If you go down to the woods (again)

The Rendlesham forest UFO mystery is back in the headlines, after the Sunday Telegraph published a summary of my exclusive interview with the former Bentwaters Base Commander, Ted Conrad.

Col Conrad, now retired to his native Texas, has broken a quarter of a century of silence to reveal details of his investigation of the “unexplained lights” reported by airmen in the forest, outside RAF Woodbridge, Suffolk, in 1980.

Conrad claims his investigation was the only official inquiry conducted into the strange sightings apart from the RAF’s lack-lustre checks on air defence radars two weeks after the events. The American inquiry concluded there was no hard evidence that would even justify a report to USAFE headquarters at Ramstein. Instead, Conrad’s deputy Charles Halt was instructed to write a report for the British Ministry of Defence. This was a clever move that effectively consigned it to oblivion.

Halt’s report became the famous “Halt memo”, a copy of which was obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act in 1983. It later appeared as a front-page splash ‘UFO Lands in Suffolk’ in The News of the World, at that time edited by Derek Jameson.

As Jasper Copping’s article in the Sunday Telegraph explains, Conrad says the story told by some of his men, including Halt, has been embellished from the original account of lights in the forest into a gigantic conspiracy by the US and UK to hide evidence of ET interest in our nuclear weapons. Conrad’s view is shared by a number of his colleagues who have been reluctant to speak on the record. His successor as Base Commander, Col Sam Morgan, also looked into the story and concluded it was “just a bunch of guys screwing around in the woods.”

The irony is this wasn’t just an ordinary “bunch of guys”. It was a group of airmen tasked with the perimeter security of a nuclear-armed NATO airbase.

Nevertheless, when I questioned Conrad, he remained open minded about possible explanations for the incident. But he felt the chances of a landing by extra-terrestrials was about as likely as a covert visit from the Russians.  As the British MoD pointed out, if this was a secret visit, why announce it with brilliant lights?

Col Conrad also mentioned the possibility of an elaborate hoax, but I think that is equally unlikely. Speculation has been rife that the events were a cover for some secret test involving hi-tech weaponry, the crash of an experimental aircraft or an accident involving nuclear missiles. The plain facts remain that after 30 years not a single piece of hard evidence has surfaced to support any of these wild theories.

To quote Sherlock Holmes, “when you have eliminated the impossible what remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

The answer must therefore be found in what the British intelligence UFO study Condign described as “natural but not unusual phenomena and natural but relatively rare and not completely understood phenomena”. What we now know is that Col Conrad and his men saw no lights in the sky, even whilst Halt’s team were engaged on his own private expedition into the forest outside the base perimeter. Furthermore, despite claims to the contrary, checks on air defence radars at RAF Watton, whilst the sightings were ongoing, found no trace of an unidentified flying object.

The conclusion has to be that whatever Halt and his men saw, it was only visible in the immediate vicinity of the forest. Furthermore the UFOs were invisible to radar and to Halt’s boss at RAF Bentwaters, who was watching the sky and in direct contact with his deputy by radio. Remember this was the point at which Halt has subsequently claimed the aliens began shining beams onto the weapons storage area at the twin base complex. Col Conrad was outside his quarters at RAF Bentwaters with his wife and other senior officers. According to their story, despite a clear, cloudless night with a 360 degree field of view, they saw nothing.

Logic dictates that we must be dealing with either some form of transient natural phenomena, such as a mirage or will o’the wisp, or a complex mis-perception of the Orfordness Lighthouse and/or other light sources. The explanation favoured by astronomer Ian Ridpath is, in my view, the correct one. I’m reminded of what Suffolk police inspector Mike Topliss told author Georgina Bruni:

“The immediate area [is] swept by powerful light beams from a landing beacon at RAF Bentwaters and the Orfordness lighthouse. I know from personal experience that at night, in certain weather and cloud conditions, these beams were very pronounced and certainly caused visual effects.”

Similar optical phenomena caused a series of shipwrecks on the Durham coastline of northeastern England during the 1860s (see my article here).

It is unecessary to invoke aliens, time travellers, extra-dimensional demons or fantasies from the world of James Bond to explain the Rendlesham UFOs. When I was approached by Jasper Copping for a position statement on Rendlesham, I said I didn’t think anyone, least of all Col Conrad, doubts that Halt and his men saw something unusual in the woods. They had an extraordinary experience. And that experience remains extraordinary, regardless of whether ultimately it was caused by the Orfordness lighthouse or an alien spacecraft.

The Rendlesham mystery (and it remains a human mystery, even if exotic phenomena were not involved) is a textbook example of a contemporary legend, based upon real extraordinary experiences, for these reasons:

  • The story has grown, in the re-telling, from Halt’s straightforward, if bizarre, account of “unexplained lights” into a complex narrative involving missing time, conspiracies by secret elites and messages from time travellers.
  • The accounts by eye-witnesses confirm my view that whatever the source of individual experiences, the way we report and interpret those experiences creates the basis for the UFO myth perpetuated by the media (which is the basis of the Psycho Social Hypothesis).
  • The scene of the ‘encounter’ in Rendlesham Forest has become a pilgrimage site for those who want to believe.
  • Like Roswell, the Rendlesham legend has developed what Tim Printy calls its own “holy relics and prophets.”

What continues to fascinate me about this living legend is that here we had, at the height of the Cold War, airmen we relied upon to defend us caught up in what appears to resemble a real-life version of the film, The Blair Witch Project.  Effectively, for a few hours they were away with the fairies. Forests have always been mysterious places that provide access to the Otherworld. The fact this happened in the present day makes no difference.

The Rendlesham forest incident is folklore in the making.

Copyright David Clarke 2011

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2 Responses to If you go down to the woods (again)

  1. Frosted Flake says:

    “Effectively, for a few hours they were away with the fairies.”

    Umm, yes. Recall the film, Dr. Stangelove. by Kubrick, starring Peter Sellers and Peter Sellers. Consider that the nighttime forest is not the only place one might become confused. Marvel that despite all the possibilities for catastrophic human error surrounding the 50,000 or so strategic weapons at one time or another pointed one place or another and despite the fact that the strategic imperative has always been that these weapons WOULD be used if it APPEARED “necessary”, nevertheless we have collectively avoided accidentally killing everyone.

    One might be inspired to visit a church. On the other hand lies the impulse to consider how we get ourselves into such ridicules situations.

  2. John Bartram says:

    The Rendlesham forest account has been listed as one of the world’s most convincing UFO cases; I used the list to prompt my own thinking of them and in the case of Rendlesham forest, I was able to assure myself that an alien encounter was most unlikely.
    David Clarke and ASSAP have progressed thinking on UFOs very considerably and I like very much how they are able to associate this phenomenon with the general field of the paranormal. “…away with the fairies.” sums it up rather well.

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