The Rendlesham Forest incident challenges Roswell as the most influential UFO legend in popular culture.
Next Christmas marks the 40th anniversary of the story that began on Boxing Day morning, 26 December 1980. This marked the beginning of three nights when USAF personnel saw ‘unexplained lights’ in the sky – and near the ground – beyond the perimeter of RAF Woodbridge, part of a NATO complex on the Suffolk coast near Ipswich.
Dozens of books, articles, newspaper stories, TV documentaries (and a forthcoming drama series) have riffed on the basic story that has grown and mutated with every passing year. As the legend moves into its fourth decade there is an ever growing cast of story-tellers and alleged experiencers, all armed with rival versions of the story. Each personality has their own group of followers ready to engage in flame-wars to win the credibility battle with rival story-tellers.
And like every good legend the ongoing debate about what is true and what is false between the believers and the skeptics helps to keeps the story alive and relevant. Whereas debate over Roswell is now stale and moribund, Rendlesham – often dubbed Britain’s Roswell – is full of latent energy, mainly because unlike its great grandaddy all the key eyewitnesses are alive and well, and always ready to intervene in the debate.
It is this debate – concerning the status of the few clear facts and the elaborate legend that has grown up around the rival narratives – that is examined superbly in an intriguing new documentary Codename Rendlesham, due for release early in January 2020.
Codename Rendlesham is the product of more than a decade of work by film-maker Adrian Frearson of independent documentary makers Chill Factor Films.
It is billed as a deconstruction of the legend and it performs this function very well during the course of one hour running time.
It avoids the more sensational tropes that have emerged more recently, particularly those concerning alleged cover-ups and contactee stories. Instead, it concentrates on the how the story first emerged and how it developed, placing factual evidence under a withering examination.
News of the events began in true urban legend style as a series of rumours spread by the airmen to local resident, and UFO-believer, Brenda Butler. Eventually it reached investigator Jenny Randles and the UFO literature. But even then it took another two years for it to break into public consciousness with the release, under the US Freedom of Information Act, of Lt Col Charles Halt’s famous memo to the British Ministry of Defence.
Halt’s memo was splashed across the front page of the now defunct News of the World in October 1983 and the rest, as they say, is history – or legend.
Codename Rendlesham works through the evolution of the legend in satisfying, bite-sized portions, starting with the early investigations and the emergence of the Halt memo and Larry Warren’s story, It provides a clear account of the most satisfying explanation for the events put forward by astronomer Ian Ridpath – who was one of the first to investigate the story on site.
Ian’s theory combines a number of natural phenomena – a fireball meteor and the optical effect of the Orfordness lighthouse, seen from the dark forest. It is simple and consistent with the fact that – as I explain in the documentary – 99% of UFO experiences have been explained as ordinary things seen in extraordinary circumstances.
In the film Adrian spends some time talking to me at The National Archives where I guide him through the contents of the MoD file on the incident – pointing out some of the key problems with the dating and interpretation of ‘evidence’ that has muddied the waters for four decades. I obtained a full copy of the file in 2000 using the precursor to the UK’s Freedom of Information Act and went on to become the consultant for the release of the remaining MoD UFO files at The National Archives from 2008-13.
The film also examines the many ‘hoaxes and high jinks’ that have emerged as the legend grew and metastasized. These include the alleged involvement of the US 67th ARS space recovery unit and, more recently, the April Fool’s joke planted by someone who wants us to believe the whole event was a prank played by members of the British army’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) in revenge for their rough treatment at the hands of the US guards at the twin-base complex. This story is still doing the rounds and has been recently resurrected by BBC film-maker Simon Holland in a new YouTube series on Rendlesham here.
Unlike many other more lavishly funded documentaries Codename Rendlesham examines the pop culture background to the legend. It picks out links between the story-tellers from Rendlesham and the plots of science fiction films that were released before the events.
Despite being immersed in the subject of years I found these threads provided fresh and unexpected insights – including the low-budget alien crash/conspiracy flik Hangar 18 and the special edition of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Both were showing in cinemas in nearby Ipswich at the time. How many of the young airmen and women at the base saw these films?
Ultimately the story of the Rendlesham forest incident is a microcosm of the UFO myth – a modern myth of things seen in the sky (and, allegedly, on the ground).
Codename Rendlesham reaches no definitive conclusions simply because there are none to be found. But it succeeds in bringing home the sheer Fortean weirdness of the legend and the people who became caught up in it, many of whom have had their lives changed forever.
The idea that visitors from another world – or from our future – landed in the bleak midwinter of a English forest has an everlasting appeal. It triggers something deep within the our imagination and forces us to engage with the deeper mysteries of the universe, which is why myths continue to have such universal appeal.