Rendlesham Forest UFO Incident


26 December 2005 sees the 25th anniversary of Britain's most famous UFO sighting, the Rendlesham Forest incident. There's been significant media interest in this and I've given a number of interviews which have appeared on TV, radio and in the newspapers. The Forestry Commission will be holding a commemorative event on 26 December and ufologists are planning to hold a skywatch on 27 December.

When I ran the British Government's UFO Project at the Ministry of Defence, this was universally regarded as the most convincing case that the Department had on its files.

The Daily Express recently commissioned me to write a major feature on the case. The article was published as a double page spread on 19 November. It's not available online, but differed in only very minor ways from the original text that I submitted, which appears below:

On 21 May 1997 a former Prime Minister made an enigmatic comment that appeared to confirm the reality of Britain's most famous UFO incident. The casual remark hinted at darker secrets and led to much debate among conspiracy theorists. The politician concerned was Baroness Thatcher and the implications of what she said are extraordinary.

The remark was made at a charity function. London based socialite and author Georgina Bruni had for some time been researching the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident, intrigued by hints dropped by various diplomatic, military and political friends. She had been sceptical about the whole UFO mystery and had initially thought that the subject was awash with cultists and crackpots. But Rendlesham was different and so, when she met Baroness Thatcher at the dinner, Bruni took the opportunity to put the former PM on the spot. Was there any truth to the extraordinary rumours concerning what happened in Rendlesham Forest? What did the government really know about UFOs? Was it a serious issue or just pie in the sky? Bruni was expecting a bland dismissal of the story. The official position of the Ministry of Defence, after all, was that no evidence existed to suggest that UFOs were extraterrestrial in origin. Then the former PM dropped her bombshell. "UFOs?" she said. "You can't tell the people". Bruni was astounded and pressed her point. What did she mean? Baroness Thatcher calmly repeated her remark, before departing.

I wasn't at the dinner, but heard about the conversation very shortly afterwards. The reason I heard about it so quickly was that Georgina Bruni decided to call me at 2am to tell me what had happened. She called me because I used to run the British Government's UFO Project, based at the Ministry of Defence, a position I'd held from 1991 to 1994. Georgina Bruni had interviewed me in the course of her research into UFOs and we bumped into each other from time to time at various social functions. Once I got over my sense of humour failure at having been called at 2am, I quickly grasped the significance of what I was told. I got up, went to my study and began to make some notes, all the time quizzing Georgina about every nuance of her brief encounter with the former PM. For me, this was a revelation, because out of all the thousands of UFO sightings investigated by the Ministry of Defence over the years, the Rendlesham Forest incident was the one that stood out. It was the case that we couldn't ignore, despite best efforts to find some conventional explanation for what happened. This case was the Holy Grail and Baroness Thatcher's remark put the events into a new light.

So what actually happened at Rendlesham Forest and what is it that makes this event the most extraordinary UFO encounter ever to have taken place in the UK? As we approach the 25th anniversary of Britain's closest encounter, it's time to re-open the MOD's spookiest X-File.

Late on Christmas night 1980 and in the early hours of Boxing Day, strange lights were seen in Rendlesham Forest. This might not sound particularly significant. People see UFOs all the time and when I was running the UFO Project I used to receive between two and three hundred reports each year, most of which could be explained as misidentifications of aircraft lights, meteors, weather balloons and suchlike. What made this sighting interesting was the fact that the witnesses were United States Air Force personnel based at RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge in Suffolk. Rendlesham Forest lies between the twin bases and as the Cold War was still decidedly frosty, a UFO sighting at two of the nation's most sensitive military sites was most decidedly of interest. In the early hours of 26 December, duty personnel reported lights so bright, they feared an aircraft had crashed. They sought and obtained permission to go off-base and investigate. They didn't find a crashed aircraft - they found a UFO.

The three man patrol from the 81st Security Police Squadron - Jim Penniston, John Burroughs and Ed Cabansag - saw a small metallic craft, moving through the trees. At one point it appeared to land in a small clearing. They approached cautiously and Penniston got close enough to see strange markings on the side of the craft, which he likened to Egyptian hieroglyphs. He made some rapid sketches in his police notebook. Later on, because of the complicated legal and jurisdictional position of United States Air Force bases in the UK, police from Suffolk Constabulary were called out to the site where the object had apparently landed. They conducted a brief but inconclusive examination and then left. But three indentations were vis ible in the clearing and when mapped, they formed the shape of an equilateral triangle. A Geiger counter was used to check the site and the readings peaked markedly in the depressions where the object - possibly on legs of some sort - had briefly come to earth.

News of the UFO encounter spread quickly around the bases and came to the attention of the Deputy Base Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Halt. He was sceptical, but had the witnesses write up official reports, including sketches of what they had seen. The following evening Halt was at a social function when a young airman burst in and ran up to the colonel. "Sir," he stammered, "It's back". Halt looked confused. "What?" he retorted, "What's back?". "The UFO, Sir - the UFO's back". Halt remained sceptical but gathered together a small team and went out into the forest to investigate. He subsequently stated that he went out with no expectation of seeing anything. In his own words, he said that his intention was to "debunk" the whole affair. But he didn't debunk it because he too encountered the UFO, becoming one of the highest ranking military officers ever to go on the record about a UFO sighting. As he and his men tracked the UFO, their radios began to malfunction and powerful mobile 'light-alls', taken to illuminate the forest, mysteriously began to cut out.

One piece of equipment that didn't malfunction was the hand-held tape recorder that the colonel took with him to document his investigation. The tape recording still survives and one can hear the rising tension in Halt's voice and the voices of his men, as the UFO approaches:

"I see it too ... it's back again ... it's coming this way ...there's no doubt about it ...this is weird looks like an eye winking at you ... it almost burns your eyes ...he's coming toward us now ... now we're observing what appears to be a beam coming down to the ground ... one object still hovering over Woodbridge base ... beaming down".

At one point the tension in their voices almost seems to become panic as the UFO makes a close approach and fires light beams down on Halt and his men.

Following these events, Charles Halt wrote an official report of the incident and sent it to the Ministry of Defence. Although somewhat innocuously entitled "Unexplained Lights", his report described the first night's UFO as being "metallic in appearance and triangular in shape ... a pulsing red light on top and a bank of blue lights underneath ... the animals on a nearby farm went into a frenzy". He went on to detail the radiation readings taken from the landing site and set out the details of his own sighting.

Halt sent his report to the Ministry of Defence, to the section where, a little over ten years later, I would spend three years researching and investigating UFO sightings. The report went to my predecessors, who begun an investigation. But they were hampered by a critical mistake that was to have dire consequences. For whatever reason - and it may have been nothing more than a simple typographical error - Charles Halt's report gave incorrect dates for the incident. So when the MOD checked the radar tapes, they were looking at the wrong days. Looking at radar evidence is a critical part of any UFO investigation. There have been plenty of spectacular UFO sightings over the years, many correlated by radar. The MOD's comprehensive UFO files detail several such cases, including ones where RAF pilots encountered UFOs and gave chase. Unsuccessfully, I might add. 

In the absence of any radar data that might confirm the presence of the Rendlesham Forest UFOs, the investigation petered out. Yet, as I was to discover years later, the UFO had been tracked, after all. I spoke to a former RAF radar operator called Nigel Kerr. He had been stationed at RAF Watton at Christmas 1980 and had received a call from somebody at RAF Bentwaters. They wanted to know if there was anything unusual on his radar screen. He looked and for three or four sweeps, something did show up, directly over the base. But it faded away and no official report was ever made. It was only years later that Kerr even heard of the Rendlesham Forest incident and realised he might have a missing piece of the puzzle.

In the apparent absence of radar data to verify the presence of the UFO, arguably the most critical piece of evidence was never followed up. The Defence Intelligence Staff had assessed the radiation readings taken at the landing site and judged them to be "significantly higher than the average background". In fact, they were about seven times what would have been expected for the area concerned.

So what are we to make of all this? UFO believers are convinced that the sightings involved an extraterrestrial spacecraft. They still hold skywatches in the forest and claim to see UFOs on a regular basis. The sceptical theories are almost as bizarre, with people variously suggesting that the highly trained military witnesses actually saw the lights of a police car, or the beam from the local lighthouse. "Lighthouses don't fly", Charles Halt observed, incredulously. More rational sceptical theories include the testing of some sort of prototype aircraft, but the bottom line is that while at any given time there are things being developed that you won't see at the Farnborough airshow for 10 or 15 years, we know where we fly our own hardware. The 'black projects' theory doesn't fly.

The initial United States Air Force report to the MOD was obtained by American UFO researchers in 1983, under the Freedom of Information Act. But it was not until 2001 that the rest of the file came to light. Georgina Bruni had requested a number of documents on the incident under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information - the forerunner to Britain's Freedom of Information Act. She had also enlisted the help of former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Hill-Norton - himself a firm believer in UFOs. The MOD, despite what conspiracy theorists allege, is committed to open government and was happy to release the file. It can now be viewed in entirety on the MOD website. In the league tables of FOI requests, questions about UFOs are near the top. The MOD and the National Archives are bombarded with requests about UFOs but have a rolling programme of disclosure. These are the real X-Files and they are being released.

As the 25th anniversary of this UFO encounter approaches, there is tremendous interest in the incident. UFO enthusiasts are planning an anniversary vigil. The Forestry Commission - which recently created a 'UFO Trail' in the forest - is planning a commemorative event. Several television documentaries are being made and there's even talk of a Hollywood movie. But 25 years on, despite the wealth of documentation to have emerged and despite the testimony of the witnesses themselves, we are no nearer to knowing what happened in Rendlesham Forest. The truth is still out there. Somewhere.