Close Encounters of the Playground Kind

My latest book UFO Drawings from The National Archives is published by Four Corners books on 18 September.

It contains 40 colour and black and white images selected from the Ministry of Defence files at the archives in Kew.

From 2009-2013 I acted as curator for the special project that involved the transfer of 210 surviving files from the MoD’s archives into the public domain.

The striking images in the new book were sourced from these and an older collection of UFO files, some dating back to the Second World War, that have been opened to public inspection under the 30 year rule.

Some of the most remarkable drawings in the book were produced by schoolchildren. For example one lunchtime in October, 1977, ten Cheshire youngsters, aged seven to 11 years, saw an elliptical UFO hovering in trees beside the playground of Upton Primary School in Macclesfield, before it rose into the sky and vanished.

One of the drawings produced by children in Macclesfield, Cheshire, in 1977 (Credit: crown copyright TNA DEFE 24/1206)

Their teacher, Mrs Hindmarsh, ushered the children inside and asked to draw what they had seen, separating them to ensure that no copying took place. The youngsters used pencils and coloured crayons to produce the images that ended up in a MoD file.

Their drawings are so clear and striking that I selected them as one the highlights of the book. In this case their teacher passed the dossier to Cheshire Police and the MoD’s UFO desk. In his covering letter the police officer said there was ‘a remarkable similarity in these sketches with regard to the UFO and its location between two trees’.

But this was just one example from a series of sightings made from schools during 1977. Another file contains drawings and letters sent to the MoD by youngsters and their teacher from North Wales earlier in the year.

‘We were playing at netball with Mrs Williams in the yard and she was showing us how to throw the ball into the net when I saw an object high in the sky.’

In immaculate handwriting, ten-year-old Gwawr Jones reported her UFO experience in a letter addressed to RAF Valley in North Wales.

Her letter, endorsed by the teacher, arrived with a collection of drawings showing an identical flying saucer, produced by her schoolpals.

‘I shouted at the others and they looked up and saw it,’ the account continued. ‘It had a black dome on top and a silver cigar-shaped base. It was travelling smoothly across the sky in a northerly direction. It remained in our sight for about 3 minutes. Then it went behind the only cloud in the sky and reappeared again for about 1 minute, then disappeared’.

Gwawr was one of nine youngsters, aged 8-11 years, who saw the silent object from  Rhosybol School in Anglesey, North Wales, on the afternoon of Wednesday, 16 February 1977. Their teacher, Mair Williams, told the Western Mail: ‘It was a really bright afternoon and the object was flying very high towards Bull Bay…I took the children back into school separated them and then told them to draw what they had seen. It was really astonishing – their drawings were all similar. I never believed in these things until I saw this!’

These extraordinary stories were among dozens that reached the MoD’s UFO desk, S4 (Air) in 1977. A covering note, from RAF Valley, adds ‘[we] can offer no positive explanation or identification’.

Viewed in isolation, this story would appear much like the other 435 sightings logged by the British government half a century ago. But with the benefit of hindsight it is just one of a previously unnoticed cluster of eerily similar experiences reported by small groups of unrelated schoolchildren, in the space of six months.

Children from Broad Haven Primary school with their UFO drawings 1977 (credit: Western Mail)

What on Earth, or off it, was going on?  What sparked off this mini-flap? What inspired youngsters of a similar age, from across the UK, to look into the sky and see unidentified flying objects moving above their schools and playgrounds?

The arrival of Steven Spielberg’s science fiction epic  Close Encounters of the Third (re-released in 2017 to mark its 40th anniversary) was a whole year away. The original Star Wars movie opened in UK cinemas in December, some months after this mini-flap.

I was ten years old in 1977 and my introduction to UFOlogy came not from movies but from the TV screen. In May BBC 1 ran the Hugh Burnett documentary Out of this World in a prime-time slot that was my first exposure to flying sorcery. Burnett’s programme included interviews with UFO witnesses and contactees plus classic footage from around the world. Elsewhere on TV the year opened with the fourth incarnation of Doctor Who, Tom Baker, grappling with the Robots of Death on a distant planet.

But I suspect a more immediate inspiration for the spate of playground UFO sightings came from the children’s peers – via mass media reports from the so-called West Wales flap or ‘Welsh Triangle’ as it was dubbed by the tabloids.

Early in February groups of children at three Welsh primary schools reported UFO sightings. But only the story from Broad Haven primary school was widely covered by the media, with the youngsters interviewed live on national television at the scene.

In this case a group of fifteen children, mainly ten year old boys, saw a shiny cigar-shaped UFO on the ground – not in the sky – in fields behind their school during their lunch break on Friday, 4 February 1977.

It was raining at the time and the boys were playing football when someone pointed out the object, partially hidden by trees and shrubs. Two of the group said the elongated object had a silver dome with a flashing light on the top. Six of the group said they saw a tall man, dressed in a silver space-suit, standing beside the UFO. Evidently scared, the children ran back to the school but were not initially believed by the adults. After school finished, groups of youngsters went UFO spotting and later, supported by their parents, they visited the local police station.

Drawings made by the children were sent to the MoD and the originals are today preserved in scrapbook at the school. This archive includes a contemporary account from the school diary, written in the third person by head-teacher Ralph Llewellyn, who became the focus of a media scrum. It reveals that he interviewed 15 children separately on the Monday, 7 February, and examined their drawings and notes.

Their drawings are often described as ‘remarkably similar’ but although made independently they were not produced until three days after the sighting, so the children had the entire weekend to discuss what they had seen. Nevertheless, Mr Llewellyn concluded they were telling the truth:

‘After allowing for variations and embellishments [the head-teacher] is loathe to believe that the children are capable of a sustained sophisticated hoax; that they did see something they hadn’t seen before he is prepared to accept. He himself, while seeking a natural explanation of the incident, is prepared to keep an open mind on the subject’.

 

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The UFO Files: Our Man in Sheffield

In deep cover – with the UFO files at The National Archives

I spent two decades on the trail of the UK Ministry of Defence’s cache of secret UFO papers.

But little did I know that my FOI campaign triggered off a mole-hunt among the spooks – and a probe to discover who my sources were.

One of the surprises hidden within the latest UFO papers released at The National Archives is a declassified memo that asks the MoD’s security services to investigate why I wanted to see secret UFO files – and who might have been leaking data to me about them.

The memo – once classified ‘Secret UK Eyes Only’ – was written in August 2000 by a desk officer in the MoD’s secret-squirrel space intelligence unit, DI55. It was addressed to MoD Security

At the time DI55 was in a spin because a series of UFO report files had disappeared from its archives.

This came to light soon after one of its contractors (who has never been named) had completed his work on the infamous Condign Report on ‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomena’.

As the spooks rooted through their filing cabinets a letter arrived from me, addressed to the MoD records officer at New Scotland Yard.  At the time I had given up a job as a vacuum cleaner salesman and was working as a journalist, looking for a scoop.

Tony Blair’s government had introduced a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) but it was still five years from implementation.

So it was that I spent many hours working through UFO records at the National Archives in Kew and came across references to the mysterious DI55.

They were a branch of the Defence Intelligence Staff who, since 1967, had been the government agency responsible for the investigation of UFO incidents that might have some bearing on the defence of the realm.

UFO sighting reports were not usually subject to secrecy. But DI55 were also involved in top secret studies of aerodynamic missiles and satellites, so their very existence – and their interest in UFOs – was secret until quite recently.

If the truth really was out there – as The X-Files proclaimed – then I suspected DI55 would know all about it.

Indeed, in one of their recently declassified files, a desk officer refers approvingly to a Sunday People headline that describes them as ‘Our Secret Army Against the Aliens’.

My letter, dated 21 July 2000, requested access to their surviving records under the Code of Practice (a precursor to FOIA). It arrived in exactly the same month that someone in DIS realised a number of these files had gone missing.

This odd coincidence appears to have set alarm bells ringing in the intelligence agencies.

‘Dr Clarke is clearly well directed towards the documents he sees as relevant,’ the desk officer wrote to his security minders. This led him to be ‘suspicious’ especially as these files contained ‘very sensitive data’.

Why was I was interested in files only they knew were missing?

And who had informed me they were ‘missing’?

Some of the ‘missing files’? (David Clarke)

The memo implies that I may have been tipped off by someone in the Defence Intelligence Staff – perhaps even the author of the Condign study – who was aware of what the files contained, and had expressed an interest in them before. It continued:

‘Pending the publication of [the Condign report] on this subject DIST is very sensitive to the potential mischief that unauthorised use of the information contained in these files may cause if used to support uninformed Press and private publications on UAPs’.

MoD Security were then ordered to find the missing files urgently. They were also tasked to find out more about  ‘Dr Clarke and his sponsors’ and any potential sources I might have in the intelligence community.

Quite what this investigation turned up remains a mystery – because the relevant papers are, you will not be surprised to hear, missing from the file.

But I can reveal that Our Man in Sheffield must have passed whatever security vetting was deemed appropriate by Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

The ‘missing files’ were found, and can now be downloaded by anyone – with or without security clearance – for a small charge from The National Archives website.

And in May 2006 I was invited to MoD Main Building to receive a first-generation copy of DI55’s once secret final report on UFOs – or UAPs, as they preferred to call them.

Secret no more. My job was done.

Postcript:

I eventually discovered the ‘truth’ about what DI55 knew about UFOs. It was hidden in plain sight in one of their own documents from 1995, released by The National Archives in 2017.  Sent to the MoD’s UFO desk and signed off by a DI55 Wing Commander it says:

‘I see no reason for continuing to deny that [Defence Intelligence] has an interest in UFOs. However, if the association is formally made public, then the MoD will no doubt be pressurised to state what the intelligence role/interest is. This could lead to disbelief and embarrassment since few people are likely to believe the truth that lack of funds and higher priorities have prevented any study of the thousands of reports received’.

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UFO Files exclusive: Cold War spyplane incident

The release by Britain’s Ministry of Defence of 15 of its last remaining UFO files at the UK’s National Archives has revealed details of a stunning Cold War close encounter witnessed by the entire crew of a US Air Force spy-plane.

A RC-135 Rivet spyplane of the type operated by the USAF during the Cold War (credit: Wikipedia/USAF)

Formerly secret RAF files opened at The National Archives include a detailed account of an incident on 19 October 1982 when a USAF RC-135 plane, monitoring Soviet military activity, was buzzed by ‘a big object’ over the Eastern Mediterranean.

According to the files, British personnel at RAF Troodos, a remote base on the island of Cyprus listened in amazement to the radio calls of the American crew as the encounter unfolded at 35,000 feet above the sea.

The UFO – – described as covered in ‘a multitude of flashing lights 20 at a time’ – was picked up on the spylane’s radar as it approached from the south.

It then circled around the plane, call-sign Beano 73 – and closed in as the navigator appealed for help from the ground.

Two US Navy F-14 fighters were scrambled from an aircraft carrier and a RAF Phantom was diverted from a night flying exercise to intercept the UFO, south of the island of Cyprus.

As the three interceptors approached the USAF crew saw the UFO depart towards the African coast. Nothing was seen by the fighter pilots.

The files reveal how RAF personnel at the Troodos radar station monitored the entire incident for a period of 90 minutes, beginning shortly after 4pm local time.

Radome at 280 Signals Unit base, RAF Troodos, Mt Olympus, Cyprus – one of the most important overseas British installations (credit: Wikipedia/Ed Weissman)

But nothing was seen by British air defence stations – ‘nor was it seen on any ground or seaborne radar, including at 280 SU [280 Signals Unit – RAF Troodos]’.

Following the encounter a secret investigation was launched by the British authorities. The results were sent to the US Department of Defense in November 1982.

Neither the British or US government have ever released information about this incident before the files were opened this week.

Officially the US Air Force’s UFO Project, Blue Book, was closed in 1969. The British Ministry of Defence closed its own UFO desk in 2009 and its secret space intelligence unit, DI55, said it was no longer interested in ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ (UAP) in 2000.

But the newly-released RAF file reveals that officials ordered a transcript to be made of the tape recording that captured radio transmissions made between the spyplane crew and ground controllers.

Copies of the report were circulated to Assistant Chief Scientist (RAF), DD Ops (GE) RAF, DI55 and DSTI.

Film provided by the RAF Troodos radar station was carefully studied by photographic experts in London and large prints, taken from the radar picture,  were prepared for scrutiny by intelligence officers.

The file does not reveal what happened to this evidence. The results of the joint UK/US investigation do not appear in the file.

An extract from the RAF file on the incident [David Clarke/The National Archives]

But a tentative explanation is offered by a senior RAF official, who wrote: ‘We have a strong suspicion that the “UFO” was a mirage effect from lights on the coast of Israel or Lebanon’.

A signal reporting the sighting sent from RAF Troodos to MoD UK on 20 October describes the UFO as ‘larger than [a] RC-135’.

Boeing RC-135 aircraft are used by the USAF and RAF to support intelligence gathering. They have been used in every armed conflict including Cold War operations around the borders of the former Soviet Union. The aircraft are 136ft (41m) in length with a wingspan of 130ft (nearly 40m).

The RAF signal reporting the encounter says the ‘object’ was first spotted: “…initially about two miles from wing of RC-135…moved position around aircraft and closed…object tailed Beano 73 for 90 mins on its northeast/southwest race track….”.

The signal says the UFO was seen by the ‘whole crew’.

Three RC-135s were purchased by the RAF in 2017 to serve with 51 Squadron based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. The crew includes two pilots, a navigator and up to 25 mission staff.

Elsewhere in the file a RAF Group Captain collated information on UFO reports received by his air defence staff for a thirty year period ending in 1996, in response to a Parliamentary Question from the Labour MP for Don Valley, Martin Redmond.

He asked all radar stations including the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station at RAF Fylingdales on the North York Moors to submit UFO data to HQ No 11 Group.

His report says he could find “no reports or mention [was] found of UFOs detected by ADGE [Air Defence Ground Environment] units or 11/18 Group aircraft using radar equipment“.

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Alien Art: 70 years of UFO sightings

70 years ago Kenneth Arnold reported nine strange ‘saucer-like’ flying objects in the sky – and launched the modern UFO mystery.

On landing his plane in Oregon on the afternoon of 24 June 1947 the businessman and private pilot became world famous.

Within hours an enterprising sub-editor coined the phrase ‘flying saucers‘ and within days further reports of further sightings began to pour into newspapers across the world. What psychologist Carl Jung called ‘a modern myth of things seen in the sky’ was born.

Kenneth Arnold with an artist’s impression showing one of the nine ‘flying saucers’ (credit: Seattle Times)

Many of Jung’s subjects produced artwork depicting UFOs seen in their dreams.

And like many thousands of UFO witnesses before and after 1947,  Arnold felt compelled to draw the mysterious bat-wing shaped objects he saw flying above mountain-tops in the Cascades.

Others have produced photographs, artist’s impressions and even paintings of their extraordinary experiences with UFOs and related phenomena.

To celebrate this year’s anniversary I have curated a collection of original drawings, paintings and photographs, collected by the British Ministry of Defence as the centrepiece of a new illustrated book.

UFO  Drawings from The National Archives will be published by Four Corners Books in October 2017 as part of a new series of histories of British visual culture.

The artwork includes images of an alien craft above the A1, rocket-shaped UFOs over north London and drawings of a spaceship that landed near a primary school in Cheshire.

The 40 images featured in the book have been carefully selected from the British government’s UFO files that form part of the collections at The National Archives (TNA)in Kew.

Since 2008 I have worked with the The National Archives as consultant for the release of more than 200 declassified UFO files, formerly held by the Ministry of Defence. The MoD have collected and sometimes investigated UFO reports since the end of WW2 but their so-called UFO desk was closed in 2009 and its records archived. The press often refer to these as ‘Britain’s real X-Files’.

My book The UFO Files: The Inside Story of Real Life Sightings was published by Bloomsbury in 2012 and provides a history of the MoD’s interest in UFOs.

The most recent MoD files were opened in ten tranches as part of a rolling programme that ended in 2014. All of the files in this project were digitised and are available to download from The National Archives UFO website.

Some of the many MoD UFO files at Britain’s National Archives (copyright David Clarke)

But a similar number of older files, some dating back to WW1, have been opened under the 30 year rule and are available to researchers at Kew.

Possibly the best known file contains Winston Churchill‘s famous memo, sent to to the Air Ministry in 1952, that demanded to know ‘What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth?

A further 15 miscellaneous UFO files were opened in June 2017  and the final three files will join them in the reading rooms later this year.

 

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Dead Flows the Don

Dr David Clarke of Sheffield Hallam University appeared on a BBC Radio 3 documentary about the River Don. In the Sheffield Telegraph he traces the myths and legends of the river as it flows through Sheffield:

One of my earliest memories is being told by my grandfather, an ex-steelworker at Ponds Forge, that Sheffield was founded on five rivers. And the most powerful of them all was the Don.

A polluted River Don from Nursery Street, Sheffield in the 19th century (credit: Picture Sheffield)

He knew the city’s most important industries – steelmaking, cutlery and, in his day, brewing – were dependent upon a plentiful supply of water. Streams supplied the rivers that flowed from the many hills that encircle the city.

Channelled through the valleys, like the fingers of a hand, the Don and the Porter, Rivelin, Loxley and Sheaf converge in the historic heart of Sheffield, at Castlegate. A clearing above the confluence of the Don and Sheaf gave its name to the earliest settlement, Sheaf-feld, where the castle was built. In medieval times the rivers also marked a boundary between the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia. No one knows when the Don was first bridged, but in the 12th century a small chapel, dedicated to ‘Our Lady Mary’, was founded below the castle walls. This became present-day Lady’s Bridge.

The power of the rivers and streams, harnessed during the industrial revolution, helped to make Sheffield’s steel industry world famous. In the Victorian era part of the Sheaf was channelled into a stone-built underground culvert to divert its floodwaters away from Pond hill. Today this massive storm drain, the Megatron, runs from Granville Square, under the station and Park Square, emerging to meet the Don near Blonk Street bridge.

For decades, a cocktail of deadly chemicals was pumped and poured into the river waters, leading the Don to be labelled as one of the most polluted stretches of water in Europe. Until 1928 animal blood from the slaughterhouses at The Shambles, on Castlegate added to the river’s filthy reputation. By the 1980s parts of the Don ran yellow and it was unable to sustain any kind of plant or animal life.

On occasions the Don and Sheaf have broken free, sometimes with deadly and destructive consequences. The ancient Lady’s Bridge survived the most recent flooding in 2007, when both rivers overflowed, but the Wicker and surrounding streets were submerged, sweeping a pedestrian to his death.

Part of the Megatron storm drain that runs beneath Sheffield City Centre (credit: Picture Sheffield)

In ancient times rivers were regarded as female and some believe the Don took its name from Danu, a Celtic goddess.  The Romans built a fort, Danum, where it flows through present-day Doncaster and the name is also found in the river Danube. In folklore, you can never be certain about anything, but I’m sure that medieval travellers who crossed the Don at Lady’s Bridge would not want to take any chances. Perhaps this explains the instinctive urge to throw coins and other precious objects ‘for luck’ into pools and springs.

A still from the eerie 1973 public information film, The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Waters,. The voice over is provided by Donald Pleasance (credit: YouTube)

This custom persists into the present day. Guitarist Russell Senior, of Pulp, recalls how he and Jarvis Cocker, as teenagers, cast coins into the river near the Wicker to appease ‘the spirit of dark and lonely water’. This was no ghost, but an imaginary Bergmanesque figure, in a monk’s robe, who appears in a scary 1973 public information film that warned children to stay away from riverbanks.

There is more evidence of Cocker’s interest in the Don and its folklore in the lyrics of Pulp’s song Wickerman (2001):

‘… we gazed down at the sludgy brown surface of the water together.
Then a passer-by told us that it used to be a local custom to jump off the viaduct into the river
When coming home from the pub on a Saturday night. But that this custom had died out when someone jumped
Landed too near to the riverbank
Had sunk in the mud there & drowned before anyone could reach them.’

The Don’s dangerous reputation can be traced back to the middle ages when Sheffielders referred to it as the Dun, rhyming with the word son. Dun is also an old English word for dark and the historian Joseph Hunter recorded a sinister old phrase, popular in the 18th century:

The shelving, slimy river Dun

Each year a daughter or a son

Hunter thought this might point to a time when sacrifices, animal or even human, were offered to water spirits.

Many rivers were once believed to demand a quota of victims. The Dart in Devonshire and the Ure in Yorkshire took one life each year. The Ribble in Lancashire was happy with a sacrifice every seventh year, but could be appeased by the offering of a small bird or animal.

Thankfully today’s river Don is anything but sinister. Its reputation as a ‘horrible, sludgy, dirty and smelly’ stretch of water is long gone. Heron and otter have returned to its banks and last year plans were announced to reintroduce salmon.

As David Bramwell says, in his radio programme, ‘the wrongs committed to Danu by Vulcan, the harsh overlord of the steel industry, in the name of progress and industrialisation’ are now a thing of the past.

BBC Radio 3 Between the Ears: Danu – Dead Flows the Don is available on Listen Again.

Learn more about Castlegate and plans for the excavation of the ruins at Friends of Sheffield Castle 

 

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100 years of Fake News: The German Corpse Factory

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Corpse Factory cartoon drawn by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, creator of ‘Old Bill’

False stories that masquerade as real news are not a product of the modern age. But few realise the modern era of ‘Fake News‘ began one hundred years ago – during the carnage of the First World War.

In the spring of 1917 some of Britain’s most influential newspapers published stories about the German Corpse Factory – a fake news story has been called ‘the master hoax’ and ‘the most appalling atrocity story’ of the 1914-18 conflict.

Listen to my interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme (17 February 2017) here – marking 100 years since the birth of the Corpse Factory legend. 

After three years of war and an Allied naval blockade, Germany was desperately short of some of the most basic materials that were needed for its manufacturing industry. Meanwhile, Britain was plotting to bring China into the war against Germany.

In March the English-language North China Herald claimed the country’s president had been horrified when a visiting German admiral boasted the Kaiser’s forces were ‘extracting glycerine out of dead soldiers’.

Rumours had been circulating since 1915, both in France and on the Home Front, that German war dead were being converted into munitions, animal feed and soap.

As one soldier put it ‘then other folk eat the pigs and poultry, so you may say it’s cannibalism. Fritz calls his margarine “corpse fat” because they suspect that’s what it comes from.’

But until 1917 these stories had not been presented as facts by any official source in the Allied countries.  That was until Lord Northcliffe’s  press empire amplified the gruesome claims and printed accounts from sources who claimed to have visited the Kadaververwertungsansatalt (‘Corpse-Utilisation Factory’).

A;lfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, owner of The Times and Daily Mail in 1917 (credit: Wikipedia)

Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, owner of The Times and Daily Mail in 1917 (credit: Wikipedia)

Lord Northcliffe’s anti-German vitriol had so much impact that he was offered the post of director of propaganda by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. On 17 April 1917 two of his papers, The Times and the Daily Mail published what they claimed was convincing evidence the German Army were using a gruesome ‘corpse factory’  behind their front line.

The Times ran the story under the headline Germans and their Dead, attributing the claim to two sources – a Belgian newspaper published in England and a story that originally appeared in a German newspaper, Berliner Lokalanzeiger.

The latter was a short account by reporter Karl Rosner who described an unpleasant smell ‘as if lime was being burnt’ as he passed the a factory behind the German lines. He said the fats that were rendered there were turned into lubricating oils and manure, adding ‘nothing can be permitted to go to waste’.

Rosner used the word Kadaver, that referred to the bodies of animals – mainly horses and mules – not human bodies.

But the Daily Mail described this as a ‘callous admission’ by the Germans that the factory was for ‘extracting oils, fats and pig-food from the bodies of German private soldiers killed in battle’.

The Times quoted an anonymous account from a Belgian source who said bodies arrived at the plant on trains where they were unloaded by workers who ‘wear oilskin overalls and masks with mica eyepieces’.

extract from a report on the Hun 'corpse factory' published by The Times in April 1917

extract from a report on the Hun ‘corpse factory’ published by The Times in April 1917

Long hooked poles were used to ‘push the bundles of bodies to an endless chain, which picks them with big hooks…The bodies are transported on this endless chain into a long, narrow compartment, where they pass through a bath which disinfects them. They then go through a drying chamber, and finally are carried into a digester or great cauldron, in which they are dropped by an apparatus …In the digester they remain for six to eight hours, and are treated by steam, which breaks them up while they are slowly stirred by machinery’.

Soon afterwards the Daily Express weighed in with a story that accused the Germans of cannibalism. The paper claimed the Corpse-Utilisation Works or ‘fat farm’, as it was known by German soldiers, was established soon after the slaughter on the Somme in 1916.

‘Some people believe that there is only one German factory for this damnable work out of which Germans are making handsome dividends,’ it claimed. ‘This is not so. The factories are established in each army area, including Rumania. This the Germans have admitted’.

A cartoon published by Punch presented the story under the caption “CANNON FODDER – AND AFTER”. It shows the German emperor addressing a new recruit: ‘…and don’t forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you – alive or dead’.

The German government protested against what they called ‘loathsome and ridiculous’ claims they said were the result of a deliberate mis-translation of the German word Kadaver.

But their protests fell on deaf ears as both the Chinese ambassador and the Maharajah of Biikanir issued public expressions of horror at German treatment of their dead, the latter warning if the bodies of Indian soldiers were treated in this way this’ would be regarded as an atrocity that would never be forgotten or forgiven.’

Punch cartoon from April 1917.

Punch cartoon from April 1917.

In Parliament, responding to questions from MPs, Lord Robert Cecil, Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, said: ‘in view of other actions by the German military authorities there is nothing incredible in the present charge against them.’

But the German Corpse Factory did not exist. It was propaganda – designed to demonise the Germans and entice the Chinese to join the Allied forces. Propaganda always involves some form of deception, ‘whether through outright lying, omission of important information, distortion or misdirection’, according to Professor Piers Robinson of the University of Sheffield.

Some historians have blamed the Northcliffe newspapers for spreading this most false of WW1 fake news stories. But until now no one has been able to find conclusive proof that would settle the mystery of who created the story and set it running.

In 1928 Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby, in his book Falsehood in Wartime, pointed the finger of blame at the British government and their friends in the press who, he claimed, had both ’encouraged and connived’ in spreading the lie across the world.

For its part, the government failed to issue a complete denial until 1925 when Sir Austen Chamberlain admitted, in a Commons statement, there was ‘never any foundation’ for what he called ‘this false report’.

But in the same year the Conservative MP John Charteris, who as a Brigadier General had served as head of intelligence under Douglas Haig during the war, whilst on a lecture tour of the USA, reportedly admitted he had fabricated the story.

The Daily Express weighs in with its own 'corpse factory' propaganda, April 1917

The Daily Express weighs in with its own ‘corpse factory’ propaganda, April 1917

The New York Times revealed how Charteris, at a private dinner, confessed to having transposed captions from one of two photographs found on captured German soldiers. One showed a train taking dead horses to be rendered, the other showed a train taking dead soldiers for burial. The photo of the horses had the word ‘cadaver’ written upon it and Charteris ‘had the caption transposed to the picture showing the German dead, and had the photograph sent to a Chinese newspaper in Shanghai.’

The story was planted in the full knowledge that it would be followed up by European newspapers and generate horror and anti-German feelings.

On his return to Britain Charteris denied making the remarks and, since that time, no one has been able to discover the photographs or any paper-trail that would prove the intelligence services connived with the press to promote the corpse factory lie.

But I found what I believe to be one of the photographs in Foreign Office documents at The National Archives in Kew. The black and white image, dated 17 September 1917, clearly shows bodies of German soldiers, tied in bundles, on a train just as Charteris had described in 1925.

The covering letter, from a MI7 officer at Whitehall, is addressed to the Director of Information, Lt Col John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). It offers ‘a photograph of Kadavers, forwarded by General Charteris for propaganda purposes’.

One of the captured German photographs used by MI7 for propaganda in 1917 (credit: The National Archives)

One of the captured German photographs showing ‘kadavers’ that were sent to British intelligence for potential use as propaganda in 1917 (Crown Copyright – The National Archives)

MI7 were a military intelligence branch that specialised in anti-German propaganda in neutral countries. From 1916 its recruits were busily writing corpse factory pamphlets for translation into a number of foreign languages for distribution in Europe and the Far East.  The branch was disbanded in 1918 because its work had been accomplished and according to one historian its records were destroyed on the grounds they could have been incriminating.

But we know that in 1917 MI7 employed 13 officers and 25 paid writers, some whom moonlighted as ‘special correspondents’ for national newspapers.  One of their most talented writers was Major Hugh Pollard who combined his secret work with the role of special correspondent for the Daily Express, whose proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, became Minister of Information in 1918.

A 'corpse factory' story from the regional press

A ‘corpse factory’ story from the regional press

After the war Pollard confessed his role to his cousin, Ivor Montague, who writing in 1970, recalled

‘…how we laughed at his cleverness when he told us how his department had launched the account of the German corpse factories and of how the Hun was using the myriads of trench-war casualties for making soap and margarine. He explained that he had originally thought up the idea himself to discredit the enemy among the populations of Oriental countries, hoping to play upon the respect for the dead that goes with ancestor-worship. To the surprise of the authorities it had caught on, and they were now making propaganda out of it everywhere…the tears ran down his cheeks as he told us the story they had circulated of a consignment of soap from Germany arriving in Holland and being buried with full military honours. But even for us, the taste of some of his tales began to grow sour after he became a Black and Tan.’

For those who spread fake news in 1917 the Germans were so evil that anything could be used as a weapon against them – including rumours and lies. But lies have consequences. During the 1930s the corpse factory was used by the Nazis as proof of British perfidy during the Great War.

Historians Joachim Neander and Randal Marlin remind us how these false stories ‘encouraged later disbelief when early reports circulated about the Holocaust under Hitler, thus contributing to the early lack of response by nations asked to accept Jewish refugees’.

An edited version of this blogpost can be found on the BBC News website here. Social media coverage of the Corpse Factory story can be followed on Storify here..

 

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Michael Swiney (1926-2016)

Retired Royal Air Force officer Michael Swiney, who observed three UFOs while flying a training mission in 1952, has died aged 90.

A/C Michael Swiney, circa 1952-53, at Little Rissington (credit: M. Swiney)

A/C Michael Swiney, circa 1952-53, at Little Rissington (credit: M. Swiney)

Swiney’s close encounter occurred shortly after a wave of unexplained sightings during the NATO operation Mainbrace. According to Captain Ed Ruppelt former head of the USAF’s Project Blue Book, it was these sightings that prompted the RAF to set up its first UFO investigation bureau.

Air Commodore Swiney OBE joined the RAF in 1945 and served at bases in Scotland, West Germany and Saigon. He ended his career as an air intelligence officer at Ministry of Defence where he had access to classified files on unusual sightings, many of which have since been destroyed.

But it was his sighting whilst flying a Meteor T7 twin-jet from RAF Little Rissington on 21 October 1952 that haunted him throughout his career.

In 2001 he broke fifty years of silence to reveal the full story after I discovered a reference to the incident in the operations records books stored at The National Archives.

His account was published in my book (with Andy Roberts) Out of the Shadows (Piatkus, 2002) and in The UFO Files: The Inside Story of Real Life Sightings (Bloomsbury, 2012).

Swiney had been flying for nine years when he left the airfield at Little Rissington on the training flight over southwest England. As the Meteor, with Crofts at the controls, punched through clouds at about 15,000 feet both men were amazed to see ‘three white…circular objects’ above them.

He remembered exclaiming ‘what on Earth is going on!’

Initially he thought they could be three descending parachutes and, fearful of tearing through their canvasses, Swiney took control of the aircraft from his student.

As both men watched in amazement, the three objects appeared to change position ‘and lost their circular shape and took on more of a “flat plate” appearance’: much like the classic ‘flying saucer‘ of pop culture.

Swiney reported their observation to ground control and returned to base, where the two men were separated and interviewed by officers from Air Ministry. They were told their visual sighting had been corroborated by ground radar and aircraft had been scrambled to intercept the UFOs, without success.

The incident remained an official secret until a partial account of it emerged in Air Marshal Sir Peter Horsley’s book Sounds from Another Room in 1997. Horsley was at the time equerry to the Duke of Edinburgh, who had received a written account of Swiney and Croft’s sighting for his personal files. But Horsley’s account in his book was written from memory.

Swiney heard nothing more about his observation until 1975 when serving as Air Commodore (Intelligence) at MoD he asked to see a copy of his report. He read it and placed it back in his ‘out tray’ without taking a copy.

‘That was my biggest regret,’ he told me in 2004. ‘Because after my retirement, when I tried to trace the report by writing to the MoD, I was told that all reports prior to 1962 had been destroyed.’

The only surviving official document that refers to the Little Rissington incident is a logbook entry that refers to a sighting of three ‘saucer shaped objects’ travelling at high speed. It concludes: ‘Later, ATCC Gloucester reported radar plots to confirm this, but Air Ministry discounted any possibility of “extra terrestrial objects”.

The Air Ministry report on this and other incidents reported by RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots from the 1950s appear to have been destroyed in one of many subsequent purges of the MoD archives.

Extract from RAF Little Rissington logbook 1952 (credit: The National Archives, Crown Copyright)

Extract from RAF Little Rissington logbook 1952 (credit: The National Archives, Crown Copyright)

Michael Swiney was one of the most impressive witnesses I interviewed during my research for The National Archives. Refreshingly, he refused to embellish his account of his experience, or distort it by immersion in the literature of the UFO industry.

‘I don’t think there are little green men who are going to suddenly land and get out of peculiar looking craft,’ he told me.

‘But what I do know is that both David Crofts and I saw something, the like of which we had never seen before, and I have never seen since. I can’t explain it.

‘I was frightened. I make no bones about it. It was something supernatural, perhaps, and when I landed someone told me I looked as if I had seen a ghost.’

 

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Where Eagles Dare…and the Sun never sets

Sheffield Star/South Yorkshire Times, 21 May 2016.

David Clarke took a cruise along Norway’s rugged coastline to see the Midnight Sun and experienced Arctic wildlife at close quarters.

‘We can never guarantee that you will see them’, one of our Norwegian guides announced as she flung a piece of raw fish into the sea alongside the SS Orca.  ‘But when we feed the gulls they are never far behind.’

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Sea Eagles soaring above the SS Orca, Trollfjord

Minutes earlier we had left our Hurtigruten cruiseship, MS Polarlys, and joined the smaller boat as it entered the narrow mouth of the Trollfjord.  This awesome sidearm branches west from the 25 km long strait that separates the islands of Lofoten and Vesteralen, in the Nordland region of the Arctic Circle.

Forbidding mountain peaks, forged from some of the oldest rocks on Earth, surrounded us on all sides as our skipper steered us towards the west end of the 2km fjord.  Trolls turn up everywhere in the folklore and place-names of Scandinavia, but we were hunting a slightly less elusive inhabitant of  the Norwegian coast.

The sea eagle is northern Europe’s largest bird of prey. Also known as the White Tailed Eagle, females are larger than males and, when fully grown, can have a wingspan of 2.6 metres and weigh up to 6.86 kg. They feed mainly on fish and small mammals and build nests in trees and rocky ledges.

Noisy flights of gulls continued to mob our boat in search of food but eagles were nowhere to be seen. At the calm end of the fjord we saw Arctic terns, and small guillemots, with their distinctive black and white plumage, nesting in precarious ledges below the cliffs.

But we had almost given up hope when our skipper turned the boat around to rendezvous with the Polarlys. Then a shout went up from Theresa, a woman from North Carolina, who had spotted a juvenile eagle standing sentinel on a smooth rock by the mouth of the fjord.

‘Look, there’s  another,’ a German tourist tapped me on the shoulder, pointing to  the majestic profile of an adult bird soaring through the air to the starboard, pursued by a group of seagulls. The excitement was infectious as passengers clambered over chairs and each other to secure the best viewing position on deck.

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Sea Eagles soaring above the SS Orca, Trollfjord

Now the eagles were putting on a show for us, their dark silhouettes outlined against the snow-tipped mountains. At one point there were three flying in formation above our heads like a squadron of low-flying aircraft. A fourth dived into the sea a few hundred yards away to our starboard. It emerged clutching a fish in its talons, before returning to its rocky eyrie.

There appeared to be at least three families nesting along the fjord’s mouth, with adults and juveniles defending their territories and chicks. Almost half the Norwegian population of 3,800 pairs nest in the Nordland region, making it one of the best places to see them in the wild.

An excursion to Trollfjord is part of Hurtigruten’s summer cruising schedule along the long, rocky coast. It can also be reached by taking the overnight ferry from Bodo on the mainland, which is known as ‘sea eagle town’.

When our time was up the Orca returned us to the port of Svolvaer in the Lofoten Islands where we met our cruiseship. In Svolvaer painted wooden houses perch on stilts in the water, set against a dramatic mountain backdrop. Entering the harbour you pass racks used for drying the stockfish that powered much of the region’s economy.

Days earlier, on the northbound section of the cruise, we joined crowds on the deck to admire the spectacle of the Midnight Sun. We sailed from Tromso towards the rocky headland at Nordkapp or North Cape that, at 71 degrees north, marks the most northerly point in mainland Europe. From May to July this part of the Arctic Circle is bathed in sunlight for 24 hours each day, making it difficult to sleep without an eye-mask.

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Sea Eagles soaring above the SS Orca, Trollfjord

Tromso was the starting point of many Polar expeditions and a statue of Norway’s most famous explorer, Roald Amundsen, can be seen close to the tourist office on the quayside. The city remains a base for visitors who wish to explore the Arctic circle and offers a range of opportunities for lovers of wildlife and outdoor activities.

Hurtigruten’s excursions include a boat trip to north Norway’s largest sea bird colony, 15 km west of Nordkapp, where you can watch puffins, kittiwakes and Arctic skuas.  There are also opportunities to go whale-watching and dog-sledding.

On day eight, en route south to the city of Bergen, we revisited Tromso to attend a midnight service at the city’s Arctic Cathedral.  It was just before the witching hour and the sky remained half-lit by the sun’s rays. During the long summer, the constant sunlight brings the wildlife out at all times of day and night. As we pulled into the quay, the sun’s disc appeared to roll along the arches of a road bridge, as Arctic Terns whirled and ducked around our heads. It was fitting end to our expedition.

GET THERE: David Clarke travelled with Hurtigruten. The midnight sun is visible from late May to late July. Voyages from Bergen up to Kirkenes and back depart year-round with prices for the 6 day Classic Voyage South (Kirkenes to Bergen) starting from £724 per person (limited departures in April 2016). The same voyage departing on a wide selection of dates in July 2016 costs from £1,141 per person (based on two sharing an inside cabin on full-board basis). Flights and excursion are extra. Visit http://www.hurtigruten.com/uk/Experiences/Midnight-sun/ or call 020 3582 6642.

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Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown and the UFO

Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, the Royal Navy’s most decorated pilot and UFO witness, has died at the age of 97.

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Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown (1919-2016). Credit: Wikipedia

Captain Brown was the Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated pilot and held the world record for aircraft carrier landings.

He saw extensive action in WW2 and post war joined an elite group of Allied pilots who test-flew captured German aircraft.

And sixty years ago, whilst Commander of the Royal Naval Air Service station at Brawdy, in West Wales, he found himself chasing a UFO.

Brown provided me with a first hand account of the encounter for the second edition of my book The UFO Files, based upon MoD files at The National Archives, published by Bloomsbury in 2012.

The drama began at dusk on Monday, 6 February 1956, when the station received a call from a schoolteacher who said she could see ‘a flying saucer’ cruising over the West Wales coastline.

In his memoir Wings on My Sleeve (1961) Brown says his first reaction was to laugh, but on checking with a pilot returning from an exercise he was surprised to be told ‘Yes, and I can damn well see it too.’

When one of the air traffic controllers called down to say he could see the object was visible from Brawdy’s control tower, Brown’s scepticism was sorely tested.

‘I decided it was interesting enough to go and have a look at it and leapt off in a Vampire,’ Brown wrote in his memoirs. He climbed to 35,000 feet in the gathering gloom, all the while keeping an eye on the object which was ‘still above me and unidentifiable in the fading light’.

Although visibility was good Brown eventually gave up the pursuit and returned to Brawdy. Later that night further reports flooded into newspaper offices from puzzled observers across South Wales and the Bristol Channel region.

One phone call received by Brown came from an amateur astronomer who took a photograph of the UFO and was adamant it was not a balloon

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A West Wales newspaper account of the UFO flap in 1956 (credit: Pembrokeshire Record Office)

In 2011 Captain Brown told me this conversation led to reject the cosmic research balloon theory ‘which was the only tangible thing I thought it might be’.

In his book he wrote that ‘where he once scoffed, I now have an open mind.’ Today Brown remains open minded but is less certain of his conclusion published in Wings on My Sleeve. He said the truth can be found in his flying logbook entry, completed on landing at RNAS Brawdy, which reads:

‘Flying Saucer Chase! Unidentified metallic object in sky, sighted from ground. Scrambled in perplexing chase after some iridescent shape at very high altitude, which was probably a cosmic research balloon. What else?’

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Farewell to the ‘mystical astronaut’: Edgar Mitchell 1930-2016

Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon who became a celebrity believer in the UFO myth, has died aged 85.

Edgar Mitchell, NASA astronaut and the sixth man to walk on the moon (credit: Wikipedia)

Edgar Mitchell, NASA astronaut and the sixth man to walk on the moon (credit: Wikipedia)

The Guardian newspaper once described the retired NASA astronaut as being an unlikely name on the list of those who believe alien life forms have visited Earth and the facts are being concealed by a massive government cover-up.

But was it fair to compare him to the ‘cranks, paranoid delusionals and editors of the Daily Star (and sometimes all three)’ the paper said were more typical UFO believers?

Dr Edgar Mitchell, had a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering and a Doctor of Science degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Unlike most of us, he was one of the few human beings who has actually left the Earth’s orbit and walked on another celestial body. For two days in February 1971 Mitchell became the sixth human being to walk on the surface of the moon.

As lunar module pilot for the Apollo 14 mission, the former US Navy pilot spent a total of 216 hours and 42 minutes in space. Alongside Alan Shepard, he held the record for the longest moon walk in history, spending nine hours working on the lunar surface.

But in retirement, Mitchell’s achievements as an astronaut were overshadowed by a series of statements he made to the Press about UFOs and aliens. And as the popularity of the UFO and Roswell myths grew he was adopted by the UFO Disclosure movement as one of their chief celebrity supporters.

Most recently, in August 2014, he was quoted by the Daily Mirror as claiming that peace-loving aliens had intervened during the Cold War to prevent an atomic exchange between Russia and the United States. He later retracted this claim, telling The Huffington Post’s Lee Speigel that ‘none of those quotes originated from me’.

Daily Mirror headline from August 2014. Mitchell later denied the quotes came from him

Daily Mirror headline from August 2014. Mitchell later denied the quotes came from him

Yet on a visit to the UK during the summer of 2008 Mitchell was quizzed about UFOs during an interview for the Birmingham-based radio station Kerrang!  Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun was having fun with UFO stories during the  summer ‘silly season’, so aliens were very much on the agenda.

So when interviewer Nick Margerrison dropped a throwaway question ‘did he believe in life on other planets’ he appeared taken aback by the answer he received.

‘Oh yes,’ Mitchell replied. ‘There’s not much question at all that there is life throughout the universe’.

Not only was the astronaut ‘totally sure’ we were not alone, he said he was ‘privileged to be in on the fact that we have been visited on this planet…the UFO phenomenon is real although it’s been covered up by governments for quite a long time’.

If this wasn’t definitive enough Mitchell said he was confident the Roswell UFO crash was also ‘real’ and its occupants were harmless ‘little people that look strange to us’. He claimed ‘a number of other contacts have been real and on-going’, adding ‘it’s all been well covered up by all of our governments for the last sixty years or so’.

Mitchell’s comments were immediately seized upon by the news media who obtained a terse response from his former employers, NASA. They said it did not ‘track UFOs’ and was not involved ‘in any sort of cover-up about alien life on this planet or anywhere in the universe’.

Trying hard not to imply former astronaut was deluded, NASA added: ‘Dr Mitchell is a great American, but we do not share his opinions on this issue’.

And when the Britain’s Ministry of Defence opened its tenth tranche of UFO files at The National Archives in 2013, they revealed how conspiracy buff Richard D. Hall had written to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and George W. Bush, to ask if they had taken any steps to investigate Mitchell’s claims.

Hall wanted to know if Brown believed the British people had ‘the right to know if our world had been contacted by alien civilisations’.

Hall’s letter was passed to the MoD who responded with their standard line. Their interest in UFOs was restricted to their ‘defence significance’. While they did not investigate every comment made about UFOs in the media they had begun a programme to release 160 of their files on the subject.

Other than what had appeared in the media, they had ‘no knowledge’ of the substance of Mitchell’s claims.  Hall found this difficult to believe:

‘Either they already know and don’t want to tell us, or they are mind bogglingly naïve and do not want to find out’.

But if UFOs really had landed and the US government had possession of alien cadavers since 1947, was it really conceivable that its closest ally, Britain, would be kept in complete ignorance of this fact?

More to the point, how much credence should we give to Mitchell’s views?

A little fact-checking reveals that, of the 12 men who walked on the moon, he is the only astronaut to express belief in UFOs and extra-terrestrial life.

Since the 1970s he has  been known as the ‘mystical astronaut’. During the voyage to the moon he conducted a private ESP experiment in which he tried to transmit information to participants on Earth.

On his return he underwent a mystical experience, an epiphany or feeling of oneness with the universe. Leaving NASA he founded a new age organisation called the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), that supported research into a range of paranormal phenomena.

On this basis Mitchell is hardly an unlikely convert to the UFO myth and, more accurately, he fits the profile of someone more likely to believe in aliens. He grew up in town close to Roswell, New Mexico, and absorbed stories from ‘old timers’ who hard heard stories about the crash of a flying saucer in 1947.

Quizzed by journalist Andrew Smith for his 2005 book Moondust, Mitchell admitted he had no ‘personal experience’ with UFOs. But he said his confidence in the reliability of claims about a cover-up of the subject had grown as he got older.

Pressed for specifics of what he knew or thinks he knows about UFOs, the astronaut revealed his sources were all second hand: ‘I’ve talked with many of the people in the system and I’ve observed and kept up with the literature…’

By ‘the literature’, he meant the UFO literature: the books, magazines, TV programmes and documentaries produced by other believers.

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Ed Mitchell, in retirement, became a celebrity believer feted by the UFO industry (credit: The Guardian)

In a more recent interview, published in 2014, Mitchell admitted that his statements about a worldwide cover-up were not based – as many would prefer to believe – on facts but was ‘just speculation on my part’.

The sixth man on the moon is not, of course, the only high profile military figure to adopt esoteric beliefs in retirement. One of the RAF’s finest, Lord Hugh Dowding, mastermind of the Britain’s victory over the Luftwaffe in 1940, was a spiritualist who believed in fairies and flying saucers.

For some, celebrity endorsement of popular legends and myths is sufficient proof of their reality. Mitchell was an exemplar of the ‘credible witness’, someone people tend to believe because of their perceived social status, qualifications, life experiences or other special skills or properties.

But as Professor Gareth Williams said, in his book A Monstrous Commotion (2015), of celebrities who have bought into the Loch Ness Monster myth:

“Being a credible witness has nothing to do with intelligence, social standing or occupation….witnesses may look impressive because they are lords, ladies, counts, commanders, MPs, doctors, engineers or even a Nobel-Prize winner, but titles and qualifications are irrelevant when deciding whether to take them seriously or not.”

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