Cat’s out of the bag?

The Beast of Bodmin Moor was really just a large domestic cat according to a study commissioned by the British government.

Two tabloids, The Sun and the Daily Mail, revealed the results of the 1995 investigation, based upon information taken from a chapter in my book Britain’s X-traordinary Files, published by Bloomsbury in September.

The story follows the scare in November in which soldiers and armed police searched a suburb of Paris after sightings of ‘a young tiger‘ near  a supermarket. A lengthy search of the area failed to locate the tiger or any trace of an escaped cat.

And two years ago police in Essex spent £25,000 using helicopters and marksmen to search a caravan park near St Osyth after holidaymakers reported seeing a lion on the prowl. Again nothing was found and the story quickly slipped out of the headlines.

The Sun 'exclusive' pg 3 Monday, 15 December 2014

The Sun ‘exclusive’ pg 3 Monday, 15 December 2014

What makes us see mystery big cats where they don’t exist? Does the report on the Cornish beast provide us with answers?

Firstly what The Sun calls the ‘newly unearthed government files’ about the Beast of Bodmin have been in the public domain since shortly after the study was published in 1995.

But their contents have been ignored, possibly because they make uncomfortable reading for those who believe that large undiscovered felines are living secretly alongside us in the British countryside (see also Doubtful News post on the role played by the media).

The short but thorough report by the environmental consultancy ADAS was commissioned by the former Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) – now the Department for the Environment – in response to what it called

‘continued concerns expressed by people living in the area…that such animals might become established and pose a significant threat to livestock.’

The investigation was widely advertised in Cornwall, with farmers and members of the public invited to submit evidence to inspectors. From the outset, ADAS admitted it would never be possible to prove that such an animal, or animals, did not exist.

But they believed if it did hard evidence would be found and the team spent six months collecting sightings, videos and still photographs and reports of suspected livestock kills and injuries.

The report proved a devastating blow for those who believed the Beast of Bodmin Moor was a real big cat. The team used large measuring poles to demonstrate the heights of walls and other natural features against which some of the creatures had been photographed.

One classic photograph of the ‘Beast of Bodmin Moor’, taken by press photographer using a long focus lens, appeared to show two ‘big cats’ posing on a stone wall, with one balanced upon a gatepost.

Press photo showing 'the beast'....the creature was later found to be 12 inches tall

Press photo showing ‘the beast’….the creature was later found to be 12 inches tall

When this was re-photographed with a one metre tall ranging pole providing scale to the gatepost, the ‘beast’ was clearly shown to be no taller than 30cm (12 inches) tall at the shoulder. It was, in fact, a domestic cat.

Several other still photographs and video sequences, taken in daylight, were subjected to the same technique. In each case, the black animals depicted were revealed as no larger than domestic felines.

One sinister night-time shot that claimed to show the eyes of a young leopard in close-up was compared with an image of a real black leopard. The pupils of the ‘beast’ photographed in Cornwall could be clearly seen in the light of the farmer’s lamp as narrow vertical slits (see image, below right). This type of constriction is not found in the pupils of larger cats like leopards and pumas. The investigators concluded the animal in the photograph was a domestic cat.

A page from the ADAS report on the Beast of Bodmin (Crown Copyright)

A page from the ADAS report on the Beast of Bodmin (Crown Copyright)

Examination of footprints and alleged big cat ‘kills’ were equally disappointing. Three plaster casts of prints taken on Bodmin Moor were examined and it was concluded that two belonged to an ordinary cat and the third to a dog.

Of the small number of livestock kills that were followed up by the team, none produced any evidence for the presence of big cats. Traces of indigenous predators, such as badgers, crows and foxes were found, in most cases as scavengers after sheep had died from natural causes.

In 1998 Labour Elliot Morley MP, the parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, was quizzed about the study in Parliament (read the extract from Hansard here).

He said his prime concern was the potential threat big cats, if they existed, might pose to livestock. Morley said his officials received many such reports every year and although the ‘vast majority of reports are not genuine sightings of big cats’ the subject was regarded as ‘a serious issue’ by the government.

In his book Feral the journalist and environmental lobbyist George Monbiot asks why there has been so little discussion of the big cat sightings in the scientific literature. Monbiot interviewed a number of people near his home in West Wales who have seen a large black cat, said to be 6ft in length and 3ft high, that has been dubbed ‘the Pembrokeshire Panther’.

He became convinced of their sincerity and their claim to have no prior knowledge or interest in the subject before their personal experience with a big cat. Nevertheless, he found it impossible to accept such creatures could be so common without hard evidence emerging of their existence.

After consulting psychologists, Monbiot began to realise how witnesses could turn ordinary cats into extra-ordinary ones by magnifying their size out of the context of their surroundings, as the analysis of photographs taken on Bodmin Moor proved.

Monbiot speculated ‘whether there might be a kind of template in our minds in the form of a big cat’ that we have inherited from our ancestors. When we are confronted with something ‘that vaguely fits the template’, in sudden and unexpected circumstances, ‘the template triggers the big cat alarm’.

The influence of mass media stories and images of big cats from zoos and films may also play a part in shaping how such ‘sightings’ are interpreted by eye-witnesses.

Perhaps next time the police receive a sighting of a ‘mystery big cat’ prowling the suburbs of a city or town they might consult a folklorist or a psychologist first before they call out the marksmen or scramble helicopters.

But they should always check with the local zoo, just in case there have been any escapes by genuine wild animals…

 

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UFOs and the mythical ‘acclimatisation programme’

Every so often the release of archive documents throws up another gem from the bygone era when flying saucers really were taken seriously by world governments.

The most recent turned up in a collection of papers produced by Irish diplomats in Washington DC who reported to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin circa 1948-51.

The opening of these files is a joint project of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Royal Irish Academy and the National Archives of Ireland.

One document includes a telling reference to the creation of a foundation stone in today’s UFO myth. Interest in UFOs sighted over the United States was intense during the summer of 1950 and Irish diplomats sent a briefing to politicians in Dublin.

cover of Donald Keyhoe's seminal 1950 book that set out the foundations of the UFO mythology

cover of Donald Keyhoe’s seminal 1950 book that set out the foundations of the UFO myth

This told how an American Airlines pilot landing at Washington Airport was circled three times by a UFO that was not seen on radar. Hints about a cover-up were already implicit in the story: ‘…the papers here carried the report in the first edition and after that it was dropped out of every edition and did not appear anywhere else.’

More fuel was added to this fire by rumours that a recent announcement by the State Department about the formation of a ‘scientific branch’ to exchange information with foreign countries ‘is supposed to have something to do with this “flying saucer” scare…’

These rumours coalesced in a narrative form with the publication of retired Marine Corps major turned pulp-fiction author Donald Keyhoe’s book The Flying Saucers Are Real.

The book sold over half a million copies and is still regarded as a classic by many of today’s UFOlogists. Keyhoe reached three conclusions based upon information he claimed came from highly placed sources in the US government.

Firstly ‘the earth has been under periodic observation from another planet, or other planets, for at least two centuries.’ Secondly, this scrutiny suddenly increased in 1947 following the series of atomic bomb explosions, resulting in Kenneth Arnold’s sighting and the UFO crash at Roswell. Thirdly these observations were set to continue indefinitely ‘as the spaceman’s plans are not complete.’

Keyhoe claimed his information was based on official tip-offs from contacts high up in the US Air Force and Pentagon who believed flying saucers came from outer space.

Donald Keyhoe - one of the key architects of the UFO myth (credit: NICAP.org)

Donald Keyhoe – one of the key architects of the UFO myth (credit: NICAP.org)

But the newly released Irish government briefing – dated 15 June 1950 – reveals that ‘it has been said here that the publication of the book…was inspired by the U.S. authorities so that the people here might be accustomed to the idea that there is a possibility of the inhabitants of another planet visiting this one.’

In effect a very early version of the popular conspiracy theory often called ‘the acclimatisation programme’.  Proponents of this believe that films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind have been deliberately engineered by a secret cabal that knows ‘the truth’ to acclimatise the public to the reality of the alien presence on Earth. They constantly drip-feed us with images, movies and TV programmes about aliens so that when open contact does occur it will seem inevitable. Truther groups like The Disclosure Project thrive on this sort of collective wish-fulfillment.

Back in 1950 Irish diplomats were keen to distance themselves from the stories they heard in Washington. One sent a copy of Keyhoe’s book to Dublin with a covering note that read:  ‘…the Department will understand that I do not in any sense commit myself to believe in any of the  views expressed in regard to these “flying saucers”‘.

So is the ‘acclimatisation programme’ factual or mythical?  Was the whole story fed to Keyhoe part of a clever psychological experiment engineered by the Mirage Men? And which came first, the movies and TV programmes or the idea? The answer lies within the question.

In 1967 a book entitled Report from Iron Mountain became a best-seller in the US and caused a major stir in the media. It  purported to be the work of a covert Special Study Group composed of academics, scientists and economists. The report claimed they had been commissioned by the US government ‘to determine, accurately and realistically, the nature of the problems that would confront the United States if and when a condition of “permanent peace” should arrive, and to draft a programme for dealing with this contingency.’

On page 98, under the section heading ‘Substitutes for the Functions of War‘, the report says:

‘…this is where the space-race proposals, in many ways so well suited as economic substitutes for war, fall short. The most ambitious and unrealistic space project cannot of itself generate a believable external menace. It has been hotly argued that such a menace would offer the “last, best hopes of peace” etc., by uniting mankind against the danger of destruction by “creatures” from other planets or from outer space.’

The idea of rival countries uniting in the face of a common threat from outer space had a long literary pedigree dating back to H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. In 1947 it led Britain’s Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden to declare that the nations of the world would only be united ‘when they have someone in Mars to get mad against.’ And in 1987 President Ronald Reagan was reported to have told an astonished Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev at the UN General Assembly ‘how quickly our differences would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.’

Colin Powell, deputy national security advisor at that time, was well aware of Reagan’s preoccupation with ‘little green men’ and believed he got the idea from the plot of the 1951 science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still.  This appeared at the height of the first flying saucer scare (source: Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The role of a lifetime, Simon & Schuster, 1991).

In 1967  Report from Iron Mountain claimed that:

‘….experiments have been proposed to test test the credibility of an out-of-our world invasion threat; it is possible that a few of the more difficult-to-explain “flying saucer” incidents of recent years were in fact early experiments of this kind…’

In 1972 satirist Leonard C. Lewin revealed he invented the entire Iron Mountain report as a spoof. One source claims the book was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘Most Successful Literary Hoax‘.  Inevitably some conspiracy theorists believe it is the work of an real top secret committee set up by the US government much like the one imagined by the Disclosure Project. In this version Lewin’s story was needed for damage control when the contents leaked out.

Report from Iron Mountain joins a long list of literary hoaxes including the infamous MJ-12 papers that appeared in 1987. They purport to be part of a secret briefing for president-elect Eisenhower on the crash of a spacecraft at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 by a super-secret cabal known as ‘Operation Majestic-12.’

Despite the amateurish nature of the MJ-12 documents some prominent UFOlogists – such as Stanton Friedman – continue to act as advocates for their contents. Their commitment to the narrative reflects a deeper truth of the type imagined by Donald Keyhoe in 1950.

The appearance of deeper truths are one of the key features that identify this type of story as part of a wider myth. A scholar of religion, Professor Robert Segal, of the University of Aberdeen, says that to qualify as myth it is not necessary for a story to be true or false. But it must express a conviction ‘held tenaciously by its adherents’ and be impervious to scientific scrutiny. Much like the acclimatisation programme itself.

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Nessie: shoot on sight!

The Sunday Express has published a summary of my research into official files on The Loch Ness Monster. The article by Mark Branagan is headlined: ‘The day big game hunters were called in to kill Nessie…and almost sparked war’ and begins:

‘It was a tourist attraction and a national treasure to those dreaming of an independent Scotland. Now previously unpublished documents can reveal that when London put a bounty on landing the Loch Ness Monster in the 1930s, big game hunters were not the only ones sharpening their harpoons for the kill….

‘Now previously unpublished documents can reveal that when London put a bounty on landing the Loch Ness Monster in the 1930s, big game hunters were not the only ones sharpening their harpoons for the kill.

A Nessie cartoon from 1933  that appears in the Scottish Office file at The National Archives of Scotland (Crown Copyright)

A Nessie cartoon from 1933 that appears in the Scottish Office file at The National Archives of Scotland (Crown Copyright)

‘In fact, the normally demure Natural History Museums of England and Scotland were also at each other’s throats… over who would get the carcass, while there concern among the newly re-emerging Scottish Nationalist movement that the monster’s dead body might be put on show in London.

‘The story has been uncovered by Sheffield based author David Clarke for his new book, Britain’s X-traordinary Files.

‘Clarke already knew about the Nessie Files in Edinburgh but was “astonished” to find another set at the Natural History Museum. “Many influential people, including MPs and famous naturalists like Sir Peter Scott, believed in the existence of Nessie and a lot of pressure were placed on the Scottish Office to give it special protection,” he says.

‘Indeed when sightings began again after the war, the Duke of Edinburgh suggested calling in the Royal Navy to solve the mystery.

‘“During the 1930s the Monster became an important symbol for Scottish Nationalists who wanted the police to protect the creature from big game hunters,” adds Clarke. “Nessie had become a Scottish icon, a symbol of national identity. There was genuine outrage at the possibility that the corpse of the monster might be taken for display in London.”

‘By 1934, both the Natural History in Museum in London and the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh wanted Nessie, dead or alive. Yet while Scotland hoped that the bounty hunters could be kept at bay long enough to get new laws passed to protect the creature, London preferred it shot on sight.

The Scottish Office opened a file on the monster in December 1933 after being bombarded with inquiries from the Press.

‘Now “Nessie Files” have also been found at the Natural History Museum, and the recently revealed contents do no favours for Anglo Scottish relations.

‘In March 1934 an unnamed official at the National History Museum, responding to a question about the museum’s policy on Nessie, made no bones about how they thought bounty hunters should deal with the creature. His message to them was very clear:

“Should you ever come within range of the ‘Monster’ I hope you will not be deterred by any humanitarian considerations from shooting him on the spot and sending the carcass to us in cold storage, carriage forward. Short of this, a flipper, a jaw or a tooth would be very welcome.”

‘According to more files found in Edinburgh, pressure was already growing for a special Act of Parliament to prevent Nessie being killed or captured.

‘The campaign was led by Inverness MP Murdoch MacDonald who assured the Secretary of State Sir Godfrey Collins the creature was no myth.

“Evidence of its presence can be taken as undoubted. Far too many people have seen something abnormal to question its existence.”

‘He demanded a bill be put before Parliament to protect the creature and asked Sir Godfrey what could be done to spare it from harm in the meantime.

‘The advice obtained by Sir Godfrey was not exactly encouraging to those who wanted to save the Monster from a watery grave, or at least stop England claiming the remains.

‘Officials advised him there was “no law for the protection of Monsters” and “great fish, including those of no known denomination, may be claimed by The Crown”.

‘By this time, the threat to Nessie had reached the ears of the bosses of the Royal Scottish Museum.‎

‘In 1934, they wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland, staking Edinburgh’s claim to the carcass.

“The museum urges strongly that the RSM have the reversionary rights to the ‘Monster’ if and when its corpse should become available…We think the Monster should not be allowed to find its last resting place in England. Such a fate would surely outrage Scottish nationalism which at the moment is thriving greatly under the Monster’s beneficent influence.”

‘By 1938, the threat to Nessie was becoming very real. The Chief Constable of Inverness William Fraser had stationed constables around the Loch, but the word from Sir Godfrey was the officers could do no more than enforce the existing laws of trespass and use of guns on private property.

‘Meanwhile, the big game hunter Peter Kent had announced he intended to hunt the monster down with a force of 22 men and a specially made harpoon gun.

‘A halt to such expeditions was brought by the Second World War, during which Loch Ness was patrolled by the Royal Navy.

‘A fresh wave of sightings would ensure a new lease of life for the story throughout the 1950s, peaking in 1960 when aeronautical engineer Tim Dinsdale shot the best known cinema footage of Nessie. By that point however, scientific interest from London had already cooled.

‘In October 1959, the Natural History Museum wrote to employees warning them the trustees “do not approve of the spending of official time or official leave on the so-called Loch Ness phenomena.

“They have no intention of curtailing the granting of special leave for approved purposes, nor of interfering with the manner in which members of staff of the Museum spend their private leave. They take this opportunity of warning all concerned that if as a result of the activities of members of staff the museum is involved in undesirable publicity, they will be gravely displeased.”

The disapproval of the museum did not stop naturalists ‎going public in support of the creature’s existence however.

Sir Peter Scott, son of Captain Scott of the Antarctic and an Olympic yachtsman and Vice President of the World Wildlife Fund declared there was not one but a whole family of plesiosaurs living in the Loch.

By 1962, Natural History Museum director Sir Terence Morrison-Scott had opened his own file on the phenomena.

Sir Terence was lukewarm on the whole idea and was concerned at what he called Tory MP David James’ “obsession with Nessie”.

James had met Prince Philip to discuss his Loch Ness project earlier in 1962 – and the Duke encouraged him to contact the Royal Navy for assistance

Prince Philip - the Duke of Edinburgh - was interested in a range of fringe phenomena including flying saucers, crop circles and the Loch Ness Monster (Credit: The Guardian)

Prince Philip – the Duke of Edinburgh – was interested in a range of fringe phenomena including flying saucers, crop circles and the Loch Ness Monster (Credit: The Guardian)

Sir Terence wrote: “He has spoken of his plans to the Duke of Edinburgh, tried to gain the support of Sir Solly Zuckerman (MoD’s Chief Scientific Advisor) and will no doubt continue to explore explore all high profile avenues. I don’t think he, or anyone else, is yet in a position to enlist the support of the Museum. Much more convincing evidence is needed that there really are big beasts in Loch Ness. It is up to David James to provide the evidence.”

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Britain’s X-traordinary Files

My latest book opens The National Archives’ own ‘X-files’ to shine a spotlight on many formerly secret official accounts of uncanny phenomena and other unsolved historical mysteries.

Book coverJPGFrom mediums employed by the police to help with psychic crime-busting to sea monster sightings logged by the Royal Navy, Britain’s X-traordinary Files is the result of 15 years research in the archives at London and elsewhere.

Each section is underpinned by images of key documents created by government agencies that have investigated and sometimes tried to exploit extraordinary phenomena or powers in recent history.

Following the style of its companion volume The UFO Files (now in its second edition) the seven chapters throw new light on rumours, legends and persistent mysteries. Some of the subjects covered by the book include:

  • The Angels of Mons that were said to have saved outnumbered British troops in Belgium at the outbreak of the First World War one hundred years ago

    Soldiers from the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers prepare for the Battle of Mons on 23 August 1914 - the source of the legend of the 'Angels of Mons' (Credit: Imperial War Museum)

    Soldiers from the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers prepare for the Battle of Mons on 23 August 1914 – the source of the legend of the ‘Angels of Mons’ (Credit: Imperial War Museum)

  • War Diaries and other documents that reveal what happened to 266 British soldiers that ‘disappeared into thin air’ during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915
  • The Death Ray and rumours of secret weapons spread by intelligence agencies between and after the two world wars
  • Scotland Yard’s use of a Dutch clairvoyant to find the ‘Stone of Scone’ stolen from Westminster Abbey in 1950
  • Secret ‘Remote Viewing‘ experiments conducted by British intelligence agencies in the aftermath of 9/11
  • MI5 investigations into reports of mysterious lights and ‘crop circles‘ in WW2
  • Black helicopters: the amazing story of the hunt by Special Branch and MI5 for a ‘phantom helicopter‘ that was sighted by police officers in northern England during the winter of 1973-74. Detectives suspected the mystery machine was piloted by Irish republican terrorists who planning a bombing raid on the mainland. The Met Police file on these mysterious remains closed to the public to this day.
  • The extraordinary trial of a London man who was found guilty of killing a pedestrian he believed to be a ghost
  • British Army investigations of dowsing and other extraordinary powers to locate buried bodies and mines
  • The mysterious Solway Spaceman photograph that baffled police and RAF experts fifty years ago

    TempletonPhoto 001

    The enigmatic ‘Solway Spaceman’ photograph taken by an employee of the Cumbrian fire service in 1964 (Credit: Jim Templeton)

  • Results of inquiries into the mysterious disappearance of British aircraft and their crews
  • What the British government records say about the fate of captain and crew of the Mary Celeste
  • The future King George V’s sighting of a phantom ship, The Flying Dutchman whilst serving in the Royal Navy
  • Arthur Conan Doyle’s account of sighting the mysterious Victorian sea serpent in the Mediterranean
  • The Loch Ness Monster Files: what papers at Scotland’s National Archives and London’s Natural History Museum reveal about the Nessie legend.
  • Read my list of the top 9 unsolved historical mysteries on the BBC History Extra website here.

Britain’s X-traordinary Files is published by Bloomsbury on 25 September 2014 and can be ordered here and here.

I will launch the book with an illustrated lecture on the Angels of Mons and other legends of the First World War at Sheffield’s Off The Shelf literary festival on 27 October.

On 13 October I joined three other authors a discussion about ghost stories and other paranormal phenomena for BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week. The panel included Val McDermid, the author of Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, Susan Hill, the author of The Woman In Black and Printer’s Devil Court and Alex Werner who is curator of the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London. A podcast of the show can be downloaded here.

Read the Magonia Review here and Nick Redfern’s review for Mysterious Universe here.

More praise for Britain’s X-traordinary Files:

‘...it’s a Fortean must-read; a well-researched and entertaining insight into the wackier side of British officialdom.’

Andrew May, Fortean Times

‘…this is a feast of a book, valuable above all for folklore studies but also for parapsychology, history and hard science; and the more important for having grounded itself in the most prosaic of sources, the official records of the nation.’

                      Professor Ronald Hutton, University of Bristol

‘In this entertaining and absorbing book, David Clarke excavates hidden marvels from the depths of The National Archives, casting new light on our uncanny world – from death rays to ghost ships and angels.’

                     Professor Owen Davies, University of Hertfordshire

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Saucery in Pop Culture

NASA’s preparations to test a saucer-shaped spacecraft have placed the iconic ‘flying saucer‘ back into the popular consciousness.

In a BBC Magazine feature journalist Jon Kelly explores how the saucer ‘has served as visual shorthand for the gleaming, jet-propelled, post-war vision of the future’.BBC News Magazine

Saucers are of course familiar to everyone from ’50s sci-fi classics such as The Day the Earth Stood Still but also turn up in architecture, such as the prefabricated Futuro houses designed by Matti Suuronen.

The saucer-shape appears in toys, kettles, phones, sherbet-filled sweets and even a number of English pubs.

One such hostelry, in Gillingham, Kent, was re-named following a ‘flap’ of UFO sightings nearby in 1954.

I enjoyed a pint of best bitter inside this Flying Saucer during a trip to interview Derek Dempster, the former Spitfire pilot and UFO watcher, a decade ago.

The only time I have been inside a flying saucer - whilst enjoying a pint inside this pub at Gillingham in Kent

The only time I have been inside a flying saucer – whilst enjoying a pint inside this pub at Gillingham in Kent

NASA’s plans return us full circle to the optimistic post-war era sandwiched between the UFO flaps of 1947 and 1967.

During this period newspapers and futurologists speculated that saucer-shaped hypersonic aircraft might be the next big technological leap after the jet engine

And some forward-thinking engineers such as Britain’s John Frost tried to turn these ideas into reality.

But Frost’s design for a futuristic prototype flying saucer for Avro-Canada (‘Project Y2′) – based on German designs from WW2 – never made it past the drawing board.

And despite many subsequent attempts to revive the idea – such as the British Railways Board patent for a fusion-power saucer in the ’70s – saucers have remained firmly in the eye of the beholder.

 

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Foxtrot 94 – a Cold War mystery solved

One of the most enduring mysteries of the Cold War – the disappearance of US pilot William Schaffner in a secret RAF exercise above the North Sea – has finally been laid to rest.

Wreckage of Captain Schaffner's lightning, as it was lifted from the seabed off Flamborough in 1970 (Credit: The National Archives DEFE 71/95)

Wreckage of Captain Schaffner’s lightning, as it was lifted from the seabed off Flamborough in 1970 (Credit: The National Archives DEFE 71/95)

Captain Scaffner was just 28 years old when his RAF Lightning – call-sign Foxtrot 94 – crashed into the sea off Flamborough Head in Yorkshire one stormy night in September 1970.

Now his youngest son Michael has told the full tragic story of his father’s death in an exclusive interview with Ian Black for the monthly magazine FlyPast (July).

Michael Schaffner and his brothers were given access to classified RAF files on the loss of Lightning XS894 after they read internet rumours that claimed the USAF exchange pilot died in a secret operation to intercept UFOs.

The rumours began when RAF crash investigators lifted the wreckage of the Lightning from the seabed – only to find the cockpit was empty.

The body of the dad-of-three from Ohio – who had flown combat missions in Vietnam before his posting to RAF Binbrook, in Lincolnshire – was never found.

But endemic Cold War secrecy meant his young wife and family were never given access to the full contents of the RAF Board of Inquiry held into his death in 1972.

A young Captain Schaffner during flight training in the US (Credit: FlyPast/Michael Schaffner)

A young Captain Schaffner during flight training in the US (Credit: FlyPast/Michael Schaffner)

Two decades later a newspaper in Grimsby, where the wreckage was first brought to shore, published claims by an anonymous ‘whistleblower’ who said he was a member of the crash investigation team.

The source, who has never been identified, claimed Schaffner’s Lightning had been scrambled to intercept a UFO tracked by NATO radars.

But the RAF inquiry file – opened at The National Archives at Kew in 2008 -reveals the ‘bogey’ seen on radar was actually a Avro Shackleton.

Its crew had been diverted by RAF controllers in a cunning plan to simulate a defecting Soviet aircraft that intended to land in the UK.

Tacevals’ (tactical evaluation exercises) were conducted in strict secrecy. Their aim was to test the interception skills of fighter pilots who were kept on 24-hour alert duty.

Lightnings from RAF Binbrook and other airbases on the British coast were frequently scrambled to deal with incursions by Soviet aircraft during this tense period of the Cold War.

Transcripts of Foxtrot 94′s last call to RAF ground controller appear in the Board of Inquiry file. They contained no reference to UFOs,  just the last desperate transmissions from Schaffner as he tried to intercept the slow-moving Shackleton.

The Lightning disappeared from radar as it turned at low altitude in the darkness above a stormy sea, ‘a mission beyond his experience’, according to his son.

A fuller account of how the mystery unravelled can be followed in my Case Files here. The story was originally investigated by the BBC regional programme Inside Out North who helped Schaffner’s sons discover the truth.

But during the ’90s the story of Captain Schaffner’s alleged ‘abduction’ by aliens spread across the internet. In 1999 it featured in a book, Alien Investigator, by a retired Yorkshire police sergeant, Tony Dodd, who was convinced the MoD had covered up the truth.

This was the time when the The X-Files and the 50th anniversary of the Roswell incident brought government cover-ups into the public spotlight.

In his FlyPast article, Michael Schaffner tells of his shock when he stumbled across the sensational claims whilst searching online in 2000. FlyPastcoverJuly2014 001

‘Reading the internet that day, I was left pretty rattled…never in my wildest dreams did I think that someone would take the time to fabricate a story worth of The X-Files out of my father’s crash…’

His article reveals the full details of his father’s final moments and lays to rest the mystery of what happened to his body. He says:

‘We will probably never know the full truth of what really happened but it certainly wasn’t any of the bizarre stories of the internet sites. A chain of events beyond his control led to his death. No one person could be held to blame.’

Foxtrot 94 by Ian Black and Michael Schaffner is a part of a feature ‘Spotlight on the English Electric Lightning’, published in the July issue of FlyPast magazine.

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Solway Spaceman mystery is 50 years old

It is 50 years since Jim Templeton took the famous image of a figure in a space-suit hovering behind his daughter on the Solway Marshes in the English Lake District.

The Solway Spaceman photograph, taken from a print supplied by Jim Templeton in 2001

The Solway Spaceman photograph, taken from a print supplied by Jim Templeton in 2001

Since that family outing in May 1964 when the figure – dubbed the ‘Solway Spaceman‘ – was captured on Jim’s Zeiss Pentacon camera the image has resisted all attempts to explain it.

Jim, who died in 2011, saw nothing unusual when he took the photo of his 5-year-old daughter Elizabeth, as she sat on grass holding a bunch of sea pinks.

But when he took the photo for development at his local chemist the assistant told him it was shame the best image had been ‘spoiled by the man in the background wearing a space suit’.

Jim worked for Cumbria’s fire service and immediately sent the photo for analysis at Kodak and by Carlisle CID. Soon after it appeared on pg 1 of the Cumberland News the image made headlines across the world. Jim’s family were inundated with letters from people who identified the ‘figure’ as a angel, an alien and a ‘spirit form’.

The mystery grew because the photo was taken from a position looking towards the Chapelcross nuclear power station, across the Solway Estuary.  At the time MoD manufactured Blue Streak rockets at RAF Spadeadam, near Carlisle, and of course the NASA Apollo programme was in full swing across the Atlantic.

In the summer of 1964 Jim said he was visited by two mysterious ‘men from the Ministry’ who claimed they worked for the government. In a scene that could have been taken from the film Men In Black the men referred to each other by numbers and drove a black Jaguar car.

The full story – and the police and MoD investigations that followed – will be told in my new book Britain’s X-traordinary Files published by Bloomsbury in September. A summary can be followed in my case files pages here and BBC Cumbria have published a 50th anniversary feature on the mystery here.

Since 1964 there have been many attempts to explain the photograph as a hoax but none have succeeded and the most recent study, published by Rational Wiki, suggests the ‘spaceman’ is actually Jim’s wife, Anne.

This theory says the model of camera used by Jim only revealed 70% of what the lens actually captured.

That being the case, he failed to notice his wife – who was standing behind him at the time – walk into the shot and take her place in history. Another photograph from the outing shows Mrs Templeton wearing a blue dress which has overexposed to white. When manipulated in photoshop it resembles the colour of the ‘spaceman’.

A photograph showing Mrs Templeton and her daughter on the Solway Marshes - is she the 'spaceman'? (Credit: RationalWiki)

A photograph showing Mrs Templeton and her daughter on the Solway Marshes – is she the ‘spaceman’? (Credit: RationalWiki)

But Jim and his wife remained adamant that she could not have been the figure in the photograph.

Whatever the explanation the image remains one of the most puzzling examples from the gallery of anomalous photography.

 

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On Tour With The Angels

August-September marks the 100th birthday of ‘the greatest urban legend of the 20th century’ – The Angels of Mons.

Flyer for the Folklore Society Legendary Weekend in September 2014

Flyer for the Folklore Society Legendary Weekend in September 2014

The inspiring tale of desperate Tommies saved from annihilation by the Kaiser’s troops via the intervention of shining angel warriors – led by St George wielding a flaming sword – was believed by millions during the Great War.

The Angels of Mons went on to inspire countless newspaper stories, books – including my own account of the legend, published in 2004 – films and even sheet music.

This and other legends of the 1914-18 war are set to be re-told and debated once again as the centenary of the battle of Mons approaches.  In August the Belgian city will play host to an international event to commemorate the outbreak of WW1 at the war cemetery and nearby battlefield.

Rumours about phantom bowmen, saints and angels protecting Allied troops spread to the Home Front after author Arthur Machen published a short story in the London Evening News in September 1914.

I will discuss the respective roles played by Machen and his contemporary Edgar Rice Burroughs in a series of talks at conferences and literary festivals to mark the centenary of the battle and the legend it spawned. This will include some new revelations about the possible inspiration for the story and those who claimed to have seen the ‘angels’ and bowmen of Mons.

In June I will be presenting my latest research on the Mons legend in Prague at the annual conference of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR). Scholars of urban and ‘contemporary legend’ from across the globe will be sharing the latest research in the field at this wonderful six-day event in the capital of the Czech Republic.

Nearer the anniversary I will be speaking about The Angels of Mons and other legends of the war at The Folklore Society‘s legendary weekend at Chatham, Kent, on 6-7 September.  With the timely theme of ‘War in Legend and Tradition‘ this conference will explore songs, ghosts, omens, rumours and rituals from the last two millennia of conflict.

‘War in Legend and Tradition’ will be held in the Napoleonic-era Fort Armherst and organiser Jeremy Harte is keen to hear from anyone who can contribute to the military theme – folklorists, veterans, storytellers, re-enactors, military historians or ‘poor bloody infantry’. For more details contact Jeremy via the Folklore Society website here.

And later in the year I will present an illustrated lecture on the Mons legend at the Off The Shelf literature festival in my home city of Sheffield before taking the angels of Mons on tour.

 

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Happy birthday to ‘The Thing’

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Warminster UFO mystery that transformed the small Wiltshire market town into a centre of pilgrimage for flying-saucerers.

From the Christmas of 1964-65, if local journalist Arthur Shuttlewood can be believed, the town was virtually under siege from ‘The Thing’, a terrifying airborne sound.

Journalist Arthur Shuttlewood's first book, 'The Warminster Mystery', published in 1967, put the little town on the map as the centre for UFO pilgrims

Journalist Arthur Shuttlewood’s first book, ‘The Warminster Mystery’, published in 1967, put the little town on the map as the centre for UFO pilgrims (credit: http://www.metaphysicalarticles.blogspot.com)

Soon afterwards visits from flying saucers and nocturnal lights became as regular as clockwork.

Shuttlewood’s updates for the weekly Warminster Journal became headline news in the Daily Mirror and other London tabloids.

From 1966 every weekend and bank holiday, UFO watchers camped out on Cradle Hill, which borders the British Army firing range on Salisbury Plain, to watch the space people fly past.

By the 1970s interest began to wane and when I visited the town in 2006 there was no mention of the ‘mystery’ in the town’s Tourist Information literature.

But times are a’changing thanks to Warminster stalwart Kevin Goodman, who revived the annual August bank holiday skywatch tradition in 2007.

As a teenager Kevin made regular trips from his home in the West Midlands to skywatch at Warminster and had a number of extraordinary experiences there.

Kevin now runs  – with Steve Dewey – the Warminster UFO website, dedicated to the legend, that is linked to a Facebook page.

In February this year, when BBC2’s peripatetic antiques show Flog It! visited Warminster, presenter Paul Martin made the town’s UFO legend the centrepiece of the show.

Kevin will speak about ‘the Warminster Mystery at 50’ at the 2014 BUFORA Conference, to be held in the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms ,on Saturday, 30 August. Tickets can be booked here.

Afterwards pilgrims can join a coach trip to Cradle Hill and take a trip back to the good old days of UFO-ology.

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The Phantom Russian Cossacks

The fruits of my research into First World War rumours and belief legends was published in the Sunday Telegraph on 23 February under the headline:

A RUSSIAN REVELATION: WHERE THE MYTHICAL COSSACKS OF WW1 WERE REALLY FROM

Captured Russian troops including Cossacks in Galicia (credit: www.firstworldwar.com)

Captured Russian troops including Cossacks in Galicia (credit: http://www.firstworldwar.com)

by Jasper Copping

It seems to have been the worst kept national secret.

In the opening weeks of the First World War, word spread swiftly that up to a   million Cossack warriors had been shipped to Britain and were being spirited   through the country to be rushed into action on the Western Front, where   fighting was still at a critical phase and yet to be bogged down in the   trenches.

The news even reached the ears of the Germans, apparently provoking them into   strategic changes which are credited with allowing the Allies to stop them   achieving a swift victory.

Except there was not an ounce of truth in the reports, and the massive force   of Cossacks was non-existent.

The so-called “Russian rumour” is one of a number of myths and legends which   emerged during the First World War and which have now been investigated by   David Clarke, an academic from Sheffield Hallam University who specialises   in analysing such phenomena.

The research, which also covers the so-called Angel of Mons – an apparition   credited with assisting British soldiers – as well spying missions by   “phantom” Zeppelins, and “corpse factories”, where the Germans supposedly   processed human remains – has been conducted as part of a series of lectures   to mark the war’s centenary.

Dr Clarke has pieced together the “Russian rumour” from reports at the time,   tracing its origins and showing how it was used by British spies to dupe the   Germans.

The rumours began to circulate in the last week of August 1914 and swiftly started to appear in the newspapers, first local, then national   and even international.

Witnesses claimed they had seen southbound trains passing through the country   with blinds down, but with the occasional glimpse caught of carriages of   “fierce-looking bearded fellows in fur hats”. Others claimed the men still   had “snow on their boots”, while train drivers said they had spoken to the   foreign troops.

One article referred to reports that an “an immense force of Russian soldiers   – little short of a million it is said – have passed, or are still passing,   through England on their way to France”. It suggested the men had been   brought from Archangel, in northern Russia, and landed at Leith before being   carried south at night on hundreds of trains.

The article concluded: “What a surprise is in store for the Germans when they   find themselves faced on the west with hordes of Russians, while other   hordes are pressing upon them from the east!”

Officials did not confirm the reports but, with no firm denials, and given the   secrecy surrounding war preparations, kept an open mind. Meanwhile, the   reports continued to come in, appearing to give increasing corroboration.

One witness said he had seen 10,000 Russians marching along the Embankment   towards London Bridge station, while a rail porter at Durham reported   finding an automatic chocolate machine jammed by a rouble.

One man said they had been on a ship from Archangel accompanied by 2,500   Cossacks on route to France. He also claimed that he had taken several   photographs of the men which he gave to his local newspaper, which was   prevented from publishing them by the censor.

In Malvern, it was claimed a Russian jumped off a train and ordered 300   “lunchsky baskets”, while a woman near Stafford said she saw hundreds of men   in long grey overcoats stretching their legs next to their waiting train.

At Carlisle, there were said to have been shouts for “vodka” from a train.   Another report claimed 250,000 men wearing tunics from the Astrakhan area of   south west Russia had marched through a town in North Wales.

Some of the most extensive reports were in the US, where the press were free   from censorship restrictions.

The New York Times claimed 72,000 Russians had been transported from   Aberdeen to Grimsby, Harwich and Dover, and then on to Ostend.

The stories reached British soldiers already at the front in letters from   home, while at least one newspaper dispatch from Belgium also claimed the   Russians had actually arrived there.

Even Brigadier-General John Charteris, a senior intelligence officer, learnt   of the reports and made inquiries, but was told the rumours were untrue.

The Germans, however, gave them more credence and on September 7, news reports   from the Continent disclosed how the Kaiser and senior headquarters staff   had left France altogether, attributing the retreat to “the official news of   the concentration of 250,000 Russian troops in France”.

Meanwhile, the German army had veered south eastwards as it neared Paris,   giving the Allies the opportunity to check its advance at the Battle of the   Marne by the middle of September. The part played by the Russian rumour, in   this tactical blunder by the Germans and the subsequent Allied victory is   not known, but senior British military figures have said it was a factor.

According to some reports, the Germans detached two divisions to guard the   Belgian coast against the expected Russian assault, weakening their force   for the forthcoming Marne battle.

It was only after the after the victory on the Marne that the British   Government issued an unequivocal denial, but even after that, the rumour   persisted, with many insisting it was part of a continuing plan to trick the   Germans.

However, Dr Clarke’s research has traced the trigger for the false rumour to   events on August 24, when railway movements around the country were subject   to lengthy hold-ups.

These were imposed to allow reservists to move from their barracks around the   country to embarkation points on the south coast. The trains were   handsignalled and moved at night with blinds drawn.

One of the battalions involved was the Gaelic-speaking 4th Seaforth   Highlanders, whose appearance – and language – appears to have given rise to   many of the reports.

In one Midland station, a porter is said to have asked a group of   Gaelic-speaking Highland soldiers where they were from – and to have   misunderstood the reply of “Ross Shire”, as “Russia”.

At the same time, some Russian officers did arrive in Britain to organise   supplies for their own forces and serve as attaches to various military   staffs. Accompanying them was a number of soldier servants, most of whom   travelled from Archangel to Scottish ports, before catching trains south,   further fuelling the rumours.

Another suggestion put forward for sparking the report was a telegram sent   from a shipping agent in Aberdeen to his London headquarters about a large   consignment of Russian eggs which simply said ‘100,000 Russians now on way   from Aberdeen to London’.

There are clues that the rumour was deliberately fuelled, or even instigated,   by the intelligence service and British agents certainly tried to feed it to   their German counterparts.

MI5 had already intercepted letters and telegrams sent back to his handlers by   Carl Lody, a German agent operating in Britain. However, a report from him   that was allowed to pass related to the Russian troops story.

Dr Clarke said: “It was an accidental rumour, which turned into a massive   delusion. The authorities just let it run, and it was seem to have played a   role in the war.”

His research shows how other myths and legends, such as the Angel of Mons and   the “corpse factories”, were also exploited by the British for their   propaganda value.

Copyright Sunday Telegraph/David Clarke 2014

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