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The Case of the 'Missing Interception'

an Opinion by Martin Shough

The possibility that the 0200 & 0240Z 23 Squadron scrambles might not have been the only Lakenheath interceptions attempted that night was considered early on. But 23 Squadron was the QRA squadron at Waterbeach, the assigned duty airfield, and Neatishead was the responsible fighter control radar. The Waterbeach aircrews dismissed the idea that there could have been any other sortie flown before theirs (notwithstanding the later surprise discovery of the Scofield/Arthur scramble at 2120Z). Also, Flt. Lt.Wimbledon, Chief Fighter Controller at Neatishead, was adamant that he would have known of any UFO scrambles other than the interception his team controlled; he didn't, ergo there could have been none. This appearance of agreement hardened the natural suspicion that all parties were talking about the same, unique incident. But natural suspicion is misleading here.

As will be shown in a moment, it turns out that Wimbledon and the Venom aircrews are in fact talking about different incidents. Examination of strong structural features of the two accounts shows rather conclusively, in my opinion, that neither party was involved in the events described by the other. The untidy implication is that there must have been two pairs of aircraft involved in two different incidents that night, despite the protestations of those 'in the know'.

But before making that inference we should consider the possibility that we are talking about unconnected events on two different nights. The Venom crews have their log books to rely on. But is it possible that in 1978 after many years Wimbledon does not have the correct date? There may indeed have been several similar events involving different radars around this time, and it is possible that a memory has become falsely associated with the suggested date.

This is an interesting possibility. The actual date can be bracketed to a first-order approximation by the history of Wimbledon's service postings. He has said:

I changed to Fighter 1950. I had to do the course, that was three months, and my first posting was to Sopley ["I specialised in Fighter Control in 1951"; see here]...I was at Sopley for one year, then I was sent as a training officer to one of the fighter control units at Cardiff. From there I went to Germany to Headquarters 2 Group on the staff there, a place called Sundan in Germany, and I did a full 3 years there. Came back to England, posted to Neatishead and I was at Neatishead in 1956, and shortly after this incident I was posted as an instructor to the School of Fighter Control...we had three postings, first of all we were at Middle Wallop, we then went to Hope Cove in Devon and then from there back to Sopley and I did my full three years as an instructor. . . . Came back from Germany in 56. Came back in March 1956, went to Neatishead and then in early 57 or late 56, I became an instructor at the School of Fighter Control.

The window is thus limited by his arrival at Neatishead in March 1956 and the back-stop of a new posting by the end of the year. This is doubly confirmed by the fact that Neatishead records in the Public Record Office show that installation of the new FPS-3 (Type 80) search radar, ongoing since June, was completed in December 1956. Wimbledon never used this radar and "knew nothing about it"; his Interception Team's master radar was the old Type 7.

A further narrowing of the window is suggested by the fact that in his first statement Wimbledon recalled relieving the previous Chief Fighter Controller's shift at 2300 (unprompted; in recent years he reluctantly began to improvise later times when confronted with the apparently black-and-white fact of the 23 Squadron log books). Natural practice would be for relief to occur at local 'midnight' - as Wimbledon later recalled "we always operated on local time anyway whatever time of the year it was". This implies that 2300 is the military GMT or Zulu equivalent of midnight in a shift pattern coupled to British Summer Time. If this is correct then the event cannot have occurred before the beginning of April or after the end of October 1956.

Checking all records for 1956 at the PRO, Dave Clarke discovered that Neatishead Eastern Filter Centre's Form 540 Operations Record Book for August 1956 is (uniquely) missing from the PRO collection which covers the entire period of the station operation from 1955-1960. This is interesting in view of Wimbledon's statement that records of the incident were removed by a Fighter Command officer and that he and his team were told not to discuss it. There is some ambiguity in that the August Form 540 for 271 Signals Unit, Neatishead (a different body of records) is extant; but from this August ORB the name of F. Wimbledon is noteably absent, although it does appear in the ORBs for most of the first half of 1956! The record is thus confusing, and the Form 540s contain very little in the way of operational detail. Special operational records would have been entered in Form 541s - but none of these are extant - and in the Chief Controller's Logbook, which is what Wimbledon says was removed.

There is anecdotal evidence (e.g. here) that a number of little-known 'UFO' events did occur at various East Anglian airfields in this 1955-57 era - particularly Bentwaters/Woodbridge - and RAF radar operators and technicians recall that uncorrelated echoes generally categorised as 'angels' were almost commonplace at the time. Attempts to identify them by interception were often made but normally without any success. The 271 Signals Unit ORB does state that August 1956 was noteable for a high number of scrambles - 42, of which only 13 were positively identified as 'allied' aircraft. Of the remaining 29 interceptions, 5 tracks faded or were lost in cloud. (And note by the way that 737, or fully 40% of the practice interceptions carried out by Neatishead during August 1956, were done with USAF F-86 jets from Manston and Woodbridge).

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Wimbledon's UFO was overflying Lakenheath; so far as is known, Blue Book received no other report of a radar UFO from Lakenheath in the summer of 1956. Probability alone suggests that an unusual summer 1956 UFO interception event involving Lakenheath that dovetails with Perkins' account is the same event as the Perkins/BOI-485 interception, contemporaneously documented to August 13/14. This is supported by memories of a singular incident at or around this time by other Neatishead personnel (e.g., Cpl. John Bowden, Sq. Ldr. Clift) and in particular by the statement of Squadron Leader 'X' .

Sq. Ldr. 'X' reported that he was detailed to escort a Belgian Air Force officer on an observing tour of Neatishead. Their visit to Neatishead happened to coincide with the excitement and both 'were able to watch the extraordinary performance of the UFO on the radar'. The Squadron Leader didn't state where he and the Belgian officer were visiting from, but Dave Clarke was able to confirm at the PRO that an entry in the Metropolitan Sector (Kelveden Hatch, near Brentwood, Essex) ORB dated 14 August 1956 records a "....visit by officers of Belgian sector to SOC for consultations on control and reporting matters...". Since the old Filter Centre system of reporting from the GCIs to Sector Operations was being discontinued in the revamp of Neatishead due to take effect at the end of August this is wholly consistent and fixes the date fairly convincingly.

So, given that we have the same date, the times recorded in the 23 Squadron flying logs are inconsistent with the original recollection of Wimbledon. They are also inconsistent with the time asserted by Perkins, which can be shown to be a strongly embedded structural feature of his account. These log times are not inconsistent with those given in BOI-485; however it can be shown that unless Perkins completely fantasised his memory of a shift-change occurring in the middle of the action - a suggestion for which there is no internal evidence and which is, in my opinion, at best implausible - then at least one of the times in BOI-485 must be wrong.

If a shift did make relief then this had to be either midnight or 0700. If it was 0700 then the 0200-0240 scrambles could not have had anything to do with an interception occurring around dawn, Perkins would have left the Tower building in memorable broad daylight, and the end time of 0330 given in BOI-485 must also be wrong. On the other hand, if the shift-change was at midnight then the start time in BOI-485 must be wrong. Given that Perkins stated consistently that the shift change was indeed at midnight, it is not unreasonable to infer that it is the recorded start time of 140010 which is wrong, that the interception described was underway before midnight, and that there must therefore have been other aircrews involved in a different UFO interception or interceptions earlier that night. However improbable, this is the Holmesian conclusion which remains after eliminating the (practically) impossible.

The problem of the time is only the first thing that frustrates a tidy solution, one of several factors suggesting a 'missing interception'. The other main points are indicated below. The implication of all these is that what we have found in the 23 Squadron aircrews' stories is evidence of a secondary action, a last throw of the dice in the early hours after the main event was over

a) interception control

The most important factor vis vis Freddie Wimbledon's involvement is quite straightforward: Simply, the crews who were scrambled at 0200 and 0240 were both exclusively under control of the Americans at Lakenheath, not an RAF GCI fighter control team. Contrarily, of course, the jet which Wimbledon is talking about was, by definition, under RAF GCI control. Remember that in reaction against the Perkins/BOI-485 scenario Wimbledon had denied since his very first statement that 'his' pilot could ever have spoken to Lakenheath. Therefore, on the aircrews' own unequivocal evidence (supported by the Squadron Diary), they were not involved in the same interception as the one controlled by Wimbledon's team. (It is not possible to say the same for the Perkins/BOI-485 event, because, ex hypothesi, we do not presently have aircrew evidence relating to that event. It is in fact possible to show that a scenario assuming air/ground communications alternating between both GCI and Lakenheath RATCC fits the evidence rather well in this case. The relevance of the 0200/0240 Venom intercepts is that now we at least know that irregular RAF/USAF control and communications arrangements of the kind previously only inferred [see e.g. Shough 1987] were in fact put in place at least once that night.)

b.) two interceptions or one?

A common feature of all three prior sources - Perkins, BOI-485 and Wimbledon - is that they describe one extended pursuit involving one aircraft, with a second aircraft only peripherally involved and not even making radar contact, let alone attempting interception. The second interceptor was given the location of the target but declared a malfunction and 'never got within twenty miles' before he declared an 'engine malfunction', then left the RATCC frequency and went home (Perkins); Venom #2, arriving after the chase was over, was 'unable to make contact [and] returned to home station due to malfunctions' (BOI-485); 'a second Venom . . . was vectored towards the area but before it arrived on the scene the target had disappeared from our scopes' (Wimbledon) or, 'the first [aircraft] made an interception and the second one didn’t get within 20 miles' (Wimbledon). This is a strong structural feature of all these accounts.

The two 0200/0240 scrambles on the other hand are carbon-copies of each other, both being extended periods of repeated vectoring to intercept under ground control. For example -

John Brady (Venom #1):

We had racetrack going up and down . . . the chap at Lakenheath was manoeuvring us. We were setting up a run really, one from the south, one from the north, all criss-crossing like this [indicates with hands] and each time we would see or not see this thing and that’s how it went on. And at the end of time, when we had done these several runs and we were getting a bit low on fuel we went home but at the time we were going home we knew they were scrambling another Venom…

Ivan Logan (Venon #2):

I would have expected the target to allow us to turn behind and give us a visual indication. But we were not able to do that. We tried for perhaps a quarter of an hour or so. All we saw was a blip which rather indicated a stationary target. . . . After we tried unsuccessfully to intercept it - after we had been airborne for 40 or 35 minutes we were getting very short of fuel -as you would if you were flying low level - so we returned to base.

This symmetry between a pair of identical early-morning events is not a negotiable detail but a radical structural feature, and the difference between this structure and the structure of the Perkins/BOI-485/Wimbledon scenario cannot be easily explained as due to any kind of distortion of memory or perception.

When first informed of the discovery of the early-morning scrambles, Wimbledon told Jenny Randles:

One thing that worries me. You say the 2nd pilot made the interception. My version all along has been that the first Venom airborne made the interception, the second was scrambled when circumstances in my estimation warranted it but it never got to within 20 miles of the target. As it happened by that time the target had disappeared at terrific speed upwards.

He was confident that examination of the aircrew logbooks (assuming they were the correct aircrews) would "reveal the actual time of take off of each Venom and its subsequent action" and bear him out. Ivan Logan's logbook, however, reveals that he and Fraser-Ker spent 45 minutes in the air and, bears out his claim that they spent about half an hour in repeated attempts to intercept the target over Lakenheath.

Further proof [Wimbledon pointed out] is shown in the USAF report which states the second pilot (who had just taken off) asked the first pilot if he had seen anything. The reply from the first pilot was 'it was the damnest thing I ever saw'. Even allowing for the fact that British pilots don't speak like that, it still indicates which aircraft made the interception. FACT.

BOI-485 certainly states:

Interception action was undertaken by one British jet fighter on alert by 60th AAA Sector Control.

c.) no debriefing visit

Freddie Wimbledon and his team were told by a high-ranking Fighter Command officer from Stanmore, who interviewed them and collected reports on the event, that it was being treated seriously and that he was on his way to interview the aircrews. Wimbledon, not unreasonably, regarded this as a matter of course in the circumstances, and when told by Jenny Randles that the newly-located Venom crews denied ever having been approached by anyone from outside their Squadron he expressed surprise:

my report and the log book containing it . . . had been taken away by the very senior officer who came to interview me and my crew. As he said he was going to interview the aircrew involved, I find it somewhat puzzling that your statement states that in fact he did not do so!

Similarly, interviewed by Clarke and Roberts he again said:

The next day, a Group Captain came down from Fighter Command and interviewed us and he made a remark then that sounded at the time very odd. He said: ‘Don’t think you imagined this, these things are happening.’ What an extraordinary thing to say? He then said he was going to Horsham St Faith and then he was going to interview the aircrew, but apparently he never interviewed the aircrew, which seems very strange to me.

This apparent omission is explained if neither of the known 23 Squadron aircrews was the aircrew in question.

d.) all quiet on the airfield

Between them the 0200 and the 0240 aircrews attempted for over an hour to intercept an unlighted, invisible, unidentified object at a few thousand feet in the immediate RAF Lakenheath area, close to or even directly over the airfield. The circumstances imply that the UFO first detected at Lakenheath was the cause of a great deal of excitement. If these aircrews were responding to that first alert one would expect them to have observed that airfield defences had been triggered into action.

Venom #1 was "directed overhead and they were saying ‘we’ve got a contact overhead’", recalled Chambers:

. . . we must [have] circled round there . . . well looking at this, 55 minutes airborne, I should think that 35 or 40 minutes was spent trying to get a contact on this thing . . . I can’t think of the actual distance between Lakenheath and Waterbeach but, you know, reasonably close together.

DC: According to the Americans you actually flew over the base…

CH: Oh yes!

DC: So you remember that?

CH: I remember being told that we were overhead Lakenheath, I didn’t see it from above, not that I recall anyway . . .

DC: Now while John [Brady] was trying to get a fix on this thing on his radar, would it have been possible for you to have been looking out to find a visual contact?

CH: Yeah, you look out . . . but no I didn’t see anything. No, not a thing!

DC: Well the story about this incident which has evolved over the years has it that you - the pilot - had a visual sighting of a light.

CH: [laughter] . . . Not a clue where this came from. They might have said: ‘Can you see any lights?’ If I did see any lights they would have been ground contacts, but certainly nothing airborne, no airborne lights.

Logan recalled Venom #2 being sent to "the Lakenheath area" at a few thousand feet:

on this occasion I don’t recall being controlled by Neatishead. I think we were controlled by . . . we went straight to Lakenheath Approach . . . the American approach radar. So we weren’t getting what you would say, fighter control . . . .We certainly picked up radar contact of something, and it looked like an aircraft contact, but it was on low level. It was at short range because I was on my short range setting. I don’t recall the pilot seeing any lights, but at low level there were airfield light, building lights, car lights. I think we were at 3000 to 4000 feet, so I don’t think he would have seen anything. I don’t recall the flight pilot seeing anything. I don’t recall that I picked up any other aeroplanes. . . .There was something in the circuits and they weren’t sure what it was.

Not only did they see no UFO 'in the circuits', neither crew saw signs of an unusual state of alert on the airfield. In particular, they saw no searchlights.

This was a high-security SAC bomber base sensitized still further in recent weeks by a nuclear near-accident and the arrival of CIA spyplanes. Perkins described how USAF authorities monitoring the situation in real time responded to the intruder as a possible Soviet overflight, and BOI-485 says that an interception action was coordinated with the RAF via the 60th AAA, who were the US Army battalion responsible for defence of the airfield. If Chambers and Brady in Venom #1 were the first to arrive on this scene they would have been coming into an air zone in a state of alert under the tactical control of the 60th's Air Defence Command Post, and the first thing they ought to see would be Anti Aircraft Artillery searchlight batteries probing the sky for this potential threat hovering on the Lakenheath radars. But pilot Dave Chambers, inbound from Waterbeach a few minutes after 0200, remembers having to be told by the American approach control radar operator when they were over the airfield.

This is consistent with a separate venture in the early hours of the morning, mounted at the request of Lakenheath GCA operators, after the earlier pre-midnight events had died down.

We do have a report of the sort of reaction one might expect in the circumstances. Witnesses looking towards Lakenheath and nearby RAF Mildenhall from the town of Ely to the west saw "panic . . . searchlights sweeping the sky in every direction". This was at an uncertain time on the evening of the 13th.

e.) the intercept location

As mentioned above, both the 0200 and 0240 Venoms flew from RAF Waterbeach to the Lakenheath area, and the events happened directly over or very close to the airfield at RAF Lakenheath. However, the stationary target towards which Perkins' jet was vectored was not over the airfield but quite a few miles away. According to Perkins' diagram it was intercepted at a point 16 miles SW of Lakenheath, which is not far from the Venoms' home station of Waterbeach itself! The fact that this UFO was not over the field at Lakenheath is implicit elsewhere in Perkins' narrative.

On Initial Contact we gave the interceptor pilot all the background information on the UFO, his (the interceptor) present distance and bearing from Lakenheath, the UFO (which was stationary at the time)'s distance and bearing from Lakenheath. We explained we did not know the Altitude of the UFO but we could assume his altitude was above 1,500 feet and below 20,000 feet due to the operational characteristics of the radar (CPS-5 type radar I believe).

This minimum altitude corresponds to the 4/3 earth radar horizon of a 1 beam elevation at a range of some 15 miles (see here), an approximation acceptably close to Perkins' diagrammed intercept location, and at any event not consistent with a location over the airfield (which could also be problematic in terms of the CPS-5 minimum range, depending on range scale selected).

According to BOI-485 the main intercept location was 10 miles E of Lakenheath. This is inconsistent, but the location is certainly not over the field in either case. Confusion about where the first contact happened is perhaps understandable given a sequence of actions that according to both Perkins and BOI-485 ranged over a wide area. But of course the Brady/Chambers and Logan/Fraser-Ker object did not range over a wide area.

* * *

The latest research in this case concerns the involvement of the 23 Squadron Commanding Officer A. N. Davis and his radar-operator, probably the squadron's Lead Navigator Flt. Lt. Paddy McIwrath (see also letter from Flying Officer Grahame Scofield who was Wing Commander Davis' squadron Adjutant). It would be too much to claim that this information, discovered and developed by Dave Clarke, means that 'the' missing interception has been identified. But a missing interception certainly has, and in my opinion this is sufficient to justify the line of circumstantial argument pursued above.

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