Archive Index


THE MoD AND UFOs: a short history and background

Dave Clarke

"Our policy is to play down the subject of UFOs and to avoid attaching undue attention or publicity to it. As a result we have never had any serious political pressure to mount a large scale investigation such as Project Blue Book."

MOD response to USAF question on
British policy, 1965.

Investigation of UFO reports made by service personnel in Britain began in 1950 when the Ministry of Defence established a "Flying Saucer Working Party" made up of representatives from the three armed services: Air Ministry, Admiralty and War Office. This committee met from August 1950 until June 1951 when it was disbanded following the presentation of a brief report to the Ministry's Joint Technical Intelligence Committee. DSI/JTIC Report No 7 Unidentified Flying Objects was heavily influenced by the debunking policy adopted by the USAF's Project Grudge and the CIA. Given this background, it was a foregone conclusion that all reported sightings of 'flying saucers' could be explained and that further study should cease.[1]

According to a CIA memo of December 1952 a second British 'standing committee' on UFOs was created following a wave of sightings that included reports by RAF and Royal Navy personnel during NATO Exercise Mainbrace. This team was staffed by Air Intelligence officers from the Air Ministry, who reported to the Director of Scientific Intelligence, Dr R.V. Jones. In 1955 the office of the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Intelligence), produced a Secret Intelligence Summary for the attention of the Air Staff, based upon a summary of its UFO inquiries since 1952. The revised conclusion reached was that 90 percent of reports could be explained, with a residue of 10 percent remaining due to 'lack of data.' Although it was believed that even these reports could be explained, it recommended that UFO reports should continue to be scrutinised - in secret - because there was "always the chance of observing foreign aircraft of revolutionary design." [2]

On 21 January 1953 a formal procedure for reporting of "radar detection of unusual targets" was issued by Fighter Command to HQ Metropolitan and Southern Sectors (for onward transmission to appropriate radar units). This required that:

"...they should make a special report of any unusual response, i.e. any responses moving at a ground speed exceeding 700 kts. at any height and at any speed above 60,000 feet...When an unusual response is seen, the supervisor or N.C.O. i/c watch should be informed and he should then check that the echo is not spurious, and arrange for the necessary records to be made to provide the information listed below:
a) Appearance of the echo.
b) The signal strength of the echo (strong, medium and weak) throughout the time of observation, including pick up and fade points.
c) Range and bearing of initial plot and fade points.
d) Ground speed.
e) Whether painting of echo is continuous or intermittent.
f) A copy of the record sheets, together with a track tracing." [3]

In December 1953 the orders were extended, with "sightings of aerial phenomena by Royal Air Force personnel are in future to be reported in writing by Officers Commanding Units immediately and direct to Air Ministry, (D.D.I. (Tech)), with copies to Group and Command Headquarters." Furthermore, because the public "attach more credence to reported by RAF personnel than to those by members of the public . . .it is essential that the information should be examined at Air Ministry and that its release should be controlled officially. All reports are, therefore, to be classified 'Restricted' and personnel are warned that they are not to communicate to anyone other than official persons any information about phenomena they have observed, unless officially authorised to do so." [4]

It is significant that on 6 December 1956, four months after the events at Lakenheath-Bentwaters, the order was again circulated by HQ No 11 Group to all RAF Sectors, Squadrons and radar units, with the security classification for UFO reports upgraded to "CONFIDENTIAL". This order combined the two earlier HQ letters. It read: "...recent reports on aerial phenomena show that some units are unaware of this Headquarters letter dated 16 December 1953, and Fighter Command Headquarters letter dated 21 January 1953...[giving] instructions for reporting and action to be taken in regard to the detection of unusual aerial phenomena." [5]

MOD Defence Intelligence files from 1967, released at the Public Record Office in 1998, suggest that historical records on UFOs were so poorly preserved that even senior officials were unclear when official interest had first begun. On 19 June 1967, Director of Scientific Intelligence Archie Potts noted "the old Air Ministry had a responsibility for reporting on Unidentified Flying Objects. This was delegated through ACAS (I) to DDI (Tech) and we have inherited this responsibility, which we have merged [in May 1967] into the space section of DI 55." He added that UFOs "[have] been the responsibility of Technical Intelligence (Air) staff for at least 10 years . . . undoubtedly [because] it was originally assumed that the characteristics of UFOs were akin to aerodynamic vehicles which travelled in the atmosphere and could, therefore, pose a threat similar to aircraft." Another note, by Air Commodore (Intelligence) adds: "Since investigations began [in 1952-3?] no positive evidence has come to light which would indicate activity other than that associated with known phenomena." [6]

DDI (Tech) and S.6

During the period 1952-59 reports of UFOs made to Whitehall were studied by Air Intelligence officers working in a division of the Air Ministry known as DDI (Tech) - the Deputy Directorate of Intelligence (Technical). At that time the Air Ministry had two Directors of Intelligence, both responsible to the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Intelligence), who was known by the acronym ACAS (I). DDI (Tech) was a RAF Group Captain deputising to D of I (B). He was responsible for "World Wide air technical intelligence" and his job description notes: "He has four sections devoted to the Soviet Bloc - covering defensive and offensive equipment, electronic equipment and specialist fields, and one section devoted to the rest of the world."

One small branch of DDI (Tech), known as AI (Tech) 5b, were responsible for investigation of UFO reports, particularly incidents involving radar. It also provided technical advice on reports and briefings to civil servants at a civilian Air Secretariat in Whitehall, known as S6. It was S6 who at that time (1957-60) dealt solely with Parliamentary Questions on the subject.

Despite its sensitive intelligence work DDI (Tech) continued to answer public and Press inquiries relating to UFOs and on a number of occasions individuals were invited to its offices in Whitehall. In 1958 this policy changed, as the branch "wished to disassociate itself from work on the subject for security reasons." [7] The reasoning behind this move are obscure. It was possibly a direct result of a story published by a London Sunday newspaper (Reynolds News) in June 1957 which claimed to reveal the location of the Air Ministry's secret 'flying saucer' investigation branch as Room 801 in the former Metropole Hotel in Northumberland Avenue, Whitehall. When NICAP's Donald Keyhoe requested confirmation of the story, the Ministry denied that Room 801 contained the UFO HQ. But records released at the PRO in 2001 confirm that AI 5b's offices were in fact in the very next room, "Room 800, Metropole."

From 1958, civil servants in S6 became the public face of all official statements on UFOs. This policy was summarised by David West, head of S.6, in a minute to colleagues which read: "for the most part we expect to be politely unhelpful."

In 1962 another Whitehall secretariat, S4 (Air), replaced S6 as the 'UFO desk' and in due course it became the central reception point for all reports and correspondence on UFOs from members of the public. It also provided briefings to Ministers, consulting DDI (Tech) only "as necessary on any technical aspects arising from these letters." UFO records released at the PRO under the 30 year rule originate almost entirely with S4 rather than AI5 or DDI Tech. S4 (Air) disappeared in 1979 when its UFO duties returned to DS8 (the new name for S6). Further reorganisations followed, with UFOs returning to S4, now known as Sec(AS)2a in 1983, and finally to DAS 4 in 2000.

Official records demonstrate that at the time of the Lakenheath incident in 1956, neither S6 nor S4 (Air) - who were entirely staffed by civil servants - were responsible for the investigation of UFO reports made by service personnel or radar stations. These were reported directly by units to Fighter Command and, if they could not be explained, were forwarded directly to DDI (Tech) for scrutiny by operational staff. As a result of the orders issued in 1953 to discourage personnel discussing their sightings in public, the vast majority of UFO reports from military sources remained officially secret. DDI (Tech) on occasions was called upon to provide a briefing to S6 if service reports were leaked to the Press or resulted in Parliamentary questions. This was never the case with the Lakenheath incident, which was successfully concealed until 1969 when its existence was revealed by the publication of the Colorado University study.

Reporting instructions for RAF personnel

The division of responsibility for UFO matters between military and civilian staff at the Air Ministry is laid out in operational orders from the period 1959-63. HQ Fighter Command Staff Instruction No. F/1 prepared by DDI (Tech) on 13 April 1960, states:

"The responsibility for dealing with reports of [UFOs] is with S.6 and A.I.(T)5b. Reports from civilian sources and the replies thereto are dealt with by S.6., and reports from service sources including unidentified radar responses are dealt with by A.I.(Tech)5b."

The instruction for the reporting of "Radar Sightings" places great emphasis upon immediate investigation, specifically by aircraft under the control of Sector and Master Radar Stations: "If the [radar station] has aircraft under control in the vicinity of the reported phenomena, those aircraft are to be diverted to investigate the phenomena."

It continues:

"When an unusual phenomenon or track is observed by radar, the occurrence is to be investigated immediately. This investigation should endeavour to determine whether the phenomenon or track is due to:

a) A technical fault.
b) A friendly aircraft previously unidentified.
c) Interference.
d) Meteorological conditions.

"If the immediate investigation does not discover the course of the track or phenomenon, a report is to be made by Confidential Routine Signal to Headquarters Fighter Command (Ops, C. and R.) copies for information to Group. This report is to include:

a) The appearance of the echo.
b) The ground speed and altitude of the echo.
c) Whether it is continuous or intermittent.
d) Its signal strength (strong, medium or weak) throughout the time of observation, including pick-ups and fade points.
e) The range and bearing of these points.
f) The type of radar used.
g) Whether confirmation was obtained from other types of radar." [8]

The regulations required that copies of record sheets, together with a track tracing and the relevant P.D.S. radar film were to be sent by post for analysis by the Operations Branch at HQ Fighter Command. If an explanation could not be found "a report will be rendered by Confidential Routine signal to Air Ministry (D.D.I. (Tech))." The sensitivity of these 'unidentified' incidents is underlined by a paragraph titled "Press Publicity" which reads:

"The Press are never to be given information about unusual radar sightings. Unauthorised disclosures of this type will be viewed as offences under the Official Secrets Acts."


Official anxiety about breaches of security surrounding UFOs can be traced to an incident in April 1957. It was then that radars at the Ministry of Supply Bombing Trials Unit at RAF West Freugh, Wigtownshire (Scotland) detected an enormous UFO above the Irish Sea. Shortly afterwards, a group of the civilian radar operators at the base gave interviews to the Press and the story became a national sensation. Questions were asked in Parliament and the Air Ministry were eventually obliged to admit they were unable to explain the incident. It is significant that DDI (Tech)’s analysis of the West Freugh incident is one of the few Air Ministry UFO reports to have survived destruction, presumably because of the media interest the case had generated at the time.

Following these revelations in May 1957 DDI (Security) Air Ministry asked the Officer Commanding West Freugh to issue "specific instructions" to personnel at the base. These "should convey the injunction that nothing which occurs on the station is a proper subject for conversation in public places, nor even in private should it be discussed with anybody who has no need to know about it." [9]

The Air Ministry's desire to conceal 'unidentified' radar incidents from the public is further made explicit by Parliamentary briefing papers from 1957 that were prepared by S6 for the Secretary of State for Air, George Ward. In April of that year Ward was to answer a Parliamentary Question tabled by Major Patrick Wall, the Conservative MP for Beverley. Wall asked "how many unidentified flying objects have been detected over Great Britain this year as compared to previous years." This question was inspired by the West Freugh incident and another radar-UFO incident from the south coast of England that had appeared in the Press.

On 11 April 1957 A. Giffen Peacock of D.D.I. (Tech) in a briefing, diplomatically suggested that S6 should mislead the MP: "It is unfortunate that the Wigtownshire radar incident [West Freugh] fell into the hands of the press. The two other radar incidents have not been made public and reached us by means of official secret channels. We suggest that S. of S. does not specifically refer to these incidents as radar sightings. We suggest that in answering the original question S. of S. might reply: 'Of the 15 incidents reported this year ten have been identified as conventional objects, two contain insufficient information for identification and three are under investigation."

Peacock explained that "reports which are received in this office, in the majority of cases, can be explained or lack sufficient evidence for any explanation to be made. The only incident this year [my emphasis] which has merited a report, is the recent one of a radar sighting in Wigtownshire." He added that DDI (Tech) had investigated 64 reports "in the 2 years ending 31st December 1956", three of which were classed as "unidentified radar sightings" and three as "unexplained sightings."

The following day, in a loose minute David West of S.6 asked DDI (Tech) to "spell out" all the unexplained reports and those still under investigation for 1956 and 1957. In his reply, Peacock said during 1956 there had been "a total of six unidentified flying objects were received [and] of this total three were radar sightings." These he itemised as follows:

"One was made by the navigator of a Vulcan aircraft but the captain was unable to make a visual sighting although the object approached the aircraft. The duration of the sighting was 1 min 15 secs.

"Another, was a report of an unusual object on Lakenheath Radar [USAF] which at first moved at a speed of between two and four thousand knots and then remained stationary at an high altitude. No visual contact was made with this object by the [RAF] Venom sent to intercept it and other radars failed to pick it up.

"The third radar report was of an object on the screen at Weathersfield [sic]. One of the two aircraft sent to intercept made a momentary contact the other made no contact at all. No other ground radars who scanned the area were able to find a trace of any object." [10]

The DDI (Tech) summary does not provide dates for the three incidents. Neither does it indicate if the second and third were separate reports or were linked. Clearly, Peacock was drawing upon detailed case records relating to all three incidents that were in existence at that time (May 1957). The second incident clearly relates in whole or part to the Lakenheath-Bentwaters case of 13/14 August 1956, but makes no mention of the role played by British radar in the tracking of the 'object' and scramble of aircraft. Only one aircraft is mentioned, in a context which is aimed at down-playing the extent and serious nature of the incident.

Furthermore, the briefing suggests that radar detection was confined to USAF radars at Lakenheath and that "other radars" failed to confirm the report. Given the information now available, this is at best misleading and at worst a falsification of the official record. The briefing does, however, indicate that the Lakenheath incident remained "unidentified" in May 1957, nine months after it occurred.

Other than a brief reference in the operations diary of RAF No 23 Squadron, the only other official record that may be relevant to the case is found in the minutes of the Joint Intelligence Committee for 1957. The JIC was made up of the heads of intelligence of all three services, along with representatives from the Foreign Office, GCHQ, MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6). It met weekly to update the Prime Minister and Chiefs of Staff on intelligence matters.

There are two references to UFOs ('Aerial Phenomena') in the JIC minutes. The first, from April 1957 followed the Press furore that surrounded the leaking of the radar incident at RAF West Freugh to the Press. ACAS (I), Air Vice Marshal William McDonald, was called upon to reassure the Committee there was nothing in the recent reports to be concerned about. McDonald: "All these phenomena had . . . been satisfactorily explained through mistakes in radar interpretation, maladjustment of sets, as balloons or even as aircraft." [11]

In a further contribution to the JIC's digest of intelligence (known as 'The Red Book'), the Air Ministry referred to 16 UFO reports received since 1 January 1957. It said ten had been explained, two remained unexplained and four "are under investigation." All four were radar sightings.

"In each, unusual behaviour of the radar blips in terms of course, speed and heights were reported. Attempts are being made to trace the course of these sightings to aircraft known to have been near, inexperienced operators or spurious echoes of unexplained origin."

Although no reference is made to unexplained reports made prior to 1 January 1957, these comments are equally applicable to the incidents at RAF Lakenheath and Bentwaters, of which McDonald must have been aware at the time.

PRO References:

1. DEFE 44/119
2. DEFE 31/18, AIR 22/93
3. AIR 20/9994
4. Ibid
5. Ibid
6. DEFE 31/119
7. DEFE 31/118
8. Ibid
9. AIR 2/18654
10. AIR 20/9321
11. CAB 157/27

Archive Index