The facts about some of Britain’s best-known UFO mysteries are revealed in the sixth collection of ‘X-files’ released by Britain’s National Archives.
At the TNA's UFO website you can download all the files - free of charge for the first month - along with a highlights guide and updated background briefing. As the TNA's consultant for the release programme, I have recorded a special podcast with journalist Clare Jenkins, available as a download, where I discuss some of the more quirky stories included in this tranche.
The release includes 18 files containing 5000 pages of correspondence and Parliamentary briefings created by the Ministry of Defence between 1995 and 2000. The documents provide a unique historical snapshot of the extraordinary beliefs, legends and rumours that were held and spread by UFOlogists around the time of the 50th anniversary of the birth of the subject in 1997.These files contain hundreds of letters addressed to the MoD and politicians that cover every conceivable rumour circulating just before the millennium: UFO crashes, alien abductions, animal mutilations, demonic entities, crop circles, remote viewing, mind-control and government conspiracies.
By contrast, alongside this feast of weirdness are the MoD’s increasingly exasperated attempts to pour cold water on topics they regarded as irrelevant at best and a nuisance at worst. But they could not stem the flood of correspondence that led to a doubling of the UFO desk’s workload. During 1996 – the year before the Roswell anniversary – the MoD received 609 UFO reports, 343 letters from the public and 22 inquiries from MPs.
The files demonstrate how far official policy towards UFOs changed after the end of the Cold War. Back in 1950s the Government really was concerned by a spate of incidents involving unidentified objects tracked by radars and on occasion aircraft were scrambled to investigate them. Possibly the best known example is the famous RAF Bentwaters-Lakenheath incident of 1956.
As a direct result the subject of “aerial phenomena” appeared on the agenda of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), at Whitehall. One set of the JIC papers from 1957 are included in this release and they reveal the Air Ministry could not explain four incidents involving UFOs on radar (see DEFE 24/2013, pgs 257-60).
But in 1996 Don Valley MP Martin Redmond tabled a Parliamentary Question that asked how many times RAF aircraft had been scrambled to investigate UFOs. The background briefing given by the RAF is in my view one of the most interesting documents in this release (you can see the original papers in DEFE 24/1983, pages 53 and 40-48).
This document reveals that before 1991 – which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union – RAF aircraft were scrambled on average 200 times every year to investigate unidentified objects seen by UK air defence radars. The vast majority of these were identified as Soviet reconnaissance aircraft probing NATO defences in the North Atlantic. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall the frequency of these scrambles reduced to zero. There were none recorded between September 1991 and the summer of 1996 when Redmond tabled his question in the Commons.
Contrast that zero figure with the number of UFO reports made by members of the public and logged by the MoD during exactly the same period. Between 1991 and 1996 there were almost 1200 sightings recorded. Few, if any were corroborated by a radar contact and just a handful were investigated in any depth – mainly as a result of pressure from MPs or the media.
Since 1959 the subject of UFOs has never reappeared on the agenda of the Joint Intelligence Committee. This is a sure sign that the subject is now regarded as of no consequence to the military and intelligence services in Britain at least.
What all this indicates to me is that by the 50th anniversary of the UFO industry in 1997, the British Government was no longer interested in UFOs as a defence problem. By then they saw it purely as a public relations issue. Each year they received hundreds of reports from the public but none that contained any evidence of a threat to the defence of the UK. The inevitable consequence of that change in policy was the closure of the MoD’s UFO hotline at the end of last year.
KEY HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE FILES
RAF Rudloe Manor features heavily in the files as the obsessive focus of UFO conspiracy rumours during the 1990s (see for example DEFE 24/1978, 1982, 1993 and 2004). Some UFOlogists became so convinced the government was hiding wreckage of crashed flying saucers that attempts were made to break into the facility. Other stories spread that a secret MoD ‘Men In Black’ unit was based at Rudloe that investigated close encounters and conducted secret research. But as the MoD’s Kerry Philpott pointed out to letter-writers, Rudloe was at that time the HQ for the RAF’s Flying Complaints Flight who are responsible for investigating reports of ‘low flying aircraft.’ Inevitably some UFO reports ended up in the RAF’s low-flying inbox at Rudloe Manor. But these were simply collected, put in an envelope and sent to the MoD’s UFO desk in London for follow-up. Quite how this plain fact became transformed into stories about spacecraft and aliens hidden in secret tunnels remains the real mystery.
Berwyn Mountains incident. DEFE 24/2045 contains copies of official papers from 1974 that discuss the Berwyn Mountains UFO ‘crash’ in North Wales. This story was resurrected by UFOlogists at the time of the 50th anniversary and quickly became transformed into Britain’s answer to the Roswell incident. But the contemporary records reveal a far less sensational story. MoD received just five reports describing bright fireballs falling to earth, but none of these came from Wales. On the same night, villagers living near the mountains called emergency services to report “a brilliant ball of light apparently coming down over the hills, accompanied by a flash and an immense bang.” A search of the hills by a RAF rescue team found no sign of any impact and astronomers quickly identified the fireballs as part of a meteor shower. Shortly afterwards the British Geological Survey identified the “immense bang” as an earth tremor originating on the Bala faultline. The complex Berwyn case is the subject of a book, UFO Down, by FT writer Andy Roberts, published this month by the CFZ.
Winston Churchill 'foo-fighter' incident. DEFE 24/2013 contains a letter sent to the MoD in 1999 that claims Winston Churchill ordered a cover-up of a wartime UFO sighting by the crew of a RAF reconnaissance aircraft over the English coastline. The letter-writer says he heard the story second-hand via his grandfather, who claimed to have been present at a secret meeting between Churchill and Eisenhower when the incident was discussed, in the later stages of the war. Although merely an anecdote, there may be a grain of truth in the story. Winston Churchill's interest in unexplained aerial phenomena dates back to 1912. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he answered questions in the Commons following sightings of a "phantom airship" over the naval base at Sheerness in Essex. Again in 1952 he wrote his famous memo to the Air Ministry demanding to know the truth about flying saucers following a flap of sightings over Washington DC. In 1999 the MoD were sufficiently interested by the contents of the letter they received to check wartime cabinet minutes. Although no written record of the wartime meeting appears to survive, Air Ministry files from 1942-45 do contain accounts of mysterious sightings reported by aircrew - including RAF Bomber Command. Air Ministry classified these reports as "night phenomena" and "balls of fire" and believed some were caused by German secret weapons such as the Me262 jet fighter. United States Army Air Force aircrew called them "foo fighters". See my review of Keith Chester's book for more details of WW2 UFO sightings.
Mystery object caught on film during launch of Blue Streak rocket, Australia, 1964. DEFE 24/1983 contains the MoD’s reaction to claims made by UFO writer Jenny Randles in a 1996 documentary shown on BBC2, summarized here. When MP John Fraser asked about a “missing” can of film that was said to show a mysterious “spaceman” during a Blue Streak rocket launch at Woomera, desk officers were forced to reopen archived files from 1964. Inquiries discovered copies of the "missing" Woomera film were held by the Imperial War Museum and had been widely circulated by the media at the time. The contemporary papers show that British Pathe, who distributed the film, identified the 'object' (not a spaceman) as "an internal camera reflection."
Persistent Correspondents. While some UFO legends do have a factual basis, the files expose others as based entirely on rumour and gossip or, like the ‘alien autopsy’, as hoaxes. Nevertheless, some persistent letter writers who believed these legends targeted Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair with demands for confirmation the Government had proof aliens really had landed in the UK. One asked Blair if he could confirm that films and TV shows like The X-Files and Independence Day were part of “a strategy by Western governments to prepare the population for the admission that there has indeed been contact from aliens, extraterrestrials, trans-dimensionals and/or time travellers.” Another made a 100-1 bet with bookmakers Ladbrokes that “aliens would be found on earth dead or alive before the end of the century”. After reading about the Roswell incident and the ‘alien autopsy’ he approached the government during 1999 for evidence to support his claim when Ladbrokes refused to pay out. Unfortunately for him, the MoD said they were open-minded about extraterrestrial life but had no evidence of its existence (DEFE 24/2012).
Nick Pope. The former MoD 'UFO' desk officer proclaimed his belief in UFOs in 1995 and published a book, Open Skies Closed Minds, that was cleared for publication in the following year. Pope's book and his media interviews generated a number of questions both from MPs and members of the public. In response MoD said his views were his own opinions and did not reflect or represent that of MoD. But the media publicity surrounding its publication added to the workload of his successor Kerry Philpott who told inquirers Sec(AS) was "not a strange phenomena section" of MoD. She said Pope worked in a junior management grade "but neither he nor indeed am I the head of any 'UFO' section" (see DEFE 24/1983). The MoD have redacted a number of references to Pope’s activities in these files but in 1996 David Alton MP was told that media coverage "tended to exaggerate the MoD interest in UFO matters and the role of the post" (DEFE 24/1983).
In 1999 Scottish UFOlogist James Easton in his "An Open Letter" addressed to Pope, posed a series of questions to the MoD. These included: "What were his main duties? Approximately how much time was spent on 'UFO'-related investigations? and 'have the MoD ever, as Pope states, investigated to any significant extent a single case where a 'crop circle', 'alien abduction' or 'animal mutilation' has been reported and if so, what was the outcome?'
UFO desk officer, Gaynor South, responded on 29 September 1999:
“The main duties of the post concern non-operational RAF activities overseas and diplomatic clearance policy for military flights abroad. A small percentage of time is spent dealing with reports from the public about alleged ‘UFO’ sightings and associated public correspondence. The MoD has not investigated a claim of alien abduction, crop circle formations or animal mutilation.” (DEFE 24/1978)