The secret search for Extraterrestrials

For half a century the Ministry of Defence (MoD) kept what it knew about sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects locked away in a secret archive. But with the arrival of the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) in 2005, the fascinating contents of “Britain’s X-Files” were revealed.

This article was first published in the August 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine

The public’s obsession with UFOs and alien visitors has continued to grow alongside man’s first faltering steps into space. For centuries people have speculated about visitors from other worlds. But it is only since the end of the Second World War that large numbers of people have believed alien visits have actually occurred and been concealed by world governments.

In recent years MPs, peers and some senior military figures have added their voices to the many ordinary people who have demanded that the Ministry of Defence opens its files and releases the information that it holds on this contentious subject. This pressure was reflected in the fact that when the FoIA finally arrived on 1 January 2005, UFO sightings were among the three most popular topics among the hundreds of requests they received from the general public.

So what do Britain’s X-Files actually tell us? The answer is disappointing for those who believe the British Government has been concealing evidence of alien visitors. But to social and military historians the files are a treasure trove of material. The papers contain details of 10,728 UFO sightings reported to the MoD between 1959, when statistics were first kept, and the present day. The largest number of reports (750) came in 1978 when interest in UFOs and extraterrestrial life reached a crescendo with the release of the Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The vast majority of UFO reports logged by the MoD came from members of the public and could be easily explained. Records show that the most common causes of UFO reports were aircraft, satellites and space debris, balloons, stars and planets. Around nine per cent fell into the “unexplained” category. An intelligence report from 1954 states that resolving these cases was incredibly difficult because “ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the scent is completely cold” by the time reports arrived at Whitehall.

However, a significant proportion of reports in the “unexplained” category were made by trained observers such as RAF aircrew, air traffic control staff and civilian pilots. Some of the most puzzling involved seemingly solid objects moving at exceptional speeds and heights that were tracked by defence radars. On occasions these sightings have led the RAF to scramble fighter aircraft to intercept the mysterious objects.

During the Cold War, Russian reconnaissance aircraft (nicknamed “bears”) regularly probed NATO defences across the North Atlantic. Until the early 1990s British radars were continually on the look out for these Russian intruders and many so-called UFOs were later identified as Soviet aircraft. As one senior RAF officer explains: “Any object appearing on our detection radars was literally a UFO until identified. There were some that were never identified, but this must not be taken to mean that they were caused by phenomena from other worlds”.

The files show how the military attitude towards UFOs was completely different to that of the general public. Official policy was restricted to establishing whether UFO sightings could be considered a threat to the realm. During the Cold War period the major threat came from behind the Iron Curtain. Once Soviet aircraft were eliminated, the identity of a particular UFO was of no further interest to the MoD. As one of the documents explains: “it is quite common for a sighting to remain unexplained but require no further official action”.

But those reports that could not be explained continued to add fuel to the arguments of the civilian UFO groups who believed in alien craft. A Daily Express opinion poll in 1954 found that 16.5 per cent of the British population believed in flying saucers. By 1998 an ICM poll for the Daily Mail found that this figure had risen to 29 per cent, while two per cent even claimed to have had direct experience of an alien visit. The MoD’s most recent UFO policy document, released under the FoIA [in 2005], is agnostic about extraterrestrial visitors. It says that, despite more than 10,000 reports, the ministry has never received any solid evidence, but adds: “[we] do not have any expertise or role in respect of UFO/flying saucer matters or to the question of the existence or otherwise of extraterrestrial life-forms, about which [we] remain totally open-minded”.

The British authorities did not undertake any formal study of UFOs (or flying saucers as they were widely known before 1950) until news of the many sightings in the USA filtered through to the British media. During the summer of that year newspapers serialised the first flying saucer books and a number of senior officials such as Lord Louis Mountbatten and the government’s scientific advisor, Sir Henry Tizard, put pressure on the authorities to study the phenomenon. The files reveal how the division of opinion between believers and sceptics in government was a reflection of the views held by Britain’s general public as a whole.

While Mountbatten believed the saucers were of extraterrestrial origin, others such as Air Marshal Tom Pike of Fighter Command, feared they could be spyplanes developed by the Russians. In turn, the MoD scientist Professor RV Jones declared that he would not believe in them until he was able to examine personally a captured flying saucer.

The fascination for seeing UFOs filtered through all levels of society at the height of the Cold War. Belief in a higher power benevolently watching over mankind provided reassurance for many people who were concerned about the possibility of nuclear confrontation between the superpowers. At the same time, invasions by extraterrestrial hordes were widely depicted in popular culture and in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), which reflected the anxieties of the Cold War. The UFO craze reached a peak in the summer of 1952 when reports of saucers tracked by radar and chased by jet fighters over Washington DC made headlines across the world.

Emma Mason - History Extra