National Archives UFO files #7

On 3 March 2011 The National Archives released the 7th tranche of MoD UFO files. Listen to the podcast here.

All 35 files and 4 annexes can be downloaded from the TNA UFO page where you will find a highlights guide, podcast and background briefing. Here is a summary of the key stories and themes that I have chosen from this collection.

(1) Destruction of Files – the first ‘Smoking Gun’?

A number of papers in this tranche of files reveal the MoD destroyed whole collections of UFO files as recently as 1990 for reasons they could not explain  They were reluctant to publicly admit they had destroyed files as they feared this might add fuel to allegations they were involved in a cover-up. They were right!

The most frank admission appears in papers covering an internal MoD exchange following the public release of the famous ‘Rendlesham File’ in 2001. When a copy of this file – that contained unclassified paperwork – was sent to me in May of that year it was immediately obvious from the paper trail that further documents relating to the case must be held by other MoD branches, specifically the secretive Defence Intelligence Staff section DI55 that had an interest in UFOs and foreign technology. But an archive search by MoD records staff revealed that a collection of DI55 files covering the period 1980-82 had been destroyed, even though other files from the surrounding years had survived. Even worse, record staff could not say who authorised the destruction of the files or why, as it was MoD policy to shred the Destruction Certificates after five years (DEFE 24/2026/1). MoD were warned that if what it called this “apparent anomaly in the records” were made public…

“…it could be interpreted to mean that a deliberate attempt had been made to eradicate the records covering this incident”.

Why were these files destroyed? The most likely answer is that, at the time, intelligence staff believed they contained nothing worth preserving. We know these files were just a fraction the total number “lost” or destroyed in the chaotic and disorganised MoD records system before Freedom of Information regulations forced them to put their house in order.

But in hindsight, by allowing the arbitrary destruction of swathes of intelligence records, MoD have helpfully provided a stick for conspiracy theorists to beat them with.

(2) ‘Media obsession’ leads to policy change

DEFE 24/1986/1 is the first of a number of MoD UFO Policy files to be released. It contains some papers originally classified as Secret (the first examples so far during the four year TNA UFO project).

The contents reveal how in 1996-97 the workload of the UFO desk at MoD increased by 50% as a direct result of the “media obsession” with the subject that followed the 50thanniversary of the Roswell incident. The papers also show that MoD partly blamed the increased workload on the media activities of its former desk officer, Nick Pope, whose second book, The Uninvited (on alien abductions) was published in the summer of that year.

In a April 1997 internal briefing, Martin Fuller, the head of Secretariat Air Staff 2 (the department responsible for UFOs), wrote that he and Pope’s successor, UFO desk officer Kerry Philpott, were struggling to answer a stream of letters

“…from members of the public…seeking information about the existence of alien life forms, or seeking a detailed investigation/explanation for…allegations of abduction by aliens, out of the body experiences, animal mutilations, crop circles etc” (DEFE 24/1986/1).

The doubling of the Sec(AS) workload directly led to a significant change to MoD policy covering how staff handled sighting reports made by members of the public. In February 1997 a 24-hour UFO hotline answerphone service was set up to make it easier for people to report their sightings directly to Whitehall. However, from April  of that year it was agreed that only reports made by credible witnesses such as police officers, aircrew and other service personnel, that had some degree of corroboration and/or were reported in a timely fashion, would be forwarded to Air Defence and Defence Intelligence staff for further checks. The remiander would simply be filed and forgotten. The briefing papers underline that, in reality, MoD had no real interest in receiving any “singleton reports from the public which tell us nothing.”  But in practice officials briefed they could not close their UFO reporting facility and had no choice but to continue to accept reports from the public.  Anything less than this “would reveal our [true] policy and there would be a risk that it would be divulged to the UFO fraternity.”

This policy change is significant as it preceded the decision by DI55 to remove themselves from UFO research with the completion of the Condign report in 2000. Nine years later, the inevitable endgame arrived. In November 2009, against a backdrop of public service cuts, the MoD took its opportunity. It pulled the plug on its UFO hotline and closed its ‘UFO desk’, saying it had no further interest in receiving any reports from any source in future.

(3) 9/11: UFOs on Radar

A RAF briefing prepared for the MoD’s UFO desk officer (see DEFE 24/2025/1) reveals 15 unidentified aircraft were detected on radar approaching UK between January-July 2001 immediately before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Six of these were unidentified (although two did not enter UK airspace and four were assessed as ‘friendly’). And despite the arrival of ‘open government’ the RAF were reluctant to answer specific questions from members of the public about these radar detections as they:

a) feared the information would be misinterpreted by those who did not understand how the air defence system worked and

b) their answers could reveal official secrets to an enemy.

More information on radar detection of ‘unidentified aircraft’ and procedures for scrambling RAF aircraft to intercept intruders can be found in DEFE 24/2041/1. This file contains a important RAF ADGE briefing dated 30 October 2000 that says:

“…there is no record of any air defence aircraft employed on any air defence mission ever having intercepted, identified or photographed an object of an extra-terrestrial nature.”

The RAF Wing Commander responsible for this statement also briefs that during the Cold War aircraft were scrambled on a daily basis to intercept Warsaw Pact aircraft approaching the UK coast. After 1989 there was a dramatic fall in scrambles to just two or three incidents per year but there was

“….no evidence to suggest that any of these scrambles have taken place against anything other than man-made aircraft”.

In DEFE 24/2092/1 a response to a Parliamentary Question from Lynn Featherstone MP reveals the numbers of UFO sightings reported to MoD had fallen dramatically from a peak of 609 in 1996-97 to an average of 130 per year between 2001 and 2006. Just 12 reports received since 2001 had been referred to experts in Air Defence for further scrutiny and “none of these had been determined as posing any risk to the integrity of UK airspace”.

Two files contain detailed reports summarising the results of RAF investigations into UFO incidents. The first followed a spate of UFO reports from across the British Isles on 16 April 1978. This ‘flap’ was solved by RAF Fylingdales BMEWS station in North Yorkshire that found the sightings coincided with the re-entry of space debris into Earth’s atmosphere (DEFE 24/2048/1). A briefing prepared by Group Captain Neil Colvin based on 501 reports reviewed by the RAF during 1977-78 concluded:

“…none have ever been confirmed as having an unknown origin by our radar sites”.

A second investigation report was compiled in October 1996 following press reports of lights in the sky filmed by police in Lincolnshire that were reportedly confirmed by a blip seen on radars at RAF Neatishead, Norfolk (see DEFE 24/1986/1 and DEFE 24/2018/1). These events led the late Labour MP for Don Valley, Martin Redmond, to write to Defence Minister Michael Portillo questioning why no RAF aircraft were scrambled to investigate this apparent breach of UK airspace. As a result, a RAF Wing Commander was asked to compiled a report and spent eight working days quizzing eye-witnesses. His report (DEFE 24/2032/1) concludes that two entirely separate phenomena were involved: the  lights seen by police were bright stars and the blip on radar was a permanent echo created by a tall church spire (Boston Stump).

(4) Cosmic Crashes – UFOs that Fell to Earth

A UFO file from 1979 (DEFE 24/2037/1) reveals government concern about the risk posed by the crash-landing of debris from space on UK. When the nuclear-powered Soviet reconnaissance satellite Cosmos 954 disintegrated over the northwest territory of Canada in January 1978 radioactive debris was scattered over 124,000 square kilometres. Fears of what could happen if a similar piece of junk should rain down from the sky over Britain were raised in the following year when the giant US space station Skylab began to decay from its orbit. Although not powered by a nuclear reactor, it weighed some 75 tonnes and there were fears that debris might strike parts of the British Isles.

In March 1979 the head of MoD’s Defence Intelligence asked the Home Office to circulate guidelines to police, fire and local authorities in the UK. The ‘restricted’ document dated 20 April 1979 titled Satellite Accidents, spelled out the emergency procedures that should be put in place in the event of a nuclear hazard reaching the UK from space. Skylab was not nuclear powered but there remained the possibility of injury or damage from falling debris, although this was deemed to be “extremely remote.”

The file also reveals MoD were keen to examine examples of space debris and wanted the police to ensure any found by the public were swiftly reported to the MoD’s UFO branch, S4(Air).  The space station burned up harmlessly over the Indian Ocean on 11 July 1979, scattering debris over a large area of the west Australian desert. Nevertheless, MoD were presented with two sets of “debris from space” that had supposedly fallen in Britain. One metallic object was found on a golf course in Eastbourne, while another – consisting of twenty pieces of “rock-like debris” – woke a woman in North Wales when they crashed onto her roof at 5 a.m. one June morning. The file reveals police divided the rocks into three samples, placed them in plastic bags and sent them to Whitehall. The lump of metal from Eastbourne, on investigation, was found to be “simply a piece of molten scrap metal”.

There are further relevant papers in DEFE 24/1997/1 including correspondence between UFO author Nick Redfern and the  Home Office regarding emergency procedures for dealing with “landed and crashed UFOs and space satellites.” DEFE 24/1986/1 contains correspondence between TV documentary marker John Keeling and MoD concerning a ‘War of the Worlds’ incident in 1967 that, for a few hours at least, was treated as a potentially real “alien invasion” of the UK.

John is writing a book based on the bizarre events that followed the discovery, early in the morning of 4 September 1967 of six miniature “flying saucers” in a perfect line across Southern England from the Sheppey to the Bristol Channel. After 12 hours of mayhem, in which four police forces, bomb disposal units, the army and the MoD’s intelligence branch were mobilised, it emerged the saucers were a rag-day hoax by engineering students from Farnborough Technical College.

These events reveal how difficult it would be for the authorities to conceal a real UFO “crash landing” from the public. As John writes in his excellent Fortean Times articleInvasion 1967 (FT 228), this incident has been ignored by proponents of government UFO cover-ups because it raises too many uncomfortable home truths, such as:

“Where was the cover up? Where were the UFO crash retrieval teams? Even at the height of this drama, no meaningful efforts were made to suppress information. The fact is, you can’t cover something like this up.”

(5) Nick Pope

Nick was the Sec(AS) civil servant responsible for UFO reports 1991-94. After his ‘tour of duty’, and whilst employed elsewhere in MoD he publicly proclaimed his belief in UFOs and in 1996 published a book, Open Skies Closed Minds, that was cleared for publication. In the following year the publication of Pope’s second book, The Uninvited, that dealt with ‘alien abductions’, led MoD to prepare a set of “press lines”. These said “clearance to publish does not imply MoD approval of, or agreement with, the contents” (DEFE 24/1986/1).

DEFE 24/2092/1, contains a background briefing on Nick Pope prepared by MoD following a Parliamentary Question from Lib Dem MP Norman Baker in March 2006 that asked:

“…the Secretary of State for Defence whether his department’s UFO project is still extent.”

The briefing said the question was most likely prompted by “recent press articles…in which Mr Nick Pope, a serving Civil Servant, has been widely quoted on the topic of the MoD’s ‘UFO Project’” The briefing continues:

The MoD has never operated anything described as ‘the UFO Project’

and continues:

“…Mr Pope left Sec(AS) in 1994 and his knowledge of this issue, other than from publicly available sources, must be regarded as datedMr Pope elected to describe his position as the ‘Head of the MoD’s UFO Project’, a term entirely of his own invention, and he has used his experience and information he gathered (frequently by going beyond the official remit of his position) to develop a parallel career as a pundit on the topic, including writing several books, some purportedly non-fiction. Mr Pope constantly puts himself forward in various parts of the media, solicited and unsolicited, as an ‘expert’ (despite his lack of recent knowledge about the work carried on in the branch concerned) and seeks credit amongst other aficionados for having ‘forced’ MoD to reveal its ‘secret’ files on the subject. The latter is far from the truth, as we had begun publishing details of the most ‘popular’ reports in the Publication scheme, prior to the advent of the Freedom of Information Act. Mr Pope’s activities have nevertheless resulted in the generation of considerable workload for the stuff currently employed in responding to questions on this topic.”

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