From ghost rockets in Scandinavia to mysterious spheres tracked over Eritrea, the Past Masters team look at the records of Unidentified Flying Objects held at The National Archives and ask, is the truth in here?
The Ministry of Defence is now transferring files on UFOs to The National Archives covering 1978 to 2002. You can keep up with all the new releases at nationalarchives.gov.uk/ufos/.
A selection of documents from The National Archives used in this podcast are below.
Published date: 8 October 2009
From ghost rockets in Scandinavia to mysterious spheres tracked over Eritrea, the Past Masters team look at the records of Unidentified Flying Objects held at The National Archives and ask, is the truth in here?
Lake search in Sweden
Letter from Kevin Stevens
Bob: Hi there, you are listening to Past Masters from the National Archives in London. I’m Bob.
Jo: And I’m Jo.
Bob: And this month we’re looking at one of the strangest sets of records we have here at the Archives – the British government’s very own X-Files.
Jo: Mysterious lights in the sky, unexplained radar traces. Reports from military sources and members of the public and official government policy on UFOs from the old Air Ministry, the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Admiralty.
Bob: And why are we looking at this?
Jo: Because it’s a fascinating insight into the workings of government. And it’s secret files on aliens! How good is that?
Bob: I think they’re “unexplained aerial phenomena” aren’t they? Where’s the evidence they’re aliens?
Jo: Now, scepticism is very healthy but I think when you’ve heard some of these documents you might not be so sure.
Bob: I think that’s very unlikely. What have you got?
Jo: We’ve got dozens of files containing carefully kept records of hundreds of sightings.
Bob: How far back do they go?
Jo: Well the British government first begins watching the skies in the first decade of the 20th century.
Bob: Looking out for German airships before the First World War.
Jo: That’s right.
Bob: Well, since they went on to bomb cities up and down Britain in 1915 that sounds very sensible. But it’s nothing to do with aliens. What else have you got?
Jo: Oh. Okay. World War II. Throughout the war British and American pilots report seeing strange patterns of lights on bombing runs over Germany.
Bob: Like the lights you get on aircraft?
Jo: Well, sort of but-
Bob: That’s another mystery solved then. I’m getting good at this.
Jo: All right. Okay. That’s very funny. We’ll talk about after the War then. In 1946, information began to come in to Naval Intelligence and the Air Ministry of some peculiar sightings in the sky over Scandinavia.
Quill: Considerable activity has been aroused by reports in the Press of ‘Ghost Rockets’ over Sweden…On the 25th May 1946, a Swedish newspaper reported a wingless cigar-shaped object, the size of a small aircraft, spurting sparks and flame from its tail…During the following days, reports of bright moving lights in the sky over Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland appeared…The incidents were at first inclined to be attributed to meteorites. Subsequently, however, the number of observations increased greatly and still continue, particularly in Sweden. On average days six to eight are reported, while on two days – 9th June and 11th August – some two to three hundred observations on each day were made. (ADM 223/700)
Bob: Ghost rockets?
Jo: Yes, weird isn’t it?
Intelligence Report: Top Secret. Reports have been received from Finland, Sweden and indirectly from Denmark…Observations were made in the late evenings or early mornings and although it is believed that half light exists all night it is probable that complete details were not distinguishable…Some state that there was no noise, others that only a whistling was heard; all are unanimous that there was a meteor like glow…Shape – a ball or cigar or aircraft without wings. (FO 371/56951)
RMAH: Could you ask discreetly what this is all about? V2 [rocket] tests?
Air Intelligence: At the beginning of July a large number of observations occurred on several consecutive days in different parts of the country. A similar peak occurred at the beginning of August…With the cooperation of astronomers the conclusion was reached that the two peaks in July and August were probably caused by meteors or meteorites. (AIR 40/2843)
Quill: An analysis of the observations shows the most notable characteristics to be…great speed…intense light…lack of sound [and] approximate horizontal flight. The majority of the observations refer either to light phenomena or also to cylindrical or cigar-shaped objects, sometimes with a light in the tail, sometimes in the nose. On occasion falling objects have been reported, which may refer to parts of a missile shed in flight. (ADM 223/700)
Laurence Collier: The press so far has said very little about it, possibly on a mot d’ordre from the Government, since such reports as have appeared have tended to imply that there is some doubt about the nature of the missiles (though there is in fact no doubt at all) and have suggested that some of the objects seen might have been meteors or even, in one case, large sea birds diving into a lake. (FO 371/56951)
Air Intelligence: The opinion of those most closely in touch with the investigation is that when all doubtful reports are set aside, when all possible natural explanations are duly regarded, there still remains a residue of apparently trustworthy reports describing cigar-shaped objects flying horizontally at around sonic speed at altitudes not above the highest cloud level. (AIR 40/2843)
War Office[?]: We think it is excessively bold to link these reports together to make a track of 950 miles in length and attach no importance whatever to the fact that the said track points to London. (FO 371/56951)
Air Intelligence: Certain indications were received by radar and other instruments but it proved impossible to establish the nature of the objects by this means. (AIR 40/2843)
Quill: If they are of natural origin then they are unusual, sufficiently unusual to make possible the alternative explanation that at least some are missiles. If this is so, they must be of Russian origin. (ADM 223/700)
Mayall: Further investigations are being made and we shall know in due course whether or not these stories are moonshine. (FO 371/56951)
Bob: Isn’t it most likely they are Russian missiles? The Germans have used sophisticated missile technology during the war to hit Britain with V1 and V2 rockets. Now everyone’s working on captured German technology to improve their own.
Jo: That’s certainly, I think, why Air Intelligence and the War Office are so interested. They send a Captain Malone to Sweden to report on the phenomena. They suspect that the Russians are using the Aaland Islands [off Finland] or the north of Germany to fire off rockets over Scandinavia in tests of their new technology.
Bob: Very likely.
Jo: But there’s a problem.
Air Intelligence: It is known that a Russian-controlled group of workers has been engaged on development of certain German guided projectiles but there has been no evidence to indicate either that experimental firing has yet taken place or that these projects can be related to the Scandinavian observations. However recent reports have suggested that this group may shortly carry out test firing in the Baltic area… (AIR 40/2843)
Jo: In other words the only Russian experiments they know about are not far enough advanced to be behind these sightings.
Bob: Maybe the intelligence is wrong. Perhaps the Russians are further ahead than they think.
Jo: No, they’re actually spot on. In fact the first Russian missile launch doesn’t take place until 1947 and it’s in Russia because the Soviets are too secretive to do tests in the heart of Europe.
Bob: Okay, I’ve got another theory.
Jo: Oh good.
Bob: This is right after the end of WWII. Isn’t it possible that if you bomb people a lot they start looking up nervously and worrying they see bombs. Isn’t it like the airships all over again. You said not all the sightings before could be airships but this time round, surely not all the sightings can be UFOs?
Air Intelligence: Isolated reports of so-called missile observations have been received during past months from many other countries, in particular Greece, France, Portugal, Belgium, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Holland and North Africa. (AIR 40/2843)
Jo: I would agree with you. But there is one more interesting element to the story of the Ghost Rockets and that’s the search for any physical sign they might have left behind. You see the British and Swedish governments weren’t mucking about, this was a real investigation.
Air Intelligence: On a number of occasions observers have reported seeing a ball of fire or even a cylindrical object falling to the ground. On investigation at these supposed points of impact, various fragments…have been picked up. …Nothing has been forthcoming to indicate that the material originated from any kind of space-projectile. A very thorough search has been made in certain lakes…so far…nothing has been found.
[Sound of wind and snow]
Jerram[?]:There has been no progress in the recovery of missiles at Kalix. In all, three lakes are involved…and latest report is of a missile falling into the sea nearby…Swedish methods of operation are extremely slow and probably unproductive. (FO 371/56951)
Bob: So they’re out looking for bits of smashed Russian missile.
Jo: That’s what they’re looking for, but what are they finding?
[Sound of wind and snow]
Jerram: Stockholm to Foreign Office….Sole remains so far recovered in Sweden are pieces no longer than [an] egg of porous yellow combustible material, porous black carboniferous material, porous grey ash or slag material and black slate-like material. Representative examples of each being sent separately.
Bob: So now you’re saying that these are what? Pieces of some sort of spacecraft?
Jo: I’m not saying anything. I’m just showing how seriously this investigation was taken on the basis of some lights in the sky.
Air Intelligence: Analysis of most of these has been been completed. Any of an unusual nature have now been satisfactorily explained, either as by-products from local factories, slag from thermite welding or of other innocent origin. The rest are common materials…While it would be possible to design propulsion systems which could give rise to such fragments, the fact that they are such common materials has not yet made it possible in any way to prove their connection with missiles. Some indeed have had the appearance of having lain outside for considerable periods. Meteorite experts have examined the samples and ruled out their origin from this source. (AIR 40/2843)
Bob: So they’re probably nothing.
Jo: Very probably. In fact, suddenly, after all the time and effort spent sending observers, dredging lakes, testing samples, suddenly the Cabinet Office decides there’s been almost literally, nothing to see.
Cabinet Office: We are not convinced that there have been any missiles over Scandinavian territory at all…A very high proportion of all observations are accounted for by just two meteors visible, one by day and one at sunset, in Sweden on 9th and 11th August respectively…Meteors are the simplest explanation…[Remaining] observations are random in time, place and country and can not unreasonably be attributed to fireworks, swans, aircraft, lightning…and imagination. Such mass delusions are, in our experience not unusual in time of public excitement. (FO 371/56951)
Jo: Now, don’t you find that a bit bizarre?
Bob: Oh, you’re not suggesting some sort of ridiculous conspiracy are you?
Jo: No, I just think it’s a bit weird that so much effort was gone to, so many people in so many departments thought it was a tip worth pursuing and then all of a sudden – pff, nothing.
Bob: Maybe they got intelligence that the Russians weren’t carrying out launches. That’s enough to make me lose interest. They’re Defence Intelligence, they’re only concerned with national security stuff, not chasing ET up and down a fjord.
Jo: How many people have to see something before it’s big enough to be taken seriously?
Bob: A lot.
Jo: Okay, how about a whole city? Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. 6th of April 1950. An ordinary day in a British protectorate. Suddenly, not so ordinary.
[The chatter of teletype]
Drew: 6th April 1950, Immediate, Confidential. Personal from Drew. Silvery white objects of crescent shape at height believed to be slightly less than 20,000 feet have been observed by many people in Asmara at intervals throughout morning. Air Ministry Meteorological Station at airport has kept continuous detailed observation and recordings and is now computing speed and height of two of them. Meteorological Officer reports one object has been moving erratically but not at excessive speed, the other which is much higher is almost stationary and has been under continuous observation for over three quarters of an hour. Objects are of unknown origin. Detailed signal…will follow as soon as possible. (FO 371/81093)
Johnson: Meteorological Office, Air Ministry. It seems that the “silvery disc”…was most probably a silvered sphere of the type used by the army for calibrating or testing radar sets. These spheres are about 18 inches in diameter, made of papier mache and coated with aluminium foil or paint…There are possibly military units using them near Asmara….The sphere must have been balloon borne…The second object referred to…is described as moving rapidly and erratically…it was most probably something small and relatively near to the observer. N[elson] K. Johnson
Stafford: I was one of hundreds of people who saw these discs in the sky. I watched one for some time and was puzzled by the comparative slowness of its movement. It may have been a balloon but it didn’t look like it. What military units near Asmara were using these “spheres”? The district commander, who commands them, made no mention of such a possibility. Both objects were of the same type, so I was told.
Goldie: In the absence of Sir Nelson Johnson I am replying to your letter…The local meteorological officer now considers “the…erratically moving objects”…astronomical. But it seems inconceivable that an object at an astronomical distance could appear to move erratically. Moreover the slowly moving object…a balloon…we suggested…clearly cannot have been astronomical.
Stewart-Lydon: British Administration, Eritrea. Without doubt the explanation offered by the Meteorological Office of the Air Ministry can be discounted…It is clear that the object was neither suspended by a parachute, nor a balloon…such equipment for radar calibration is not available in this territory…The rapidly moving object which was clearly visible to many people…still remains unaccounted for.
Goldie: I agree that our suggested explanation falls to the ground…There appears to be no way of accounting for the rapidly moving object.
Stewart-Lydon: It is not felt, in view of the uncertainty of the Air Ministry’s views that a satisfactory explanation of the phenomena is yet forthcoming.
Bob: So what did they do?
Jo: Well nothing. The Air Ministry decided that the origin of the objects was explained, the people who saw them decided they weren’t. That was it.
Bob: But they could be anything.
Jo: As you say, they could be anything. But it’s sightings like these along with the Ghost Rockets and reports in the US that led the Government to take action.
Bob: What kind of action?
Jo: It’s the Civil Service. What do you do if you have a problem? You set up a working party. So they set up the Flying Saucer Working Party in 1950.
Jo: Really and truly yes. The term ‘flying saucer’ is usually said to have been coined in 1947 after a sighting in Idaho in the United States. Possibly a little bit tongue in cheek, UK defence files claim it was a British invention.
Air Intelligence[?]: The origin of the term “flying saucer”, as applied to strange objects in the sky remains obscure, although authorship is claimed by a British journalist. According to him, while sitting in a Bronx café talking with three New York reporters, one of whom was doodling on a piece of paper, he observed that the drawing looked like a “flying saucer”. One of the Americans decided that they “had something” there and, within the hour, the term was in use. Within two, it is claimed that ninety people had reported having seen one. (DEFE 31/118)
Bob: That’s sounds about as likely as everything else you’ve pulled out of the bag in the last  minutes.
Jo: Fair enough. But the Flying Saucer Working Party’s completely genuine and they look at some recent eyewitness statements and a couple of reports from the American Air Force on UFOs codenamed Sign and Grudge. So it’s not really what you would call an in-depth-
Bob: So they think it’s all rubbish.
Jo: Yes, they do.
FSWP: When the only material available is a mass of purely subjective evidence, it is impossible to give anything like scientific proof that the phenomena observed are, or are not, caused by something entirely novel, such as aircraft of extraterrestrial origin, developed by beings unknown to us… We are, however, satisfied that the bulk of the observations reported…can be accounted for much more simply. There is a very old scientific principle, usually attributed to William of Occam, which states that the most probable hypothesis is the simplest necessary to explain the observations. We…
accordingly conclude that all the observations reported were to due to one or other of…1. astronomical or meteorological phenomena of known types…2. conventional aircraft, balloons, birds or other normal…objects, 3. optical illusions and psychological delusions, 4. deliberate hoaxes….We consider that no progress will be made by attempting further investigation…and…We accordingly recommend very strongly that no further investigation of reported mysterious aerial phenomena be undertaken unless and until some material evidence becomes available. (DEFE 44/119)
Bob: That’s very clear.
Jo: Yes, unfortunately for the Working Party almost before the ink is dry on their report there is pressure to begin investigating again.
Jo: There a couple of reasons. The first is that the press continue to print reports of sightings and so people ask ‘what are the government doing about this’? And ‘is there a cover up’?
West: There seems to be a campaign building up to criticise government policy about the release of information on UFOs. The authors of the campaign are firmly convinced that extra terrestrial manifestations have appeared, whereas the Air Staff are by no means so certain. As it is not possible to release official information on something which does not exist, it is difficult…to satisfy those with preconceived ideas to the contrary…Clearly there is no Air Staff interest in what does not exist and the fact that some people believe it to exist is irrelevant. (DEFE 31/118)
Jo: In fact sometimes the Government asks the same question.
Churchill: Prime Minister’s Personal Minute [to] Secretary of State for Air [and] Lord Cherwell. What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth[?]. Let me have a report at your convenience. W[inston] S[pencer] C[hurchill] 28[th] July 1952. (PREM 11/855)
Bob: Wow. What was the response to that?
Jo: The Secretary of State, Viscount De L’Isle told him about the Flying Saucer report and said nothing had happened to change their opinion since. But the second reason that this view is overturned, I think, is because there is a sort of ‘what if’ feeling.
Bob: Not ‘what if they’re aliens’ surely?
Jo: No, but it’s the Cold War. Like with the ghost rockets, what if people are looking up and spotting not little green men, but red ones.
Jo: Exactly. The West knows that the Russians have been experimenting with rockets. We have lurid files in the collection from the mid-50s with names like ‘The Soviet Union and the conquest of outer space.’
Bob: Sounds like a B-movie.
Jo: But they actually turned out to be not imaginative enough. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man made satellite in 1957, experts in Britain and America were shocked.
Bob: Russian air technology was obviously more advanced than the West’s.
Jo: Exactly. What kind of weird craft could the Communists be flying over Britain right now? That’s what keeps the Air Ministry awake at night and so by the mid to late 50s there are clear procedures within the Ministry on how to deal with sightings.
Fighter Command: Should a member of the services see an object in the sky for which he cannot account, he is to report it at once to the Station Commander, through his superior officer…If [a] master radar station has aircraft under control in the vicinity of the reported phenomena, those aircraft are to be diverted to investigate. (DEFE 31/118)
Jo: Alongside this there are also a few people within the Ministry who are responsible, among other things, for checking out UFO sightings. Mostly they don’t come up with much.
West: The more common explanations have included aircraft, balloons, kites, fireworks, car headlights and latterly, artificial satellites. Among the less common have been a model airship and a hayrick on fire.
Bob: So what are they looking for?
Jo: Anything that might have what they call ‘defence implications’.
Bob: Threats to national security.
Bob: How do they actually go about investigating?
Jo: Basically they take the information in the report, wherever it’s from – a ship’s captain, an airforce pilot a member of the public, whatever, and they compare it with known flight paths, meteor showers, bright stars or planets, satellite orbits, unusual weather formations or weather balloons or anything else they know about that might explain what it is.
Bob: And what if it’s none of those things.
Jo: Well it almost certainly is one of those things. From the 1960s onwards we have most of the reports that come in and they’re not quite in the same league as some of the other stuff we’ve been looking at.
Annie Hillyard: Dear Sir, more than three weeks have now elapsed since I notified you about ‘Unidentified Flying Objects’ at the above address. As I have looked each evening since and can see on most nights nine of these objects through one window and twelve more through another window, I doubt that anything has been done regarding them…. (AIR 2/18565)
Bob: That is a bit of a come down. In less than thirty years they’ve gone from dredging lakes and evaluating top secret US reports to answering letters from little old ladies with dirty windows.
Jo: I think it takes inner toughness to be this polite.
Davis: [Dear Miss Jackson] Thank you for your long letter…in which you describe your many visions of the future, ever since 1967 and even before then. We are grateful for the trouble you have taken to set out all your many and varied experiences. I am sure you will not expect us to comment, however, on your prophetic powers, which are clearly unusual and probably unique. (AIR 2/18871)
Jo: But files and files of that sort of thing are exactly the reason that some people think that the Ministry are hiding something. Where’s the juicy stuff?
Kevin Stevens: Dear Mr. Mackey, Thank you for your letter. I am glad to hear that the Ministry of Defence is not withholding UFO information. But it seems to me that you are just explaining them away as anything…I cannot believe you have explained all the reports…because some…I have read…are impossible to explain unless they are machines of some unknown origin and if you say that those cases you have explained as birds, aircraft, clouds – then that must be a lie. I am in a UFO organization and we intend to inform people that UFOs are intelligently controlled machines…we will give them the truth even if you don’t. Yours sincerely, Kevin Stevens.
Jo: What are they hiding?
Bob: Okay, what are they hiding? You’ve spent the whole show hinting and making snarky comments. Do you think that the National Archives has all the relevant information on UFOs up to whenever we’ve got up to, the late 70s.
Jo: That is a very difficult question to answer.
Bob: You’re always saying that. Spill.
Jo: Okay. What do the ministry say?
Ackhurst: Facts on UFOs are not suppressed by the Ministry of Defence. (AIR 2/18565)
Davis: Reports received here have produced no evidence so far of any landings, ground marks or sightings of occupants in the UK.
Miss Jamieson: Our detailed UFO reports going back before 1962 have been destroyed. However if we had received any reports which contained evidence which had any defence implications, they would certainly have been retained.
Ackhurst: The relatively small number of reports which remain unexplained contained insufficient information to enable the occurrence concerned to be positively identified. Although we are unable to make positive identification in these cases, there was nothing in the reports even to suggest that the incidents to which they refer were any different to the incidents mentioned in reports which were identified.
Davis: We…examine UFO reports as part of normal staff functions for any possible defence implications, but we do not pursue our investigations where insufficient data is given because further public expenditure on such investigations would not be justified.
Bob: The Ministry of Defence aren’t looking for aliens and haven’t found any. That seems pretty clear.
Jo: Fair enough. But the fact is that the Ministry of Defence still carries out extensive investigations into some reports but we haven’t yet received any of those findings here at the Archives. In the late 1990s the Ministry looked again at the whole area in a study called Project Condign.
Bob: But now you’re talking about very recent stuff when you know most government records fall under the 30 years rule and we don’t get them here until they’re at least 30 years old.
Jo: That’s true but you can’t blame people for being a bit paranoid when they know there are more detailed records out there that aren’t publicly available. That’s why it’s such a big deal that the Ministry of Defence has agreed that well over a hundred recent UFO files should be transferred to The National Archives over the next three years.
Bob: Presumably these are the ones that were considered some sort of defence risk?
Jo: We can guess what might be in them by looking back at the 1950s files showing that jets were scrambled and questions asked in Parliament about how good Britain’s early warning systems were because of unidentified radar readings. How easy was it, politicians want to know, to tell a radar echo from a Soviet aircraft armed with nuclear warheads?
Bob: There are really serious consequences if mistakes are made.
Jo: Absolutely, and the files often reveal confusion or weakness of defence, that’s why they’re kept secret. Here’s a good example of a UFO sighting from 1957 that appeared in the press.
Daily Worker: The Air Ministry was last night still trying to identify the mystery object which streaked along the Channel coast on Monday night…Supersonic Gloster Javelin fighters…got scramble orders and were guided to the vicinity of the object by radar. But despite their 600mph speed at 50,000 feet, they failed to catch it. Last night all the Air Ministry would say was that investigation was continuing. (AIR 20/9321)
Jo: And here’s the explanation provided to the Air Minister, George Ward.
Air Ministry: 16 Hunters of Fighter Command were exercising between 9pm and 10.30pm on 29th April. Two aircraft appeared on the radar screens of Ventnor [Ground-Controlled Interception] at about 10pm. Since aircraft are not tracked inland, the GCI was not aware that the aircraft had in fact come from within the United Kingdom.
Jo: So that’s obviously embarrassing for at least two reasons.
Bob: The airforce is chasing it’s own tail around.
Jo: Yes, and not only are British planes completely failing to recognise one another but the Air Ministry is having to admit that it can’t accurately track aircraft away from the coast. Obviously, in the middle of the Cold War this is not good. But I’ve got one more question on behalf of the UFO researchers – everyone really and it’s a question of trust.
Bob: In what way?
Jo: Well, when documents reveal something that the government would rather we didn’t find out about-
Bob: Like the existence of aliens?
Jo: If you like. But it could be anything. When we’re talking about files like that, how can we know that they’ll be preserved and protected and who decides whether they’ll get transferred here to the Archives or kept by the department or destroyed? Now I could blether on about that but to answer those questions we really need an expert. Fortunately I found one. Howard Davies, the National Archives own guru on Archive selection.
Bob: I hope you didn’t ask him a lot of insane questions about hiding and destroying records?
Jo: No. Well maybe a couple.
Jo: Howard, welcome to Past Masters, our first ever guest.
Jo: So I think I’m right in saying that we take on average about 5% of all records generated by government. How do we decide what to preserve? Who does the deciding?
Jo: So how can we ensure that sensitive information and by that I mean information that might be damaging to a government if it came into the public domain gets preserved?
[Follow up question]
Jo: What a nice man.
Bob: Happy now?
Jo: You think I’ve got such a nasty suspicious mind. Thank you to our readers, Andrew Ashmore, Gary Thorpe and Andrew Ormerod. As usual documents from this edition are on the website www.nationalarchive.gov.uk/education/podcasts. The Ministry of Defence is now transferring files on UFOs to the National Archives every other month and you can find out more about the new releases at ufos.nationalarchives.gov.uk and I’m sure everything is totally above board.
Bob: You’re impossible. I think we’d better talk about next episode.
Jo: I think you’re right.
Bob: Next time we’re back in the Middle Ages at the height of the Hundred Years War between England and France. We’ll be looking at the documents that brought one English king to the brink of ruling the whole of France and finding out why this 15th century European Union dissolved back into a bloody conflict.
Jo: Once more unto the breach dear friends.
Bob: I trust you’ll be back on your medication by then.
Jo: Thank you very much.