Codename Rendlesham

The Rendlesham Forest incident challenges Roswell as the most influential UFO legend in popular culture.

New documentary Codename Rendlesham premiered January 2020

Next Christmas marks the 40th anniversary of the story that began on Boxing Day morning, 26 December 1980. This marked the beginning of three nights when USAF personnel saw ‘unexplained lights’ in the sky – and near the ground – beyond the perimeter of RAF Woodbridge, part of a NATO complex on the Suffolk coast near Ipswich.

Dozens of books, articles, newspaper stories, TV documentaries (and a forthcoming drama series) have riffed on the basic story that has grown and mutated with every passing year. As the legend moves into its fourth decade there is an ever growing cast of story-tellers and alleged experiencers, all armed with rival versions of the story. Each personality has their own group of followers ready to engage in flame-wars to win the credibility battle with rival story-tellers.

And like every good legend the ongoing debate about what is true and what is false between the believers and the skeptics helps to keeps the story alive and relevant. Whereas debate over Roswell is now stale and moribund, Rendlesham – often dubbed Britain’s Roswell – is full of latent energy, mainly because unlike its great grandaddy all the key eyewitnesses are alive and well, and always ready to intervene in the debate.

It is this debate – concerning the status of the few clear facts and the elaborate legend that has grown up around the rival narratives – that is examined superbly in an intriguing new documentary Codename Rendlesham, released on 28 January 2020.

The film can be downloaded at this link.

Codename Rendlesham is the product of more than a decade of work by film-maker Adrian Frearson of independent documentary makers Chill Factor Films.

It is billed as a deconstruction of the legend and it performs this function very well during the course of one hour running time.

It avoids the more sensational tropes that have emerged more recently, particularly those concerning alleged cover-ups and contactee stories. Instead, it concentrates on the how the story first emerged and how it developed, placing factual evidence under a withering examination.

News of the events began in true urban legend style as a series of rumours spread by the airmen to local resident, and UFO-believer, Brenda Butler. Eventually it reached investigator Jenny Randles and the UFO literature. But even then it took another two years for it to break into public consciousness with the release, under the US Freedom of Information Act, of Lt Col Charles Halt’s famous memo to the British Ministry of Defence.

Halt’s memo was splashed across the front page of the now defunct News of the World in October 1983 and the rest, as they say, is history – or legend.

The headline that broke the story – from the British tabloid The News of the World, October 1983 (Ian Ridpath)

Codename Rendlesham works through the evolution of the legend in satisfying, bite-sized portions, starting with the early investigations and the emergence of the Halt memo and Larry Warren’s story, It provides a clear account of the most satisfying explanation for the events put forward by astronomer Ian Ridpath – who was one of the first to investigate the story on site.

Ian’s theory combines a number of natural phenomena – a fireball meteor and the optical effect of the Orfordness lighthouse, seen from the dark forest. It is simple and consistent with the fact that – as I explain in the documentary – 99% of UFO experiences have been explained as ordinary things seen in extraordinary circumstances.

In the film Adrian spends some time talking to me at The National Archives where I guide him through the contents of the MoD file on the incident – pointing out some of the key problems with the dating and interpretation of ‘evidence’ that has muddied the waters for four decades. I obtained a full copy of the file in 2000 using the precursor to the UK’s Freedom of Information Act and went on to become the consultant for the release of the remaining MoD UFO files at The National Archives from 2008-13.

The film also examines the many ‘hoaxes and high jinks’ that have emerged as the legend grew and metastasized.  These include the alleged involvement of the US 67th ARS space recovery unit and, more recently, the April Fool’s joke planted by someone who wants us to believe the whole event was a prank played by members of the British army’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) in revenge for their rough treatment at the hands of the US guards at the twin-base complex. This story is still doing the rounds and has been recently resurrected by BBC film-maker Simon Holland in a new YouTube series on Rendlesham here.

Unlike many other more lavishly funded documentaries Codename Rendlesham examines the pop culture background to the legend. It picks out links between the story-tellers from Rendlesham and the plots of science fiction films that were released before the events.

Despite being immersed in the subject of years I found these threads provided fresh and unexpected insights – including the low-budget alien crash/conspiracy flik Hangar 18 and the special edition of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Both were showing in cinemas in nearby Ipswich at the time. How many of the young airmen and women at the base saw these films?

Ultimately the story of the Rendlesham forest incident is a microcosm of the UFO myth – a modern myth of things seen in the sky (and, allegedly, on the ground).

Codename Rendlesham reaches no definitive conclusions simply because there are none to be found. But it succeeds in bringing home the sheer Fortean weirdness of the legend and the people who became caught up in it, many of whom have had their lives changed forever.

The idea that visitors from another world – or from our future – landed in the bleak midwinter of a English forest has an everlasting appeal. It triggers something deep within the our imagination and forces us to engage with the deeper mysteries of the universe, which is why myths continue to have such universal appeal.



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Folklore: 10 things you didn’t know about Halloween

What is the history of Halloween and when was it first celebrated? Why do we trick or treat? Why do we carve pumpkins? 

Dr David Clarke of the Centre for Contemporary Legend, Sheffield Hallam University, investigates the origins of this eerie autumn festival.

Pixabay: Andreas Lischka

(1) Most people believe 31 October is an ancient pagan festival associated with the supernatural. But in fact Hallowtide was created in the 9th century AD by christians to commemorate their martyrs and saints. However, in medieval Britain ‘Halloween’ was the eve of the Catholic festival of All Saints or All-Hallows (from Old English ‘Holy Man’) on 1 November. This was followed by the feast of All Souls on 2 November.

(2) There is no evidence the pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated a festival on 1 November, but the Venerable Bede says the month was known as Blod-monath (blood month), when surplus livestock were slaughtered and offered as sacrifices. The truth is there is no written evidence that 31 October was linked to the supernatural in England before the 19th century.

(3) In pre-Christian Ireland 1 November was known as Samhain (summer’e end). This date marked the onset of winter in Gaelic-speaking areas of Britain. It was also the end of the pastoral farming year when cattle were slaughtered and tribal gatherings such as the Feast of Tara were held. In the 19th century the anthropologist Sir James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough (1890) popularised the idea of Samhain as an ancient Celtic festival of the dead when pagan religious ceremonies were held.

(4) The Catholic tradition of offering prayers to the dead, the ringing of church bells and lighting of candles and torches on the Feast of All Saints (1 November) provides the link with the spirit world. In medieval times prayers were said for souls trapped in purgatory. This was believed to be a sort of halfway house on the road to heaven and their ghosts could return to Earth to ask relatives for assistance in the journey.

In Mexico Dia de Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is a three-day festival that runs from 31 October-2 November and combines Catholic and pagan traditions. An account of the 2019 festival published by The Guardian discusses how the festival has evolved from an intimate family occasion when Mexicans remember loved ones who have died into a gigantic public parade, influenced by the opening scene in the 2015 James Bond/007 movie Spectre.

The Day of the Dead parade, credit: Pixabay (Darvin Santos)

(5) Popular Halloween customs in England included ‘souling’ where groups of adults and children wearing costumes visited big houses to sing and collect money and food. Souling was common in parts of Cheshire, Shropshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire on 1 and 2 November. In parts of northern England special cakes were baked and left in churchyards as offerings to the dead.

(6) Until the 19th century bonfires were lit on Halloween in parts of northern England and Derbyshire. Some folklorists believe the enduring popularity of Guy Fawkes bonfires on 5 November may be a memory of an older fire festival, but there is a lack of written evidence for these in England until the late 17th century.

(7) Love divination customs associated with Halloween spread to England from Scotland as a result of the popularity of the Robert Burn poem Halloween in Victorian times. The poem was first published in 1786. One love divination mentioned by Burns includes placing hazelnuts in the fire, naming one for yourself and the other for your partner. If they burn gently and then go out this indicated a long and harmonious life together; if they coughed and spluttered or exploded this indicated problems ahead. Apples were also used for divination purposes with the skin thrown over the shoulder or the fruit floated in water or hung upon strings, to be seized by the teeth of the players.

(8) The tradition of carving a face on a turnip or swede (and more recently pumpkin) and using these as lanterns also seems to be a relatively modern tradition. On the last Thursday in October the children in the Somerset village of Hinton St George carry lanterns made of mangel-wurzles, the light shining through a design etched on the skin. They are carried around the streets as the children chant: ‘It’s Punky Night tonight, It’s Punky Night tonight, Give us a candle, give us a light, It’s Punky Night tonight.’

Copyright David Clarke

(9) Much of the modern supernatural lore surrounding Halloween was invented as recently as the 19th century. Scots and Irish settlers carried a Mischief Night (4 November) visiting custom to North America where it became known as ‘Trick or Treat’. Until the revival of interest in Halloween during the 1970s this American tradition was largely unknown in England. The importation of ‘Trick or Treat’ into parts of England during the 1980s was helped by scenes in American TV programmes and the children’s film E.T.

(10) The idea of Halloween as a festival of supernatural evil forces is entirely a modern invention. Urban legends about razor blades in apples and cyanide in sweets, hauntings by restless spirits and the use of 31 October as the date of evil or inauspicious events in horror films reflect modern fears and terrors. Every year Halloween provokes controversy and divides opinions.  Most people see it as just as a bit of harmless fun. Modern witches claim 31 October marks an ancient pagan festival and some evangelical christians prefer to believe it is celebration of dangerous occult forces. This explains why folklorist Steve Roud calls it ‘the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented day in the festival year’.

Originally published in BBC History Extra, October 2014.

Link to review of Lisa Morton’s book Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween (2019) from The Guardian.

Copyright 2019 : Centre for Contemporary Legend, Sheffield Hallam University


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Reclaiming Robin Hood project

The Centre for Contemporary Legend is working with Sensoria Festival to celebrate the Sheffield region’s ancient links with Robin of Loxley, otherwise known as the folk hero Robin Hood.

Robin Hood statue Doncaster Airport (Credit: Sheffield Newspapers)

Hallamshire – the old name for Sheffield adopted by the university –  is one of the places identified in the medieval legends as Robin’s birthplace. But despite a strong oral tradition in Loxley that can be traced back 500 years the modern city currently has no permanent marker or facilities for those who wish to visit key locations associated with the outlaw.

Sensoria’s theme for 2019-20 is Myths and Legends and this year’s festival kicked off in August with an outdoor screening of what is still considered to be the definitive depiction of the legend on film.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) stars Errol Flynn in all his Lincoln green technicolour glory and Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian. The film calls the outlaw Robin of Loxley and it was fittingly shown to a gathering of local folk in Storrs Wood at Loxley, reputedly the outlaw’s original stomping ground.

The screening was followed by the launch of a locations-based Robin Hood app that is narrated by Reader in Journalism Dr David Clarke. Folklorist Dr Clarke has also contributed a chapter to Sensoria’s illustrated booklet on the folk hero’s South Yorkshire links, published in November.

More here

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DRONES AND UFOs: new data reveals rise in close encounters with aircraft in UK airspace

Aircrew have a reported an increase in the numbers of close encounters between ‘unknown objects’ and passenger aircraft since a drone caused chaos at Gatwick Airport.

Night flying drone or UFO? The UK Airprox Board struggle to define the decide what constitutes an ‘unknown object’ (credit: Image by Pexels from Pixabay)

A pattern of disturbing incidents has emerged from data obtained by a team of investigative journalists from Newsquest Media that I have been collaborating with.

Data released by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) reveals five reports in April this year alone.

And six of the cases involving ‘unknown objects’ reported in the past 12 months have been placed in the highest risk category.

That is defined as circumstances ‘in which serious risk of [a] collision has existed’.

Since May 2017 the joint CAA and military sponsored UK Airprox board (UKAB) have collated a special log of ‘Consolidated Drone/Balloon/Unknown Object reports’.

This breaks down hazards into four categories: drones [remotely piloted vehicles or UAVs], balloons [including toys and meteorological/research balloons], model aircraft and unknown objects.

If a pilot has clearly described a sighting with ‘drone-like properties’ (e.g. ‘four rotors’) then it is classified as a drone.

But ‘if the reporting pilot can only vaguely describe “an object” then it is classified as unknown object’.

In plain English, an unknown object is for all intents and purposes a UFO.

Last year 11 incidents involving ‘unknowns’ were logged. But by the end of this first six months of this year, 12 had been investigated by UKAB.

Graphic showing rise in airprox reports involving drones and ‘other objects’ to June 2019 (credit: Civil Aviation Authority:

Meanwhile the numbers of airprox incidents involving objects categorised as drones, spiralled from just six cases in 2014 – when a pilot reported a ‘air miss’ with a rugby-ball shaped UFO near Heathrow airport – to 125 by 2018.

This drone flap reached its height on 19 December last year when a security guard’s sighting of two objects over Gatwick’s main runway led the authorities to close the airport for 33 hours.

According to a BBC Panorama investigation some 140,000 people were caught up in the disruption that followed.

The shutdown led 1,000 flights to be cancelled or delayed at an estimated cost of £50 million to airlines.

The chaos led Gatwick to call in the military and millions more have been spent on hi-tech jamming technology. The government also moved to widen the exclusion zone around airports from one to five kilometres and police were given more powers to seize drones from their operators.

Sussex Police continue to believe that a real drone or drones were involved in the Gatwick incident. But at an early stage in their investigation doubts were expressed by one of their own senior officers, Det Chief Supt Jason Tingley who told the BBC: ‘We cannot discount the possibility that there may have been no drone at all’.

And further confusion was caused by the police’s decision to launch its own drones to investigate – leading witnesses to see and report them.

BBC News report on chaos at Gatwick airport 20 December 2018 (credit: BBC News)

Yet in April this year Gatwick’s chief operating officer, Chris Woodroofe,  told the BBC the airport authorities had received 130 separate ‘credible drone sightings’ from 115 people including trusted staff such as security patrols.

‘They knew they’d seen a drone. I know they saw a drone,’ Woodroofe said. ‘We appropriately closed the airport’.

But the owners of the mysterious ‘drone’ have never been identified and no reliable footage showing the drone/s has emerged.

According to Gatwick the eye-witnesses described seeing an extremely fast moving, large object with bright lights attached. In any other context this would be classified as a sighting of an unidentified flying object.

UKAB investigates all reported incidents judged to have been a risk to aircraft and their passengers. The log for 2018-19 contains some disturbing cases.

In one example from April a pilot climbing out of Gatwick saw an object pass below the aircraft and under the right-hand wing just 30-50ft below. The small object ‘was contrasted against the clouds and appeared dark green in colour with a white light on top’ and ‘may have been hovering’.

Four months earlier, on 30 December – just ten days after the Gatwick shutdown – a pilot on approach to Glasgow airport saw long object ‘lit up in various places’ pass between 3 and 10 feet of the aircraft at 600 feet.

Toy drones can fly up to several hundred feet but unmanned surveillance drones operated by the military (such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk) are capable of reaching 50,000 feet.

My sources in the aviation industry feel it is much more likely that some of the airprox incidents involving civilian aircraft at higher altitudes involve helium-filled toy balloons. These are often described as ‘silver balls’ or ‘black and shiny metallic in colour’.

The cluster of ‘drone’/UFO reports around the perimeter of Gatwick, Britain’s second largest airport, is nothing new. The MoD closed its UFO desk in 2009 and asked the Civil Aviation Authority not to send it any further reports.

But the MoD’s own files contain many examples of airprox incidents involving civilian aircraft and ‘unknown objects’. An intelligence study of the threat posed by UAPs [unidentified aerial phenomena] completed in the 1990s referred to the increase in ‘unauthorised penetration of UKADGE by unmanned aerial vehicles’ [drones].

The UAP files include several examples from the vicinity of Gatwick Airport long before the current panic.

For instance, on 15 July 1991 the crew of a Britannia Airways Boeing 737 returning from Greece and descending into Gatwick at 14,000 feet saw ‘a small, black lozenge-shaped object’ zoom past at high speed 100 yards off the port side. Gatwick controllers confirmed a ‘primary contact’ was visible on radar 10 nautical miles behind the 737 moving at a speed estimated as 120 mph.

Immediately Gatwick controllers warned the captain of another aircraft and this made ‘avoiding turns to the left to avoid the [UFO], which had appeared to change heading towards it, but its pilot reported seeing nothing’.

The airprox report, completed in April 1992 by a UKAB working group, said they could not explain the incident. But they opined the object might have been an escaped balloon but were ‘unsure what damage could have occurred had the object struck the 737; the general opinion was that there had been a possible risk of collision’.

In 2012 Simon Jack, the Chief Executive of Britain’s National Air Traffic Control Services (NATS), the company employed by the CAA to operate air traffic services in the UK, admitted his controllers often receive reports of flying objects ‘that don’t conform to normal flight patterns’.

But, quizzed on BBC Radio 4, Jack played down the significance of this admission by adding ‘it’s not something that occupies a lot of my time’.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – now called drones – are nothing new. This news report from The Independent in December 1990 predicted ‘the skies over British cities may soon contain tiny, silent aircraft that can see, listen and even scent everything that goes on hundreds of feet below’ (credit: The Independent)

This new evidence suggests that unknown objects and ‘drones’ are now much more of a priority both for Britain’s busy air traffic controllers and those responsible for the air defence of the UK and our allies.

Iin May this year The New York Times reported that strange objects, one of them described as resembling ‘a spinning top’, were frequently seen by US Navy pilots over the East Coast.

In 2014 a Super Hornet pilot filed a near-collision report after a close encounter with one of these ‘unknown objects’and others have been captured on film.

There has been much speculation about US Defense Department projects charged with secret investigations of UFOs in the context of ‘extraterrestrial craft’. But as the Times noted:

‘no one in the [US] Defense Department is saying the objects were extraterrestrial, and experts emphasize that earthly explanations can generally be found for such incidents’.

One of the most obvious explanations is the presence of highly secret unmanned aerial vehicles, or advanced drones operated by the military, that are being tested in combat situations.

The new UKAB data reveals incidents involving military aircraft have also occurred recently in British airspace. In January this year the leader of a formation of Eurofighter Typhoons leaving RAF Coningsby on an exercise spotted ‘a small, metal object’ that reflected sunlight less than one mile away as the aircraft were about to climb from 15-30,000 feet.

The unknown object passed down the left hand side of the fighter and the wingman, following behind, ‘independently saw the same object as it passed over the leader’s aircraft’ about 2,000 feet above them.

In this case nothing was seen on radar but the reported risk of collision was judged to be ‘high’.

RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire is one of two RAF Quick Reaction Alert stations that protect the UK’s airspace from Russian intruders and is home to two combat-ready squadrons.

Perhaps now is the time to re-boot the much-maligned ‘UFO desk’ with a new name and a remit to investigate all credible reports of unknown objects made by aircrew.

Not on a case by case basis, as appears to be the UKAB’s limited remit, or mired in unnecessary secrecy as in the USA, but taking into account all relevant data from the UK and other countries.

After all safety is not just the concern of a small clique of aviation industry specialists. It concerns everyone who places their trust in the system when they decide to fly.


Uckfield (East Sussex) 19:20 – 14 July 2017 

The pilot of a A319 reports that he was holding at 7,000 ft, when the First Officer, in the right-hand seat noticed an object close to the aircraft. He commented on the object to the captain who then also saw it. Both believed the object was not close enough to hit the aircraft, and that they were on a trajectory to miss it. It was a black and shiny/metallic in colour and appeared to be a square/rectangular cube. It appeared to be maintaining altitude and took around seven seconds to pass, making them believe it was hovering. It was definitely not a weather balloon, but because they couldn’t make out any propellers on the side of the object, they weren’t sure whether it was a drone. The crew alerted Air Traffic Control, who passed the information onto the aircraft behind, however, they did not report seeing it.

Reported Separation: 0ft V/<500m H. Reported Risk of Collision: None

East Grinstead (West Sussex) 15:35 – 12 August 2017 

A A320 pilot reports he was passing 8,000 feet in the climb when he saw a silver ball type object pass directly under the aircraft, very close. He reported it to Air Traffic

Reported Separation: 200ft V/0m H. Reported Risk of Collision: High

Manchester 18:10 – 1 February 2018

A Airbus A321 pilot reported descending from 10,000 ft at night when his eye was caught by a greyish thin-profiled ‘something’ which passed by very close at the same level down the left-hand side at great speed. His initial reaction was that he had seen an internal reflection in his glasses or the windshield but it was immediately apparent that the First Officer and another person on the flight deck had also seen it. None of them had a clear view because it was in the landing-light beam for a split second. The pilot noted that having seen balloons in flight before, this object did not fit that profile.

Brooklands (London) 12:45 – 5 May 2018

A B757 pilot reports operating under a high workload, preparing for an approach at Gatwick in busy airspace, when the First Officer said “what’s that?”. The Captain looked out and saw a fairly large, irregular shaped, dark black object pass down the left side at the same level, within 200ft of the aircraft, apparently heading in an easterly direction. No avoiding action was needed but the incident was reported to Gatwick Director.

Reported Separation: 0ft V/100m H. Reported Risk of Collision: High

Birmingham (West Midlands) 09:30  – 5 July 2018

A BE90 pilot reports he was cruising at FL16,000, about 10 nautical miles north of Birmingham when he saw a rectangle or elliptical object pass 500-1000ft below. He estimated it to be 50-100cm long, although he only saw it for about 2 seconds before it passed underneath the aircraft. It was either hovering or travelling in the opposite direction, there was no time to take any avoiding action.

Reported Separation: ~750ft V/0m H. Reported Risk of Collision: Low

Glasgow 18:45 –  30 December 2018

A Embraer 175 pilot reports that on approach to Glasgow airport, when passing about 600ft he saw an object pass between 3 and 10ft from the aircraft, at the same level. He couldn’t tell was the object was, it was lit up in various places and was more horizontally long than it was vertically. Reported Separation: 0ft V/ 3-10ft H.

RAF Coningsby – near Grimsby (Lincolnshire) 11:40 – 15 January 2019

A RAF Typhoon pilot reports leading a pair of fighters from Coningsby to an exercise in the North Sea. After receiving a clearance to climb to 30,000 from 15,000 ft, he noticed an object in the left 11 o’clock at about 1 nautical mile, slightly high and maintaining a constant altitude. The radar and data link showed no traffic conflictions. The object reflected sunlight and appeared to have a linear form. The object passed down the left-hand-side. The wingman independently saw the same object as it passed over the leader’s aircraft. He maintained the formation at 15,000 ft until they were clear of the object.

Eurofighter Typhoon leaving RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire (credit: image Crown Copyright)

The Weapons Controller reports the Typhoons were transiting from Coningsby to the North Sea exercise. At 1140 the lead Typhoon pilot reported that a small, metal object had flown overhead approximately 2,000ft above them.There were no plots, hits or any other indication on the radar picture.

Reported Separation: 1000ftV/1000ft H. Reported Risk of Collision: High

Highgate (London) 14:09 30/3/19 

A B787 pilot reports that a red coloured object passed down the right hand side of the aircraft at 6,000 ft. It was impossible to identify the object although it was large enough to cause concern. LHR approach were informed and an uneventful approach and landing followed. Reported Separation: 0ft V/<100ft H. Reported Risk of Collision: High

Crawley (West Sussex) 14:00 5/5/19

The A320 pilot reports that on departure from Gatwick, whilst in the climb, a totally white object resembling a shoebox sized cube with a round ball on top passed down the left-hand side, slightly above and within 50m of the aircraft at 6,000ft. The object appeared to be in level flight.

Reported Separation: 100ft V/50m H. Reported Risk of Collision: None

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British Online Archives: The UFO Files

In episode 2 of the British Online Archives podcast I talk about The National Archives UFO project and my campaign to persuade the Ministry of Defence to open their files to the public.

Host Jim Chisem asked me to explain how I became interested in the folklore of UFOs and government investigations of aerial phenomena.

Long before the introduction of Freedom of Information, I began making requests for key historical documents, including the MoD’s file on the Rendlesham forest incident and the Flying Saucer Working Party study, using the Code of Practice for Access to Government Information.

The campaign picked up momentum following the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 2005. In the following year, working with Gary Anthony, our FOI requests led to the release of the MoD’s Condign report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs).

From 2008 to 2013 I acted as academic consultant for National Archives/MoD project that led to the opening of the remaining 210 archives files on UFOs held by the Ministry of Defence. Six of these files contain some 3,000 pages of correspondence between myself and the UFO desk officers covering the years 1999-2008.

The discussion includes the early history of the phenomenon, pop culture influences and both Fortean and skeptical approaches to the interpretation of unexplained phenomena.

UFO folklore is just one of the modern legends that fall within the remit of the newly-founded Centre for Contemporary Legend, a research group based at Sheffield Hallam University, that was launched at an inaugeral conference in November 2018.

The podcast can be downloaded here.

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Who Dares Wins?: Britain’s Roswell meets the SAS

‘If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…’ (Anne Murray)

Christmas 2018 marks the 38th anniversary of the mysterious events in the Rendlesham forest near RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk that became Britain’s best known UFO legend.

credit: Wikipedia

At the height of the Cold War US air force personnel reported seeing ‘unexplained lights’ in the forest beyond the runway of the nuclear-armed NATO complex.

The sensational events were reported by the US base commander in a memo that was sent to the British Ministry of Defence.

But since the story was first broken by the News of the World both the UK and US governments have denied any of the incidents had ‘defence significance’.

The lack of interest shown by the US and UK authorities has not been shared by story-tellers: believers, skeptics and fantasists of every kind.

Since the basic story leaked out, the legend has been kept alive with a stream of new theories, claims and fictional adaptations.

In November Sony Pictures announced Hollywood actor Lawrence Fishburne will play a lead role in an 8-part TV drama Rendlesham, directed by Joe Ahearne (of Doctor Who fame), set in the Cold War and present day.

At least two other documentaries are in production as the UFO industry gears up for the 40th anniversary of the legend in December 2020.

But so far none of the many and varied attempts to reveal ‘the truth’ about the events have mentioned the alleged involvement of the Special Air Service (SAS) – the British Army’s Special Forces Unit (motto: Who Dares Wins).

Some time ago a person who claims to be a SAS insider wrote to me after he saw me talking about Rendlesham on a TV documentary. I will call him Frank. His motive? It was ‘about time that the truth is revealed’ about the incident.

I investigated his incredible story by talking to trusted (and open) sources in the British military, including some high profile former SAS troopers. I reached my own conclusions. Then I sat on the story for three years, waiting to see if Frank would cast his fishing rod elsewhere. Now I call his bluff.

Frank says that in 1980 the twin USAF bases at Bentwaters-Woodbridge housed tactical nuclear weapons and responsibility for guarding these lay with the USAF 81st Security Police at Woodbridge.

East Gate, RAF Woodbridge – where the ‘sightings’ began in the early hours of 26 December 1980 (credit: Ian Ridpath’s Rendlesham photo album:

The base was also home to the 67th ARRS (Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron), a US Special Forces unit.

One of its tasks was locating and recovering Apollo command modules and other US space hardware for NASA.

The sensitive nature of what went on at RAF Bentwaters-Woodbridge led the authorities to conduct a series of ‘exercises’ from the 1960s onwards.

These were designed to test the ability of the UK and US security forces to detect and intercept any attack by Soviet forces on the nuclear weapons store.

All the simulated exercises were unannounced and carried out UK Special Forces (SAS and their naval equivalent, the Special Boat Service or SBS). But according to Frank in 1980 the USAF quietly enhanced and upgraded their ability to monitor the air above the base as well as ground targets.

Rumours about a confrontation between British and US forces in the forest prior to the ‘UFO’ incident are nothing new. This item by Graham Birdsall appeared in the Yorkshire UFO Society journal Quest in the summer of 1992

In August the SAS mounted a covert night exercise to penetrate the Bentwaters SSA. Troopers parachuted into the forest from a C130 that had ‘strayed’ into the area from a training zone.

But the plan was rumbled when their black parachutes were detected by the new base surveillance equipment. The entire squad were captured and they were interrogated by a young ARRS lieutenant who was unaware of the ongoing security testing programme.

Special Forces or aliens? An easy mistake to make…(creative commons)

The troopers identified themselves as British special forces. But they were abused and roughly treated by their captors for a period of 18 hours before release. Frank claims:

‘The language used by the young US officer was unusual (to British ears) in that he repeatedly referred to the Brits as unidentified aliens who posed a threat in their presence on the sovereign US soil of the airbase

‘Although the word alien is commonly used in the US (for example by immigration officers to describe non-US citizens) it has gained a rather different usage in the UK.

‘After their release, the troopers made no complaint at their rough treatment but determined to get their own back on the USAF for the beating that they had received.

‘In particular, their repeated characterisation as “aliens” sowed the seeds of a plan –

“They called us aliens! Right, we’ll show them what aliens really look like!”

The headline that broke the story – from the British tabloid The News of the World, October 1983 (Ian Ridpath)

What happened next, according to Frank, would be bread and butter for special operation soldiers trained to deceive and misinform whilst remaining invisible.

During the autumn nights were spent reconnoitring the perimeter of the twin base complex where it met the Forestry Commission plantation known as Tangham Forest (Rendlesham).

As December approached lights and coloured flares were rigged in the forest. Black helium balloons coupled to remote-controlled kites carried suspended materials into the sky, activated by radio-controls.

‘A great deal of nocturnal Christmas fun was had at the expense of the USAF – and the matter should have ended there,’ Frank continued.

‘Unfortunately, a senior US officer (Lt Col Halt) led the US contingent out into the forest on the second night and took along his tape recorder. The hovering and whizzing lights were sufficiently impressive for him to send a report to the MoD.

‘Someone in London recalled the events of the previous August and questions were asked. A few red faces but also some satisfaction and amusement followed…

‘The USAF was “reassured” at a very senior level and no UK investigation was undertaken – for obvious reasons!’

The bottom line, according to Frank, was the Rendlesham Forest ‘aliens’ were our ‘aliens’ on our soil (no encroachment on the US bases) so ‘no threat to UK security’ was the honest response to questions – from the Press, MPs and Lord Hill-Norton in the Houses of Parliament.

Frank says he finds it hilarious that the UFO legend in the forest was based on what he calls an old truism: ‘two nations divided by a common language.

So were the Rendlesham Forest UFOs really just pyrotechnics rigged up by British Special Forces to fool their American allies? Is the mystery finally solved? Or is the story just another winter’s tale – a big leg-pull?

Robin Horsfall, who served with 22 SAS at the time of the Rendlesham UFO incident (credit: YouTube)

One man who should know the truth is Robin Horsfall, a former SAS sniper. Robin took part in the famous Special Forces operation that stormed the Iranian Embassy to free hostages – just six months before the alleged ‘prank’ in Rendlesham forest.

Horsfall tells me the letter-writer is someone dangling a fishing rod. The language Frank uses provides ‘no evidence of a military background’.

The letter, he says, ‘is written by a person with a solid grounding in grammar which in my opinion excludes most SAS operatives during this period including the commissioned officers’.

More conclusively, as the alleged events happened during his time based in Hereford with 22 SAS he felt sure he would have heard about it via the grapevine.

‘We did undertake planned training actions against British military establishments but never against those of the US forces. Working against US units with live ammunition without strict safety protocols could have got people killed with huge political ramifications.

‘The idea of a revenge prank by [SAS] isn’t plausible as the rules controlling pyrotechnical devices within the regiment were very strict and any such action could have resulted in those involved being returned to unit’.

It remained a possibility, Horsfall added, that such a prank could have been played by ‘some other internal unit’, but the risks were great because pyrotechnics would have left behind easily-recoverable forensic traces.

‘If there is any truth in the story then I would be looking for the obvious prankster inside the US base not the SAS,’ he said.

So I took Frank’s story to the US Base Commander at the time of the incidents, Col Ted Conrad. It was Conrad who ordered police from the 81st Security Squadron to conduct an informal investigation of the UFO sightings in the forest reported by his personnel.

Col Conrad remains open minded about what his men saw. But he is on record as saying one unlikely but possible explanation is that the incident was a prank or hoax.

But in this case he agreed with Robin Horsfall: Frank’s story simply does not stack up. ‘US bases are not on US soil, rather all of them remain on sovereign British soil…US citizens who are stationed and work there are the “aliens”.

‘The SSA was guarded 24/7/365 by armed, trained security personnel who were instructed to shoot to kill, if necessary to prevent a breach,’ Col Conrad told me.

Col Ted Conrad (USAF retired), RAF Bentwaters-Woodbridge Base Commander 1980-81 (image Copyright Dr David Clarke)

‘It is unthinkable that either side would conduct such an exercise against an important facility where real weapons and ammo were present

‘The alleged rough treatment of British Special Forces by one US Lieutenant from the 67 ARRS is also unthinkable, but if it had been reported by complaint, the offender would have been more impacted by our disciplinary action that mounting a fake UFO landing could possibly have had.’

To paraphrase the folklorist Linda Degh we may never find resolution as to the ‘truth’ of any particular legend.

But the emphasis upon possibility and plausibility in stories like Frank’s provides them with their latent energy – and their potential to entertain and enthral the audience.

So there were have it folks: another winter’s tale from the Rendlesham forest.

The truth, though, remains persistently out there.


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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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