This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of Britain’s best known UFO legend, when unidentified Christmas lights haunted the sky above Suffolk’s Rendlesham forest.
Books, TV dramas and films have portrayed the sightings reported by groups of US air force personnel who witnessed the puzzling events outside the perimeter of RAF Woodbridge over two nights in December 1980.
Until recently little was known about how the British Ministry of Defence had dealt with the incident.
When the contents of Lt Col Charles Halt’s now famous memo were broken by The News of the World in 1983 the MoD said his report had been passed to ‘staff responsible for the air defence of the UK’ who had decided it was ‘of no defence significance’.
In 2001 the MoD agreed to release their file on the case to me after I used Freedom of Information legislation to apply for access.
But the ‘Rendlesham file’ was mainly a collection of correspondence with members of the public years after the incident itself. It did, however, contain original documents from 1981 that I used to piece together what happened in the corridors of Whitehall.
Now the former MoD civil servant who received Col Halt’s report and worked with RAF experts to establish the facts has agreed to explain exactly how their decision was reached.
Simon Weeden joined the MoD as a junior civil servant after the general election of 1979 when Margaret Thatcher won power for the Conservative party. As a graduate entrant he was assigned to defence secretariat DS8 – the MoD branch responsible for UFOs – in the following year.
Dealing with UFO correspondence was a tiny part of his duties and his department had no resources or remit to investigate hundreds of sightings that reached the ‘UFO desk’, mainly from members of the public. He said:
‘Our role was primarily dealing with correspondence from ministers and members of the public…We didn’t investigate but acted as fact-finders, consulting with experts in areas like radar and air defence.’
Then early in January 1981 an unusual report arrived on Simon’s desk. The subject matter was ‘Unexplained Lights’ and it was signed by Lt Col Charles Halt, USAF deputy base commander at RAF Woodbridge.
Halt described how on 27 December a US security patrol had reported seeing a triangular object in the forest after responding to reports of an unusual lights outside the back gate of the NATO complex.
The following day Halt’s report said unusual marks were found at the ‘landing site’ on the ground and in the trees. Col Halt reported having supervised a second night-time expedition into the forest. On this occasion unusual radiation readings were detected at the ‘landing’ site and Col Halt and his men saw a ‘red sun-like light’ moving through the trees.
Halt’s dramatic account was accompanied by a covering letter signed by Squadron Leader Donald Moreland, the British liaison officer. He forwarded the account of ‘mysterious sightings in the Rendlesham forest near RAF Woodbridge…for your information and action as considered necessary’.
Weeden said that Moreland’s note, dated 15 January – 18 days after the sightings – was the first time MoD was notified of the sensational events.
‘Nearly always the reports we got were from ordinary members of the public,’ Simon said.
‘This one was very unusual in that it came from a military source within our organisation. It is the only one of its kind that I can remember from my time working on UFOs for DS8.’
His first action was to circulate Halt’s report to the specialist branches that he relied upon for guidance on what action, if any, was required.
Among these was a RAF air defence branch, Ops GE, whose experts monitored UK airspace using real-time data from radar stations that defended the East Coast. These were the front line in the ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union at that time.
In the days that followed RAF Squadron Leader Jack Badcock checked Halt’s report with the joint CAA-military Eastern Radar at RAF Watton, near Thetford and with the RAF sector radar HQ at RAF Neatishead in Norfolk.
‘The MOD priority at the time was to establish if this was something that had an air defence aspect…Should we be concerned about this? Did it come up on radar? Did anyone notice anything odd…bearing in mind that the radars at Neatishead and Watton were manned 24 hours every day by skilled radar operators.’
But none of the radar stations checked reported anything unusual on their logs over the Christmas holidays. If there had been an air defence alert, RAF Ops would have known about it.
‘Aircraft were scrambled on a routine basis,’ Simon added. ‘If something is out over the North Sea and you don’t know what it is, it’s not responding, you would send up a Phantom or Lightning to have a look and see what it was.
‘But once we had been through all the basic checks and found there was nothing seen on radar, no obvious explanation, no obvious threat to air defence, we decided no further action was needed.’
Simon did recall talking to his RAF colleagues about other potential explanations. US Air Force night time manoeuvres, people such as poachers moving around in the woods at night with lamps ‘that sort of thing’ were considered.
‘This was quite a flat part of the world and maybe these were lights from quite far away that were shining through the trees,’ he said, referring to the theory – championed by skeptic Ian Ridpath – that the airmen saw the flashing beacon from the Orfordness lighthouse 6-7 miles away.
But the MoD did not investigate UFOs and even though Badcock was told Col Halt had made a tape recording of his adventure in the forest, it was decided not to ask for a copy because it would ‘reveal no better report than that already received’.
Weeden also copied Halt’s report on radiation anomalies to desk officers in the Defence Intelligence staff who had resources to follow-up if required. But although DI55 said they could not explain Halt’s report they decided not to investigate further.
‘Our interest was never in unidentified flying objects as potential spaceships,’ he explained. ‘Unidentified flying objects are exactly that. They are unidentified. They might have lots of natural explanations but we would not put any effort into investigating, to try and sort out exactly what it was once the initial assessment had decided we didn’t need to worry about it’.
Simon Weeden left the MOD many years ago and this event is not uppermost in his mind but, despite the lack of concern at the time, he does not dismiss the UFO phenomenon. After leaving the MoD in 1988 he trained as a clergyman and spent the next 30 years in parish ministry.
‘People do have extraordinary experiences,’ he told me. ‘That’s a fact. So I would never poo-poo those people who say to me they have had things like near-death experiences or felt some kind of angelic presence at times of crisis.
‘I do believe that people have experiences that can’t be explained. But they can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The interpretation depends upon what your viewpoint or standpoint is. If people have a propensity for conspiracy theories or alien manifestations they will interpret them through that filter.’
And Simon’s final word on the Rendlesham Forest UFO mystery 40 years after the events?
‘I think this is obviously something that exercises people’s imaginations. People want to know what the explanation is. I suspect that at the end of it all the explanation is probably going to turn out to be something quite mundane. But I can’t say that definitively; because I just don’t know.’
The 40th anniversary of Britain’s best known UFO legend has also been marked by a BBC News feature here. The article includes quotes from John Burroughs, whose book Weaponisation of an Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, was published earlier this month. John served in the US Air Force for 27 years and was one of the three man patrol that was sent to investigate what was first thought to be a plane crash in the forest beyond the RAF Woodbridge perimeter.
BBC reporter Nic Rigby also interviewed forester Vince Thurkettle who lived in the Rendlesham forest at the time and who was visited by two mysterious men who arrived at the Forestry Commission office late in December and asked if anyone had reported strange lights in the vicinity of the USAF complex.
Vince believes they may have been British officials who had heard rumours about the UFO incident. But it is more likely they were local journalists who had been tipped off by the Suffolk police who had responded to call from RAF Woodbridge in the early hours of Boxing Day morning.
One of the first civilian investigators to begin inquiries into the UFO mystery is Jenny Randles, author of the first book on the legend, Skycrash (1986) and UFO Crash Landing (1998).
Earlier this month I interviewed Jenny along with John Burroughs for a special extended 40th anniversary edition podcast UFO-LORE. Jenny had not spoken to John since 1988 when they last met at UFO conference in Arizona.
The free-flowing discussion that follows touches on many of the more puzzling aspects of the mystery that continues to fascinate and engage people across the world so long after the original events.