National Archives UFO Files #1

First tranche – released May 2008
Listen to The National Archives podcast for this tranche here.
See also my BBC News Online feature ‘Dear MoD: Where is ET’?, 14 May 2008

The UK Ministry of Defence has taken the first step in its long-awaited decision to release its complete back catalogue of UFO reports at The National Archives (TNA).

International media interest is expected to coincide with the public opening of the first eight files on May 14. Staff are preparing for up to 1 million hits on a special website they are using for the public launch. The newly-released files are now available to download free of charge for the first month. Further files will be added as the collection grows over the next three to four years.

The decision to release all the remaining MoD UFO files in chronological order was taken last year in response to a long-running campaign by myself and colleagues Joe McGonagle and Gary Anthony using the Freedom of Information Act.

Since the decision was made I have been acting as the TNA’s consultant ‘expert’ on the historical significance of the files. For the duration of the press launch I will be helping TNA staff respond to Press inquiries both from the UK and across the world.

During the last month I have produced a detailed, updated Background Briefing to the entire collection of UFO records held at the TNA for those who wish to explore the papers further. Some 200 files, some of which date back to the First World War, have already been released and are available for research purposes. Plans are in hand to make scans of some of these early UFO papers available via the TNA website in future.

For the launch I have also recorded a podcast that summarises the content of the new files and the background to the releases. Both the Background Briefing and podcast can be downloaded from the TNA’s new ‘UFO’ website that can be reached via the link on this page.

The first release covers UFO reports, policy and public correspondence between 1978 and 1987. Four of the eight files originate with the MoD Air Staff secretariats DS8 and Sec(AS). These have become well known to UFO researchers and the media as the MoD’s ‘UFO desk’.

The remaining four files originate with the Defence Intelligence Staff branch DI55, who provided behind-the-scenes technical and scientific assistance to the UFO desk. DI55 were also the MoD department responsible for the ‘Condign Report’ on UFOs, which drew upon these newly-released files for its database of UFO/UAP reports.

The UFO reports series in this first tranche begins in November 1981 and ends in November 1987. Readers will note that the files have been ‘redacted’, whereby personal details such as the names and addresses of witnesses and MoD staff are removed under Section 40 of the FOIA (which relates to the Data Protection Act).

Nevertheless, it is relatively easy to discern the identities of some of the MoD’s regular correspondents, which include some well-known UFOlogists. Indeed, I was amazed to discover one file (DEFE 31/175) contains a copy of the first letter I wrote to the MoD’s UFO desk in September 1987!

The first batch of files provides a snapshot of British UFOlogy from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, when the Rendlesham forest mystery first hit the headlines and crop circles were becoming the new UFOlogical obsession.

The papers contain several hundred individual reports, a number of them originating from civil aircrew and a few from military sources. Here are just two highlights chosen at random from the current release:

Rendlesham Forest incident

One file (DEFE 24/1925) contains a briefing on the famous Rendlesham incident (often described as ‘Britain’s Roswell’) prepared by Sec(AS) for Lord Trefgarne, Tory Defence Minister, in September 1985. Trefgarne had agreed to meet with a retired Chief of Defence Staff, Lord Peter Hill-Norton, who was pressing the MoD to reopen their investigation of the incident.

The briefing is of interest because it provides a clear explanation for why MOD did not share Hill-Norton’s concern about the possible defence implications of the report made by Lt Col Charles Halt, the USAF deputy base commander at RAF Woodbridge. It says on receipt of Halt’s report on 15 January 1981 – two weeks after the events –  checks were carried out by air defence staff but these “failed to reveal any radar trace of anything unusual in the area at the time”.

As a result, they decided no follow-up was necessary because Lt Col Halt “does not ask for further investigation” in his memo that was forwarded to the Ministry by the RAF base commander, Don Moreland.

Lord Hill-Norton was told: “I think you will agree that it is highly unlikely that any violation of UK airspace would be heralded by such a display of lights. I think it equally unlikely that any reconnaissance or spying activity would be announced in this way…we believe that the fact Col Halt did not report these occurrences to MOD for almost 2 weeks after the event, together with the low key manner in which he handled the matter are indicative of the degree of importance in defence terms which should be attached to the incident.”

British Army interest in the Crop Circles

Another item from the same file is a copy of a report compiled by the Army Air Corps of their investigations into crop circle formations that appeared in fields near Andover, Hampshire, in August 1985.

A team led by Lt Col Edgecombe photographed the central 40ft diameter circle from the ground and the air. They were alerted to the presence of the circles by the farmer who owned the fields in which they had appeared. He called the army helicopter base to demand “what on earth we [the AAC] were up to now”.

In their report to Whitehall the Army team express their bafflement at the lack of traces and note how the wheat was “laid flat in a clockwise twist – as if a plank had been put with one end at the centre and then swept round in a complete circle.”

The Army’s interest in crop circles led to intense speculation by UFOlogists and ‘cerealogists’ about official cover-ups. These papers prove the military had no secret knowledge of alien forces at work in England’s fields. Even DI55, who were consulted by Sec(AS) on the possible defence significance of the crop circles in 1985, were left grasping at straws.

In December 1985 a DI55 desk officer wrote that “something unusual has happened but just what remains a mystery”. He added: “From a purely defence viewpoint I don’t think there is anything in the report to worry us – there does not appear to be a landing as such since the wheat is only depressed (not completely flattened), there are no tracks in the wheat and there does not appear to be burn or scorch marks – I lean to some kind of natural phenomena such as mini-tornadoes bouncing off the ground.”

In hindsight we can see how easily the Army, the MoD and the intelligence services were fooled by the intricate handiwork of circle-makers just as easily as anyone else who visited the formations with an open mind.

It was another five years before hoaxers Doug and Dave came forward to confess they had created the first crop circles and unwittingly created a new UFO-related mystery which continues to grow in spite of its disconfirmation.

This is just a brief summary of two interesting highlights from the first collection of files released in May 2008. Many more releases will follow during the next three to four years, bringing the developing story of the MoD’s involvement in the UFO mystery slowly up to date.

Eventually all 160 files covering UFO reports, correspondence and official policy from the mid-1980s up to the present day will form part of a unique new resource for UFOlogy.

Copyright David Clarke 2011

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