Churchill’s Secret War

Winston Churchill’s interest in strange phenomena and UFOs makes the cover story in the November 2018 issue of Fortean Times magazine.

Top Secret War chronicles the British Prime Minister’s curiosity about a range of unexplained phenomena during his long career as army officer, politician, wartime leader and writer/journalist.

Richard Nixon is said to have described him as the only political leader in history ‘who has his own crystal ball’.

Many people are familiar with Churchill’s famous 1952 memo to the Air Ministry demanding to know ‘the truth’ about flying saucers.

But fewer know that he ordered the very earliest British government inquiry into a UFO sighting in 1912, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty.

Or that in 1939, as the world stood on the brink of WW2, he took time out to write a lengthy essay on the possibility that ET life existed outside our solar system – and came out to say he believed this was a distinct probability.

Or that he took a personal interest in the controversial prosecution of  spiritualist medium Helen Duncan during World War 2, that has been described (wrongly) as the ‘last Witchcraft Trial’.

Is there a common thread linking these disparate expressions of interest? Did Churchill ever learn ‘the truth’ about UFOs? And did he really believe in the existence of supernatural forces, as Major Wellesley Tudor Pole told a friend in 1964?

My research into Churchill’s papers at the University of Cambridge and at The National Archives have thrown up some intriguing clues. Read my article and make up your own mind.

Fortean Times 372 (November 2018) is available from newsagents or via subscription.


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Six Months, Five Podcasts

During the past six months I have contributed to five Fortean-themed podcasts reflecting the range of my UFO and legend-related research interests.

Brian J Robb who curates the monthly Sounds Peculiar round-up in the excellent Fortean Times magazine says that podcasting has been enjoying something of a boom recently.

Judging by the numbers of paranormal and UFO-themed podcasts currently vying for attention online it seems this medium provides a far better depth of coverage than mainstream media of contemporary legends and associated beliefs.

I was keen to see what all the fuss was about, so I started with possibly one of the best: Mark Norman’s Folklore Podcast @folklorepod, that celebrated its second birthday in July by hitting half a million downloads via its hosting site.

On New Year’s Day Mark featured my on-going research into the 1980s tabloid urban legend, The Curse of the Crying Boy, in episode 34 of the Folklore Podcast (time 50 minutes). His website also features podcasts covering the whole range of modern folkloric and Fortean beliefs and experiences: ghosts, fairies, black dogs, witchcraft and, of course, Slenderman.

In March I presented a summary of two decades working on the UK Ministry of Defence UFO files in a public lecture at The National Archives in Kew, southwest London. The lecture was recorded and released as a podcast (time: 1 hour, 8 minutes). It can be downloaded here.

The much anticipated release of the MoD’s final three UFO policy files were the hot topic from the spring of 2018 when The Guardian’s Damien Gayle broke my exclusive story based on their content.

In April former Kerrang! and LBC radio presenter Nick Margerrison invited me to talk about UFO-related conspiracy beliefs and my investigative work on the MoD’s secret files on his fortnightly show. The podcast that emerged can be downloaded here.

Following Nick’s interview in June I took part in Gimlet Media’s Science Vs special ‘UFOs: What the Government Covered Up‘. Despite the title this show concentrated on the standard ‘does ET life exist and is it visiting us?’ theme. Presented by Wendy Zuckerman it also featured contributions from astronomers Dr Jill Tarter, Dr Seth Shostak and Professor Jim Al Khalili (time: approx 38 minutes).

Last but not least on 26 July I spent two hours in discussion with Linda Moulton Howe and co-presenter John Burroughs on the KGRA radio show Phenomena. Topics covered included the Rendlesham forest UFO incident, Winston Churchill’s interest in flying saucers and my 20 year campaign, using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), to persuade the British government to open up their UFO archives to the public.

The show can be downloaded as a MP3 from the KGRA-db archives here.

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Vintage UFO magazines and books for sale

I have a number of vintage UFO and UFO-related magazines and books for sale. These include a run of back issues of the London-based Flying Saucer Review, starting in 1961, and back issues of the US ‘zine Official UFO.

For a full listing see:

If you wish to purchase any of the material listed below please contact me by email and be prepared to make an offer (including postage and packing).


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Black Projects, UFOs and the mysterious MO D-Notice

Has the Ministry of Defence ever suppressed media stories about Black Project aircraft operating secretly over the British Isles?

Artist’s impression of the Aurora hypersonic spy-plane (credit: “User:Henrickson” (By [1]), CC BY-SA 3.0,

For many years conspiracy-minded aviation writers and UFOlogists have claimed the government has, on occasions, used its contacts in the Press to censor stories about visits to the UK by US top secret experimental aircraft.

The fact that some of these covert programmes have triggered UFO flaps was acknowledged by the MoD’s Defence Intelligence UFO report released in 2006.

But few understand how the shadowy D-Notice system (now known as DSMA system) actually operates.

And so the scent went cold – until now.

Earlier this year I obtained copies of the MoD’s last remaining UAP policy files using the Freedom of Information Act

Until these files emerged I could find no convincing hard evidence of any attempt by the MoD to use national security to stifle stories about UFOs or Black Project aircraft.

But the new files – with-held by MoD for four years for unexplained reasons – contain working papers used by the intelligence officer who produced the 4-volume Condign report (UAPs in the UK Air Defence Region).

The acronym UAPs – unidentified aerial phenomena – was used by the Defence Intelligence branch DI55 as a neat cover for their UFO investigations until his ‘definitive’ report, delivered in 2000, recommended they should discontinue their interest in the subject.

In his UK Restricted minute ‘Wrap Up of UAP Material’ dated 22 March 2000 the report’s author – a retired RAF scientist – refers to a collection of slides and photographs that he consulted in the MoD’s archive.

The UK Restricted memo that refers to a D-Notice issued in the 1990s on the Astra/Aurora project (Copright: Dr david Clarke)

These contained images of the ‘ASTRA/AURORA‘ project – a top secret, hypersonic Cold War spyplane.

The author goes on to note ‘there was a Press D-Notice issued at the time‘.

This is the first solid evidence to emerge that refers to the involvement of the former D-Notice committee in the Aurora saga.

It is also consistent with redactions that  were made to a super-sensitive section of the Condign report before it was released to me following my Freedom of Information request in 2006.

Volume 2 of the report contains a part-censored section on Black Project aircraft in which the author states ‘some UAP reports can be attributed to covert aircraft programmes’ and adds ‘certain viewing angles of these vehicles may be described as saucer-like’.

It begins with a reference to other known Black project aircraft such as the SR-71 Blackbird but contains two paragraphs and two images that were redacted under Section 27 of the FOIA that covers ‘international relations’. These may be the same images mentioned in his 2000 ‘Wrap up of UAP material’ memo.

UFO files released by The National Archives in 2010 revealed how the UFO desk contacted the secretary of the DA-Notice committee for guidance on how they should answer a public inquiry about censorship of media stories concerning Stealth-shaped UFOs.

In 1996 the now defunct magazine UFO Reality claimed a high-ranking BBC producer had revealed how the media had been warned off taking an interest in a flap of sightings involving triangular UFOs ‘because the craft is part of a secret military project’.

But the secretary of the Defence Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee fired back with a categorical denial there was any D-Notice covering ‘reports of black triangles’. This was true – there was and is no standing D-Notice that specifically refers to either Black Projects or UFOs.

The DPBAC was reformed in 2015 to become the Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee (DSMA).

Like its predecessor this is a joint government/media operated system whereby editors and individual journalists can obtain confidential guidance on how to avoid what the secretary calls ‘inadvertent disclosure of information damaging to the UK’s national security and defence’.

The committee publishes five standing ‘DSMA notices’ (formerly D-Notices) that can be viewed here. None of the standing DSMA notices specifically relate to US stealth aircraft in UK territory.

But that does not mean that a notice – or informal advice – has never been offered to editors in connection with a specific sensitive incident or event.

The whole system is based upon voluntary self-censorship by the media. Editors who voluntary consult the DSME secretary about a story ‘sometimes decide to limit what is published and sometimes publish information that they might otherwise have left out’ (Hanna & Dodd, McNaes Law for Journalists).

But whatever editors decide to do, the committee has no powers to enforce their advice in law.

Many journalists refuse to engage with the committee – because it encourages self-censorship. Jacob Ecclestone of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said the NUJ should ‘turn the spotlight of publicity on this thoroughly rotten mechanism of government control’ (The Journalist, March 2006).

I have evidence to suspect the defence notices may have been issued in two specific instances during the 1990s.

D-Notice Case 1: The Boscombe Down incident

The first was the alleged crash of a top secret US Stealth aircraft at Boscombe Down airfield in Wiltshire on 26 September 1994. Reports about the incident first appeared in an edition of Air Forces Monthly.

RAF Boscombe Down in Wiltshire – site of a 1994 UFO incident that was subject to a D-Notice by the MoD (picture credit: Wikipedia)

This claimed how, at 11pm, ‘an unidentified small, twin-tail fighter’ possibly a TR-3 Black Manta  ‘the existence of which the US government has yet to officially acknowledge’ had crashed into the runway.

By daylight, the aircraft had been covered over, apart from its twin fins, and all roads around the airfield had been sealed off. The magazine said two days later the wreck was loaded onto a C5 Galaxy and flown to Palmdale in California.

The alleged incident became the subject of a Parliamentary question from Don Valley MP Martin Redmond in 1994.  The response, from Defence Minister Nicholas Soames was ‘there was no crash at the unit on that date or, indeed, so far this year. The only flying which took place that night was the launch of two Royal Navy Sea King helicopters in support of an exercise’. Details of ‘the exercise’ were not provided.

When the Sunday People followed up the story in 1997 the MoD again told ministers, in a briefing, that no such crash had occurred. They suggested the story was based upon an emergency landing made by a RAF Tornado one month earlier, after a decoy target under trial had failed to jettison.

D-Notice Case 2: The Calvine Incident

A second mysterious incident, four years earlier, may also reveal the hidden hand of the censors. In August 1990 the Scottish Daily Record in Glasgow were sent six colour slides showing a large diamond-shaped UFO that had been taken by two men walking near the A9 at Calvine in Perthshire.

Desk officers suspected the image might show a USAF black project aircraft, perhaps the fabled Aurora. They sent the images to JARIC,  the RAF’s specialist photographic analysis agency. Experts there identified two Harrier jets flying alongside the mysterious object. But surprisingly, inquiries failed to trace the Harriers. The MoD say none were flying at the time of the incident.

A one-page ‘defensive Press briefing’ was prepared by the UFO desk officer Owen Hartop. This was an unusual step as the MoD rarely prepared media briefings on individual UFO cases.  Hartop clearly expected the story to break in the national media. But inexplicably, the Daily Record did not publish the story. This omission has never been explained by the editors of the Trinity Mirror-owned title.

In 2009 I made informal inquiries with the picture editor and librarian of the newspaper who I expected would remember the striking photographs arriving at the paper. But there was no recollection whatsoever of the event or how the story came to be spiked. This struck me – and them – as very odd indeed.

Soon after the negatives were sent to MoD in 1990 the trail goes cold and the original images have vanished – never to be seen again. Despite national publicity the photographer has never come forward either to explain what happened.

But a UFO file released in 2009 shows the MoD’s Defence Intelligence Staff still possessed prints of the photographs two years after they were received from the Daily Record.

In 1992 -soon after questions were asked in Parliament about the Aurora project – DI55 asked JARIC to produce detailed line drawings of the Calvine UFO. The order highlighted the “sensitivity of material suggests very special handling”.

The only surviving evidence of the Calvine UFO is a poor photocopy of one of the original prints that appears in one of the DIS UFO files.

I cannot prove the MoD used a D-Notice in the Calvine incident. Neither am I convinced the photographs show ‘Aurora’, if such a craft ever existed. But it may well show some other experimental aircraft, British or American in origin.

What I cannot explain is why the Daily Record did not run the story. Furthermore, neither can the Daily Record…

One of the mysterious Calvine UFO photographs – that vanished soon after they were sent to the MoD by the Scottish Daily Record (Crown Copyright – The National Archives)

So where does this evidence trail lead us?

My inquiries with the DSMA committee have confirmed that no records exist of any specific D or DA Notice that relates solely to US stealth aircraft in UK territory.

But because records before 2005 are incomplete that does not mean none were ever issued – or that informal advice was never given to newspaper editors and other media executives (including broadcast editors).

Conveniently, advice offered by the DSMA committee is ‘confidential’ and provided informally.

This type of intervention would by its very nature leave no paper trail.


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Why Britain’s MoD closed the UFO files: exclusive new evidence

Newly-released British intelligence files reveal the hidden agenda behind the MoD’s decision to close down their 50 year investigation of UFOs.

Image copyright Dr David Clarke

The last three UFO files produced by the UK’s defence intelligence branch DI55 were originally with-held from the records earmarked for transfer to The National Archives as part of the open government project that ran from 2008-13.

During that time I acted as the consultant/advisor for the project that led to the release of 210 declassified UFO files, ahead of the 30 year rule, at Britain’s National Archives.  I was given a commitment in writing by MoD that a few remaining files, including those marked DI55 UFO policy, would soon follow them into the public domain.

But five years passed and, after a series of baffling administrative hold-ups, unexplained ‘issues’ and lame excuses I began to suspect they must contain some smoking gun that MoD were desperate to conceal.

Then early in January this year a complete set of redacted copies were sent to me ahead of their transfer to the UK National Archives in Kew.

The files run to more than 2500 pages and some of the more sensitive papers, declassified from Secret, have been heavily redacted.

But what has survived the censor’s pen paints a fascinating picture of the arguments that raged behind closed doors in Whitehall around the 50th anniversary of the UFO mystery in 1997.

Within the files civil servants, intelligence officers and military staff debate how the British Government should respond to growing public interest in the phenomena and what they called ‘the media’s obsession with UFOs’.

One UK restricted memo from 2000 reveals the MoD issued a D-Notice (defence advisory notice) to the media as part of an attempt to conceal visits by top secret US Stealth aircraft to UK airspace.

And hidden deep within more than two thousand pages of internal exchanges lay a more disturbing aspect of their interest in the subject – and their decision to pull the plug on more than half a century monitoring UFO reports.

Extract from one of the new files refers to the famous Rendlesham Forest UFO incident (Copyright Dr David Clarke)

As the Defence Intelligence branch responsible for the investigation of UFO reports, DI55 secretly collected data on sightings from 1967 until the end of 2000.

During this time, the MoD’s publicly acknowledged branch Secretariat (Air Staff) 2, popularly known as the UFO desk, copied all sighting reports they received to their opposite numbers in the DIS. But they had no ‘need to know’ what happened to the data they sent to intelligence staffers.

The new papers show the UFO desk head in 1997 ‘wanted to get rid of’ an issue they considered a ‘diversion from their main duties’. But her opposite number in DI55 – a RAF Wing Commander – disagreed with their ostrich-like stance.

He argued that as MoD had not carried out any study of the UFO data they had collected since the 1970s it was not credible – and also politically risky – to continue to claim UFOs posed no ‘threat to the realm’.

And he compared UFOs, whatever they were, to Soviet intruder aircraft that routinely penetrated UK airspace during the Cold War: ‘They have never shown any hostile intent but they certainly represented a threat,’ he said, adding:

“It could be argued that UAPs pose a potential threat to the Defence of the Realm since we have no idea what they are!”

But in 2000 the head of Defence Intelligence, P.H. West, asked the UFO desk to stop copying reports of strange objects in the sky to DI55, even those from ‘credible’ sources such as police officers and air traffic control.

At the time the precise reason for this extraordinary decision remained an official secret.

It was only in 2006, when I used the new Freedom of Information Act to request a full explanation, that the existence of a secret DI55 study of UFOs emerged. In that year MoD admitted – in response to my FOI request – their decision to pull the plug followed the delivery of a 3-volume report with the title UAPs in the UK Air Defence Region [archive download].

This became known as the Condign report after the code-word used by the MoD that means ‘a severe and well deserved punishment’ (OED).

The Condign project – classified Secret – UK Eyes Only (Copyright Dr David Clarke)

This study, based upon analysis of a computer database of UFO reports, was commissioned in 1996 and classified Secret with the caveat UK Eyes Only.

The DIS used the acronym UAPunidentified aerial phenomena – to avoid the popular connotation that objects or craft of extraterrestrial origin had been observed or tracked by the military.

Before 2006 the MoD was keen to conceal any reference to the existence of the study because of the potential for what it called ‘political embarrassment’. For decades MPs, Press and members of the public had been routinely told that no public money had been spent on any study of the thousands of UFO reports they had received since the 1960s.

Yet in response to a Parliamentary Question from Norman Baker MP in 2007, MoD admitted £50,000 had been paid to an existing defence contractor to produce the UFO report that was completed in 2000.  Defence Minister Adam Ingram said: ‘[The] report was circulated within the DIS and to other branches of the Ministry of Defence and RAF’.

former Liberal Democrat MP and Minister, Norman Baker

Following delivery of the report, DIS quietly shut down its UFO unit in 2000. Nine years later, in November 2009, the MoD announced it was closing its UFO desk and telephone hotline.

In Parliament Ingram refused to name the author of the report, saying the contractor’s name was being withheld under the Data Protection Act (DPA).

But my investigations discovered he is a retired RAF pilot and intelligence officer who flew top secret missions during the Cold War.

His expertise lay in Electronic Warfare, radar, air defence and guided weapons.

This made him a perfect candidate for the MoD’s UFO expert and the files suggest that he had offered advice to DI55 on ‘aerial phenomena’ for some years before he was awarded the contract for the study.

During the 1980s he advised on the sensor aspects of the Pentagon’s ‘Star Wars’ missile programme. Until his retirement he worked for GEC-Marconi, the premier electronics company in the UK, now part of BAE Systems.

According to his own published biography ‘for the whole of this period he was also a consultant-analyst to a department in the MoD, travelling extensively for NATO, for industry and for government’.

The new papers reveal this man also had a personal interest in UFOs. In one of his memos to the UFO desk he refers to his own sighting of ‘aerial phenomena’ whilst flying with the RAF in 1950s. He does not reveal any further details in the files, but he was unhappy when the UFO desk officer copied his letter to another branch as he wished ‘to keep a low profile’.

Throughout the three year project, he was based at the MoD’s Old War Office building  in Whitehall, central London and had privileged access to the then secret Defence Intelligence UFO files stored there.

The Old War Office building in Trafalgar Square: for 3 years, 1997-2000 this was the HQ for Britain’s secret UFO study (Credit: Wikipedia)

He worked under a cloak of secrecy that would not be out of place in a James Bond movie. Only his secretary knew the project code-name and she was asked ‘not to use the term UFO on the phone’.

The new files reveal even his opposite numbers on the MoD’s UFO desk were kept out of the loop because DI55 regarded civilians as prone to ‘leakiness’.

The logo used by the UK’s Defence Intelligence branch responsible for UFO investigations until 2000

The head of DI55 ordered the report’s author, at the outset, to focus his attention only ‘on the possible threat to the UK and technology acquisition’ and not ‘X-files activities such as alien abductions’.

What was he looking for?

On receiving these files I sifted through pages of administrative tedium before the real reason for intelligence interest in UFOs emerged. There are a number of intriguing references to ‘technology acquisition’, including from the author’s working notes:

Try to discover whether any scientific facts can be elicited from these phenomena – whatever they might be – which might be made use of by UK for military purposes’.

In particular ‘propulsion, stealth and novel electromagnetic technologies are of particular interest’.

What type of technology? Was it Russian, Chinese or alien technology?

Some intelligence officers expressed belief in the existence of a ‘real’ phenomenon. In a April 1997 policy document another DI officer refers to ‘Extraterrestrial Objects’ (ETOs) as one potential explanation for UFOs, adding:

Being an objective, open-minded scientist, I do not dismiss out of hand the possibility of intelligent life evolving somewhere outside of our own solar system. The laws of probability would indicate a finite, albeit small likelihood’.

But he admits that DI55 had no hard evidence ‘that visitations have occurred’ and:

‘…if credibility is given to ET a judgement needs to be made about which government department is best suited to address it. There’s a job to keep GCHQ occupied!’

According to his report, even within the most secret files in the MoD’s archive there were no unexplained artefacts from UFO crashes, no radiation readings, no electronic or signals intelligence or even any reliable photographs – apart from those showing Black Project aircraft such as the Top Secret ASTRA/AURORA project.

Reference to the secret Aurora project in the new files (Copyright: David Clarke)

The UK MoD’s long experience demonstrated that most sighting reports could be explained by a range known phenomena, both natural and man-made.

Over time DI55 desk officers began to refer to the residue of genuine unknowns as UAPs: ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’. They preferred UAP as this allowed them to use this terminology to disguise their interest in what everyone else called UFOs.

The Condign report’s author decided UAPs were real but not ET spacecraft. He came to believe they were ‘atmospheric plasmas’.

His conclusion was based on a survey of the scientific and UFOlogical literature that included some very unreliable material from Russian sources and popular books on earthquake lights and ball lightning.

In his conclusions he goes further, making recommendations for the UK military to investigate how these plasmas could be harnessed and used as advanced weaponry on future battlefields.

But at no point in his 463 page report does he say ‘atmospheric plasmas’ are a theoretical concept and not proven. The fact remains that ‘plasmas’ are no more valid than extraterrestrials as a scientific explanation for the unexplained residue of UFO sightings.

The new papers also show his plasma theory was not taken seriously by his superiors. There is no evidence any of his recommendations were acted upon. All, that is, except one, from the Executive Summary:

…it should no longer be a requirement for DI55 to monitor UAP reports as they do not demonstrably provide information useful for Defence Intelligence’

In this declassified document the author of the Condign report reveals his conclusions, even before the study commenced (Copyright David Clarke)

But we now know this decision was taken long before the study was completed, as a ‘UK Restricted’ minute dated 16 April 1998 reveals. In this document the report’s author writes:

‘I am particularly looking ahead to my expected recommendation, that DI55 should no longer be involved in UAP monitoring’.

He goes on to add that someone ‘will have to explain why this is so…[because] when/if the “ufologists” discover this, then they will inevitably ask:

  • ” Is there no further intelligence interest because MoD now know (for certain) what these phenomena are?
  •  How could this conclusion have been reached without doing research or having some sort of intelligence confirmation
  • If there was nothing to worry about, why couldn’t this conclusion have been reached earlier?
  • Were MoD aware of “black”/covert aircraft in [UK Airspace] at all times (safety aspects) and so why the public no re-assured”

If there is a smoking gun, this is it.

This document reveals the MoD’s real agenda was the requirement for a definitive conclusion that would allow them to justify their decision to halt all further public work on the UFO issue. And it may also explain why these files were held back for so long.

Whether secret work on UAPs continues somewhere in the British military, perhaps outsourced to another contractor, remains an intriguing and unanswered question.

BBC report on the secret Pentagon UFO study 2017

But in December 2017 the Pentagon confirmed that a similar project operated in the USA, despite denials, from 2008 to 2012, hidden under the title Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP).

The Condign report’s recommendations also allowed MoD remove the secret-squirrel defence intelligence staff from the whole troublesome UFO issue, once and for all.

Only time will tell whether they have succeeded.

Copyright Dr David Clarke 2018

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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).

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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’.


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