Biography

Birth date: 31 October 1888
Birth place: Australia: South Australia, Mount Bryan East
Death date: 30 November 1958
Death place: United States of America: Massachusetts, Framingham
Final rank: Captain
Conflict: First World War, 1914-1918
Units:
  • General List
  • General List Official Photographer Attached Australian Corps
  • Headquarters
  • AC HQ
  • Headquarters Australian Corps
  • Australian Imperial Force

George Wilkins, explorer, war photographer and cinematographer, was born on 31 October 1888 at Mount Bryan East in South Australia. He studied electrical engineering at the South Australian School of Mines, mechanical engineering at the University of Adelaide and music at the University of Adelaide's Elder Conservatorium. At the same time he developed a keen interest in photography and cinematography.

In 1908 he moved to England to work for the Gaumont Film Company as a ‘cinematographic cameraman’. Soon afterwards he began work as a reporter for the London Daily Chronicle, travelling to report on events overseas. He learned to fly and take aerial photographs and, in 1912, he left England to report on the Balkan War, becoming the first person to take motion pictures in the front line of a war zone. In 1913 he accepted a place on a Canadian Arctic expedition and was still there in 1916 when he first heard that the world was at war.

On returning to Australia he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Australian Flying Corps but was prevented from operational flying because of colour blindness. In July 1917 he was appointed as an official photographer with the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and reached the Western Front in time to photograph the Australians during the Passchendaele campaign. By mid 1918, now a captain, he was given command of No. 3 (Photographic) Sub-Section of the Australian War Records unit. More adventurer than photographer, Wilkins was sometimes a participant in, as well as an observer of, war. In June 1918 he was awarded the Military Cross for helping wounded under fire and, in September, earned a bar to the award for leading a group of inexperienced American soldiers through a dangerous action. He is the only Australian official photographer to have been decorated.

In January 1919 Wilkins travelled to the Gallipoli Peninsula as a photographer with the Australian Historical Mission under the official historian, Charles Bean. His appointment with the AIF ended on 7 September 1920.

In later life Wilkins set out to explore the Arctic by air and flew from Alaska to Norway, for which he was knighted. Wilkins won a number of awards for his pioneering exploration work. In November 1928 and January 1929 he explored the Antarctic by air, and in the 1930s, made five further expeditions to the Antarctic. In 1931 he unsuccessfully attempted to take a First World War submarine, the Nautilus, under the Arctic ice to the North Pole. He subsequently worked in defence-related positions with the US Weather Bureau and the Arctic Institute of North America.

Wilkins died on 30 November 1958 in Framingham, Massachusetts. He was so highly regarded in the United States that his ashes were scattered at the North Pole by the crew of an American nuclear submarine. His output is represented in the Australian War Memorial collection by eight films and hundreds of photographs from the First World War.

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Rolls and Awards

  • Rank: 2nd Lieutenant
  • Date of embarkation: 10 May 1917
  • Place of embarkation: Sydney
  • Recommended for: Bar to Military Cross
  • Unit: Headquarters Australian Corps
  • Conflict: First World War, 1914-1918
  • Recommended for: Mention in despatches
  • Unit: General List Official Photographer Attached Australian Corps
  • Conflict: First World War, 1914-1918
  • Recommended for: Bar to Military Cross
  • Unit: General List
  • Conflict: First World War, 1914-1918
  • Recommended for: Military Cross
  • Unit: Headquarters
  • Conflict: First World War, 1914-1918
  • Awarded: Military Cross
  • Unit: AC HQ
  • Conflict: First World War, 1914-1918
  • Awarded: Bar to Military Cross
  • Unit: Australian Imperial Force
  • Conflict: First World War, 1914-1918

Collection Items

Photograph

Timeline

Date of birth 1888-10-31 Mount Bryan East, SA.
Other 1905 Studied engineering at the Adelaide University and South Australian School of Mines.
Other 1908 Moved to England to work for the Gaumont Film Company as a 'cinematographic cameraman'.
Other 1910 Learned to fly with the help of English pilot Claude Grahame-White.
Other 1912 He left England to report on the Balkan War, becoming the first person to take motion pictures in the front line of a war zone.
Other 1913 - 1916 He accepted a place on a Canadian Arctic expedition.
Date and unit at enlistment (ORs) 1917-05-01 Enlisted in the Australian Flying Corps but was prevented from operational flying because of colour blindness.
Date of embarkation 1917-05-10
Other 1917-07 Was appointed as an official photographer with the AIF and reached the Western Front in time to photograph the Australians during the Passchendaele campaign.
Other 1918 Now a captain, he was given command of No. 3 Photographic Sub-Section of the Australian War Records unit.
Date of honour or award 1918-06-03 Military Cross (MC) for helping wounded under fire. He is the only Australian official photographer to have been decorated.
Date of recommendation honour or award 1918-09-06
Date of recommendation honour or award 1918-09-27
Other 1919 Entered the Australian to England Air Race, but ended the race on Crete where he crashed into a fence.
Other 1919-01 Wilkins travelled to the Gallipoli Peninsula as a photographer with the Australian Historical Mission under the official historian, Charles Bean.
Date of honour or award 1919-06-03 Gazetted Bar to Military Cross for leading a group of inexperienced American soldiers through a dangerous action.
Date of discharge 1920-09-07 Appointment with the AIF ended.
Other 1921 - 1922 Chief of the scientific staff and naturalist for the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition.
Other 1923 - 1925 Commander of the Wilkins Australia and Islands Expedition, which was commissioned by the British Museum of Natural History to collect specimens of animals native to tropical northeastern Australia.
Other 1926 - 1928 Commander of the Wilkins-Detroit Arctic Expeditions, during which Wilkins developed the first ski-landing gear for aircraft.
Other 1927-03 With pilot Ben Eielson, forced to crash land airplane in the Arctic.
Date of honour or award 1928-06-04 Created Knight Bachelor for his services to aviation and exploration.
Other 1928-12-20 Wilkins and Eielson make the first 600 mile aerial reconnaissance flight over the Antarctic.
Other 1929-01 Explored the Antarctic by air.
Other 1931 He unsuccessfully attempted to take a First World War submarine, the Nautilus, under the Arctic ice to the North Pole.
Other 1933 First of three expeditions to the Antarctic as second in command of the Ellsworth Arctic Expeditions. Wilkins was in charge of bases and the base ship Wyatt Earp.
Other 1934 - 1935 Second expedition to the Antarctic as Ellsworth¿s second in command.
Other 1937 In charge of the Alaskan-Canadian search for the lost Soviet Polar Expedition, commanded by Sigismund Levanevsky.
Other 1940 - 1941 Sent to Europe and Far East on special missions for the United States government.
Other 1942 - 1958 Consultant for United States military, primarily in the areas of hot and cold weather clothing and survival techniques.
Date of death 1958-11-30 Framingham, Massachusetts.
Date of burial 1959-03-17 Nuclear submarine, USS Skate surfaced at North Pole and the american crew scattered Wilkins' ashes over the ice.