DI-55: The real ‘Men In Black’?
The disclosure of the Ministry of Defence UFO archive has turned the spotlight firmly onto the secretive world of intelligence interest in UFOs. This article – originally published in Fortean Times Secret Files series 10 (2007) – scrutinises the role of the Defence Intelligence Staff in UFO investigations.
During 1966-67 Britain experienced one of its most intense UFO waves and the MOD received almost 400 sighting reports from a variety of sources. Questions were asked in the House of Commons and demands were made that the MOD set up its own equivalent of the USAF’s ‘Project Blue Book.’ This did not happen, but behind closed doors responsibility for handling UFOs was quietly passed to an intelligence branch, DI 55. They would – after 30 years of investigations – produce the controversial ‘Condign report’ that ended defence intelligence interest in UFOs.
Like all intelligence branches DI55’s work is highly classified and until recently the MOD would not even acknowledge their existence. But since the early 1990s the ongoing release of intelligence material both at the National Archives and, since 2005 via the Freedom of Information Act, has made blanket secrecy pointless. This is reflected in a memo from DI 55 to the MOD’s UFO desk in July 1995 where a senior officer says he sees
“no reason for continuing to deny that [his branch] has an interest in UFOs” and adds “it should, perhaps, be seen as a step towards a more open disclosure of the MOD’s interest” .
‘Fifty-five’, as it is known by its staff, is in fact just one of a large grouping of covert DI branches whose responsibilities range from nuclear weapons to chemical warfare and electronic eavesdropping. We know they work closely with the UK’s security services MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to collect and assess evidence of potential threats to the UK . As a branch of the MOD’s Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS), DI 55’s primary role is to collect information on foreign weapons systems, specifically guided missiles, spacecraft and satellites. From 1967 UFOs were added to that list.
Publicly, the MOD have always claimed the ‘UFO desk’ – known as S4(Air) until 1978 – dealt with all UFO matters and only drew advice from other branches when necessary. But internal documents prove that from 1967 incidents “where no immediate satisfactory explanation can be determined – i.e. they are truly UFOs” were passed to the DIS for action. From that point S4 were deemed to have no further “need to know” and the civil servants on the ‘UFO desk’ had no motivation or authorisation to inquire any further.
During the 1950s the old Air Ministry’s intelligence branch DDI (Tech) had carried out field investigations of UFO reports made by ‘credible witnesses’ such as police officers and pilots. Following the creation of the new MOD in 1964, this duty was passed to the DIS. In January 1966 a Cheshire policeman, Colin Perks, reported seeing a glowing green object the size of a bus hovering behind a row of houses in Wilmslow whilst on an early morning patrol. Within a couple of weeks an intelligence officer turned up at Perk’s station to quiz him. In his report the officer says “there is no reason to doubt the fact that this constable saw something completely foreign to his previous experience” . When in October the following year, at the height of the UFO wave, two police officers reported chasing a star spangled “flying cross” at speeds of up to 90 mph across the darkened Devon countryside, the spooks swung into action again. A scientist, John Dickison, was sent from London to quiz the two PCs. Dickison worked for the space weapons section of DI 55 and was an expert on guided missiles and satellites.
These two cases were just the first of a series of field investigations of British UFO encounters led by the intelligence services. When MOD reviewed their UFO policy in 1967 the DIS reported that the vast majority of sightings they had received could be explained as “satellites, space debris, rocket launches or manifestations of meteorological or other natural phenomena.” No sighting, they briefed, had ever been established “as a real or potential threat to UK airspace and no intelligence of any value has ever been gleaned from UFO reports” .
Nevertheless MOD recommended that DI 55 should keep “a watching brief” on UFOs due to their expertise in scientific aspects of space. During the Cold War the West’s intelligence services were keen to snap up any hard evidence which might provide clues to advances in Soviet space technology. One way of achieving this was to monitor UFO reports in foreign countries for clues about where and when Russian space junk was likely to crash down on Earth’s surface. During the 50s the US Air Defence Command set up a crack intelligence team based at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, under the codename Project Moon Dust. Their role was to act as a quick reaction force to collect downed Soviet space debris. They also had responsibility for the investigation of “reliably reported UFOs within the United States” .
Moon Dust shared their intelligence on “cosmic crashes” with British opposite numbers at DI 55. One example was the report of a UFO falling into the Himalayan mountains on 25 March 1968. Four mysterious pieces of metal were recovered by the Nepalese, who alerted both the US and UK embassies in Kathmandu. A secret report on the crash produced by DI 55 – and circulated to the US intelligence agencies – revealed that of the two major pieces found, one was spirited out of Nepal for “examination and analysis in the UK”. The report reveals they first suspected the main object – a large rocket-shaped nozzle – was part of a new guided missile developed by the Chinese or Soviet Union. But detailed analysis discovered it was actually part of the Cosmos 208 satellite launched on 21 March, four days before the UFO crash. The Soviets had not officially announced its launch because its mission was to spy on the West .
The interest which DI 55 displayed in this and other supposed cosmic crashes reveals the true nature of their interest in UFOs which continues to this day. As one of their reports points out, UFO sightings should be handled carefully because amongst the “noise” there was “always the chance of observing foreign aircraft of revolutionary design.” Or indeed the opportunity to bag a piece of spacecraft from an alien nation – such as Soviet Russia!
Of more immediate concern was the very real risk to the civilian population posed by the re-entry of space debris over the UK. When the nuclear-powered Soviet reconnaissance satellite Cosmos 954 disintegrated over the northwest territory of Canada in January 1978 radioactive debris was scattered over 124,000 square kilometres. Fears of what could happen if a similar piece of junk should rain down from the sky over Britain were raised in the following year when the giant US space station Skylab began to decay from its orbit. Although not powered by a nuclear reactor, it weighed some 75 metric tonnes and there were fears that Britain might be struck by falling debris.
In March 1979 the head of Defence Intelligence asked the Home Office to circulate guidelines to all civil and military police forces in the UK. The restricted document, titled “Satellite Accidents”, spelled out the emergency procedures that should be put in place in the event of a nuclear hazard reaching the UK from space. While radiation was not a risk with Skylab there remained the possibility of injury or damage from falling debris, although this was deemed to be “extremely remote.”
DI 55 was keen to examine any examples of space debris and wanted the police to ensure any examples were swiftly delivered to them for study. In the event the spooks did not obtain a piece of Skylab. The space station burned up harmlessly over the Indian Ocean on 11 July 1979, scattering debris over a large area of the west Australian desert. But as it decayed DI 55 were presented with two sets of “debris from space” which had fallen in Britain. One metallic object was found on a golf course in Eastbourne, while another – consisting of twenty pieces of “rock-like debris” – woke a woman in North Wales when they crashed onto her roof at 5 a.m. one June morning. Police dutifully divided the rocks into three samples, placed them in plastic bags and sent them to Whitehall, seemingly oblivious to any radiological hazard. What became of them is not known, but I suspect they ended up in a DI 55 wastebasket along with the lump of metal from Eastbourne which, on investigation, was determined to be “simply a piece of molten scrap metal” .
On the possibility that some UFOs might be intelligently controlled devices from other worlds, DI 55’s conclusions are clear and uncompromising. The author of the Condign study noted in his final report, completed in February 2000, that
“no artefacts of unknown or unexplained origin have been reported or handed to the UK authorities, despite thousands of UAP reports”
In 2005 I interviewed a retired intelligence officer who was responsible for the investigation of UFO reports at DI 55 during the mid-70s. He admitted that a number of the reports he received could not be explained but said:
“I tried to approach the subject with a totally open mind but none of the reports led me to believe that, apart from meteors, any of the objects reported were of extraterrestrial origin, and certainly none were under the control of an extraterrestrial intelligence.”
And he added one final “philosophical note” on the ET hypothesis.
“I find it strange that, of all the interesting places there are in the universe, an extraterrestrial intelligence would chose to visit a rather insignificant planet (the Earth) circling a rather ordinary star…one of the things I found strange about the whole business was that there were so many reports; I seem to remember at least half a dozen or more every day. Surely there could not have been that number of aliens?”
Notes & References:
(1) DI 55 memo ‘Public Access to UFO Files’ dated 5 July 1995 released to author under FOIA 2005.
(2) The UK security services (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act under Section 23 of the FOIA. The Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS), as part of the MOD, are subject to the act.
(3) TNA file AIR 2/17983 UFOs 1966
(4) TNA file DEFE 31/119 (UFO Policy 1967)
(5) See Nick Redfern, Cosmic Crashes (Simon & Schuster 1998), chapter 14
(6) TNA file DEFE 44/210 (Analysis of Space Debris 1968)
(7) DEFE 24/1566 (UFOs Satellite Debris)
(8) Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in UK Air Defence Region (Condign report), Executive Summary, MOD, 2000.
Copyright David Clarke 2011