New claims in film by the ‘lad who photographed flying saucers’

Alex Birch whose photographs of UFOs puzzled experts on both sides of the Atlantic has released a film about his experiences – that he claims included meetings with the British royal family and a phone conversation with JFK.

In Beyond Perception Sheffield-born Alex says he attended private meetings with Prince Philip, who died age 99 in 2021 and Lord Mountbatten of Burma who asked the then 14-year-old Alex to call him Dickie. Both men were known for their fascination with the UFO mystery at that time.

But in the new film Alex, now 74, also claims he took part in a transatlantic telephone conversation with President John F Kennedy in 1962 after his photo of a fleet of flying saucers made news headlines across the world.

In the 30-minute film Alex says a military car collected him and his father from their home near Sheffield from where they were taken to a US military base. On arrival they met USAF officials and the base commander. During the visit he was taken to an adjoining room where he was put through to a man he believes was JFK.

The man quizzed Alex ‘asking if there was any visible markings on the objects, also how high were the objects and how big they were and many other questions’. He says Kennedy was concerned the Russians had ‘secret weapons and were already exploring space’. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 after launching NASA’s Apollo space programme that put the first men on the moon.

Shortly before the call Alex, then 14 years old, had travelled to London with his father where his black and white photograph and Box Brownie camera were examined by officials at the Air Ministry. A MoD file documenting the meeting was released at The National Archives in the 1990s.

Alex Birch’s photo showing a fleet of UFOs over Mosborough, near Sheffield, in March 1962 (Copyright A. Birch)

After the media furore surrounding this photograph Alex faded from the public eye. But flying saucers, and UFOlogists, continued to haunt him. He was taunted at school and everywhere he went he was known as ‘the lad who had photographed flying saucers.’

So in 1972, when he was 24 years old, he contacted the Daily Express and confessed it was a hoax. He even appeared on TV with the pane of glass on which the ‘saucers’ had been painted. For ten years he had fooled his family, friends and even the Air Ministry who had them tagged as ‘ice crystals’.

The ruse, for according to Alex it was a ruse, worked. Alex says he knew the photo was genuine but his manipulation of the media removed the heat; interest in him diminished and he was able to concentrate on building a career and supporting a family. But his interest in photography remained and over the years he became an accomplished practitioner, entering and wining numerous competitions.

Daily Express, 6 October 1972

Meanwhile his iconic flying saucer photograph continued to be reproduced in books and magazines worldwide. In 1998 Alex, who no longer possessed a copy of the original negative, decided to step back into the public spotlight to reclaim his own copyright on the image. He also wanted the world to know the truth: he really did see, and photograph, flying saucers in 1962.

After a short flurry of media and UFOlogical interest, his U-turn was again quickly forgotten. Alex didn’t care who believed him and, now a grandfather, he believed his adventures in UFOlogy were now a thing of the past.

Until Tuesday, 27 January 2004. On that evening Alex, now 55, was sitting in his bungalow watching TV with his wife when it began snowing heavily. At the time Alex was trying to think of a suitable photograph to enter in his local photographic society’s competition and this unexpected snowfall made him think he might get an unusual night time shot.

Leaving the house at 9.15 pm, without even telling his wife, Alex drove through heavy snow to the market town of Retford, in rural Nottinghamshire, where he parked in the square. The thick snow and the relatively late hour meant the square was completely deserted and silent. Alex spent some time taking a variety of photographs of the square, road and buildings that were covered in snow and reflecting lights from lampposts and buildings. He was using 35mm Fujia Sensia 200ASA reversal film (a slide film).

After using the roll of thirty six frames Alex returned home and shortly afterwards sent the film for processing. When the slides were returned he spent some time looking at them on a small battery operated viewer, trying to identify a suitable slide for entry in his local photography club’s competition. He found three shots that were perfect and then noticed an odd image on one of the slides. To his amazement when he looked closer he saw a UFO, a saucer shaped UFO at that, just to the side of Retford Town Hall. The Town Hall clock fixes the image in time at 23.08.

UFO? Retford, Nottinghamshire, 27 January 2004 (Copyright A Birch)

Alex was naturally keen to tell us about his new photograph. We were, naturally, skeptical. After all, the chances of someone taking a photograph of a genuinely anomalous UFO once are massive. To do so twice in a lifetime would be, well, Fortean. We recalled the furore over Alex’s 1962 photograph, his 1972 confession and his subsequent revelation that it was genuine after all. What was going on?

Alex wasn’t going to let the problems which plagued his 1962 photograph affect this new one and he decided to eschew any publicity. He just wanted to know what he had caught on film. The first time we saw the new UFO image was on a copy of a slide he sent to us.

We thought it was obviously a lens flare; there are numerous lights on lamps and buildings and even though we couldn’t prove it, a lens flare of some kind seemed to be the only logical conclusion. Most tellingly Alex did not see the object whilst taking the photographs and it is axiomatic that an image which is noticed only after processing is almost always a bird, lens flare, camera or film fault. Alex disagreed and told us he firmly believed the image on the film was of an object in the sky:  a real UFO.

Despite the prospect of fresh media attention and money from this photograph Alex wasn’t interested. He wanted to get to the bottom of it privately and, rather than trust the photograph to the care of the UFO community, of whom he has a profound mistrust, he set about investigating it himself.

Sheffield University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy ruled out any celestial or astronomical phenomena and local airfields confirmed there were no aircraft over Retford that night. He then took the slide to the Kodak Laboratories in Lincoln. Their technical analysis ruled out any possibility of lens flare, double exposure, drying stains, re-touching or a host of other possibilities. Indeed, the Kodak analysis found that the UFO image had the same density pattern, colour and grain as the surrounding picture. This suggested to the Kodak analysts that whatever ‘it’ was, it was in the sky when photographed. Robert Smith of Kodak’s labs went so far as to write on the back of the photograph, ‘This image has not been altered or manipulated in any way.’

The News of the World, 2 September 1962

Then he tried his old bete noir, the Ministry of Defence. After several phone calls to the MoD’sWhitehall building Alex made an appointment to see the UFO desk officer, Linda Unwin. She suggested a meeting and told Alex that ‘defence experts’ would be interested in viewing the slide.

A meeting was duly arranged for 9 March 2004 and Alex asked Andy Roberts to accompany him. It is highly unusual for a UFO witness to be interviewed by MoD personnel and even more unusual for them to be invited to visit the MoD Main Building. The last time this had happened was in 1962 when Alex, then a schoolboy, visited the Air Ministry with his father and allowed experts to examine his Box Brownie camera and his other picture of ‘flying saucers.’

The 2004 visit did not go to plan. Alex and Andy were met in the reception area by Linda Unwin and a colleague, who seemed to be unaware of the promised ‘meeting’ or the possibility of defence experts viewing the slide. She was happy to take a copy for analysis, but Alex and Andy got no further than the ornate reception area. Alex believes the meeting was cancelled because he had not told them he was bringing guests (his son in law was also present).

In a follow-up letter Unwin asked for a copy of the negative for scrutiny by a ‘defence imagery analyst.’ Using the Freedom of Information Act we discovered that a copy of the slide was sent by Unwin’s branch to the MoD’s Defence Geographic and Imagery Intelligence Agency (DGIA), based at RAF Brampton in Cambridgeshire. Experts there analyse aerial photographs and other military-sourced images for intelligence purposes. In this case, Alex was told that UFO photographs are ‘not within the normal course of work’ for the imagery experts ‘but [they] have agreed to fit this in around essential defence work.’

The Graphics and Digital Imaging Section completed their assessment on 2 August 2004. A scan at 2,400dpi allowed them to investigate ‘at greater magnification the structure of the anomaly’ but found no indication of reflections or lens flares. The brief report ends with these words: ‘No definitive conclusions can be gathered from evidence submitted, however, it may be coincidental that the illuminated plane of the object passes through the centre of the frame, indicating a possible lens anomaly e.g. a droplet of moisture.’

A page from the DGIA (JARIC) report on analysis of the Retford photograph (Crown Copyright)

Alex claims he has subsequently had other meetings and conversations with MoD personnel, but maintains that neither he nor they are any closer to resolving what he has captured on film. When we visited Alex in the spring of 2007 he was enthusiastic about his new photograph and remained convinced that, based on the evidence from Kodak and other experts, he had captured an unknown aerial object on film.

But now there was more. Alex had previously told us that he had, over the years, been subject to what can only be described as psychic phenomena. He had been plagued by poltergeists and bizarre audio and electromagnetic anomalies. Lights in the sky appeared to follow him around and on one occasion he had been struck by lightning. These phenomena had been witnessed by other members of his family who were happy to confirm it to us.

Alex was now telling us that there was something else unusual about his second saucer photograph. He had experienced flashbacks to that snowy night in Retford; flashbacks involving visions of a gigantic saucer hovering over the square. He also suspected there may have been a period of missing time.

Alex with his 1962 photo and Box Brownie camera (Copyright David Clarke)

What to make of all this? Is Alex a complete fantasist who has repeatedly tried to fool the media, UFO investigators and possibly his family for over 45 years? The simple fact is, we just don’t know. It would be easy to dismiss Alex as a hoaxer and a fantasist, partly because everyone ‘knows’ real UFOs don’t exist and partly because of his (later retracted) admission that he had hoaxed the 1962 photograph.

But no-one could prove exactly how – if – his original photo was hoaxed and no-one, not even the MoD’s imagery experts can say with certainty what is on the photograph he took on 27 January 2004.

Alex has thought long and hard before allowing his second photograph to be revealed to a wider audience. He is not interested in public exposure or in financial gain, although this does not rule him out as a hoaxer. He is only concerned that his stories are told factually and objectively. As skeptical forteans we have known Alex for more than 20 years and find him and his family to be completely normal, open and honest. We are perplexed. But there has to be an answer, now matter how prosaic or extraordinary. So what is it?

Speaking after the release of his film on YouTube and Vimeo, Alex told us:

‘Its basically a documentary which explains what happened within my life from early childhood regarding UFO’s and the paranormal. Although the doc only scratches the surface and there is much more to tell. I had to think long and hard about publishing certain things within the documentary film. I am now hardened towards the remarks of skeptics, trolls, and those who seek a living from defaming people, when in reality they know absolutely zero about me.’

Text copyright David Clarke and Andy Roberts 2022

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3 Responses to New claims in film by the ‘lad who photographed flying saucers’

  1. Michael Newark says:

    The Retford Town Hall ufo is a Stoney Iron Meteorite, and the trail through the sky of its flight. The other picture has no influence of alien craft at all, or any life force when I dowse them. The claim getting two ufo pictures is unheard of, I have taken hundreds since 2002 over Bedworth and Coventry. Both large cylinders, and small remote saucer type alien craft with large black windows pass over very often. Any mobile phone will get good pictures with its CCD device inside of ufos, our eyes will not see past its cloaking, but any camera can. The US tic – taks seen near many war ships in the Pacific are the same as the ones near Bedworth, sometimes as many as 240 are released at one go from hidden cylinders.

  2. It’s interesting to compare your current opinion of Alex Birch with what the two of you wrote about him in 2001. Can you explain why your views have changed so much, and how a great many facts that used to be important have become so trivial they’re no longer worth mentioning?

    • Good question. I don’t think my views expressed in 2001 with regards to the 1962 image have changed. But Alex’s story now includes his 2nd photo from 2004 and the analysis that was carried out by MoD. Whatever one thinks of the 1960s scenario whatever he photographed in Retford is interesting in its own right. What are the chances of a person photographing anomalous objects twice in a lifetime and having them examined by MoD on both occasions? Maybe he is making it all up, but if so for what reason? He certainly has not made any money out of this and his family appear to believe his stories. Is he doing it for attention? If so it has not been very successful outside of UFOlogy (he has never appeared on TV chat shows or been invited to speak at UFO conventions since 1962). So I’m beyond the is it true/is it false stage and simply regard Alex’s story as a ‘good story’ that deserves to be told. I leave others to make up their own mind. I hope that answers your question?

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