The Ministry of Defence has always denied involvement in any official study of the UFO phenomenon. But files recently discovered in Government archives reveal how in 1950 the MoD set up a secret committee of scientists and intelligence experts to investigate sightings of ‘flying saucers’. The report they produced for Winston Churchill’s Government remained secret for 50 years.
During research for our book Out of the Shadows in 2001 copies of the report produced by the Flying Saucer Working Party in 1951 were discovered in a file labeled “Scientific Intelligence” in the MoD archive.
At the height of the Cold War sightings of ‘flying saucers’ made newspaper headlines every day on both sides of the Atlantic. The now defunct London Sunday Dispatch even described the subject as “bigger than the Atom Bomb Wars.” By the summer of 1950 with war in Korea and the successful testing of the first Russian atomic bomb adding to growing international tensions, the Western powers were growing increasingly worried by the ‘flying saucer’ mystery.
Across the world, nervous fingers hovered above the buttons that could trigger a devastating nuclear exchange. Those entrusted with weapons of mass destruction had only seconds to decide if an unidentified ‘blip’ tracked by radar was a Russian bomber, guided missile, or simply a “phantom.” Whether they existed or not UFOs, quite clearly, had the potential to trigger a Third World War.
Solving the UFO problem became a priority for the top brains in the American CIA and their British counterpart, the MoD’s Directorate of Scientific Intelligence (DSI). It was the Defence Intelligence staff that were responsible for assessing any threat posed by UFOs. The DSI advised the Joint Intelligence Committee who ultimately answered to the Prime Minister. Throughout the 1950s the Ministry of Defence tried to calm public fears by debunking ‘flying saucer’ sightings as meteorites or weather balloons, but behind closed doors they had already launched their own secret study, drawing upon the expertise of the greatest scientific and military minds of the day.
Minutes of the DSI/JTIC meetings we discovered at The National Archives (TNA) reveal how a team dedicated to the study of flying saucers was established in August 1950 working closely alongside the CIA who were involved in their own secret study. The very existence of any “official” study of UFOs had been long denied by the MOD. Even when the minutes of this non-existent committee came to light in 1999, the report it produced could not be found. The document, we were repeatedly assured, was “absent” from the catalogue at the Public Record Office (now the TNA). Staff concluded it “had not survived the passage of time.” The report constitutes the “Holy Grail” to those who have always believed that the Ministry of Defence were involved in a cover-up of UFO evidence. It is also an important jigsaw puzzle piece in the history of the Cold War.
The papers reveal that the “Flying Saucer” study was the brainchild of one of Churchill’s most trusted scientific advisors, Sir Henry Tizard, best known for his role in the development of Britain’s pre-World War Two radar defences that proved so decisive during the Battle of Britain. Tizard felt the saucer sightings could not be simply dismissed as delusions, and demanded an investigation of the subject following a pro-saucer newspaper campaign backed by one of the most respected figures of the day, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten and a number of other highly placed officials - including Battle of Britain mastermind Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding - had privately concluded that flying saucers were advanced craft from outer space.
The Flying Saucer Working Party had five members, representing the elite Technical Intelligence branches of the Air Ministry, Admiralty, War Office and Ministry of Defence. It held its first meeting in October of 1950 in a room at the former Hotel Metropole in Northumberland Avenue, just yards away from Trafalgar Square. As a result, personnel serving with the RAF and Royal Navy were asked to submit sighting reports for investigation.
After eight months of sifting through hundreds of X-Files from as far afield as New Zealand, the committee concluded that only three originated from trustworthy sources and were worthy further study. In June 1950 a pilot on patrol from RAF Tangmere in Sussex sighted a “bright circular metallic object” which sped past his Meteor jet fighter at 20,000 feet. As he was undergoing a debriefing by squadron intelligence it emerged that four RAF controllers at an air defence radar station near Eastbourne had, at the same time, tracked an “unusual response” that vanished from their screens, moving at terrific speed.
The two remaining “reliable” reports both came from an experienced test pilot, who retired from the RAF as a Wing Commander. One morning in August 1950 he spotted a flat disc-shaped object resembling a shirt button, light pearl grey in colour, spinning through a series of S-turns at speeds of up to 1,000 miles per hour above the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Two weeks later the same test pilot, along with five other senior RAF officers, saw another disc-shaped object appear low in the sky in the direction of Guildford and Farnham. The group watched in amazement as the saucer performed a series of amazing high speed manoeuvres, stopping to perform a bizarre “falling leaf” motion before diving towards the horizon. All six were interrogated by MOD team and warned not to discuss what they had seen in public.
Despite the experience and calibre of the RAF witnesses, the Flying Saucer Working Party concluded that the test pilot’s first sighting was the result of an optical illusion. It was “impossible to believe”, they said, that an unconventional object could have flown at high speed and low altitude over a densely-populated area on a fine summer morning without anyone else having reported it. The five additional witnesses to the second sighting, they concluded, had already been influenced by the first report when they saw their saucer. This was probably a normal aircraft and only appeared unusual because it had been spotted “manoeuvring at extreme visual range.”
When the Working Party produced their final report to the Directorate of Scientific Intelligence in June 1951, a special guest at the meeting was the CIA’s chief scientist, H. Marshall Chadwell. Dr Chadwell was responsible for the US Government's policy of debunking saucer reports in an effort to remove the threat that belief in UFOs was seen to pose at the height of the Cold War stand-off. It was the CIA’s plan to strip the subject of its “privileged position” in the media by an “education programme,“ and the British were soon to become willing partners in this scheme.
The Flying Saucer Working Party's conclusions were set out in a six-page document, DSI/JTIC Report No 7, stamped with the security grade “SECRET.” Its title, “Unidentified Flying Objects” reflected American influence (the acronym UFO was coined by the USAF in 1950-51) as did its recommendations - debunk sightings and impose a tight security clampdown to ensure none of the more puzzling cases reached the public. This was the birth of belief in a Government conspiracy to hide “the truth” about UFOs from the public - that was to become a staple part of the X-Files mythology.
UFO believers have claimed that the cover-up of UFO data was imposed to hide the fact that the American and British Governments possessed hard, conclusive evidence of ET-piloted craft. Some of the more wild rumours suggested the Americans had captured a saucer that crashed in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The Flying Saucer Working Party report lays that myth to rest. It reveals how British Intelligence was informed by a member of the USAF investigation team that “the…sensational report of the discovery of a crashed 'flying saucer' full of the remains of very small beings, was ultimately admitted by its author to have been a complete fabrication.”
If the Americans did recover a crashed UFO at Roswell, then clearly even their closest allies did not have sufficient “need to know.” Furthermore, the British shared the American view that 'peaks' in UFO sightings closely followed periods of media publicity "indicating the extent to which sightings may be psychological in origin" or were the product of Cold War fears.
As for the possibility of Extraterrestrial visitors, the study was not optimistic. “When the only material available is a mass of purely subjective evidence,” the report concluded, “it is impossible to give anything like scientific proof that the phenomena observed are, or are not, caused by something entirely novel, such as aircraft of extraterrestrial origin, developed by beings unknown to us on lines more advanced than anything we have thought of.”
Rather than add weight to popular claims that UFOs were visitors from alien civilisations, the experts said they were satisfied that the vast bulk of reports could be accounted for “much more simply” as known astronomical or meteorological phenomena, mistaken identifications of aircraft, balloons, birds and other natural objects, optical and psychological delusions and deliberate hoaxes.
The report maintained that the only effective way to settle the question of UFO reality for good would be to “organise throughout the country, or the world, continuous observation of the skies by a co-ordinated network of visual observers, equipped with photographic apparatus and supplemented by a network of radar stations and sound locators.” Such a project, it concluded, would be an expensive and “singularly profitless enterprise.” The scathing conclusions continued in the committee's recommendations to the Chiefs of Staff:
The answer when it came, was not unexpected. Churchill was assured there was nothing to be concerned about. Reports of UFOs and flying saucers, the Air Ministry said, were subject of a full Intelligence study in 1951. This had concluded that all the incidents could be accounted for by mistaken identity, delusions and hoaxes. The Americans had reached a similar conclusion and nothing had happened since then to make them change their mind. Churchill's official Scientific Advisor Lord Cherwell, who was a great rival of Sir Henry Tizard, whose brainchild the Flying Saucer study had been, said he had seen the Secretary of State's minute and “agreed entirely with his conclusions.”
Less than a month after Cherwell’s kiss of death was administered, UFOs staged a dramatic appearance during one of Template:NATO's largest peacetime exercises, Mainbrace, staged to simulate a Soviet attack on Western Europe. Once again flying saucers were reported by both RAF and Royal Navy personnel, triggering off another wave of newspaper headlines and demands for a Government inquiry.
This time, the kid gloves were off. Orders were sent to all RAF stations invoking the considerable powers available under the Official Secrets Act to forbid service personnel from discussing UFO sightings with members of the public or the Press. “The public attach more credence to reports by Royal Air Force personnel than to those by members of the public,” read the order. “All reports are therefore to be classified confidential and personnel are warned that they are not to communicate to anyone other than official persons any information about phenomena they have observed.” The classification of restricted was upgraded to confidential in 1956 and the curtain of secrecy remained firmly in place until the end of the Cold War.