Archive Index

Reconstruction


An Opinion on the 2255 'Bentwaters' radar-visual and the curious role of IR-1-56

by Martin Shough

According to T/Sgt. Perkins in 1968, the telephone call which alerted Lakenheath's Radar Air Traffic Control Centre (RATCC) had come from RAF Sculthorpe, an airfield some 30 miles to their north near Fakenham in Norfolk:

I was sitting at the Supervisor's Coordinating desk + received a call on the direct line (Can't remember which line it was) Anyway - it was Sculthorpe GCA Unit calling and the Radar Operator asked me if we had any targets on our scopes travelling at 4,000 mph.

Knowing nothing of the early events at Bentwaters detailed in IR-1-56 or of the information preserved in the still-SECRET intelligence teletype BOI-485, Perkins had supposed ever since 1956 that the events reported actually took place at Sculthorpe. In fact he continued to believe this until 1975. He had no reason to believe otherwise, the locations having been razor-bladed out from the telexes by Condon in the published Report [Gillmor 1969] and replaced with confusing code letters, avowedly "to prevent nuts using the case for their own analyses" according to members of the Project [Thayer 1987].

BOI-485 does not certify the route by which the Lakenheath Radar Air Traffic Control Centre was informed. It states that Bentwaters called Lakenheath GCA, not RATCC. If this is to be taken literally then Lakenheath RATCC were the last to know, because GCA apparently did not pass on the alert directly. According to BOI-485 they instead called Sculthorpe GCA and the 60th Anti Aircraft Artillery, leaving someone else to alert Air Traffic Control or assuming this would already have been done. It is possible that the Lakenheath GCA alert to Sculthorpe GCA was either patched through or relayed to the ATC centre by Sculthorpe; or that Sculthorpe GCA had already been alerted by Bentwaters separately and themselves made the decision to relay the message to Lakenheath RATCC, perhaps in view of the longer (200-mile) range of its newly-dedicated CPS-5 radar. Howsoever, the peripheral involvement of Sculthorpe as recorded in BOI-485 is presumably connected somehow with Perkins' original belief that the events reported had occurred at Sculthorpe.

Perkins was a little confused by BOI-485's attribution of the call to Bentwaters. When Stanton Friedman pointed this out to him in 1975 he replied:

The reason I thought it was Sculthorpe was because the only way Bentwaters could call us was through our Sculthorpe switch. I didn't take the original call on the Sculthorpe line so either just assumed it was Sculthorpe or the Bentwaters operator didn't identify which station he was calling from.

And later:

I still thought the other station involved was Sculthorpe until you sent me the articles. This was due to Sculthorpe phone line being used and either a failure of the Controller to say the UFO was over Bentwaters, or a failure of the Bentwaters Controller to state that it was Bentwaters Tower calling and my Controller just assuming it must be Sculthorpe tower calling, because the Controller specifically told me that Sculthorpe Tower was reporting a fast moving target on their GCA radar that the tower had seen passing over the base and a C-47 pilot flying over the base had seen passing under him.

In 1968 Perkins hadn't been certain about which phone line it was, but he had been sure it was Sculthorpe GCA reporting. It is hard to absolve him from the suspicion of improvising a little when he later tries to explain to himself why a call from Bentwaters could have appeared to be a call from Sculthorpe. Perhaps, as he said, the controller who initially picked up the phone, and then he himself, were both misled by a rather curious switchboard routing.

If this does not seem completely convincing, consider the curious fact that details of this 2255 radar-visual sighting supposedly reported by Bentwaters do not appear in IR-1-56 subsequently compiled by Bentwaters intelligence personnel themselves on August 31. If the later report from Bentwaters is to be relied upon as complete the possibility arises that this event did not take place at Bentwaters at all, but at Sculthorpe. Alternatively, if IR-1-56 cannot be relied upon as complete then this requires some other explanation.

Perkins' testimony and the independent corroboration in BOI-485 seems to confirm beyond reasonable doubt that such a report was originated. Is it possible that BOI-485 could be in error about the source of it? According to BOI-485 itself the reporting chain appears to have included both Bentwaters and Sculthorpe, and combined with the fact that the RATCC shift controller recalls receiving a call from Sculthorpe one can only say that it is possible. Or both Perkins and BOI-485 might partially be in error. For example, a 2255 radar-visual at Sculthorpe GCA might have led to a call to Bentwaters GCA, who were then prompted to forward the report to Lakenheath on the strength of their own earlier radar targets, resulting in a not-unnatural confusion between messenger and message.

Flying Officer Patrick Aiken, a pilot of 23 Squadron RAF, was a colleague of the airmen who made two attempted interceptions over Lakenheath in the early hours of August 14. Aiken wasn't involved and remembered little. He did however recall that those events had started with a target tracked at "thousands of miles an hour" on radar at RAF Sculthorpe, then becoming stationary. This is an interesting echo of the MoD DDI(Tech) report of a Venom intercepting "an unusual object on Lakenheath Radar which at first moved at a speed of between two and four thousand knots and then remained stationary at an high altitude", arguably a reference to the Wimbledon/BOI-485/Perkins incident, which appears to have involved 23 Squadron C/O Wing Commander A. N. Davis.

There is no documentary evidence at all that this radar-visual event did take place at Sculthorpe. However the fact is that the evidence that it took place at Bentwaters is itself ambiguous. Despite the statement in BOI-485, no reference to this event appears in the report compiled by Bentwaters Air Targets Officer Capt. Holt seventeen days later. But perhaps it is still possible to rely on IR-1-56 as complete, and also accept BOI-485's statement that the alert came from Bentwaters, if the time and the description of this event recorded at Lakenheath are wrong.

We can speculate that BOI-485 and Perkins are exaggerating a report which Bentwaters perhaps did make, concerning (say) the much less interesting 2200 fast radar track (Track B). With a little fudging "about 2200" can be turned into 2155, which arguably might get corrupted to 2255 in the reporting chain, as suggested by Hynek in 1970. IR-1-56 states that lights (Mars and the Orford lighthouse) had been seen from Bentwaters Tower and by the T-33 aircrew looking for the earlier slow cluster of targets. One can imagine that over-excited Bentwaters radar operators might have garbled this information so that Lakenheath controllers might have got hold of the idea that the fast target had been seen visually, and then logged receipt of the alert at a time that was in error by one hour.

If so it is interesting that there is no hint in IR-1-56 from Bentwaters that such reporting action, or any action at all, was taken as a result of any sighting that night. The bottom line is that Bentwaters was bound by regulations to submit a prompt report under AFR 200-2. But they apparently did not. No such report is extant in the Blue Book file, nor was it in 1968 when the entire file was first declassified ("I am almost 100 percent sure that Blue Book never got any UFO report from Bentwaters", Thayer told me. "They may have been confused -- for sure! -- but there was never any evidence that they lost UFO reports. After all, filing reports was almost all they had to do. They were very thorough."). This is supported by the fact that IR-1-56 contains no entry in the space allocated for reference to previous reports. If BOI-485 is correct they did report a UFO to Lakenheath, however, and since this would not constitute a formal report as required under AFR 200-2 they ought to have been required to explain their actions.

But if Bentwaters was embarrassed about a misunderstanding arising from one of the events later disclosed in IR-1-56 there is no sign of this in IR-1-56. If there was another event at 2255 which was explained at base level, then this was highly pertinent information that ought to have been mentioned in IR-1-56, but it was not. If IR-1-56 was responsive to a request for information from HQ Directorate of Intelligence, Washington, in the absence of an original AFR 200-2, as appears to be the case, why is the action attributed to Bentwaters in BOI-485 not even mentioned in order to exculpate or justify Bentwaters' failure to submit a report required by Air Force regulations? Why does information collected from the radar and Tower personnel themselves contain no hint that anyone thought of alerting Lakenheath at any time?

On the other hand, if the 2255 event did not take place at Bentwaters at all, and if Washington knew perfectly well that this was the case - having information direct from Sculthorpe which did not enter the Blue Book reporting chain - then not only would this explain why IR-1-56 does not say that any of the Bentwaters events was reported to RAF Lakenheath, or to anywhere else, it would explain why Bentwaters appears to have been responding to a neutral enquiry rather than making an embarrassed or defensive response to a demand for explanation.

However this is purely negative circumstantial evidence. Another speculative interpretation is possible. IR-1-56 could have been deliberately edited of any reference, not to the 2255 UFO incident per se, but to RAF Lakenheath. Why? Perhaps because Lakenheath had only weeks before become a focus of security concern to the CIA with the temporary basing there of one of the earliest U-2 detachments, and perhaps because association with stories of UFO "overflights" was considered to entail the risk of attracting unwelcome attention.

It is true that the CIA's official history of Project Aquatone, a censored version of which is available as The CIA and the U-2 Program, 1954-1974, indicates that Lakenheath's U-2s had been withdrawn from UK soil by June with the focus of operations moving to Germany and Turkey; this was due to a belated reversal of the decision of the Eden government in Britain to allow basing at Lakenheath. But this does not necessarily mean that the move was considered by all involved to be permanent, or indeed that requiring the removal of U-2 static basing from Lakenheath was ever the same thing as denying opportunistic use of the airfield for some operations. In fact the "official" retraction here may have concealed a play within a play.

Details of British involvement are still a closely guarded secret, but it is known that soon after planning began in the US the CIA's Aquatone project director Richard Bissell conceived the idea of a "private" arrangement with the RAF, under which the British would have authority to run their own U-2 missions without reference to the White House [Ranelagh, 1986]. The reason for this was Eisenhower's extreme caution and his insistence that CIA come to him to seek specific approvals with rigid time constraints for every single flight. When it became clear to Bissell that political anxieties threatened even to curtail the programme, alongside arguing CIA's case he sought more flexibility via his deal with the RAF and he got it in return for sharing with Britain not only intelligence but planes.

Five U-2s were acquired by the RAF and based eventually at Cyprus and Turkey. Intermediate basing in the UK is presumably possible. (In fact the high-altitude spyplane programme can be traced back to a similar USAF/RAF plot to get around Truman's ban on Soviet overflights by surreptitiously flying RB-45C aircraft out of RAF Sculthorpe during 1952 without presidential approval.) Bissell now arranged a similar deal with Chancellor Adenauer in Germany (France was left out owing to mistrust of French security) and a U-2 base was also set up at Wiesbaden, Headquarters of US Air Forces Europe, but in this case the operation remained under direct CIA control.

Paul Fuller has pointed out an interesting observation by cold-war historian Paul Lashmar [1996], who remarks on a noteable decline in records of autonomous RAF reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union from 1956. It seems neither psychologically nor politically consistent that the UK would have wound down its own Canberra overflight programme in favour of shared American intelligence just at this time, if the apparent frostiness in transatlantic intelligence relations suggested by Eden's eviction of the U-2 (and other frictions) were the whole story. And of course it wasn't the whole story. Documentary evidence remains classified, but the reduction in visible Canberra operations perhaps suggests that the RAF invisibly took up the slack elsewhere and that the apparent decline merely reflected a transfer of operational focus to RAF's own supersecret U-2 fleet.

Dave Clarke came across an interesting sighting of a mysterious plane over the North Sea in the period 1957-59 by a 23 Squadron navigator who was later told "on the QT" that he had seen a U-2. Quite possibly this one was operating out of the UK. It is also interesting that Perkins volunteered in 1975:

The first thought [the authorities] had was "Could it be something of ours? This was quickly discounted by both Americans and British. The next question was "Could it be one of theirs" meaning the Russians. This resulted in the decision to scramble the intercepts. At this time we had the U-2 being tested at lakenheath. It made everyone super security conscious as no one knew anything about it nor could get near it when it was on the ground, including the Base Commander. It was not flying that night, it was on the ground.

In a letter to the author he added:

The U-2 operation was manned by civilians - civilian pilots, mechanics and guards - When we drove by their little hangar (located in the middle of the airfield next to the runway

Perkins' thumbnail sketch of U2 hangar location

you never saw a uniform - that's not to say they weren't military men wearing civilian clothes. They could have been - No one was allowed near them I know.

This is accurate, except that Detachment A had supposedly already left the UK for Giebelstadt by early June, and this would appear to mean that both U-2s and all the logistical support would have gone with them.

Perkins had been at Lakenheath since September 1953. He would have been present when the two U-2s of the "1st Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (Provisional)" were shipped in and assembled on-site in April 1956 (travel orders for a lengthy list of Department of Air Force civilian U-2 personnel from Watertown, Nevada "to Lakenheath, England for permanent duty" on or about May 1 1956 can be read here) and Perkins could easily have been misremembering the length of their brief stay.

On the other hand, perhaps the official history of this small corner of Richard Bissell's private intelligence empire has even now an unpublished chapter, because whereas it is widely stated that Detachment A arrived at Lakenheath with two aircraft, the censored CIA history (which, according to CIA historian Don Welzenbach himself in an interview with Paul Lashmar, was witheld specifically in order to conceal the extent of UK participation) suggests a different story. The phrase "together with all [deleted] U-2s" occurs in connection with the redeployment of Detachment A. It has been pointed out to me privately that this phrase implies a number larger than two. Also, why censor the number unless it implies something you wish not to be discovered? This suggests the possibility that if two U-2s were 'overtly' redeployed to Giebelstadt, Germany, in June 1956, one (or more) U-2s did indeed remain based at Lakenheath under an arrangement with the RAF for continuation of UK operations which were effectively compartmented away from the Washington executive.

Against this background it is worth taking a closer look at the history of how Blue Book dealt with the intelligence from RAF Lakenheath in 1956.

BOI-485, electrically transmitted by telex from Lakenheath to four destinations on August 16 1956 in accordance with AFR 200-2, was classified SECRET and encrypted, and it is clear not only that the local SAC intelligence personnel believed that the "UFOs" were unexplained, but that a highly sensitive incident was perceived as having taken place. A nerveless Blue Book logged receipt of the telex on August 17, but there is no record of immediate action at this time.

However, on receipt of the same message the 7th Air Division immediately retransmitted it with the designation IDO 7-3351 to further destinations including the Commanders in Chief of both the Strategic Air Command at Offut AFB, Nebraska, and, interestingly, USAF Europe (USAFE) at Wiesbaden, Germany, home of the CIA's German U-2 operation. Four days later on August 21 USAFE Wiesbaden retransmitted a modified version to HQ USAF, Washington, and the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio - home of Project Blue Book. From this version the evaluation of the Lakenheath preparing officer - Capt. Stimson - was deleted for no clear reason, although it was explicitly required by AFR 200-2.

The next day, August 22, Blue Book chief Captain Gregory noted in a memo to a scientific advisor that the incident appeared to "warrant the attention of higher levels" and that "the USAF [SAC Lakenheath?] Commander in question will undoubtedly take further investigative action." A note added by an unknown hand stipulated that further information should be sought from both SAC and Commander in Chief, USAF, Europe (CINCUSAFE) at Wiesbaden.

Further information should indeed have been supplied by Lakenheath if requested under AFR 200-2, which required that after three days a written report should be submitted to the Director of Intelligence, Washington, via ADC HQ, Colorado Springs, who would "distribute it to interested ZI [Zone of Interior] intelligence agencies." But although AFR 200-2 demands that Blue Book should "analyze and evaluate . . . all information and evidence collected in overseas areas" there is actually no specific requirement for the Directorate of Intelligence to include Blue Book in their distribution list of "interested agencies". When nothing turned up at Blue Book, further information was therefore sought directly from Lakenheath that September.

A later memo dated November 7 refers to a "request for additional information", shown as #2 in the list of inclosures (below), whose title number has been deliberately obliterated. It is just possible to discern that the document reads TI T56 *****, 5 Sep 56 (S), meaning that it was classified SECRET.

September 5 was the date of Capt. Gregory's initial evaluation to HQ USAF Washington, which was also classified SECRET and does state that if Washington did not find ATIC's conclusion satisfactory then detailed information would be required for a "a more thorough course of evaluation". Careful comparison of the two typed codes - the almost-illegible code of the September 5 "Inclosure #2" referred to by Miley and the code number of the September 5 evaluation to HQ Washington - shows that they could well be the same. Proceeding by elimination, the last two digits of the five-digit Miley code are either "29" or "23" and, although there is some doubt, none of the other digits is definitely different in the two codes.

At left the obliterated code title of the Sept 5 "request for additional information"

compared to the code of Capt. Gregory's Sept 5 message to Washington

 

The two codes superimposed

But also on September 5 an internal memo was distributed by Capt. Gregory to four ATIC offices for "coordination" and a further office for "necessary action". The memo itself (together with unidentified telex messages "attached for info and background", probably BOI-485 and IDO-73551) is missing from the file, but the "routing slip", containing the distribution list and some comments, discloses its relevance to the "request for further information" made that same day. Under "Remarks" we read:

Time required to formulate a reply is considered warranted under the circumstances, particularly when 'on-the-spot' investigation and field analysis cannot be made from this side of the Atlantic. The apparent concern shown by the SAC base in England and CINCUSAFE dictated that every possible approach be explored.

It is possible that this cryptic document refers to Gregory's message to Washington, timed at 1100 hours that same day, September 5. Certainly the ATIC distribution lists are the same. However, it is also possible to interpret Gregory's remarks as relating to a reply to a request for information - made either that day or earlier - an uninformative reply, stalling for time on the grounds that "every possible approach [must] be explored" - an explanation which Blue Book were prepared to accept.

Howsoever, by October 10 Blue Book had still learned nothing new, either from Washington or from Lakenheath, when a SECRET message from Headquarters USAF expressed "a desire for an expeditious evaluation". One week later on October 17 a memo by scientific consultant J. Allen Hynek urged on Blue Book the need for a further approach, appealing to the argument that "The Lakenheath report could constitute a source of embarrassment to the Air Force . . . should the facts, as so far reported, get into the public domain." It was, said Hynek, "of great importance that further information on the technical aspects of the original observations be obtained, without loss of time, from the original observers." Whether or not a further request was ever made, by the time of the next significant memo dated November 7 Blue Book had still received nothing whatsoever from Lakenheath, either directly or via HQ Washington, nor indeed would they ever do so.

However on November 7 1956 Dr. Henry A. Miley of ATIC AFOIN-4E4 forwarded a copy of a document - evidently quite newly received - to another office, AFOIN-4E1, within the same organisation, for the attention of Col. Hoffman. This document was IR-1-56 from Bentwaters, bearing a date of transmission now nearly three months old and describing a series of events of which Blue Book had no previous knowledge. Miley's memorandum, which we have already mentioned, betrays some uncertainty about its origin:

Attached herewith is AIIR-1-56, England (Inclosure #1) containing pertinent information on the Lakenheath-Bentwaters sighting which was reported to this Center on 17 August 1956 with a request for immediate evaluation by Headquarters USAF. It is believed this report is in response to this Center's request for additional information (see Inclosure #2).
Inasmuch as Headquarters USAF has expressed a desire for an expeditious evaluation of this UFO sighting (Inclosure #3), it is requested that this report be reviewed, together with the original data, for the purpose of arriving at a more firm conclusion. [Emphasis added]

As we have heard, the code title of Inclosure #2, however, has been blacked out, so that the destination and content of ATIC's "request for additional information" can now only be inferred. The question is, Why?

In correspondence with the author re this issue in 1987 David Thayer suggested that someone at Blue Book must eventually have realised that IR-1-56 from Bentwaters, dated August 31 and recording information collected several days earlier than that, could not possibly have been "in response to" a later inquiry dated September 5 - which was even then possibly stalled with a request for more time. The deletion from Miley's memo of the identification number of "Inclosure #2" is apparently to cover embarrassment.

Washington had nagged Blue Book for an "expeditious evaluation" on October 10 without offering any help. Evidently the ball was in Blue Book's court for Gregory to seek the first-hand information which he had told Washington would be required. But would Gregory have sought fresh information from Bentwaters? Contrary to regulations Blue Book had for some reason never received an AFR 200-2 report from Bentwaters in the first place, and the file shows that when IR-1-56 from Bentwaters was eventually received at ATIC it was treated as a commentary on the events as a whole, not as information relating to a different time-frame and a different location. There is no evidence that anyone at ATIC attempted to untangle the time-lines or even look at a map. Captain Gregory (see below) did not seem to have a clear idea of the need to distinguish two phases of events and refers to "the area" of the Bentwaters T-33 search as being cognate with the area of the events as a whole. The same conflation is apparent in Miley's Nov.7 memo to Col. Hoffman. These circumstances suggest that it would not have occurred to Blue Book to request a separate report from Bentwaters, that they were not clear why or at whose instigation IR-1-56 was passed on two months after its date of transmittal, and that someone was sufficiently alert to the implications to "cook the books" by later erasing from the file the one clue which could prove it.

So why was IR-1-56 so belatedly received? Why did intelligence promptly reported in BOI-485 from Lakenheath as having originated from Bentwaters not appear in IR-1-56? And why did Lakenheath persist in failing to submit further information in defiance of regulations and despite specific requests for same? Or why, if further information went via Washington, did Washington never forward anything whatsoever to Blue Book?

IR-1-56 is a curious document in several ways. The date of collection of the information is given as August 27, or two weeks after the date of the events described, despite the stipulation of AFR 200-2 that "all information" on UFOs must be reported "promptly" and "rapidly". True, the mandatory route under AFR 200-2 for any material prepared outside the ZI more than three days after the event was to the Director of Intelligence, Washington; but why was it then retained for a further two months before being forwarded to Blue Book for review in connection with Washington's request for "expeditious evaluation"? It might almost have been designed to confuse, and confuse was what it certainly did.

A subsequent summary on a Blue Book file record card stated, in part:

At first glance, the 2 messages (TT Msgs BOI-485, 16 Aug 56 and IDO-7335, 21 Aug 56) reporting this sighting may give the impression that observations, radar, ground and air, were simultaneous. A review of detailed report IR-1-56, dtd 31 Aug 56, indicates that, although the observations took place within the periods given, they cannot be considered as concurrent. This is confirmed by the original report BOI-485, which states that the radar sightings [at Lakenheath] occurred at a later time than the ground sightings.

It appears from this last remark that statements in BOI-485 plainly referring to Lakenheath observations are being treated as a commentary on events reported in IR-1-56 from Bentwaters. The confusion is compounded by the usual plain dumb inattention to simple detail. Section 10. of the same record card states:

1. On 14 August, between 2120-2220 ZI Bentwaters radar reported 3 separate UFO tracks . . . 2. Bentwaters station alerted RAF radar unit at Lakenheath. On 14 Aug the RAF unit reported objs were observed . . .

The Bentwaters observations were on the 13th, not the 14th, and there was obviously no 'RAF radar unit' involved at Lakenheath.

After further such deliberations Captain Gregory sent a final memo to scientific consultant Dr. Hynek on Nov 26:

Reference is made to my letter of 20 November 1956 in which I stated that I would send you the finalized material on the Lakenheath case. Inclosed you will find AF 112 on the final investigations regarding this sighting.

I am relieved to find that they carry it under an unclassified category. This, of course, helps us in both the discussion and transmittal aspects.

A first reading of this memo is confusing, since the Lakenheath telex and its derivatives were secret until March 1968. Only IR-1-56 was unclassified at the time Gregory was writing. Yet he is clearly referring here to "the Lakenheath case" and to the enclosed "AF 112 on the final investigations regarding this sighting", so one is led to conclude that the missing 2nd enclosure must be a lost unclassified ATIC conclusion on the whole investigation.

But sadly it turns out that Gregory's "AF 112" is just the stationery code for an Air Intelligence Information Report form. In other words, the 'finalized material on the Lakenheath case' that Gregory is representing to Hynek as 'the final investigations regarding this sighting' appears to be none other than IR-1-56 from Bentwaters! [Note: An AF 112 form SAC IR-2-56 dated 17 August 1956 recently discovered in the US National Archives and Records Administration by Jan Aldrich and obtained under a FOIA request turned out disappointingly to be merely another copy of IDO 7-3351. If there was a follow-up report from Lakenheath it has left no audit trail. Certainly none was known to Hynek, who had personally pressed Gregory to obtain such and as late as September 1970 was lamenting in a letter to Jim McDonald that "nothing whatever was done" about it.]

By November 26 Captain Gregory had concluded with satisfaction, on the basis of this new information, that "our original analyses [sic] of anomalous propagation and astronomical is more or less correct".

Martin Shough 2003


Archive Index

Reconstruction