The facts about some of Britain’s best-known UFO mysteries are revealed in the latest collection of ‘X-files’ released by Britain’s National Archives. A total of 18 files containing 5,000 pages of material were released on 5 August and can be downloaded free of charge from the National Archives website for one month.
They provide a unique historical snapshot of the extraordinary beliefs, legends and rumours that were held and spread by ufologists around the time of the 50th anniversary of the birth of the subject, in 1997. These files contain hundreds of letters addressed to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and politicians that cover every conceivable UFO and conspiracy rumour circulating just before the millennium: UFO crashes, alien abductions, animal mutilations, demonic entities, crop circles, remote viewing, mind-control and government conspiracies.
In contrast to this fortean feast of weirdness are the MoD’s increasingly exasperated attempts to pour cold water on topics they regarded as irrelevant at best and a nuisance at worst. But they couldn’t stem the flood of correspondence, which saw a doubling of the UFO desk’s workload. During 1996 – the year before the Roswell anniversary – the MoD received 609 UFO reports, 343 letters from the public and 22 inquiries from MPs.
One of the most intriguing ‘X-files’ contains a request from FT writer and crop circle-maker Rob Irving on the use by police of psychics during criminal investigations (‘Watching the Dream Detectives’ FT86:23–28). In 1995, Irving asked the MoD’s UFO desk officer, Kerry Philpott, if she could confirm a claim made by “psychic detective” Chris Robinson, who said he had alerted staff at RAF Stanmore at Uxbridge to a bomb plot he had seen in a dream weeks before the actual attack. For his trouble, Robinson “was arrested, and kept there all day for interrogation – which I thought was wonderful because now I exist on MoD records”.
Philpott privately checked Robinson’s claim with the RAF Police HQ at Rudloe Manor in Wiltshire. To her surprise, they confirmed Robinson did visit Stanmore and was interviewed – but not arrested – by a police officer. In her response to Irving, Philpott said she could not provide any details of the discussion as Robinson’s information was given “in confidence”. But the newly-released files reveal that Robinson had indeed told them that “He had a dream that in the near future a bomb would explode in the London area, but thought that the target might be a London-based naval unit.” An IRA bomb exploded outside the RAF base on 21 June 1990, eight weeks after the prediction.
RAF Rudloe Manor also features heavily in the files as the obsessive focus of UFO conspiracy rumours during the 1990s. Some ufologists became so convinced the government was hiding wreckage of crashed flying saucers that attempts were made to break into the facility. Other stories spread that a secret MoD ‘Men In Black’ unit was based at Rudloe, from where it investigated close encounters and conducted secret research.
But as Philpott pointed out to letter-writers, Rudloe was at that time the HQ for the RAF’s Flying Complaints Flight, responsible for investigating reports of low-flying aircraft. Inevitably, some UFO reports ended up in the RAF’s ‘low-flying’ inbox at Rudloe Manor. But these were simply collected, put in an envelope and sent to the MoD’s UFO desk in London for follow-up. Quite how this plain fact became transformed into tales of spacecraft and aliens hidden in secret tunnels remains the real mystery.
Other highlights from the files include copies of official papers from 1974 discussing the Berwyn Mountains UFO ‘crash’ in North Wales. This story was resurrected by ufologists at the time of that ‘flying saucer’ 50th anniversary and quickly became transformed into Britain’s answer to the Roswell incident. But the contemporary records reveal a far less sensational story. The MoD received just five reports describing bright fireballs falling to earth – but none of these came from Wales. On the same night, villagers living near the mountains called emergency services to report “a brilliant ball of light apparently coming down over the hills, accompanied by a flash and an immense bang”. A search of the hills by an RAF rescue team found no sign of any impact and astronomers soon identified the fireballs as part of a meteor shower. Shortly afterwards, the British Geological Survey identified the “immense bang” as an earth tremor originating on the Bala faultline. The complex Berwyn case is the subject of a book, UFO Down, by FT writer Andy Roberts, published this month by the Centre for Fortean Zoology (and reviewed next issue).
While some crashed UFO legends do have a factual basis (there was a meteor, and an earth tremor at Berwyn), the files expose others as based entirely on rumour and gossip or, like the ‘alien autopsy’, as hoaxes. Nevertheless, persistent letter-writers who believed these legends targeted Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair with demands for confirmation that the Government had proof aliens really had landed in the UK. One asked Blair if he could verify that films and TV shows like The X-Files and Independence Day were part of “a strategy by Western governments to prepare the population for the admission that there has indeed been contact from aliens, extraterrestrials, trans-dimensionals and/or time travellers”.
Another made a 100-to-1 bet with bookmakers Ladbrokes that “aliens would be found on Earth dead or alive before the end of the century”. After reading about the Roswell incident and the ‘alien autopsy’, he approached the government during 1999 for evidence to support his claim when Ladbrokes refused to pay out. Unfortunately for him, the MoD said they were open-minded about extraterrestrial life but had no evidence of its existence.