From the archive: Rendlesham Forest – Britain’s Roswell? David Clarke The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 17, Issue 2-3, from 2006.

There are two basic categories of UFO-lore: alien abductions and conspiracies. Central to the UFO-lore is belief in a conspiracy by “the Government” – and primarily those of the USA and UK – to withhold the “secret truth” from the general public. This “truth” being an admission that the authorities have proof of the alien presence on earth, in the form of the wreckage of a spacecraft and the bodies of its crew. The ultimate expression of this modern legend is the Roswell incident, but the idea of an official cover-up has become widespread in popular culture. The “landed Martians” is such a well known story that it was included in Professor Jan Brunvand’s list of modern legends about Governments in his book, The Choking Doberman.

Brunvand says he received a lot of angry letters for comparing UFO cover-ups with urban legends. Indeed, many “serious UFOlogists” are horrified at attempts to study these stories as the modern equivalents of fairy tales and ancient legends. However, there are similarities between UFO cover-up narratives and modern legends such as the Vanishing Hitch-hiker: stories heard as rumour and gossip. Those who pass on the story believe it really happened to a friend of a friend, and the story is given immediacy and legitimacy by the inclusion of ‘real’ names and places. With the arrival of the Internet, new versions spread with dizzying speed around the world, spawning new variations upon the original theme.

While Roswell is the seminal story, the Rendlesham incident is often cited as ‘Britain’s Roswell.’ They are composed of two distinct entities: the popular myth and the few certain facts. In both cases, the two constituents have taken an independent life of their own, and continue to grow apart in ever more distant directions.

Central to the Rendlesham incidents is the testimony of a group of USAF security policemen who reported mysterious lights outside the perimeter of RAF Woodbridge, in Suffolk, on two occasions in December 1980. The most senior officer was USAF Lt Col (later Col) Charles Halt, who was the Deputy Base Commander of RAF Woodbridge. It was Halt who prepared an official memorandum summarizing these incidents for the attention of the British Ministry of Defence (MoD). At that time, Woodbridge and its twin base at Bentwaters were tenanted by USAF as part of their air defence responsibilities in Europe. Halt was, at face value, an experienced officer who was held in high regard by his superiors.

The Ministry of Defence and the Rendlesham incident

UFOlogists first learned that a UFO incident had occurred in the forest adjoining the twin RAF bases at Bentwaters–Woodbridge early in 1981. Although the bases were loaned to the United States Air Force (USAF) responsibility for events off-base – and indeed defence of surrounding UK airspace – rested with the MoD. Almost immediately, speculation was rife in the UFO community about an official cover-up.

In 1980 an air staff secretariat known as Defence Secretariat 8 (DS8) were the only Government agency officially acknowledged as having an interest in UFO reports. Policy documents released at the Public Record Office (PRO) reveal that UFOs were the lowest priority among the many other operational duties handled by DS8. A single member of staff (usually an Executive Office or Higher Executive Officer, both junior posts) spent a small proportion of his or her time examining reports received, purely for evidence of “defence significance” (i.e. for evidence that the UFOs were intruder aircraft). Essentially this policy remained unchanged since 1958 when DS8’s predecessor S4 (Air) accepted responsibility for responding to all inquiries concerning UFOs. On accepting the burden, a senior civil servant suggested that in response to questions on the subject they should “for the most part be politely unhelpful.”

There has been much speculation in UFO circles that DS8 and its successors was merely a “shop window” for a more covert MoD investigation team. PRO records suggest this perception is the result of a misunderstanding. Since 1958 S4 (Air) and later DS8 routinely copied all the reports they received to two other military and scientific branches of MoD. These are a defence intelligence unit, DI 55, and an RAF Ground Environment branch who are responsible for the air defence radar. Records show that neither were interested in UFOs outside of a limited defence remit, and rarely made inquiries of their own in recent years.

The MoD has historically said little or nothing in public concerning the extent and nature of their UFO investigations. Their policy of playing down the subject was in sharp contrast with the USAF, who maintained a highly public UFO project (Blue Book) until 1969. Even after the closure of Blue Book, American UFOlogists were able to use their country’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain access to documents produced by a variety of official agencies. It was via the US FOIA in 1983 that a copy of Col Halt’s memo was obtained by an American UFOlogist, and released into the public domain.

Britain is set to receive a partial FOIA in January 2005. Until recently, it was impossible to obtain information from the MoD concerning what they did, or did not, know about specific UFO reports. The Ministry maintained that all correspondence with members of the public was confidential, and files could only be released after the 30 years had passed under the Public Record Act. Under the current ‘30 year rule’ files on the Rendlesham Forest incident would not have been made public until 2011.

When UFOlogist Jenny Randles, with Brenda Butler and Dot Street, began to investigate the story early in 1981, they were informed that Halt’s report was “passed to staff concerned with air defence matters who were satisfied that there was nothing of defence interest in the alleged sightings.” From 1981 until 2001 this bland statement remained the standard official response to all inquiries about the incident. While adequate for media and public consumption, it encouraged some UFOlogists to believe a cover-up was under way.

As Britain did not have a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), little progress could be made with the Ministry of Defence until very recently. In 1994 a Code of Practice for Access to Government Information was introduced that provided limited access to material closed under the 30-year rule. Paradoxically, although the UFOlogists who were promoting the case claimed they were determined to discover “the truth” about Rendlesham, until 2001 no one made use of the new legislation to request access to official records. During the research for my book Out of the Shadows (Clarke & Roberts, 2002), I made an application under the Code for access to records that were relevant to the case.

In May 2001 the contents of an MoD Air file – 150 pages in length – were released. The file was unclassified and contained nothing ‘secret’ or ‘top secret’ as the UFOlogists had claimed. Five documents were initially withheld, two on the grounds of “defence, security and international relations” and three briefing documents because they contained “internal opinion, advice, recommendation and deliberation.” Speculation was immediately rife within the UFO community about the nature of their contents.  One magazine editor declared they were withheld because they contained “top secret” information about the case, or revealed the much sought-after “smoking gun.”

All five documents have now been released on appeal, the first two in October 2001 and the remaining briefings early in 2003. They contained nothing remotely “top secret” and the reasons for their retention had more to do with civil service bureaucracy than they had with the desire to conceal any “secret truth.” Their significance lay in the mystery that surrounded their content.

The Smoking Gun?

Jenny Randles acknowledges that the file “tells us much more about the MoD than it does about the events in Rendlesham Forest.” A small amount of material relates to the official investigation of Halt’s report – if it can be so described – between 1981 and 1983. The vast majority of its content consists of long and often tedious correspondence between Sec(AS)2, the MoD secretariat which replaced DS8, and members of the public between 1982 and 1994. The later material documents the MoD’s often tortuous attempts to avoid answering specific questions and its desire to avoid unwelcome publicity on the subject.

The file contains evidence that the MoD were not officially aware of the incident until DS8 received a copy of Lt Col Halt’s memo, forwarded by the British base commander, early in January 1981. By the time action was taken – in the form of circulating the paperwork to other branches – a month had passed and “the scent was cold.” In February checks were made with the radar cameras at Eastern Radar (RAF Watton) and the Central Reporting Centre at RAF Neatishead in Norfolk. This found “no entry in respect of unusual radar returns or other unusual occurrences.”

Unfortunately, on both occasions the MoD were reliant upon the dates of 27 and 29 December for the UFO events in Rendlesham Forest supplied by Col Halt in his memo. Both dates were incorrect, a mistake that could have been easily rectified. All the evidence suggests no follow-up request was ever made to Halt or his USAF superiors by the MoD. This lack of official interest was confirmed by the Group Captain Neil  Colvin responsible for Air Defence at MoD in 1981. In a letter dated 3 February 2003 he wrote: “I remember the alleged sightings by US airmen at Bentwaters [sic]. I recall that we could not explain them but were very sceptical 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.”

Cover-up or Cock-up?

Possibly the most astounding revelation contained in the file is that it was not until 1983 – two years after the events – that the MoD obtained the correct dates. These were supplied not by the USAF but came from a member of the public! Shortly after Halt’s memo was published by the News of the World astronomer Ian Ridpath made inquiries with Suffolk Police and was able to confirm from their records the correct date for the initial sighting by the airmen. Ridpath wrote to advise DS8 on 14 November 1983 that police had first been called to the scene in Rendlesham forest at 4.11am on 26 December 1980. He added: “They said that all they could see was the the lighthouse [at Orfordness]. They were called out again at 10.30am on Dec 26 to examine the reported landing marks. There seems little doubt that the date of Dec 27 given in Col. Halt’s letter is wrong. This also casts doubt on the second date he gives for the later events.”

As a result of this, DS8 wrote to the RAF Base Commander, Squadron Leader Donald Moreland, asking if he could re-check the dates. Moreland’s reply, dated 25 November 1983, compounded the errors and demonstrated the complete lack of interest the MoD had in the events of 1980. He wrote: “The incident is now almost 3 years old and no one here remembers it clearly. All we have is Lt Col. Halt’s letter dated 13 January 1981.”

This was hardly the “smoking gun” imagined by the UFOlogists. If an event of world-changing status had occurred at the base just two years earlier it was odd that “no one here remembers it clearly.”

A similar lack of interest related to claims of higher than expected levels of radiation recorded by Col. Halt in the area of the forest visited by the UFOs. Early in 1981 the MoD asked its defence intelligence specialists to comment on the data recorded in Lt Col. Halt’s memo, but made no attempt to establish independent confirmation of them. R.C. Moorcroft at DI 52, responding to DS8 on 23 February 1981 to the question, noted: “Background radioactivity varies considerably due to a number of factors … If you wish to pursue this further I could make enquiries as to natural background levels in the area.” There is nothing to suggest any further action was taken.

The radioactivity issue was not raised again until 1994 when Nick Pope, who was then Executive Officer at Sec(AS) 2, took the matter up with Giles Cowling at the Defence Radiological Protection Service, a branch of the Government’s Defence Evaluation Research Agency (DERA). Pope’s hand-written notes of his discussion with Cowling, dated 15 April 1994, form the last enclosure in the file. Pope – who subsequently described these notes as “the first and only official investigation into this aspect of the case” – ends with the comment “The level of 0.1 is completely harmless.”

Oddly, in the light of his own hand-written reservations, by 1996 Pope was describing the alleged radiation traces as “the most tangible proof that something extraordinary happened there [Rendlesham Forest.]”

‘UFO Lands in Suffolk – that’s official!’

In October1983 the News of the World broke the story contained in Lt Col. Halt’s memo and the MoD Press Office began to receive calls from the world’s media. DS8 prepared what it called a “Defensive Press Line” anticipating the questions that might be asked. The most amusing comment noted that the MoD and USAF “both referred callers to the other … [this] will have done nothing but confirm suspicions held in UFO circles that we are engaged in a cover-up.”

When in 1984 the retired head of DS8, Ralph Noyes, contacted his former colleagues to ask for clarification of their position he had to send two reminders before receiving a standard reply. This delay contributed to Noyes’ increasingly public pro-UFO stance and by 1987 he came to believe that the MoD had indeed lied about the incident. He was joined by a former Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Lord Hill-Norton. The Admiral, who became a UFO believer in retirement, also took up the case and reached the same conclusion. Ironically, whilst supporting the idea of a high level conspiracy, the Admiral asks us to believe that he was not part of it, and that the subject “never once crossed his desk” during his service as CDS!

The most recent MoD briefing on the Rendlesham Forest case contained in the file was compiled by Britain’s self-styled Fox Mulder, Nick Pope, in 1994. In this Pope followed the standard MoD line that “no evidence was found of any threat to the defence of the United Kingdom and no further investigations were carried out … no further information has come to light which alters our view that the sightings of these lights was of no defence significance … in the absence of any hard evidence, the MOD remains open-minded about these sightings.”

Pope served the standard three years as a junior officer with Sec (AS) 2 from 1991-94. After leaving this post he produced a book, Open Skies Closed Minds that took a pro-UFO stance. He maintains there was no cover-up of the Rendlesham incident but rather “a lack of action” by the MoD. In 2000 he provided the forward to Georgina Bruni’s book on the Rendlesham incident, You Can’t Tell the People. Although this book’s author strongly believes in a cover-up by the British and US Governments, Pope failed to appreciate the contradiction in his stance. During an interview I recorded with Pope in 2001 it became clear that he had abandoned the objective viewpoint he displayed whilst working for the MoD. When asked for his current belief about what happened at Rendlesham he told us:

As you know, despite the fact that I am a non-conspiracy theorist and a rational guy, you know that I am a believer in the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis and I will go with the ETH on this one. Am I allowed to give my answer as an extraterrestrial spacecraft? That’s the answer I’m going with on this case.


As the MoD maintained from the very beginning, there is nothing in the file to support claims that a cover-up had taken place to hide evidence of UFO landings in Suffolk. Rather than being a “smoking gun” the file contents chart the growth of a modern legend from birth to full maturity. As is the case with Roswell, the established facts have only a loose connection with the mythology that has grown up around the case in the UFO literature.

Folklore and UFO-lore share the same kind of evidence: the testimony of narrators describing extraordinary experiences. In UFO-lore reports made by military witnesses, particularly senior officers, are accredited special status. The existence of official documents describing extraordinary events is the UFOlogical equivalent of the “holy grail.” This is where the circular arguments that bedevil UFO-lore begin.

The UFOlogists want to know the truth about a baffling subject and because the Government is involved it is assumed, wrongly, that it must know all the answers. From the standpoint of believers in alien visitors, all that has to be done is to force the Government to release “the truth” and the UFO reality would be established to everyone’s satisfaction. Unfortunately, to use the words of Daniel Webster, “There is nothing so powerful as the truth and often nothing as strange.” When information is not forthcoming, or when it is released but does not provide the conclusive evidence demanded by believers, a deeper cover-up is suspected and so the argument becomes a circular one.

The idea of an official cover-up of the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident is belief-driven and can never be disproved, only proved.

Official sources: The MoD’s policy towards UFO reports is outlined in three files available at the Public Record Office

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From the archives in 2006, would the release of official documents relating to the Rendlesham Forest incident reveal that a UFO really landed? Dr David Clarke investigates.
The post From the archive: Rendlesham Forest – Britain’s Roswell? appeared first on The Skeptic.