‘If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…’ (Anne Murray)
Christmas 2018 marks the 38th anniversary of the mysterious events in the Rendlesham forest near RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk that became Britain’s best known UFO legend.
At the height of the Cold War US air force personnel reported seeing ‘unexplained lights’ in the forest beyond the runway of the nuclear-armed NATO complex.
The sensational events were reported by the US base commander in a memo that was sent to the British Ministry of Defence.
But since the story was first broken by the News of the World both the UK and US governments have denied any of the incidents had ‘defence significance’.
The lack of interest shown by the US and UK authorities has not been shared by story-tellers: believers, skeptics and fantasists of every kind.
Since the basic story leaked out, the legend has been kept alive with a stream of new theories, claims and fictional adaptations.
In November Sony Pictures announced Hollywood actor Lawrence Fishburne will play a lead role in an 8-part TV drama Rendlesham, directed by Joe Ahearne (of Doctor Who fame), set in the Cold War and present day.
At least two other documentaries are in production as the UFO industry gears up for the 40th anniversary of the legend in December 2020.
But so far none of the many and varied attempts to reveal ‘the truth’ about the events have mentioned the alleged involvement of the Special Air Service (SAS) – the British Army’s Special Forces Unit (motto: Who Dares Wins).
Some time ago a person who claims to be a SAS insider wrote to me after he saw me talking about Rendlesham on a TV documentary. I will call him Frank. His motive? It was ‘about time that the truth is revealed’ about the incident.
I investigated his incredible story by talking to trusted (and open) sources in the British military, including some high profile former SAS troopers. I reached my own conclusions. Then I sat on the story for three years, waiting to see if Frank would cast his fishing rod elsewhere. Now I call his bluff.
Frank says that in 1980 the twin USAF bases at Bentwaters-Woodbridge housed tactical nuclear weapons and responsibility for guarding these lay with the USAF 81st Security Police at Woodbridge.
The base was also home to the 67th ARRS (Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron), a US Special Forces unit.
One of its tasks was locating and recovering Apollo command modules and other US space hardware for NASA.
The sensitive nature of what went on at RAF Bentwaters-Woodbridge led the authorities to conduct a series of ‘exercises’ from the 1960s onwards.
These were designed to test the ability of the UK and US security forces to detect and intercept any attack by Soviet forces on the nuclear weapons store.
All the simulated exercises were unannounced and carried out UK Special Forces (SAS and their naval equivalent, the Special Boat Service or SBS). But according to Frank in 1980 the USAF quietly enhanced and upgraded their ability to monitor the air above the base as well as ground targets.
Rumours about a confrontation between British and US forces in the forest prior to the ‘UFO’ incident are nothing new. This item by Graham Birdsall appeared in the Yorkshire UFO Society journal Quest in the summer of 1992
In August the SAS mounted a covert night exercise to penetrate the Bentwaters SSA. Troopers parachuted into the forest from a C130 that had ‘strayed’ into the area from a training zone.
But the plan was rumbled when their black parachutes were detected by the new base surveillance equipment. The entire squad were captured and they were interrogated by a young ARRS lieutenant who was unaware of the ongoing security testing programme.
Special Forces or aliens? An easy mistake to make…(creative commons)
The troopers identified themselves as British special forces. But they were abused and roughly treated by their captors for a period of 18 hours before release. Frank claims:
‘The language used by the young US officer was unusual (to British ears) in that he repeatedly referred to the Brits as unidentified aliens who posed a threat in their presence on the sovereign US soil of the airbase
‘Although the word alien is commonly used in the US (for example by immigration officers to describe non-US citizens) it has gained a rather different usage in the UK.
‘After their release, the troopers made no complaint at their rough treatment but determined to get their own back on the USAF for the beating that they had received.
‘In particular, their repeated characterisation as “aliens” sowed the seeds of a plan –
“They called us aliens! Right, we’ll show them what aliens really look like!”
The headline that broke the story – from the British tabloid The News of the World, October 1983 (Ian Ridpath)
What happened next, according to Frank, would be bread and butter for special operation soldiers trained to deceive and misinform whilst remaining invisible.
During the autumn nights were spent reconnoitring the perimeter of the twin base complex where it met the Forestry Commission plantation known as Tangham Forest (Rendlesham).
As December approached lights and coloured flares were rigged in the forest. Black helium balloons coupled to remote-controlled kites carried suspended materials into the sky, activated by radio-controls.
‘A great deal of nocturnal Christmas fun was had at the expense of the USAF – and the matter should have ended there,’ Frank continued.
‘Unfortunately, a senior US officer (Lt Col Halt) led the US contingent out into the forest on the second night and took along his tape recorder. The hovering and whizzing lights were sufficiently impressive for him to send a report to the MoD.
‘Someone in London recalled the events of the previous August and questions were asked. A few red faces but also some satisfaction and amusement followed…
‘The USAF was “reassured” at a very senior level and no UK investigation was undertaken – for obvious reasons!’
The bottom line, according to Frank, was the Rendlesham Forest ‘aliens’ were our ‘aliens’ on our soil (no encroachment on the US bases) so ‘no threat to UK security’ was the honest response to questions – from the Press, MPs and Lord Hill-Norton in the Houses of Parliament.
Frank says he finds it hilarious that the UFO legend in the forest was based on what he calls an old truism: ‘two nations divided by a common language’.
So were the Rendlesham Forest UFOs really just pyrotechnics rigged up by British Special Forces to fool their American allies? Is the mystery finally solved? Or is the story just another winter’s tale – a big leg-pull?
Robin Horsfall, who served with 22 SAS at the time of the Rendlesham UFO incident (credit: YouTube)
One man who should know the truth is Robin Horsfall, a former SAS sniper. Robin took part in the famous Special Forces operation that stormed the Iranian Embassy to free hostages – just six months before the alleged ‘prank’ in Rendlesham forest.
Horsfall tells me the letter-writer is someone dangling a fishing rod. The language Frank uses provides ‘no evidence of a military background’.
The letter, he says, ‘is written by a person with a solid grounding in grammar which in my opinion excludes most SAS operatives during this period including the commissioned officers’.
More conclusively, as the alleged events happened during his time based in Hereford with 22 SAS he felt sure he would have heard about it via the grapevine.
‘We did undertake planned training actions against British military establishments but never against those of the US forces. Working against US units with live ammunition without strict safety protocols could have got people killed with huge political ramifications.
‘The idea of a revenge prank by [SAS] isn’t plausible as the rules controlling pyrotechnical devices within the regiment were very strict and any such action could have resulted in those involved being returned to unit’.
It remained a possibility, Horsfall added, that such a prank could have been played by ‘some other internal unit’, but the risks were great because pyrotechnics would have left behind easily-recoverable forensic traces.
‘If there is any truth in the story then I would be looking for the obvious prankster inside the US base not the SAS,’ he said.
So I took Frank’s story to the US Base Commander at the time of the incidents, Col Ted Conrad. It was Conrad who ordered police from the 81st Security Squadron to conduct an informal investigation of the UFO sightings in the forest reported by his personnel.
Col Conrad remains open minded about what his men saw. But he is on record as saying one unlikely but possible explanation is that the incident was a prank or hoax.
But in this case he agreed with Robin Horsfall: Frank’s story simply does not stack up. ‘US bases are not on US soil, rather all of them remain on sovereign British soil…US citizens who are stationed and work there are the “aliens”.
‘The SSA was guarded 24/7/365 by armed, trained security personnel who were instructed to shoot to kill, if necessary to prevent a breach,’ Col Conrad told me.
Col Ted Conrad (USAF retired), RAF Bentwaters-Woodbridge Base Commander 1980-81 (image Copyright Dr David Clarke)
‘It is unthinkable that either side would conduct such an exercise against an important facility where real weapons and ammo were present
‘The alleged rough treatment of British Special Forces by one US Lieutenant from the 67 ARRS is also unthinkable, but if it had been reported by complaint, the offender would have been more impacted by our disciplinary action that mounting a fake UFO landing could possibly have had.’
To paraphrase the folklorist Linda Degh we may never find resolution as to the ‘truth’ of any particular legend.
But the emphasis upon possibility and plausibility in stories like Frank’s provides them with their latent energy – and their potential to entertain and enthral the audience.
So there were have it folks: another winter’s tale from the Rendlesham forest.
The truth, though, remains persistently out there.