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Dave Clarke

In August 1967 Mr Robert Low paid a fact-finding visit to Britain on behalf of the USAF-sponsored UFO project at the University of Colorado. Low met a number of civilian UFOlogists and during his stay in London arranged to visit "the director of a division in the Ministry of Defence that dealt with Unidentified Flying Objects." On arrival at Whitehall he was introduced to Archibald Potts, who was the Director of Scientific and Technical Intelligence and head of MOD's Defence Intelligence Staff. Also in attendance at this meeting was James Carruthers, of S4 (Air), the Air Staff Secretariat that, officially, was the only Government department which dealt with UFOs (a stance maintained up to the present day).

Low did not ask to see UFO records held by MOD, or even for a sample of 'best cases', a request which the UK authorities had anticipated. Instead, the three men discussed how the US and UK Governments could ride out the upsurge of public interest in UFOs, and avoid committing funds for studies that could be better used elsewhere. After the meeting Potts, in a minute to British Embassy staff in Washington, described Low as "a rational, sensible scientist doing his best to apply some sort of scientific judgement to a mass of unscientific data. I doubt if his final report will conclude that the earth is now under observation by creatures from outer space." Subsequently, DSTI provided Low with a one-page statement on British policy, which excised all references to intelligence interest in the problem. It read: "...our investigations of reported UFO sightings are of a limited nature and are conducted on a low priority basis. Moreover, the bulk of recent sightings have been established as either earth satellite vehicles, space debris in orbit or manifestations of meteorological or other natural phenomena." [1]

At the time of Mr Low's visit, the Colorado University team were unaware of the events at RAF Lakenheath-Bentwaters that would form part of the 30 cases listed as "unidentified" in their final report, published in 1969. In point of fact, the complex incident is the single and only case from the UK discussed in detail by The Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects. Are we to accept that in 1967 the MOD's senior scientific staff were completely unaware of an incident that had occurred just 11 years earlier, involving RAF and USAF personnel at three bases on British soil?

Official records reveal that a copy of the Colorado University report was forwarded to Whitehall in 1968-9 ahead of its official publication. Its conclusions were eventually used as a reference work for the formulation of British UFO policy from 1970 onwards. According to Nick Pope a copy of the study continued to be used as a reference source in the library available to the "UFO desk" (Sec AS2) during his posting there in 1991-94. Given these circumstances one would expect the MOD to have been at least aware of a case described by the Colorado team as "the most puzzling and unusual case in the radar-visual files."

Even more perplexing is the fact that the Colorado team only learned of the case by pure chance. In February, 1968, retired airman Forrest Perkins, one of the principal USAF witnesses, wrote a 13 page account of the case which he sent to their headquarters in Boulder. Without this vital piece of evidence, it is likely that the case would never have been made public. Perkins himself felt sure the team would already be aware of the incident, as it had been reported in the US Press that the team would be allowed access to all UFO material collected by the US Government. This was evidently not the case. With time running short, the team made a number of requests to Blue Book for access to original documents relating to the case. They eventually did obtain copies of the CIRVIS telegram from Lakenheath, BOI-485, dated 16 August 1956, and the Air Intelligence Report from Bentwaters, IR-1-56, shortly before publication. As a result, this somewhat confused and incomplete account of the incident was set to become the basis for many subsequent versions of this 'classic' case published in the UFO literature.

Despite Low's contacts at MOD, it appears no attempt was made by the Colorado project to request access to records of British investigations. If such a request had been made in 1968, it is possible that we would know much more than we do today concerning the events of August 13-14, 1956. This was just the first of a series of missed opportunities that have placed obstacles in the way of a clear understanding of the events.

Destruction of Records?

In 1963-64, the Air Ministry disappeared during a major reorganisation of the Ministry of Defence. As a result the three service intelligence divisions (serving RAF, Navy and Army) merged to form an integrated 'Defence Intelligence Staff' or DIS based in Whitehall. The former Air Ministry DDI (Tech)'s UFO duties - and its records - were inherited by the Directorate of Scientific and Technical Intelligence (DSTI). This reorganisation led to a major clearing-out of historical records, during which large numbers of 'old papers' were destroyed. This appears to have sealed the fate of the vast majority of the former DDI (Tech) UFO files dating from 1947-61. Thousands of pages, appear to have been lost in the resultant purge.

In 1967 British UFOlogist, Julian Hennessey, who was chairman of NICAP's European Sub-Committee, enlisted the assistance of a number of sympathetic MPs in his campaign to gain access to UFO records held by the MOD. Hennessey wanted to persuade the MOD to undertake its own scientific study of the data to complement the Colorado University project.

He was to discover that MOD regarded the subject with such disinterest that it was routinely destroying its records at five yearly intervals. Hennessey first learned of this policy during a telephone conversation with Mr W.F. Allen in June 1967. Allen was a Higher Executive Office at S4 (Air), MOD, who now dealt with all correspondence on the subject from the public. Allen confirmed that all reports prior to 1959 had been destroyed "including unsolved cases." He stated that there was no sense in keeping reports over 10 years old because "no scientist could possibly explain them today." Hennessey was told that reports received at that time were subjected only to a "limited" examination to eliminate potential threats to defence. [2]

Hennessey then approached Wing Commander Eric Bullus MP, who wrote to MOD requesting access to UFO reports made by RAF pilots in 1952-54. The Under Secretary of State for Defence at the RAF, Merlyn Rees, replied: "It is a well established practice in government departments, as in most offices, to dispose of papers of transitory interest rather than to retain them indefinitely. In view of the mundane explanations which are found to apply to reports of unidentified flying objects, these papers are only retained for five years and are then destroyed. Thus, only reports which have been received since 1962 are currently retained."

He added: "It is not the practice of the Ministry of Defence to destroy important records and, if the investigation of the reports to which Mr Hennessey refers had brought to light anything of significance, those records would have been retained. Mr Hennessey clearly wishes to dispute this, but there is really little value in disputing the significance of matters contained in reports and papers of this nature which are now 10-15 years old or in speculating about the explanations which were found to apply when the reports were investigated." [3]

When the MOD's policy of destroying UFO papers was made public, Allen regretted making his admission. A note by the head of S4 (Air) in official papers dated December 1967 reads: "The papers concerned were destroyed as part of the routine clearing out of old papers. It is a great pity that this cat was let out of the bag sometime ago (incidentally, we are not destroying any more papers at present.)" In 1971 Hennessey again piled on the pressure when he requested information from a RAF officer who was responsible for producing a report on the West Freugh case for Air Ministry. The officer, a Wing Commander Whitworth, wrote to MOD requesting permission to reveal what he knew about the case. This request caused a certain amount of panic at Whitehall, with S4 (Air) noting: "There is as far as [we] know, no records of UFO reports made prior to 1962 available in MOD. We are therefore unable to discover from our own sources what information Wing Commander Whitworth intends to disclose." However, an archive search located "some passing reference to the West Freugh incident in [a] DDI Tech folder", including the technical analysis of the incident. This, along with a number of other assorted UFO papers from the 1950s, had survived routine destruction and these were released at the PRO in 1987-88. The DDI Tech file on the Lakenheath incident was not amongst them, presumably because it was never subject to a Parliamentary question. [4]

In 1982 during a debate in the House of Lords, Lord Hill-Norton asked the Government spokesman Viscount Long: " . . . whether or not it is true that all the sighting reports received by the Ministry of Defence before 1962 were destroyed because they were deemed 'to be of no defence interest'? And if it is true, who was it who decided that they were of no interest?" The reply came that "since 1967 all UFO reports have been preserved. Before that time, they were generally destroyed after five years" [my emphasis]. [5]

This position - that papers before 1962 were 'generally destroyed' - has been the standard response to all questions related to historical UFO cases ever since. MOD maintains the few intelligence records on UFOs that have survived are now in the PRO, but this claim must be regarded with scepticism. For more than a decade, in the face of repeated requests, MOD claimed it had no knowledge of the report by the Flying Saucer Working Party, referenced in a briefing to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, released in 1989. In April 2001 a surviving copy of the report was located during a re-review of a scientific intelligence file closed indefinitely under the Public Record Act. Of interest is the fact the existence of the report had been overlooked by reviewers at least twice before, in 1995 and 1996. It was only in 2001 when the reviewer had been made "aware of interest in the DSI/JTIC report" as a direct result of my inquiries that its existence was finally acknowledged! Only then was it "exceptionally agreed to remove the report [from the closed file] and for the report to be transferred to the PRO." [6]

Bearing this evidence in mind, it appears entirely possible that additional intelligence material relating to UFOs may be hiding within other files retained for 50 years or more under the Public Records Acts. For example, a number of surviving "intelligence files on UFOs" dating from 1951-52 are referred to in a Defence Intelligence memo dated 1967, the year in which MOD claim that routine destruction ended.

No so, claims the MOD's Deputy Departmental Record Officer, Iain Goode, in 2001. Goode claims that all UFO records not already released have been destroyed, but his conclusion cannot be independently checked because access to closed records is restricted to a tiny number of security-cleared record officers.

Goode explains that records management at Whitehall is subject to the recommendations of the Grigg Committee, set up to "review the arrangements for the preservation of the records of Government departments." This review resulted in the Public Record Acts of 1958 and 1967, which recommended a two-stage review to select records worthy of preservation at the PRO. Grigg recommended that 90 percent of departmental papers would be destroyed at first review, conducted five years after the closure of the records.

Goode writes: "The MOD complies with the terms of the Public Records Acts...however, due to the size and diversity of the MOD certain aspects of the review activity have been delegated. For example, non-HQ areas (the Services and research and development establishments) undertake their own first review. Only records generally perceived to have possible historical value are transferred to the main MOD archives. Those records not judged to have historical interested are destroyed when designated by the local desk officer." [7]

This suggests that UFO records held by RAF Units and Squadrons, in addition to Fighter Command, were destroyed at source before they entered the MOD central archive. In respect of those records created by air intelligence departments housed in Whitehall, the MOD were even more specific:

DDI (Tech) and AI 5b: "A few records created by DDI (Tech) and AI 3 but none from AI 5 are included in the category of records provisionally selected for preservation in PRO. From amongst this holding I could identify no records relating to your area of interest [UFOs]."

ACAS (I): "The intelligence records waiting processing do not include those created by ACAS(I), nor have I been able to identify any retained in accordance with the Public Records Act." [8]

Air Commodore Anthony Davis

The destruction of the papers was further underlined in 1972 by the new head of S4 (Air), Air Commodore Anthony Davis, DSO DFM. It may be no coincidence that Davis had left a flying career in the RAF to take up a post in this particular civil service department. With a background in special operations during World War Two and in espionage and intelligence during the Cold War, Davis was a perfect choice as the head of a division that dealt with UFOs.

Incredibly, Davis had himself played a central role in the Lakenheath incident. In 1956 he was the Commanding Officer of 23 Squadron at Coltishall in Norfolk. Venom NF-3 aircraft from the squadron's 'A' flight, detached on a QRA exercise to RAF Waterbeach, had been scrambled to investigate unusual radar responses detected by USAF at Lakenheath. Davis himself was airborne at the time in a Venom, and was directed to investigate a suspected UFO which he failed to pick up on his airborne radar. This was almost certainly the same incident described by the Chief Controller at RAF Neatishead, Freddie Wimbledon, originally in a letter to the Sunday Times in 1978.

In February 1972, three years after the case appeared in the Colorado University report, Davis agreed to appear in a BBC TV debate on UFOs as part of the 'Man Alive' series. Also on the panel was the editor of Flying Saucer Review, Charles Bowen, who had recently published Dr James McDonald's paper on the case. According to Bowen, during the debate, but after filming had ended, a member of the audience asked what the 'Man from the Ministry' what he had to say about the Bentwaters/Lakenheath case. According to Bowen, "he said he could say nothing because the papers had been destroyed." [9]

Davis repeated this statement in writing one month later. When challenged by Charles Lockwood of Contact UK that "you [have not] explained publicly the Lakenheath Bentwaters sightings of 1956", Davis replied:

"Our detailed UFO reports going back before 1962 have been destroyed but if there had been any evidence to indicate the existence of an unidentified but real flying object (and not just an anomalous radar echo) it would of course have been retained and investigated in great depth.

"I was airborne myself at the time of the incident, in a Venom Night Fighter from Coltishall, and was vectored on to a suspected UFO but made no radar contact and found myself chasing a star." [10]

In the same month (March 1972) Davis joined Derek Mansell of Contact UK to record a broadcast on UFOs for BBC Radio Oxford. His hand-written notes for the show, under the heading "Own involvement" contains the words: "Vectored on to UFO, 1956." Derek Mansell confirms that Davis told him, at this time, that he [Davis] was "one of the pilots involved in the incident reported in the [Colorado] report." [11]

MOD statements 1972-2002.

The posting of Anthony Davis from S4 (Air) removed the single remaining official who could have provided a first-hand British version of the events described in the Colorado study's report. Unfortunately, Davis did not leave any additional written account of his role in the case, and so far no detailed internal MOD discussion of the events, either from 1956 or subsequently, has come to light.

Since 1972 a number of UFO researchers have attempted to obtain information about the case from the MOD, without success. During the research for his book UFOs Explained, American researcher Philip Klass wrote to the Royal Radar Establishment (RRE) at Malvern, who informed him they knew nothing of the case and had not been consulted about it [12]. This may well have been correct, as it is apparent that knowledge of the incident was restricted to Air Intelligence officers at Fighter Command and DDI (Tech), Air Ministry. Senior officers who would have been aware of the case, including the ACAS(I), Air Vice Marshal William McDonald, died long before this re-investigation began. The most senior surviving officer from the period, Air Ministry Director of Intelligence, Air Vice Marshal Charles Moore, said he was made aware of the incident but had no further involvement. Those who would have known, he said, were ACAS(I) and DDI (Tech), who are both deceased, and whose papers have not survived. [13]

In 1983 Jenny Randles, during lengthy correspondence with the MOD, repeatedly asked for an official comment. In 1987 she wrote:

"The MOD claim that the file on it was routinely destroyed in 1961. All my efforts to get straight answers out of them about it met a brick wall (usually no answers at all rather than denial). Fate and the Rendlesham Forest case took me to Whitehall in August 1983 and I grasped the opportunity of asking Pam Titchmarsh (of the secretarial department DS-8, which handled UFO data) why she had no answered two letters about the case. She admitted that the MOD had them, but they knew nothing about the Lakenheath events. 'You tell us about such cases, we don't know of them,' she seriously asked me to believe." [14]

These statements contradicted those made by a senior MOD civil servant, Ralph Noyes, who served at the Air Ministry and later MOD from 1949 until 1977. In retirement Noyes began writing about UFOs and psychical phenomena and made a number of contributions on the subject of the British Government's interest. Noyes claimed, from his own experience, that the events at Lakenheath had indeed caused a furore in the corridors of Whitehall, to the extent that "the whole place was buzzing with it." Shortly before his death in 1989 Noyes said it was this case and another from West Freugh, the following year, that had been the focus of considerable concern and left senior civil servants and military colleagues "in little doubt that something had taken place for which we had no explanation." [15]

In 1987 author Timothy Good asked Noyes if he could confirm that papers on the case had been destroyed, as Davis had claimed. He said that although as head of DS8 he had no direct contact with UFO records ". . . I think it is very surprising if those papers were destroyed. There is every indication that at the time of the incident the Air Ministry . . . was exceedingly interested, if not positively uneasy. If the papers have been destroyed this does look like a thoroughly improper step to have taken. There is no doubt that something important took place at Bentwaters/Lakenheath, even if it was only a very extraordinary misperception by radar operators and pilots, and that should surely have remained on record." [16]

Noyes' direct contact with UFO matters was confined firstly to his time as private secretary to the Vice Chief of Air Staff in 1952, and secondly during his posting as head of DS8 in 1968-72. Therefore his retrospective comments upon cases that occurred during 1956-57 were presumably second-hand, either overheard in the corridors of Whitehall, or absorbed from the UFO literature post-retirement.

On taking up his posting at DS8 in 1968 Noyes said that he was invited to a briefing, attended by the head of S4 (Air) along with senior air defence and meteorological staff, where film of globular UFOs, captured by RAF gun cameras, was shown. Good's account notes that Noyes believed the films he saw had been obtained by Venom aircrew involved in the Lakenheath-Bentwaters incident, and this belief has since entered the UFO literature as 'fact.' However, he makes no direct connections between the films (in the plural) and the 1956 incident in video interviews recorded by Jenny Randles and the BBC in preparation for a programme on UFOs transmitted in 1996. [17]

In June 2001 I [DC] posed a number of questions to Air Staff secretariat DAS 4 (MOD) concerning UFO policy and asked about the Lakenheath incident specifically. In response to my question "Does MOD have records of UFOs tracked by RAF Neatishead on 13/14 August 1956?" I received the reply:

"There are no records of any 'UFOs' tracked by Neatishead. We do note what you say in your [previous letters, inquiring about the 1956 incident]; it has been suggested that you may find it helpful to consult the following records that I am informed are in the PRO [list of files]. . . I have also been informed that no records covering the subject of UFOs that are more than 30 years old are still held by Defence Records."

In response, I asked the MOD "to confirm or deny that the events described by [Freddie Wimbledon] occurred as he described."

The reply was: "I am sorry that I cannot really add anything to my earlier reply. We are unable either to confirm or deny Ft Lt Wimbledon's account."[18]

Given the widespread destruction of files, and the absence of any official record, staff at Whitehall's UFO desk continue to find themselves unable to make any informed comment on the case whatsoever.

This ignorance has encouraged belief in a Government conspiracy of silence concerning UFOs. The evidence I have assembled suggests a more likely alternative is that because of administrative blunder, and historical accident, the Ministry destroyed some of its best evidence six years before a decision was taken to preserve records for posterity.

British UFO researchers first learned of the existence of the Lakenheath affair in 1969 and for a brief period - until 1972 - they had a unique opportunity to extract more details from a man (Anthony Davis) who undoubtedly played a central role in the events. His story is now lost, along with the true sequence of events that took place on that fateful summer evening.


1. PRO DEFE 31/119 (see also Hunter, H., 'Official UFO Study Programs in Foreign Countries', Section V, Chapter 3 in: Gillmor, D., [ed] Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, 1969)
2. Undated notes by Julian Hennessey, courtesy of Jan Aldrich/Barry Greenwood.
3. PRO AIR 2/18116-7
4. PRO AIR 2/18564
5. Lords Hansard, 4 March 1982, Oral Answers
6. Correspondence with I.D. Goode, MOD Records, 2001-3
7. Ibid, September 2001
8. Ibid.
9. Flying Saucer Review, 18/2. March/April 1972
10. PRO AIR 2/19117
11. Phone conversation with D. Mansell, February 2003
12. Klass, 1974, p.227
13. Letter from C. Moore, 2001
14. Randles, Jenny. The UFO Conspiracy, 1987.
15. Interview with Ralph Noyes, 1989
16. Good, Tim. Above Top Secret. 1987.
17. Britain's Secret UFO Files, BBC 2, 1996.
18. Correspondence with DAS 4 (MOD), July 2002.

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