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Some 20 miles east of Hainault Farm was another of London’s fighter aerodromes at Rochford in Essex. It was from here at 8.45pm that Flight Sub-Lieutenant J.E. Morgan arose for an anti-Zeppelin patrol in his BE2C fighter. Morgan, in an official report to the Admiralty, said that when he reached 5,000 feet he saw a little above his own altitude and slightly ahead to his right, about 100 feet away from his plane,“a row of what appeared to be lighted windows which looked something like a railway carriage with the blinds drawn.”
Believing that he had flown directly into the path of a hostile Zeppelin preparing an attack upon Central London, Morgan drew his Webley Scott service pistol, aimed and fired several times in the direction of the “railway carriage.” Immediately, “the lights alongside rose rapidly” and disappeared into the inky blackness, so rapidly in fact that Morgan believed his own aircraft had gone into a dive. By now Morgan had completely lost his bearings, and after a lengthy battle to bring his aircraft under control he was forced to make a crash landing on the Thameshaven Marshes.
A full account of Morgan's sighting, dubbed “an encounter with a phantom airship” appears in Captain Joseph Morris’s official history of the German air raids, The War in the Air, published in 1925. The book was compiled from then classified records, and Morris refers directly to the airman’s report filed with the War Office. Extensive searches of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service records at the Public Record Office have failed to locate Morgan's original report. The station log from Rochford aerodrome does give brief details of Morgan’s flight with the addition of the word “Zepp” which shows the pilot and his station commander believed he had had an encounter with something he took to be an enemy airship.
Morgan’s report is not included in the official account of the 31 January, 1916 raid published by the War Office which charts the movements of the Zeppelins and the attempts by British fliers to intercept them in great detail. Historians have been left with the impression that the authorities gave no credence to his report. Here we have the first evidence of what has become a long tradition on the part of the War Office, and its successors the Air Ministry and today’s Ministry of Defence, of 'down-playing’ reports by military pilots of unidentified flying objects.
There was, in fact, additional support for the claim that an airborne object of some kind was present over London during the air raid. A fourth RFC pilot, McClelland, reported seeing what he described as “a Zeppelin” caught briefly in the glare of searchlights above London at 9 pm, 15 minutes after Morgan’s encounter.
McClelland’s report was in fact the subject of a comment by the Third Sea Lord, Rear-Admiral F.C.T Tudor, who dismissed it in one single paragraph which reads:
“night flying must be difficult and dangerous, and require considerable nerve and pluck, but this airman seems to have been gifted with a more than usually vivid imagination.”
Historians of the Great War have used the phrase 'phantom airship’ to describe inexplicable aerial phenomena. In later years broadly similar sightings were categorised by the largely baffled Air Ministry as ‘ghost planes’ and ‘flying saucers.’ Almost a century later we are no closer to explaining what was independently reported by four experienced pilots long before the phrase “UFO” was invented.
David Clarke and Andy Roberts, Out of the Shadows: UFOs, the Establishment and the Official Cover-up, London: Piatkus, 2002: see chapter 3, pp 40-44 for details of ‘Operation Charlie.’
H.A. Jones, The War in the Air, Volume 3, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1931.
C. Cole and E.F. Cheeseman, The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918, Bodley Head, London, 1984.
PRO Air 1/611 16/15/286. Report from Officer in Command, Royal Flying Corps, Hainault Farm, 2 February 1916.
PRO Air 1/438 15/300/1. Rochford Station (Naval): report on night landing ground, 1916.
PRO Air 1/720 36/1/6 GHQ Home Forces Intelligence Circular No 6, May 1916.