What is known today as the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident has been described as “the world’s first officially observed, and officially confirmed, UFO landing” – Britain’s equivalent of Roswell. And as the witnesses were all US Air Force personnel, their accounts have naturally been regarded as being highly reliable and credible.
A thorough investigation of this case by British writer and astronomer Ian Ridpath began in 1983 and can be followed here.
After three decades this controversial UFO mystery remains unresolved. As in the case of Roswell, the gulf between those who believe the UFOs seen at Rendlesham were an extraterrestrial spacecraft and those who feel the entire event can be explained in mundane terms continues to grow.
In 2001 I persuaded the Ministry of Defence, using the Code of Practice for Access to Government Information (a precursor to the Freedom of Information Act), to release their file on the incident. My correspondence with the MoD, that led to the release, can be followed in the file DEFE 24/2030/1 and DEFE 24/2032/1 released by The National Archives in 2011. After I secured the release of the original documents, copies were later sent to Lord Hill-Norton, who passed them to Georgina Bruni, author of You Can’t Tell The People.
Since that time I have, when time allowed, continued to trace key players in the saga including MoD and RAF personnel who dealt with the reports as part of their duties.
Until 2010 Col Ted Conrad, one of the most senior USAF officers involved in the events, had kept his views to himself. Col Conrad was the RAF Bentwaters/Woodbridge base commander, and Lt Col Charles Halt was his deputy. Both men were subordinate to the Wing Commander, Col Gordon Williams, who played only a peripheral role in the events that unfolded.
Until now Col Conrad’s only public comment was a brief interview given to journalist Eric Mishara, published by Omni magazine (Vol 5/6) in March 1983. At that time one of the more sensational rumours circulating on the base and on the UFO grapevine claimed that Conrad himself had spoken to aliens during the alleged UFO landing in the forest.
In the Omni article Conrad denied he saw aliens but confirmed that he did conduct a brief investigation of the incident and visited the scene of the “landing” reported by Security Policeman Jim Penniston, whom he interviewed.
I figured if anyone really knew what happened it would be Col Conrad as by his own statement he was responsible for the USAF investigation. So late in 2009 I contacted Col Conrad and asked him to go on record.
In response he provided me with a detailed account of what he recalled about the mysterious events in December 1980. Col Conrad’s story puts a completely different perspective on the case and directly challenges the story of his deputy, Charles Halt. For his part, in June 2010 Halt signed a notarised statement that included this paragraph:
“I believe the objects that I saw at close quarter were extraterrestrial in origin and that the security services of both the United States and the United Kingdom have attempted – both then and now – to subvert the significance of what occurred at Rendlesham forest and RAF Bentwaters by the use of well-practiced methods of disinformation.”
When I asked Col Conrad to comment on Halt’s statement, he responded:
“Col Halt can believe as he wishes. I’ve already disputed to some degree what he reported. However, he should be ashamed and embarrassed by his allegation that his country and England both conspired to deceive their citizens over this issue. He knows better.”
Col Conrad told me he finds it very difficult to comment “given how huge the story has grown from its humble beginnings to the sensation it has now become”. He adds that he wants to “avoid the appearance of validating any of the stories have sprung up in the years since (1980).”
It is apparent that Col Conrad’s recall of the precise chronology is slightly different from what has been established from the contemporaneous documents. Charles Halt’s famous memo to the Ministry of Defence, dated 13 January 1981, dated the sightings as 27 December and 29 December 1980. But contemporaneous documents show beyond any doubt that the first “sighting” of lights falling into the forest occurred shortly before 3 A.M. on Friday, 26 December. Halt’s expedition into the forest began late on the night of Saturday 27 December and ended in the early hours of Sunday, 28 December 1980.
The precise chronology of the events, agreed with Col Conrad in September 2010, is:
Date Time (approx) Events
Thursday 25/12/80 Christmas Day
0300 GMT Lights seen in Rendlesham forest
0310 Penniston, Burroughs, Cabansag sent to investigate
0411 Amn Armold, CSA calls Suffolk police
0430 Approx termination of forest sojourn
0700 SP shift ended
1900 Suffolk police revisit ‘landing site’ (unimpressed)
2130 SPs arrive at party, ‘they’re back’; Lt Col Halt commences ride along with shift leader
0230 Halt returns home after seeing nothing unusual
0730 Col Conrad and Major Zickler talk about previous day’s events, blotter entries etc
0930 Sgt Penniston gives narrative of events on 26 December, interviewed by Col Conrad
1100 Team identified, briefed on investigative efforts, including Lt Col Halt, SP investigators, SSgt Nevels as Geiger counter and Starlight scope operators and photographer
1330 Col Conrad visits ‘landing site’
2200 Personnel still in place, including Lt Col Halt
0200 Halt begins reporting by radio 2nd set of sightings. No lights or objects seen by Woodbridge residents who were outside looking. Alerted SP’s at Bentwaters, but they saw nothing unusual.
In presenting Col Conrad’s detailed narrative of the events, I have altered the dating to reflect this agreed chronology (comments in square brackets are my own):
“The incident was discovered, investigated, reported and finished all during an eighteen-day period from 27 December…through 13 January 1981 [when Halt’s memo was sent to the Ministry of Defence]. Claims of more sightings at different places and later times are unrelated to the Christmas 1980 event.
“All was normal for the [26 December 1980] security police [hereafter SP] night shift at Woodbridge until the very early hours. At that time the now famous lights were sighted on the ground in Rendlesham Forest. Three security SP’s were dispatched to investigate. They returned after more than an hour and went off duty at their shift change early that morning, at around 0700 [GMT].
“I can only speculate what went on in the SP squadron during the day [that followed, i.e. 26 December]. There must have been some concern over what to do about the sighting in terms of investigation and reporting. I believe the SP’s decided to keep everything low key, this being indicated by a change to the blotter entry concerning that early morning time frame. In any event, no notification or report was made to anyone above Major Malcolm Zickler, SP Squadron Commander, until late that evening.
“Sometime between 2100 and 2200 on [26 December?] members of the Woodbridge SP shift appeared at a Christmas party at the O’Club where Lt Col Halt and myself were in attendance. They reported the events of the previous night and thinking there might be a recurrence, Halt decided to ride along with the shift leader, which he did. Aside from that, nothing unusual happened.
“By the morning of [27 December 1980] I contacted Maj Zickler for information of the alleged sighting. His information was all second hand and sketchy. Those with first hand accounts were citing career concerns as justification for remaining silent.
“Frankly at this point, Lt Col Halt and I were discussing what level of involvement was required from my office. We knew that silence would likely lead to allegation of cover up. With the rumor mill already operating it was a matter of time before the press got the story. We did not want the press to report the appearance of misinformation or cover up. We decided that a brief in-house investigation was in order. If we could find any credible evidence to justify a request for more high-tech investigators, then we would be in a position to pass the entire episode on to the British authorities. If any meaningful evidence were not found, we would document that fact and close the entire episode down by providing our facts to authorities in a low key manner. Events dictated the latter approach.
“The rest of [27 December 1980] saw Lt Col Halt assemble our meagre assets. These were a Geiger counter, starlight scope (night vision device) and trained SP investigators out at the site in Rendlesham Forest. The investigation lasted until late evening where the site was starlight scoped, after which all went home except Lt Col Halt and some unknown SP’s. This was the night of Halt’s famous audiotape. He also had a two-way communication radio, which allowed me, and the SP’s to monitor his reports.”
Note: Thanks to UFOlogist Robert Hastings, at this stage it is worth quoting from a transcript of an interview with Col Halt taken from the US TV programme Unsolved Mysteries, shown on 18 September 1991, more than a decade after the events. On the programme Halt says: “We could very clearly see [the UFO]…I noticed other beams of light coming down from the same object, falling on different places on the base. My boss [Col Ted Conrad] was standing in his front yard in Woodbridge and he could see the beams of light falling down, and the people in the [Bentwaters] Weapons Storage Area and several other places on the base also reported the lights.”]
Contrast Halt’s recollections in 1991 with Conrad’s 2010 statement which continues:
“Lt Col Halt’s report of more lights both on the ground and in the sky brought quite a few people out of their houses at Woodbridge to see what was there. These people included myself, my wife, Lt Col Sawyer (the Director of Personnel), his wife, and several others listening to my radio and looking for the lights Halt was describing. Despite a sparkling, clear, cloudless, fogless night with a good field of view in all directions, we saw nothing that resembled Lt Col Halt’s descriptions either in the sky or on the ground. This episode ended in the early morning hours of [28 December 1980].
“One other significant thing happened on 28 December 1980. Maj Zickler finally convinced Sgt [James] Penniston to answer some questions for me. After a sincere guarantee that his report would have no ill effects on his career, Penniston reluctantly told his story. At the end of the session, I asked him to draw a picture of the object he had seen, which he did freehand. Jim Penniston is the only first-hand observer I was able to interview. We kept his name out of any of our correspondence to honour his request.
“After all that, we found we had no hard evidence. In my judgement further investigation would likely gain us nothing but notoriety. We summed up what we had and Lt Col Halt composed a letter addressed to Wing Commander [Don] Moreland [the British Base Commander/RAF liaison officer, who was away on leave during the Christmas holiday], leaving it up to him if he thought it necessary to forward any of the information [to the MoD]. It was my intention to suggest that we would be happy if the whole thing died there. I can’t recall if I actually made this statement to [Wing Commander Moreland]. Col Williams was informed along the way and concurred with our plans and methods to wrap things up. Any information he may have passed up the chain of command was, to my knowledge, done verbally and informally.
“As mentioned above, we had people in position to validate Halt’s narrative, but none of them could…On the OMNI article, I began by denying being present at the landing site while the UFO was on the ground. I also denied that I consorted with aliens or repaired their space ship etc as widely reported in the British Press. I recall that the reporter asked me if all that was true. My Omni interview began with those denials. I did visit the alleged [landing] site on the afternoon of 28 December 1980. The article states that I interviewed two eyewitnesses when in fact I only interviewed Penniston. They were correct to say that ours was the only investigation conducted, that I know of.
“There were no conspiracies, no secret operation, no missile accident, and no harsh interrogations by OSI [Office of Special Investigations, USAF]. I was in a position to know about the OSI. It was a special organisation with a special mission. They had their own chain of command, but in practice the OSI commander kept me informed of any ongoing investigations they had. Someone reporting unexplained lights would not normally have been subject to OSI attention. They were after serious lawbreakers, including drug traffickers, security risk, and the like.
“If I have any regrets, it is that I should have challenged Lt Col Halt’s account of the events on the night of 28 December. However since I wanted to avoid the appearance of shaping the story, I was reluctant to require any changes to his letter to Don Moreland [sent to MoD on 13 January 1981]. Also, I think maybe Don Moreland and I should have met over lunch one day to discuss a better way to handle the information in Halt’s letter. Halt’s letter gave us cover by putting Don on the spot. This left Don with the full burden of the letter and its disposition. When the letter was eventually released from MoD, it generated the frenzy of speculative reporting and the inevitable allegations of cover-up.
“In the final analysis, the Rendlesham Forest lights remain unexplained. I think they are explainable, but not with the information we have been able to gather…
“Theodore J. Conrad.”
Questions & Answers:
On receiving Conrad’s statement, dated 15 January 2010, I followed it up with a series of questions that sought to throw fresh light on some of the key events he touched upon. The responses I received are summarised as follows:
[DC]: What is the source of the dating/chronology of the events set out in your letter?
[Ted Conrad]: I believe the chronology…is the correct one. It is based on Halt’s letter and my own rather tenuous recollections of those days. If the known time line is respected, a shift of a day one way or the other shouldn’t matter much. Just to reiterate, if Penniston’s encounter on day 1 was at approximately 0300 hrs. the notification at the party was 18 hours later at approx. 9:00 PM, also on day 1. Penniston’s interview occurred the morning of day 2, and shortly there after we decided to investigate. Halt spent most of that day with the investigators, the starlight scope and Geiger counter. After sundown he went back to the forest with his tape recorder, and reported seeing lights that night. This was actually early morning of day 3 and approximately 48 hours after Penniston’s encounter. Take your pick for day 1,either 0300 26 Dec. or 27 Dec.
[DC]: Are you aware of the statements taken by Halt from the 3 airmen after the sightings on the first night?]
[Ted Conrad]: I wasn’t aware of any further statements made during that time frame.
[DC]: Can you confirm Halt’s story about the airman interrupting the party saying “It’s back”
[Ted Conrad]: The comment “it’s back” was relayed to me by Lt. Col. Halt. I don’t know who told him that or why. There were no claimed sightings that night. The statement might have been simply an “attention getter”.
[DC]: Why was no action taken to scramble aircraft during Halt’s expedition?
[Ted Conrad]: No defensive action was taken or considered since no offensive action was noted.
[DC]: Was any of the radio chatter from Halt’s team that you overheard recorded?
[Ted Conrad]: None of Lt. Col. Halt’s radio comments were recorded to my knowledge. There were recordings made on an audio tape machine that he was carrying at the time.
[DC]: Why did it take almost 3 weeks for you to report the incident to the MoD?
I thought my previous narrative covered the timing of our report fairly well. It took us a few days to sum it all up and get it to Moreland’s office. I can’t speak for the timing after that.
[DC]: In your letter you say you think the incident is “explainable”; what explanation do think might apply?
[Ted Conrad]: The search for an explanation could go many places including the perpetration of a clever hoax. Natural phenomenon such as the very clear cold air having a theoretical ability to guide and reflect light across great distances or even the presence of an alien spacecraft. If someone had the time, money and technical resources to determine the exact cause of the reported Rendlesham Forest lights, I think it could be done. I also think the odds are way high against there being an ET spacecraft involved, and almost equally high against it being an intrusion of hostile earthly craft.
[DC]: Why do you think the incident has been sensationalised?
[Ted Conrad]: Dr. Clarke, I think you are best qualified to answer this question. There are many reasons for the exponential expansion of UFO stories. All media need news to sell. When news is short, more gets invented. People want to be important to the extent they help make up some news.
[DC]: Col Halt is on record (2009) as saying the UFOs were ET craft and the event has been covered up by the US and UK governments etc, what’s your comment on that?
[Ted Conrad]: Col Halt can believe as he wishes. I’ve already disputed to some degree what he reported. However, he should be ashamed and embarrassed by his allegation that his Country and England both conspired to deceive their citizens over this issue. He knows better.
[DC]: Can you comment on the ground traces and alleged higher radiation readings detected in the forest?
[Ted Conrad]: Sgt. Nevels, the Geiger counter operator, initially reported slightly elevated readings. after his first visit to the location. However on a subsequent verbal report, he gave the radiation levels as equal to the normal background “noise”. As a matter of fact any evidence at the alleged landing site (if any) was so unremarkable that some people eventually became unsure as to the exact landing site.
[DC]: Did you or Col Williams write or submit any written report to USAFE HQ about the incident?
[Ted Conrad]: To my knowledge, there was no written report sent forward from Bentwaters to USAF higher Headquarters.
[DC]: Do you recall what Penniston told you and what became of his sketch?
[Ted Conrad]: I do recall Penniston’s story and he did leave me with a sketch of an object he claimed to have seen. I left the sketch in my desk drawer and the story was summarized in Halt’s letter. Here’s Penniston’s narrative to the best of my recollection. I’m paraphrasing, of course:
“….The lights were clearly visible when I arrived at the RAF Woodbridge gate. No one knew the source of the the lights, but some speculated that it was close enough to the approach path of the runway that it could in fact be a crashed plane. Because of this, it was decided that further investigation was warranted. Burroughs, Cabansag and myself were sent out by jeep. We worked our way toward the still- visible lights by way of a logging road. As we approached close enough to have a clear view of the site, [Burroughs?] decided we were close enough and stopped the vehicle. We were still more than 100 meters away and, wanting a better look, I decided to proceed further on foot. [Burroughs?] accompanied me as we closed on what we began to see was an object with lights on it. Our apprehension began to build,so we stopped about 50 meters away, taking cover behind some brush. After studying the situation for about 10 minutes, we decided to move in yet further for a closer look. Just as we began to close the distance to the object, it began to move away through the trees. The faster we moved toward it the faster it moved away. By the time we arrived at an open field a much greater distance had opened up between us,and soon it disappeared beyond a small rise in the direction of a farm house. After a short pause , we decided we had had enough and headed back toward [Cabansag] and the jeep. With a quick glance over the shoulder we saw the thing again back at the hill,this time coming toward us. We ran to get away, but within two seconds it was up and gone.——-(end of narrative)…”
[Ted Conrad continues]: I asked [Penniston] for a description of the object. Penniston said he didn’t get close enough for a detailed look. What he saw was generally rectangular in shape and slightly larger than a jeep in size. The object was mostly obscured by two horizontal rows of very bright closely spaced lights, one row white, the other light blue. He thought one row ran along the top, the other row around the middle. Again his distance from the object and the brightness of the lights obscured any further detailed observance. I am aware this description is at variance with subsequent statements and drawing made by others.
[DC] Were you aware that following a call from the security police at RAF Woodbridge, British police officers were called to the scene of the ‘landing’ in the forest? I also understand that officers from the Suffolk fire service were also called to the scene at one stage.
[Ted Conrad] With regard to Suffolk Constabulary, the Suffolk Fire Service, I am certain none of these were called to respond to the Penniston experience. The response to RAF Woodbridge by any of these agencies would have been a major event implying laws had been broken or there were major fires to be put out. Remember, Penniston’s first statement other than conversations within CSA, wasn’t until more than 24 hours after the lights disappeared without a trace. This was too late for any response to Penniston’s sighting. One possible exception: I seem to recall we notified the Suffolk constabulary of our desire to visit the scene and asked their permission to do so and also extended an invitation to have a look for themselves. I believe Maj. Zickler made this call. To the best of my memory , two officers did show up that afternoon and seemed unimpressed with the forest location. I missed seeing them. They came and went before I arrived.
Note: In fact, we know that at 0411 GMT on 26 December 1980, i.e. shortly after Penniston’s sighting, Airman 1stClass Armold from Law Enforcement Desk, RAF Bentwaters phoned the Suffolk constabulary at Ipswich to report:
“…we have a sighting of some unusual lights in the sky, [beyond East Gate at RAF Woodbridge]… we have sent some unarmed troops to investigate; we are terming it a UFO at present.”
Two British police officers visited the forest and reported back:
“Air Traffic Control checked. No knowledge of aircraft. Reports received of aerial phenomena over southern England during the night. Only lights visible in this area was from Orford light house. Search made of area – negative.”
A second call received by Suffolk Police at 10.30 a.m. the same day logged the following message :
“We had a call from the [Law Enforcement] desk at Bentwaters in reference to the UFO reported last night. We have found a place where a craft of some sort seems to have landed…approx 2 miles east of the East Gate…”
The log records that PC Brian Cresswell attended the scene and reported back:
“There were three marks in the area which did not follow a set pattern. The impression made by these marks were of no depth and could have been made by an animal.”
(Source: a copy of the incident log was released by Suffolk Police under FOIA in 2005).
Questions will no doubt be raised about Ted Conrad’s motivation for speaking out 30 years after the event. But readers should understand that he provided this information freely after I made the effort to write to him in 2009. I was encouraged to do so by one of the key witnesses (John Burroughs), who naturally wants to know the truth concerning the experience he underwent in Rendlesham forest. Col Conrad’s recollections, particularly with respect to the chronology, are not 100% reliable. He appears to be unaware, for example, of the fact that British police officers were called to the scene of the ‘landing’ by the Law Enforcement desk within minutes of airmen Burroughs and Penniston returning from the forest on 26 December 1980.
However, his testimony concerning the events of 27/28 December stand in stark contrast to those of his deputy, Charles Halt. Conrad’s recall of Sgt Penniston’s account of his experience on the “first night” also directly contradicts his subsequent account of having approached and touched a landed object, which he was able to sketch and photograph. In turn Penniston’s account is inconsistent with that of his colleague John Burroughs, who says he only saw lights.
What should we make of these mutual contradictions and inconsistencies? Col Conrad sums it up as follows:
“As we have seen, there were many embellishments to the story during the 1981 and subsequent years. Most of us had to put this aside and move on with our lives, jobs and careers.”
At this stage it is instructive to examine how the USAF commanders at RAF Bentwaters/Woodbridge dealt with the aftermath of the incident. As officially the USAF had no interest in UFO sightings following the closure of Project Blue Book and the sightings took place outside the perimeter fence, Lt Col Halt was instructed to report them to the British authorities.
Halt waited for the RAF base commander, Squadron Leader Don Moreland, to return from his Christmas holiday before making his move. It was Moreland who advised Halt to write the famous memo summarising the events which he sent with a covering note to the Ministry of Defence’s ‘UFO desk’ at Whitehall.
Sqn Ldr Moreland’s diary reveals that he returned to Bentwaters from his Christmas vacation on Monday, 5 January but Halt waited another seven days – until the following Monday morning, 12 January – before he came to see the British commander. By that time more than two whole weeks had passed since the experience. Interviewed in September 2002, Don Moreland told me:
“Chuck Halt came to my office and recounted an incredible story about a series of incidents which occurred between 27-30 December. He told me about flashing lights, about a UFO landing in the forest, the indentations left behind after landing, and enhanced radiation levels in the area. I assumed he was pulling my leg, but being a good staff officer, I asked for a report in writing I could forward to the MoD. When I received his memo I wrote a covering letter and sent it off to DS8 [the Air Staff Secretariat at Whitehall that was responsible for UFO reporting]. I did not delay it (if it was urgent in their view they could have passed the information to the RAF liaison officer at Mildenhall) nor did I ask him to sanitize it.”
Both men expected the MoD would contact them, but were surprised when nothing happened. Moreland continues:
“I didn’t receive a reply so I telephoned DS8 several times, and was eventually told that they (MoD) had carried out a search of the defence radar logs for the period in question but nothing was found. They assumed it was the light from the Orford Ness Lighthouse flashing through the trees.”
We now know that Halt’s memo, titled “Unexplained Lights”, dated 13 January 1981, reached the UFO desk officer Simon Weeden almost three weeks after the sightings. Weeden immediately circulated details to a number of MoD branches and radar stations asking for their advice. The contents of these internal discussions first emerged in May 2001 when the contents of the Rendlesham file were released following my ‘Code of Practice’ request to the UFO desk.
They reveal the Defence Intelligence Staff (DI55) were unable to explain the sightings but offered to follow up the radiation readings described by Halt. According to Weeden the RAF air defence staff who scrutinized Halt’s report remained “curious but skeptical”.
The documents reveal their inquiries relied upon the incorrect dates supplied by Col Halt as the basis for their checks with air defence radars. But RAF UKADR logs revealed no evidence that any unusual radar tracks had been detected or reported during the entire Christmas period. As a result MoD decided that “US night-time military movements”, the beam from the Orfordness lighthouse or even lights used by poachers were more likely explanations than an alien landing.
According to Moreland and Weeden these basic checks were the total extent of the MoD’s inquiries into the “unexplained lights” reported by USAF at RAF Woodbridge. They did not consider it necessary to contact Halt or his men directly, or request any additional information.
However, two of the USAF witnesses, James Penniston and Charles Halt, have claimed that British officials were involved at the scene from an earlier stage. Penniston has gone further, claiming that officials from DS8 were physically present when he was interviewed by US Air Force intelligence officers.
The DS8 desk officer at the time, Simon Weeden, spoke to me exclusively in 2005. He confirmed “that the letter from Squadron Leader Moreland was the first time the Ministry of Defence was made aware of the alleged incident in Rendlesham Forest”. The memo arrived on Weeden’s desk no earlier than 14 January 1981. Weeden also revealed that in 1980 DS8 staff were under instruction from MoD that it was “inappropriate” for desk officers to conduct interviews with UFO witnesses. This rule was also followed by the two other branches with an interest in UFOs, DI55 and RAF Air Defence (Ground Environment).
The most senior officer working in the UKADR staff at the time was Group Captain Neil Colvin, Royal Air Force. In a letter to me dated 3 February 2003 Colvin confirmed that although the RAF received a copy of Lt Col Halt’s memo and checks were made on air defence radar logs (with negative results), none of the witnesses were interviewed and no follow-up occurred. He said:
“I recall that we could not explain them but were very skeptical of the reports. We were not privy to the actual evidence of the sightings by the personnel concerned, nor did we have the opportunity to interview the individuals involved.”
These facts are consistent with the paper-trail that forms part of the MoD’s Rendlesham file, released in 2001.
Weeden explained the instructions he followed as DS8c UFO desk officer during 1980-81:
“As a general rule, when letters or telephone enquiries came from members of the public – either via MPs/Ministers or direct – we would ask those responsible in the RAF to check UK Air Defence [radar] stations for any unexplained sightings and to check logs. We might also check with the Met Office, the local police and any local service units. In the case of the Rendlesham Forest reports, which I do not recall as being particularly noteworthy, I think that, in addition to the usual UKAD checks, we asked that the RAF Liaison Officer at RAF Woodbridge [Wing Commander Moreland] to seek a report from the USAF as this was closest to the supposed site.”
“You comment that it seems curious that the MoD were not notified by flash signal of the incident and odd that the USAF Deputy Base Commander waited until [Wing Commander Moreland] returned from Christmas holiday. I think that illustrates well my point that UFO reports, whilst treated seriously, were not the primary concern of the MoD, RAF or USAF. Unless a radar or incursion incident was regarded as compromising the air defence of the UK, there would be no need for urgent or escalating response.So far as the Rendlesham forest incident is concerned, the leisurely way in which the reports were drawn up, considered and evaluated, shows that those around at the time were not unduly alarmed and did not see this as an incident of great importance. Certainly that is how I recall the incident – interesting, but no more than that.” (personal communication 2005)
Nevertheless, within months of the incident in January 1981, rumours about a UFO landing at the base leaked out to civilian UFOlogists, along with a story that an unidentified object had been tracked by RAF radars. During 1982 when the protest against American Cruise missiles at RAF Greenham Common was underway, the MoD began to receive letters asking if the UFO story had been spread to conceal a military accident involving a missile or aircraft.
Despite increasing pressure the MoD refused to discuss the contents of Halt’s report until 1983 when the contents his memo, released under the American FOIA, was splashed across the front page of The News of the World.
By that time sensational stories had begun to emerge from USAF personnel who claimed they were present at a second UFO landing in the forest, when contact had taken place between the base commander (Col Conrad) and the occupants of the UFO. They claimed threats had been made against airmen who witnessed these events and a cover-up was underway.
Throughout the 1980s, the public stance of the MoD remained that Halt’s report had been scrutinised by air defence staff who decided it had “no defence significance”, but they refused to be drawn on the nature of their investigation. This apparent stonewalling by the MoD led two retired officials, Ralph Noyes and Admiral Lord Peter Hill-Norton – a former Chief of Defence Staff – to openly accuse the British Government of a cover-up, the latter stating:
“If the [USAF] report…is accurate, there is evidence that British airspace and territory are vulnerable to unwarranted intrusion to a disturbing degree. If, on the other hand, [Halt’s report] must be dismissed, then we have evidence – no less disturbing, I suggest – that a sizeable number of USAF personnel at an important base in British territory are capable of serious misperception, the consequences of which might be grave in military terms.”
RADAR AND RADIATION
While the MoD’s file on the Rendlesham incident reveals that checks were carried out on incorrect dates and times provided by Halt’s memo, it makes clear that no unusual targets were detected by any RAF radars during the Christmas/New Year period of 1980. A RAF minute from Squadron Leader Jack Badcock dated 21 March 1983 reveals that:
“[RAF] Neatishead, which is the Sector Ops Centre responsible for that area [Bentwaters/Woodbridge], had nothing unusual to report, and nothing more substantive has come to light. I have received no evidence that any radar reported unusual tracks.” (DEFE 24/1948/1).
Badcock’s testimony was confirmed by Squadron Leader Derek Coumbe who was duty commander at RAF Watton, the air traffic control centre for the region, during the incident. When I spoke to him in 2001 he recalled receiving a call from the USAF at RAF Bentwaters whilst Lt Col Halt’s team were in the forest observing lights in the sky.
“They were very jumpy and panicky on the phone…but I personally checked the radar picture and there was absolutely nothing to be seen. They kept coming back and implying there should be something but we kept a watch on it through the whole period and nothing was seen.” (personal communication 2005).
This testimony is corroborated by a contemporaneous note in the MoD file dated 26 February 1981 and signed by Coumbe which reads:
“On the night of the reported sighting our controller on duty was requested to view the radar; nothing was observed. These facts are recorded in our logbook of that night.” (DEFE 24/1948/1).
A copy of the RAF Watton logbook entry was released to UFOlogist Nick Redfern in 1988. This was dated 28 December 1980 and timed at 0325 GMT:
“Bentwaters Command Post contacted Eastern Radar and request information of aircraft in the area – UA37 traffic southbound FL370 – UFO sightings at Bentwaters. They are taking reporting action.”
UA37 was the code for an air corridor used by civilian aircraft which ran north/south approximately 40 miles east of Bentwaters. FL370 signified “traffic” at 37,000 feet in altitude.
0325 GMT on 28 December is consistent with the timing of Lt Col Halt’s expedition into the forest during which he and other airmen observed lights in the sky. We now know that whatever these lights were, they were not detected on Air Defence radars. Neither could they be seen by Col Conrad, the base commander, from his vantage point at RAF Bentwaters which, according to his testimony, commanded a wide and clear view of the skies.
Equally significant are the criticisms levelled at two other key elements of the Rendlesham “evidence”, the ground traces and radiation which Halt claimed were left by the UFO in the forest. British police officers who examined the alleged landing site just hours after the first UFO sighting said “the impressions were of no depth and could have been made by an animal”. Their comments are corroborated by the Base Commander Col Ted Conrad, who also examined the marks. He said: “…any evidence at the alleged landing site (if any) was so unremarkable that some people eventually became unsure as to the exact landing site.”
Forester Vince Thurkettle – who lived in the forest at the time of the incident – also visited the landing site about six weeks later after hearing rumours about a UFO landing. He too was left unimpressed by what he saw. Thurkettle said the three depressions found by the USAF airmen in the clearing resembled holes produced by burrowing animals.
And Thurkettle also swiftly identified the mysterious marks on nearby trees which Halt’s team appear to have attributed to damage caused by a UFO as the marks made by foresters’ axes to identify trees earmarked for felling.
As for the radiation detected at the “landing site” three independent scientific experts, including the makers of the Geiger counter, have since stated there was nothing unusual in the levels recorded by Halt’s team in the forest. They were simply background levels that would be expected in a pine forest. Doubts have also been raised about the suitability of the Geiger counter used by the USAF team in the forest, which was not designed to measure environmental radiation. The manufacturers of the equipment have confirmed the readings recorded were “of little or no significance.” This is consistent with the testimony of the MoD’s UFO desk officer, Simon Weeden, who told me that he understood that officials made their own inquiries about the reliability of the levels of radiation reported and reached the same conclusion. Col Conrad adds a further detail not mentioned in Halt’s report to the Ministry of Defence “…Sgt. Nevels, the Geiger counter operator, initially reported slightly elevated readings after his first visit to the location. However on a subsequent verbal report, he gave the radiation levels as equal to the normal background “noise”.”
So what conclusions can be drawn about the UFO incident that is widely known today as Britain’s Roswell? Can all the weird sightings really be explained by a fireball, the Orfordness lighthouse and bright stars as Ian Ridpath has concluded or did a genuine unidentified flying object visit Suffolk as the airmen continue to believe?
What is clear from the official documents is the MoD’s early reluctance to reveal what little it knew about the UFO incidents allowed the mystery to grow and provided fuel for allegations of cover-ups. In fact it was two decades before the full contents of the MoD’s file on the Rendlesham incident were revealed. Early in 2001, with Britain’s own Freedom of Information Act pending, the MoD finally released the papers they held on the incident after I applied to see them. They did not contain the “smoking gun” anticipated by UFOlogists who had speculated about the contents for 20 years. Instead the file revealed a half-hearted investigation by disinterested officials. Most surprising of all, the papers revealed the MoD did not feel it was necessary to interview Halt or any of the airmen involved in the original sightings.
To this day Colonel Halt and the other airmen remain convinced the lights they saw on the two nights were genuinely unidentified. At a press conference in Washington DC in 2007 he said: “I have no idea what we saw but do know whatever we saw was under intelligent control.”
The MoD’s final assessment of Halt’s report was not revealed until further papers were released at The National Archives in 2008. In a private briefing given to Lord Hill-Norton in 1985 defence minister Lord David Trefgarne said:
“…it is highly unlikely that any violation of UK airspace would be heralded by such a display of lights. I think it equally unlikely that any reconnaissance or spying activity would be announced in this way. We believe that the fact Col Halt did not report these occurrences to MoD for almost two weeks after the event, together with the low key manner in which he handled the matter are indicative of the degree of importance in defence terms which should be attached to the incident.” (DEFE 24/1924/1)
As was the case with the original Roswell incident, there is a great difference between the few certain facts that can be established from contemporary records and the elaborate legend that has grown up around the Rendlesham UFOs. The legend has been nurtured by tabloid headlines and sensational TV documentaries and today is so well known that the Forestry Commission have set up a “UFO trail” in the forest for pilgrims who wish to relive the story in their imagination. As the decades pass attempts to separate fact from fiction become increasingly difficult. All that can be said with certainty is that it is unlikely we will ever know what really happened in Rendlesham forest in December 1980.
Thanks to all those who have contributed to this research, particularly Ted Conrad, Don Moreland, Simon Weeden, Neil Colvin, Derek Coumbe, Ian Ridpath, Vince Thurkettle and Nick Pope. Special thanks must go to John Burroughs and John Rackham for encouragement and motivation.
The contents of this paper are Copyright David Clarke 2011 (revised version 2017). Permission to use extracts is granted provided the source of the material is clearly acknowledged.