The Secret Files»
UFOs in History»
originally published in UFO Magazine (UK) January 2003
Dr. David Clarke & Andy Roberts
The future was uncertain for those who joined the Royal Air Force at the start of World War II. All were volunteers and many looked upon their baptism into the world of flight and combat as an adventure which would bring experiences both good and bad. But none expected the strangest experience they would face would be unidentified flying objects that would play tag with their aircraft during raids on occupied Europe.
In recent years much has been written about UFOs seen during World War Two and although there is as yet no single work which deals comprehensively with the subject, many UFO books and magazines feature stories about the so-called ‘foo-fighters’. Unfortunately the majority of these are sensationalised or un- referenced accounts dealing solely with the American experience and until recently little was known of the experiences of RAF aircrews and the response of the British government to these reports.
In an attempt to redress that balance, since 1987 we have been digging deep into the foo-fighter mystery. There have been two, intertwined, strands to this approach. The first has been interviews with the many combat air crew who witnessed this perplexing aerial phenomena and the second has been research into studies of the phenomena by the Air Ministry.
During WWII the terms ‘UFO’ and ‘flying saucer’ were yet to be invented. But it is human nature to name the unknown in an attempt to make it explicable and thus hopefully to understand it better. The name which stuck to WWII aerial phenomena and which has become widely known was ‘foo-fighters’, a term given to them by an unknown American airman, probably in 1943. No-one is certain where the name came from but it may have originated in a popular 1940s U.S. cartoon strip featuring the character Smokey Stover, whose catch phrase was ‘where there’s foo, there’s fire’. Alternatively ‘foo’ may have derived from the French word for fire - ‘feu’ -, the phenomenon often being described as resembling a fireball.
Whatever its origin, ‘foo-fighter’ was a term specific to the United States Air Force, and appears not to have been used in a British context until March 1945. But our research has revealed that RAF air crew during WWII had their own names for the UFOs they saw. Based on information gleaned from interviews with surviving aircrew and details in log books, it appears that ‘The Light’ or ‘The Thing’ were the two most common terms used in RAF squadrons from 1942 onwards. One early contemporary example comes from December 14 1943, when Squadron Leader P. Wells wrote in his flight log of a, ‘Screaming dog-fight with the “light”’. In a 1987 interview we asked Wells if he was aware the American’s were seeing similar phenomena and if he knew of the term ‘foo-fighter’. He replied, ‘...foo-fighters is a new name to me, we always called them “The Light” in the squadrons in which I served in 1943-44’. Other air crew, baffled by the lights which pursued or paced them, rationalised their sightings as evidence of new jets or ‘rockets’ and referred to them in those terms in flight logs and at debriefings. However, the term ‘The Thing’ stuck in people’s minds and was being used by British witnesses and newspapers in relation to UFOs well into the 1960s when it was applied to the UFOs seen during the famous Warminster flap
No-one knows who the first RAF air crew to see a UFO in WWII was, but one of the earliest recorded RAF encounters comes from B.C. Lumsden who observed two classic foo-fighters while flying a Hurricane fighter over France in December 1942.
Lumsden had left England at seven p.m., for a mission over the French coast. An hour later, while cruising at 7,000 feet over the mouth of the River Somme, he discovered that he had company. Two steadily climbing orange-coloured lights, with one slightly above the other. Lumsden at first thought the lights may be tracer flak, but discarded the idea when he saw how slowly the objects were moving. He did a full turn and saw the lights astern and to port but now they were larger and brighter. At 7,000 feet they stopped climbing and stayed level with his Hurricane. The frightened pilot executed another full turn, only to discover that the objects had stayed with him. Lumsden nose-dived to 4,000 feet with the lights following his every manoeuvre. Finally they descended to about 1,000 feet below him until he leveled out, at which point they climbed again and resumed pursuit. The two lights seemed to maintain an even distance from each other and varied only slightly in relative height from time to time. One always remained a little lower than the other. At last, as Lumsden's speed reached 260 miles per hour, he was gradually able to outdistance the UFOs. ‘I found it hard to make other members of the squadron believe me when I told my story,’ Lumsden said, ‘but the following night one of the squadron flight commanders in the same area had a similar experience with a green light.’
Lumsden’s account was just one of a growing number which reached the Air Ministry during 1942. By early autumn enough sightings had been reported to warrant an official statement and on 25th September a report classified SECRET was issued by the Air Ministry’s Operation Research Section, entitled A Note On Recent Enemy Pyrotechnic Activity Over Germany. Baffled by the flood of reports, the report’s authors discussed the possible causes of the phenomenon. They concluded, not entirely convincingly, that the sightings were new or misperceived types of German anti-aircraft shells and referred to them as ‘Phenomena 1’ and ‘Phenomena 2’, suggesting that more suitable names be given them in a report being prepared by a branch of military intelligence, M.I. 14.»