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.

DEAR-BOSS-LETTER-3

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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On the trail of the phantom copter

The Daily Mirror has published the results of my Freedom of Information research on the phantom helicopter mystery that plagued British police forty years ago.

A typical news headline from 1974

A typical news headline from 1974

The full story was published in Britain’s X-traordinary Files and a summary can be found on my Case Files pages. Here is an excerpt Mirror’s version:

A phantom helicopter which spooked the nation in the 70s was feared to be an IRA terror weapon ready to be unleashed on the mainland, it has emerged.

Secret Scotland Yard files have revealed how police, Special Branch, MI5 and the MoD desperately tried to hunt down a daredevil pilot making night-time flights over rural England.

A Special Branch memo said: “The IRA has access to and is believed to have used a helicopter for training purposes in the Derbyshire area”.

From 1973 there were numerous sightings of a helicopter flying illegally over the Peak District during a period of 12 months.

Police received reports the helicopter was seen flying without lights as low as 100ft.

The ghost helicopter hit the headlines in the Daily Mirror with one pilot explaining at the time: “This guy’s a madman – or a great flier.”

Now, more than forty years later, papers obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the police and security services had fears this helicopter was being used by the IRA.

Top policeman George Oldfield, who later led the Yorkshire Ripper hunt, was told by an informant, a helicopter crew had been carrying out “target practice” in the Peaks.

There were also concerns the IRA planned to spring terrorist prisoners from maximum security Wakefield Jail and had been plotting to steal lethal explosives from a quarry.

Dr Dave Clarke, an academic at Sheffield Hallam University, who uncovered the papers, said: “These documents show the security services were concerned that terrorists might have the ability to attack Britain from the air thirty years before 9/11, using hijacked helicopters or even light aircraft.

“There was talk of using the Harrier jump jet to intercept the mystery helicopter at night over the Peak District.

“They never discovered who the devil-may-care pilot was and how he managed to fly his machine in darkness in such a foolhardy way without coming to grief.

“The whole phantom helicopter story reads like something from a James Bond novel.”

Read more here. The Mirror story follows media coverage of my research into MI5 investigations of mysterious ‘crop markings’ and lights in the sky that were linked with German Fifth Columnists during the Second World War. The Mail Online story can be found here and my 2013 blogpost on the MI5 dossier is here.

 

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Common Sense About UFOs – The Unopened File

Britain’s Ministry of Defence is often accused of hiding ‘top secret’ files on UFOs or not being entirely honest about what it knows about the subject.

Conspiracy-minded UFO truthers got excited last year when the ministry announced it had found another 18 files that had not been included in the tranches released by The National Archives between 2008 and 2013.

Every large government body regularly loses or misplaces paperwork and it came as no surprise to me that ‘new’ files had turned up. But I predict that when  these files are released, and fail to contain any new evidence either of alien visitations or any other far-out conspiracy theory, they will be dismissed as yet another whitewash.

Further claims will be made about other, more top secret files, squirreled away in some hidden location elsewhere.

Colonel Patrick Stevens, Royal Marines 45 Commando, circa 1964

Colonel Patrick Stevens, Royal Marines 45 Commando, circa 1964, during the Aden crisis.

I can say this because I obtained copies of a number of these so-called ‘missing files’, using Freedom of Information requests, years before 2007, when the MoD decided to transfer the contents of its surviving archive en masse to The National Archives.

One fascinating document that has yet to surface is an educational pamphlet prepared in 1979-80 by the then head of the ministry’s now defunct ‘UFO desk‘.

Despite a year’s work on the project – that involved consultation with the RAF, the intelligence services, and scientists at Jodrell Bank radio telescope and Greenwich Planetarium – the MoD decided to pull the plug and the project was quietly filed away and forgotten.

Was this because of a sinister plot by the New World Order to prevent the populace from learning about the imminent threat to Earth posed by extraterrestrials?

Or is it more likely the MoD decided their draft Common Sense About UFOs contained too many inconvenient truths? In effect, it was a case of ‘you can’t tell the people’?

Judge for yourself.

I have transcribed a copy of this document from the original file that, with delicious irony, is not among the 18 earmarked for release by MoD later this year.

In doing so, I tidied up the draft text prepared by Colonel Paddy Stevens for publication by HM Government after the House of Lords UFO debate in January 1979.

The document begins by listing some of the common explanations for strange phenomena in the sky that are often labelled as ‘alien space craft’ by UFOlogists and the mass media, from fireballs to meteorological balloons (today, we can add Chinese lanterns and remotely-controlled drones to this expanding list).

Then Stevens moves on to tackle ‘how the UFO myth arises’, looks at close encounter stories, asks ‘where are the aliens hiding?’ and responds to claims ‘that many world governments have conspired for 30 years in a great cover-up’ of the alien presence.

Although this document is 35 years old, when I first came across it I knew that its contents remain as relevant today as they were in 1977-78 following the release of Spielberg’s movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The author, Colonel Patrick (‘Paddy’) Stevens OBE, a former Royal Marine commando, was the head of the MoD’s UFO desk, S4(Air) in 1978-80. It was Stevens who helped talk down a call by UFO enthusiast Sir Eric Gairy, who was then president of the Caribbean nation of Grenada, for the United Nations to make 1979 ‘the year of the UFO.’

And the file reveals that it was also Stevens who personally drew up the government’s response to the famous House of Lords debate on UFOs.

The debate, in January 1979 was initiated by Brinsley le poer Trench (Lord Clancarty), a well-known proponent of UFO and ancient astronaut beliefs who believed flying saucers had a base inside the hollow Earth and flew out through holes in the poles. When Clancarty tabled his debate, Stevens warned his colleagues at Whitehall:

A transcript of the House of Lords UFO debate was published in 1979, with notes by John Michell

A transcript of the House of Lords UFO debate was published in 1979, with notes by John Michell

‘We do not take this lightly because Lord Clancarty is an acknowledged expert on UFOs, whilst MoD has no experts on UFOs for much the same reasons as we have no experts on levitation or black magic.’

Like the majority of the other UFO desk heads, Col Stevens was an avowed sceptic when it came to aliens.

But unlike his predecessors he directly challenged those who wanted to force the MoD to commit more time and resources to investigations.

And he was keen to promote his sceptical views in public, taking part in a live Yorkshire TV debate on UFOs presented by the late Richard Whiteley, in January 1979.

In 1978 as the Lords debate approached, Stevens advised Labour Defence Minister Fred Mulley to adopt an ‘unequivocal and uncompromising line’ on UFOs and added:

‘There is a temptation to equivocate about UFOs because of the thought that one day we may make contact with people from distant stars…however, there is nothing to indicate that ufology is anything but claptrap and no evidence of “alien space craft”. The UFO industry has prospered from equivocation and, with 1979 being hailed as “the year of UFOs”, it is highly desirable for HMG to inject some massive common sense into the business.’

Steven’s stint as a senior and influential civil servant at the MoD followed a long career in the military. In 1940, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Marines as a probationary second lieutenant and on D-Day he landed on Sword Beach with 41 Commando in the face of fierce enemy fire. After losing half its strength and its senior officer, he was promoted to company commander and led his men deeper into France.

After WW2 he was posted to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and as a major he served in various regimental and staff posts until he was given command of 45 Commando during the Aden crisis. In 1963-64 he took part in deep penetration raids into enemy territory and wrote up his experiences in a book, The Long Summer, published posthumously in 2009.

By the 1960s Paddy Stevens joined the NATO International Military Staff in Brussels before joining the civil service, where he was promoted to assistant secretary and then in 1977 to head of S4 (Air) in the Ministry of Defence, Whitehall.

He left the UFO desk in 1980, shortly before the famous sighting of ‘mysterious lights’ in the Rendlesham Forest, near RAF Woodbridge, became a cause celebre for the UFO industry.

He ended his career as Head of the Naval Law Division and died in 1998, one year after the 50th anniversary of UFOlogy. His last words on UFOs were:

‘Of course there are UFOs, in the sense of things which are seen in the sky and require explanation, but there are perfectly straightforward explanations for them. As for the idea of a cover-up, the arrival of just one alien space craft would be a stunning event. The skies full of alien space craft, as the UFOlogists claim, could never be kept hidden from the scientific community even if the government wished. Any idea of a cover-up must therefore include the scientific community. Anyone who believes that will believe anything.’

*Thanks to Judy Stevens for biographical information and access to photographs of her late husband in the writing of this blogpost.

 

 

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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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