs of birds, Wilkins discovered some of only one hundred pairs of a rare finch now known as the Wilkins’s Bunting (Nesospiza wilkinsi), and that brought him to the attention of the British Natural History Museum.

On his return to England, Wilkins resumed his advocacy of aerial polar exploration and of polar weather monitoring stations that would make daily radio transmissions of their observations to an International Bureau of Meteorology. While his prescient plans were being considered by the Royal Meteorological Society, Wilkins was engaged by the Society of Friends to write about and film their famine relief program then in operation in Soviet Russia. After two years of drought during which an estimated five million people had died, Lenin had finally been forced to appeal to the international community for help, and organisations such as the American Relief Administration, the Red Cross and the Quakers were now feeding millions every day. Not only the Quakers wanted information, though; the British government quietly asked Wilkins to supply them with information on just how bad the situation was within the new Communist country. It was worse than bad. As Wilkins and his Quaker companions travelled from Moscow across the Volga and out onto the vast steppes, they found a barren wasteland of the dead and dying where Wilkins was once more reminded of the havoc that weather could wreak. In the Samara region alone, 10 000 people were dying a month. Wilkins recorded it all in four films for the Quakers, collectively known as New Worlds for Old. On the way back, he met with Lenin in his private apartments at the Kremlin. He told him what he had seen; an already-ill Lenin admitted that he may have tried to bring civilisation to the Soviet Union too quickly.

In June 1921, the Natural History Museum in London received a plea for help from their colleagues in Australia. The flora and fauna of Northern Australia were at risk, they heard, along with the indigenous inhabitants. If they didn’t do something now to record what was left, it could all be gone in a few years as advancing European settlement enforced its toll. Still involved with analysing Wilkins’s collection from the Quest voyage, and aware of his Australian background, the museum considered him the ideal choice to lead an expedition to his homeland that would journey through central New South Wales to Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria and even out to the Torres Strait islands. So from early 1923 into 1925, the Wilkins Australia and Islands Expedition travelled by boat and truck, on foot and on horseback through some 4000 kilometres of desert, jungle and coral island collecting over 5000 specimens, discovering mammals never before recorded. He wrote about this expedition in his first book, Undiscovered Australia (1928), controversially criticising Australians for their deforestation, destruction of native wildlife, racism and murders of local Aborigines. To his amazement, Wilkins found Australians generally unconcerned about the havoc they were wreaking on their landscape and its animal and native inhabitants; it was to them then, as it is now, an inevitable product of progress. The situation was, he wrote as a man recently returned from famine-stricken Russia, ‘perhaps the most sadly depressing of any that I have experienced’.

Understandably, Wilkins couldn’t wait to get back to the Antarctic. He dearly wanted to use the money he had received in payment from the British Natural History Museum to mount an expedition that would make use of the relatively new aviation technology to photograph and map the mostly unknown southern continent. In 1925, he proposed the Australasian Polar Pacific Expedition to fly from the Ross Sea across King Edward VII Land to Graham Land, but discovered only a profound lack of interest in Australia to funding such a venture.

So with the help of his old friend Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Wilkins turned to the United States for assistance with a different project. He eventually inspired the Detroit News and the Detroit Aviation Society, a group that included Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, among its members, to sponsor him for a flight across the Arctic ice cap. Among other things, the flight would settle the question of whether there was land out there, a possibility that had excited potential explorers for centuries. The Detroit News even instigated a successful penny drive involving thousands of local school children as a publicity event to raise money. As Wilkins was primarily a navigator, Stefansson introduced him to expert bush pilot Carl Ben Eielson. Known to the Inuit as ‘Brother to the Eagle’, Eielson had only four years earlier flown the first air mail in Alaska and made his living flying daily over the treacherous Arctic landscape. Between them, Wilkins and Eielson came up with a plan to be the first to fly from one side of the Arctic Circle to the other, and with the money raised, Wilkins purchased a pair of Fokker tri-motor planes for the expedition. By now, although Wilkins had never claimed to be attempting to reach the North Pole, he was in a race with retired American naval flyer Richard E. Byrd, who desperately wanted to be the first to fly there, as well as veteran explorer Roald Amundsen and his sponsor, millionaire Lincoln Ellsworth, who were planning to reach the pole in the Italian airship Norge.

The following year, Wilkins was farewelled from Detroit by thousands of people lining the streets. Palmer Hutchinson, a special correspondent for the Detroit News, travelled with them to file reports. One of the planes was christened the Detroiter, to recognise the paper’s contribution, while the other was christened Alaskan. However, essential supplies failed to arrive at their Point Barrow, Alaska, departure point, and the planes proved too heavy and mechanically difficult, crashing one after the other. Tragically, Hutchinson was killed when struck by a propeller. They had every reason to quit right then, but Wilkins wouldn’t hear of it. For three weeks they struggled to repair the planes until the Alaskan could be put back in the air, ferrying gasoline between Fairbanks and Barrow. Although Wilkins hoped that the weather might clear over Barrow to enable him to explore the Arctic from the air, it favoured Richard Byrd instead who claimed to have flown to and circled the North Pole on 9 May 1926, a claim still debated to this day. Nevertheless, Byrd’s flight still didn’t settle the issue of whether there was land in the Arctic, and that left the way open for Wilkins.

Despite not having achieved his initial objective, Wilkins still returned to the United States a hero for attempting it all in the first place, and in early 1927 the Detroit News sponsored the Detroit News–Wilkins Arctic Expedition. Wilkins even received a message of support from President John Calvin Coolidge. So in February Wilkins and Eielson returned to Alaska with two Stinson planes and a new team. Using skis fitted to the planes, Wilkins’s main aim this time was to land on the ice, which no one had yet achieved in an aeroplane, in order to take depth soundings of the Arctic Ocean to discover whether land lay just under the ice cap. Taking off on 29 March, they were five hours and 700 kilometres from the Alaskan coast over a featureless frozen wasteland when the engine stopped dead. Reacting quickly, Eielson managed to turn it over just enough in order to skilfully come down safely on the ice. While Eielson worked on the engine, Wilkins hacked a hole in the ice, lowered in a detonator and set it off. It took seven seconds for the sound to bounce off the seabed and reach his echo-sounder. Contrary to scientific opinion that the Arctic Ocean was shallow, the two explorers and their plane were standing on a thin sheet of ice 5625 metres above the floor of a very cold sea. Wilkins was the first person to prove just how very deep it was, deep enough in fact to sail a submarine under the ice.

On their return journey, the engine died again and they had to land on the ice once more, this time in the dark. Before they could take off, the weather closed in and imprisoned them in the plane cabin for five days. With no choice left but to strike out for the coast on foot if they wanted to live, they staggered and crawled for thirteen days through blizzards across 200 kilometres of frozen crevasses and giant blocks of ice before they arrived at the Beechey Point trading post on the northern tip of Alaska to find that the outside world had given them up for dead.

Back in the warmth of California, Wilkins sold the Detroiter to two Australian flyers, Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm, who renamed it the Southern Cross in which they would make the first flight across the Pacific Ocean. Wilkins was still planning his own flight across an ocean: once again he and Eielson would attempt to cross 3500 kilometres of Arctic Ocean from Point Barrow in Alaska to Spitsbergen in Norway, literally on the other side of the world. With the money from their aircraft sale, Wilkins bought a Vega monoplane built especially for him by the newly formed Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, which added extra fuel tanks, windows in the cabin floor for weather observation and shortwave radio. Painted bright orange so it could be easily seen against the ice, Wilkins’s Vega was only the third aircraft Lockheed had built. On 15 April 1928, Wilkins and Eielson finally achieved their successful traverse of the Arctic in the Vega in twenty hours and twenty minutes over mostly uncharted territory, landing with empty tanks during a blizzard on Dead Man’s Island at Spitsbergen. Once again they were trapped in their plane cabin for five days until the weather lifted sufficiently for them to fly to Green Harbour to become the first aviators to cross the Arctic Ocean and the Arctic Circle.

This pioneering journey, recounted by Wilkins in his second book Flying the Arctic, made him internationally famous. He was awarded the gold Patrons Medal of the Royal Geographic Society and was the first recipient of the gold Samuel Finley Breese Morse Medal of the American Geographic Society, never awarded since it had been established in 1902 for achievements and pioneering in geographical research. He and Eielson were granted an audience with the King of Norway on their arrival there, cheered by 10 000 people in Germany, and in England Wilkins was personally knighted by King George V as Sir Hubert Wilkins, because he would not presume to use the King’s name. During celebrations and a ticker-tape parade in New York, Australian singer and actress Suzanne Bennett greeted him with a bouquet of flowers. Although she claimed not to know the difference between the Arctic and the Antarctic, they found enough in common to subsequently marry in 1929. Bennett would later estimate that in the first eight years of their marriage they spent a grand total of three months together, but they loved each other all their lives.

Wilkins was now in a position to attempt a realisation of another dream: to become the first to fly across the Antarctic continent from the Antarctic Peninsula to the Ross Sea. Although he pointed out that such an expedition would give Australia territorial advantages and enable the country to establish valuable meteorological stations there, a typically short-sighted Australian Federal government once again declined to become financially involved in his proposed expedition. Fortunately the Americans were not as hesitant, and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst offered $40 000 for exclusive press and radio rights and another $10 000 if Wilkins was first to the South Pole. Once again, Wilkins would unwillingly find himself in a race with Richard Byrd to another pole.

Planning to base his operations on Deception Island in the South Shetlands, Wilkins hoped to fly from there across the Weddell Sea to the Antarctic mainland where he would establish fuel depots to enable him to make the flight across the continent. He intended to use the same plane as he’d flown in the Arctic, renamed Los Angeles in honour of Hearst, who lived on the outskirts of Los Angeles at San Simeon, plus a second Vega named San Francisco as a back-up aircraft. This time, Carl Ben Eielson would be chief pilot seconded by another experienced ice pilot, Joe Crosson.

On 22 September 1928, the Wilkins–Hearst Expedition left New York for Montevideo in South America. Once there, they loaded their supplies and the two aircraft onto the whaling ship Hektoria and sailed for the Falkland Islands in October. Meanwhile, the Foreign Office in London had become concerned that Byrd might be planning to make American territorial land claims in Antarctica. Wilkins would be the nearest person to fly the flag for England, and so when he landed at the Falklands he was promptly given the job of ensuring he establish a British sovereign claim in Antarctica first.

The Hektoria dropped anchor at Deception Island on 4 December and Wilkins, Eielson and the rest of the team began to assemble the aircraft. Only about 100 kilometres off the Antarctic coast, Deception is the nearest of the South Shetland Islands to Antarctica, and its flooded volcanic caldera has provided a favourite shelter from the weather for shipping since the nineteenth century. Wilkins’s ultimate goal was to use one plane to refuel the other at various depots as they made their way across the continent to the Ross Sea. On 16 November, Eielson took off in the Los Angeles from the sandy beach by the whaling station for twenty minutes, making the first aeroplane flight in Antarctica. Ten days later, both planes took to the air: Eielson in the Los Angeles lifted off from the ice out in the bay and Crosson in the San Francisco from the beach. However, as it touched down to land, the Los Angeles skidded off the edge of the ice nose-first, up to its wings in the water. It took eighteen hours to pull the plane back out.

But then, unexpectedly, the December weather remained warm and the bay ice refused to thicken. In order for the planes to land on their way across the continent to refuel they would need to be fitted with skis but if the ice did not thicken, the planes would not be able to take off with the skis attached. With so many seabirds in the vicinity, they wouldn’t be able to take off on floats from the water either, so there was nothing for it but to clear the beach landing strip of large rocks for 700 metres by hand. With the help of some whalers, the team worked for thirty-six hours straight but, unfortunately, the runway was still not long enough for a take-off with sufficient fuel to reach the Ross Sea. Nevertheless, they filled the tanks of the radio-equipped San Francisco with enough fuel for a flight of over 2200 kilometres and loaded emergency rations of biscuits, pemmican, chocolate, nuts, raisins and malted milk tablets to last two months, or an 800-kilometre walk, in case they were forced down. Then early on the morning of 20 December 1928, with Eielson at the controls and Wilkins navigating and operating the radio, they took off into the Antarctic sky and pointed the nose of their small aircraft south, the first men to explore Antarctica from the air.

Crossing Bransfield Strait, they flew around the 1200-metre peak of Trinity Island and then parallel to the mountains along the Antarctic Peninsula’s western coast until they climbed over the mountain range at an altitude of 3000 metres, the only people to have ever seen the summit plateau of Graham Land. ‘I had a tremendous sensation of power and freedom—I felt liberated,’ Wilkins would later recall to his biographer Lowell Thomas. Only a few years earlier, it had taken three months for him to map a small section of the magnificent landscape spread out below them. As they now followed the curve of Graham Land’s eastern coast, Wilkins saw beneath them so many fjords and channels that he mistakenly thought they were flying over an island archipelago rather than a single peninsula. Over this unknown land, Wilkins attempted to fill in the blank spaces on his maps as he charted their progress, making notes and taking photographs with two movie cameras and a hand-held Kodak. He named a number of features, including the Stefansson Strait and Hearst Island, and the Wilkins Coast and Wilkins Sound now commemorate his exploration of the region. Finally they reached the Antarctic mainland, but by now they were threatened by storms. Reluctantly taking note of fuel gauges that read half-empty, Wilkins dropped the Union Jack and a British territorial claim document from the plane before they turned for Deception Island, having covered some 2000 kilometres, nearly 1600 of which was over previously unknown territory. A few days later, they made a second flight along much the same route to look for a suitable base site for a flight south to the Pole, but saw only sheer walls of ice and deep crevasses occupying any potential landing sites. So, they dismantled the planes, stored them at the whaling station and, early in January 1929, sailed back to New York and civilisation.

On his return from the Antarctic, Wilkins was invited by Hearst to join the largest airship in the world at that time, the Graf Zeppelin, to report on the technical aspects of the first around-the-world flight to be made by an airship. Then, having gathered much publicity and financial support due to the success of the first expedition, Wilkins returned to the Antarctic aboard the factory ship Melville in late November 1929, with a second Wilkins–Hearst Expedition. The British government donated the services of the research vessel William Scoresby, on which Wilkins shipped the first car brought to the Antarctic: a Baby Austin fitted with eight wheels connected by chains. Wilkins and his pilots Al Cheesman and Parker Kramer made a number of successful flights between December 1929 and January the following year, discovering that Charcot Land on the west shore of the Peninsula was in fact an island. However, they were saddened to hear news over the radio that Eielson, who had remained behind to establish Alaskan Airways, had been killed when his plane had crashed on a fog-shrouded Siberian hillside while on a mercy mission. He and Wilkins had flown together over more than a million square kilometres of the Earth’s surface that had never before been charted. Sailing south to about longitude 100 degrees in the vicinity of Peter Island, Wilkins’s expedition reached the most southerly point achieved by any known ship. He and Cheesman then took off across the sea in the Vega for one short flight before bad weather closed in and forced them to return to the ship. Although in the end not able to achieve his dream of traversing Antarctica from the air, Wilkins was the first to fly there and had travelled a greater distance in polar airspace than anyone else.

Finally, he and his wife Suzanne were able to have their belated honeymoon in Switzerland during the summer of 1930, staying for six weeks at the luxurious Schloss Lenzburg owned by their wealthy friend Lincoln Ellsworth. While they were there, Wilkins and Ellsworth began discussing whether it was possible to take a submarine under the ice of the Arctic Ocean in order to pioneer the gathering of scientific and meteorological data. It was an idea Wilkins had been considering ever since his days with Stefansson. They drew up plans for a grand voyage from New York to London to Norway, under the Arctic ice cap to Alaska, then down the West Coast of America to the Panama Canal through which they would sail to the East Coast and back to New York. At that time, such a journey was the equivalent of going to Mars. The 14 000 000 square kilometres of the Arctic Ocean, its currents, temperature and depth were still a mystery; no ship had been within 800 kilometres of the North Pole and returned to tell the story, and Wilkins was proposing to sail under it! When the plan was announced, the general public perception was that too much time on the ice had affected his mind.

This would be no cheap expedition to mount: Ellsworth, Hearst, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Wilkins himself all contributed to the bill of around $200 000. Wilkins entered into partnership with pioneer submarine designer Simon Lake and former submarine officer Commander Sloan Danenhower to lease the decommissioned, 53-metre, WWI-vintage American submarine O-12 for one dollar a year for five years from the US government. Originally designed by Lake in 1918, the O-12 could dive to 60 metres with a crew of twenty. For this expedition, it was insulated against the temperature and custom-fitted with a scientific laboratory, a cushioned bow-sprit and reinforced bow for collision protection, two ice drills that could cut a tube through 30.5 metres of ice to supply air for the diesel engines and for the crew and also provide ice-core samples, and a third hollow drill 61 centimetres in diameter that could cut through 4 metres of ice and provide access to the surface for the crew. Even the periscope was modified so that it folded like a jackknife in order to prevent any contact with ice. There was an on-board machine shop for repairs and a diving chamber to enable divers to enter and exit under water. Lake renamed the submarine the Nautilus, and Jean-Jules Verne, grandson of Jules Verne who wrote the book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that featured the original Nautilus, attended the boat’s christening on 4 March 1931 by Lady Suzanne Wilkins under the Brooklyn Bridge, watched by some 800 people. Because of Prohibition, a bucket of ice had to be used rather than the traditional champagne. Perhaps someone should have reminded Lake about the traditional bad luck associated with renaming ships.

As with first expeditions anywhere, this one was fraught with dangers and experts both naval and polar were not slow to point them out. The submarine could get caught beneath ice so thick the drills would not be able to penetrate it, for example, leaving the crew and engines to run out of air; it could be damaged in a collision with ice or be crushed between ice floes; battery power could be discharged more rapidly than it could be replaced; or they could simply become lost beneath the ice. One and all chorused that the expedition was too hazardous and some even declared it suicidal.

After a series of trial runs and practice dives, the Wilkins–Ellsworth Trans-Arctic Submarine Expedition of 1931 set sail across the North Atlantic on 4 June, only to become stranded halfway when the engines broke down. After being towed to Ireland and then England for repairs, the Nautilus finally reached Bergen, Norway, on 5 August where they picked up the six-member scientific team and then headed north for Spitsbergen. Nine days later they reached the edge of the pack ice and spent a few days making scientific observations. According to Wilkins, it wasn’t until 22 August when they planned to begin dive tests that they realised the stern diving planes were no longer attached to the boat, and he along with others aboard would later blame sabotage. With no means of controlling the Nautilus once submerged, diving under the ice was no longer possible but they remained for a few more days carrying out experiments. They took ice-core samples, recorded bathymetric data, determined the temperature and salinity of the sea at various depths and collected plankton. By 31 August, Commander Danenhower had worked out a method by which he could take the submarine partially under the ice, trimming her two degrees down at the bow so that he could nose the submarine under some large ice floes. His first test run was a success, although the noise of the ice against the hull was terrifying, and so on a second run Danenhower went further under the ice. Disappointingly, the large ice drill mechanism failed and they had to back out, but they had been the first submariners to prove that sailing under polar ice was possible. Finally, they had to turn back to Bergen. On the way they ran into a fierce storm that damaged the Nautilus so severely that by the time they limped into port a safe return home could no longer be guaranteed. After gaining permission from the US government, Wilkins had the old submarine towed offshore and scuttled.

Wilkins returned home to criticism for an expedition some labelled foolhardy but for which many also praised him. He continued to partner with Ellsworth as second-in-command of the Lincoln Ellsworth Antarctic Flight expeditions, visiting the Arctic region four more times during the 1930s. In 1937, Wilkins joined the search for the lost Soviet Polar Expedition commanded by Sigismund Levanevsky, spending seven months as leader of the Alaskan–Canadian section. Despite no trace of the expedition ever being found, Wilkins was personally invited by Stalin to Moscow where he was decorated for his efforts.

At the outbreak of World War II, Wilkins offered his services to the Australian government who rejected this proposal as they had consistently rejected him. Wilkins just shrugged and went off on undercover missions for British Intelligence and the American Office of Strategic Services before becoming the resident expert on military survival skills and equipment at the United States Quartermaster Research Command. In 1957, his early predictions concerning the importance of meteorological observations at the poles were validated by the International Geophysical Year, during which twelve nations established fifty research stations in Antarctica, leading to the setting up of the Antarctic Treaty of 1961. Naturally, Wilkins was there for a South Pole circumnavigation.

On 5 August 1958, after two unsuccessful attempts, the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus became the first vessel to sail under the North Pole, crossing the Arctic Ocean following much of Wilkins’s earlier aerial route across that same ocean. Only a few days later, the USS Skate skippered by Commander James Calvert became the second submarine to sail under the North Pole and the first to surface in the Arctic through polynyas, or gaps in the ice. Familiar with Wilkins’s book Under the North Pole and his predictions about surfacing there, Calvert invited Sir Hubert to visit him on board when they returned. The two explorers had much to share during that afternoon, Wilkins advising Calvert that to truly conquer the ice he should break through it in winter. When Wilkins died only a few weeks later, Calvert agreed to take his friend on the one voyage he was not able to complete in life. In winter, on 17 March 1959, the USS Skate became the first submarine to break through the ice at the geographic North Pole. There, under the flags of Australia, England and America, two dozen crew members formed ranks on either side of a table on which sat a small bronze urn. As several men held flares to light the darkness, Commander Calvert read a short speech before walking with a burial party a short distance away from the boat. There he read the committal while the ashes were sprinkled into the wind. A rifle was fired three times in salute.

Eight years later, a memorial was unveiled in honour of Wilkins at Hallett, and in 2001 the restored family homestead at Netfield was officially opened. Wilkins Island, Wilkins Sound, the Wilkins Ice Shelf and the Wilkins Runway near Casey station in Antarctica have all been named after him. He is honoured in the United States as one of the great men of the twentieth century, but in his homeland which erects bronze statues to football stars there are none for Sir Hubert Wilkins.

The rest of the world

It was nearly thirty years before another USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, became the first to reach the North Pole on 3 August 1958, sailing under the ice on a course identical to the one planned by Wilkins and conclusively confirming Wilkins’s theory that such a voyage was possible.

In September 2005, the original Nautilus was rediscovered by Dr Stewart Nelson and Dr Hans Fricke of the Max Planck Institute and their research team. Using a JAGO two-person submersible, they carried out four dives while photographing the wreck in detail, clearly locating the submarine’s distinctive modifications and confirming the vessel that had truly gone where no-one had gone before was still in excellent shape.