British UFO Official History

This world exclusive article will reveal for the first time the secret history of the British Government's early involvement in the UFO issue, giving an insight into the politics and personalities responsible for shaping official policy. The bulk of this article concerns the post-war period, but to understand what happened and why, we need to go back a little further.


The mysterious wave of airship sightings that took place over America in 1896 and 1897 were mirrored by a series of sightings that took place in Britain, starting in 1909. One of the first of these so-called 'scareship' sightings occurred in the early hours of 23 March 1909, when PC Kettle from Peterborough heard a strange buzzing sound from above. When he looked up, he saw a bright light attached to an immense, oblong-shaped craft, which moved at a fairly high speed across the sky. Numerous further sightings were reported.

On 13 May 1909 an airship of about 100 feet in length was seen over Kelmarsh in Northamptonshire, while on the same night two men claimed to have seen a landed airship on Ham Common in London and spoken to the two crewmen, who they said were German and American. The German asked for some tobacco for his pipe and the two witnesses reported having been blinded by a searchlight during some of the sighting. Another report of a landed airship concerned an event that took place on 18 May 1909, on Caerphilly Mountain in South Wales. The witness reported having seen two strangely-dressed occupants who he heard talking to each other in a strange language that he was unable to identify. A subsequent examination of the alleged landing site revealed some damage to the ground.

The public perception was that these were sightings of German airships carrying out reconnaissance missions. But there is no indication that Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin's airship programme was sufficiently advanced in 1909 to conduct such operations over the UK. In any case, German airships of the period could manage nothing remotely close to the sorts of speeds and manoeuvres that were being reported. The British airship programme was significantly less advanced than the German one, so we do not believe that the 'scareship' mystery can be explained in terms of prototype British military hardware with which members of the public would be unfamiliar. To this day these sightings remain unexplained. Further information can be found in The Scareship Mystery - A Survey of Phantom Airship Scares, 1909 - 1918, edited by Nigel Watson.

Our reason for mentioning these sightings is that they mark the beginning of official interest in unexplained aerial phenomena. The 1909 wave was followed by further reports in 1912 and this is where our story begins in earnest. There had been sightings of an airship over Sheerness in Kent and with tension between Britain and Germany being so high, it was suggested that a Zeppelin was involved. On 27 November 1912 William Joynson-Hicks MP raised the matter in Parliament and quizzed the First Lord of the Admiralty about the events. The latter confirmed that reports had been received, but said that subsequent investigation had not produced any explanation for what had been seen. The First Lord of the Admiralty at the time was Winston Churchill.

Sightings continued throughout 1913 and one consequence of this was the strengthening of the Aerial Navigation Act of 1911. A Bill was duly passed which set up prohibited areas. If these were violated or if an airship failed to respond to signals from the ground, it could then be shot down and to enable this to be carried out, the War Office stepped up efforts to produce a gun capable of bringing down an airship. The War Office continued to investigate the 1913 sightings, but drew a blank.

While the media championed the theory that these sightings involved German dirigibles, some newspapers suspected that hoaxes or hysteria might be more logical explanations, especially in the cases of those reports involving sightings of landed craft and occupants. Crucially, however, the Government was not prepared to make such a judgement and continued to take the view that all sightings should be investigated. If there is evidence that your airspace is being penetrated by aerial craft one does not ignore the data. Whatever one's personal beliefs, anyone within government and the military cannot ignore evidence of this nature and must assume that they are hostile. If governments investigate such things and they turn out to be bogus, all they lose is a little time and money. But if they ignore something that turns out to be real and hostile, they leave the country vulnerable, as well losing the opportunity to exploit it (e.g. copying the technology). This philosophy underpins official interest not just in UFOs but in other areas such as remote viewing, so in a sense the War Office response to the scareship mystery set the template for future official investigations into UFOs.

Foo Fighters

Most UFO researchers are familiar with the Foo Fighter mystery, which involved strange balls of light and small, metallic objects seen by both Allied and Axis pilots during the Second World War. File AIR 14/2800 at the Public Record Office contains one of the few surviving official British reports of these objects, detailing how aircrew from Bomber Command's 115 Squadron saw some of these strange objects on bombing raids in December 1943.

What is more pertinent to this story is the way in which the Foo Fighter sightings were viewed by the British Government. Perhaps the best indication comes from Professor R. V. Jones, one of the key wartime scientific intelligence experts and someone who is one of the key figures in this story, even though his involvement with the UFO issue is not widely known. Writing in chapter 52 of his book Most Secret War, he says:

"We had already seen scares arise during the war by the imaginations of men under strain interpreting fearfully observations which had a natural explanation. KGr 100 pilots had seen red lights over England. We had to deal with reports of Fifth Columnists letting off rockets; and our bomber crews had reported single-engine nightfighters with yellow lights in their noses over Germany at times when we knew that no single-engine nightfighters were flying."

Foo Fighter sightings, so it seems, were dismissed out of hand by officialdom. Or were they?

R. V. Jones

As R. V. Jones features prominently in this history of officialdom's involvement with the UFO issue, we should give a brief summary of his career. He was a protégé of Churchill's key scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell) and Sir Henry Tizard. He played a key role in anticipating and countering German technical advances in fields such as radar, radio-beam navigation, V-1 and V-2 weapons and the embryonic German nuclear programme. He was appointed as Assistant Director of Intelligence(Science) in 1941 and promoted to Director of Intelligence in 1946. He left government service that same year, taking the chair of Natural Philosophy (the old term for physics) at the University of Aberdeen, his candidacy having been supported by Winston Churchill and Lord Cherwell. He returned to government service in 1952 at Churchill's request, as Director of Scientific Intelligence at the MOD, but returned to his academic career at Aberdeen at the end of 1953.

During his government service Jones forged very close links with the Americans, especially the CIA, who in 1993 honoured him with a perpetual intelligence medal in his name. When he died in 1997 the CIA issued a press release containing eulogies from Director George Tenet and former Director James Woolsey (This press release can be viewed online at Jones' involvement in the UFO issue is not widely known, but is documented in a number of sources, including the following:

1. Chapter 52 of his book Most Secret War.

2. Annex V of the Condon report.

3. CIA Chief Historian Gerald Haines' article CIA's Role in the Study of UFOs, 1947-90: A Die-hard Issue.

4. Private papers held at the Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge.

A British Crash Retrieval?

Before we return to R. V. Jones, we will make brief mention of how US journalist Dorothy Kilgallen alleged that the British Government had recovered a crashed UFO. Writing in the Los Angeles Examiner on 23 May 1955 she said:

"British scientists and airmen, after examining the wreckage of one mysterious flying ship, are convinced these strange aerial objects are not optical illusions or Soviet inventions, but are flying saucers which originate on another planet. The source of my information is a British official of cabinet rank who prefers to remain unidentified."

Writing in Flying Saucer Review (Volume 25, Number 4 and Volume 31, Number 1) Gordon Creighton, who had researched this story in detail, made it clear that he believed Kilgallen's source was Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Indeed, it has been suggested that Kilgallen picked the story up at a cocktail party hosted by Mountbatten in May 1955. Kilgallen's story has widely been dismissed as a hoax, but as we shall see, other events may put her claims in a new light.

Ghost Rockets

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War a new mystery was to emerge, which again involved R. V. Jones. This was the so-called "Ghost Rocket" wave of sightings that occurred in Scandinavia in 1946. In chapter 52 of Most Secret War Jones is as dismissive of these sightings as he had been about Foo Fighters, believing them to be either "imaginary" or meteors. But a number of personnel working in Air Technical Intelligence believed these were sightings of Russian "flying bombs" and investigated the matter thoroughly. Jones reveals how the Swedish authorities recovered what they believed were pieces that had fallen from a Ghost Rocket. These fragments were subsequently acquired by Air Technical Intelligence staff and sent to the Chemical Analysis Section at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. It transpired that an embarrassing mistake had been made and the fragments were nothing more than pieces of coke, but the story is interesting in what it reveals about official interest in these sightings and the way in which British scientific intelligence experts were able to acquire the material from a neutral country.

The Westerham Incident

Chapter 52 of R. V. Jones' book Most Secret War contains a truly bizarre anecdote concerning the alleged crash of an object at Westerham in Kent, in 1946. Apparently a signal was received from General MacArthur's staff in Tokyo, asking for confirmation of a report that a Russian flying bomb had recently crashed in England. The other Director of Intelligence on the Air Staff, Air Commodore Vintras, suggested to Jones that this might tie in with the "Westerham Incident".

The Westerham Incident started, apparently, with an irate call to the Technical Intelligence Staff from a farmer called Gunyon who wanted the Air Ministry to come and remove one of these "darned contraptions" which had fallen onto his farm. The intelligence officers asked for directions and were told to drive from Croydon to Westerham, turning onto a lane when they reached a pub called The White Dog. Amidst great security, two staff cars were dispatched, but failed to find the farm. They located a pub called The White Hart and a farmer named Bunyan, who strenuously denied having made the call. This bizarre incident remains unexplained and although it appeared to be a hoax, few people would have had the wherewithal to get through to the Technical Intelligence Staff and convince them to make a field visit. Indeed, the intelligence officers believed that Jones himself had been behind the affair.

Is there a link between the Westerham Incident, General MacArthur's enquiry about a crashed Russian flying bomb and Dorothy Kilgallen's story? Could these be references to the same incident? Was it really a hoax? If so, it was one that went to the very heart of the British Establishment. As a final footnote, perhaps it is worth noting that Westerham is just a couple of miles from Chartwell, which was the home of Sir Winston Churchill.

Media Interest

We should never underestimate the power of the media, or its capability to set the political agenda, even to the extent that it can drive government policy. This is as true today as it was in the post-war years. The year that ufology first really hit the headlines in the UK was 1950. Prior to that there had, of course, been coverage, but this largely concerned US sightings and the reporting was often dismissive. But on 8 October 1950 two major newspapers started a series of articles on the subject. The Sunday Express began to serialise Gerald Heard's book The Riddle of the Flying Saucers (The book was subsequently published in the US under the title Is Another World Watching?). The rival Sunday Dispatch, a London paper, ran extracts from Frank Scully's Behind the Flying Saucers and Donald Keyhoe's The Flying Saucers are Real.

But it was not just the media who were clamouring for answers and pressing the Government for action. Some very senior Establishment figures felt that something should be done and lobbied on the subject, sometimes openly and sometimes behind the scenes. Some of these figures were quite prepared to express openly the view that some UFO sightings might well be extraterrestrial in origin.

Earl Mountbatten of Burma

One senior Establishment figure who took an active role in this subject was Earl Mountbatten, whose interest is well known to most ufologists and has been widely documented, not least in Philip Ziegler's 1985 book Mountbatten: The Official Biography.

In chapter four of his book Flying Saucers and Common Sense, published in 1955, Waveney Girvan reveals that Earl Mountbatten had written a personal letter to the editor of the Sunday Dispatch early in 1950. This letter followed an earlier article concerning a wave of UFO sightings in America, in the town of Orangeburg. The letter read as follows:

"These extraordinary things have now been seen in almost every part of the world - Scandinavia, North America, South America, Central Europe, etc. Reports are always appearing and the newspapers generally try to ridicule them. As a result it is difficult for any seriously interested person to find out very much about them. I should therefore like to congratulate you on having had both the intelligence (and, incidentally, the courage) to print the first serious helpful article which I have read on the Flying Saucers. I have read most other accounts up to date, and can candidly say yours interested me the most".

Girvan goes on to reveal that Mountbatten and the editor of the Sunday Dispatch had a lengthy conversation about UFOs in mid 1950, which led directly to the serialisation of Scully and Keyhoe's books, as mentioned previously.

It is also well known among ufologists that on 23 February 1955 it is alleged that a UFO was sighted at Mountbatten's estate at Broadlands in Hampshire. The witness was Frederick Briggs, a bricklayer employed at Broadlands. Briggs said that the craft had been shaped like a spinning top, was metallic and about 20 or 30 feet in diameter with portholes around the centre. Watching from a distance of less than 100 yards, Briggs estimated that the craft was 80 feet above the ground. Briggs saw a humanoid figure dressed in what looked like overalls and a helmet descend from the craft on some sort of column with a platform at the bottom. He was then dazzled by a bright blue light from the craft and fell over, where he lay unable to move, as if held by a strange force. The craft then flew off at high speed.

Mountbatten took a personal interest in this incident, interviewed Briggs and searched the area of the meadow over which the UFO had been seen. He subsequently had a statement prepared, detailing Briggs' claims. This story was written-up by Desmond Leslie in 1980, in Flying Saucer Review (Volume 26, Number 5). Mountbatten's signed statement on the incident is held with many of his other private papers, at the Broadlands Archive.

Lord Dowding

Another senior Establishment figure whose interest and belief in UFOs is widely known and documented is the wartime Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. He was as outspoken as Mountbatten on the issue. Writing in the Sunday Dispatch on 11 July 1954 he said:

"I am convinced that these objects do exist and that they are not manufactured by any nation on Earth. I can therefore see no alternative to accepting the theory that they come from some extraterrestrial source."

We have learned from veteran British ufologist Emily Crewe that when contactee George Adamski visited the UK in 1963, Dowding and Mountbatten met him in London and subsequently took him to Broadlands to see the site of Frederick Briggs' 1955 UFO sighting.

Sir Peter Horsley

Sir Peter Horsley, who died on 20 December 2001, was a former Air Marshal whose distinguished RAF career saw him retire as Deputy Commander-in-Chief at HQ Strike Command. A chapter of his 1997 autobiography Sounds From Another Room relates to his interest in UFOs and the interest of friends and colleagues such as Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Barratt, General Sir Frederick Browning and General Martin.

While serving as a Royal equerry in 1952, Horsley began a study into the UFO phenomenon, with the full knowledge of the Duke of Edinburgh, who was briefed on Horsley's findings. Horsley has said that the Duke of Edinburgh was interested and open-minded on the subject, though keen that Horsley's inquiry should be low-key.

Sir Henry Tizard

An Establishment figure whose interest in UFOs is less well known is Sir Henry Tizard. Tizard is best known for his pioneering work on the development of radar technology prior to the Second World War and his various wartime posts included Scientific Adviser to the Air Staff. He returned to the Ministry of Defence in 1948 as Chief Scientific Adviser, a post that he held until 1952.

Although largely outside the scope of this article, it is perhaps interesting to note that although Sir Henry Tizard and Lord Cherwell had once been friends, a series of disagreements over various policy issues had ended their friendship and turned them into great rivals. We do not say that this had any direct bearing on the subsequent handling of the UFO issue, but their differing opinions on the subject should perhaps at least be viewed in the context of their rivalry. It was Cherwell who had the last word on Churchill's 1952 enquiry on UFOs, telling the Prime Minister that he agreed entirely with the Secretary of State for Air's sceptical views. When it comes to UFOs, the believer versus sceptic debate is as active within government and the military as anywhere else, as is clear from the books of those people (e.g. Ruppelt and Hynek) who have been involved in official government UFO research and investigation programmes.

Tizard had followed the official debate about ghost rockets with interest and was intrigued by the increasing media coverage of UFO sightings in the UK, America and other parts of the world. Using his authority as Chief Scientific Adviser at the MOD he decided that the subject should not be dismissed without some proper, official investigation. Accordingly, he agreed that a small Directorate of Scientific Intelligence/Joint Technical Intelligence Committee (DSI/JTIC) working party should be set up to investigate the phenomenon. This was dubbed the Flying Saucer Working Party. The DSI/JTIC minutes recording this historic development read as follows:

"The Chairman said that Sir Henry Tizard felt that reports of flying saucers ought not to be dismissed without some investigation and he had, therefore, agreed that a small DSI/JTIC Working Party should be set up under the chairmanship of Mr Turney to investigate future reports.

After discussion it was agreed that the membership of the Working Party should comprise representatives of DSI1, ADNI(Tech), MI10 and ADI(Tech). It was also agreed that it would probably be necessary at some time to consult the Meteorological Department and ORS Fighter Command but that these two bodies should not at present be asked to nominate representatives".

Next, The Flying Saucer Working Party

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