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Boys’ own bio of one-of-a-kind Aussie adventure hero

26 October 2021 106 views No Comment

The Incredible Life of Hubert Wilkins

by Peter FitzSimons

Hachette Australia, 549pp, $49.99


Many Australians won’t have heard of Sir Hubert Wilkins.

This is despite the fact that Simon Nasht’s fine biography, The Last Explorer: Hubert Wilkins, Australia’s Unknown Hero was published in 2005 and a chapter in Ian Macfarlane’s Ten Remarkable Australians was devoted to Wilkins. The latter book, about Antipodeans whose achievements had been forgotten, was published in 2019. 

In October, South Australian playwright and filmmaker, Peter Maddern, turned his documentary about Wilkins’ photographs and newsreels – shown at this year’s Adelaide Fringe Festival – into a fascinating book.

Now Peter FitzSimons and his posse of researchers have produced a blockbuster biography of Wilkins, just in time for Christmas.

FitzSimons has been both praised and criticised for his populist histories.  But, as a best-selling author, no one can doubt his stamina and enthusiasm.

As well as being a prolific photographer, Wilkins was a hugely talented naturalist, aviator, spy in the Soviet Union, submariner and polar explorer. In The Incredible Life of Hubert Wilkins, he is portrayed as one of Australia’s most heroic adventurers.

Wilkins was born in Mount Bryan East, near Hallett, South Australia in 1888, the last of 13 children of pioneering pastoralists.

He studied engineering in Adelaide before becoming a photographer. Wilkins then sailed to England, where he snared a producer’s position with the Gaumont Film Company. For a while, he worked as a journalist.

According to FitzSimons, “he soon became an explorer and chronicler of the planet and its life forms.” 

As an official WW1 photographer, Wilkins said that his aim was “to photograph every type of activity including … bodies being hurled through the air by shell explosions, men struggling from beneath debris …and the wrecking of most every type of equipment by shell fire.”

The first person to fly over the Arctic and the Antarctic, Wilkins narrowly failed in being the first to negotiate the North Pole in a submarine. 

Among many other achievements, Wilkins led a ground-breaking natural history study in Australia and was knighted in 1928 – for his exploits in aviation.

Wilkins’ missions to polar regions aboard the submarine Nautilus certainly deserve to be described as “the stuff of legend.” As FitzSimons explains, “In 1958, the nuclear-powered Navy submarines USS Nautilus and Skate achieved what Wilkins had always believed possible: a crossing of the North Pole under the ice” 

The Incredible Life of Hubert Wilkins is sometimes overwritten. Here is an example:  “He was nothing less than the Forrest Gump of history, with the uncanny knack of being Hubert-on-the-spot for magnificent moments with some of the greats of history. Sir Hubert lived the most extraordinary life of any Australian, ever, and in terms of thrills and spills, derring-do, and new worlds discovered he could sit at the table with Attila the Hun, Alexander the Great, Captain Cook, and (Sir Ernest) Shackleton and hold his own.” 

Wilkins was twice awarded the Military Cross for bravery under fire. Wilkins became, and remains, the only Australian photographer in any war to receive a combat medal.

FitzSimons repeats with approval the assessment of Wilkins by Australia’s official historian of the so-called “Great War” of 1914-1918. The hard-working Captain Charles Bean said of Wilkins: “He is the only man I know to whom every line of (Rudyard) Kipling’s poem ‘If’ could be truthfully applied.”

Sir Hubert Wilkins died, aged 70, in Massachusetts in 1958. In accordance with his last wishes, the United States Navy in March 1959 took his ashes to the North Pole aboard the submarine USS Skate. 

FitzSimons adds new details about Wilkins’ remarkable life and times. The book boasts ten helpful maps and a score of photographs.

The most telling photos are both in black and white. The first is of dead and wounded Australians and Germans during the battle of Passchendale in October 1917. Wilkins and Frank Hurley both photographed this sombre scene.

The second photo, titled ‘The end of a charmed life’, taken in November 1929, is of Wilkins’ trusted pilot, Ben Eielson. Together they had achieved several history-making flights in the Antarctic and the Arctic – which is where, on a rescue mission, Eielson disappeared. As FitzSimons writes, “His smashed plane and his body were found weeks later on the Siberian coast of the Bering Strait.”

That Wilkins lived to the age of 70 is surprising, considering how often he risked his life. And what a life it was. With so many books about Sir Hubert, I wonder what’s next? Wilkins the ballet! Wilkins the opera! 

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 43 books, most recently the eighth Grafton Everest adventure The Lowest Depths, co-authored with Ian McFadyen, and a memoir,  Fifty Years Sober, both published by Hybrid in Melbourne.

The Australian, October 26, 2021, p10.

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