On two nights in December 1980, just after Christmas, strange lights were seen in Rendlesham forest, Suffolk, adjacent to the RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge airbases. The twin-base complex was operated by the American military as part of NATO's front-line defences. On both occasions, American personnel left the Bentwaters base to investigate the mysterious lights in the belief that an aircraft might have crashed. Disoriented and puzzled, their testimony, given sometime afterwards, has contributed to a widespread belief that the airmen had a close encounter with a UFO.
While it was known that the Deputy Base Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Halt, had sent a memo to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) about the disturbing incidents, he never received any official reply and the Ministry's subsequent denial of - or at least silence on - the incidents fuelled suspicions among UFO believers that the MoD not only knew the truth about UFOs but was covering up prominent cases. The Rendlesham. encounters and Col Halt's memo, they argued, established that definitively.
At long last, the Ministry of Defence has released its file on Rendlesham; in 155 pages, it chronicles the Ministry's own investigations of what happened on those two December nights 21 years ago. Unfortunately, for both conspiracy aficionados and UFO buffs, what is revealed by the MoD's internal documents could not be further removed from the 'cover up' of an alien visitation.
The 'close encounter' first made headlines in 1983 when American researcher Robert Todd discovered the existence of Col Halt's memo to the MoD and informed the UFO community. In the United States - where ufologists have had a long and successful run of requesting the release of government and military documents under their Freedom of Information Act - Todd decided, in 1983, to make a speculative enquiry about the Rendlesham incidents. In time, he received a response from the 513th Combat Support Group (CSG), which provided document management services to the Third Air Force; they had located a copy of the 'Halt memo'. As the USAF’s own copy had been "properly disposed of in accordance with Air Force Regulations," the copy now provided to Todd had been obtained by the CSG directly from the British government. '
In April 1983, when British ufologist Jenny Randles and fellow investigators put questions to MoD department DS8, it was confirmed to them that "USAF personnel did see unusual lights" at RAF Woodbridge, but they were ambivalent about the existence of the memo from the commander of an American base on British soil - a document whose existence DS8 could not confirm or give Jenny permission to view, and yet here was Jenny in the MoD waving a copy she had obtained from Todd. This silence - or at least, reticence - was interpreted as a denial, giving rise to the view that 'something' was being concealed.
However, the MoD was indeed keeping a file on Rendlesham and now, thanks to the diligence of UFO historian and fortean researcher Dr David Clarke, it was released to him in May 2001. Clarke explains: "Towards the end of the year 2000, an application was made under the present Code of Practice on Access to Government Information for a copy of the file, assembled by Secretariat Air Staff 2a ( the successor to DS8) on the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident. In addition, a search was requested of other files that might contain documents relevant to the report from RAF Bentwaters."
"According to the Ministry, the majority of the papers contained within came from one file that was assembled some time after the alleged event that opened with Halt's memo and largely consisted of correspondence. Because the file appeared incomplete, the MoD carried out a search to identify any other relevant papers from 'UFO' files covering the same period, 1981-2. This search located a number of other documents relating to the incident that have now been placed within the original file opened in 1982."
In his memo, Halt describes the two events from his own recollection. On the first occasion, he writes, three patrolmen were given permission to investigate a possible air crash "outside the back gate" of the Bentwaters base, adjacent to Rendlesham Forest. The patrolmen, Halt says, reported encountering a ',strange glowing object in the forest," which was "metallic in appearance and triangular in shape, approximately two to three metres (7-10 ft) across the base and approximately two metres high." The object, according to Halt, "had a pulsing red light on top and a bank(s) of blue lights underneath" and was "hovering or on legs." As the patrolmen approached, the object "manoeuvred through the trees and disappeared."
The next night, Halt and others witnessed more "strange lights" they could not explain. "A red sun-like light was seen through the trees. It moved about and pulsed," he wrote. As both incidents centred on Rendlesham Forest and as this was outside the jurisdiction of the US Air Force, Halt says it had been deemed a matter for the Ministry to investigate. Halt never received any confirmation of receipt or further instructions.
In the following years, the Rendlesham case received enormous publicity, being endlessly cited in a stream of books and TV documentaries as a 'double whammy', evidence of both the existence of UFOs and of a high-level cover-up. However, as time went by, a growing number of ufologists became convinced this 'most famous British UFO case' was fundamentally flawed.
The first impression given by the newly-released MoD file is that it puts paid to the accusation that the British government was engaged in a 'UFO cover-up'. This historic, official 'UFO' file - containing over 150 'secret' documents, demonstrates that the MoD did in fact spend some time investigating those purported 'Rendlesharn forest UFOs' even if the results seem pretty lacklustre.
One of the first and most important results is independent confirmation of the dates of the two 'UFO' incidents: the first beginning at around 0300 on the morning of 26 December and the second in night/early morning of 27/28 December. (Halt erroneously records these as 27 and 29/30 December respectively.) Astonishingly, the file includes a letter from science writer and astronomer lan Ridpath to DS8 in 1983 alerting them to the fact that Col Halt had recorded erroneous dates in his memo - dates that could have been confirmed, as Ridpath had found, from local police records. When DS8 wrote to an RAF officer at the base to check Ridpath's claim, the officer chose to accept Halt's dates over Ridpath's. As Dr Clarke notes: "The MoD's assessment that the UFO events reported to them by Lt Col Halt were of "no defence significance" was flawed because their analysis of radar data was concentrated upon incorrect dates!"
How could Halt have been so mistaken? It's a question which I may be the only person ever to have raised, albeit by proxy. On 13 May 1997, American journalist Salley Rayl interviewed Halt and kindly asked on my behalf: 'We received an e-mail earlier in the day from a fellow by the name of James Easton who lives in Scotland and apparently has been researching this case during recent months. One thing that he mentioned, and a question that I would like to pass on to you, is why have there been variances in the dates given for both incidents? Your memo claims that the dates were on the evening/early morning of the 26th/ 27th and 29th/30th of December, respectively. But elsewhere, in interviews, the dates have been given as 25 to 26 and 28 to 29, he says. So why, why are there differences in those dates?"
Halt replied: 'Well, I tried to go back and recover the police blotter and the security blotter - I think I mentioned to you earlier - to reaffirm the dates. Keep in mind, I wrote the memo several weeks later. And it was not a really important memo. The date was not critical. The critical portion was, you know, what happened and are you interested? And how about getting involved and Iet’s investigate this. It's possible that I, I put the date down wrong. But I don't believe so. I tried to verify later and the police blotters had been taken from the repository, probably by a, how shall I say, curiosity seeker..."
Halt didn't take statements from any of the witnesses until a full week after the events. He told Sally Rayl that this delay was due to the holiday period: "Around New Year's Eve, I took statements and interviewed the men who had taken part in the initial incident." I acquired these statements in 1998 and revealed them first, exclusively, on the Intemet. Four of the five statements agree and verify the date of the first incident as 26 December, so there should never have been any confusion. If, as Halt stated to Rayl, he attempted to substantiate the correct dates before sending his memo, why did he not refer to the testimonies he had personally obtained from the witnesses?
In his memo, Halt informed the Ministry that following a sighting of "unusual lights outside the back gate at RAF Woodbridge" a patrol was allowed off-base to "check it out." He wrote: "Thinking an aircraft might have crashed or been forced down, they called for permission to go outside the gate to investigate. The on-duty flight chief responded and allowed three patrolmen to proceed on foot. The individuals reported seeing a strange glowing object in the forest."
View from the forest edge near where Halt saw his flashing lights
According to the statement of one of the three patrolmen, Airman Ed Cabansag, it seems the "strange glowing object was a farmhouse”. The group had entered the forest thinking "it had to be an aircraft accident and walked at least two miles (3.2km), trying to get to a vantage point that would clarify this light in the distance. "Our route through the forest and field was a direct one, straight towards the light," he continues. "We figured the lights were coming from past the forest, since nothing was visible as we passed through the woody forest. We could see a glowing near the beacon light, but as we got closer we found it to be a lit-up farmhouse."
Indeed, it was the same 'glowing farmhouse' at Capel Green which alarmed Halt during the second incident. When the 'UFO' was reported again the next night, he ventured into Rendlesham forest in search of it. As he recalled in the interview with Salley Rayl: 'We had also noticed that the farmer's house appeared to be glowing, as though there were a fire inside. All the windows were bright red and sort of flickering and I was quite concerned for the occupants of the house."
During the past year, local researcher Robert McLean managed to retrace, on more than one occasion, Halt's route from the microcassette notes Halt made in the forest that night. McLean easily located the same farmhouse and was able to see for himself the 'house on fire effect'. It is, he says, "quite an effective illusion" but is only a result of local lighting conditions.
Halt's memo goes on to describe the "beacon light": "The object was described as being metallic in appearance and triangular in shape, approximately two to three metres across the base and approximately two metres high. It illuminated the entire forest with a white light. The object itself had a pulsing red light on top and a bank(s) of blue lights underneath. The object was hovering or on legs. As the patrolmen approached the object, it manoeuvred through the trees and disappeared. At this time the animals on a nearby farm went into a frenzy. The object was briefly sighted approximately an hour later near the back gate."
The testimony of the three security patrolmen seems to be at odds with Halt's account. Not one of them describes a 'triangular-shaped' object in their statements. Staff. Sergeant Jim Penniston was the only one who claimed to have seen what he believed to be a metallic object, associated with the 'lights'. His original written account describes how he was never able to get closer than 50 metres (160ft) to the elusive source, which his accompanying sketch clearly showed to be 'box-shaped'. Penniston's account changed radically after he underwent 'regressive hypnosis'. Contrary to his earlier testimony, he began to claim the 'object' was 'triangular-shaped'.
Significantly, however, the final member of that patrol, Airman First Class John Burroughs, was adamant they never observed a 'craft', merely some lights which implied an object was there. Cabansag's statement refers only to some unfamiliar lights, the origin of which was never resolved, except for the "beacon light" - quite a different scenario from the one outlined in Halt's memo. (When I contacted him recently, John Burroughs still maintains they saw only some anomalous lights.)
In popular retellings of the Rendlesharn encounters, the lights are said to manoeuvre through the trees before disappearing. But, as explained in Burroughs' statement, the patrolmen saw the lights next to a farmhouse before they were lost from sight: “We got up to a fence that separated the trees from the open field and you could see the lights down by a farmer's house. We climbed over the fence and started heading towards the red and blue lights and they just disappeared. Once we reached the farmer's house we could see a beacon going around, so we went towards it. We followed it for about two miles before we could see it was coming from a lighthouse." Then, said Burroughs, “We had just crossed a creek and were told to come back when we saw a blue light to our left in the trees. It was only there for a minute and it just streaked away. After that, we didn't see anything so we returned to the truck."
Conspicuously absent in Halt's memo is the story of how that lighthouse played a role in those first and formative 'UFO' perceptions. The "blue light which seemed to "streak away" is the sole basis for Halt's contention that: "The object was briefly sighted approximately an hour later near the back gate." If the Ministry had also been advised by Halt that the tiny pulsating light (confirmed by Halt to Sally Rayl) he personally observed within Rendlesham forest, was seen again "clear off to the coast (documented in his microcassette recording), the entire context of these 'UFO' alarms might have become more evident.
In the memo, Halt also drew attention to radiation readings taken at what was believed to be the first night's 'UFO landing site'. We can now see from the MoD's file that they wasted time on this. It's long been demonstrated that the levels were minuscule. In fact, Halt himself records incidental 'radiation readings' from a nearby field which were higher than most of the 'landing site' readings.
Understandably, Halt's 'official UFO report' created much excitement and optimism in the 'UFO community'. Ostensibly, it threatened to blow apart the MoD 'UFO conspiracy', and the speculation was fuelled by Penniston's increasingly elaborate recollections under 'hypnotic regression'. He now claimed to have examined a landed ‘craft' at his leisure for 20 minutes. In contrast, his fellow patrolman John Burroughs resolutely maintains: “I never saw anything metallic or anything hard." Again: “We did not see a structured 'craft'... all we saw were lights that seemed to imply a structure of some kind."
This divergence in the eyewitness testimony rarely featured in the more enthusiastic media reports. The story's factual genesis was confused further by the publication of Left at East Gate (1997) by ex-USAF airman Larry Warren, who claimed to have been directly involved with others in a dramatic 'close encounter' during the UFO incursions. Halt and Penniston were, however, scathing of Warren's assertions; in Warren's original account he claimed only that he had heard about the 'UFO' tales while stationed on the base, but later, after 'hypnotic regression' he too was claiming a closer contact.
Warren referred to his designated UFO 'landing site' as momentous physical evidence of UFO visitation. The photographs in his book (above)describe the location as: "Capel Green, site of the incident. Craft's point of contact clearly visible as discolored area..." and "Capel Green, 1995, showing landing site still blighted 15 years after Larry Warren's experience."
Robert McLean has been able to locate Larry Warren's purported landing area, using the visual clues in Warren's CD, also called Left at East Gate. McLean also obtained aerial shots of the locale and one of these, taken by the RAF, depicts Warren's 'UFO landing site' in detail. It shows some discoloured areas - one of which appears to be circular - in the field. However, this RAF aerial photograph was taken in 1953 (27 years earlier) and the marks are interpreted by experienced aerial reconnaissance folk as typical patterns in crops caused by underground ruins... not evidence of an alien spaceship landing.
In a new development, there's a possible explanation which seems to account for UFO-like impressions experienced by Burroughs, Cabansag and Penniston. Ultimately, the catalyst hat followed was the 'UFO' they witnessed, and the source of those enigmatic lights was found near a farmhouse. Recall Burroughs' statement: 'We got up to a fence that separated the trees from the open field and you could see the lights down by a farmers house. We climbed over the fence and started heading towards the red and blue lights and they just disappeared."
In a sketch which depicted the triangular-shaped light formation, Burroughs clarified that the top red light, which resembled a beacon, was "red and orange." Especially prominent was white light which projected downwards from the source. It occurred to me that I had seen something similar... the field lights used by a tractor at night. As it moved around a large field, delivering food to cattle in an otherwise dark landscape, the numerous top and side lights created a spectacular display and on top was an amber beacon 'warning' light.
Former Senior Airman Kenneth Greene, stationed at RAF Bentwaters, recently told me about the 'UFO' which he and a fellow serviceman encountered, in 1978, on their way to Bentwaters one night for the midnight shift. “I was living off base at the time in a small town called Darsham, near Saxmundham, Suffolk. My room mate and I were on a small country road and as we came round a curve there was a small triangular object, about eight feet (2.4m) in height, stopped in middle of the road. This object had a small flashing orange beacon on top and bright white lights emanating from it at various points."
"Our immediate thought was that it was a UFO, but it turned out to be a very small farm tractor. The top width was shorter than the bottom width and the two sides slightly angled up toward the top. This shape was actually the operator's compartment. However, viewing this at night when the white lights were on created an initial impression of a 'triangle'. It wasn't until the operator extinguished some of the lights and moved off the road that we realized it was a tractor."
Could this have been what was witnessed by the USAF patrol, stressed after their long chase through the dark forest, by the glowing farm, sparking off the UK's most famous 'UFO'affair?
We may never know for sure. However, in the first book written about this case - Sky Crash (1984) co-authored by jenny Randles, Brenda Butler and Dot Street - Jenny writes of Butler and Street's visit to the site, within a couple of months of the UFO events: "Brenda and Dot were directed to see a Mr Brown, who owns a house about three quarters of a mile [1,200m] further down the path which skirts the field... He had a large pink house with plenty of old huts around the back, and a tractor standing idle... He abruptly pointed out that he knew nothing about a UFO." '
In fact, he might have known a lot more about it than he realised!