A Majestical Mystery Tour

Ralph Noyes
Magonia, No. 29, April 1988

Timothy Good has done us a public service in giving us facsimile reproduction of that great wealth of documents in the Appendix to Above Top Secret. Lazy and reclusive ufologists, of whom I am one, can now study at a little closer to first hand some of the famous and infamous bits of paper which have enriched or littered ufology in the past four decades but which many of us only know by repute or selective quotation.

He has exposed his evidence, and this is the scientific way of carrying on. He must expect, and will doubtless welcome, the kind of critical challenge on provenance and authenticity presented by Dennis Stacy; (1) and he will certainly have foreseen some vigorous polemics about whether his evidence is not only accurate but also sustains his preferred hypothesis of extraterrestrial visitation.

Anyway, we now have a number of documents before us. And not only the Majestic two which Good gives us (pp. 541-547 of ATS) and the Majestic third, the “Cutler memorandum” of 13 July 1954 (3) reportedly picked up by happenstance in the US National Archives in 1987, but also a wealth of other papers. If Majestic, mirabile dictu, becomes the miracle of a public acknowledgement of the ETH by the only source which could now satisfy us, the President of the United States or officials speaking with his authority, our perplexities of the past forty years will be at an end (together with the productive occupation of many ingenious minds we value). But if – as I feel convinced, for the reasons given below – the Majestic papers merely take their place among such kindred as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or maintain a tenuous repute (like so much else in ufology) as objects of uncertain identity but doubtful interest, Timothy Good will still have left us with many other papers of great significance and almost certain authenticity.

I can vouch for one of them myself – a signal sent on 19 September 1952 to a NATO Command (and repeated to the then Air Ministry) about a minor and not particularly dramatic sighting of what came to be known to ufologists as a “daylight disc” (p. 446 of Above Top Secret, henceforth 'ATS')). I received a copy of this signal as the Private Secretary to the Vice Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane, and I recall my own embarrassed unease, widely shared by the Operations Staff, that “our own people” had begun to fall for “that saucer nonsense”. The document carries an interesting manuscript addition to which I wish to refer later; the laconic note to his staff by the Wing Commander in charge of Ops (Air Defence) 1.

I mention this minor piece of paper, partly for the implication I wish to draw from it below, but mainly by way of presenting my credentials for the sceptical view I take of the Majestic documents. I have no access to onion skins, faded blue carbons or Remington-Rands of the appropriate vintage; and I must leave it to others to analyse security markings, peculiarities of text and the office practices of Washington bureaux (all of which seem to me to be eminently sensible lines of enquiry, long familiar to research historians and investigative journalists). My only claim – though I do not think it is negligible – is that between 1950 and 1952 I served as the eyes and ears of a senior officer, the Vice Chief of the Air Staff, who above all (and second only to the Chief of the Air Staff) had prime responsibility for RAF operations, including air defence,and a major say in the conduct of scientific research in these matters and the intelligence assessment of enemy capabilities.
No telephone call, no 'scrambler' message,
no letter, report, loose minute, signal or other paper,
and no visitor, entered or left Sir Ralph Cochrane’s
office without my knowledge

The job of private secretary to a senior member of a government department was, and I imagine still is, given to “cadet” entrants to the Civil Service who are expected to reach higher office themselves in due time. It gives them early familiarity with the conduct of major business at a stage at which they are still learning their trade. The job cannot be done (and the young man or woman would rapidly be posted elsewhere if he/she didn’t act accordingly) without access to, and intimate daily knowledge of, the entire range of the business of the office. No telephone call, no “scrambler” message, no letter, report, loose minute, signal or other paper, and no visitor, entered or left Sir Ralph Cochrane’s office without my knowledge. I kept the records of most of his meetings with staff and colleagues, and I drafted for him, under his direction, all of the papers which he took the responsibility of issuing within the Air Ministry or outside it. I therefore feel confident in making the following assertions, all of which derive from this hectic and exciting period of my Civil Service career.

1. In the 1950s (though I suspect that this may now be less true following our security hiccups of recent years) our links with the Americans were uniquely close among other European allies – in the sharing of military intelligence, the assessment of enemy capabilities, technical research and development, joint planning and the granting of facilities in British territory to an extent and in a manner which was unique in NATO (to the point, indeed, of somewhat disturbing unduly chauvinistic members of the House of Commons).

Cochrane, in particular, kept up a close relationship, official and personal, with two key figures in the American military who are now said to have been members of the MJ-12 group: general Hoyt Vandenberg and General Nat Twining (pp. 252 and 542 of ATS). He frequently transacted business with both of them during visits to the United States, setting in train major bits of Air Staff planning and liaison on his return. I find it inconceivable that he would not have been told – at the very least by a wink and a nod from Vandenberg or Twining or, far more probably, by the offer of some, albeit token, British association with MJ-12 – of the extraordinary event of a captured piece of extraterrestrial hardware, with all its potential implications for defence.

2. I am equally clear that I could not have failed, as Cochrane’s PS, to get some whiff of the thing myself. It is conceivable that I might, for once, have been excluded from the details of a matter of such extreme sensitivity and importance, but I could not have failed to be aware (because I would have had to make the arrangements) of the urgent briefing meetings which Cochrane would certainly have sought with the Chief of the Air Staff and the Secretary of State for Air (not to mention the Prime Minister); the urgent instructions which Cochrane would have had to issue to senior members of the Air Staff; and the setting-up of at least some small study group. there was nothing of this sort at any time.

3. Cochrane was in fact impatient and sceptical about 'saucers'. I believe that before my period of service with him (i.e. before late 1950) he had, like many others (the United States Air Force, the FBI, the CIA) considered the possibility that the 'discs' were a piece of enemy hardware. By the time I knew him he had dismissed this hypothesis. And, like Vandenberg, he had no patience at all for the theory of extraterrestrial visitation.

4. I only once saw him disturbed by the 'saucer question'. the Washington flaps of July 1952 interested him greatly, as they interested many of us at the time, including the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Cochrane put some enquiries in hand through the Chief Scientist to the Air Ministry, Robert Cockburn, who in turn, I think, discussed the matter with the Government Chief Scientist, Lord Cherwell. The only comment which ever came back to Cochrane, following enquiries in the US, referred to “American public hysteria”.

5. My argument, in short, is that anything so sensational and Defence-laden as a Presidentially approved study of a crashed extraterrestrial vehicle, conducted by a group which included two very close military colleagues of Cochrane’s, Vandenberg and Twining, would have become known to him in the then state of Anglo-American relations. But we got no whiff . . . And I think this is strong evidence against the existence of any Majestic group in the United States with the terms of reference indicated on p. 542 of ATS.

6. It is some collateral for this view that the Air Staff, in 1950 to 1952, were taking only the most perfunctory (and embarrassed) cognisance of “saucer stories”. The signal of 19 September 1952 which I have already mentioned carries the casual instruction from the Wing Commander in charge of Ops (AD) 1: “Ask PA [viz. my Personal Assistant, a clerk] to open Folder . . .” Clearly no folder, still less an official file, had yet been opened by the Operations staff on flying saucers. Whether or not this was a dereliction of duty I leave to others.

It is no rejoinder to these points to say, as I have sometimes heard ETH enthusiasts declare, that perhaps some tiny, 'inner', amazingly secret group of illuminati were conducting their own research into UFOs within government circles but without telling Ministers or senior military officers. Perhaps there was such a group. Perhaps there still is (though one would like to know how it gets its funding, by what secret handshake it keeps in touch, and what it expects to achieve in the absence of any attachment to the government machine).

But this is not the point. the argument about Majestic is an argument not about some arcane back-room group of dedicated boffins who are bearing, in lonely isolation, their terrifying knowledge of extraterrestrial intervention in human affairs, but about the existence of a very senior governmental committee enquiring, with Presidential approval, into crashed hardware and biological remains of a tangible and sensational character. It is this which I am taking leave to doubt.

After I left the VCAS’s office my career brought me in touch from time to time with the UFO question. There is little to add to the information which I have already given to Timothy Good, and which he records in ATS. Nor is this the right place in which to defend (if that is the right word) the relative lack of excitement in the MOD during the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s (up to my own retirement in 1977) about a range of phenomena which has often greatly over-excited others.

I think there are good reasons for this neglect and I believe they tell us something about the real nature of the phenomenon itself. At a convenient moment I shall be glad to deploy my reasoning in full. In the meantime, if any defence is needed of the past inaction” of the Ministry of Defence, I believe that even Lord Hill-Norton, Chief of the Defence Staff in the early 1970s, would be the first to agree that he stands in the same white sheet as the others who were serving at that time.

After so much scepticism I owe myself and Magonia at least the frisson of some tentative belief. I would not be troubling to cast my pennyworth of doubt into the current debate about the Majestic papers, if I did not believe that the UFO phenomenon, that unassailable residue of human experience, contained something both real and potentially important. here are some “pointers”.
I was sometimes, myself, driven to polite evasion
in responding to members of the public who were offering us
exclusive rights in perpetual-motion devices for the
propulsion of aircraft or in lighter-than-air materials
which could be expected to repel gravity

I am convinced that there is a degree of official “flannel” in the responses which the MOD gives to enquiries from the public. This may be no more than a weary self-defence against what is possibly seen as eccentricity on the part of persistent enquirers. (I was sometimes, myself, driven to polite evasion – in responding, for example, to members of the public who were offering us exclusive rights in perpetual-motion devices for the propulsion of aircraft or in lighter-than-air materials which could be expected to repel gravity.) But I think I detect something more. Some of the evidence for this view is given on pp. 86 and 87 or ATS and in the Afterword to a piece of fiction which I published in 1985. (4) It looks to me as though THEY are hiding something – though it may be no more than bewilderment. This should encourage the bewildered rest of us.

I am also quite prepared to believe, with the editors of Quest, that some sightings of strange objects are the outcome of Defence activities themselves – perhaps of an even weirder character than the fertile Quest imagination supposes.

But none of this gives any support to the ETH or to MJ-12. Quite the contrary. If governments really had tangible evidence of extraterrestrial visitation, dating from 40 years ago, officials would hardly be wasting their time in questioning members of the public about whether an unidentified sighting had occurred in the vicinity of “telephone or high-voltage lines; reservoir, lake or dam; swamp or marsh; river; high buildings, tall chimneys . . . airfields . . . generating plant”, etc., etc. (p. 454 of ATS)

But the “UFO phenomenon” does not stand or fall with the ETH. Nor should ufology cease if the MJ-12 papers turn out to be a chimera. We shall be left with a very persistent range of strange occurrences which even the MOD now shows signs of uneasily recognising. And, thanks to Timothy Good, we now have the facsimiles of a number of interesting documents, some of which have a look of authenticity, and a few of which suggest different interpretations from those we have become accustomed to.

For example, a careful reading of that remarkable Canadian memorandum prepared in November 1950 by Wilbert Smith (pp. 460-462 of ATS) does not suggest to me that it provides any evidence at all for the existence of crashed saucers. What it does do is to give further support to the evidence provided by Good and others for keen American interest in, and alarm about, the saucer scare of that era. And it contains one sentence of great interest: ” . . . the United States authorities are investigating along quite a number of lines which might possibly be related to the saucers such as mental phenomena . . . “

The implications are worth considering. “Quite a number of lines” suggests a baffled look at several guesses about the nature of a disturbing phenomenon; it does not suggest an enquiry into the known fact of a crashed vehicle. And “mental phenomena” twangs at least a nerve or two of my own with the intimation that some Americans had already, by 1950, detected a weirdness in UFO events which was unlikely to yield to treatment by the established physical sciences.

It is along that path that I suspect we should now be treading, rather than in pursuit of anything so down-to-earth as a grounded saucer. As Marcellus says of Horatio’s somewhat heavy-handed approach to the ghost of Hamlet’s father: “We do it wrong, being so majestical”. (5)

  1. Magonia, 28, 10-12
  2. Berry Adrian. The Spectator, 1 August 1987
  3. Stacy and others give the date of this memorandum as 14 July 1954. The facsimile reproduced in Quest, Vol. 7, No. 4, shows 13 July 1954
  4. Noyes, Ralph. A Secret Property, Quartet Books, 1985
  5. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1, line 145

Ralph Noyes spent most of his childhood in the West Indies. He served in the RAF from 1940 to 1946 and engaged in active service in North Africa and the Far East. He entered the civil service in 1949 and served in the Air Ministry and subsequently the unified Ministry of Defense, and headed the department of the British Ministry of Defence dealing with UFO reports until 1972.

During his 28 years in the MoD he encountered several puzzling reports, particularly those from military establishments, which indicated high strangeness, but while he and his colleagues had little doubt something had taken place for which they had no explanation, such as the Bentwaters-Lakenheath radar visual case in 1956, they did not thought that extraterrestrials might be a cause, as they “suspected Russians, faulty radar, hallucinogens…” and ended trying to ignore the problem, as it was a ridiculed topic.

After leaving the MoD in 1977, he became more seriously interested in UFO matters, and among other cases, he investigated the Rendlesham Forest incident and criticized his Government for trying to keep secrecy on UFOs. He then became an active UFO investigator and consultant for the British UFO Research Association.