Top 10 UFO documents at The National Archives

The spring of 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of my first visit to The National Archives in Kew, southwest London – the guardian of some of the UK’s most iconic national documents.

visitors examining some of the original UFO files at the event (David Clarke)

It also marks ten years since I began my stint as consultant/curator for the release of the Ministry of Defence UFO files, part of a project involving The National Archives and Sheffield Hallam University.

On 8 March I returned to Kew to present a public lecture on completion of my research into the extensive British Government UFO document archive.

Download The National Archives Podcast of my lecture here.

During the presentation I listed my personal ‘Top 10’: what I believe are the most significant and important historical documents in the collection at Kew. These were:

  1. Prime Minister Winston Churchill‘s memo to the Air Ministry, 1952: ‘What’s all this stuff about flying saucers? What is the truth?’ (PREM 11/855). His request followed a spate of sightings over Washington DC that were widely reported in the UK and international media.
  2. ‘Unidentified Flying Objects’:  report produced by MoD’s Flying Saucer Working Party in 1951, used to brief Churchill (DEFE 44/119)
  3. ‘Unidentified Objects at West Freugh’, the Air (Tech) Intelligence report on UFOs tracked by three ground radar stations in Scotland during April 1957 (AIR 20/9320)
  4. ‘Unexplained Lights’ in Rendlesham Forest, near RAF Woodbridge, Lt Col Charles Halt’s report to MoD, dated 13 January 1981 (DEFE 24/152)
  5. RAF Troodos operations record book, October 1983, reporting UFO sighted by USAF RC-135 spyplane over the Mediterranean (AIR 29/4933)

    Extract from Winston Churchill’s 1952 request to the British Air Ministry on ‘flying saucers’ (TNA: PREM 11/855)

  6. MoD DI55 UFO Policy – ‘Causes of UFO Reports’ 1967 (DEFE 24/119)
  7. MoD DI55 UFO Policy – Extra Terrestrial Objects – UAP briefing papers 1995 (DEFE 24/3153)
  8. MOD DI55 ‘Release of UFO reports to members of the public’ (DEFE 24/3152)
  9. MoD DI55 UFO Policy – briefing on UAPs to Head of Defence Intelligence 1995 (DEFE 24/3153)
  10. ‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in the UK Air Defence Region’ (the Condign report), 2000 (DEFE 24/3127/1). This 3 volume report ended the MoD Defence Intelligence interest in UFOs that began half a century earlier with the Flying Saucer Working Party report that was used to brief Winston Churchill.

A collection of the original versions of these documents were placed on temporary display for the event. This gave visitors a unique opportunity to examine some of the most famous – and lesser known – records from the files of the so-called ‘UFO desk’. These included the original version of Lt Col Halt’s memo reporting sightings by USAF airmen in the Rendlesham Forest, filed alongside other more run-of-the-mill reports received in January 1981 by DS8 at Whitehall.

The event was organised as part of the National Archives’ spring lecture programme and the public engagement evidence will be used as part of my submission to the REF 2021 research exercise on behalf of Sheffield Hallam University.

Presenting my Top Ten UFO documents at the event (David Clarke)

The UFO files project was funded by the MoD and resulted in the release of more than 60,000 pages of reports, correspondence and policy issues to the public under the Open Government/Freedom of Information Act.

In all, 210 files were scanned and are available as PDF downloads from the National Archives UFO page.

The project website received more than 3.7 million visitors from 160 countries and mass media coverage  brought news of the release to an estimated global audience of 25 million people.

Three books were published as part of the public engagement aspects of the research. These included The UFO Files (Bloomsbury/TNA 2012), Britain’s X-traordinary Files (Bloomsbury/TNA 2014) and UFO Drawings from The National Archives (Four Corners 2017).

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Yorkshire UFO crash mystery solved – after 60 years

THE wreckage of a miniature UFO that ‘crash landed’ on the North York Moors sixty years ago has been found – hidden in the archives of a London museum.

The story has been claimed by some as Britain’s answer to the #Roswell incident.

In a plot worthy of The X-Files the metal object, shaped like a miniature flying saucer, was found by three men on Silpho Moor, near Scarborough, one night in November 1957.

How the Yorkshire Post broke the story on 9 December 1957

One later paid £10 – more than £200 in today’s money – for the mysterious object that appeared just weeks after the Russians launched Sputnik into orbit around Earth.

But what became known as the Silpho Saucer vanished without trace soon after the finders cut it open in the Yorkshire spa town.

Photographs show the copper base of the object was inscribed with hieroglyphs that one of the men compared with Russian lettering.

Hieroglyphics were also found on the wreckage of the UFO that allegedly crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in June 1947.

When the Yorkshire object was opened a tiny book made of 17 thin copper sheets was found inside, held in place by a coil of copper wire. The sheets were covered in more hieroglyphics and these were deciphered by a Scarborough café owner, Philip Longbottom.

Headlines from the Scarborough Evening News 1957

He claimed they contained a bizarre 2000 word message allegedly sent to Earth by an alien called Ullo who wanted to warn us about atomic warfare. It contained the warning: ‘You will improve or disappear’.

A fragment of fused metal and plastic from the outer shell of the ‘saucer’ (Copyright Dr David Clarke)

For decades afterwards UFO enthusiasts drew a blank in their quest for the missing saucer – although some claimed it ended up in a scrapyard or had been on display in a fish’n chip shop in Scarborough.

But for half a century the missing pieces of the puzzle have been sitting inside a tin cigarette box at the Science Museum Group’s archive, more than 200 miles away from the wild moorland where they were found at the height of the Cold War.

The remains of the Silpho Moor UFO, with the cigarrette box in which they have been stored for 50 years (Copyright Dr David Clarke)

Papers in the museum archives reveal the remains of the ‘Silpho Moor Object’ were sent to London for examination by experts in 1963.

The specimens included a fused section of the metal and plastic from the outer casing, a length of hollow copper tubing and tiny pieces of foil from the booklet that was discovered inside.

The Science Museum passed them to Gordon Claringbull of the Natural History Museum, who specialised in meteorites and explosives.

He said he could find ‘nothing unusual’ in the samples. In a memo to the Science Museum, Claringbull said that he was ‘prepared to wager anything’ that the pieces of metal were made on Earth.

Sceptics claimed the ‘saucer’ was made from a domestic hot water cylinder in a back-street garage and planted on the moor as an elaborate hoax.

Air Chief Marshall Lord Dowding who examined the Silpho Saucer in 1958 and believed it was ‘genuine’

Believers such as Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, who led the RAF during the Battle of Britain during WW2, revealed in 1959 that he had ‘actually held and examined’ the Silpho object.

He described it as a ‘a miniature pilot flying saucer’ – and was convinced it was a genuine artefact from space.

Tests carried out at Manchester University revealed the object’s shell contained lead and the copper parts were of unusual high purity.

But a metallurgist concluded it could not have arrived on Earth from space as there was no evidence it had been exposed to high temperatures.

UFO expert Jenny Randles, who read the report produced in Manchester, said she believes ‘it is the most costly and well organised hoax that has ever taken place in Britain.

‘The hoaxers never seemed to gain from it and whoever had it built spent considerably more than the £10 the finders reportedly paid for it’.

I was invited to see the remains at The Science Museum after giving a talk there on my work for The National Archives on the release of the Ministry of Defence’s UFO files.

One of the museum staff tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was aware that ‘bits of a flying saucer’ had been kept in a cigarette tin in the museum group store for decades.

The caption on the box that contains the ‘alleged UFO bits’ at The Science Museum, London (Copyright Dr David Clarke)

I was absolutely amazed when later we opened the tin box and saw the wreckage. It was obvious these were the remains of the missing Silpho Saucer that some have claimed as Britain’s answer to the famous Roswell incident.

It is astounding to learn that pieces of this unusual object have been sitting in a museum archive for more than half a century.

The Silpho Saucer story first broke on 9 December 1957 when The Yorkshire Post revealed how ‘a mystery object’, shaped ‘like a large flattish spinning top’, 45 cm in diameter and weighing 15 kg, had been found on the moor northwest of the town two weeks earlier.

Scarborough businessman Frank Dickenson, then 42,  claimed he and two friends were driving up Reasty Hill near the village of Silpho at night when his car stalled and they saw ‘a glowing object in the sky’ that appeared to fall to the ground on a ridge above Broxa Forest.

Mr Dickenson left the car, climbed a steep bank and found the metallic saucer lying in a patch of bracken.  But as he returned along a footpath to alert his friends he passed a young couple walking towards the scene.

When the three men returned to search the moors, the object was gone.

Images taken by Dr John Dale in 1958 showing the intact saucer, the copper base with hieroglyphs and one of the copper sheets from the ‘booklet’ that contained a message from Ullo (credit: Dr John Dale)

But he was so desperate to get it back he placed a classified advert in the Scarborough newspaper.

This was answered by someone claiming to be the mystery man on the moor, who initially demanded £200 in cash.

Mr Dickenson later handed over £10 in a night-time exchange for the metal object that was hidden in a sack.

He asked Scarborough solicitor Anthony Parker to examine it at his home in nearby Scalby.

Parker told the Press he had advised Mr Dickenson to hand it to the Air Ministry and said: ‘I do not think it is a flying saucer and I do not believe such things come from outer space’.

But Mr Parker’s fascination grew after he, Mr Dickenson and Philip Longbottom prised open the two halves of the object. Inside they found traces of ash, fused glass and the copper book ‘that had a coil of hollow tubing wrapped around it’.

The story made headlines just two months after the Cold War space race began with the launch of Sputnik. Some of those who examined the Yorkshire ‘whatnik’ initially feared it could have fallen from the spy satellite or was part of a bomb or wartime mine.

Another fragment of UFO wreckage from Silpho (Copryight Dr David Clarke)

And in a bizarre twist, over thirty years later a cache of IRA guns and bomb-making equipment was found near the same patch of isolated moorland shortly before Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was due to speak at the Conservative party conference in Scarborough.

The arms cache included Czech-made Semtex, a key component in bombs used by Irish terrorists.

It was found by a man searching for compost in Broxa Forest, close to Silpho Moor, in March 1989 and sparked a huge security operation.

The Science Museum, South Kensington, London: last resting place of the Silpho Saucer (credit: Wikipedia)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tears for Fears – the Curse of the Crying Boy

The ‘curse of the Crying Boy‘ legend, created by the British tabloid The Sun, is alive and well online.

The Sun’s first story about the Crying Boy painting, 4 September 1985, p13

I discuss my research into this fake news phenomenon on the first episode in Season 3 of the Folklore Podcast, (1 January 2018), produced by Mark Norman.

A Google search on the ‘curse’ results in almost four million unique hits and the story remains the all-time most visited page on my blog.

Mass produced prints of weeping toddlers painted by a mysterious Italian artist, ‘Bragolin’ and others, sold in tens of thousands during the 1960s-70s.

The Crying Boy (TCB) acquired its  supernatural ‘curse’ in September 1985 after a local evening newspaper in the mining town of Rotherham, South Yorkshire, published a story about a house blaze in which a copy of the print survived unscathed.

In his piece, reporter John Murphy from the Rotherham Star referred to a ‘family hit by a curse’ after fire fighters revealed this was the latest in a series of fires in which prints, all featuring similar images of TCB, had been found undamaged. The earliest blaze on record was in 1973.

Two days later, on 4 September 1985, national tabloid The Sun published on page 13 its own hyperbolic version headlined “BLAZING CURSE OF THE CRYING BOY – picture is a fire jinx’.

Editor Kelvin McKenzie knew the story ‘had legs’ and, for a number of months promoted a tabloid TCB campaign – inviting readers who were troubled by the curse to send their prints to The Sun for destruction. The paper was inundated with copies of the print, attributed to a number of artists. Readers came forward with their own stories of bad luck, accidents and hauntings they associated with the ‘curse’.

Another classic urban legend promoted by The Sun in 1986. The story was attributed to the disgraced publicist Max Clifford, who died in 2017

The Sun under McKenzie was responsible for a series of similar horrific and bizarre stories with tenuous origins that earned themselves a permanent place in pop culture.

Possibly the best-known example is Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster (1986), a story manufactured by the publicist Max Clifford to promote a tour by the entertainer (who has always denied eating the creature). Clifford was an ubiquitous source of ‘fake news’ stories for the tabloids during the ’80s and ’90s.

On Halloween 1985 the paper destroyed 2,500 copies of TCB prints, donated by Sun readers, on a makeshift pyre in Oxfordshire. This stunt appeared to exorcise the ‘curse’ it had helped to create – at least temporarily.

Since that time the legend has completed its transformation from media ‘silly season‘ story into an international online urban legend. Along the way it has acquired a complex narrative that explains who the ‘crying boy’ (sometimes a ‘gypsy boy’) actually is and why ownership of the prints can bring ill-luck.

Today copies regularly appear for sale online via Gumtree and Ebay with references to its backstory, despite restrictions on the use of supernatural claims in advertising. Since the 1990s, my research has collected versions from the USA, Brazil and Australia. My web-page on TCB is easily the most popular section of my blog. It has received more than 73,000 visits since 2012 and readers have used it to express their own personal stories and beliefs about it, for example:

“My mum has this picture but they said they heard about the curse and they hang it in a cupboard facing the wall so no one looks at it,” posted one woman.

“They believe if they try and get rid of it something bad will happen.”

I will present my updated research into TCB at several events this year including the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR) conference in Brussels and the London Fortean Society.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


The plot of Blade Runner 2049 refers to a ‘black out’ that plunged the world into darkness for ten days. During this cataclysm many historical records, hard drives and important data that was not written down on paper was destroyed.

Blade Runner may be space-age fiction but the fragility of human records, especially those held in digital format, remains a huge concern for archivists.

The Cassini probe on its mission to explore Saturn and its moons. (credit: Wikipedia)

Staff at the UK’s National Archives recognise the challenges faced by those whose task it is to preserve digital records for the use and enjoyment of future generations. Emails, URLs and other online data have a short shelf-life and can be deleted, disappear or migrate. The sheer volume of digital traffic means there is danger that much of it will leave no trace in the historical record, unlike old fashioned letters and files.

These and many other issues facing archivists working with space-related records were the centre of scholarly debate at Collecting Space, the inaugural conference of the Science and Technology Archives Group (STAG) held at the Dana Centre, Science Museum in London on 18 November.

STAG was created to celebrate and promote scientific archives and wants to engage ‘with everyone who has an interest in the creation, preservation and use of archives related to science, technology, engineering and related disciples’.

Speakers included archivists from the Science Museum, Imperial College, The British Library, the Royal Astronomical Society and Jodrell Bank (University of Manchester). I was invited to present on the unique Ministry of Defence UFO archive at The National Archives and the open government project that made many of these papers available online.

In her keynote presentation Professor Michele Dougherty of Imperial College described how data from the Cassini-Huygens mission to explore Saturn, its rings and moons has been collected by scientists. Prof Dougherty designed the magnetometer and other instruments attached to the long boom that projected from the Cassini probe. This had to survive extreme temperatures during its 15 year mission that revealed evidence of heat and liquid water in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Delegates were pleased to hear that data from Cassini’s final transmission to Earth before it plunged to destruction on Saturn has been kept for future generations of scientists to interpret.

Skylark rocket test launch from Woomera in 1960 (credit: The Science Museum)

Doug Millard, deputy keeper of the Science Museum, gave a fascinating summary of the British rocketry archive that includes material on the Skylark, the UK’s first space rocket. The collection includes oral history interviews with scientists who worked on the rockets that were tested at Woomera in Australia. The British government cancelled the programme in 1977 on the grounds of its cost.  The Science Museum is also the repository of books and papers donated by the late Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012), amateur astronomer, author and TV personality who attributed his first break to a BBC programme he presented on flying saucers in 1956.

I was pleased to hear STAG delegates acknowledge the historical significance of many ‘non-official’ records such as Sir Patrick Moore’s meticulous hand-written logbooks. During the lunch break we were invited to examine examples of these and other ‘ephemera’ that include a piece of paper that had travelled to the moon and back with the crew of Apollo 10. Many such items have been lost or destroyed in past because they were not deemed to be worthy of preservation.

The Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire (credit: Wikipedia)

During the afternoon Dr James Peters described some of the treasures held in the archive of the Jodrell Bank radio-telescope in Manchester. The large steerable telescope built under the direction of Sir Bernard Lovell (1913-2012) played a little known role in the Cold War. It was the first to detect the launch of the first Earth satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union in October 1957. The Jodrell records, the largest held by the University of Manchester, includes almost 1000 correspondence files. These include letters sent to Sir Bernard by many ordinary people who wished to report observations of Sputnik – that was tracked by Jodrell Bank in 1957 – and, in more recent years, sightings of UFOs. Despite its rich content, Dr Peters revealed the collection receives just two or three visitors each year.

Sian Prosser of the Royal Astronomical Society archives said their oldest records dated from the 14th century. The RAS also hold correspondence, drawings, glass slides and photographs made by many famous people in the history of astronomy. But the most important collections held at Burlington House in London are the personal archives of more than 40 astronomers including the Herschel family.

As the busy day of talks, tours and discussions drew to an end we heard from Dr Tom Lean of The British Library who has been busy interviewing British scientists and engineers about their life in space research. To date some 150 individuals have agreed to talk about the minutiae of their lives and much of this National Life Stories collection is available online.

The conference ended with a talk by Dr Amy Chambers of Newcastle University who is working on the AHRC-funded project ‘Unstettling Scientific Stories’ which uses science fiction to investigate the history of scientific futures. Amy has visited the archives of Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrik and her main research interest is the Planet of the Apes films.

All in all the first STAG conference was a great success and left me wanting to explore the holdings of these and many other archives and collections of science and space-related materials in the UK and further afield.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Close Encounters of the Playground Kind

My latest book UFO Drawings from The National Archives is published by Four Corners books on 18 September.

It contains 40 colour and black and white images selected from the Ministry of Defence files at the archives in Kew.

From 2009-2013 I acted as curator for the special project that involved the transfer of 210 surviving files from the MoD’s archives into the public domain.

The striking images in the new book were sourced from these and an older collection of UFO files, some dating back to the Second World War, that have been opened to public inspection under the 30 year rule.

Some of the most remarkable drawings in the book were produced by schoolchildren. For example one lunchtime in October, 1977, ten Cheshire youngsters, aged seven to 11 years, saw an elliptical UFO hovering in trees beside the playground of Upton Primary School in Macclesfield, before it rose into the sky and vanished.

One of the drawings produced by children in Macclesfield, Cheshire, in 1977 (Credit: crown copyright TNA DEFE 24/1206)

Their teacher, Mrs Hindmarsh, ushered the children inside and asked to draw what they had seen, separating them to ensure that no copying took place. The youngsters used pencils and coloured crayons to produce the images that ended up in a MoD file.

Their drawings are so clear and striking that I selected them as one the highlights of the book. In this case their teacher passed the dossier to Cheshire Police and the MoD’s UFO desk. In his covering letter the police officer said there was ‘a remarkable similarity in these sketches with regard to the UFO and its location between two trees’.

But this was just one example from a series of sightings made from schools during 1977. Another file contains drawings and letters sent to the MoD by youngsters and their teacher from North Wales earlier in the year.

‘We were playing at netball with Mrs Williams in the yard and she was showing us how to throw the ball into the net when I saw an object high in the sky.’

In immaculate handwriting, ten-year-old Gwawr Jones reported her UFO experience in a letter addressed to RAF Valley in North Wales.

Her letter, endorsed by the teacher, arrived with a collection of drawings showing an identical flying saucer, produced by her schoolpals.

‘I shouted at the others and they looked up and saw it,’ the account continued. ‘It had a black dome on top and a silver cigar-shaped base. It was travelling smoothly across the sky in a northerly direction. It remained in our sight for about 3 minutes. Then it went behind the only cloud in the sky and reappeared again for about 1 minute, then disappeared’.

Gwawr was one of nine youngsters, aged 8-11 years, who saw the silent object from  Rhosybol School in Anglesey, North Wales, on the afternoon of Wednesday, 16 February 1977. Their teacher, Mair Williams, told the Western Mail: ‘It was a really bright afternoon and the object was flying very high towards Bull Bay…I took the children back into school separated them and then told them to draw what they had seen. It was really astonishing – their drawings were all similar. I never believed in these things until I saw this!’

These extraordinary stories were among dozens that reached the MoD’s UFO desk, S4 (Air) in 1977. A covering note, from RAF Valley, adds ‘[we] can offer no positive explanation or identification’.

Viewed in isolation, this story would appear much like the other 435 sightings logged by the British government half a century ago. But with the benefit of hindsight it is just one of a previously unnoticed cluster of eerily similar experiences reported by small groups of unrelated schoolchildren, in the space of six months.

Children from Broad Haven Primary school with their UFO drawings 1977 (credit: Western Mail)

What on Earth, or off it, was going on?  What sparked off this mini-flap? What inspired youngsters of a similar age, from across the UK, to look into the sky and see unidentified flying objects moving above their schools and playgrounds?

The arrival of Steven Spielberg’s science fiction epic  Close Encounters of the Third (re-released in 2017 to mark its 40th anniversary) was a whole year away. The original Star Wars movie opened in UK cinemas in December, some months after this mini-flap.

I was ten years old in 1977 and my introduction to UFOlogy came not from movies but from the TV screen. In May BBC 1 ran the Hugh Burnett documentary Out of this World in a prime-time slot that was my first exposure to flying sorcery. Burnett’s programme included interviews with UFO witnesses and contactees plus classic footage from around the world. Elsewhere on TV the year opened with the fourth incarnation of Doctor Who, Tom Baker, grappling with the Robots of Death on a distant planet.

But I suspect a more immediate inspiration for the spate of playground UFO sightings came from the children’s peers – via mass media reports from the so-called West Wales flap or ‘Welsh Triangle’ as it was dubbed by the tabloids.

Early in February groups of children at three Welsh primary schools reported UFO sightings. But only the story from Broad Haven primary school was widely covered by the media, with the youngsters interviewed live on national television at the scene.

In this case a group of fifteen children, mainly ten year old boys, saw a shiny cigar-shaped UFO on the ground – not in the sky – in fields behind their school during their lunch break on Friday, 4 February 1977.

It was raining at the time and the boys were playing football when someone pointed out the object, partially hidden by trees and shrubs. Two of the group said the elongated object had a silver dome with a flashing light on the top. Six of the group said they saw a tall man, dressed in a silver space-suit, standing beside the UFO. Evidently scared, the children ran back to the school but were not initially believed by the adults. After school finished, groups of youngsters went UFO spotting and later, supported by their parents, they visited the local police station.

Drawings made by the children were sent to the MoD and the originals are today preserved in scrapbook at the school. This archive includes a contemporary account from the school diary, written in the third person by head-teacher Ralph Llewellyn, who became the focus of a media scrum. It reveals that he interviewed 15 children separately on the Monday, 7 February, and examined their drawings and notes.

Their drawings are often described as ‘remarkably similar’ but although made independently they were not produced until three days after the sighting, so the children had the entire weekend to discuss what they had seen. Nevertheless, Mr Llewellyn concluded they were telling the truth:

‘After allowing for variations and embellishments [the head-teacher] is loathe to believe that the children are capable of a sustained sophisticated hoax; that they did see something they hadn’t seen before he is prepared to accept. He himself, while seeking a natural explanation of the incident, is prepared to keep an open mind on the subject’.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The UFO Files: Our Man in Sheffield

In deep cover – with the UFO files at The National Archives

I spent two decades on the trail of the UK Ministry of Defence’s cache of secret UFO papers.

But little did I know that my FOI campaign triggered off a mole-hunt among the spooks – and a probe to discover who my sources were.

One of the surprises hidden within the latest UFO papers released at The National Archives is a declassified memo that asks the MoD’s security services to investigate why I wanted to see secret UFO files – and who might have been leaking data to me about them.

The memo – once classified ‘Secret UK Eyes Only’ – was written in August 2000 by a desk officer in the MoD’s secret-squirrel space intelligence unit, DI55. It was addressed to MoD Security

At the time DI55 was in a spin because a series of UFO report files had disappeared from its archives.

This came to light soon after one of its contractors (who has never been named) had completed his work on the infamous Condign Report on ‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomena’.

As the spooks rooted through their filing cabinets a letter arrived from me, addressed to the MoD records officer at New Scotland Yard.  At the time I had given up a job as a vacuum cleaner salesman and was working as a journalist, looking for a scoop.

Tony Blair’s government had introduced a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) but it was still five years from implementation.

So it was that I spent many hours working through UFO records at the National Archives in Kew and came across references to the mysterious DI55.

They were a branch of the Defence Intelligence Staff who, since 1967, had been the government agency responsible for the investigation of UFO incidents that might have some bearing on the defence of the realm.

UFO sighting reports were not usually subject to secrecy. But DI55 were also involved in top secret studies of aerodynamic missiles and satellites, so their very existence – and their interest in UFOs – was secret until quite recently.

If the truth really was out there – as The X-Files proclaimed – then I suspected DI55 would know all about it.

Indeed, in one of their recently declassified files, a desk officer refers approvingly to a Sunday People headline that describes them as ‘Our Secret Army Against the Aliens’.

My letter, dated 21 July 2000, requested access to their surviving records under the Code of Practice (a precursor to FOIA). It arrived in exactly the same month that someone in DIS realised a number of these files had gone missing.

This odd coincidence appears to have set alarm bells ringing in the intelligence agencies.

‘Dr Clarke is clearly well directed towards the documents he sees as relevant,’ the desk officer wrote to his security minders. This led him to be ‘suspicious’ especially as these files contained ‘very sensitive data’.

Why was I was interested in files only they knew were missing?

And who had informed me they were ‘missing’?

Some of the ‘missing files’? (David Clarke)

The memo implies that I may have been tipped off by someone in the Defence Intelligence Staff – perhaps even the author of the Condign study – who was aware of what the files contained, and had expressed an interest in them before. It continued:

‘Pending the publication of [the Condign report] on this subject DIST is very sensitive to the potential mischief that unauthorised use of the information contained in these files may cause if used to support uninformed Press and private publications on UAPs’.

MoD Security were then ordered to find the missing files urgently. They were also tasked to find out more about  ‘Dr Clarke and his sponsors’ and any potential sources I might have in the intelligence community.

Quite what this investigation turned up remains a mystery – because the relevant papers are, you will not be surprised to hear, missing from the file.

But I can reveal that Our Man in Sheffield must have passed whatever security vetting was deemed appropriate by Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

The ‘missing files’ were found, and can now be downloaded by anyone – with or without security clearance – for a small charge from The National Archives website.

And in May 2006 I was invited to MoD Main Building to receive a first-generation copy of DI55’s once secret final report on UFOs – or UAPs, as they preferred to call them.

Secret no more. My job was done.


I eventually discovered the ‘truth’ about what DI55 knew about UFOs. It was hidden in plain sight in one of their own documents from 1995, released by The National Archives in 2017.  Sent to the MoD’s UFO desk and signed off by a DI55 Wing Commander it says:

‘I see no reason for continuing to deny that [Defence Intelligence] has an interest in UFOs. However, if the association is formally made public, then the MoD will no doubt be pressurised to state what the intelligence role/interest is. This could lead to disbelief and embarrassment since few people are likely to believe the truth that lack of funds and higher priorities have prevented any study of the thousands of reports received’.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

UFO Files exclusive: Cold War spyplane incident

The release by Britain’s Ministry of Defence of 15 of its last remaining UFO files at the UK’s National Archives has revealed details of a stunning Cold War close encounter witnessed by the entire crew of a US Air Force spy-plane.

A RC-135 Rivet spyplane of the type operated by the USAF during the Cold War (credit: Wikipedia/USAF)

Formerly secret RAF files opened at The National Archives include a detailed account of an incident on 19 October 1982 when a USAF RC-135 plane, monitoring Soviet military activity, was buzzed by ‘a big object’ over the Eastern Mediterranean.

According to the files, British personnel at RAF Troodos, a remote base on the island of Cyprus listened in amazement to the radio calls of the American crew as the encounter unfolded at 35,000 feet above the sea.

The UFO – – described as covered in ‘a multitude of flashing lights 20 at a time’ – was picked up on the spylane’s radar as it approached from the south.

It then circled around the plane, call-sign Beano 73 – and closed in as the navigator appealed for help from the ground.

Two US Navy F-14 fighters were scrambled from an aircraft carrier and a RAF Phantom was diverted from a night flying exercise to intercept the UFO, south of the island of Cyprus.

As the three interceptors approached the USAF crew saw the UFO depart towards the African coast. Nothing was seen by the fighter pilots.

The files reveal how RAF personnel at the Troodos radar station monitored the entire incident for a period of 90 minutes, beginning shortly after 4pm local time.

Radome at 280 Signals Unit base, RAF Troodos, Mt Olympus, Cyprus – one of the most important overseas British installations (credit: Wikipedia/Ed Weissman)

But nothing was seen by British air defence stations – ‘nor was it seen on any ground or seaborne radar, including at 280 SU [280 Signals Unit – RAF Troodos]’.

Following the encounter a secret investigation was launched by the British authorities. The results were sent to the US Department of Defense in November 1982.

Neither the British or US government have ever released information about this incident before the files were opened this week.

Officially the US Air Force’s UFO Project, Blue Book, was closed in 1969. The British Ministry of Defence closed its own UFO desk in 2009 and its secret space intelligence unit, DI55, said it was no longer interested in ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ (UAP) in 2000.

But the newly-released RAF file reveals that officials ordered a transcript to be made of the tape recording that captured radio transmissions made between the spyplane crew and ground controllers.

Copies of the report were circulated to Assistant Chief Scientist (RAF), DD Ops (GE) RAF, DI55 and DSTI.

Film provided by the RAF Troodos radar station was carefully studied by photographic experts in London and large prints, taken from the radar picture,  were prepared for scrutiny by intelligence officers.

The file does not reveal what happened to this evidence. The results of the joint UK/US investigation do not appear in the file.

An extract from the RAF file on the incident [David Clarke/The National Archives]

But a tentative explanation is offered by a senior RAF official, who wrote: ‘We have a strong suspicion that the “UFO” was a mirage effect from lights on the coast of Israel or Lebanon’.

A signal reporting the sighting sent from RAF Troodos to MoD UK on 20 October describes the UFO as ‘larger than [a] RC-135’.

Boeing RC-135 aircraft are used by the USAF and RAF to support intelligence gathering. They have been used in every armed conflict including Cold War operations around the borders of the former Soviet Union. The aircraft are 136ft (41m) in length with a wingspan of 130ft (nearly 40m).

The RAF signal reporting the encounter says the ‘object’ was first spotted: “…initially about two miles from wing of RC-135…moved position around aircraft and closed…object tailed Beano 73 for 90 mins on its northeast/southwest race track….”.

The signal says the UFO was seen by the ‘whole crew’.

Three RC-135s were purchased by the RAF in 2017 to serve with 51 Squadron based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. The crew includes two pilots, a navigator and up to 25 mission staff.

Elsewhere in the file a RAF Group Captain collated information on UFO reports received by his air defence staff for a thirty year period ending in 1996, in response to a Parliamentary Question from the Labour MP for Don Valley, Martin Redmond.

He asked all radar stations including the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station at RAF Fylingdales on the North York Moors to submit UFO data to HQ No 11 Group.

His report says he could find “no reports or mention [was] found of UFOs detected by ADGE [Air Defence Ground Environment] units or 11/18 Group aircraft using radar equipment“.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Alien Art: 70 years of UFO sightings

70 years ago Kenneth Arnold reported nine strange ‘saucer-like’ flying objects in the sky – and launched the modern UFO mystery.

On landing his plane in Oregon on the afternoon of 24 June 1947 the businessman and private pilot became world famous.

Within hours an enterprising sub-editor coined the phrase ‘flying saucers‘ and within days further reports of further sightings began to pour into newspapers across the world. What psychologist Carl Jung called ‘a modern myth of things seen in the sky’ was born.

Kenneth Arnold with an artist’s impression showing one of the nine ‘flying saucers’ (credit: Seattle Times)

Many of Jung’s subjects produced artwork depicting UFOs seen in their dreams.

And like many thousands of UFO witnesses before and after 1947,  Arnold felt compelled to draw the mysterious bat-wing shaped objects he saw flying above mountain-tops in the Cascades.

Others have produced photographs, artist’s impressions and even paintings of their extraordinary experiences with UFOs and related phenomena.

To celebrate this year’s anniversary I have curated a collection of original drawings, paintings and photographs, collected by the British Ministry of Defence as the centrepiece of a new illustrated book.

UFO  Drawings from The National Archives will be published by Four Corners Books in October 2017 as part of a new series of histories of British visual culture.

The artwork includes images of an alien craft above the A1, rocket-shaped UFOs over north London and drawings of a spaceship that landed near a primary school in Cheshire.

The 40 images featured in the book have been carefully selected from the British government’s UFO files that form part of the collections at The National Archives (TNA)in Kew.

Since 2008 I have worked with the The National Archives as consultant for the release of more than 200 declassified UFO files, formerly held by the Ministry of Defence. The MoD have collected and sometimes investigated UFO reports since the end of WW2 but their so-called UFO desk was closed in 2009 and its records archived. The press often refer to these as ‘Britain’s real X-Files’.

My book The UFO Files: The Inside Story of Real Life Sightings was published by Bloomsbury in 2012 and provides a history of the MoD’s interest in UFOs.

The most recent MoD files were opened in ten tranches as part of a rolling programme that ended in 2014. All of the files in this project were digitised and are available to download from The National Archives UFO website.

Some of the many MoD UFO files at Britain’s National Archives (copyright David Clarke)

But a similar number of older files, some dating back to WW1, have been opened under the 30 year rule and are available to researchers at Kew.

Possibly the best known file contains Winston Churchill‘s famous memo, sent to to the Air Ministry in 1952, that demanded to know ‘What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth?

A further 15 miscellaneous UFO files were opened in June 2017  and the final three files will join them in the reading rooms later this year.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dead Flows the Don

Dr David Clarke of Sheffield Hallam University appeared on a BBC Radio 3 documentary about the River Don. In the Sheffield Telegraph he traces the myths and legends of the river as it flows through Sheffield:

One of my earliest memories is being told by my grandfather, an ex-steelworker at Ponds Forge, that Sheffield was founded on five rivers. And the most powerful of them all was the Don.

A polluted River Don from Nursery Street, Sheffield in the 19th century (credit: Picture Sheffield)

He knew the city’s most important industries – steelmaking, cutlery and, in his day, brewing – were dependent upon a plentiful supply of water. Streams supplied the rivers that flowed from the many hills that encircle the city.

Channelled through the valleys, like the fingers of a hand, the Don and the Porter, Rivelin, Loxley and Sheaf converge in the historic heart of Sheffield, at Castlegate. A clearing above the confluence of the Don and Sheaf gave its name to the earliest settlement, Sheaf-feld, where the castle was built. In medieval times the rivers also marked a boundary between the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia. No one knows when the Don was first bridged, but in the 12th century a small chapel, dedicated to ‘Our Lady Mary’, was founded below the castle walls. This became present-day Lady’s Bridge.

The power of the rivers and streams, harnessed during the industrial revolution, helped to make Sheffield’s steel industry world famous. In the Victorian era part of the Sheaf was channelled into a stone-built underground culvert to divert its floodwaters away from Pond hill. Today this massive storm drain, the Megatron, runs from Granville Square, under the station and Park Square, emerging to meet the Don near Blonk Street bridge.

For decades, a cocktail of deadly chemicals was pumped and poured into the river waters, leading the Don to be labelled as one of the most polluted stretches of water in Europe. Until 1928 animal blood from the slaughterhouses at The Shambles, on Castlegate added to the river’s filthy reputation. By the 1980s parts of the Don ran yellow and it was unable to sustain any kind of plant or animal life.

On occasions the Don and Sheaf have broken free, sometimes with deadly and destructive consequences. The ancient Lady’s Bridge survived the most recent flooding in 2007, when both rivers overflowed, but the Wicker and surrounding streets were submerged, sweeping a pedestrian to his death.

Part of the Megatron storm drain that runs beneath Sheffield City Centre (credit: Picture Sheffield)

In ancient times rivers were regarded as female and some believe the Don took its name from Danu, a Celtic goddess.  The Romans built a fort, Danum, where it flows through present-day Doncaster and the name is also found in the river Danube. In folklore, you can never be certain about anything, but I’m sure that medieval travellers who crossed the Don at Lady’s Bridge would not want to take any chances. Perhaps this explains the instinctive urge to throw coins and other precious objects ‘for luck’ into pools and springs.

A still from the eerie 1973 public information film, The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Waters,. The voice over is provided by Donald Pleasance (credit: YouTube)

This custom persists into the present day. Guitarist Russell Senior, of Pulp, recalls how he and Jarvis Cocker, as teenagers, cast coins into the river near the Wicker to appease ‘the spirit of dark and lonely water’. This was no ghost, but an imaginary Bergmanesque figure, in a monk’s robe, who appears in a scary 1973 public information film that warned children to stay away from riverbanks.

There is more evidence of Cocker’s interest in the Don and its folklore in the lyrics of Pulp’s song Wickerman (2001):

‘… we gazed down at the sludgy brown surface of the water together.
Then a passer-by told us that it used to be a local custom to jump off the viaduct into the river
When coming home from the pub on a Saturday night. But that this custom had died out when someone jumped
Landed too near to the riverbank
Had sunk in the mud there & drowned before anyone could reach them.’

The Don’s dangerous reputation can be traced back to the middle ages when Sheffielders referred to it as the Dun, rhyming with the word son. Dun is also an old English word for dark and the historian Joseph Hunter recorded a sinister old phrase, popular in the 18th century:

The shelving, slimy river Dun

Each year a daughter or a son

Hunter thought this might point to a time when sacrifices, animal or even human, were offered to water spirits.

Many rivers were once believed to demand a quota of victims. The Dart in Devonshire and the Ure in Yorkshire took one life each year. The Ribble in Lancashire was happy with a sacrifice every seventh year, but could be appeased by the offering of a small bird or animal.

Thankfully today’s river Don is anything but sinister. Its reputation as a ‘horrible, sludgy, dirty and smelly’ stretch of water is long gone. Heron and otter have returned to its banks and last year plans were announced to reintroduce salmon.

As David Bramwell says, in his radio programme, ‘the wrongs committed to Danu by Vulcan, the harsh overlord of the steel industry, in the name of progress and industrialisation’ are now a thing of the past.

BBC Radio 3 Between the Ears: Danu – Dead Flows the Don is available on Listen Again.

Learn more about Castlegate and plans for the excavation of the ruins at Friends of Sheffield Castle 


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

100 years of Fake News: The German Corpse Factory


Corpse Factory cartoon drawn by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, creator of ‘Old Bill’

False stories that masquerade as real news are not a product of the modern age. But few realise the modern era of ‘Fake News‘ began one hundred years ago – during the carnage of the First World War.

In the spring of 1917 some of Britain’s most influential newspapers published stories about the German Corpse Factory – a fake news story has been called ‘the master hoax’ and ‘the most appalling atrocity story’ of the 1914-18 conflict.

Listen to my interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme (17 February 2017) here – marking 100 years since the birth of the Corpse Factory legend. 

After three years of war and an Allied naval blockade, Germany was desperately short of some of the most basic materials that were needed for its manufacturing industry. Meanwhile, Britain was plotting to bring China into the war against Germany.

In March the English-language North China Herald claimed the country’s president had been horrified when a visiting German admiral boasted the Kaiser’s forces were ‘extracting glycerine out of dead soldiers’.

Rumours had been circulating since 1915, both in France and on the Home Front, that German war dead were being converted into munitions, animal feed and soap.

As one soldier put it ‘then other folk eat the pigs and poultry, so you may say it’s cannibalism. Fritz calls his margarine “corpse fat” because they suspect that’s what it comes from.’

But until 1917 these stories had not been presented as facts by any official source in the Allied countries.  That was until Lord Northcliffe’s  press empire amplified the gruesome claims and printed accounts from sources who claimed to have visited the Kadaververwertungsansatalt (‘Corpse-Utilisation Factory’).

A;lfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, owner of The Times and Daily Mail in 1917 (credit: Wikipedia)

Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, owner of The Times and Daily Mail in 1917 (credit: Wikipedia)

Lord Northcliffe’s anti-German vitriol had so much impact that he was offered the post of director of propaganda by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. On 17 April 1917 two of his papers, The Times and the Daily Mail published what they claimed was convincing evidence the German Army were using a gruesome ‘corpse factory’  behind their front line.

The Times ran the story under the headline Germans and their Dead, attributing the claim to two sources – a Belgian newspaper published in England and a story that originally appeared in a German newspaper, Berliner Lokalanzeiger.

The latter was a short account by reporter Karl Rosner who described an unpleasant smell ‘as if lime was being burnt’ as he passed the a factory behind the German lines. He said the fats that were rendered there were turned into lubricating oils and manure, adding ‘nothing can be permitted to go to waste’.

Rosner used the word Kadaver, that referred to the bodies of animals – mainly horses and mules – not human bodies.

But the Daily Mail described this as a ‘callous admission’ by the Germans that the factory was for ‘extracting oils, fats and pig-food from the bodies of German private soldiers killed in battle’.

The Times quoted an anonymous account from a Belgian source who said bodies arrived at the plant on trains where they were unloaded by workers who ‘wear oilskin overalls and masks with mica eyepieces’.

extract from a report on the Hun 'corpse factory' published by The Times in April 1917

extract from a report on the Hun ‘corpse factory’ published by The Times in April 1917

Long hooked poles were used to ‘push the bundles of bodies to an endless chain, which picks them with big hooks…The bodies are transported on this endless chain into a long, narrow compartment, where they pass through a bath which disinfects them. They then go through a drying chamber, and finally are carried into a digester or great cauldron, in which they are dropped by an apparatus …In the digester they remain for six to eight hours, and are treated by steam, which breaks them up while they are slowly stirred by machinery’.

Soon afterwards the Daily Express weighed in with a story that accused the Germans of cannibalism. The paper claimed the Corpse-Utilisation Works or ‘fat farm’, as it was known by German soldiers, was established soon after the slaughter on the Somme in 1916.

‘Some people believe that there is only one German factory for this damnable work out of which Germans are making handsome dividends,’ it claimed. ‘This is not so. The factories are established in each army area, including Rumania. This the Germans have admitted’.

A cartoon published by Punch presented the story under the caption “CANNON FODDER – AND AFTER”. It shows the German emperor addressing a new recruit: ‘…and don’t forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you – alive or dead’.

The German government protested against what they called ‘loathsome and ridiculous’ claims they said were the result of a deliberate mis-translation of the German word Kadaver.

But their protests fell on deaf ears as both the Chinese ambassador and the Maharajah of Biikanir issued public expressions of horror at German treatment of their dead, the latter warning if the bodies of Indian soldiers were treated in this way this’ would be regarded as an atrocity that would never be forgotten or forgiven.’

Punch cartoon from April 1917.

Punch cartoon from April 1917.

In Parliament, responding to questions from MPs, Lord Robert Cecil, Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, said: ‘in view of other actions by the German military authorities there is nothing incredible in the present charge against them.’

But the German Corpse Factory did not exist. It was propaganda – designed to demonise the Germans and entice the Chinese to join the Allied forces. Propaganda always involves some form of deception, ‘whether through outright lying, omission of important information, distortion or misdirection’, according to Professor Piers Robinson of the University of Sheffield.

Some historians have blamed the Northcliffe newspapers for spreading this most false of WW1 fake news stories. But until now no one has been able to find conclusive proof that would settle the mystery of who created the story and set it running.

In 1928 Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby, in his book Falsehood in Wartime, pointed the finger of blame at the British government and their friends in the press who, he claimed, had both ’encouraged and connived’ in spreading the lie across the world.

For its part, the government failed to issue a complete denial until 1925 when Sir Austen Chamberlain admitted, in a Commons statement, there was ‘never any foundation’ for what he called ‘this false report’.

But in the same year the Conservative MP John Charteris, who as a Brigadier General had served as head of intelligence under Douglas Haig during the war, whilst on a lecture tour of the USA, reportedly admitted he had fabricated the story.

The Daily Express weighs in with its own 'corpse factory' propaganda, April 1917

The Daily Express weighs in with its own ‘corpse factory’ propaganda, April 1917

The New York Times revealed how Charteris, at a private dinner, confessed to having transposed captions from one of two photographs found on captured German soldiers. One showed a train taking dead horses to be rendered, the other showed a train taking dead soldiers for burial. The photo of the horses had the word ‘cadaver’ written upon it and Charteris ‘had the caption transposed to the picture showing the German dead, and had the photograph sent to a Chinese newspaper in Shanghai.’

The story was planted in the full knowledge that it would be followed up by European newspapers and generate horror and anti-German feelings.

On his return to Britain Charteris denied making the remarks and, since that time, no one has been able to discover the photographs or any paper-trail that would prove the intelligence services connived with the press to promote the corpse factory lie.

But I found what I believe to be one of the photographs in Foreign Office documents at The National Archives in Kew. The black and white image, dated 17 September 1917, clearly shows bodies of German soldiers, tied in bundles, on a train just as Charteris had described in 1925.

The covering letter, from a MI7 officer at Whitehall, is addressed to the Director of Information, Lt Col John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). It offers ‘a photograph of Kadavers, forwarded by General Charteris for propaganda purposes’.

One of the captured German photographs used by MI7 for propaganda in 1917 (credit: The National Archives)

One of the captured German photographs showing ‘kadavers’ that were sent to British intelligence for potential use as propaganda in 1917 (Crown Copyright – The National Archives)

MI7 were a military intelligence branch that specialised in anti-German propaganda in neutral countries. From 1916 its recruits were busily writing corpse factory pamphlets for translation into a number of foreign languages for distribution in Europe and the Far East.  The branch was disbanded in 1918 because its work had been accomplished and according to one historian its records were destroyed on the grounds they could have been incriminating.

But we know that in 1917 MI7 employed 13 officers and 25 paid writers, some whom moonlighted as ‘special correspondents’ for national newspapers.  One of their most talented writers was Major Hugh Pollard who combined his secret work with the role of special correspondent for the Daily Express, whose proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, became Minister of Information in 1918.

A 'corpse factory' story from the regional press

A ‘corpse factory’ story from the regional press

After the war Pollard confessed his role to his cousin, Ivor Montague, who writing in 1970, recalled

‘…how we laughed at his cleverness when he told us how his department had launched the account of the German corpse factories and of how the Hun was using the myriads of trench-war casualties for making soap and margarine. He explained that he had originally thought up the idea himself to discredit the enemy among the populations of Oriental countries, hoping to play upon the respect for the dead that goes with ancestor-worship. To the surprise of the authorities it had caught on, and they were now making propaganda out of it everywhere…the tears ran down his cheeks as he told us the story they had circulated of a consignment of soap from Germany arriving in Holland and being buried with full military honours. But even for us, the taste of some of his tales began to grow sour after he became a Black and Tan.’

For those who spread fake news in 1917 the Germans were so evil that anything could be used as a weapon against them – including rumours and lies. But lies have consequences. During the 1930s the corpse factory was used by the Nazis as proof of British perfidy during the Great War.

Historians Joachim Neander and Randal Marlin remind us how these false stories ‘encouraged later disbelief when early reports circulated about the Holocaust under Hitler, thus contributing to the early lack of response by nations asked to accept Jewish refugees’.

An edited version of this blogpost can be found on the BBC News website here. Social media coverage of the Corpse Factory story can be followed on Storify here..


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments