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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‘I have some stuff you might be interested in…’: Edward Snowden and the ultimate secret

When four years ago Wikileaks published 250,000 US state department cables dating back to the 1960s, a believer in ET visitations asked why, in the great mass of data, there was not one major UFO secret.

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden (credit: The Guardian)

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden (credit: The Guardian)

Soon afterwards, during a live Q&A, Wikileaks supremo Julian Assange explained that ‘many weirdoes email us about UFOs’ but none of the stories they supply satisfied their twin publishing criteria, which was: ‘that the documents not be self-authored; that they be original’.

Now former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has upped the ante with a massive leak of two million top secret documents. Snowden’s leak to The Guardian and New York Times has been described by Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame as ‘the most significant leak’ of classified material in US history.

Yet Snowden’s revelations have failed to produce the ‘smoking gun’ that would prove the alien presence on Earth, the real ultimate secret if you buy into the UFO myth.

Even if you don’t it cannot be denied that if such knowledge really existed it should merit at least a tiny reference in the files of the world’s most powerful intelligence agency.

The revelation that flying saucers have landed and governments are in contact with alien intelligences would make the ongoing debates about mass surveillance and the balance between national security and information privacy seem like an afterthought.

So far not a single authentic piece of paper, memo or PowerPoint has emerged from either Wikileaks or Snowden-gate to support this widely held modern myth.

The UFO industry has struggled to explain this odd omission and its corporate arm, the so-called ‘exopolitics’ movement led by the Paradigm Research Group, has continued on its merry way organising mock congressional hearings as if nothing in the world had changed.

Then, early in the new year someone decided it was time to stitch the breaking Snowden story together with the UFO conspiracy rumours. Snowden fled to Russia in June 2013 and has been granted temporary asylum.

In January what the Washington Post describes as ‘an ultra-fringe conspiracy website’, www.whatdoesitmean.com published a story based upon what it claimed was a FSB dossier summarising NSA secrets handed over to the Russian security service by Snowden.

The author of this piece, one ‘Sorcha Faal’, claimed its contents provided ‘incontrovertible proof’ that ‘an alien/extra-terrestrial intelligence agenda’ is driving US foreign policy. The dossier said the US government has been secretly run by a ‘shadow government’ of extra-terrestrials since the Second World War.

No good UFO story is complete without a Nazi element so the hoax included the ‘fact’ that Hitler built up his U-boat fleet ‘with alien assistance’, updating the familiar ancient astronauts meme to WW2. According to the story, after backing the wrong side in WW2 the aliens are now holed up at Area 51 with President Obama as their willing dupe and are plotting to use the omnipresent NSA to take over the world.

Hoax documents have always been a favourite trope in UFOlogy and the fake MJ12 papers, offered as proof of the Roswell incident during the ‘80s, provide a useful template. Further evidence? Sorcha Faal is so obviously a made-up name and whatdoesitmean is a notorious source of fake stories.

Only the gullible or credulous were likely to pay any attention to nonsense published on ‘an ultra-fringe conspiracy website’. But some have grounds to suspect it is run by someone spreading disinformation on behalf of one or more intelligence agencies. It is equally possible that ‘Faal’ is simply having fun by publishing nonsense that he or she knows will be swallowed by those want to believe it.

If there is any truth in the disinformation theory, on this occasion the spooks scored a direct hit. Soon after its appearance ‘the semi-official Iranian news agency’, FARS, swallowed the hoax whole. On 12 January Fars published a breathless regurgitation of the FSB story, faithfully referenced to its source: whatdoesitmean.com.

How the Iranian news-agency broke the Nazi/aliens story

How the Iranian news-agency broke the Nazi/aliens story

They also repeated Faal’s claim that the contents of the Russian dossier had been confirmed by the former Canadian defence minister, Paul Hellyer, during a live interview on Russian TV on 30 December 2013. The 90-year-old, FARS claimed, had been consulted by the FSB during his Russian trip on the accuracy of the alien story.

Hellyer’s faith in aliens includes his claim that ‘at least four species of aliens’ have been visiting Earth for thousands of years. These include ‘Nordic blondes’ and Tall Whites that live on earth ‘and are working with the United States government’.

So far so weird. Hellyer can’t provide any proof, but neither could Lord Hill Norton or any of the other cranky ‘top people’ who have swallowed the wilder products of the UFO industry whole in their dotage.

But in this case Hellyer, by talking about ‘Tall Whites’ and aliens secretly running the US government since the ’50s, played right into the hands of the person or persons responsible for concocting the Nazi alien hoax.

Both Hellyer and Disclosure spokesman Stephen Bassett have since published disclaimers, blaming what they believe is a CIA plot to smear them. In this case they may be right.  The spooks have form in using belief in UFOs and other fringe phenomena to discredit politicians and other targets. In 2001, the renegade SIS officer Richard Tomlinson claimed that during the run-up to the 1992 elections for the UN Secretary General, the CIA ran a smear campaign against the Egyptian candidate, Boutros Boutros Ghali, who they claimed ‘was a believer in the existence of UFOs and extra-terrestrial life’ (The Independent, 1 June 2001).

The smear was allegedly run by planting false stories in the media, much as Sorcha Faal tries to do.This operation failed as Boutros-Ghali was elected. But in the Fars case it seems to me that Hellyer and the UFO believers were roped in as cannon-fodder.

The real target is Snowden himself and the intention is to portray him as unbalanced and a traitor who passes secrets to the Russians . According to Luke Harding’s 2014 book The Snowden Files his haul of NSA documents is protected by several layers of sophisticated encryption and has not fallen into the hands of his hosts.

I have to agree with Max Fisher of the Washington Post, who described this hall of mirrors as ‘highly entertaining’. And until new information emerges I await a convincing answer to the question I posed in 2010: ‘where are the UFO whistle-blowers?’ Sorry, Paul Hellyer doesn’t count.

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Hunting the Northern Lights

One of my ambitions has always been to take a voyage beyond the Arctic Circle in search of the elusive aurora borealis, or Northern Lights.

For years I have been fascinated by the mythology of the lights and the stories about them that have been preserved in the folklore of the Sami and other peoples dwelling in the polar regions.

NASA scientists predicted solar maximum activity would reach a peak during the winter of 2013-14 and next winter. This is providing travellers to the far north with an opportunity to observe some spectacular auroral displays.

Display of the aurora seen from MS Midnatsol approx 10 miles north of Tromso from 8 pm on Saturday, 11 January 2014

Display of the aurora seen from MS Midnatsol approx 10 miles north of Tromso from 8 pm on Saturday, 11 January 2014

This was too good an opportunity to miss so on 7 January, accompanied by my wife and fellow journalist Carolyn Waudby, we flew to Bergen to join the MS Midnatsol, the largest and newest ship in the Hurtigruten fleet.

Since 1893 Hurtigruten (‘the express route’) have provided a daily passenger and freight service for communities along Norway’s long and spectacular coastline.

The celebrated journey north -visiting tiny ports and large cities like Trondheim and Tromso – provides an unrivalled vantage point to see the aurora away from artificial lights, and to collect stories and folklore along the route.

Coincidentally, on the very day we left the UK the popular BBC2 series Stargazing Live, presented by Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain, featured an item on the northern lights filmed from an aircraft flying above Tromso, the capital of the Arctic.

With interest in the aurora at an all time high, we kept our fingers crossed and hoped we would be lucky enough to see them for ourselves.

From Bergen we began a seven-day cruise that took us north beyond the Arctic Circle at 71 degrees north, through the Loften Islands and past Nordkapp (the North Cape) – the most northerly point in Europe – to Kirkenes, on the border with Russia.

Along the way we visited a medieval cathedral and a hotel made from ice, saw sea eagles swooping on their prey, ate freshly-caught king crabs, joined a dog-sledding expedition across a snowy hillside and, best of all, were fortunate to witness displays of the aurora from the deck of the MS Midnatsol on two occasions.

The Snow Hotel near Kirkenes near the border between Norway and Russia.

The Snow Hotel near Kirkenes near the border between Norway and Russia.

After several nights of murky weather we had begun to wonder if we would see the celebrated natural wonder. But when the Midnatsol left Tromso on Saturday 11 January the skies had cleared. The solar activity readings from the city’s Geophysical Observatory looked promising.

Everything was set and we were not to be disappointed. Ten miles north of the city we saw what resembled a volcanic eruption emerge from behind a snowy hillside to our starboard.

An eerie streamer of auroral light seemed to rise from the sky, dropping chiffon-like curtains along a line that arched above and beyond the northern horizon. Several hundred passengers crowded onto the upper decks of the ship to take in the majestic vision that unfolded in the sky until the lights faded from view 40 minutes later.

Obtaining a good photograph of the aurora is not straightforward, but patience, warm weather gear and access to a good digital SLR camera and tripod helps. Fortunately, Hurtigruten provide everything you could possibly need for a successful ‘light-hunting’ expedition.

Everything from tips on photography to presentations on the science and mythology of the aurora are included in the itinerary. The crew will even broadcast their arrival over the ship’s loudspeakers if alerted to their presence in the night!

We sailed with the MS Midnatsol for a 6-night/7 day voyage, overnighting at the Thon Hotel in Kirkenes, just 7 km from the border with Russia. From here, we flew back to Manchester, having enjoyed an unforgettable and amazing journey.

It is possible to stay on  your ship for the return journey south to Bergen,  a round trip of 12 days in all. But with ships sailing from every port twice a day, the programme is very flexible and with a bit of forward planning it is possible to construct your own tailor-made light-hunting expedition.

A fuller account of our journey and the places we visited will appear in the travel supplement of the Sheffield Star. The folklore and mythology of the aurora borealis will be the theme of a Fortean Traveller feature in a future issue of Fortean Times.

*Full details of the Hurtigruten coastal programme – that includes explorer voyages to Spitzbergen, Greenland and the Antarctic – can be found on the company’s website here.

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Jet in ‘airmiss’ with UFO near Heathrow

News of the latest in a series of cases where aircrew have seen unidentified objects on collision course with passenger jets has emerged in The Sunday Telegraph.

In 2011 I published the result of Freedom of Information Act request that revealed the Civil Aviation Authority had logged ten UFO sightings by aircrew between December 2004 and December 2011. Between 2004 and present there have been an additional five ‘airprox’ incidents where pilots have reported a near collision with an unidentified object. This category of sighting is investigated by a joint civil-military board that reports to the CAA.

Sunday Telegraph report on UFO near miss

Sunday Telegraph report on UFO near miss

Jasper Copping describes the latest incident involving an A320 airbus, that typically carries around 150 passengers, here:

“An airline pilot has reported a near miss in which a “rugby ball”-shaped UFO passed within a few feet of his passenger jet while flying near Heathrow Airport. The captain told the aviation authorities who have investigated the incident that he was certain the object was going to crash into his aircraft and ducked as it headed towards him. The investigation has been unable to establish any earthly identity for the mysterious craft, which left the aircrew with no time to take evasive action. The incident occurred while the A320 Airbus was cruising at 34,000ft, around 20 miles west of the airport, over the Berkshire countryside”.

According to the Airprox Report (download here) the captain saw the object heading towards the jet out of a left hand side of the cockpit window in broad daylight at 6.35pm on 19 July 2013. It says:

“He was under the apprehension that they were on collision course with no time to react. His immediate reaction was to duck to the right and reach over to alert the [First Officer]; there was no time to talk to alert him….The Captain was fully expecting to experience some kind of impact with a conflicting aircraft.”

He told the inquiry the object passed “within a few feet” above the jet and described it as being “cigar/rugby ball like” in shape, bright silver and apparently “metallic” in construction. Afterwards he contacted air traffic controllers to report the incident. Nothing was seen on radar at the time of the incident, which is a common theme in these cases/

Investigators checked data recordings to establish what other aircraft were in the area at the time, but eliminated them all. It also ruled out meteorological balloons. Toy balloons were also discounted, as the investigators believe they are not large enough to reach such heights, but this cannot be ruled out.

The report concluded it was “not possible to trace the object or determine the likely cause of the sighting”.

In 2012, the head of the National Air Traffic Control Services admitted staff detected around one unexplained flying object every month. On 2 December that year the crew of an airbus A320 reported another close shave as their aircraft approached Glasgow airport.

The airprox board (UKAB) investigators found the aircraft was at 4,000 ft above the city in clear conditions when the pilot and co-pilot saw an object “loom ahead” just 100 metres away.  Before they could react the object passed 300 ft beneath them, but not before they caught  a fleeting glimpse of it. They described the “untraced aircraft” as blue and yellow or silver in colour with a small frontal area, “bigger than a balloon.” Air traffic control saw nothing on radar, but Prestwick did spot an “unidentified track history”east of airbus’s position, 28 seconds earlier.

Anecdotal evidence suggests aircrew are reluctant to file air-miss reports but in this case the pilot did because he believed the risk of a collision was high. This was fortunate because, in the absence of any MoD interest in UFO reports, the airprox board is the only remaining official body in the UK with a remit to conduct detailed investigations of puzzling incidents like this one, albeit purely with a safety remit.

In the Glasgow incident investigators eliminated all the likely candidates including small fixed-wing aircraft, hot-air balloons and stray gliders or para-motors. These and meteorological balloons were all ruled out as unlikely due to the lack of a radar signature, leaving the board unable to reach any firm conclusion as to the cause.

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UFO files – saved!

After six decades of official indifference UFO records have been finally recognised by Britain’s Ministry of Defence as being ‘historically significant’.

MoD’s ‘Guidance for Record Reviewers’, lists files on ‘unidentified flying objects‘ alongside those concerning nuclear testing, Special Forces and the Royal Family as being subject to special review procedures.

Extract from MoD document 'Guidance to Record Reviewers' (June 2011) - obtained via FOIA

Extract from MoD document ‘Guidance to Record Reviewers’ (June 2011) – obtained via FOIA

The document – obtained via a Freedom of Information request – was prepared by the Departmental Records Officer (DRO) in 2011, two years before MoD completed a ‘special project’ that transferred all surviving files to The National Archives at Kew.

After the closure of the UFO desk in 2009, anyone who contacts MoD to report a ‘sighting’ today is sent a standard letter. But no further records are kept on file. This allows the government to avoid handling further FOI requests on the subject.

But the addition of UFOs to the department’s retention schedule in 2011 came too late to save earlier records that were destroyed long before the MoD’s records retention system became accountable to the public.

Destruction was justified on the grounds that records of UFO incidents before 1962 were ‘of transitory interest’ for defence purposes and ‘in view of the mundane explanations which are found to apply to them…these papers [were] only retained for five years‘ (TNA ref AIR 2/18116).

This policy was put in place after Sir Robert Grigg chaired a committee to ‘review the arrangements for preservation of the records of government departments’.

This recommended that 90% of all departmental papers could be disposed of at first review (after five years).

Under the Public Record Acts of 1958 and 1967 only those records ‘perceived to have possible historical value’ were kept for transfer to TNA.  As most officials – including those working on the UFO desk – felt that UFO investigations were a fruitless diversion of scare resources, their fate was sealed.

National Archive

Examples of documents stored for posterity at The National Archives (credit: The Guardian)

The outcome was that during the ’50s and ’60s records were routinely weeded and destroyed at first review (after five years) and few survived to the 25 year mark where at second review transfer to the Public Record Office (now The National Archives) was possible.

But after a flurry of sightings in the autumn of 1967 followed by intense media interest, questions about the MoD’s records were raised by MP Eric Bullus, a former RAF pilot, on behalf of his constituent UFO researcher Julian Hennessy.

When Merlyn Rees MP, then Minister of Defence for the RAF, became aware that records, including intelligence files on UFOs from the 1950s had been lost, he ordered a freeze on further destruction.

But because of the volume of paperwork in MoD and poor communication this ministerial instruction failed to reach the relevant desk officers. Out of sight and scrutiny, officials in the RAF and DIS continued to mark UFO files for destruction at first review as recently as 1991.

The full consequences of these poor decisions were felt in 2005 when, following the arrival of Freedom of Information, MoD was inundated with requests for information on UFOs.  As they were now compelled to respond to requests by law, an efficient record management system was required to locate and prepare surviving records for transfer to public archives.

Many of the FOI requests received related to incidents before 1967, including sightings reported officially by aircrew. In almost every case officials had to respond that papers had been destroyed decades earlier because the subject was deemed of minimal historical interest.

Other losses included intriguing references to gun camera film of unidentified aerial phenomena obtained by RAF fighter pilots in the 1950s. These films were seen by a retired MoD official, Ralph Noyes, at MoD Main Building in 1970. But when Noyes made inquiries about them three decades later, he found they had disappeared – presumably destroyed.

In 2007 when the MoD announced the transfer of their surviving files to The National Archives they said this was to promote openness and counter what it called ‘the maze of rumour and frequently ill-informed speculation’ that surrounded their involvement in the UFO syndrome.

But  one of the persistent themes running through the papers was the embarrassment they felt about the destruction of swathes of earlier paperwork.

One official noted, in a 1967 document, ‘it is a great pity that this cat was let out of the bag sometime ago’ and added, without a hint of irony, that ‘incidentally, we are not destroying any more papers at present’.

By the time the ‘special project’ involving The National Archives was completed earlier this year the Ministry was left in no doubt about the level of public interest in UFOs – and its place in the social history of the nation.

As of July 2013 there had been 4.7 million individual page views of the TNA’s UFO page and 3.9 million downloads of documents – including one policy file that was downloaded 250,000 times.

Since that time public trust in government record-keeping has been rocked again by revelations that MoD has been holding thousands of files on Northern Ireland that should have been released under the 30 year rule (The Guardian 7 October 2013).

Meanwhile, the same paper revealed how The Foreign Office had been ‘unlawfully hoarding more than a million files of historic documents that should have been declassified and handed over to The National Archives’ (The Guardian 18 October 2013).

The consequences of the government’s record management policy – past and present – in terms of the effect on public trust in the ‘official version’ of history is the subject of a paper I am presenting at the annual conference of the International Council on Archives (ICA) in Brussels on 23 November.

The paper ‘Freedom of Information and archival appraisal: citizens influencing the choice of historical evidence‘, explains how I used Freedom of Information requests to fight and win the campaign to save the MoD’s surviving UFO records.

The late recognition of this subject as being of historical importance by MoD and The National Archives demonstrates that ordinary people can play a part in bringing about changes to official policy.

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Angels makes FT Top 40

My investigation of the First World War legend, The Angels of Mons, is among the top ‘all time favourite stories’ chosen by a panel of contributors to Fortean Times magazine.

The Angels of Mons - next years marks the centenary of the battle that created the 'greatest legend' of WW1

The Angels of Mons – next years marks the centenary of the battle that created the ‘greatest legend’ of WW1

Angels of the Battlefield‘ – published in 2003 – came 4th in a list of 40 articles voted for by the panel to mark the 40th anniversary of the leading journal of strange phenomena. In  his endorsement, former BBC religious affairs correspondent Ted Harrison says:

‘The Angels of Mons investigation by David Clarke took a classic and much-loved national myth and subjected it to serious research and the right dose of Fortean scepticism’.

The article was written to mark the publication of my 2004 book, The Angel of Mons: phantom soldiers and ghostly guardians, published by Wiley, that examined what was undoubtedly the greatest legend of the conflict.

And as the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War approaches, the city of Mons in Belgium will adopt a high profile as the battleground upon which the conflict began and ended in 1918.

Mons will be European Capital of Culture in 2015 and next year it is hosting a series of commemorative events to mark the battle both in the city and at Saint Symphorien military cemetery, just over a mile to the east of the old town.

Among those buried in the Commonwealth cemeteries around Mons is Maurice Dease, the first soldier to win a Victoria Cross in the war. The 24-year-old died whilst commanding a machine gun section on Nimy bridge on the Mons-Conde canal during the battle on 23 August 1914. His final stand will be marked in the battle of Mons Remembrance Trail that is being developed to mark centenary next year.

Also in the cemetery at Mons there is a stone marking the grave of Private John Parr, who was the first British soldier to die in the First World War. Parr served with the 4th Middlesex Regiment and is thought to have been just 16 years old when he shot by a German patrol.

Parr is buried close to the grave of the last British soldier to die in the war, George Ellison from Leeds in Yorkshire. Ellison fought in the battle of Mons in 1914 and tragically was killed whilst on patrol just an hour and a half before the armistice was declared on 11 November 1918.

All three soldiers were part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that arrived on the continent in 1914 to face the full weight of the German armies moving towards Paris. It was from the midst of the chaos that followed that stories emerged of phantom bowmen and ‘angels’ appearing on the battlefield to defend Allied soldiers against the axis forces.

A painting of the Angels of Mons, by local artist Marcel Gillis, adorns the entrance hall of the Grand Place in the Belgian city

A painting of the Angels of Mons, by local artist Marcel Gillis, adorns the entrance hall of the Grand Place in the Belgian city

A summary of the legend and Welsh writer Arthur Machen’s role in creating a urban myth that refused to die can be followed on my webpages here.

 

 

 

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Haunted by the Past

Do ghosts exist? Author David Clarke talks to Steven McClarence of The Yorkshire Post about things that go bump in the night.

Three days before Christmas in 1855, a ghost story brought Charles Dickens to Sheffield. The 43-year-old author, brimming with what a local newspaper called “his genial manner and fine spirits”, stepped out on stage at the Mechanics’ Institution to find a full house waiting for him. After giving him “a hearty cheer”, they settled back to enjoy one of his celebrated readings of A Christmas Carol, his ghost-ridden morality tale.

Launching 'Scared to Death' in Sheffield city centre (Credit: Yorkshire Post)

Launching ‘Scared to Death’ in Sheffield city centre (Credit: Yorkshire Post)

“The audience was in every respect an excellent one,” the newspaper reported, “the front seats being occupied by many of the best families of the town and neighbourhood; and the other parts of the room crowded by persons of great respectability, including not a few of our most intelligent working men.”

At the end of the reading, the Mayor presented Dickens with – this being Sheffield – a range of cutlery, including a pair of fish carvers, everyone cheered again, and Dickens left on the overnight mail train to London en route to Paris.

Author Dr David Clarke – a man, as we shall see, with an intergalactic dimension – has unearthed this footnote of Yorkshire literary history while researching his latest book, which, aptly enough, is about ghost stories. Just nine months before Dickens came, Clarke has discovered, the city was gripped by a spectral event that gives the book its name: Scared to Death.

You can continue reading Steve McClarence’s feature, published in the Yorkshire Post Magazine on 19 October here.

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Scared to Death – book launch

Who was Spring-heeled Jack, the agile bogeyman that terrorised Sheffield and escaped pursuers by making gigantic leaps? What were the eerie sounds in the sky known as the Gabriel Hounds? And why did people believe the ghost of a ‘white lady’ had caused the death of a woman?CoverJPG

True stories of these and other supernatural visitors that frightened and fascinated the people of Sheffield during the reign of Queen Victoria are revealed in my new illustrated book Scared to Death, published by ACMRetro in October.

Scared to Death draws upon original 19th century newspaper accounts of hauntings, originally published by the Sheffield Daily Telegraph and Sheffield & Rotherham Independent.  The stories are supplemented with images sourced from Sheffield City Libraries and Archives.

I began to collect material for this book decades ago working as a journalist for the Sheffield Star, but the arrival of the British Library’s online archive of 19th century newspapers allowed me to complete the project. Accounts of first hand experiences are woven together with items of folklore and superstition to produce a fascinating snapshot of the supernatural beliefs that circulated in Victorian society.

The book will be launched during the 22nd Off the Shelf Festival of Words, organised by Sheffield City Council and sponsored by city’s two universities and The Star newspaper. On Halloween night (Thursday 31 October) I will be reading stories from Scared to Death in the beautiful and ornate surroundings of the 18th century Upper Chapel, on Surrey Street in the heart of the city centre (tickets are available via the OTS website here).

The illustrated talk begins at 7.30 and includes contributions from story-teller Simon Heywood and author Ann Beedham, who designed and sourced images used in the book.

The 18th century Upper Chapel on Surrey Street, Sheffield. Venue for my talk on Victorian ghost stories.

The 18th century Upper Chapel on Surrey Street, Sheffield. Venue for my talk on Victorian ghost stories.

In his preface to Scared to Death, Alan Murdie – chair of The Ghost Club - writes: ‘...in this book the distinguished folklorist and historian David Clarke reveals the rich ghostly heritage of Sheffield. He has done exactly what every good researcher should do, going back to the earliest sources‘.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, of the University of Sheffield’s Fairground Archive adds: ‘Dr David Clarke’s mastery of the newspaper archives is apparent in how the beautifully woven and evocative use of contemporary accounts brings the past to life with spine-chilling effect‘.

Advance tickets (£5/£4 concessions) are available from Sheffield Theatres Box Office on 0114 2789789 or Sheffield Arena Ticket Shop on 0114 2565567.

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Dowsing for Death

News that three British government departments promoted the sale of useless bomb detectors to security forces around the world has caused shock and outrage.

But this is just the latest example of otherwise skeptical military and defence officials who have been taken for a ride by purveyors of woo – including claims about Remote Viewing and UFOs.

Bogus bomb detectors are still being used at checkpoints in Baghdad (credit: BBC.co.uk)

Bogus bomb detectors are still being used at checkpoints in Baghdad (credit: BBC.co.uk)

On 23 August Kent businessman Gary Bolton was jailed for seven years at the Old Bailey for fraud after selling thousands of the devices – priced at £10,000 – to Iraq, Mexico and other regions where they are still being used to detect explosives and drugs.

But the court heard the ‘detectors’ were nothing more than empty boxes with plastic handles and aerials acting as antennae. As Doubtful News reported,

‘…[they] are nothing but glorified dowsing rods that have no basis in reality and did not work, [but] they were sold to security companies and military organisations for an inflated price (never mind they didn’t actually detect bombs or drugs)…’

It has been reported that lives have been lost in Iraq and other places as a result of this long-running fraud, while those who benefited lived in luxury (Bolton’s company had an annual turnover of £3 million).

This scam continued for a decade, and despite a damning report by Home Office scientists in 2001 that was widely circulated across the British military, three departments  - including the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office – continued to allow the detectors to be sold and promoted to ‘customers’ abroad.

But Bolton. 47, has now joined another member of the bomb-detecting scam, James McCormick, behind bars.

McCormick – who was jailed for 10 years in April – was  the founding member of the British company, ATSC Ltd, that exploited the belief in the power of dowsing rods to detect substances such as drugs, explosives and even truffles buried underground. According to The Guardian, he boasted of being an expert ‘like Q in James Bond’, but the gadget he ‘invented’ was based upon a novelty golf-ball finder.

After his conviction it was estimated that he had invested $60 million in luxury homes, including Nicholas Cage’s former house in Bath.

Examples of the fake bomb detectors manufactured by ATSC Ltd (credit: www.spycatcheronline.co.uk)

Examples of the fake bomb detectors manufactured by ATSC Ltd (credit: http://www.spycatcheronline.co.uk)

During Bolton’s six-week trial it emerged that in 1999 he paid the Royal Engineers Exports Support Team (REEST) to test an early version of the invention. They found it to be accurate ‘only about 30% of the time’ –  the Old Bailey heard, but Bolton altered this report and another produced by the Dutch navy, to sell his products in Malta, Egypt and South Africa.

On his arrest last year Bolton admitted he had ‘no background in science, research, training or specifically security’ and, like McCormick, claimed he simply believed in the power of the devices to detect bombs and other substances.

Bolton called the President of the British Society of Dowsers, Grahame Gardner, as a witness in his defence. Gardner said that dowsing rods had also been used by US troops in Vietnam to locate booby traps. He said dowsing worked by ‘amplifying a person’s subconscious response’ to ‘earth energy’ into ‘subconscious muscle movements.’

To put this in context, Gardner and a fellow dowser, Geoffrey Crockford, are responsible for a ‘forensic survey’ that claims to show, through the agency of a ‘bilocation survey’, that a UFO landed at Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk, in 1980 after developing engine trouble. As one blogger noted, ‘a belief in one lot of nonsense is often accompanied with other, equally absurd, notions’.

Psychologist Bruce Hood, writing in Huff Post Science, says that many people regard magical beliefs as harmless fun, but there are always those – either through greed or delusion – who are happy to take advantage of other people’s gullibility, in this case with fatal consequences.

He says of the so-called ‘bomb detectors’:

“The devices were nothing more than dowsing rods, a supernatural practice believed to reveal the location of water and minerals that has been around for hundreds of years. Despite the claims of various associations and practitioners, dowsing is nothing more than a psychological phenomena known as the ‘ideomotor effect’. Simply put, when you are aware of the location of a potential target, you make imperceptible body movements that make finely balanced rods or pendulums point in the same direction. There is no evidence that these devices or the user can detect sources through supernatural powers’.

The hard facts do not, of course, deter people from continuing to believe that dowsing actually works.

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