UFOs Conquer The World

My new book How UFOs Conquered the World was published on 14 May and is reviewed by The Sunday Times here.

Alien encounters as depicted in Thrilling Wonder Stories 1948 (credit: MEPL)

Alien encounters as depicted in Thrilling Wonder Stories 1948 (credit: MEPL)

In his review James McConnachie says UFO believers will not like this book, ‘it is not a classic debunking. David Clarke is too subtle and warm for that’ but it is ‘a good book…it pulls off being sceptical, respectful and dry…’

‘Clarke, who has a PhD in folklore, insists that everything is “perceived through the distorting prism of popular culture”. Before flying saucers there were phantom rockets, winged airships and fiery celestial chariots, as seen by the biblical prophet Ezekiel. Postwar UFO sightings aped prewar science fiction. In the 1950s and 1960s, everyone saw saucer-like shapes. (The “saucer” image derives from a misreporting in a newspaper: ‘”Why would aliens redesign the appearance of their craft,” Clarke demands, “to conform to a mistake by a journalist?”) From the late 1970s, people saw huge, hovering black triangles with pulsing corner lights, “strikingly similar” to the opened image of the 1977 film Star Wars.’

Elsewhere Peter Rogerson in the Magonia Review of Books says, he ‘found this a really refreshing change after reading one naïve UFO book after another, and happy at last to read one which Magonia can wholeheartedly recommend.’

‘In this book…Britain’s leading ufologist, through his personal reminiscences and interviews provides a portrait of the rise of the UFO mythology. He recounts how seeing a (particularly dire) UFO documentary sparked his interest in the subject…In the end David Clarke comes down firmly in the psycho-social camp.. It’s important not to confuse this psycho-social approach with simple debunking. It does not take the view that because UFO reports are essentially human documents and are in some sense or another products of the human imagination they are of no interest and can be just thrown away. Rather it argues that their roots in the human imagination is exactly why they are interesting and important.’

Blogger Andrew May makes a similar point in his review for Brian Clegg’s Popular Science. In How UFOs Conquered the World  May says ‘Dr Clarke focuses on what he calls the UFO syndrome: ‘the entire human phenomenon of seeing UFOs, believing in them and communicating ideas about what they might be’:

‘…This isn’t a book for UFO believers, who will see it as a systematic attempt to kick over all their carefully constructed sandcastles. The fact is, however, that Clarke doesn’t kick over any sandcastles at all – he simply looks at them with closer scrutiny than their builders would like. To continue the metaphor, it’s a book for people who are prepared to admire sandcastles without needing to make-believe they’re real castles. If you’re the sort of person who would never dream of buying a book with ‘UFO’ in the title – this is the one that ought to change your mind.’


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UFO New Religious Movements and the Millennium

‘It might sound more like a plot for The X-Files than a case for the real-life detectives of Scotland Yard but secret Special Branch files have revealed the Met regarded Mulder and Scully, not to mention Captain Kirk and his Star Trek crew, as threats to national security…’

Mark Branagan’s story published by the Sunday Express and followed up by the Daily Telegraph is based upon papers I obtained from the Metropolitan Police via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in 2005.

Two undated dossiers, one titled ‘New Religious Movements (UFO NRM’s and the Millennium)‘ were compiled by an unknown author to brief anti-terrorism officers.

A page from the Met Police Special Branch briefing on UFOs and the Millennium (copyright Met Police)

A page from the Met Police Special Branch briefing on UFOs and the Millennium (copyright Met Police)

The context suggests they were prepared in the aftermath of the Heaven’s Gate suicides and the fiftieth anniversary of UFOlogy in 1997-98.

The two-page memo on UFO NRMs opens by saying ‘the purpose of this note is to draw attention to the risk posed by UFO NRMs in relation to the Millennium…it should be remembered that UFO NRMs are new and draw inspiration from sources one would not normally associate with religious devotion, particularly rock music, television drama and feature films.’

Popular programmes such as The X-Files, Millennium, Dark Skies and Star Trek are listed as drawing together:

‘…the various strands of religion, UFOs, conspiracies and mystic events and put them in an entertaining story line…it is not being suggested that the production companies are intentionally attempting to ferment trouble. However [they] know what psychological buttons to press to excite interest in their products. Obviously this is not sinister in itself. What is of concern is the devotion certain groups and individuals ascribe to the contents of these programmes..’

The author said it was easy ‘to dismiss those who adhere to these beliefs as being mentally deranged, and therefore of no consequence.’

But the mass suicide by followers of both Heaven’s Gate ‘…indicates that their views can, and do influence others [and] in essence, it does not matter that we do not believe, what really matters is they do.

The briefing pointed out that members of the Heaven’s Gate group drew much of their inspiration from science fiction films and movies. Its followers spent their time watching TV programmes such as Star Trek and The X-Files, or reading UFO-related material online.

‘The problem is that growing numbers are not treating this as entertainment, and finding it impossible to divorce fantasy from reality,’ the Special Branch report continued.  Police were concerned that although the extreme type of outcome seen in San Diego was an American phenomenon, ‘it is being imported into the UK.’

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Roswell slides ‘mystery’ debunked

The so-called ‘Roswell slideshave been exposed as having nothing to do with aliens and everything to do with the will to believe that underpins the UFO syndrome.

What the caption on the exhibit actually says (credit: Nippa Downey)

What the caption on the exhibit actually says (credit: Nippa Downey)

What Nick Redfern calls ‘the biggest soap opera since Dallas‘ came crashing down less than a week after the slides were first exhibited at a ticket-only, pay-per-view event in Mexico City on 5 May.

Research by a crack team of skeptics has established beyond reasonable doubt that the ‘alien’ inside the glass case is in fact the mummy of a child who was born and died on this planet.

As I pointed out at the time 5 May 2015 is exactly twenty years since the fake alien autopsy film was unveiled in London. That was also supposed to show images of aliens recovered from a flying saucer that crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947.

But the links between the slides exhibited in Mexico City and Roswell were even more tenuous than those claimed for the alien autopsy footage.

Even before access to high resolution images of the slides was obtained, skeptics had drawn comparisons between the body shown and a child’s mummy.

On his Mysterious World blog Redfern drew attention to the hair-covered head of an animal, accompanied by a label, that was visible behind the remains of the child mummy. Nick suspected this pointed to both being exhibits in a freak-show or museum of curiosities,

But the coup de grace was delivered by the Roswell Slides Research Group that was formed to critically evaluate claims that were being made about the significance of the images on the slides.

One of the group used a piece of commercially-available software to clean up the blurry text that was visible on the museum label visible beside the glass case in which the mummy was exhibited.

A press release issued by the group on 11 May explains what happened next:

“Following a bit of work by various members of the team over a period of a few hours…the words ‘MUMMIFIED BODY OF TWO YEAR OLD BOY‘ were clear. with 3 further lines of text seeming to say something like ‘at the time of burial the body was clothed in a …. cotton shirt. Burial wrappings consisted of these small cotton blankets. Loaned by Mr …. San Francisco, California’…

“…various other researchers have now duplicated and accepted those results. Most members of the UFO community have now moved on to ask how the text was not clear to the promoters of the slides before a big show was held in Mexico and whether the actions of those few individuals will do lasting damage to the wider field of UFO research’.

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Sliding towards Roswell

The Roswell incident is UFOlogy’s Holy Grail and the industry that has grown up around it never sleeps.

Alien Autopsy mark 2: coming to your internet browser soon!  (credit: UFOevidence.org)

Alien Autopsy mark 2: coming to your internet browser soon! (credit: UFOevidence.org)

On Tuesday, 5 May the world may, or may not, be rocked to its foundations when the showmen behind the latest chapter in the Roswell saga unveil two colour slides that supposedly show “an unusual body in a glass case”.

The creature has a small thin body with a large head so, hey presto, it must be an extraterrestrial. And as experts have concluded the Kodachrome film was definitely exposed in 1947 it may – or may not – show one of the aliens whose flying saucer crashed in New Mexico and was recovered by the US government.

Up to present only tantalising glimpses of the images have been released, via a YouTube ‘teaser’, to fuel the bandwagon as it rolls towards Mexico City, where the images will be revealed in the presence of UFO pundit Jaime Maussan.

Internet flame wars are raging between those promoting the images as the fabled ‘smoking gun’ and skeptics who have annoyingly poked wide gaping holes in the story.

In his teaser sports writer Adam Dew, who appears to be the custodian of these images, says they were found inside a box containing 400 old slides that turned up in Sedona, Arizona during 1998.

The box may (or may not) have belonged to geologist Bernard Ray and his wife Hilda Blair Ray, who was an attorney and amateur pilot. The couple travelled widely and their photographs include images of celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Clark Gable and General Eisenhower at public events in the late 1940s.

But even if this is true there is absolutely no evidence that the Rays had any political or intelligence connections that would have allowed them access to Top Secret material. The one flimsy connection with Roswell is that Bernard was a president of the West Texas Archaeological Society and may have visited New Mexico in 1947-8.

Dew says that he is ‘not making any claims’ but then goes on to state the creature appears to be between 36-40 inches in length, its head is larger than its torso and it has ‘some unusual features’.


The child mummy discovered at Thebes, Egypt, in 1856 (credit: http://www.blueblurrylines.com/)

Sceptics have pointed out these features do not prove the creature is an extraterrestrial. It could equally show the body of a child with hydrocephalus or indeed the remains of an ancient mummy of the type stored in assorted museums across North America and Europe. Jose Antonio Caravaca, for example, says the ‘alien corpse’ has remarkable similarities to a child’s mummy discovered in Egypt in 1856 that is now at the Smithsonian in Washington.

But why let such awkward problems stand in the way of such a good story? Dew says that logic tells him ‘…it’s probably nothing but I just can’t shake the thought that maybe…just maybe…it’s something’.

Even so, some of the UFO industry’s biggest proponents have dismissed the slides as having nothing to do with Roswell.  Stanton Friedman has said he’s going to observe the dog and pony show from a safe distance because he doesn’t “want to appear to add legitimacy by my presence in Mexico City”.

Robert Hastings has gone further, saying the slides are ‘….likely to become one of the most embarrassing missteps in a seven-decade-long effort by ufologists to gather and publicize data pointing to the reality of the UFO phenomenon and its probable extraterrestrial nature’.

5 May 2015, the day that some claim will change the world forever, is exactly 20 years since the hoaxed footage of the ‘Alien Autopsy’ was first shown to a hushed gathering of UFOlogists, journalists and others at the Museum of London.

The UFO myth just goes on repeating itself. I suspect the Roswell slides will be the Alien Autopsy II. As such the warning given to those fooled by Ray Santilli’s original autopsy footage in 1995 applies here: caveat emptor

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The Scottish Roswell

The Sunday Express and Metro have today published a preview of a chapter from How UFOs Conquered the World that exposes the truth behind ‘the Scottish Roswell’.

Sunday Express 3 May 2015

Sunday Express 3 May 2015

Journalist Mark Branagan says the Ardgay mystery has ‘intrigued UFO hunters since it was discovered in the 1960s.’

Yet the weird wreckage found on a remote hillside in Scotland has been revealed as a top secret CIA spy balloon destined for Russia.

It was found in 1962 by shepherd Donald MacKenzie. Three months went by before the RAF reluctantly dispatched a mountain resuce team to check it out.

…the four man RAF team found a strange box-like object lying in the heather at Ardgay, in the Highlands. It had a camera port but the camera had been removed. The team spotted other signs someone else had beaten them to the crash site.

When Squadron Leader John Sims called the Air Ministry he was told by London he had ‘no need to know’ what had happened. The mystery deepened when the team was ordered to alter their records to delete all reference to the incident.

Now Britain’s X-Files expert Dr David Clarke claims to have solved the mystery in his book, How UFOs Conquered the World, out on May 14. During a trawl of Air Ministry documents in Kew’s public records office, he came across a file marked Top secret – USAF meteorological experiments. It revealed details of a spy programme codenamed Moby Dick bankrolled by the CIA from 1955-56. It involved a Scots-based US weather team using balloons to lift fibreglass gondolas into the stratosphere to be carried by the jet stream across Russia.

Soviet MIG fighters found it hard to intercept the balloons but the Scottish weather did the job for them. This one had blown off course after its launch six years earlier.

Dr Clarke said: ‘The Pentagon had spent $68 million on this and was determined to keep it secret’.

More details about the Ardgay incident and the CIA spy balloon programme can be found in my blogpost from July 2012 here.

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How UFOs Conquered the World

How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth, will be published in hardback by Aurum Press on 14 May 2015.

It is the story of the long, strange trip that I began almost forty years ago when I was first gripped by the UFO bug as a child. Partly a personal pilgrimage and mostly a social history it is a nostalgic top-down deconstruction of a subject that never ceases to baffle, infuriate and amuse in equal measure.


The young lad on the cover is meant to be my ten-year-old self about to set off on a series of strange adventures in the wacky world of ufology.

The hardback edition can be pre-ordered on Amazon here and here is a potted introduction:

The UFO was born in America during the summer of 1947. A lone pilot saw nine mysterious objects that flew ‘like a saucer would if you skipped it across water’ and the media did the rest. Today, almost half the population of the Western world believe we are not alone.  Millions of people claim to have seen a UFO. An alarming number reported being ‘abducted’ by aliens.  And some are convinced there is a conspiracy by governments to hide ‘the truth’.

As a child during the 1970s, David Clarke wanted to believe. He joined a UFO society, went ‘skywatching’, and later, as a journalist, spent decades investigating sighting reports, unearthing Top Secret government files, and interviewing those who claim they have seen interplanetary craft and had met their occupants. He never found a crashed flying saucer, or received a visit from the sinister Men In Black. Instead he discovered something no less astonishing.

This book describes David’s strange journey to the heart of the UFO phenomenon. He has close encounters with abductees, hoaxers and conspiracy theorists. He meets people who think aliens are angels (or demons). And he tracks down the boffins who ran the British government’s now defunct ‘UFO desk’ to find out what their investigations really uncovered. Along the way he reveals how the human will to believe turned the stuff of science fiction into the most enduring myth of modern times.

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Lore & Legend on The Pennine Way

The mysterious Longdendale Lights and other legends of Derbyshire’s Peak District will feature in a new BBC series marking the 50th anniversary of The Pennine Way.

Torside Reservoir looking towards Bramah Edge and Torside Clough, home of the mysterious 'Longdendale Lights' of Derbyshire's High Peak.

Torside Reservoir looking towards Bramah Edge and Torside Clough, home of the mysterious ‘Longdendale Lights’ of Derbyshire’s High Peak.

First opened in 1965, the 268-mile trail stretches from Edale in the High Peak to Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish Border, taking in some of Britain’s most rugged and spectacular countryside along the way.

In this four part series polar explorer and ocean diver Paul Rose takes on a challenge closer to home, presenting a fascinating history, geography and flora and fauna of this diverse trek across the backbone of England.

In the first episode Paul finds out how the route has changed in the past half century and owes its existence to the right to roam movement led by northern working class folk during the 1930s.

I was interviewed by Paul on the path descending from Torside Clough on Bleaklow to discuss the legends of the Peak including the phantom lights that haunt the upper Longdendale Valley.

I first heard about these ‘spooklights‘ during my time as journalist for the Sheffield Star. When talking to members of Glossop Mountain Rescue Team I was amazed to find they kept a log of calls from people reporting bright red lights hovering over the moors late at night. Fearing walkers were lost on the heights of Bleaklow, the teams had turned out again and again only to find no trace of anyone in distress.

My inquiries turned up dozens of similar accounts of mysterious moving lights, sometimes in a string and others taking the form of a beam and even a bright white light that filled the entire valley.

One informant said the lights had been seen for decades, long before the arrival of cars, electricity pylons and aircraft. They were pointed out by his grandmother who called them ‘the Devil’s Bonfires’.

Mention of the diabolic origin of the lights is certainly consistent with other persistent supernatural legends from Longdendale and the High Peak. These tells of chilling presences, dark figures and uncanny visions in the upper valley.

Some of the stories attribute the lights to lamps carried by phantom Roman legionnaires who tramp the course of the Roman road from Brough in the Hope Valley to Melandra near Glossop. They are spotted occasionally by walkers and I was told by a Peak Park Ranger that on one occasion one witness had to be treated in hospital after his experience on the moors.

You can read more about my investigations in the haunted valley of Longdendale from my 1999 book Supernatural Peak District here.

The first episode of The Pennine Way will be shown on BBC1 North at 7.30pm on Friday, 10 April 2015 and will be followed by a network premiere on BBC2.



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Portillo’s State Secrets: Mysteries

The BBC2 series Portillo’s State Secrets unearths previously classified documents from The National Archives, revealing fascinating facts from Britain’s past. The episode on 26 March covers ‘Mysteries‘ and I have compiled this blogpost for The National Archives to accompany the programme.

In his address to the US Congress following the moon landings of 1969, Neil Armstrong said that mysteries ‘create wonder and wonder is the basis for man’s desire to understand.’  Who knows what mysteries will be solved in our lifetime, he added, and what new riddles will become the challenge of future generations?

The National Archives at Kew contain records of many unsolved mysteries from Britain’s past and I drew upon these for my 2013 book Britain’s X-traordinary Files (Bloomsbury). Three unsolved mysteries of the last two centuries are featured in the fourth episode of Michael Portillo’s State Secrets (BBC2 26 March).

Michael Portillo at the National Archives (credit: BBC)

Michael Portillo at the National Archives (credit: BBC)

In past centuries unexplained events helped to sell newspapers and today they drive millions of people to seek answers on the internet. In cases of mysterious deaths and disappearances the very absence of evidence encourages speculation about dark conspiracies. At the height of the First World War in June 1916 news of the death of Lord Kitchener when the battle cruiser HMS Hampshire sank west of the Orkney Islands shocked the nation to its core. Kitchener was en route to Russia with more than 600 officers and men to attend secret war negotiations when his ship struck a German mine.

The fact that his body was never found encouraged all sorts of unlikely rumours including one that he had been assassinated by a Boer solider spy. Another claimed that he, like King Arthur, was alive and well and waiting the call for him to return and save his country from peril. The broadcaster Jeremy Paxman has compared these stories with those that followed the death of Princess Diana but, he said, ‘the banal is always more likely than the bizarre’.

The most notorious was ‘the Kitchener Coffin Hoax’ (MEPO 2/2469) perpetrated by a freelance journalist, Frank Power, in the pages of the Sunday Referee newspaper in 1926. Power claimed the body of Kitchener had been found by a Norwegian fisherman and arranged for it to be brought back to London in a coffin for internment at St Paul’s Cathedral. The hoax unravelled when the police seized the empty coffin and opened it in the presence of the famous pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Despite the public outrage, Power escaped prosecution but the exposure of his hoax did nothing to halt the rumours of a cover-up.

Lord Kitchener leaving the War Office in 1916 (credit: BBC)

Lord Kitchener leaving the War Office in 1916 (credit: BBC)

Scotland Yard also suspected that a well-informed journalist may have been responsible for sending the infamous ‘Dear Boss’ letter during the Ripper murders in Victorian London. The handwritten letter was received by the Central News Agency just a day before the bodies of two women –the killer’s third and fourth victims – were found murdered and horribly mutilated. Signed by ‘Jack the Ripper’ the letter was just one of hundreds sent to the authorities and the Press during the reign of terror in 1888 (other examples can be seen in MEPO 3/3153). The arrival of a second letter, smeared with blood, that referred to specific details of the murders, persuaded detectives the same person was responsible for writing them. But was the writer really the killer or just someone who wanted to generate a sensational headline?

In the event, the police’s decision to publish the Ripper letters in the hope that someone might recognise the hand-writing backfired and added to the killer’s growing notoriety. As Richard Taylor writes in Secrets of the National Archives, far from producing any new leads this ‘prompted a wave of copycats, with taunting messages and promises of more murders to come’. Hundreds of further letters poured in, claiming to be from the Ripper, some from as far afield as Portugal, Ireland and the USA. Meanwhile the author of the original letter slipped back into the shadows.


The ‘Dear Boss’ letter received by the Central News Agency in September 1888 (Credit: BBC)

A small cottage industry, Ripperology, has grown up around the murders with investigators such as Patricia Cornwell and Russell Edwards sifting through surviving evidence in search of a ‘prime suspect’.  Among the unlikely theories that have become part of the Ripper legend is one that depicts Jack as a deranged surgeon who killed the women as part of a conspiracy to protect a member of the Royal family. The historian Professor William Rubinstein describes this as ‘palpable nonsense from beginning to end’. He believes it is the very elusiveness of the solution that continues to make the Ripper mystery so attractive to writers and historians.

The final mystery that Michael Portillo* examines has also attracted massive media interest: a deluge of letters from the public and conspiracy theories by the shedload. But the Rendlesham Forest UFO legend, often described as ‘Britain’s Roswell’, after the alleged 1947 crash of a flying saucer in New Mexico, is certainly not a hoax. The story first came to light when a memo written by an American officer, Lt Col Charles Halt, to Britain’s Ministry of Defence was published by The News of the World in 1983.

Lt Col Halt was the deputy base commander at RAF Woodbridge that, in December 1980, was part of a large USAF airbase complex in the Suffolk countryside. His report told of ‘Unexplained Lights’ that were seen falling into the forest by security policeman stationed at the perimeter of the base in the early hours of one morning. Thinking that an aircraft had crashed, a three-man patrol went out to investigate and found the entire forest illuminated with a white light. They saw a triangular object, two or three metres across and three metres high, hovering among the trees that moved away as they approached. Halt’s report notes how, the next day, holes were found in the ground and higher than expected levels of radiation were detected in the area where the lights were seen by his men.

But that was not all. Two nights later the lights returned and Halt led a team of airmen into the forest to investigate armed with a Geiger counter and a hand-held tape recorder. As his team examined the alleged landing site a strange ‘red sun-like light’ appeared in the trees and appeared to throw off glowing particles. As Halt led his men out of the forest they saw further lights in the sky including one that ‘beamed down a stream of light’ from time to time.

On location with Michael Portillo and the BBC

On location with Michael Portillo and the BBC

The USAF report has since become one of the most famous documents in the history of UFOlogy, as the study of UFOs is known. But the famous Rendlesham file (DEFE 24/1948/1) that was opened by The National Archives casts doubt on the idea the lights seen by Halt and his men really were flying saucers from another world. I was the first person to obtain a copy of the file, using the precursor to Britain’s Freedom of Information Act in 2001, but I was disappointed to find it contained no ‘smoking gun’.

Far more interesting was the content of another UFO file (DEFE 24/1924/1) that was used to brief Lord Peter Hill-Norton, a former Chief of Defence Staff, for whom the story had become something of a cause celebre. In 1985 the noble lord, then in retirement, asked for a private meeting with the MoD to discuss UFOs and the Rendlesham incident.

In the briefing he received the MoD UFO desk officer says ‘the fact that Col Halt did not report these occurrences to MoD for almost 2 weeks after the event, together with the relatively low key manner in which he handled the matter (given resources available to him) are indicative of the degree of importance in defence terms which should be attached to the incident.’ The note adds that it was considered ‘highly unlikely that any violation of UK airspace would be heralded by such a display of lights [and] I think it equally unlikely that any reconnaissance or spying activity would be announced in this way.’

But the key piece of evidence against the UFO interpretation of the Rendlesham incident was the lack of any traces on RAF air defence radar. ‘Inquiries made both at the time and subsequently failed to reveal…anything unusual in the area at the time,’ it said.

Much like the true identity of Jack the Ripper the Rendlesham UFO mystery has become a legend. Theories about the true identity of the murderer or the source of the lights seen by Lt Col Halt and his men are impossible to disprove. As a result, both legends will live on as long as there are people to debate their truth or falsity.

*Note: Michael Portillo was Secretary of State for Defence from July 1995-May 1997 under Prime Minister John Major.


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Britain’s secret ‘Death Ray’

The Sunday Express has published a story based upon the British military’s work to create a high energy ‘death ray’ weapon for use in the Falklands War.

An extract from Michael Heseltine's Top Secret briefing on the Death Ray to Margaret Thatcher in 1983 (credit: The National Archives)

An extract from Michael Heseltine’s Top Secret briefing on the Death Ray to Margaret Thatcher in 1983 (credit: The National Archives)

A document written by the former Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine, for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the aftermath of the conflict in 1983, revealed how the Task Force had deployed ‘a naval laser weapon, designed to dazzle low flying Argentinian pilots attacking ships‘.

Heseltine’s letter was among Cabinet papers released by The National Archives in 2013. It forms part of the dossier of material used in my book, Britain’s X-traordinary Filesthat traces the British government’s long obsession with death rays.

In his briefing to Thatcher, Heseltine says: ‘This weapon was not used in action and knowledge of it has been kept to a very restricted circle’.

Ever since H.G. Wells imagined invading Martians who used deadly heat rays to conquer the Earth, military top brass have sought to perfect a destructive ‘ray’ that could be used to spread terror among enemy soldiers and destroy enemy bombers before they reached their targets.

The inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) made one of the earliest proposals for a working death ray. But in 1924 Harry Grindell-Matthews – or ‘Death Ray’ Matthews as he was dubbed by the Press – claimed to have perfected a device that could ‘melt glass, light lamps, explode gunpowder…and stop aeroplanes in flight.’

But Matthews failed to impress the Air Ministry with his demonstration of the ‘ray’ and took its secrets to his grave.

Grindell-Matthews demonstrates his 'death ray' in a London lab during 1924 (credit: BBC)

Grindell-Matthews demonstrates his ‘death ray’ in a London lab during 1924 (credit: BBC)

Before the Second World War the War Office offered a standing reward of £1000 to anyone who could produce a death ray that was a capable of killing a sheep at one hundred yards.

Numerous ‘secret inventors’ competed with each other to perfect the weapon without success.

The development of the air defence radar was one direct outcome of attempts to claim the prize. Papers I discovered at The National Archives revealed how British intelligence deliberately planted rumours about secret work on death rays to distract enemy attention from the real purpose of the Air Ministry’s Chain Home radar stations around Britain’s coastline.

But the nearest Britain came to deploying such a hi-tech weapon in WW2 was during the Desert War in North Africa in 1942. After the conflict magician turned wartime wizard Jasper Maskelyne claimed he had used an array of powerful searchlights as an improvised ray to dazzle Luftwaffe pilots during their attempts to bomb the Suez canal. But his claims, that he published in Magic: Top Secret (1949) have never been substantiated.

Ever since WW2 military scientists have continued to experiment with death rays under strict secrecy. The documents opened at The National Archives revealed how British scientific intelligence were working secretly with United States during the 1980s to develop high powered laser weapons for use against Soviet armour in the event of a war in Europe.

In his 1983 correspondence, Michael Heseltine said spy chiefs feared Russia would be ready to field a range of secret beam weapons by the mid-1980s, including a generator mounted on a truck delivering high-power microwave radio frequency blasts.

Intelligence chiefs claimed this could affect the electronics systems of low-flying aircraft and attack the human central nervous system.

It was also feared the Soviets were working on chemical shells and missiles to deliver high-powered electromagnetic pulses that would jam electronic systems such as Nato radars.

Since then technology has moved to direct-energy weaponry aimed at disabling missiles, armoured vehicles and mobile phones.

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British Army tried to harness ‘supernormal’ powers in WW2

Records I discovered at The National Archives show the British Army’s top brass tried to harness ‘supernormal‘ powers during the war against Hitler – and may still be conducting experiments on a range of special powers.

An article by Mark Branagan in The Sunday Express summarises the research published in my 2014 book Britain’s X-traordinary Files (Bloomsbury):

Soldier at work with dowsing rods during British Army experiments in Dorset, UK, 1968

Soldier at work with dowsing rods during British Army experiments in Dorset, UK, 1968

During the Battle of Britain and Blitz they began tests to see if unexploded bombs and mines could be detected with water divining rods.

The idea of using the para­normal even reached war leader Winston Churchill’s ears and, when victory in Europe was secured, it continued to obsess military boffins for decades.

They persevered with their efforts to use troops armed with divining rods to strike fear in enemy hearts for another 30 years before finally ditching it as unworkable.

The notion was inspired in 1940 when officials heard of a policeman using a divining rod to search for victims of a Nazi bombing in Warwick. Word of it reached Herbert Morrison’s civil defence department, which reported to Churchill.

In an experiment in 1940, a dowser was used to explore the gardens of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington for buried objects. His trusty rod failed to detect a large gas main running 2ft under the grounds or a bomb case in an underground trench. Dowsing was written off as “completely unreliable”.

Yet by 1968, with British forces in difficulties in Aden, experi­ ments were recommenced. A dummy minefield was laid over a 384­acre heath in Dorset and dowsers were called in.

They failed to find any of the 400 explosives, either by walking the ground or trying to locate them on maps.

A 1941 file on the policeman’s claims, which were debunked, was found in the National Archives by Sheffield academic Dr David Clarke, who also found a dossier on the later experiments. He has written a book called Britain’s X­traordinary Files.

He said yesterday: “Dowsing, divination and other super­ natural powers sound like some­ thing from The X­Files.

“Yet during wartime the Brit­ ish government was prepared to consider all kinds of unconven­ tional methods to gain a tactical advantage over the enemy.

“I would be surprised, in the aftermath of 9/11 and with the war on terror, if the military are not still working on super-normal experiments.”

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