BRITISH GOVERNMENT UFO RESEARCH IN THE 1950'S

The first investigation

This paper reports on my investigation into Unidentified Flying Object files held in the British Public Record Office [now The National Archives] in 1988. The Public Record Office (PRO) is the official repository for the historical records of the British government. Each department has a Departmental Records Officer who is in charge of its non-current files. After (generally) thirty years from the date of closing of the file it is considered for permanent archiving. Any that pass this 'weeding' process are passed to the PRO and become available for public inspection. However some files of a politically sensitive nature are closed for fifty or seventy five years, and those relating to individuals for one hundred years. The files of some departments, notably the Security and Secret Services, are closed indefinitely and never transfered to the PRO.

INTRODUCTION

The object was to attempt to clarify the deep seated mythology of UFOlogy that there is an official UFO investigation department with extensive files, knowing 'the truth', and the corollary of this - that there is a 'cover-up'. I have so far found four files, one opened last year, (described by Timothy Good) and four this year - each after thirty years. They therefore cover the period up to 1958; what might be called the first 'flying saucer' phase of UFOlogy.

THE FILES

The files reveal that there was a section of the Air Ministry concerned with receiving, recording and evaluating UFO reports. Unfortunately as is so often the case, none of them are actually from this department and details of it can only be incidentally inferred.

FILE 1 PRO Ref: AIR 20 7390 Department: Air Ministry Deputy Director of Operations Air Defence) \58[DDOps(AD)\58] Covering: 11 December 1950 - 12 January 1954 Title: 'Unidentified Aircraft' amended to 'Unidentified Flying Objects' Classification: SECRET.

 This is a mixed bag containing a 'Light in the Sky'(LIS) report from a Group Captain Cartmel; a briefing for the Secretary of State on an obscurely worded Parliamentary Question which turned out to be about the preparedness for a 'Pearl Harbour' type attack on Scapa Flow; a 'Daylight Disc' report from RAF Topcliffe; a query from Middle East Air Force on how an interceptor should indicate to the interceptee that he should land, and an investigation of an unidentified radar track which entered and left UK airspace. Cartmel's report was dealt with initially by Air Intelligence 3, who asked DDOps(AD) if they wished to investigate. They passed it to ASA(O) with the comment (1 Jan 1951): I suppose reports of this sort might, if kept, one day be useful for analysis - I can't think of any other use for this one. They were passed back with the comment: Save papers for future reference.

The RAF Topcliffe report is of considerably higher quality. Several officers and men observed for twenty seconds, at 7.10pm on the 19 September 1952, a Meteor fighter shadowed by a silver disc, which span about a vertical axis, descended with a sycamore pendulum motion, and finally accelerated 'faster than a shooting star' in a curve. This was evidently taken more seriously, as it was distributed to Air Intelligence 3(b) (Action); Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations)(Action); Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Intelligence); Chief of Air Staff; Secretary of State; DMO [ ? ]; Ministry of Defence for DSI [ ? ] It was annotated by Ops(AD)1 to Ops(AD)2: Ask Personal Assistant to open Folder 'Unidentified Aircraft or Objects reported to the Air Ministry' - Speak.

The investigation of the unidentified radar track, requested by Fighter Command of DDIOps(AD) with a copy to AI3(e), was assumed to be a conventional aircraft, but is a precursor to some reports in the later files of radar tracks that could not have been known aircraft. Britain's radar defences consisted of a hierarchy of three types of station in underground bunkers - the newly constructed ROTOR system - strung out along the east and south coast, each with an innocuous bungalow as an entrance. Each type had a different range and performed different functions, from early warning to fighter interception. Their areas naturally overlapped and so could be used as checks on each other. In addition each airfield had its own radar.

The last document on the file is a request from DDOps(AD)58 to Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Fighter Command that similar reports should be forwarded for investigation as soon as possible. As Fighter Command initiated the request it is clear that no service unit was involved in such research. This file indicates from the 1 January 1951 exchange that this is the first time the subject had been raised with a central department, no other department known to Air Ministry Intelligence was concerned, and that no great importance was attached to it; and by the 19 September 1952 there still was not any official collating or investigation of reports, which was then initiated.

FILE 2 PRO Ref: AIR 20 9994 Department: RAF Southern Sector Intelligence Covering: 16 December 1953 to 9 December 1957 Opened: 14 May 1957 Title: Reports on Aerial Phenomena Classification: SECRET

This is principally an account of two radar cases with an allied LIS in the summer of 1957, during what appears to have been a general UFO 'Flap'. The originator is a service rather than a government department, Royal Air Force Southern Sector Headquarters, fifty feet underground in a Bathstone quarry at RAF Rudloe Manor, Box, Wiltshire (identified by Timothy Good as the site of the present day UFO research unit). The documents are a collation of ones copied to them for information by the main protagonists, and therefore give a partial picture. The first items however considerably pre-date the opening of the file, and must have been transferred from some earlier file.

These are the standing instructions on reporting 'Aerial Phenomena', dated December 1953, and sent to all fighter airfields and radar stations in southern England. In the case of visual phenomena reports in writing were to be sent by officers commanding units to Deputy Director Intelligence (Technical) [DDI(Tech)] at the Air Ministry. Any reports received from the public should be acknowledged in writing and also forwarded to DDI(Tech). As the public attached more credence to RAF reports it was therefore essential that information be examined by the Air Ministry and its release be officially controlled. Any such information was therefore classified 'Restricted' and was not to be communicated to unauthorised persons. Unusual radar targets, defined as those with a ground speed exceeding 700 knots at any height, and any speed above 60,000 feet, were to be notified to the supervisor who would check they were not spurious and record the strength and appearance of the echo throughout the contact; range and bearing of pickup and fade points and ground speed\track. These details were then to be transmitted through the normal channels as required by Fighter Command. These orders were recirculated three years later in December 1956, as recent reports showed some units were unaware of them [?]

The majority of the remainder of the file consists of documentation of the events of the 29th April and 29th July 1957. As these are somewhat disjointed, independently deriving from fighter units and radar stations, I reconstruct the events in a logical sequence. On 29 April at 8pm a Mr L Humphries in Shanklin, Isle of Wight, accompanied by two other witnesses, saw a LIS to the south east which he examined through 8x binoculars which resolved a large and small object. They moved slowly against the star background, and at 8.07 he phoned Pilot Officer Coles, on duty at the long range radar at Ventnor, Isle of Wight. Ventnor asked the radar station at Beachy Head if they could see anything and they reported two stationary targets that looked like 'angels' (a spurious atmospheric effect), and ten minutes later that one had faded. However, at 9pm the radar station at St Margrets reported two fast tracks over Somerset, which were aquired by Ventnor. [Notice that this is north west from Shanklin, ie in the exactly opposite direction from Humphries sighting]. The two tracks diverged, one travelling north east, but Ventnor obtained a speed of 800 knots on the other which travelled south west. Ventnor designated this as an X-raid; ie hostile; and the Ground Control Intercept radar at Hope Cove diverted one of two Javelins already in the air from RAF Odiham to intercept, range twelve miles. It was vectored onto the target from the ground, but the track reached the limit of Hope Cove's range west of Lands End, and the Javelin was called off. At no time did it get a visual sighting, and the airborne interception radar picked nothing up either, despite functioning perfectly at fourteen miles range in the practice interceptions they had been engaged in before being diverted. Ventnor lost the track at 9.10, when Mr Hunphries at Shanklin reported by phone only one object visible, which was becoming difficult to distinguish due to its proximity to Jupiter [sic]. Reports were carried in six national papers the next day, when speeds of 1,000 mph were quoted. Subsequent investigation [FILE 5] showed that the timing and tracks were consistent with two of a training flight of sixteen Hunters, the north east track in fact landing at Horsham St Faith, Norwich. The speed was reassessed at 580 knots.

Five days later on May 3rd Odiham reported two Hunters practicing interceptions at 12.10am over Hayling Island had seen a large white circular object with slightly curving tail hanging down which a first they thought was a parachute but then realised was larger and further away due to the slow passing speed.

Three months later on 29 July at 4.16pm, a different supervisor at Ventnor, Flying Officer Hassall, picked up a very fast track, 1,000-1,400 knots, over Belgium, which he designated an X-raid as he had no record of similar friendly movements. This was in the Trimmingham, Norfolk, radar station's area, but they could see nothing, so he thought it might be spurious until he got a height fix of 42,000 feet [the planimetric position was given by a Type 80 Radar, and the height by a separate Type 13 Radar. The position of the aerial for the Type 80 had been moved slightly since the first incident, and the track trace sheet format altered; one wonders if the set was brand new? ]. Neither of the radar stations at Wartling or Sopley could see anything, and at 4.38 the track disappeared over Brighton, as it was too close [entered Ventnor's PE's?]. At 4.28 a second echo appeared over Belgium with the same track and speed as the first and was designated X. Both tracks had fighters allocated to them, but the original failed to emerge on the other side of Ventnors blind circle, and no height could be got on the second track. When a third identical track appeared at 4.46, and then a fourth, both at 2,000 knots, Ventnor assumed them to be faults and the fighters were called off. It was afterwards learned that Sopley and Paris claimed to have seen one or the other of them, but the height fix proved to be a Canberra.

FILES 3, 4 & 5 PRO REFS: AIR 20 9320, 9321 and 9322 DEPARTMENT: Air Ministry Secretariat 6 COVERING: Jan 1955 to 15 May 1957 TITLE: Parliamentary Questions 193\57, 213\57 and 220\57 OPENED: April 1957

These files document the background briefings for the Secretary of State when answering questions in the House: Mr Stan Awbery asked on 17th April - What investigations of UFO's had been carried out, what photographs and reports were held. Major Patrick Wall asked on May 15th - How many UFO's had been detected this year as compared to previous years, and whether the object picked up over the Dover Straits on the 29th April had yet been identified. Frank Beswick asked on May 15th - What was the nature of the object on radar on Monday night which occasioned the dispatch of Fighter Command.

Question 1 was triggered by the 'West Freugh Incident'of 4th April [see below]. Questions 2 and 3, triggered by the events in FILE 2, were combined. Secretariat 6 liased with DDI(Tech), who provided all the information for the briefings. They reported from their records as follows:

In 1955-6 they had received 64 reports of unusual aerial phenomena, these had been classified as 26 balloons; 16 meteors; 8 aircraft; 2 planets; 3 flares; 1 mock sun; 1 fireball [ sic ] and 1 con-trail. The unexplained cases, which all occurred in 1956 were: The navigator of a Vulcan obtained a radar contact for 1 minute 15 seconds with an invisible object. On 19th March RAF Lakenheath\Bempton [sic] radar detected a target moving at 2,000-4,000 knots which then stopped and hovered at a high altitude. A Venom was scrambled to intercept but saw nothing. It could have been inversion and reflection from the ionosphere ('angels' and 'anaprop'). [This is curious; the conventional account of the Lakenheath incident as a radar\visual sighting is very much more dramatic, and is assigned to August 13\14th]. RAF Wethersfield vectored two interceptors onto a radar target, and one obtained a brief visual contact. No other radars could see it. A member of the Royal Observer Corps reported something with insufficient information to identify it as any particular thing. A BSc reported an object at 12,000 feet which may have been a balloon. A man saw a round object emitting rippling waves like heat shimmer, it was not known what it might have been.

In 1957 up to April there had been 16 reports (3 newspaper, 8 official and 5 direct letters), classified as: 1 radar fault; 2 aircraft navigation lights; 1 meteor; 2 flares; 1 private experiment (the Wardle Incident) and 3 newspaper reports (1, the Jersy UFO in the Daily Sketch of 6 April, had been admitted to be a fake). The unexplained cases were : The 'West Freugh' case, Wigtownshire. This is the only actual DDI(Tech) report in the file.

On the 4th April a stationary target was observed by the Balscalloch radar to rise vertically from 50,000 to 70,000 feet in ten minutes. The object was automatically plotted by two radars alternately as it moved off slowly to the north towards a second radar station twenty miles away. After travelling twenty miles it made a very sharp turn to the south east and picked up speed to 240mph at 50,000 feet. The second radar also picked up a target in the correct position, but this resolved itself into four objects at 14,000 feet travelling in line astern about 4,000 yards apart. When the single object passed beyond Balscalloch's range they also could see these four. The echoes were much larger than normal aircraft, in fact nearer that of ships. There were no known aircraft or balloons in the area (in any case they had made sharp turns against the wind), and a passing V-bomber had been correctly tracked at the same time. On the 26th March at RAF Church Lawford a radar target accelerated from rest to 1,400 mph. A report from Kent was thought to have been a balloon. A Glasgow boy of ten had observed an object at 10,000 feet travelling at 750 mph for fifteen seconds. A Coverack postman Mr Eric Pengelly, had on 1 May seen a domed object like a sliced egg, which after ten minutes rose at forty five degrees at an incredible speed.

The West Freugh incident had unfortunately fallen into the hands of the press, but the Lakenheath and Church Lawford reports had remained secret. The events of the 29th April were really two separate events which had become confused, of which only the second had come out. Initially amateur astronomers had reported two objects near the Isle of Wight which were picked up by Ventnor and were consistent with meteorological balloons. This made Ventnor alert for unusual phenomena, which is how they interpreted the two Hunters later in the evening. DDI(Tech) liased with and obtained advice from the Royal Observatory; the meteor section of the British Astronomical Society; the Meteorological Office; London Airport; Bristol University (research balloons); the Navy and RAF (aircraft movements).

The suggested answer was: “Reports of UFO's are continually being received. Where there is sufficient information the majority of the reports can be explained as balloons and meteors, the rest lack sufficient information for any explanation”.

These files show that DDI(Tech) had been receiving, collating and investigating fairly substantial numbers of UFO reports since 1955, with a wide circle of advising organisations. There are also at least ten original newspaper clippings in the files, so they were gathering press reports too.

 THE STRUCTURE DETECTABLE

We can see that there was no formal central collection of UFO reports before January 1951 DDOps (AD) opened such a file for record purposes in September 1952. Responsibility probably passed to DDI(Tech) in January 1953 who seem to have formalised the reporting system and started analysing reports from 1955. Very few reports were regarded as unexplained, and of those the majority were unexplainable due to lack of data. There was a single impressive case, the radar sighting at West Freugh.

Here five objects, either very large or with very high radar reflectence, were detected by three independent radars with hard copy output, and behaved in a manner inconsistent with any known object.

THE CONCLUSIONS REACHED

It is evident that DDI(Tech) were the only unit working in this field; there was for instance no service research organisation. It is unfortunate that none of the files opened derive from DDI(Tech) itself. It is evident that DDI(Tech), and DDOps(AD)\AI(3) before them, had no startling secret knowledge of the solution to the UFO enigma - as has been alleged in America regarding the Majestic papers on crashed saucer investigations for example. It is evident that the UFO enigma was militarily assessed as a tactically non-threatening problem, and probably trivial; and that military personnel were just as susceptible to 'flaps' and misperception as anyone else.

AFTERWORD

The argument will no doubt be advanced that there was a super-secret UFO investigation department, and that either DDI(Tech) were unaware of it, or that they never existed and these files are a plant. The latter point is easily checked, one has only to find A. Giffen Peacock, a pleasingly distinctive name, who signed their reports, and is listed in the Air Force List from January 1957 to April 1962.

Personally I incline to the ‘cock-up’ rather than the ‘cover-up’ theory of government, and indeed the radar plots in the files have at least two major errors in them - it is not a pleasant thought that the air defence of the United Kingdom was in the hands of incompetents! However the report on the 'West Freugh Incident' contains as its conclusion the nearest we have so far got to an official recognition that UFO's exist as artifacts: “It is considered that the incident was due to the presence of five reflecting objects of unidentified type and origin. It is considered unlikely that they were conventional aircraft, meteorological balloons or charged clouds”. DDI(Tech) 30 April 1957


Copyright Roger J Morgan 1988


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