By Nick Pope
The Ministry of Defence's UFO Project has its roots in a study commissioned in 1950 by the MOD's then Chief Scientific Adviser, the great radar scientist Sir Henry Tizard. As a result of his insistence that UFO sightings should not be dismissed without some form of proper scientific study, the Department set up arguably the most marvellously-named committee in the history of the civil service, the Flying Saucer Working Party.
The committee's conclusions were sceptical; UFO sightings were misidentifications of ordinary objects, or hoaxes. They recommended no further action. But in 1952 there was a series of high-profile events where UFOs were tracked on radar and seen by RAF pilots, and this forced the MOD to think again. UFO sightings were to be collated and sent to the Department for investigation, so that a determination could be made as to whether anything of any defence significance might have occurred.
Since then, over 10,000 UFO reports have been received. From 1991 to 1994 I worked in the department responsible for this bizarre subject. It was among the most fascinating of my postings in 20 years in the Department.
Most UFO sightings received by the MOD had prosaic explanations: aircraft lights, weather balloons, meteors, airships, etc. But in all of this, a small percentage looked more interesting and one case in particular stood out.
This was the so-called Rendlesham Forest incident. Last December saw the 25th anniversary of what is universally accepted as Britain's most famous UFO sighting. There was extensive media coverage of this bizarre anniversary, a commemorative Boxing Day event organised by the Forestry Commission at the site of their ‘UFO Trail', and several unofficial ‘skywatches' where UFO enthusiasts came together to mark the event, swap stories, and generally stand around getting extremely cold.
So why the interest? What happened in the forest all those years ago and why is it still generating so much interest?
Rendlesham Forest lies between the twin bases of RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk. In 1980 both facilities were operated by the United States Air Force (USAF).
The Cold War was still decidedly frosty. The Solidarity Movement was taking hold in Poland and Soviet forces were building up on the border. It was against this background that a strange series of incidents occurred.
In the early hours of 26 December 1980 military personnel at the twin bases saw strange lights in the forest. At first they thought an aircraft might have crashed, so they went out to investigate. What they found was not a crashed aircraft, but what they could only categorise as a UFO.
Nearby farm animals were going into a frenzy. One of the security police officers got close enough to touch the side of the object. He and another of the airmen present attached a sketch of the craft to their official USAF witness statements. One of these sketches even details the strange symbols seen on the craft's hull, which the witness likened to Egyptian hieroglyphs.
"I wish I'd had my weapon, because I felt totally defenceless," one of the young airmen, John Burroughs, subsequently remarked.
Two nights later the UFO returned. The Deputy Base Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Halt, was informed and went out into the forest to investigate. He too saw the UFO, which at one point fired beams of light down at his party and at the Woodbridge facility.
"Here I am, a senior official who routinely denies this sort of thing and diligently works to debunk them, and I'm involved in the middle of something I can't explain", he subsequently commented.
The MOD's investigation included an inconclusive search for radar evidence that might have corroborated what was seen. Of far more interest, however, was an assessment of radiation readings that had been taken from the landing site with a Geiger counter.
The readings had peaked in three holes in the ground which formed the shape of an equilateral triangle, as if the UFO had landed on a tripod of some sort.
The Defence Intelligence Staff stated that the readings seemed "significantly higher than the average background". Their report suggested that the radiation level was around seven times what would have been expected for the area concerned.
There are various sceptical theories for what was seen, the most prevalent one being that the various witnesses were somehow misled by the beam from Orfordness lighthouse, shining through the trees.
"If the USAF really are capable of hallucinations induced by a lighthouse which must surely be familiar to them, then I shudder for that powerful finger which lies upon so many triggers," remarked Ralph Noyes, a former MOD Under Secretary who took a close interest in the case after his retirement.
Charles Halt's reaction to the theory was blunter. "Lighthouses don't fly," he said. Ralph Noyes was not the only senior figure to take an interest in the case. Former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Hill-Norton corresponded with the Department extensively about the incident, and tabled a number of Parliamentary Questions in the House of Lords.
Many UFO researchers believe that information about UFOs is being covered up. They see a vast conspiracy to keep the truth from the public. Nothing could be further from the truth. Requests concerning UFOs are among the most frequently submitted under the Freedom of Information Act and the MOD has made great efforts to be as helpful as possible.
Information has been made available under the Publication Scheme, in the FOI ‘Reading Room' and at the National Archives in Kew. The entire file of the Rendlesham Forest incident has been scanned in and is available on the MOD's website.
The official position is that these events were of no defence significance, but the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident remains unexplained to this date. I hope that we have some answers before the 50th anniversary of one of the most extraordinary incidents ever investigated by the MOD.
source and references:
Focus - Ministry of Defence Magazine
March 2006 Issue
March 2006 Issue
Archived UFO Articles and News Items
UFO Casebook Home Page