The fog of war is an ideal breeding ground for stories and rumours of mysterious or miraculous events and the cataclysmic circumstances of the First World War are no exception. Wartime legends such as the Angel of Mons – visions which are said to have appeared in the sky to protect British soldiers from the Germans in 1914 – were widely circulated and believed during the conflict and have become part of folklore in its aftermath.
The subject of this article is a story that is second only to the Angel of Mons in its popularity and longevity, particularly in the literature of UFOlogy. It concerns an entire regiment of British troops which it has been claimed were spirited away by a “mysterious cloud” from the middle of one of the fiercest battles of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Even today questions and queries about the “mysterious disappearance” of the soldiers are frequently encountered on Internet newsgroup discussions dedicated to UFOs and alien abductions. Few of the questioners appear to be aware that the fate of the soldiers was the subject of a Government investigation that involved a real cover-up, not of alien visitations but of a wartime atrocity.
The link between the disappearance of the soldiers and UFOs emerged not – as many believe – during the war itself but in 1965, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Allied assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula. It was during a reunion of veterans who took part in the campaign that three former sappers from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force described a “strange incident” they observed during the most severe fighting at Suvla Bay. Also in attendance was a UFOlogist, Gordon Tuckey, who felt the story was so interesting it should be recorded for posterity.
One of the three, Frederick Reichart, signed a statement that declared how, on a morning he identified as 28 August 1915, they saw six or eight odd-looking “loaf of bread” shaped clouds, light grey in colour and all exactly alike, hovering in the sky above a position known as Hill 60 held by the Turks. At the time the men were in trenches on Rhododendrum Spur that was 300ft above the fighting around the hill. As they watched the peculiar-looking clouds remained perfectly still and never changed position despite the presence of a prevailing wind. Beneath them was another cloud, more dense and solid-looking, that appeared to be 800 ft in length and 200ft high. It appeared to be straddling a dry creek bed or sunken road. From a distance of around 2,500 yards the men then saw what appeared to be an entire British regiment, marching up the sunken road that led through the valley directly towards ‘Hill 60.’ The statement continued:
“… when they arrived at this cloud, they marched straight into it, with no hesitation, but no one ever came out to deploy and fight at ‘Hill 60.’ About an hour later, after the last of the file had disappeared into it, this cloud very unobtrusively lifted off the ground and, like any fog or cloud would, rose slowly until it joined the other similar clouds…. On viewing them again, they all looked alike ‘as peas in a pod.’ All this time, the group of clouds had been hovering in the same place, but as soon as the singular ‘ground’ cloud had risen to their level, they all moved away northwards….In a matter of about three quarters of an hour they had all disappeared from view.”
In his statement the sapper made a direct link between this vision and rumours the men heard afterwards about the disappearance of an entire British regiment who were recorded as “missing” or “wiped out” during the attack on the hill. He identified the missing regiment as “the First Fourth Norfolks” and added:
“…on Turkey surrendering in 1918, the first thing Britain demanded of Turkey was the return of this regiment. Turkey replied that she had neither captured this Regiment, nor made contact with it, and did not know that it existed. A British Regiment in 1914-18 consisted of any number between 400 and 800 men. Those who observed this incident vouch for the fact that Turkey never captured that Regiment, nor made contact with it.”
In fact the “First Fourth” were actually a battalion of the Norfolk regiment and consisted of 266 officers and men. This was the just the first error to creep into the story that was soon to puzzle and fascinate UFOlogists across the world. Reichart’s statement first appeared in a small circulation UFO magazine called Spaceview, published in New Zealand.
Another more sensational version, attributed to “22 eyewitnesses” from the ANZAC forces, was published by Brad Steiger in a paperback book called Strangers from the Skies published in 1966 (a more detailed account was published in Flying Saucers are Hostile, by the same author, in 1967). In this account the sappers’ statement was corroborated by an extract from an “official history” of the Gallipoli campaign which the authors claimed confirmed the Norfolks were swallowed up by an “unseasonable fog.”
It said the fog had reflected the sun’s rays in such a way that artillery observers were dazzled by it and were unable to fire in support of the infantry.
During the late 1960s the mystery of the “Vanishing Regiment” began to capture the imagination of UFO writers both in Britain and America who were collecting evidence of cases where it was believed humans had been abducted by extraterrestrials. During the years that followed the story was frequently republished, with new details added or others taken away, to make it a better read and during this process the account became so distorted it was difficult to reconcile it with the original version which had appeared in Spaceview. In some of the new versions the mysterious cloud became a giant cross, and in another the whole incident was relocated from Suvla Bay in Turkey to Uvla Bay in Australia!
The most popular theory remained that the men had been kidnapped by a UFO hidden within the mysterious cloud that was seen by the New Zealand soldiers. This idea was a personal favourite of the veteran UFOlogist and author Brinsley le Poeur Trench (Lord Clancarty) who included it in his book Mysterious Visitors, published in 1973. The UFO link was also promoted by the French computer scientist Dr Jacques Vallee who listed the “vanished regiment” in a catalogue of close encounters with flying saucers that was published as an appendix to his book, Passport to Magonia, in 1969.
So what was it that the three New Zealand soldiers saw that fateful day in 1915? Did UFOs or mysterious aerial phenomena really play a part in the disappearance of a battalion of British soldiers at Gallipoli? And if that was the case, which battalion was it and what really happened to them? Despite the confusion that has surrounded these events for decades, it is now possible to use primary documents – including the War Diaries of the soldiers involved in the campaign – to discover the truth.
Firstly it is necessary to understand the historical background to the Gallipoli campaign. This was a second front opened by the English and French forces in an attempt to break the deadlock on the Western Front and to relieve pressure on their ally Russia whose forces were suffering setbacks on the Eastern Front. The campaign was fought by the Allies to control the Dardenelles which is a narrow 40 mile channel connecting the Mediterranean with the Black Sea. The Gallipoli Peninsula, through which the channel ran, was controlled by Turkey which in 1915 was allied to Germany. The Allied plan was to relieve pressure on Russia by landing troops on the peninsula to capture Constantinople and then force Turkey out of the war. The landings, in April, were preceded by a naval bombardment and at first it seemed the plan might succeed. However, hesitation and bad judgement on the part of the Allies, combined with stubborn resistance by the Turks, led to more stalemate and appalling loss of life.
Among the hundreds of thousands of Allied troops sent to Gallipoli were two battalions of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, the 1/4th and the 1/5th (Territorial), the former being wrongly referred to as a regiment in Reichart’s statement. The Norfolks left Liverpool aboard the SS Aquitainia on 29 July and arrived at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli on 10 August 1915. Just two days later the 1/5th battalion were ordered to clear Turkish positions on the Anafarta Plain prior to the Allied advance. Their sister battalion, the 1/4th waited in reserve and were not involved in the events that followed. The outcome was typical of the poor planning which characterized the whole campaign. The attack was to be made in daylight without adequate maps against the well-prepared Turks, who were firmly dug in along a ridge of hills overlooking the bay. The enemy were armed with machine guns and supported by dozens of snipers, many of them teenage girls, camouflaged and hidden in trees. The Norfolk battalion was made up of 16 officers and 250 men and was led by a veteran of the campaign in the Sudan, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Horace Proctor-Beauchamp. As they left their positions, the 1/5th battalion were joined by hundreds of other British soldiers from battalions of the Suffolk and Hampshire regiments.
The attack quickly turned into a massacre. For some reason during the advance the Norfolks turned slightly to the right, opening up a gap between them and the other British troops from whom they had become separated. As the exhausted Norfolks fixed bayonets and prepared to charge the Turkish positions on the Kavak Tepe ridge they were picked off by snipers and mown down by machine gun fire. Lt-Col Beauchamp was last seen leading his doomed men into a burning forest from which they never emerged. As night fell the few survivors, wounded and exhausted, began to filter back to the British positions at Suvla Bay. The battalion War Diary held at the National Archives records the following under the date 12 August 1915:
“163rd Brigade made a frontal attack on strong Turkish position. 5th Norfolks on right met a strong opposition and suffered heavily. Lost 22 officers and about 350 men. Held our lines during the night in spite of heavy enemy fire.”
In December 1915, as the Allies prepared to abandon the campaign, the Commander in Chief of the British forces, Sir Ian Hamilton, sent his “final dispatch from the Dardanelles” to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener. In it, he accounted for the loss of the Norfolks in the following way. I have italicized the words that seem to emphasize the inexplicable nature of the incident:
“…in the course of the fight…there happened a very mysterious thing…against the yielding forces of the enemy Colonel Sir H. Beauchamp, a bold, self-confident officer, eagerly pressed forward, followed by the best part of the battalion. The fighting grew hotter…[and] at this stage many men were wounded or grew exhausted…but the Colonel, with 16 officers and 250 men kept pushing forward, driving the enemy before him…nothing more was seen or heard of any of them. They charged into the forest and were lost to sight or sound. Not one of them ever came back…”
Hamilton’s account must have been based upon reports from British officers who had watched from a distance as the disaster unfolded. One of these was a brigade major, Lt-Col Villiers Stuart, who watched the Norfolk’s attack through field glasses. He wrote:
“On the evening of 12 August 1915 I was observing the low ground in the neighbourhood of Anafarta Ova…[at] a distance of about 2000 to 2500 yards, when, to my surprise I saw what appeared to be about a battalion of our troops advancing rapidly, and apparently unsupported towards the enemy positions on Kvak Tepe. Knowing that there was a considerable concentration of Turks in a gully…on the left flank of the advance, I anticipated trouble and got the two mountain guns…ready for action to try to protect the left flank of the advancing troops. Almost immediately the Turks debouched from their cover and attacked our men in the flank and rear. It was soon too dark to see the issue of the fight, but at the time I was afraid they would be destroyed.”
The actual fate of the battalion was discovered in 1919 at the end of the war when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission began searching the battlefields at Gallipoli for the remains of soldiers. There an investigator discovered a cap badge belonging to a soldier of the Norfolk regiment hidden in sand 800 yards behind the Turkish lines at Suvla Bay. This led the commanding officer to write home triumphantly: “We have found the 5th Norfolks.” When this news reached the War Office they sent a chaplain who had served during the campaign back to Gallipoli to investigate. The Rev Charles Pierrepoint Edwards examined the area where the cap badge had been uncovered and found a mass grave containing 180 bodies, from which the remains of 122 were identified as members of the “Vanished Battalion.” The remains included those of their commanding officer, Lt-Col Beuchamp, who was identified by the distinctive shoulder flashes on his uniform. Of the 266 officers and men reported as missing, 144 remained unaccounted for, but a number of these had been captured and some had subsequently died in the notorious Turkish prison camps. A few had survived captivity to describe what had really happened, but their stories did not emerge until half a century later.
From 1965 when the New Zealand soldiers first spoke publicly about the events they had witnessed, the story of the Vanishing Regiment would not go away. A decade after the story appeared in the UFO press the British Ministry of Defence and the Imperial War Museum began receiving letters asking for official confirmation of what appeared to be a mass kidnapping by extraterrestrials.
In 1998 it resurfaced again in new document – the “Ist Annual Report” – attributed to MJ-12 the super secret panel of eminent US scientists and officials which some believe was responsible for concealing wreckage of the Roswell UFO crash in 1947. The story appears in a list of strange historical incidents linked to UFOs as part an annex to the document, apparently dated 1952. The relevant passage reads:.
“On August 21 1915, members of the New Zealand Army Corps’ First Field Company signed sworn statements that they saw the One-Fourth Norfolk Regiment disappear in a unusually thick brown cloud which seemed to move and rose upward and vanished. There were no traces of the regiment nor their equipment. No explanation can be found in the historical records of the Imperial War Museum archives.”
In UFO Historical Revue (January 2003) US researcher Barry Greenwood revealed how this paragraph was riddled with errors that proved the whole document was a fake. The statement by the three soldiers was, as we have seen, first made not in 1915 but in 1965. Therefore, it could not have been referred to in a document written in America 1952, 13 years before it was made! It seemed that whoever had faked the MJ-12 papers had failed to do their homework and had based their dossier not on official files but the contents of paperback books on UFOs published in the 1960s.
In addition, those responsible for this fake had not sought to check the facts described in Reichart’s statement and were content to repeat errors such as the use of the term “One-Fourth Norfolk Regiment”. Ironically the MJ-12 document included the claim that “no explanation” of the Gallipoli incident can be found in the records of the British Imperial War Museum. In fact, the museum was one of the first to reveal the facts behind the story in a special “fact sheet” published in 1977. The Museum found that the “First Fourth Norfolks” identified by the New Zealand sappers were not a regiment, but a battalion that formed part of the Norfolk Regiment. Their movements were accounted for by the war diaries, and although they took part in several actions at Gallipoli, they did not vanish and all the men remained in active service for the remainder of the war!
Quite clearly, if any British battalion could be described as having vanished it was the 1/4th’s sister battalion, the 1/5ths who, as we have seen, were wiped out in the attack on Turkish positions on 12 August 1915. These were the men referred to by Sir Ian Hamilton in his dispatch as having charged into a forest never to be seen again. But why would the ANZAC soldiers make fundamental errors such as the name of the battalion and the date of the event they witnessed?
The answer lies in the fact that half a century separated the events and 1965 when Reichart first made his statement to UFOlogists. His original account refers not to 12 August but to 28 August 1915, but he did not keep a diary and accepted the date was a guess because: “I lost count of time during that week of severe fighting.” Furthermore, historian Nigel McCrery points out that the sappers were over four and a half miles from the attack on 12 August and “even with binoculars their power of observation must have been phenomenal if they could see through the dust and conditions of a major battle, and identify the units taking part in the attack.”
McCrery concluded the ANZAC soldiers had not invented their story but were describing something that happened during a completely different action that happened not on 12 or 28 August, but on 21 August 1915. This date marked the opening of a massive Allied attack upon Turkish positions on Hill 60 involving 3,000 Allied soldiers. The involvement of Hill 60 does in fact sit more comfortably with Reichart’s description as the sappers did have a clear view of this objective from their positions. The battle to capture Hill 60 from the Turks continued for a week and again ended in confusion and disaster. Sir John Milbanke VC who led the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry into the attack could not see the Turks because of a thick “pearly mist” which hid them, but the enemy could see the advancing Allies plainly. Of the many casualties in the slaughter that followed, Milbanke was killed and few of the Allied force survived to tell the tale. Was this “pearly mist” the mysterious cloud witnessed by the ANZAC sappers from their trenches?
Another clue to emerge was the testimony of another New Zealand soldier, Gerald Wilde, who wrote to Spaceview in 1966. Wilde witnessed the attack on Hill 60 but did not see any mysterious clouds. However, he did remember how after the fighting died down there was a persistent rumour that “a company of Sherwood Foresters completely disappeared in a cloud of smoke and apparently no trace of them was ever found.” Was this the same rumour overheard by Reichart that he and his fellow sappers connected with the disappearance of the “First Fourth Norfolks”?
The final answer can be found in a report compiled by a Royal Commission on Gallipoli appointed by the British Government during the war. This was completed in 1916 but the report was kept secret and the full version was not released at the Public Record Office until 1965. This was the 50th anniversary of the campaign and the same year in which Reichart’s made his statement to Spaceview. Could this really be a coincidence? Intriguingly, contained in the report is Sir Ian Hamilton’s “final dispatch” and on the page facing his account of the 1/5th Norfolk’s disappearance is a paragraph which reads:
“By some freak of nature Suvla Bay and Plain were wrapped in a strange mist on the afternoon of 21 August. This was sheer bad luck as we had reckoned on the enemy’s gunners being blinded by the declining sun and upon the Turks’ trenches being shown up by the evening sun with singular clearness. Actually, we could hardly see the enemy lines this afternoon, whereas to the westward targets stood out in strong relief against the luminous light.”
Was Hamilton’s account the same as the extract from the “official history” referred to by Brad Steiger in 1967? The reference to “a freak of nature” and “a strange mist” appears too similar to the incident witnessed by the ANZAC soldiers to be unconnected. In my opinion they confused an incident they witnessed during the attack on Hill 60 with the rumours they overheard about the disappearance of a British regiment during the battle. The troops they saw marching into the freak mist referred to by Hamilton were probably the Sherwood Rangers, but in the fog of war their identity became confused with the First Fifth Norfolks who had been wiped out in a futile attack a week earlier.
As the years passed the two events became combined as one memory and as Nigel McCrery noted: “….once the story had been told it undoubtedly became embellished [and] with each re-telling… over fifty years [it] became totally confused.”
In the aftermath of the First World War the disappearance of a whole battalion in one assault was dwarfed by the total losses of nine million soldiers from both sides. The campaign to capture the Dardenelles lasted more than eight months and cost the lives of 34,000 British and Commonwealth troops before withdrawal was ordered in December 1915. To place this in context, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s memorials contain the names of 771,982 dead of the two world wars who have no known grave. Of those who died in the Gallipoli campaign a large percentage have no known grave and as the historian Paul Begg commented: “…when faced with such staggering numbers is the fate of 144 missing in one of the worst theatres of war imaginable really all that mysterious?”
In itself the legend of the Vanishing Battalion was just one of a collection of wartime rumours concerning mysterious clouds that shielded soldiers during battle. The reason why the Gallipoli story has endured is partly because of its incorporation into the UFO literature, but also because many of the missing men were Royal servants recruited from the Sandringham estate of the King George V. Among them was the land agent Captain Frank Beck who led a company of territorials into the battle. After the war ended a gold watch belonging to him was recovered from a Turkish officer and this was eventually presented to Beck’s daughter on her wedding day. In the 1990s the Royal connections of the men were thoroughly researched by historian Nigel McCrery. The ‘royal’ theme was also used as the basis for a dramatic adaptation of the events that was recreated in the BBC TV dramatization, All the King’s Men (BBC TV 1999), with actor David Jason playing the role of Captain Frank Beck.
In his book The Vanished Battalion (1991) McCrery revealed new evidence that explained why the full facts discovered by the clergyman who visited the mass grave were not revealed in 1919. He found there was evidence of an official cover-up but this was not to hide evidence of an extraterrestrial kidnapping. In this case it was to conceal evidence of both a military blunder and a war crime. For it emerged that of the bodies discovered that many had been shot through the head as the Turkish soldiers did not like to take prisoners of war. His evidence was backed up by the story of a British survivor of the massacre, who testified before his death in 1969 that he had seen Turkish soldiers bayoneting wounded and helpless prisoners and shooting others in the wood where the battalion disappeared. The survivor escaped only because of the intervention of a German officer who saved his life and he spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp.
It appears that the Rev Charles Pierrepoint Edwards concealed this disturbing evidence in his report to the War Office so as to spare the feelings of the families and the King, who continued to believe their loved ones died gallantly in battle with the enemy. Furthermore, McCrery points out that Sir Ian Hamilton – the Allied commander responsible for the campaign – had an personal interest in making the disappearance of the battalion appear more mysterious than it actually was. His dispatch to Kitchener suggested the disappearance of the battalion was inexplicable. During the campaign the King personally telegraphed Hamilton asking about the fate of Captain Beck and his Sandringham company. McCrery asks:
“What was he to say? ‘Sorry, but I’ve just sacrificed them all quite needlessly in yet another botched attack?’ His best course of action, I believe, was to create an air of mystery and thereby stop any form of enquiry into their loss or his leadership.”
Shortly after the disaster at Gallipoli Hamilton was relieved of his command and never offered another. In the years that followed, the story he had set loose would become transformed into a fully-fledged legend of the war and a UFO mystery that simply would not die.
*See my book on First World War mysteries, The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians, published by John Wiley (London) in April 2004, for a detailed discussion of this and other WW1 legends.
Imperial War Museum Information Sheet No 6 ‘The Vanishing Norfolks’ (undated)
The National Archives: WO 95/4325 (War Diaries, Norfolk Regiment); AIR 2/19117 (UFOs: BBC Radio Oxford programme 1972); AIR 20/12966 (UFOs: Parliamentary interest 1978).
Begg, Paul, ‘The First-Fourth Norfolk & the Kidnapping Cloud’, Fortean Times 27, 1978, pgs 35-38
Begg, Paul, Into Thin Air, London: David and Charles 1979
Dutton, Philip, ‘Suvla: The attack of the 163rd Brigade, 12th August 1915’, Imperial War Museum/Australian War Memorial Battlefield Study Tour to Gallipoli, September 2000
Greenwood, Barry (editor) ‘Majestic-12 Follies Returns’, UFO Historical Review, Issue No 3, January 1999 available at http://www.cufon.org/uhr/uhrndx.htm
Hinfelaar, Henk, ‘Incident at Gallipoli: Was the regiment abducted?’ Spaceview 45, Sept-Oct 1965, copy supplied by Murray Bott.
Hinfelaar, Henk, ‘Research on incident at Gallipoli’, Spaceview 47, Feb-March 1966 – copy supplied by Murray Bott
McCrery, Nigel, All The King’s Men, London: Simon & Schuster 1992; republished by Pocket Books 1999
Rayner, Dick ‘The Sandringhams at Suvla Bay’, Stand To! (Journal of the Western Front Association), 58, April 2000
Copyright 2011 Dr David Clarke