Throwing Light on Rendlesham

Steuart Campbell
Magonia 21, December 1985.

Now that Colonel Halt’s tape recording of his nocturnal expedition has been released it is possible to make sense of what happened at Rendlesham just after Christmas 1980. The Halt memorandum claimed that, after seeing lights about 0300 UT on 27 December 1980 (lights which led them to believe that an aircraft had crashed), security patrolmen entered the forest outside the Woodbridge air base. There they saw a light which they considered to be a hovering craft.

The next day (27 or 28 Dec.?) some ground markings were noticed and measured. The next night (29 Dec., sic) Halt and others, while measuring radioactivity in the area, saw a ‘red sunlike light’ through the trees. It appeared to ‘throw off’ glowing particles and break up into five separate white objects. Later three ‘starlike’ objects were noticed in the sky at an altitute (elevation) of about 10°. Two objects were to the north and one was to the south. They all moved rapidly in sharp angular motions and displayed red, green and blue lights. All these objects remained in the sky for several hours.

Investigation has already indicated that Halt was in error about the date of the first sighting and subsequent daylight inspection. Police records show that the lights were reported at 0411 on 26 December, and that they were notified of the ground disturbance at 1030 that day. Then it was discovered that a brilliant fireball (meteor) was seen over much of southern England at 0250 UT that day (as recorded in the BAA [Meteor Section] Newsletter No. 4, Feb 1981). Evidently the light the patrolmen saw was the fireball.

It is well known that those who do not know the true nature of such fireballs assume them to be a smaller object falling in flames a short distance away. It must be evident that only the belief that an aircraft had crashed in the woods could have motivated the guards to seek permission to investigate. Once among the trees, where various navigation beacons can be seen, the patrolmen could, as Ridpath suggests, have mistaken one or more of these beacons for the object they sought (although it seems unlikely that they could have been fooled by the Orford Ness lighthouse, which was only 8.6 km. away, and 28m. above sea-level.

It’s coming this way. It is definitely coming this way! Pieces of it are shooting off. There is no doubt about it. This is weird!
The tape recording is a record of the taking of radiation readings and the sighting of various unidentified lights in the forest. It exhibits features which show it to be contemporaneous with the events described by Halt in him memorandum. From the times (all past midnight) it appears that the night in question was that of 28-29 December, although in view of Halt’s error in regard to the date of the first sighting little confidence can be placed in this dating. Of more importance is the fact that it gives more information on the lights observed, and especially on the diection of those lights. With Ian Ridpath’s permission, I quote the relevant extracts from his transcript of the recording:

Halt: 0148. We’re hearing very strange sounds out of the farmer’s barnyard animals. They’re very, very active; making an aweful lot of noise.

Halt: 04.00 hrs. One object still hovering over Woodbridge base at about 5 to 10 degrees off the horizon. Still moving erratic, and similar lights and beaming down as earlier.

Voice: … pigmentation.

Halt: You just saw a light [garbled]. Slow down. Where?

Voice: Right on this position. Here, straight ahead in between the trees – there it is again. Watch – straight ahead off my flashlight, sir. There it is.

Halt: I see it too. What it is?

Voices: We den’t know sir.

Halt: It’s a strange, small red light. Looks to be maybe a quarter to half mile [1 km], maybe further out. I’m gonna switch off. The light is gone now. It was approximately 120 degrees from our site. Is it back again?

Voice: Yes, sir.

Halt: Well douse flashlights then. Let’s go back to the edge of the clearing so we can get a better look at it. See if you can get the Starscope on it. The light’s still there and all the barnyard animals have gone quiet now. We’re heading about 110, 120 degrees from the site out through the clearing now…

Voice: There we go. About approximately four foot [1.2m] off the ground, about 110 degrees.

Voice: Yes sir, now it’s dying.

Halt: Now it’s dying. I think it’s something other than the ground. I think it’s something that’s … We’re about 150 or 200 yards [160m.] from the site… There is no doubt about it – there’s some type of flashing red light ahead.

Voice: Sir, it’s yellow.

Halt: I saw a yellow tinge in it too. Weird. It appears to be maybe moving a little bit this way? It’s brighter than it has been. It’s coming this way. It is definitely coming this way: Pieces of it are shooting off. There is no doubt about it. This is wierd:

Voice: Two lights: One light to the right and one light to the left!

Halt: Keep your flashlights off. There’s something very, very strange. Keep the headset on, see it is gets any … Pieces are falling off it again!

Voice: It just moved to the right.

Halt: Yeah.

Voice: Off to the right.

Halt: Strange: [? One again to the left ?] Let’s approach to the edge of the woods up there. You went to do without lights? Let’s do it carefully, come on. OK, we’re looking at the thing. We’re probably about two to three hundred yards [230m] away. It looks like an eye winking at you. Still moving from side to side. And when you put the Starscope on it, it’s like this thing has a hollow centre, a dark centre, like the pupil of an eye looking at you, winking. And it flashes so bright in the Starscope that it almost burns your eye… We’ve passed the farmer’s house and across into the next field and now we have multiple sightings of up to five lights with a similar shape and all but they seem to be steady now rather then a pulsating or glow with a red flash. We’ve just crossed a creek and we’re.. .seeing strange lights in the sky.

Halt: 2.44. We’re at the far side of the second farmer’s field, and made sighting again about 110 degrees. This looks like it’s clear off to the coast. It’s right on the horizon. Moves about a bit and fleshes from time to time. Still steady or red in colour.

Halt: 3.05. We see strange strobe-like flashes to the, er… well, they’re sporadic, but there’s definitely some kind of phenomenon.

Halt: 3.05. At about 10 degree (altitude], horizon, directly north, we’ve got two strange objects, er, half-moon shape, dancing about with coloured lights on ‘em. That, at, guess to be about 5 to 10 miles [8-16km.] out, maybe less. the half moons are now turning to full circles, as though there was an eclipse or something there, for a minute or two.

Halt: 3.15. Now we’ve got an object about 10 degrees [alt.] directly south, 10 degrees off the horizon. And the ones to the north are moving. One’s moving away from us.

Voice: It’s moving out fast.

Voice: This one on the right’s heading away too.

Halt: They’re both heading north. OK, here he comes from the south, he’s coming towards us now. Now we’re observing what appears to be a beam coming down to the ground. This is unreal.

Halt: 03.30, and the objects are still in the sky although the one to the south looks like it’s losing a little bit of altitude. We’re going around and heading back towards the base. The object to the south is still beaming down lights towards the ground.
Ridpath has concluded that the first light described in the recording (as well as in the memorandum) was that from the Orford Ness lighthouse, which flashes once every five seconds. However, that light lies on a bearing of 100 degrees magnetic, whereas Halt reported his first light between 110 and 120 degrees (at the time the magnetic deviation for SE England was 5 degrees W). Now there is a light source lying on a bearing of 115 degrees magnetic (110 true); it is the Shipwash lightship 18.2km. away (see diagram). Shipwash’s light, 12m. above the sea, gives three rapid pulses every 20 seconds. Apart from the colour (which was uncertain) all other features of the light are consistent with it being the lightship; it was on the correct bearing, on the horizon, intermittent and pulsing in a strobe-like fashion.

Discounting Ridpath’s claim that the light was the Orford Ness lighthouse, and noting that the lightship was also visible, Butler, Street and Randles (henceforth BSR) wondered why two UFOs had not been reported (Sky Crash p.177). Now we see that at one point two lights were seen, but that does not mean that the second light was from Orford Ness.

The recording indicates that the two lights were fairly close together and of similar intensity. Now it is just possible that this second light was from the Outer Gabbard lightship 44km away. It lies on a bearing of 105 degrees true, and has a light which pulses four times evry twenty seconds. Invisible to the naked eye, it may have been visible with a telescope of binoculars (we do not know what optical aids were available to Halt that night).

Thus there were two pulsating light sources lying within 5 degrees of each other in the direction in which Halt and his men were looking. No prominent astronomical objects lay near the horizon between azimuths 95-110 degrees at that time, although cloud permitting Jupiter and Saturn (in close conjunction) and the Moon were above the horizon in the SE. In fact the bright Moon would have made it difficult to see the planets.

We can identify the other lights seen by Halt as follows. The two ‘strange’ objects seen at, 0305 UT directly north were probably the bright stars Deneb and Vega, both of which lay near the horizon to the NNE. The southern object appears to have been the star Sirius, although it was actually setting in the SW. Halt evidently did not refer to his compass for these sightings. Bright stars seen near the horizon do appear to jump about (due to atmospheric turbulence) and they will display spectral colours (due to refraction). Since the northern stars were rising their shape could have appeared to change from an elipse to a circle, and they would appear to recede as refraction declined. As it set, Sirius would begin to exhibit strange effects and appear to approach.

If, on the night of 28/29 December, Halt and his companions thought that there was something odd and mysterious about two lightships and three stars, then we may conclude that there was no more unusual explanation for the earlier report.
Convinced that something had crashed into the forest, the patrolmen were prone to misinterpret conventional stimuli. Since they reported the object to have red and blue lights it seems likely that it was the star Spica, then low on the eastern horizon. Further reports can have been a result of one or both of the explanations. Considering that groups of servicemen were prowling around in the forest, it is not at all surprising that the nearby farm animals were disturbed.

Furthermore, it seems likely that the lights which were seen in the forest were those used by Halt and his men. Lights reported above the forest can have been Jupiter and Saturn seen before the Moon rose. Ridpath has already shown that the radioactivity readings were normal, and a simple explanation is available for all the other circumstantial evidence collected by BSR. To those who are convinced that a spacecraft has landed innocent data becomes sinister evidence.

Since Halt could not identify the lights he and his men saw, and since he invested them with mysterious qualities, it was inevitable that rumours about the objects would begin to circulate on the Woodbridge base. Because everyone has heard about UFOs and knows the usual components of the myth, it was inevitable that some personnel would exaggerate the rumours until they became stories of an alien landing. Without a clear and authoratative explanation such rumours are difficult to stop, and it would have been especially difficult to prevent them reaching a local UFO buff.

This process seems to have been assisted by some personnel who deliberately leaked the rumours either as a joke or because they really believed them. Even Halt appears to have embroidered his account to Butler and Street. Furthermore, the rumours seem to have unbalanced at least one serviceman. If, as has been alleged, drug abuse is extensive amongst USAF personnal, it is not surprising that they had difficulty in separating fact from fiction. Obsessive official secrecy (or lack of frankness) made matters worse; it appeared that the military had a lot to hide when all they had to hide was their own ignorance!

The ‘investigation’ by BSR has consisted of little more than the collection of rumours and reports from people who had some connection with the ‘Woodbridge base or who lived in the area. It is clear that many of these reports have been supplied only because BSR demanded them! That Halt’s own son considered inventing an account for profit suggests that others may have done so for excitment or to impress. Butler acid Street repeatedly pestered people v ho denied seeing anything, and they seem to be unconscious of the extent to which they themselves can have generated many of the stories.

While Butler and Street were naive and inexperienced, BUFORA’s Director of Investigations should have been able to reach the right conclusions. However, her subjective approach to UFO reports has led her astray. Even now she thinks that the Halt tape is faked, as if the USAF would deliberately exhibit the incompetence of it personnel: Her readiness to co-author a sensationalist book about the case brings her judgement into question.

The RAF commander at Bentwaters air base gave a good summary of the case. ‘Two totally unscientific investigators’ had blown up the affair out of all proportion and had caused him and the base no end of trouble. Colonel Halt had seen a few lights which had now been explained (as the lighthouse). One of the airmen involved, who had been ‘blabbering away’, had been sent home, since when he had been telling ‘ridiculous stories’ (Sky Crash, p258).

BSR would have us believe that something like the story of the film Close Encounters came true in Rendlesham Forest. The truth is that, due to their ignorance of both natural and man-made phenomena, some USAF personnel started a rumour which BSR have, equally ignorantly, broadcast. It is a study in incompetence, and demonstrates the uselessness of credulous investigators.

[Editor's postscript: Speaking at a BUFORA lecture on November 9th, 1985, Jenny Randles stated that she no longer considers the Rendlesham events to have any ufological or extraterrestrial significance, but may be part of a military/security 'cover-up'. This opinion is shared by one of her co-authors, but not by the other, who still favours an extraterrestrial explanation.]