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Rendlesham Forest

The Rendlesham Forest incident is the most intriguing and best-documented UFO case in the world and is second only to Roswell in terms of name recognition. Nick Pope conducted a cold case review of the incident for the British Government. He presented the following summary of the case to a cross-party group of former US Congressional representatives in 2013, and this briefing is widely used by journalists and film/TV executives looking for a concise, neutral point of view introduction to what happened.

The UK’s best-known and most compelling UFO incident is a series of sightings that occurred in December 1980 and are collectively known as either the Rendlesham Forest incident or the Bentwaters incident. The sightings took place near the twin military bases of Bentwaters and Woodbridge. These were bases in the UK, operated by the United States Air Force (USAF), as part of the wider US military presence in Europe. There were several dozen military witnesses, the most senior of whom was the Deputy Base Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Halt.

In the early hours of December 26 1980, two members of the USAF (John Burroughs and Jim Penniston) who had been sent to investigate a suspected crashed civilian aircraft encountered an unknown craft, which had apparently landed in a small clearing in Rendlesham Forest, which lay between the twin bases. Penniston got close enough to see strange hieroglyphic symbols on the hull, and indeed to touch it. After some time, the craft rose slowly above the trees and then accelerated away at high speed. A subsequent analysis of the landing site showed indentations in the ground forming the shape of a triangle, scorch marks on the sides of the trees, and radiation levels which scientific staff at the UK’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) assessed as being “significantly higher than the average background”. The UFO was briefly tracked on military radar. Two nights later the UFO returned and fired light beams at the Deputy Base Commander and a small team of men who had gone to investigate. It later fired light beams at a particularly sensitive area of the Woodbridge base.

Jim Penniston's official USAF sketch of the UFO  Jim Penniston's official USAF sketch of the symbols 

Though these events happened some time before I joined the MoD, it was a case that was raised with me on numerous occasions during my time working on MoD’s UFO project, between 1991 and 1994. It was certainly the case on which I received most enquiries, from Members of Parliament, the media and the public. So as to be better able to respond to such questions, I not only read all the relevant papers on the case, but launched a retrospective review of the incident – something akin to what the police would call a cold case review. Subsequent to this, I have met most of the key witnesses to this incident and had extensive discussions with them.

Investigations by the UK were inconclusive. I do not know the results of the US investigations, because as MoD documents released under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act show, some evidence was removed by the US authorities without their informing the UK Government. Specifically, the MoD case file reveals that shortly after the incident, General Gabriel visited the twin bases of Bentwaters and Woodbridge, was briefed on the incident, and took various items relating to the investigation back to his headquarters in Ramstein, Germany. At the time, General Gabriel held the post of Commander in Chief, United States Air Forces in Europe. The MoD document concerned – though carefully worded – leaves little doubt that the UK authorities were less than pleased with evidence being removed in this way, with the MoD not being informed at the time and not – so far as I am aware – being briefed subsequently on the conclusions of whatever USAF and/or DoD investigation followed General Gabriel’s visit.

My cold case review showed that General Gabriel’s removal of evidence was one of a number of factors that adversely affected the contemporaneous investigation. A combination of confusion over jurisdiction (i.e. between the US and UK authorities), delay, and poor information-sharing fatally undermined the original investigation. Part of the problem was that the US investigation was, in and of itself, a direct contradiction of the US Government’s public line on UFOs – namely that the subject is of no official interest and that no investigations took place after the termination of the USAF’s UFO investigation program, Project BLUE BOOK, at the end of 1969. This clearly put senior USAF officers in an extremely difficult position and it was clear to me that the US authorities wished to hand the investigation off to the British, while the MoD was equally keen to see the Americans take the lead.

Nick Pope's bestselling book, Encounter in Rendlesham Forest, co-written with the two USAF witnesses at the heart of the incident

The confusion over precisely what happened at the time is compounded by the fact that some MoD UFO files covering the time period of the Rendlesham Forest incident have been destroyed, seemingly without proper authorization. While I am aware that this action has generated some conspiracy theories, I am not aware of any evidence that suggests this was a deliberate attempt to hide information. While some internal MoD emails expressed delight at the loss of these files, my assessment is that these were unfortunate remarks by comparatively junior staff and were motivated by nothing more sinister than the relief of not having to respond to further Freedom of Information Act requests for the documents.

By the MoD’s own admission, there was no definitive explanation for the Rendlesham Forest incident and the case remains unexplained to this day. However, when pressed to make a statement on the incident, the MoD has consistently said that the events were judged to be of “no defense significance” – a catch-all soundbite that we consistently used with all UFO sightings, explained or unexplained, when engaging with Parliament, the media or the public.

It is worth quoting the assessment of Lord Hill-Norton on this point. Lord Hill-Norton was a retired 5-Star Admiral who was a former Chief of the Defense Staff (CDS) and a former Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee. CDS is a UK post equivalent to the US post of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Commenting on the MoD’s “no defense significance” line on the Rendlesham Forest incident Lord Hill-Norton said this:

“My position both privately and publicly expressed over the last dozen years or more, is that there are only two possibilities, either:

a. An intrusion into our Air Space and a landing by unidentified craft took place at Rendlesham, as described.


b. The Deputy Commander of an operational, nuclear armed, US Air Force Base in England, and a large number of his enlisted men, were either hallucinating or lying.

Either of these simply must be 'of interest to the Ministry of Defense', which has been repeatedly denied, in precisely those terms.”

It is difficult to disagree with Lord Hill-Norton’s assessment.

In the course of my cold case review of the Rendlesham Forest incident, I examined critically all the various theories that sought to explain the sightings in conventional terms, either as misidentification, hoax or delusion. The most likely conventional explanation, of course, was that the incident had involved a secret, prototype aircraft or drone. However, none of the theories fitted the facts.

Most people, whatever their views on the UFO mystery, have probably heard of the alleged crash of a UFO at Roswell. In the Rendlesham Forest incident, we have a UFO incident more recent, better documented and better evidenced than the events at Roswell.