Hubert Wilkins and his Submarine

On August 3rd, we will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the historic trip Nautilus took to the North Pole. But as we know, Operation Sunshine as it was called, was not the first of its kind. In March, we shared a piece about Arctic missions and the biennial ICEX exercises that occurred. Within that article was the story of Hubert Wilkins, an explorer who wanted more than anything to completely discover all the North Pole had to offer. From that piece:

Figure 1 Hubert Wilkins

Sir George Hubert Wilkins was an Australian polar explorer that saw the submarine as the perfect means for attaining a Northwest Passage. In 1930, Wilkins along with colleague Lincoln Ellsworth laid out the plans for a trans-Atlantic expedition. They believed that a submarine would be able to be fully equipped with a working laboratory that would allow them to do comprehensive meteorological studies. Since Wilkins was not a U.S. citizen, he could not purchase a submarine, but he was able to lease a vessel for five years. He was given the disarmed O-12 which he would fittingly rename Nautilus after Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The submarine was fitted with a custom drill that would allow it to drill through the ice pack overhead. A crew of eighteen was chosen and the expedition was set. Losses plagued the beginning of the mission. Before ever leaving port, the Quartermaster was knocked overboard and drowned. Undeterred, they left New London, CT on June 4, 1931. On June 14, they faced engine failure and Wilkins was forced to SOS for help and was rescued by the USS Wyoming. Repairs were done and by June 28, the crew set out for their destination once again. By August, they were only 600 miles from the North Pole when they realized that the submarine was missing its diving planes. Without the diving planes, the crew would be unable to control the submarine while submerged. Upon a plea from one of his investors, Wilkins had to admit the problems with his journey and seek safe port. While heading to England, the crew was forced to stop in Norway due to a storm. The Nautilus suffered severe damage and Wilkins received permission from the U.S. Navy to sink the vessel off the Norwegian coast. While Wilkins may have failed at his specific mission, he proved that submarines were capable of operating in the Arctic seas. And it would only take a few short years and another submarine named Nautilus to prove that he was right.

And sure enough, in 1958, another Nautilus, the first of her kind, would do the unthinkable. But unlike Wilkins’ expedition, Operation Sunshine was kept quiet. The details of the mission were on a need to know basis. Wilkins, on the other hand, believed that good press about his mission would mean investors. Investors that could finance a bigger, better submarine than the one he modified. In 1931, shortly before getting underway, Wilkins and his team wrote a book called Under the North Pole, detailing the need for the journey and the people working on the project. While no longer in print, Under the North Pole has been archived by a nonprofit called the Internet Archives, a digital library offering free access to millions of works. Here are a few selections from the book. Two by Wilkins himself and one from Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an explorer Wilkins had worked with on previous expeditions to the North Pole.

“It is unusual and perhaps unprecedented to publish a book as we are doing in relation to an expedition before it takes place. But in our case, this is really not without point, for we are going to use a submarine for the first time in the history of polar exploration, and submarines open up a new field of Arctic research that needs explaining.”- Captain Sir Hubert Wilkins.

“The Arctic has been crossed only twice in the history of the world, once by airship and once by airplane. The commander of the first airplane, Sir Hubert Wilkins, and the second-in-command of the first airship, Lincoln Ellsworth, have now joined to attempt the first crossing of the Arctic by submarine. There was romance in flying above the polar ice from Europe to America; there is more romance, or at least more strangeness, in swimming that course beneath the ice If the journey is successful the value to science will be greater…. But a submarine navigates the very medium to be studied, the ocean. It can take soundings every mile to yield us for the first time a contour of the sea bottoms; a calculation of speed and leeway will help to show the ocean currents. If successful at all, you can make scores if not hundreds of stops on the 3000 likes from Spitsbergen by way of the North Pole to Alaska. You dive beneath the floes like a whale and like the whales that cross the Arctic every summer, you come pin the leads between the floes to breathe and look around. The staff will go ashore on the ice fields and walk about for study. They can measure the temperature gradients of the water as deep into the sea as they like. The can take water samples at similarly varying depths to learn how the chemistry changes and how the tiny animal and plant life varies. They can use nets at many depths to capture swimming animals and both plants and animals that float with the current.” – Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Figure 2 Image of Arctic waters, taken from the deck of
the Nautilus

“We out to be using a specially-built submarine for this work rather than the Nautilus, which is a war submarine adapted – no matter how good a military submarine it was and no matter how cleverly it has been adapted. A voyage in the Nautilus this year under the ice, even if we do not go farther than to the geographic North Pole, should, however, create enough public interest on our return to enable us or somebody else to finance a really ideal craft, to be especially designed for under-ice work, and built according to what it is to do rather than to fit a cramped financial situation. It will only be if everything goes better than I expect that we shall make the full crossing from Spitsbergen to Alaska during the summer of 1931.” – Captain Sir Hubert Wilkins

Wilkins passed away on November 30, 1958, being able to witness SSN-571 make her historic journey. A submarine, however, would not surface at the North Pole until 1959 with the USS Skate. His ashes were laid at the North Pole by the crew of the Skate in accordance with Wilkins’ wishes. Wilkins believed that submarines would be able to allow new access to this remote region in ways we never dreamed possible. And he was right. His excitement before his mission was electric. You must wonder- if we had known about Operation Sunshine before it happened- what would the excitement have been like? Nautilus, of course, returned home to a celebration and great fanfare. If it wasn’t for innovators and explorers like Simon Lake (whose company worked on Wilkins’ submarine), Hubert Wilkins, Hyman G. Rickover, and many others, we wouldn’t have the Submarine Force that we have today.

Figure 3 A large advertising poster for a lecture by Wilkins, printed in navy blue, the text surmounted by the image of the submarine “Nautilus” and itself surmounting the image of a plane with the words “Ellsworth Trans-Atlantic Flight” to the side of the plane.

Figure 4 Article from June 1931 about Wilkins upcoming mission.

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