Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs)
From Your Archives
What is a UFO?
The acronym "UFO" is an abbreviation for the US Air Force term "Unidentified Flying Object." It was coined, according to Captain Edward Ruppelt of Project Blue Book, the USAF's UFO project which ran from 1951-1969, "to replace the words flying saucer" which were widely used by the media and public.
UFO has since become a synonym to many people for "alien spaceship," though for the Air Forces of the world it is simply a term referring to something in the skies that the observer can see but does not recognise. Usually the explanation is less extraordinary than a flying saucer, such as a weather balloon or a natural phenomenon for example. However, there are cases on record where no common explanation can be found.
UK History of UFOs 1909-1950
An understanding of the factors that lay behind the British Government's interest in the UFO issue, giving an insight into the policies and personalities responsible for shaping official policy, can be found by studying the range of documents now available at The National Archives.
The bulk of the official records of UFO reports and investigations in the UK are concentrated in the period after the Second World War. However, to understand what happened and why, it is important to look a little further back in history. In the late 19th and early 20th-century a wave of "phantom airship" sightings were made in America, preceding sightings of "flying saucers" by 50 years. Mysterious airships were also sighted in Britain during 1909, 1912-13 and during the opening months of the First World War. With tension between Britain and Germany rising, the public perception was that these were sightings of enemy airships carrying out reconnaissance missions.
The "scareships" mark the very beginning of official interest in unexplained aerial phenomena. When sightings of an unidentified aircraft over Sheerness were reported in October 1912 questions were asked in Parliament leading the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to request an investigation. The relevant papers are AIR 1/2455 and AIR 1/2456 .
The sightings continued throughout 1913 and one consequence of this was the strengthening of the Aerial Navigation Act of 1911. A Bill was duly passed which set up prohibited areas. If these were violated, or if an airship failed to respond to signals from the ground, it could then be shot down. To enable this to be carried out, the War Office stepped up efforts to produce a gun capable of bringing down an airship. The War Office continued to investigate sightings reported in 1914 and 1915, but little useful information was gathered.
Despite widespread public scepticism, the Government continued to take the view that all reports that could have defence implications should be investigated and data was collected on the assumption that if they existed they could be enemy aircraft. This policy underpins all official interest in UFOs, and in a sense the War Office response to the "scareship" mystery set the template for future official investigations into all "aerial phenomena".
More sightings of mysterious lights and objects in the sky were made during the Second World War. These included reports of strange balls of light and small metallic objects made by both Allied and Axis pilots during missions over wartime Europe. These UFOs were called "Foo Fighters" by the USAF. Air Ministry reports on "night phenomena" can be found at AIR 2/5070 while reports from aircrew with Bomber Command's 115 Squadron in December 1943 are at reference AIR 14/2800 . At the end of the war both the War Office and Air Ministry became involved in an investigation of mysterious flying objects that were sighted in Scandinavia and believed to be Soviet in origin. An air intelligence report on the "ghost rockets" of 1946 can be found at reference AIR 40/2843 .
Reports of ghost rockets preceded by six months the first sighting of "flying saucers" that was made by a private pilot, Kenneth Arnold, whilst airborne over the Cascade Mountains in Washington, USA, on 24 June 1947. The famous "Roswell Incident" occurred a week later in New Mexico and the US Air Force set up an official investigation, "Project Sign", early in 1948.
The year that flying saucers first really hit the headlines in the UK was 1950. Prior to that there had been newspaper coverage of flying saucer sightings, but these largely concerned incidents in the USA and the tone was often sceptical. But in October 1950 two major newspapers launched a series of articles that led many people to treat reports of flying saucers and UFOs seriously for the first time. The Sunday Express began to serialise Gerald Heard's book The Riddle of the Flying Saucers, the first book on the subject published in the UK. Meanwhile the rival Sunday Dispatch, a London weekly, ran extracts from Frank Scully's Behind the Flying Saucers and Donald Keyhoe's The Flying Saucers are Real.
Media and Establishment Scrutiny
The media campaign of 1950 led some very senior establishment figures to ask questions and others began to press the Government for action. These included Earl Mountbatten of Burma and the retired Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. One establishment figure whose interest in UFOs is less well known is the scientist Sir Henry Tizard. He is best known for his pioneering work on the development of radar technology before the Second World War and his various wartime posts included Scientific Adviser to the Air Staff. Tizard had followed the official debate about ghost rockets with interest and was intrigued by the increasing media coverage of flying saucers sightings during 1950. Using his authority as Chief Scientific Adviser at the MOD he came to believe the subject should not be dismissed without some proper official investigation. In August 1950 he requested that a small working party should be established in the Directorate of Scientific Intelligence/Joint Technical Intelligence Committee (DSI/JTIC) to investigate the phenomenon. This was dubbed the Flying Saucer Working Party.
The Flying Saucer Working Party 1950-1951
The Flying Saucer Working Party operated under such secrecy that its existence was known to very few. However, a reference to a study of flying saucers emerged in 1988 when a file of correspondence between Winston Churchill and the Air Ministry was opened at TNA ref: PREM 11/855 . Churchill's famous 28 July 1952 memo asked his Air Minister: "What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth? Let me have a report at your convenience." The response, dated 9 August 1952, began 'The various reports about unidentified flying objects, described by the Press as "flying saucers"', were the subject of a full Intelligence study in 1951.
Several unsuccessful attempts were made to trace this study but in 1998 the existence of the Flying Saucer Working Party was revealed when minutes of the DSI/JTIC were released under reference DEFE 41/152 . The minutes contain discussion and debate about the terms of reference of the study. The final version reads as follows:
1. To review the available evidence in reports of "Flying Saucers". 2. To examine from now on the evidence on which reports of British origin of phenomena attributed to "Flying Saucers" are based. 3. To report to DSI/JTIC as necessary. 4. To keep in touch with American occurrences and evaluation of such.
The working party included five intelligence officers from the three services and was headed by one of the MOD's scientific intelligence branches. All the members were specialists in the field of scientific and technical intelligence.
The working party's conclusions were set out in a document dated June 1951 and bearing the designation DSI/JTIC Report No. 7. It was entitled "Unidentified Flying Objects" and classified "Secret Discreet". The report was located in the MoD archives following a request made under the Code of Practice for Access to Government Information by Dr David Clarke of Sheffield University in 2001. It was also acquired by Georgina Bruni in her research during this period, and made available at the National Archives on 1 January 2002 under reference DEFE 44/119 .
The Working Party decided that all UFO sightings could be explained as misidentifications of ordinary objects or phenomena, optical illusions, psychological delusions or hoaxes. They conclude with the following statement: "We accordingly recommend very strongly that no further investigation of reported mysterious aerial phenomena be undertaken, unless and until some material evidence becomes available".
Their report was considered by the DSI/JTIC and it was recommended that in view of its negative conclusions, it should be regarded as a final. It was further suggested that the working party be dissolved with immediate effect. This was agreed, bringing to an end the MOD's first UFO research project.
Sightings Continue from 1952
Although the Flying Saucer Working Party was dissolved in 1951 official interest in UFOs continued. During the period 1952 to 1957 a series of UFO sightings involving the military, together with an increasing number of reports from the general public, forced the MOD to rethink its policy.
By 1953 the Flying Saucer Working Party's recommendation that all inquiries into UFO sightings should cease was overturned and two Air Ministry Divisions were actively involved in investigating UFO sightings. The divisions concerned were S6, a civilian secretariat division of the air staff, and DDI (Tech), a technical intelligence branch of the Air Ministry. Their brief was to research and investigate the UFO phenomenon looking for evidence of any threat to the UK.
Key Documents Held at the National Archives
Keyword searches on the Catalogue using the search "UFO OR U.F.O OR (flying NEAR (unidentified OR saucer))" will produce a list of most of the relevant files held at the National Archives.
Various documents held at The National Archives give a history of the British Government's early involvement in the UFO issue, and they give an insight into the politics and personalities responsible for shaping official policy.
The official reporting, analysis and recording of UFO sightings commenced in the early 1950s, with substantial records at the National Archives beginning in the early 1960s. At that time the Air Ministry was made responsible for the collation of all reports dealing with UFOs. The specific responsibility was delegated to an air intelligence branch, A.I.(Tech)3, within DDI (Tech). All UFO reports were sent to DDI (Tech) for examination, analysis and classification following an Air Ministry order at reference AIR 20/9994 .
A.I. (Tech)3 examined UFO reports and attempted to obtain substantiating evidence from Fighter Command, the Meteorological Office, Royal Greenwich Observatory and other sources where appropriate. Reports were registered on a form which included the following details: details of originator (i.e. civilian, etc.) address of originator; preliminary classification of sighting (i.e. balloon, aircraft, missiles, astronomical phenomena, etc) height, speed, shape, size, colour, date/time and locality of sighting; plus other remarks.
Relevant files held at The National Archives tend to be dated from 1962 to 1979. Until 1967 the MOD policy was to destroy UFO files at five yearly intervals because they were deemed to be of "transitory interest." This policy ended in 1967 and as a result the most comprehensive series of files begins in 1962. They generally consist of collections of sightings reported to the Ministry of Defence by civilians through, for example, the Royal Air Force, airports or police stations and official correspondence relating to these sightings. There is also substantial information regarding the government's official UFO policy through the years, including references to how and by whom it was drawn up, and how it evolved. Policy files from 1953-63 and 1967 can be found at references DEFE 31/118 and DEFE 31/119 .
There are also numerous references and correspondence between various departments – particularly S6 and S4 (Air) at the Ministry of Defence, the Meteorological Office, RAF Fighter Command and the Directorate of Scientific and Technical Intelligence (which inherited DDI (Tech)'s responsibility for UFOs on creation of the unified MOD in 1964).
UFO sightings reported to MOD were officially classified/categorised according to following criteria, based on a USAF questionnaire:
(a) Date, time and duration of sighting (b) Description of object (c) Exact position observer (d) How observed (e) Direction in which object was first seen (f) Angle of sight (g) Distance (h) Movements (j) Meteorological conditions during observations (k) Nearby objects (l) To whom reported (police, military organisations, the press etc) (m) Name and address of informant (n) Any background on the informant that may be volunteered (o) Other witnesses (p) Date and time of receipt of report (q) Is a reply requested?
AIR 2/16918 features numerous sightings, with reports by members of the public between 1961-1963; and likewise AIR 2/18115 , 1967; AIR 2/18116 , 1967; AIR 2/18117 1967-1968; AIR 2/18183 , 1968-1969. AIR 2/18871 contains reports and newspaper cuttings from 1972, while AIR 2/18872 again consists of a collection of civilian and other reports, 1972-1973; AIR 2/18873 , 1972-1973; and AIR 2/18874 likewise for 1974-1975. AIR 2/19125 , is essentially a collection of UFO sightings as compiled by RAF Patrington – referred as reports of unusual occurrences (UFO). This includes a collection of reports from civilians, police, and various flight personnel from RAF Patrington etc and occurring between 1968 and 1973.
AIR 20 files include: AIR 20/11612 which again is a collection of general UFO reports and policy statements, 1967-1968; AIR 20/9320 , AIR 20/9321 and AIR 20/9322 contain Parliamentary questions and briefings given to Ministers on unidentified flying objects by S6 and DDI (Tech) in 1957. AIR 20/9994 contains reports by RAF units on UFOs tracked by radar in 1957. A series containing sighting reports filed by month from August 1967 until December 1973 begins at reference AIR 20/11887 .
Other notable files are BJ 5/311 , which features documentation relating to meteorological aspects 1968-1970; AIR 20/7390 which contains some Air Ministry papers dating from 1950-52; FO 371/81093 contains reports of "flying saucers" made by personnel in Ethiopia to the Foreign Office; AIR 22/93 contains the Air Ministry Secret Intelligence Summary on flying saucers compiled by DDI (Tech) in 1955.
TNA Press Releases
- On 14 May 2008 a number of government files relating to UFOs were released. The press release and other useful information is available on TNAs website.
Examples of references found in TNAs Catalogue
Records of the Air Historical Branch
|AIR 2||Air Ministry: Registered Files|
|AIR 2/16918||Alleged sightings of UFOs. Letters from members of the public on alleged sightings. Magazine entitled Cosmic Voice ‘Mars and Venus Speak to Earth’, dated November/December 1961. Article entitled ‘Men from Outer Space: Are they visiting Britain?’ 1961-1963|
|AIR 2/17318||UFO reports 1963|
|AIR 2/17526||UFO reports 1964|
|AIR 2/17527||UFO reports 1964-1965|
|AIR 2/17982||UFO reports 1965-1966|
|AIR 2/17983||UFO reports (with photographs) 1966|
|AIR 2/17984||UFO reports (with photographs) 1966-1967|
|AIR 2/18183||Unidentified Flying Objects 1968-1969|
|AIR 2/18565||UFO’s: reports and photographs|
|AIR 2/19126||Statistical analysis of UFOs|
|AIR 14||Bomber Command|
|AIR 14/2800||No. 115 Squadron: News Sheet ‘Bang On’ No. 1. Aerial phenomena-reports of UFOs on RAF bombing raids 1943 Dec|
|AIR 16||Fighter Command|
|AIR 16/1199||Flying saucers: occurrence reports by service personnel at Topcliffe station, Thirsk, and local public 1952 Sept.|
|AIR 20||Unregistered Papers|
|AIR 20/7390||prepared for the War Office 1952.|
|AIR 20/9320||Parliamentary Question from 17 April 1957 by Mr Stan Awbery MP: To ask the Secretary of State for Air, what recent investigations have been made into unidentified flying objects; what photographs have been taken; and what reports have been made on this subject. Reply by the Secretary of State (Mr Ward). Notes on UFOs provided for the Ministers use. Also: UFO incident at West Freugh in Wigtownshire in 1957; incidents and signals at RAF Church Lawford, RAF Bempton and RAF Lakenheath; newspaper clippings 6 April 1957 from the News Chronicle and the Evening Standard; photographs of object over the Channel Islands from the Daily Sketch of 6 April 1957.|
|AIR 20/9321||Parliamentary Question 15 May 1957 from Major Patrick Wall MP: To ask the Secretary of State for Air, how many unidentified flying objects have been detected over Great Britain this year as compared with previous years; and whether the object picked up by radar over the Dover Straits on 29 April has yet been identified? Further questions to the Minister from Mr Frank Beswick MP. Notes for Minister on reported sightings. Replies by Mr Ward. Newspaper clippings April-May 1957: The Times, News Chronicle, Daily Worker, Daily Mirror, Daily Sketch, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express and the Evening News.|
|AIR 20/9322||Parliamentary Question 15 May 1957 from Mr Frank Beswick MP: To ask the Secretary of State for Air, what was the nature of the aircraft or other aircraft sighted on the radar air defence screens on Monday night and which occasioned the despatch of Fighter Command? Reply by Mr Ward. Notes for Minister.|
|AIR 20/9994||Headquarters Southern Section Intelligence. Reports on Aerial Phenomena, including ‘observation of unusual aerial phenomena at Royal Air Force Ventnor on 29 July 1957’. Two copies of ‘Track Tracing’ Sheets. Description of UFOs, for example RAF Lyneham 9 December 1957: ‘Description large bright crescent shaped object or could be a sphere with trails from edges. Travelling on a course of 290 degrees at a moderate speed. Seemed to be descending and not at a very great height.’|
|AIR 20/11612||Unidentified Flying Objects 1967-1968|
|AIR 20/11895||UFOs 1968 Apr.|
|AIR 20/11896||UFOs 1968 May|
|AIR 20/11897||UFOs 1968 June|
|AIR 20/11898||UFOs 1968 July|
|AIR 20/11899||UFOs 1968 Aug.|
|AIR 20/11900||UFOs 1968 Sept.|
|AIR 20/11901||UFOs 1968 Oct|
|AIR 20/11902||UFOs 1968 Nov.|
|AIR 20/12055||UFOs 1969 Jan.|
|AIR 20/12056||UFOs 1969 Feb.|
|AIR 20/12057||UFOs 1969 Mar|
|AIR 20/12058||UFOs 1969 Apr.|
|AIR 20/12059||UFOs 1969 May|
|AIR 20/12060||UFOs 1969 June|
|AIR 20/12061||UFOs 1969 July|
|AIR 20/12062||UFOs 1969 Aug.|
|AIR 20/12063||UFOs 1969 Sept.|
|AIR 20/12064||UFOs 1969 Oct.|
|AIR 20/12065||UFOs 1969 Nov.|
|AIR 20/12066||UFOs 1969 Dec.|
|AIR 20/12067||UFOs 1970 Jan.|
|AIR 20/12297||UFOs 1970 Feb.|
|AIR 20/12298||UFOs 1970 Mar.|
|AIR 20/12299||UFOs 1970 April|
|AIR 20/12300||UFOs 1970 May|
|AIR 20/12301||UFOs 1970 June|
|AIR 20/12302||UFOs 1970 July|
|AIR 20/12303||UFOs 1970 Aug|
|AIR 20/12304||UFOs 1970 Sept|
|AIR 20/12305||UFOs 1970 Oct|
|AIR 20/12306||UFOs 1970 Nov.|
|AIR 22||Periodical Returns, Summaries and Bulletins|
|AIR 22/93||Air Ministry Secret Intelligence Summary March 1955. Volume 10, Article No. 3 on Flying Saucers ‘An object was reported.....’|
Prime Minister’s Office
|PREM 11||Prime Minister’s Office: Correspondence and Papers, 1951-1964|
|PREM 11/855||Personal Minute from the Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill,. To the Secretary of State for Air, Lord Cheswell, dated 28 July 1952: ‘What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth? Let me have a report at your convenience.’ Minute from the Secretary of state, dated 9 August 1952, dismissing stories about flying saucers.|
Ministry of Defence Archives
A number of responses to Freedom of Information requests made to the Ministry of Defence regarding UFOs can be found in their disclosure log: run a search using the term 'UFO'. This includes updated information on UFOs, including a policy statement and a copy of the Flying Saucer Working Party report. The archive also contains the MOD file on the famous Rendlesham Forest incident. This report, made by USAF airmen to the MOD, remains one of the most controversial UFO incidents in Britain to date. The so-called Rendlesham File details the correspondence between the Ministry of Defence and members of the public after the sighting of unexplained lights in Rendlesham Forest, near the RAF base at Woodbridge, Suffolk, in December 1980.
|DEFE 31/118||UFO Policy, 1957 – 1963|
|DEFE 31/163||UFO Incidents 1979|
The National Archives podcasts
Suggestions for further reading
- Brookesmith, Peter, UFO The government files (London: Blandford, 1996)
- Bruni, Georgina, You Can't Tell the People (London: Pan/Macmillan, 2001)
- Clarke, David and Roberts, Andy, Phantoms of the Sky: UFOs A Modern Myth? (London: Robert Hale, 1990)
- Clarke, David and Roberts, Andy, Out of the Shadows: UFOs, the Establishment and the official cover-up (London: Piatkus, 2002)
- Coates, Tim (editor), UFOs in the House of Lords 1979 (London: HMSO, 2000)
- Fawcett, Lawrence and Greenwood, Barry J, Clear Intent: The government cover-up of the UFO experience (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1984)
- Gillmor, Daniel S. (ed), The Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects (London: Vision, 1969)
- Good, Timothy, Above Top Secret (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987)
- Gough, Jack, Watching the Skies: The history of ground radar in the air defence of the United Kingdom (London: HMSO, 1993)
- Jones, R.V, Most Secret War (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979)
- Pope, Nick, Open Skies, Closed Minds (London: Simon & Schuster, 1996)
- Randles, Jenny, The UFO Conspiracy (London: Blandford, 1987)
- Randles, Jenny, UFO Retrievals: The Recovery of Alien Spacecraft (London: Blandford, 1995)
- Randles, Jenny, MIB: Investigating the truth behind the Men in Black phenomenon (London: Piatkus, 1997)
- Randles, Jenny, Something in the Air (London: Hale, 1998)
- Randles, Jenny, UFO Crash Landing? (Blandford, 1998)
- Redfern, Nicholas, A Covert Agenda: The British Government's UFO top secrets exposed (London: Simon & Schuster, 1997)
- Redfern, Nicholas, The FBI Files (London: Simon & Schuster 1998)
- Redfern, Nicholas, Cosmic Crashes (London: Simon & Schuster, 1999)
- Ruppelt, Edward J, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (London: Gollancz, 1957)
- Clarke, David and Roberts, Andy, "Britain's X-Files", Fortean Times 164 (November 2002), 38-44.
- Clarke, David, "The Rendlesham Forest Incident: Britain's Roswell?", The Skeptic 12/2-3 (2004), 17-21.
- Haines, Gerald K. "A die-hard issue: CIA's role in the study of UFOs, 1947-90", Studies in Intelligence: Semiannual Unclassified Edition 1 (1997), 67-84
- Jones, R.V, "The natural philosophy of flying saucers", Physics Bulletin 19 (July 1968), 225-30
- Morgan, Roger J, "British Government UFO files in the Public Record Office", Magonia 30 (August 1988), 12-15
- Bruni, Georgina and Pope, Nick, "Official History", UFO Magazine (April 2002), 4-26.
The National Archives would like to acknowledge the advice and assistance of Dr David Clarke, of the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, School of English, University of Sheffield, and of Georgina Bruni and Nick Pope in the writing of this Research Note.