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Dave Clarke

Operations Record Books

All Royal Air Force units produced historical records of their activities that are preserved at the Public Record Office. These are known as Operations Record Books (ORBs). ORBs contain collections of RAF Form 540, a monthly record of events that include details of exercises, operations, training, technical matters, sports and entertainment, health and a variety of other day-to-day activities. In addition, ORBs often have detailed attachments containing RAF orders relating to exercises and operations.

Units completing ORBs include RAF Commands, Groups, Wings, Sectors, Stations and Squadrons. These can be consulted (subject to the '30 year rule') at the Public Record Office under classmarks AIR 24-29. In addition to formal records, some units maintained their own 'unofficial' records that were not subject to the regulations concerning public documents. Aircrew also maintained personal 'flying logbooks' in which they entered details of all their flying activities. These would be kept on retirement from the services, and often contain important details that are absent from the 'official' record.

Occasionally entries that refer to UFO incidents involving RAF personnel are found in ORBs. However, increasingly from 1950 the restrictions surrounding what material could be entered into the unit records continued to grow. Some personnel maintain there was an unwritten instruction that UFO incidents were never to be entered in station logbooks, or even in personal flying logs.

In addition, the all-encompassing influence of the Official Secrets Act, meant that entries relating to specific incidents involving operational scrambles are rare during this period. Incidents such as these would have been the subject of special reports by aircrew and unit commanders reporting directly to HQ Fighter Command. Under the terms of HQ Fighter Command Instruction F/1 incidents of this kind would be subject to the OSA.

Records that did survive these formidable obstacles to preservation were then subject to the draconian 'weeding' system employed by MOD records officers. At this stage it is estimated that 90 percent of records would be destroyed, often at source before they reached Whitehall. It is therefore hardly surprising that so little documentation relating to Lakenheath, and other UFO incidents, has survived at the PRO.

RAF units occasionally prepared Form 541 or daily records that obviously would be of more interest to UFO historians as they contained records of aircraft operations and scrambles. Unfortunately, 541s were only prepared during wartime and periods of exceptional tension. None apparently survive for the Cold War era.

At my request MOD Departmental Record Officer Iain Goode consulted a senior in-house historian concerning Form 541. This was his reply:

"1. Queen's Regulations [3rd Edition 1953] stated only that units were required to complete a Form 541 when undertaking 'major operations' or when 'placed on a war footing.'

2. Whereas today Squadrons are required to complete a Form 541, they are notoriously reluctant in many cases to do so.

3. Even if a Form 541 existed for the period you are interested in it is unlikely to contain any details other than those that you have already obtained from the aircrews' logbooks. Form 541s generally specify aircraft, crew, time of take-off and duration of flight and a basic statement of task - frequently the latter will merely record some brief statement such as 'Duty Carried Out.'"

A thorough search of ORB records held by the Public Record Office has failed to locate a single direct reference to the events in East Anglia on the evening of 13/14 August 1956.

ORBs consulted include those compiled by HQ Fighter Command (Bentley Priory), RAF No 11 Group (Stanmore), RAF No 12 Group (Watnall), Eastern Sector Operations Centre (RAF Bawburgh), Metropolitan Sector Operations Centre (RAF Kelvedon Hatch), along with those covering the activities of a number of air defence radar stations and interceptor squadrons.

Sector and Squadron records

The Form 540 for Eastern Sector, August 1956, (PRO reference AIR 27/2764) contains a rota list of squadrons earmarked for Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duty for the whole of the month. In August 1956 the Sector HQ was below ground in a reinforced bunker at RAF Bawburgh, near Norwich. Personnel at Bawburgh received a filtered picture of aircraft movements supplied by GCI and other radar stations, and allocated fighters to identify X-raids (unidentified plots).

The night all weather QRA aircraft allocated for the relevant period were Venom NF-3s from 23 Squadron. This squadron was usually based at RAF Coltishall from where it normally performed front-line air defence exercises in partnership with its sister squadron, No 141. An order preserved in the ORBs demonstrates how between 10-17 August 23 Squadron departed Coltishall for a week detachment to RAF Waterbeach during an air defence exercise code-named 'Fabulous.' During this entire period the squadron were on active QRA, with pairs of Venoms at 24-hour readiness should the call for a 'scramble' arrive from the Commander at Eastern Sector.

Readiness squadrons were rotated on a weekly basis, moving to a small number of designated QRA airfields for the duration of their duties. In 1956 this airfield was RAF Waterbeach, near Cambridge. The ORB for 23 Squadron in August 1956 confirms the squadron's participation in the QRA exercise but contains no reference to the UFO incident. Checks with the ORB for RAF Waterbeach and with the records of the base's standing squadron, No 253 (which also flew Venom aircraft) also drew a blank.

However, one independent piece of documentary evidence has survived. 23 Squadron compiled its own daily diary (an unofficial record, not related to the official Form 541). This diary is preserved by the current squadron historian at RAF Waddington. This record does contain a short hand-written entry referring to the UFO incident, dated 13 August 1956. The entry refers to three aircraft from 'A' flight that were scrambled to investigate a "strange object" detected by Lakenheath GCA.

G.C.I. records - RAF Neatishead

Other key records are those covering the activities of the Ground Control Interception station at Neatishead in Norfolk. The single surviving official record covering the activities of the station in 1956 is the Form 540 for No 271 Signals Unit (Neatishead) under PRO reference AIR 29/2631. This file covers the period January 1956-December 1958 but unfortunately contains nothing of relevance to the UFO incident in August 1956. This absence is all the more perplexing given the fact that brief reference is made to other 'unknown' radar contacts (or X-raids) detected in 1957 and 1958.

Specific details of the UFO incident would have been included in the Chief Controller's logbook. Each CC maintained a complete record of his activities in a logbook, including details of interceptions completed. The official status of CC logbooks is unclear, but my research has failed to locate any surviving examples either at the PRO or in private archives.

Freddie Wimbledon maintains that a complete record of his interception team's role in the case was contained within his logbook following the events of 13/14 August. This may have been complemented by track-tracing sheets and possibly PDF film of the radar picture if the incident was deemed to have been serious in nature. Wimbledon maintains that his logbook and other records relative were removed by a RAF Group Captain who arrived at Neatishead the day afterwards. This senior officer travelled from HQ Fighter Command at Stanmore, Middlesex, to interview Wimbledon and his interception crew and was emphatic that the events were subject to the Official Secrets Act.

Wimbledon recalls that the officer said he planned to interview the Venom aircrew before returning to headquarters. He left taking the logbook with him. MOD maintain that all base logbooks and records, other than those at the PRO, would have been routinely destroyed five years after the incident.

Questioned about the fate of the logbook and other records the MOD Record Officer replied: "Reviews, which are conducted at local and central level, determine the fate of records which in turn leads to the survival of the relatively small number of files that are preserved at appropriate institutions (generally the PublicRecord Office).

"Current instructions require that destruction certificates should be retained for a minimum of five years. If an officer at an appropriate level authorises destruction that is sufficient to seal the fate of a record. No reason is required for destruction. Additional information is only required to justify prolonging the life of a record for archival purposes, ie for administrative reasons or because it is thought that the papers might be worth considering for permanent preservation.

"If, as a result of your research, you have failed to identify surviving GCI papers at the PRO, it must be concluded that, regretably, these records have not survived the passage of time."

The single remaining source of information is the RAF Air Defence Radar Museum at Neatishead. The Museum - privately run with assistance from the RAF - inherited a considerable amount of equipment and material from the Cold War era. Much of this hardware is now incorporated into their public displays. These include an authentic reproduction of the Chief Controller's cabin as it would have appeared at the time of the Lakenheath incident. Unfortunately, although staff are aware of the station's role in a number of UFO incidents, they are unable to answer questions due to the lack of relevant records from the time. The following response was received from the Museum Manager, Doug Robb (a retired Interception Controller) in May 2001:

"Unfortunately, there are no operations log books remaining at Neatishead from the era of Freddy Wimbledon. These are normally kept for seven years but can then be destroyed unless there was an incident that required their preservation. In this case it would appear that 'the men from the Ministry' swept through the place and removed every reference to what happened that day."

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