Rendlesham: Secret Files


The Secret Files: Rendlesham

originally published in Fortean Times 204 (December 2005)
The Rendlesham Forest UFO case is, with the sole exception of the Roswell Incident, the most talked about UFO case in the world. Claims of a cover-up by the US and UK Governments have become central feature of the incident.

DAVID CLARKE explains how he toppled the wall of silence to become the first researcher to obtain a copy of the Ministry of Defence file on the Rendlesham incident in May 2001.

Some UFOlogists believe the Rendlesham Forest UFO was one of the most important events in modern history, bigger even than Roswell as the key witnesses are all alive and willing to talk about their experiences. Although Charles Halt’s amazing report to Whitehall was released under the American Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1983, the British obsession with secrecy kept the lid on what the Ministry of Defence knew about the incident for another two decades.

Until 2001 the official stance was simply that Halt’s report had been scrutinised by air defence staff who had decided it had “no defence significance.” This bland statement reeked of a cover-up and led two retired senior officials, Ralph Noyes and Lord Hill-Norton to openly accuse the Government of lying.

But with Britain’s own FOIA pending, the MoD finally bowed to my requests and agreed to release 150 pages from their file early in 2001. Shortly afterwards the contents of the entire “Rendlesham file” was uploaded onto the Ministry’s FOI Publication Scheme:

The file did not contain the “smoking gun” anticipated by UFOlogists – but did reveal a bungled, half-hearted investigation by disinterested officials. Most astonishing of all, the papers revealed the MoD never interviewed Halt or his men. As a result the investigation was flawed from day one as even the dates for the key incidents provided by Halt in his written memo were wrong. This basic error could have been easily rectified by a telephone call to the USAF or to the local police. The arrival of the FOIA in 2005 saw the release of the Suffolk Police log on the incident which was never seen by the Ministry at the time.

These murky waters have been muddied still further by the activities of Nick Pope, the ubiquitous former UFO desk officer at the MoD, who has made Rendlesham his cause celebre. Pope’s tour of duty was 1991-94 and he played no role in the original investigation. But in 1996 after leaving the post he wrote Open Skies, Closed Minds where he re-emerged as a UFO believer. He claims Rendlesham is the UK’s “best example” of a visit by ET and maintains there was no cover-up by the MoD but rather “a lack of action”.

But his statements fly in the face of new evidence from Simon Weeden who was UFO desk officer when the events took place. It was Weeden who received Col Halt’s report early in January 1981, three weeks after the events. Weeden, interviewed in 2005, maintains the case was discussed carefully with air defence staff who were “curious but sceptical.” But they decided “US nightime military movements”, the Orfordness lighthouse, or lights used by poachers were more likely explanations than an alien landing. Weeden concluded: “I do not recall the ‘Rendlesham Forest’ reports as being regarded at the time as being especially noteworthy.”

RENDLESHAM: The Evidence

East Anglia is dotted with powerful radars developed in the Second World War. Claims were made as early as 1981 that at least one RAF radar had tracked the Rendlesham UFOs. The MoD file reveals that although checks were made on the wrong dates no unusual targets were seen on the UK radar picture during the Christmas period in 1980. Definitive testimony came from Squadron Leader Derek Coumbe who was on duty as commander of Eastern Radar on the very night Col Halt called requesting confirmation of his sightings. “They were very jumpy and panicky on the phone,” he told me. “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.” Coumbe impounded the radar tapes which were collected for analysis by a team from the Military Air Traffic Organisation (MATO) at RAF Uxbridge. Unfortunately, it appears the tapes were “faulty.”

Col Halt’s team claimed they had found damage to trees in an area of the forest where the UFO landed. UFOlogists were convinced a cover-up was underway when the foresters felled most of the pines three months after the sightings. But the Forestry Commission file on the incident, which I obtained using the FOIA, reveals the decision to remove the trees was made in 1980 before the UFO sightings were made. The marks noted by Halt’s team were made by forester’s axes, not by alien craft, in order to identify the trees due to be felled. Similar marks were photographed by Ian Ridpath in a visit to the forest in 1983.

USAF airmen said they had discovered three depressions in a rough triangular formation in the clearing where the UFO landed. But it has never been explained how they could identify such traces with certainty in the midst of a vast pine forest. British police officers called to the site within hours of the incident were unimpressed noting “the impressions were of no depth and could have been made by an animal.”

Nick Pope has placed great importance upon the levels of radiation detected by Halt’s team which he claimed were ten times higher than normal, both in the depressions on the forest floor and on nearby trees. Pope says the readings form “the most tangible proof that something extraordinary happened there.” But at least three independent scientific experts, and the makers of the equipment used by the USAF, have confirmed there was nothing unusual or significant or in the readings. The makers of the instrument told Ian Ridpath even the peak measurement obtained by Halt was “of little or no significance.”They were simply background levels of radiation that would be expected in a pine forest. Doubts have also been raised about the suitability of the radiation counter used by the USAF team in the forest which are not designed to measure environmental radiation.

Did a sighting of some unusual or unfamiliar natural phenomena trigger off the UFO scare at RAF Woodbridge? Since 1981 many theories have been put forward to explain the sightings, including misperceptions of fixed beacons such as the Orfordness lighthouse and a nearby floating lightship, or of brilliant lights attached to a tractor working fields at night. Stories from the folklore of this corner of Suffolk describe strange moving lights over Bentwaters and Woodbridge as far back as 1940. In some cases the lights were traced to car headlights bent and distorted by unusual weather conditions or the sea mist which is common in this low-lying area. In other cases it was suspected the brilliant lights were those used by “lampers” hunting rabbits and other animals in the forest at night.

But the most likely trigger for the Rendlesham UFOs may have been something that came from space after all, an object made by the Russians that was in orbit just for a a few hours. Shortly before Christmas 1980 with the Cold War at its height and with a crisis looming in Poland, the Soviets launched a number of satellites into orbit. The rocket body from one, Cosmos 749, re-entered the earth’s atmosphere shortly after 9pm on Christmas Day. The fireball broke into several pieces as it decayed and created a spectacular display in the night sky. Astronomers tracked its course across southeast England and noted how the final fragment disappeared in the vicinity of East Anglia. Headlines in national newspapers on 27 December (the day Halt made his sightings) spoke of “a giant spaceship spurting out similar craft”, “a large fireball crossing the Thames” and “six lights moving in convoy.” New data released from RAF Fylingdales confirms that a total of 12 satellites decayed during the week of the UFO scare. The sky was literally full of them. Six were “large objects such as payloads or rocket bodies and the decays would have been highly visible to any ground observers.” To top it all, during the Christmas holiday period astronomers logged three fireball meteors (lumps of rock burning up in the atmosphere), the largest and brightest at 2.50 a.m. on Boxing Day morning.

Can it be just a coincidence that in their original statements the USAF airmen describe seeing “lights coming down [into] the woods” around 3 AM? The rest, as they say, is history – or legend.


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