This article was first published in the August 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine
The public’s obsession with UFOs and alien visitors has continued to grow alongside man’s first faltering steps into space. For centuries people have speculated about visitors from other worlds. But it is only since the end of the Second World War that large numbers of people have believed alien visits have actually occurred and been concealed by world governments.
In recent years MPs, peers and some senior military figures have added their voices to the many ordinary people who have demanded that the Ministry of Defence opens its files and releases the information that it holds on this contentious subject. This pressure was reflected in the fact that when the FoIA finally arrived on 1 January 2005, UFO sightings were among the three most popular topics among the hundreds of requests they received from the general public.
So what do Britain’s X-Files actually tell us? The answer is disappointing for those who believe the British Government has been concealing evidence of alien visitors. But to social and military historians the files are a treasure trove of material. The papers contain details of 10,728 UFO sightings reported to the MoD between 1959, when statistics were first kept, and the present day. The largest number of reports (750) came in 1978 when interest in UFOs and extraterrestrial life reached a crescendo with the release of the Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The vast majority of UFO reports logged by the MoD came from members of the public and could be easily explained. Records show that the most common causes of UFO reports were aircraft, satellites and space debris, balloons, stars and planets. Around nine per cent fell into the “unexplained” category. An intelligence report from 1954 states that resolving these cases was incredibly difficult because “ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the scent is completely cold” by the time reports arrived at Whitehall.
However, a significant proportion of reports in the “unexplained” category were made by trained observers such as RAF aircrew, air traffic control staff and civilian pilots. Some of the most puzzling involved seemingly solid objects moving at exceptional speeds and heights that were tracked by defence radars. On occasions these sightings have led the RAF to scramble fighter aircraft to intercept the mysterious objects.
During the Cold War, Russian reconnaissance aircraft (nicknamed “bears”) regularly probed NATO defences across the North Atlantic. Until the early 1990s British radars were continually on the look out for these Russian intruders and many so-called UFOs were later identified as Soviet aircraft. As one senior RAF officer explains: “Any object appearing on our detection radars was literally a UFO until identified. There were some that were never identified, but this must not be taken to mean that they were caused by phenomena from other worlds”.
The files show how the military attitude towards UFOs was completely different to that of the general public. Official policy was restricted to establishing whether UFO sightings could be considered a threat to the realm. During the Cold War period the major threat came from behind the Iron Curtain. Once Soviet aircraft were eliminated, the identity of a particular UFO was of no further interest to the MoD. As one of the documents explains: “it is quite common for a sighting to remain unexplained but require no further official action”.
But those reports that could not be explained continued to add fuel to the arguments of the civilian UFO groups who believed in alien craft. A Daily Express opinion poll in 1954 found that 16.5 per cent of the British population believed in flying saucers. By 1998 an ICM poll for the Daily Mail found that this figure had risen to 29 per cent, while two per cent even claimed to have had direct experience of an alien visit. The MoD’s most recent UFO policy document, released under the FoIA [in 2005], is agnostic about extraterrestrial visitors. It says that, despite more than 10,000 reports, the ministry has never received any solid evidence, but adds: “[we] do not have any expertise or role in respect of UFO/flying saucer matters or to the question of the existence or otherwise of extraterrestrial life-forms, about which [we] remain totally open-minded”.
The British authorities did not undertake any formal study of UFOs (or flying saucers as they were widely known before 1950) until news of the many sightings in the USA filtered through to the British media. During the summer of that year newspapers serialised the first flying saucer books and a number of senior officials such as Lord Louis Mountbatten and the government’s scientific advisor, Sir Henry Tizard, put pressure on the authorities to study the phenomenon. The files reveal how the division of opinion between believers and sceptics in government was a reflection of the views held by Britain’s general public as a whole.
While Mountbatten believed the saucers were of extraterrestrial origin, others such as Air Marshal Tom Pike of Fighter Command, feared they could be spyplanes developed by the Russians. In turn, the MoD scientist Professor RV Jones declared that he would not believe in them until he was able to examine personally a captured flying saucer.
The fascination for seeing UFOs filtered through all levels of society at the height of the Cold War. Belief in a higher power benevolently watching over mankind provided reassurance for many people who were concerned about the possibility of nuclear confrontation between the superpowers. At the same time, invasions by extraterrestrial hordes were widely depicted in popular culture and in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), which reflected the anxieties of the Cold War. The UFO craze reached a peak in the summer of 1952 when reports of saucers tracked by radar and chased by jet fighters over Washington DC made headlines across the world.
They led Prime Minister Winston Churchill to fire off a memo to his Air Minister demanding to know: “What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth?” In reply, he was told that “a full intelligence study” had been carried out in 1951 which found that all sightings could be accounted for as misidentifications of natural phenomena, optical illusions and hoaxes. The report of the oddly named Flying Saucer Working Party used to brief Winston Churchill on possible sightings was kept secret until 2001 when I was able to locate the single surviving copy in the MoD archives.
The very first official study of the phenomena lasted just eight months after which the conclusions were delivered to a meeting attended by senior officials of both the MoD and CIA. These recommended no further investigation of UFOs until solid evidence came to light. That decision was overturned in 1952 when the celebrated “UFO invasion” of Washington placed the subject in the news again. In the UK the Air Ministry was then asked to set up a standing committee of intelligence specialists to investigate future sightings. This UFO section, later incorporated into the Directorate of Scientific Intelligence when the modern MoD was formed in 1964, continued to scrutinise UFO reports until October 2000 when its interest finally came to an end.
It was typical of the amicable post-war relationship between the intelligence agencies of the USA and UK that the latter’s policy on UFOs would closely follow the lead taken by its larger neighbour. In 1953 the CIA convened a panel of senior scientists who decided there was no threat from UFOs themselves but feared that “phantoms” could be used by the Soviets as a weapon to generate confusion in the event of a war. The panel called for a campaign to debunk UFOs and asked the air force to comment publicly only on those reports where explanations had been found. In Britain, orders were circulated by the RAF which said sightings made by aircrew, particularly those involving radar, were covered by the Official Secrets Act and should not be discussed in public, particularly with the press.
This was the origin of the claims concerning a “government cover-up” on UFOs which was in reality just another example of the obsession with secrecy that permeated many areas of the British establishment during the Cold War.
Ironically, at the same time the intelligence agencies were debunking UFOs, their own covert activities were contributing to the UFO myth. During the 1950s high altitude flights over the Soviet Union by secret U2 spy planes caused a spate of UFO reports by civilian aircrew. Another project used giant Skyhook balloons to collect aerial photographs behind the Iron Curtain – these were widely misreported as UFOs.
Britain’s X-files show how sensitive the ministry was to criticism of its UFO policy, particularly from MPs and the media. With the ending of the Cold War, UFOs were no longer taken seriously as a defence issue, but the subject simply would not go away. As senior official James Carruthers put it in a secret memo to Defence Minister Denis Healey, while they wished to avoid wasting public money chasing phantoms, “it would only require one sensational unexplained or much publicised incident to bring down a shower of public criticism on the Government for failing to give adequate attention to such matters”.
Timeline of British UFO history
There are hundreds of sightings of flying objects resembling German V-weapons. Britain fears these “ghost rockets” are Russian but a study decides they are an example of mass hysteria.
As the Cold War begins the first flying saucer wave grips the US and leads the US Air Force to set up a project to investigate. In Britain “ghost planes” are sighted by RAF radars and fighter planes are scrambled.
The craze for seeing flying saucers reaches Britain. Sightings by RAF pilots lead the Government to establish a secret MoD committee, The Flying Saucer Working Party.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill demands to know the truth about flying saucers following sightings over Washington DC as fear of a war with the Soviet Union increases.
An RAF pilot’s report of a saucer over London leads to newspaper headlines and questions in the House of Commons. The RAF issues orders invoking the Official Secret Acts warning aircrew not to discuss their sightings in public.
The Soviet Union beats the Americans into space with the launch of Sputnik. In Britain UFOs are seen on radar at US airbases hosting nuclear weapons and the U2 spyplane.
One of Britain’s most celebrated UFO incidents occurs when police officers report chasing a dazzling “flying cross” at speeds of up to 90mph across the Devon countryside. Questions in parliament lead the Ministry of Defence to rethink its policy on UFOs.
As man reaches the moon, the US Air Force closes down its UFO project, Blue Book, after a study finds no evidence for ET or a threat to defence. In Britain the MoD decides to scale down its involvement in UFOs but continues to collect reports.
The high-water mark for interest in UFOs. Close Encounters of the Third Kind sparks a massive resurgence of interest in UFOs and extraterrestrial life. UFOs are debated at the United Nations and in the House of Lords. The MoD receives 750 sighting reports, the largest number ever.
Lt Col Charles Halt, the US Air Force deputy commander of RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk, files a report with the MoD describing how his men saw a UFO land in Rendlesham Forest leaving marks on nearby trees and radiation traces.
With the Cold War just a memory and the threat from the East receding, the MoD’s Defence Intelligence staff, which had kept a watching brief on UFO reports since 1950, decide they no longer have any interest in the subject.
On 1 January, Britain’s Freedom of Information Act comes into force allowing access to the MoD’s archive of UFO material.
Dr David Clarke is a lecturer at Sheffield University’s Centre for English Cultural Tradition where he teaches undergraduate modules on supernatural belief and urban legend.