British Government UFO Files in the Public Record Office

Roger J. Morgan
Magonia 30, August 1988

This paper reports on an investigation into unidentified flying object files held in the Public Records Office. The Public Records Office (PRO) [Now called The National Archives, at Kew, South West London] is the official repository for the historical records of the British government. Each department has a departmental records officer who is in charge of its non-current files.

After (generally) 30 years from the date of closing of the file it is considered for permanent archiving. Any that pass this ‘weeding’ process are passed to the PRO and become available for public inspection. However, some files of a politically sensitive nature are closed for 50 or 75 years, and those relating to individuals for 100 years. The files of some departments, notably the Security and Secret Services, are closed indefinitely and never transferred to the PRO.

As far as f am aware this is the first time an attempt has been made to see if there are any files relating to UFOs in the PRO. The object was to attempt to clarify the deep seated mythology of ufology that there is an official UFO investigation department with extensive files, knowing ‘the truth’, and the corollary of this — that there is a ‘cover up’.

I have so far found four files, one opened Last year, and three this year – each after 30 years. They therefore cover the period up to 1958; what might be called the first ‘flying saucer’ phase of ufology.

The files reveal that there was a section of the Ministry of Defence concerned with receiving, recording and evaluating UFO reports. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, none of them are actually from this department and details of it can only be incidentally inferred.

File 1
PRO ref: AIR 20 7340
Department: Air Ministry Deputy Director of Operations (Air Defence)\58 [DDOps(AO)\58)
Covering: 11 December 1950 - 12 January 1954
Title: 'Unidentified Aircraft', amended to 'Unidentified Flying Objects'
Classification: SECRET

This is a mixed bag containing a 'light in the sky' report from a Group Captain Cartmel; a briefing for the Secretary of State on an obscurely worded Parliamentary Question which turned out to be about the preparedness for a 'Pearl Harbour' type attack on Scapa Flow; a 'dayalight disc' report from RAF Topcliffe; a query from a Middle East Air Force on how an interceptor should indicate to the interceptee that he should land; and an investigation of an unidentified radar track which entered and left UK airspace.

Cartmel's report was dealt with initially by Air Intelligence 3, who asked DDOps(AD) if they wished to investigate. They passed them to ASA(O) with the comment (1 January 1951 ): "I suppose reports of this sort might, if kept, one day be useful for analysis -- I can't think of any other use for this one." They were passed back with the comment: "Save papers for future reference." It is evident from this exchange that this is the first time the subject had been raised with a central department, no other department known to Air Ministry Intelligence was concerned, and that no great importance was attached to it.

The RAF Topcliffe report is of considerably higher quality. Several officers and men observed for twenty seconds at 7.10 pm on 19 September 1952, a Meteor fighter shadowed by a silver disc, which spun about a vertical axis, descended with a sycamore pendulum motion, and finally accelerated 'faster than a shooting star' in a curve.

Th is was evidently taken more seriously, as it was distributed to Air Intelligence 3(b) (Action); Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations) (Action); Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Intelligence); Chief of Air Staff; Secretary of State; DMO [?]; Ministry of Defence for DSI [?].

It was annotated by Ops(AD)1 to Ops (AO)2: “Ask Personal Assistant to open Folder ‘Unidentified Aircraft or Objects reported to the Air Ministry’ – Speak.”

Thus at this date there still was not any official collating or investigation of reports. The investigation of the unidentified radar track, requested by Fighter Command of DD[Ops(AD) with a copy to A13(e), was assumed to be a conventional aircraft, but is a precursor to some reports in the later files of radar tracks that could not have been known aircraft.

The last document on the file is a request from DDOps (AD)58 to Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Fighter Command that similar reports should be forwarded for investigation as soon as possible. As Fighter Command initiated the request it is clear that no service unit was involved in such research.

File 2
PRO ref: AIR 20 4994
Department: RAF Southern Sector Intelligence
Covering: 16 December 1953 to 9 December 1957
Opened: 14 May 1957
Title: Reports on Aerial Phenomena
Classification: SECRET

This is principally an account of two radar cases with an allied LITS [Light In The Sky] in the summer of 1957, during what appears to have been a general UFO ‘flap’. The originator is a service rather than a government department, Royal Air Force Southern Sector Headquarters, fifty feet underground in a Bathstone quarry at RAF Rudloe Manor, Box, Wiltshire. The documents are a collation of ones copied to them for information by the main protagonists, and therefore give a partial picture.

The first items, however, considerably predate the opening of the file, and must have been transferred from some earlier file. These are the standing instructions on reporting ‘Aerial Phenomena’, dated December 1953, and sent to all fighter airfields and radar stations in southern England.

In the case of visual phenomena, reports in writing were to be sent by officers commanding units to Deputy Director Intelligence (Technical) (DDI (Tech)] at the Air Ministry. Any reports received from the public should be acknowledged in writing and also forwarded to DDI(Tech). As the public attached more credence to RAF reports it was therefore essential that information be examined by the Air Ministry and its release be officially controlled. Any such information was therefore classified RESTRICTED and was not to be communicated to unauthorised persons.

Unusual radar targets, defined as those with a ground speed exceeding 700 knots at any height, and any speed above 60,000 feet, were to be notified to the supervisor who would check they were not spurious and record the strength and appearance of the echo throughout the contact, range and bearing of pickup and fade points, and, ground speed/track. These details were then to be transmitted through the normal channels as required by Fighter Command. These orders were recirculated three years later in December 1956, as recent reports showed some units were unaware of them

The majority of the remainder of the file consists of documentation of the events of 29 April and 29 July 1957. As these are somewhat disjointed, independently deriving from fighter units and radar stations, I reconstruct the events in a logical sequence.

On 29 April at 8 pm a Mr L. Humphries in Shanklin, Isle of Wight, accompanied by two other witnesses, saw a LITS to the south-east which he examined through 8x binoculars, which resolved a large and small object. They moved slowly against the star background, and at 8.07 he phoned Pilot Officer Coles, on duty at the long-range radar at Ventnor, Isle of Wight. Ventnor asked the radar station at Beachy Head if they could see anything and they reported two stationary targets that looked like ‘angels’ (a spurious atmospheric effect), and ten minutes later that one had faded.

However, at 9 pm the radar station at St Margarets reported two fast tracks over Somerset, which were acquired by Ventnor. [Notice that this is north-west from Shanklin, i.e. in the exactly opposite direction from Humphries' sighting.] The two tracks diverged, one travelling northeast, but Ventnor obtained a speed of 800 knots on the other which travelled southwest. The Ground Control Intercept radar at Hope Cove diverted one of two Javelins already in the air from RAF Odiham to intercept, range 12 miles. He was vectored on to the track from the ground, but the track reached the limit of Hope Cove’s range west of Land’s End, and the Javelin was called off.

At no time did he get a visual sighting, and his airborne interception radar picked nothing up either despite functioning perfectly at 14 miles range in the practice interceptions he had been engage in before being diverted. Ventnor lost the track at 9.10, when Mr Humphries at Shanklin reported by phone only one object visible, which was becoming difficult to distinguish due to its proximity to Jupiter. Reports were carried in six national papers the next day, when speeds of 1000 mph were quoted.

Subsequent investigation showed that the timing and tracks were consistent with two of a training flight of sixteen Hunters, the north-east track in fact landing at Horsham St Faith, Norwich. The speed was reassessed at 580 knots.

Five days later on 23 May, Odiham reported that two Hunters practising interceptions at 12.10 am over Hayling Island had seen a large white circular object with slightly curving tail hanging down which they at first thought was a parachute, but then realised was larger and further away due to the slow passing speed.

Three months later on 29 July at 4.16 pm, a different supervisor at Ventnor, Flying Officer Nassau, picked up a very fast track, 1000-1400 knots, over Belgium, which he designated an X-raid, i.e. hostile, as he had no record of similar friendly movements. He thought it might be spurious until he got a height fix of 42,000 feet [the planimetric position was given by a Type 80 radar and the height by a separate Type 13 radar]. Neither of the radar stations at Wartling or Sopley could see anything, and at 4.38 the track disappeared over Brighton, as it was too close (entered Ventnor’s PE’s). The Air Defence NC at Box suggested they might be Scimitars. At 4.28 a second echo appeared over Belgium with the same track and speed as the first.

Files 3, 4 and 5
PRO refs: AIR 20 4320, 9321 and 4322
Department: Air Ministry Secretariat 6
Covering: January 1955 to 15 May 1957
Title: Parliamentary Questions 193\57, 213\57 and 220\57
Opened: April 1957

These files document the background briefings for the Secretary of State when answering questions in the House.

Mr Stan Awbery asked on 17 April: “What Investigations of UFOs had been carried out, what photographs and reports were held?” Major Patrick Wall asked on 15 May: “How many UFOs had been detected this year as compared to previous years, and whether the object picked up over the Dover Straits on 29 April had yet been identified?”

Frank Beswick asked on 15 May: “What was the nature of the object on radar on Monday night which occasioned the dispatch of Fighter Command?”

The first question was triggered by the ‘West Freugh Incident’ of 4 April (see below). The second and third questions, triggered by the events in File 2, were combined.

Secretariat 6 liaised with DDI(Tech), who provided all the information for the briefings. They reported from their records as follows:
In 1955-6 they had received 64 reports of unusual aerial phenomena. These had been classified as 26 balloons, 16 meteors, 8 aircraft, 2 planets, 3 flares, 1 mock sun, 1 fireball [sic] and one contrail. The unexplained cases, which all occurred in 1956, were:
  • The navigator of a Vulcan obtained a radar contact for 1 minute 15 seconds with an invisible object.
  • On 19 March, Lakenheath radar detected a target moving at 2000-4000 knots which then stopped and hovered at a high altitude. A Venom was scrambled to intercept but saw nothing. It could have been inversion and reflection from the ionosphere (‘angels’ and ‘anaprop’ ).
  • RAF Wethersfield vectored two interceptors on to a radar target, and one obtained a brief visual contact. No other radars could see it.
  • A member of the Royal Observer Corps reported something with insufficient information to identify it as any particular thing.
  • A BSc reported an object at 12,000 feet which may have been a balloon.
  • A man saw a round object emitting rippling waves Like heat shimmer; it was not known what it might have been.
In 1957 up to April there had been 16 reports, classified as 1 radar fault, 2 aircraft navigation lights, 1 meteor, 2 flares, 1 private experiment and 3 newspaper reports (one, the Jersey UFO in the Daily Sketch of 6 April, had been admitted to be a fake).

The unexplained cases were:
  • The ‘West Freugh’ case, Wigtownshire. On 4 April a stationary target was observed by the Balscalloch radar to rise vertically from 50,000 to 70,000 feet in 10 minutes. The object was automatically plotted by two radars alternately as it moved off slowly to the north towards a second radar station 20 miles away. After travelling 20 miles it made a very sharp turn to the southeast and picked up speed to 240 mph at 50,000 feet. The second radar also picked up a target in the correct position, but this resolved itself into four objects at 14,000 feet travelling in line astern about 4,000 yards apart. When the single object passed beyond Balscalloch’s range they also could see these four. The echoes were much larger than normal aircraft, in fact nearer to those of ships. There were no known aircraft or balloons in the area (In any case they had made sharp turns against the wind), and a passing V-bomber had been correctly tracked at the same time.
  • On 26 March at RAF Church Lawford a target accelerated from rest to 1400 mph.
  • A report from Kent thought to have been a balloon.
  • A Glasgow boy of ten who observed an object at 10,000 feet travelling at 750 mph for 15 seconds.
  • A Coverack postman, Mr Eric Pengelly, who on 1 May saw a domed object like a sliced egg, which after 10 minutes rose at 45′ at an incredible speed.
The West Freugh incident had unfortunately fallen into the hands of the press, but the Lakenheath and Church Lawford reports had remained secret.

The events of 29 April were really two separate events which had become confused, of which only the second had come out. Initially amateur astronomers had reported two objects near the Isle of Wight which were picked up by Ventnor and were consistent with meteorological balloons. This made Ventnor alert for unusual phenomena, which is how they interpreted the two Hunters later in the evening.

DDI(Tech (Tech) Liaised with and obtained advice from the Royal Observatory, the Meteor Section of the British Astronomical Association, the Meteorological Office, London Airport, Bristol University (research balloons), the Navy and RAF (aircraft movements).

The suggested answer was: “Reports of UFOs are continually being received. Where there is sufficient information the majority of the reports can be explained as balloons and meteors; the rest lack sufficient information for any explanation.”

These files show that DDI(Tech ) had been receiving, collating and investigating fairly substantial numbers of UFO reports since 1955, with a wide circle of advising organisations. There are at least 10 original newspaper clippings in the files, so they were gathering press reports too.


So we see that there was no formal central collection of UFO reports before January 1951. DDOps(AD) opened such a file for record purposes in September 1952. Responsibility passed to DDI(Tech) in January 1953 who seem to have formalised the reporting system and started analysing reports from 1955.

Very few reports were regarded as unexplained, and of those the majority were unexplainable due to lack of data. There was a single impressive case, the radar sighting at West Freugh. Here five objects, either very large or with very high radar reflectance, were detected by three independent radars with hard copy output, and behaved in a manner inconsistent with any known object.
The report on the West Freugh incident contains as its conclusion the nearest we have so far got to an official recognition that UFOs exist as artifacts


It is evident that DD I(Tech) was the only unit working in this field; there was, for instance, no service research organisation. It is unfortunate that none of the files opened derive from DOI(Tech) itself.

It is evident that DDI(Tech), and DDOps (AD)\AI(3) before them, had no startling secret knowledge of the solution to the UFO enigma — as has been alleged in America regarding the Majestic papers on crashed saucer investigations, for example.

The UFO enigma was militarily assessed as a tactically non-threatening problem, and probably trivial. Military personnel were just as susceptible to ‘flaps’ and’ misperception as anyone else. The argument will no doubt be advanced that there was a super-secret UFO investigation department, and that either DDI(Tech) were unaware of it, or that they never existed and these files are a plant. The latter point is easily checked; one has only to find A. Giffen Peacock, a pleasingly distinctive name, who signed all their reports, and is listed in the Air Force List from January 1957 to April 1962.

Personally, I incline to the cock-up rather than the cover-up theory of government, and indeed the radar plots in the files have at least two major errors in them. It is not a nice thought that the air defence of the United Kingdom was in the hands of incompetents!

However, the report on the West Freugh incident contains as its conclusion the nearest we have so far got to an official recognition that UFOs exist as artifact's:

“It is concluded that the incident was due to the presence of five reflecting objects of unidentified type and origin. It is considered unlikely that they were conventional aircraft, meteorological balloons or charged clouds.

“DDI(Tech) 30 April 1957.”