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Wilmot, Reginald William Winchester (Chester) (1911–1954)

by Neil McDonald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Reginald William Winchester Wilmot (1911-1954), Athol Shmith

Reginald William Winchester Wilmot (1911-1954), Athol Shmith

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12116088

Reginald William Winchester (Chester) Wilmot (1911-1954), broadcaster, war correspondent and historian, was born on 21 June 1911 at Brighton, Melbourne, fourth and youngest child of Victorian-born parents Reginald William Ernest Wilmot, journalist, and his wife Jane Marian, née Tracy. After attending Melbourne Church of England Grammar School which he captained in 1930, Chester entered the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1935; LL.B., 1936) and majored in history and politics for his arts degree. He was a member of Melbourne's Inter-Varsity Debating Team in 1932-33 and 1935. As president of the Students' Representative Council next year, he was a close ally of the vice-chancellor (Sir) Raymond Priestley. Wilmot took a leading part in the formation of the National Union of Australian University Students. He also wrote for the Star newspaper and gave talks for the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

In 1937 Wilmot and Alan Benjamin embarked on an international debating tour, visiting universities in the Philippines, Japan, the United States of America, Canada and Britain. They travelled around Europe and, while in Germany during the Munich crisis (September 1938), Wilmot observed a Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. Back in Australia in January 1939, he yielded to pressure from his family and next month started work as an articled law clerk. He continued his radio talks and was elected to the council of the University of Melbourne.

After the outbreak of World War II, Wilmot was appointed a correspondent with the A.B.C.'s field unit, which sailed for the Middle East in September 1940. He soon proved himself an outstanding broadcaster and reporter, providing masterly descriptions of action and brilliant analyses of strategy. Recognized as one of the best correspondents in the Middle East, he pioneered interviews at a time when a report read by an announcer was considered sufficient. Wilmot's 'articulate, powerfully spoken accounts' of the soldiers' experiences were often accompanied by the sounds of battle behind his voice. In 1941 he covered the see-sawing campaigns in North Africa and the fighting in Greece and Syria. His story of the battle of Beda Fomm, Libya, was a scoop but he allowed other correspondents to base their accounts on his briefing. He spent several months at Tobruk during the siege then reported the British offensive, Operation Crusader, in which he was slightly wounded on 25 November.

With the entry of Japan into the war, Wilmot returned to Australia and became the A.B.C.'s principal war correspondent in the Pacific. On Anzac Day 1942 at the chapel of the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, he married Edith French Irwin, a student. He was sent to Port Moresby to cover the Papuan campaign. In August Wilmot, his friend Damien Parer and a journalist, Osmar White, struggled along the Kokoda Track with the 21st Brigade, Australian Imperial Force, led by Brigadier A. W. Potts. During the brigade's fighting withdrawal, the three newsmen became very critical of the high command for failing to provide Potts and his men with proper equipment, suitably camouflaged uniforms and adequate supplies. Wilmot attempted to broadcast his views but his scripts were censored.

Back in Port Moresby, Wilmot was caught up in the clash between the commander-in-chief, General Sir Thomas Blamey, and the commander of New Guinea Force, Lieutenant General (Sir) Sydney Rowell. When Blamey sacked Rowell, Wilmot protested to Prime Minister John Curtin. His representations failed and in November Blamey cancelled his accreditation as a war correspondent. The stated reason was that Wilmot was undermining the authority of the commander-in-chief by continuing to express in public his suspicions that Blamey had engaged in corrupt conduct in the Middle East. It is more likely, however, that Wilmot was removed from Papua because a report on the campaign that he had written for Rowell (who included it in his dispatch) implied inefficiency on the part of Blamey's headquarters. The A.B.C. supported Wilmot throughout the dispute.

Based in Sydney, Wilmot broadcast regularly for the A.B.C., published a book, Tobruk 1941 (1944), and scripted and partly narrated a documentary film, Sons of the Anzacs (1943), for the Australian War Memorial. Tobruk combined a series of vivid impressions of life during the siege with a description of the campaign based on interviews with participants. Largely due to his efforts, the narrative in Sons of the Anzacs accurately complemented the footage of soldiers in action; he had been present when many of the sequences were filmed.

Rumours circulated that Blamey planned to have Wilmot conscripted into the army. Offered a position with the British Broadcasting Corporation's programme, 'War Report', he started work in London in May 1944. He landed in Normandy by glider with the British 6th Airborne Division on D-Day (6 June) and soon became one of the most famous of the correspondents reporting from Europe. After covering many of the major British operations, he recorded the ceremony at Lüneberg on 4 May 1945 in which German forces surrendered to Field Marshal Sir Bernard (Viscount) Montgomery.

Living in England after the war, Wilmot wrote and presented radio and television documentaries dealing with the war and with current affairs. He chaired the first live television coverage of a British general election in 1950. In his book The Struggle for Europe (London, 1952), a history of the period 1940-45, he argued that, although the Western Allies had succeeded militarily and freed parts of Europe from one tyranny, they had failed politically and left the eastern states in the grip of another. The book was an instant best seller. Its blend of lucid narrative, close analysis and judicious character studies gave it authority, but its eloquent defence of Montgomery's strategy and of British policy provoked debate. Inevitably, as Wilmot himself conceded, some of his conclusions required revision but his honesty and integrity made the book a classic.

Wilmot was 'a heavy-shouldered man' with a 'strong-boned face and deep-set, restlessly questing eyes'. Intense, argumentative, often dogmatic but never personal in debate, he fearlessly sought the truth. In late 1953 he travelled to Australia to take part in the B.B.C.'s round-the-world Christmas Day broadcast which that year was conducted from Sydney. On 10 January 1954 the Comet airliner in which he was flying back to England crashed into the Mediterranean Sea killing all on board. Wilmot's body was recovered and buried at Porto Azzurro, on nearby Elba. His wife and their son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Australians (Melb, 1960)
  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (Melb, 1983)
  • Wilmot papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Wilmot files (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Neil McDonald, 'Wilmot, Reginald William Winchester (Chester) (1911–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilmot-reginald-william-winchester-chester-12043/text21605, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 27 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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