UFO files at The National Archives
Originally set up at the request of Winston Churchill, the Ministry of Defence’s UFO Desk ran for over 60 years, collating mysterious sightings and records of strange objects in the sky.
In this talk, Dr David Clarke, Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, discusses the remarkable stories behind some of the images from his book, ‘UFO Drawings from The National Archives’.
Just to start with, 2017 marked the 70th anniversary of the UFO mystery. I don’t know whether you’re aware of that, the modern one anyway. Because there have been sightings of strange aerial phenomena before the Second World War and interest in the existence of alien intelligence can be traced back to ancient times.
The idea that mysterious flying objects seen in the sky represent reconnaissance of the earth by extraterrestrials can be dated to a very specific period. Almost precisely, 1947, which also was the very beginning of the Cold War. During the Cold War western governments and intelligence agencies spent millions of tax payers’ money collecting, analysing and investigating reports of unidentified flying objects whilst at the same time denying that they had any formal interest in the subject.
Now much of this collection and analysis was carried out secretly, as I’ve said, whilst the MOD and other agencies put out bland position statements that said in effect: A, there was no evidence that UFOs or whatever they were constituted a threat to defence; B, as a result of that they had never carried out any in depth study and therefore had no expertise on the subject.
Anyone who has ever written to the Ministry of Defence about this will probably have had a statement effectively saying that. But before the arrival of freedom of information there was not much an ordinary person like us could do to scrutinise these public statements or establish what work was going on behind the scenes. Or what investigations had been made into some of the quite spectacular sightings and experiences that had been published in the media and circulated by ufologists, people who are interested in the subject of UFOs. But since the 1990s there’s been a sea of change in access to government documents.
Firstly, the Open Government Initiative that was started by John Major, the Prime Minister, code of conduct built for access to government information that was introduced during John Major’s premiership. Finally, under Tony Blair, you probably all remember, we got the full Freedom of Information Act. Now the document trail that emerged before that under the Public Record Act, something that’s known as The Thirty Year Rule that you have heard about, show that claims the Ministry of Defence only has a passing interest in this subject and never treated UFOs as a serious threat to defence were not quite the whole story.
I think you’re going to have your eyes opened tonight by what I’m going to show you because I’ve spent the last 20 years working through this material. I think the first time I walked through the doors of The National Archives almost exactly 20 years ago in 1998 was when I actually started this research. I started the research as an investigative journalist and was looking for a good story. Initially, I used the Freedom of Information Act to discover what documents were hiding on what, during that time in the 1990s, was a very newsworthy and quirky topic. It ticked all the boxes for news values. But more recently, as an academic researcher at Sheffield Hallam University’s Department of Journalism, that good story had been transformed into a full-time research impact project.
So tonight I want to present to you the fruits of my labours. In so doing, I’m going to reveal what I believe to be the ten most important, or significant, documents and groups of documents that have emerged from the British Governments UFO file. I’m really pleased that after many many decades these all now form part of the important collection of documents here at The National Archives. So please note that any selection of this kind is entirely subjective and I’m conscious that we have limited time to discuss the highlights of what is actually an enormous collection of material.
So before I start, many of you might be aware of this story that broke just before the Christmas holidays initially in the New York Times. That newspaper revealed that the American Department of Defence had been secretly running a programme to investigate reports of Unidentified Flying Objects. They had hidden this really clearly in plain sight by leaving one right in the middle of the Pentagon. This programme was hidden under the snappy title of The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Programme or AATIP for short. According to press reports, it had an annual budget of $22 million. Little of significance has emerged since this announcement apart from a couple of grainy videos shot by US navy pilots.
But of interest to me is that since this announcement has emerged in the media just before Christmas, the US Department of Defence has been inundated; it’s had more than 2000 Freedom of Information requests about this programme from people actually wanting the see the actual files and documents that they accumulated.
Across the world freedom of information has obliged governments to open up their files on this subject to curious citizens like myself not just in the UK and the USA but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, France and many other countries. All of them in the last 10 years have opened up the files and tried to upload stuff on to the internet so that people can see what work has been done.
Of course this wasn’t the first time the United States military have funded official investigations of UFOs, or flying saucers as they used to be known in the early days. From 1947 the US Air Force ran a series UFO investigation projects under a variety of names. The best known of which was Project Blue Book, that operated from 1952 to 1969. It was closed after the University of Colorado, which was given a $30 million contract from the United States Air Force to look at its files on the subject; it had accumulated something like 12,000 reports between 1947 and 1969. The university did a survey of what was contained there and it found that about 6%, or 701 of those 12,000, reports remained unidentified.
So despite for the fact that there were these unidentified sightings, it reached the conclusions that around 90% of all reports could be traced to ordinary phenomena, man-made and natural. No UFO report had given any indication of a threat to national security. There was no evidence even that sightings categorised as unexplained or identified were extraterrestrial spacecraft.
Finally, little if anything, had emerged from the study of UFOs since 1947 that had added to scientific knowledge and further extensive study of UFO sightings by military or scientific sources was not justified. Now clearly those conclusions cannot be the final say or else they would not be spending $22 million a year from 2007 onwards. So something must have happened in the meantime. What we can say is that Project Blue Book failed to kill off interest in the subject which was probably the intention at the time.
One of the themes that I’ve noticed in my research is how much our Ministry of Defence have relied upon the results from these American projects to inform their own conclusions. Also, how to deal with the accumulated archives that these investigations produced, because in 1970 when Project Blue Book closed, what happened was they transferred all their files to the US National Archives and basically said that’s the end of our interest, if you want to know about UFOs go and look at the Blue Book files. That is effectively what the British have done by transferring the Ministry of Defences files here to our National Archives, so bear that in mind as we go along.
First a bit of history. The acronym UFO, remember the U stands for Unidentified, was itself a product of the Cold War. It was coined by the head of Project Blue Book in 1952, Ed Rupelt. He wanted a phrase that didn’t imply that these unidentified objects in the sky were spacecraft from elsewhere because flying saucers by nature of the phrase means spacecraft from elsewhere and he wanted a military term to get away from that idea. So he coined UFO as like something that the USAF could use as short hand.
At this time the military were not concerned with what Rupelt called Men from Mars. They were interested in aircraft and missiles from another alien nation, the Soviet Union, and they wanted to know if these things came from behind the Iron Curtain. The Cold War effectively provides the most important context in which all these stories about UFOs and flying saucers emerged. So you have to see belief in UFOs in the context of that period; Rapid technological advances, the space race, the influence of science fiction, movies and TV programmes, government secrecy which was endemic throughout the Cold War and the continual spectre of nuclear war. These all fuelled anxiety and paranoia on a mass scale which fed into this growing myth of visitations. When I say myth I don’t mean to say false, I’m talking about a myth meaning something like a story that we accept to explain things we don’t understand, as in the greek myths. So although this talk is about the British files we can’t ignore the fact that the modern UFO phenomenon began in the USA.
You can actually trace it all to one specific event. Kenneth Arnold, private pilot; he was flying looking for a crashed supply plane in Washington State over Mount Rainier on the afternoon of the 24th June 1947, and we can trace the modern UFO phenomenon specifically to that date and that time. He was flying along and he noticed a formation of what he described as nine mysterious objects in the distance and they were flying in echelon formation. You’ll notice that his drawing doesn’t show a flying saucer, it’s like a bat wing, almost like what you would see today, one of those stealth aircraft that the Americans have developed.
He described it when he landed in one of the airfields in Washington State, he was asked by a reporter what did you see. He said well I saw these bat wing shaped objects, and they said well how they did they move, and he said they moved like a saucer would if you skipped it across a pond. So you could see the way journalists looked at this and thought we need to come up with a phrase that people will recognise.
That’s how flying saucers hit the headlines. Arnold later calculated the speed of the mysterious aircraft that he had seen as being around 1200mph. That was actually double the speed of the most advanced fighter aircraft that was in existence at the time. But he right to his dying day never used the phrase flying saucer he described the nine objects as crescent shaped or bat wing shaped. Flying saucers were invented by newspapers.
But within 48 hours of his report arriving, the headlines created an international sensation. People began reporting seeing mysterious disk and saucer shaped objects not only across North America but the entire world. At the time many commentators wrote off flying saucers as being a silly season fad, came along at the time when newspapers are looking for that kind of quirky story. It was compared to the Loch Ness Monster in the British press. People thought that by September people will have forgotten about it. But few people back then realised we would still be talking about this subject 70 years later.
One measure of its massive cultural impact was that in August 1947, just two months later, the Gallup Organisation ran a poll of US citizens and it found that nine out of ten people had heard about flying saucers. Think about that, within two months of this sighting nine out of ten Americans had heard of flying saucers. Gallup has said that that is one of the largest recognition ratings in the history of the Gallup Organisation. Just shows you what impact this story had. Kenneth Arnolds’s sighting and the Roswell incident that followed came at a critical moment the post-World War Two landscape. Ken Arnold himself initially believed that he had witnessed a test flight, a top secret prototype aircraft flown by the US Navy or Army Air Force.
The memory you can see here which is actually from the US National Archives, I’ve borrowed it for the night. It’s quite a seminal document, it was sent by General Nathan Twinning to General Shalgun of the US Army Air Force before the actual US Air Force actually came into existence. It’s from September 1947 and it marks the moment that Project Sign, which was the predecessor for Project Blue Book, the very first official investigation of UFOs by any country came into existence. General Twinning says that an intelligence assessment of the reports that were made during that summer had concluded that the phenomenon reported is something real and not visionary, which was quite something at the time. So that marks the beginning of the modern era of government UFO investigations. The point of which the United States Air Force and soon to be followed by the RAF and the Ministry of Defence began investigating these mysterious sightings.
So much has been written about the American Project Bluebook, since its records were deposited at the US National Archives but far less has been said about its British equivalent, the Ministry of Defence files which are now largely here. I think I can say I’m one of few people, perhaps the only person, who can honestly say that they have read virtually every single surviving memo, report and document on this subject in the UK Archives somewhere in the ardour of 120,000 pages of material.
No wonder I’ve had to have laser treatment on my eyes! I should explain that the first files on this subject were opened here when this place was called the Public Records Office under the Thirty Year Rule in 1986. That’s when the Winston Churchill memo actually arrived here. In the 20 years between 1986 and 2006, a further 200 files were opened, usually on the January 1st. You could order them up and consult them in the reading room. So that’s where I started looking at them back in 1988 as a journalist.
At that time there were already existed about 150-200 files on the subject at Kew. When we got to 2007, the Ministry of Defence decided because there was so much interest in this subject, to release all of the remaining archive in what was a special open government project in response to the public interest in the subject. Some of money was found to scan and redact personal information from the remaining documents and these were uploaded to a dedicated UFO landing page on the archives website which is still there, you can still find it.
The five year project, I’ve tried to summarise from the results of it, resulted in the advanced opening a further 209 files in all another 250,000 pages. They were released in ten tronches which began in May 2008 and ended in July 2013. Now my role was as a consultant or curator of the files, to read and prepare summaries and highlight each of these ten tronches of files, and to act as the media expert or go-to person when each of the files were released to the public. In terms of public impact and engagement this project was a massive success.
The first release in 2008 alone broke records. It received more unique visits than the release of the Doomsday Book online which is an incredible impact. For the whole programme as you can see this is information provided by the National Archives press office, between 2008 and present there’s been 4.7 million page views of the documents and 3.9 million document downloads. All the wonderful things that you can do now, you can find out how many people have visited, when they visited, where they are.
It’s interesting that people in America seem to be more interested in our documents than we are. And South Korea as well, the people are interested in what people have been seeing. One document alone, that particular one which is a UFO policy document has been downloaded a quarter of a million times.
It’s been estimated that news of the release has reached an estimated 25 million people across the world. It’s the National Archives did a really good job on this because the French Government released their UFO files years before this and there was so much interest in that the website they set up crashed because it couldn’t cope with the traffic so something was done here to prevent that happening.
So what took me by surprise, this massive public and media interest, the Ministry of Defence and The National Archives seemed to be quite surprised that there was so much interest in this subject. And I never understood why this should be the case because although some regard UFOs as being a fringe topic that obviously isn’t the view shared by the general public. Even the SETI scientists, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Seth Shostak who you may have seen on TV, he himself has pointed out that opinion surveys have found somewhere between one third and one half of the US and UK population say they believe Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials and around 1-2% of people claim that they’ve had a personal UFO experience. So I suggest to you it isn’t a fringe topic.
Interest in UFOs is a mainstream topic, it should be treated as such and not as trivia not something to be disregarded as unimportant. Whether it’s true or false is irrelevant, it’s a social phenomenon. The reason I’m showing you this just to give you an example is an extract from a 2002 UFO file and this is five years before the MOD decided to transfer their remaining archives to Kew. In 2002 they were playing with a new toy called the Internet to experiment and they actually uploaded some of their UFO files onto the MOD website for people to download.
As you can see they were unprepared for the results, this is just one sample period between 29th November 2002 and 18 December 2002. As you can see they logged 15,000 downloads of UFO documents from their website. The top three files as you can see were all UFO related. They were even more popular, can you believe it, than MOD press releases. In 2005, the first year of implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, they received 199 requests, individual requests, for UFO related documents, again in the top three. So any idea that there’s no public interest in this subject and it’s unimportant should have been dispelled at that point.
So what is it in these documents that people find so fascinating? Well here are just some examples, these are crayon drawings made by children from a primary school in Cheshire in 1977. They ran to tell their teacher that a flying saucer had landed in their playground at lunchtime. The teacher was so convinced that they’d seen something extraordinary that she called the police. Imagine that. The police arrived and they were convinced that the children had seen something unusual. So much so that the police officer ran Manchester Airport, Air Traffic Control, ruled out any chance of it being an aircraft. He went back to the school, gathered up all the children’s drawings and forwarded the dossier to the branch of the MOD, which acted as a focal point for reports on UFOs, and there they remained on file for another 30 years before those drawings came here to Kew and people could see them.
You’ll notice also this one. The young woman who produced this amazing pencil drawing of an object that looks like it might be one of the advanced thunderbird aircraft. This was seen over Hampstead en route to Tracy Island in 1972.
Note these are just a few of the images. Fantastic drawings that I chose from the files for my book UFO Drawings from The National Archives published by Four Corners Books last year. When I look at these crude but often effective drawings of UFOs and flying saucers sent to the Ministry of Defence by ordinary people I see objects of great cultural, historical and imaginative value whatever they represent. I have to accept that the Departmental Record Offices, the Civil Servants, the RAF people who gathered them didn’t always share my view. But from 2005, freedom of information imposed a responsibility upon Ministry of Defence archive managers to firstly put in place a rigorous and efficient record management system that was part of the requirements under FOI and for the first time in law they had to respond to requests for access to closed files and records from people like myself.
This wasn’t actually formalised until 2011 when the Ministry of Defence updated its guidance for record reviewers for the first time listing UFOs under the list of topics subject to special review procedures. Which basically means they can’t destroy files on that subject anymore. So UFO records were no longer regarded as unimportant in terms of public records they were now invested with public interest.
I like to believe I played a small but significant role, be it my freedom of information request and research in shifting the perception of these records as trivia, which is how they were regarded before that, to something of long lasting cultural value. But it’s important to remember that, although something like 400 files have survived and can now be consulted here in the reading rooms at Kew or via The National Archives website, these are just a fraction of the number of ones that existed because vast swathes of earlier records many of them dating from the Kenneth Arnold period, 1940s, 1950s, but also even some recent papers from the 1980s were destroyed decades ago and these poor administrative decisions have had consequences in that this destruction policy has provided a gift to conspiracy theorists who are suspicious, quite rightly in some cases, of the reasons for it.
One of the unfortunate consequences upon the government has been public trust. Shelves if you look at them have been filled with public letters and questions from ordinary members of the public, the press, members of parliament, lords all doubting the basic truth of the Ministry of Defence straightforward policy statements on the subject. And many of these doubts are based upon responses from the Ministry of Defence who say they cannot comment because all the files from the earlier period have been destroyed. So they’ve actually created a stick to conspiracy theorists to beat them with.
Now just to gain an understanding of the records we need to get our head around the complex administrative structure of the MOD that produced them. There is this popular idea of a UFO desk that once existed that conjures up images of lavishly funded secret organisations, like in the Men in Black films that you may have seen. But from my research it was more accurate to describe the system as more like something you would see in Yes Minister.
So since about 1958 there’s been a branch of the air staff that acted as the focal point, the clearing house for all public inquiries in what became known as the UFO Desk. As you can see it’s constantly changing its name and reinventing itself and that’s what makes the records so difficult to follow in chronological order. This diagram attempts to show that there was never just one branch that had an interest in the subject or sole responsibility for it. So you can imagine all these people all beavering away on the subject, all creating their own series of files, all sharing documents. You can see and appreciate how easy it is for stuff to get lost and destroyed and discarded.
The UFO Desk acted as a filing cabinet and a post-box for standard line that was sent out to anyone that contacted the ministry to report an UFO experience. But they were never responsible for investigations of UFO incidents that were deemed to be possibly of Defence significance. The people who did the investigations were Air Technical Intelligence and the air defence, the RAF, HQ, Number 11 Group and Air Defence Ground Environment who had access to radars so if someone saw something they could immediately check whether it was visible on their radar picture. The files revealed that these two had the resources when they needed to carry out detailed enquiries and if necessary impound radar film or even scramble aircraft.
How did they gather sightings? Well they did it via a standard report, and you’ll see here on this one, the RAF Duty Officer on this particular evening obviously had a bit of a sense of humour because he’s added an improvised doodle of a UFO and alien in the top corner. This was photocopied so it turns up lots of other examples of the files. The British again just copied this from Project Blue Book because there’s a very similar form that was used by the Americans to gather basic information about sightings. The original Air Ministry form had five basic questions A to E that was based upon a template used by Blue Book. During the Sixties, the Ministry of Defence updated the forms and distributed copies to RAF stations, Air Traffic Control centres and police. So when a member of the public called to report a sighting someone would grab a blank copy of that, take down the basic details and send it to the UFO Desk.
By 1997 they were so inundated because their workload doubled even trebled because The X-Files were on TV that they actually set up an answerphone in Whitehall. So if you saw a UFO, phone the UFO Desk and leave a message on the answerphone. It’s interesting if you look at the files there are thousands of these in the files, literally thousands. If you read through them some of them are quite amusing. There are occasional examples in the files of what one official described as `uncomplimentary comments’ made by staff about members of the public who called to report frivolous observations. For example, two objects that looked like stars or a dot in the sky that did not look like an aeroplane.
Anyway I’ve burbled on long enough to give you the basic context, now I want to give you my top ten documents and I had to choose this one as the first in my ten documents. Possibly the best known UFO related document at The National Archives, the UK National Archives.
In 1952, our Prime Minister, Winston Churchill then aged 77, was sufficiently worried about a spate of UFO sightings across the Atlantic over Washington DC that he fired off this famous memo to the Air Ministry. What’s all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth? Let me have a report at your convenience. It’s interesting that those questions could be questions that we could all ask. What is the truth? That’s what we want to know. He was effectively as our Prime Minister summarising that, he’d heard the stuff, he’s seen the press reports, he wanted to know. Quite reasonable. Height of the Cold War, could these things be Russians? Is there a threat to the defence of the country? In the same file you’ll see he got the response from the Air Ministry who said effectively nothing to worry about Prime Minister. Our best chaps have been looking at the subject; you can rest assured a full intelligence study has been carried out by Ministry of Defence.
And the conclusions this reached are pretty much the same as those reached by the US Air Force, Projects Sign and Grudge. The study had turned to what he called a very old scientific principle, Occam’s razor, which states that the most probable hypothesis is the simplest necessary to explain the observations.
So the conclusions, as you can see there, were that all sightings reported were due to one or another of the following causes. Astronomical or metrological phenomena of known types, mistaken identification of aircraft and balloons etc. Optical illusions and psychological delusions and deliberate hoaxes. But what’s interesting is this scientific approach to the problem was not shared by everyone in Churchill’s Cabinet. He (Duncan Sandys) was Churchill’s son-in-law. Who was also at the time the Minister of Supply, later to become the Minister of Defence, so quite high powered. He clashed with Lord Cherwell who was the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor and Cherwell had circulated a minute to Churchill and the other members of the Cabinet saying `Forget this flying saucer nonsense. It’s just another example of American mass hysteria’. Those were his words. But Duncan Sandys was sceptical of the certainty expressed by the Government scientists. He insisted that the evidence for flying saucers was no different to the first reports of German V2 rockets when they arrived in 1943. Which he said all our leading scientists declared to be technically impossible at the time, yet they arrived.
So my number two document. Although Churchill’s memo was released in 1986 no trace of this full intelligence study could be found in the Ministry of Defence archives. For around 15 years anyone who asked to see this thing that was used to brief Churchill was told `Sorry, can’t find it. It’s been destroyed’ along with all the other UFO files from the 1950s and 60s. I found this impossible to believe. And in 2001, in the run up to the implementation of The Freedom of Information Act, I made a request for it. I was initially fobbed off by the Departmental Record Officer who said `No trace can be found therefore we have to assume it’s been destroyed’. But then six months later, I got another letter saying one of our record reviewers was looking at an unrelated file on scientific intelligence, and guess what he found? A copy of the study that had been made in 1950 that had been used to brief Winston Churchill.
What my research then revealed was that the study had been ordered in 1950 as a direct result of an appeal by one of Churchill’s most trusted scientists, Sir Henry Tizard, who, you may have heard of him, was one of the people who was involved in the development of radar that was so effective in the defence of the UK during The Battle of Britain. So it was a direct intervention by Tizard. He said reports of flying saucers should be taken seriously and not dismissed out of hand. And as a result of his intervention the Ministry of Defence’s Department of Scientific and Technical Intelligence set up what became known as the Flying Saucer Working Party, possibly the most exotically named working party in the history of the Civil Service. It’s interesting to note that the full study that was used to reassure Winston Churchill ran to just six pages and the only section that’s been removed on it was a paragraph that said it had been shared and approved by the CIA. So these six sheets of paper were used as the basis for all British official policy on the subject for the next fifty years. Also note the change in terminology find sources have been rejected now we’ve adopted the Americanism Unidentified Flying Objects.
In summary, its conclusions were that no further study of UFOs should be conducted unless and until some better evidence becomes available. The top quote is `when the material available is a mass of purely subjective evidence it is impossible to give anything like scientific proof that the phenomena observed or are not caused by something entirely novel such as aircraft of extraterrestrial origin developed by beings unknown to us on lines more advanced than anything we have thought of’. So quite an interesting line from the MOD at that time. I think having worked through all these documents that the key document is not actually in the report; it’s a covering letter that people might have just passed over and realised the significance of, because when the report was completed in 1951 it was sent to Henry Tizard by Bertie Blount who was the Director of Scientific Intelligence with this covering note, and it says quite cryptically I think, ‘This is the report on flying saucers for which you asked, I hope it will serve its purpose’. What was its purpose?
Okay, moving swiftly on. Top document number three. This is quite a spectacular sighting and nothing was seen! At least by the human eye. Early in April 1957, two radar cabins at a bombing range in Scotland, RAF West Freugh, detected an enormous UFO moving at an incredible height at the time 70,000 feet above the Irish Sea far beyond the capability of most aircraft of the day. Civilian radar operators spoke to media about this before they could be told not to because it was covered by the Official Secrets Act. And it ended up on the front pages of a lot of national newspapers much to the chagrin of the Ministry of Defence. This led to a major panic in Whitehall, questions in Parliament and for the very first time UFOs came up on the agenda of the Joint Intelligence Committee or JIC. Never again as far as I’m aware.
We were now at the height of the Cold War and the radar technicians were warned under the Official Secrets Act not to say anything else about what they detected. A very odd thing to do if as the Ministry of Defence claimed UFOs didn’t exist and there was no threat to defence from something that didn’t exist. So why use the Official Secrets Act? Because of the parliamentary interest in this case the full Intelligence Report about it has survived. It confirms not one but five objects were detected by three separate radar stations. At least one of which rose to an altitude of 70,000 feet where it remained occasionally stationary and at other times moving at speeds up to 240mph. Shortly before it vanished the radar operators sought to force smaller objects moving inline as stone behind the bigger one. And the report says that the radar operators said that the sizes of these echoes were considerably larger than what would be expected from normal aircraft. In fact they considered that the size was nearer that of a ship’s echo. Think about that over the Irish Sea.
The investigation ruled out the usual suspects, they eliminated aircraft, metrological balloons, charged thunder clouds etc etc. And the conclusion they reached is both significant and important because it’s probably the closest the Air Ministry ever came to an admission that UFOs did exist. It is concluded that the incident was due to the presence of five reflecting objects of unknown type and origin. What were they? Of course at the time the existence and capability of the CIA’s U-2 spy plane was one of the most closely guarded secrets in the western world. Was it a U-2? Never been answered. And the CIA files show it was a top secret project that this time there was a number of air defence alerts triggered all around the western world caused by U-2s flying into different country’s air space, because it was a top secret project they didn’t tell us about it, they didn’t tell the French about it. So maybe they were even testing our radar defences. But who knows? It’s a mystery.
Number four. After Winston Churchill’s memo this is without doubt the best known, if not most significant, UFO document held by the National Archives. It has become indeed one of the most famous documents in the history of Ufology across the earth, not just here. So it’s about the Rendlesham Forest incident. Again I’m sure you must have heard about that. It’s got to be there in my top ten. The memo was sent by an American Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Halt of the US Air Force, to the UFO Desk at Whitehall on the 13th January 1981.
Now immediately I ask you why did he wait two weeks to send this memo? You see the actually event happened just before Christmas. So it’s like I think I’ll better tell you the aliens landed just before Christmas, but I waited two weeks for the Base Commander to come back from his Christmas holidays to actually write a memo about this. Something fishy right from the beginning. At that time Halt was the Deputy Commander of RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk, a nuclear armed NATO Air Base.
As you can see, what he was reporting was sent under the plain heading ‘Unexplained Lights’. It described a series of bizarre sightings reported by American airmen and security police over the Rendlesham Forest, a mile from the east gate of the Twin Bentwaters Woodbridge Air Base. In the document Halt describes how on the first night three unarmed airmen went to investigate what they believed was an air crash in the forest. After venturing deep inside the Forestry Commission Plantation they saw a strange glowing object, metallic in appearance and triangular in shape, two to three metres long and two metres high. This object or whatever it was illuminated the entire forest with a white light and had a pulsing red light on top and a bank of blue lights underneath. The object was hovering or on legs and as the patrolmen approached it manoeuvred through the trees and disappeared. Early the next morning British Police Constables were called to look at the evidence because the airmen had gone back and found holes in the forest floor where they thought this thing had come down but while they were there they were distracted by a call about a break-in at a post office, off they went leaving the evidence behind. I kid you not that is what happened!
Two nights later Colonel Halt, who claims he was determined to debunk the story, led a party of airmen into the forest equipped with a Geiger counter. He wanted to get some hard evidence that something had happened there. As they got into the forest they claimed they could detect higher levels of radiation both on the trees and on the holes in the ground and then, as Halt records the events in real time on a hand held tape recorder, the team actually have their own UFO experience which he describes in the third paragraph. As the animals in the forest began making an awful noise, a red sun like light appeared through the trees, pulsated and disappeared. You can hear him getting more and more excited on this tape.
Of course, there’s a lot more detail to this story than that. I don’t have the time to go into it here but I just want to make the point that although the RAF Woodbridge UFO has now become a ufological legend, the files that you can actually examine, the actual document as it appears in the files just turn up in the general UFO report file. It’s not treated as anything special or out of the ordinary.
And it reveals the file that the only investigation that was carried out at the time was some straight forward checks by the RAF on Air Defence radars. They found nothing unusual on things seen on radar. Therefore not interested, move onto the next one. And it wasn’t until Colonel Halt’s sensational story hit the headlines in the News of the World in 1983, two years later, that it became world famous. Anyone who has examined the so called Rendlesham File which was released in 2001 will know that it paints the story no further it opens with Halt’s memo and much of the remaining 200 pages consists of letters from ufologists across the world wanting to know more.
Ok, so before we move on to the next one I just want to show you what I think is the most significant statement in the files on the Rendlesham Forest incident. It was put together for a private briefing that was given to this guy, the late Admiral Lord Hill-Norton, who was a retired Chief of Defence staff no less, who became obsessed with this topic. He put in dozens of questions in the House of Lords to the MOD about the Rendlesham incident. He actually challenged the MOD to answer what I think is quite a reasonable question.
If the American report is accurate there is evidence that British air space and territory are vulnerable to unwarranted intrusion to a disturbing degree. If a UFO came in, landed right next to an armed NATO air base shouldn’t the MOD be interested in that? If, on the other hand, Colonel Halt’s report must be dismissed, then we have evidence – no less disturbing I suggest – that a sizeable number of American personnel, at an important nuclear armed base in British territory, are capable of serious misperception, the consequences of which might be grave in military terms.
Good question. Now I spoke to Hill-Norton about this and he told me that the Ministry of Defence had never given him a satisfactory response to his questions about Halt’s report. But this briefing, revealed in the fourth release of papers in 2009, tells a very different story. It tells how the noble Lord was told by the MOD that they considered it highly unlikely that any violation of UK airspace would be heralded by a display of lights.
Now think about it. If UFOs don’t want to be seen, why did they leave their lights on? Quite a reasonable question, if you’re doing something that’s sort of covert, why would you come with all these lights flashing? That was their attitude. We think it’s equally unlikely that any reconnaissance or spying activity by a hostile foreign nation would be announced in this way. We believe the fact that Colonel Halt did not report these occurrences to the MOD for almost two weeks after the event, together with the low key manner in which he handled it are indicative of the degree of importance in defence terms that should be attached to this incident. That was their final word on the matter.
Ok, next one. Number five. Whatever view you take of the Rendlesham Forest incident it’s quite a surprise to learn that no detailed investigation of it was ever carried out by the MOD, if you believe what they say. But that inconvenient fact is what the surviving records actually show. This is what we have to accept I’m afraid.
But that isn’t the case with this next document and this is an exclusive because this has never before been shown in public. It was only released to me two weeks ago. This is an incident that happened in October 1983 when personnel at RAF Troodos high on Mount Olympus in the British controlled territory in the island of Cyprus were monitoring a secret flight by an American spy plane RC135 and it was following Soviet military activity in the Middle East. This is an entry from the Base Operations Record Book and again, like with the Rendlesham Forest incident, starts with a rather classic understatement. `The 19th October proved to be an exciting evening’. You can say that again! Because this particular spy plane was buzzed by something that the crew, the American crew, described as `something very very big with multiple flashing lights’. It circled around their aircraft and as it did so they become more and more convinced that they were being escorted by a UFO.
The object clearly visible on the aircraft radars but nothing could be seen on RAF Troodos radar, the ground radar, or by any other Air Defence radar. All the time that they were seeing this thing they were talking to RAF Troodos who were listening in, talking to the crew and recording what was happening. And they were giving them a minute-by-minute account of what was going on at 35,000 feet above the Mediterranean.
And this report triggered an Air Defence scramble; you may be able to see on there, an F4 Phantom was sent up from RAF Akrotiri to investigate and it was joined by two F14 American Tomcats sent up from the US sixth fleet. But the UFO did not hang around for the three fighters to intercept it. Before they reached the scene it just zoomed off, disappeared, in the direction of the African coast.
Now I wonder if any of you have seen the Marvel film Black Panther? Maybe this UFO was returning home to Wakanda? Anyway, bit of an in-joke for those who have seen the film.
Ok, these are the remaining documents about the case. It says very clearly on the preceding document that the contact remains a mystery. Unlike the Rendlesham Forest incident, the files show that this incident was taken very seriously. Radar film of the recordings of the ground to air chatter were impounded sent to London for scrutiny by RAF specialists. The very last memo in the files states that all the material was sent to the USA for further study. But that is where the trail goes cold. This is one of the biggest frustrations in my research. What happened to the case file? What happened to the radar film? What happened to the analysis? There’s no trace of it in the files. If you believe the Ministry of Defence, they don’t know themselves because all those records have been destroyed. That’s there line on the subject, surprise surprise! This is the sort of stuff from which conspiracy theories are formed.
Ok moving swiftly on, number six. On the subject of conspiracies this takes me to my next document which comes from 1967, the year I was born, and it was also the one year the MOD was literally inundated with UFO reports. Before this, they previously logged about a dozen each year. But in 1967 they received a report virtually every single day of the year – 362 reports in 1967. Start of a trend that was to continue.
There was a huge flurry of sightings in October that were triggered by this report that made page one of The Times, of all newspapers. How often do you see UFOs as the lead story in the newspaper today? And as you can see, it was triggered by a report by two police officers in Devon. They reported what they described as `a star spangled flying cross’ in the sky over Dartmoor. They saw it and they started following in their patrol car. As they moved towards it, it moved away. To the point at which they were doing at times up to 90mph, swirling around roads in Dartmoor trying to catch this thing. They appeared on TV to talk about it. It was all across the media and it triggered a massive flurry of sightings.
Questions were asked in the House of Commons. The Ministry of Defence were forced on the defensive leading them to produce reams of policy statements to nullify MPs. And this marks the first and only time the Ministry of Defence set up a team to do field investigations of UFO incidents, I mean something really almost directly out of The X-Files. So the team included a UFO Desk Officer, a psychologist from the RAF scientific staff, and an Intelligence Officer from an outfit called DI55.
Has anyone heard of DI55? That’s because they were secret. DI55 was a secret branch of the Ministry of Defence that in 1967 was given the task of conducting investigations of any UFO incident that was deemed to have what they called Defence significance, i.e. it couldn’t be explained by all the usual explanations. The tiny little residue that was left, could they be Russian? Could they be alien? It was DI55 who did the investigations not the UFO Desk. Now the D155 were part of the Defence Intelligence Staff which if you remember were the people who ordered the Flying Saucer Working Party in 1950. Unlike MI5 and GCHQ the DIS are covered by the Freedom of Information Act as a result it was inevitable that their interest in UFOs would emerge under open government when documents from this era were transferred to Kew. As I said DI55 were part of the Defence Intelligence Staff and their key task was to monitor ballistic missiles and space weapons developed by potential enemies including the Soviet Union. What remains of the files shows that they were interested in UFOs because they could often reveal the location of Russian hardware such as the remains of spy satellites which were occasionally reported as UFOs when they re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
This is an extract, my number six, from the DI55 policy file from 1967. It contains a fascinating insight into how they viewed the UFO mystery. As you can see it says `Causes of UFO reports’ and I just want to quickly mention some of the key points they make. Paragraph one; `It is true to say that by and large reports from someone who has seen some unfamiliar phenomenon or someone who has seen something well known in an unfamiliar situation’.
I refer you back to the Rendlesham Forest incident. Paragraph two; `In this field we are dealing with the known unreliability of untrained observers, the police files are full of conflicting reports on accidents where ordinary unbiased spectators failed to agree in their accounts of what they witnessed’. Paragraph three; `UFO reports occur throughout history and throughout folklore possibly the earliest is contained in The Bible’. Paragraphs six and seven, `psychological factors can also lead to UFO reports. There are two aspects. Firstly, the crowd psychology effect when popular interest is stimulated in UFOs such as in the recent press flurry about the Flying Cross sightings. People look for UFOs. Indeed they wish to see them, as Jimmy Durante says `everybody wants to get in the act’.
The second aspect is an almost religious desire to believe in UFOs and we go back here to Lord Hill-Norton and his fascination with the Rendlesham Forest incident. He was described by the Ministry of Defence as pursuing that story with evangelical fervour. People become depressed about the troubled state of the world with its threats of nuclear, bacteriological and chemical warfare. They find it comforting to believe that superior beings exist whose technology must have triumphed over the same sort of vicissitudes that were are now undergoing’. This could be written today never mind 1967. `And they regard the subject as a sign of hope for the world’.
Finally, just one thing I wanted to mention on this. One of the natural causes for UFOs highlighted in 1967 will become relevant in a moment. Plasma, ionised in glowing air has given rise to UFO reports in various forms such as a corona over power lines in St Elmo’s fire. But what about the elephant in the room. Are UFOs extraterrestrial? Do the Ministry of Defence or DI55 know about this? This is where we find some of the most amazing material of all especially in the last remaining UFO policy files which have only just been transferred.
Here are three extracts from the formerly secret file where DI55 scientists swap opinions about the potential that some UFOs could truly be visitors from other worlds. The extract at the top from 1978 was taken from a briefing given by DI55 to the UFO Desk just before the House of Lords debate that happened in 1979. What we get here is a rather pessimistic view about the possibility that extraterrestrials could have visited us let alone even noticed us. This scientist says `recent American and Soviet space probes rule out the possibility of life elsewhere in the Solar System because we’ve recently sent probes to Mars and found it was a barren hellish desert. If UFOs are therefore extraterrestrial they must come from outside the Solar System. If now one makes reasonable assumptions about the number of stars in the universe and the proportion of interesting places that are in the universe an intelligent community might wish to visit one is driven to the conclusion that a visit to an insignificant planet, Earth, of an uninteresting star, the Sun, would probably not occur more than once in a thousand years or so therefore claims of thousands of such visits in the last decade or so are far too large to be credible’.
That was 1978. Twenty years later his successor DI55 UFO Desk Officer produced a far more upbeat assessment saying `being an objective open minded scientist I do not dismiss out of hand the possibility of intelligent life evolving somewhere outside of our Solar System. The laws of probability would indicate a finite all be it a very small likelihood. That said I do not believe that we have any evidence of such life. And if credibility is given to ET then judgement needs to be made about which government department is best suited to address it’. There’s a job to keep GCHQ occupied.
Ok this is my favourite, my real top document. Number eight. This is the one I think is the most revealing of all. It was a note sent from our DI55 man to his opposite number on the UFO Desk in 1995 shortly after the MOD had admitted publicly that the organisation existed. Striking a certain tone of exasperation he writes `for many years various UFO groups have associated DI55 with reports of UFOs. Indeed I have several books at home that describe our supposed role as Defender of the Earth against the Alien Menace. It is light-years from the truth’. But he sees no reason for continuing to deny that the DIS has an interest in UFOs. However if the association is formally made public then the MOD will no doubt be pressured to say what the intelligence role or interest is. This could lead to disbelief and embarrassment since few people are likely to believe the truth. The truth is that lack of funds, surprise surprise, and higher priorities have prevented any study of the thousands of reports received. So I ask you is this the elusive truth about UFOs that Prime Minister Winston Churchill demanded to know fifty years earlier. With no money to look into it, it wasn’t a priority. You can see that this memo touched upon a real nerve as the copy that ended up in the UFO Desk files has been annotated by a Civil Servant who’s scribbled in the margin `Ouch!’.
Ok we’re getting to the end almost I’m sure you’re glad to hear. Number nine. Around the same time that document was put together for a defence briefing in London, a new American TV series, the X-Files, began its run on British TV. By the end of that decade it had attracted 20 million viewers in the US and a similar large audience share in the UK. You might remember the show’s slogans included ‘Government denies knowledge, the truth is out there’. This remarkable document from the same file could have been used on the X-Files. It’s not part of a science fiction movie, it’s an actual extract from an illustrated conference briefing classified as UK Eyes B given by a DI55 Wing Commander to the UK’s Chief of Defence Intelligence.
This is in 1995. As you can see under national security implications it says we have many reports of strange objects in the skies and we have never investigated them’. The author argued that by not investigating them the MOD were pursuing a very risky strategy. How could they honestly say in public and in Parliament that UFOs whatever they were not a threat to the realm when they had never carried out any funded study of the data on the subject? DI55 decided there were three implications for national security. As you can see if the sightings were for example caused by American spy planes it would be most alarming if the craft were using British air space without authority. You would think the Americans would tell us. Even worse if it was Russians then there would be a threat to national security and we urgently need to establish the nature of the craft and its capabilities. But what if they were extraterrestrial? Well if they were devices not of this earth then their purpose needs to be established as a matter of priority. There has been no apparent hostile intent and other possibilities are, this is from the aliens, military reconisence, scientific and tourism, I suppose aliens have to go on holiday as well! Even more amazing, under technological transfer DI55 says that if devices exist that do not use conventional reaction propulsion systems then we might be interested in stealing that technology capturing it and using it as a weapon.
Note at this time DI55 were lobbying for public money to be spent on a proper computerised study of their records of UFOs. They argued that their collected material for 50 years but had never been authorised to do anything with it. Basically reports were looked at and filed away. They wanted to enter a sample of these reports into a basic excel spread sheet database and search for common features and clues that might help them explain some of the more puzzling experiences. Every request they made had been rejected right up till 1995 because the Defence Intelligence Staff worried that spending money on such an esoteric topic at a time when the defence budget was subject to swinging cuts was not politically acceptable.
But despite all these objections towards the end of 1996 they coughed up £50,000, compare that to the 22 million supposedly spent by the Pentagon, for a project called Condign. Now if you Google condign, look under the Oxford English Dictionary, condign the word means a severe and well deserved beating. Now, the Ministry of Defence claims that codenames are chosen randomly and there’s nothing significant about Condign. But what a delicious coincidence that given the evident distaste they had for the whole subject and the people who believed in it that they would link the final document with severe punishment or beating.
So number ten. The final document. This is the endgame. We started in 1950 with Churchill’s Memo and we end in 2000 with the Condign Report. Note again the terminologies change. We’ve moved from flying saucers to UFOs; we’ve now kicked out UFOs and now it’s UAPS. Have you heard of UAPS? Unidentified Aerial Phenomena was the phrase that the Defence Intelligence Staff were using at this time. What comes across clearing in these final documents is the Ministry of Defence’s belief that the small percentage of reported sightings that remain stubbornly unidentified were real.
So you can see there’s been a huge change from 1950 when they said all of them could be explained, they’re now saying some of them are unidentified, they are real but are not spacecraft. You can see that Desk Officers were coming round to the idea that this small number that couldn’t be explained was some kind of rare atmospheric phenomena, or plasma. You remember that was mentioned in 1967 not fully understood by science. Plasma, glowing ionised air or gas, is found all over the universe, it is nothing rare at all. But that’s what they started talking about.
So sadly for those who believe that the Ministry of Defence is hiding bits of crashed flying saucers and alien bodies, the executive summary says sadly for Roswell fans no artefacts of unknown or unexplained origin have been reported or handed to the UK authorities despite thousands of UAP reports. There is no signals intelligence, electronic intelligence or radiation measurements so we can kick out Colonel Halt’s report from Rendlesham Forest. Even the videos and dozens of alleged photographs of UFOs submitted to the MOD since the 1950s are not much use for analysis. But the DIS study did suggest that some observations by pilots could have been caused by certain unfamiliar friendly black project aircraft that sneaked inside UK airspace such as the stealth fighter B2 bomber.
This is the final goodbye from the Ministry of Defence so this is my tenth and concluding document. I think it speaks for itself. The main conclusion of the study is that the sighting reports provide nothing of value to the Defence Intelligence Staff in their assessment of threat weapon systems because that’s what they were interested in. Were they a threat to the UK? No. Can we use them as weapons, could we capture them seems to be the key theme. They said that we believe many of the sightings can be explained as misreporting of man made vehicles, natural but not unusual phenomena, natural but relatively rare and not completely understood phenomena. These are plasmas.
I think the real agenda behind what was really going on behind the scenes was simply an attempt to remove the intelligence community from the whole UFO problem. They didn’t like the spotlight that all this stuff had shone on the secretive world they were moving in, so let’s get a report, let’s draw a line over it, let’s forget about UFOs like the Americans did in 1969 with Project Blue Book. I think that’s actually what we’re seeing here.
So in 2009, the UFO Desk was closed under Gordon Brown’s government. They put out this defence instruction notice. Basically it is saying to the police and air traffic control, we’re not interested in UFOs any longer, don’t send us those reports. And ever since then you just get a standard statement from the Ministry of Defence.
In 2007, the decision was taken to transfer all the surviving UFO files to the National Archives and this was according to the press released to counter the crazed rumour and ill-informed speculation that surrounded their role in the subject. Much of which, in my opinion, they had indirectly encouraged themselves by unnecessary secrecy and by their unquestionable decision to continue destroying records on the subject, which, as I’ve said, played right into the hands of the people who don’t believe anything they say.
But from their point of view it was all about saving money and avoiding involvement in the subject that brought with it lots of bad public relations and no easy solutions. So they took advice from the US Department of Defence, who wanted to make UFO history by effectively moving their records to another government agency and eliminate the cost in responding to individual FOI requests.
As you can see on this defence notice, the final statement is the MOD has no opinion on the existence of otherwise ET life but in over 50 years no UFO report has revealed any evidence of potential threat to the United Kingdom. I’m not sure based upon the evidence that I’ve seen that I agree with that but I’m sure this is not the last word we’ve heard on the subject.
So that brings me to the end of this marathon. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Thank you very much.