By Nick Pope
The Ministry of Defence has released another batch of UFO files, as part of an ongoing three-year collaboration between the MoD and the National Archives. This latest release runs to over 5000 pages of documentation and includes sighting reports, correspondence from the public and papers discussing how to respond to questions about UFOs that were raised in Parliament.
The files cover the period 1995 to 2003, but it's a historical allegation about UFOs that has aroused most public interest. One of the files contains a letter from a scientist, whose grandfather served as one of Winston Churchill's bodyguards. He claimed that during the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill conspired with US general (later to become President) Dwight D. Eisenhower, to suppress the truth about a spectacular UFO sighting witnessed by the crew of an RAF aircraft returning from a mission. The UFO had, apparently, been capable of extraordinary speeds and manoeuvres and yet showed no hostile intent. It clearly wasn't some new German secret weapon. Churchill, apparently, feared the details would cause public panic and shatter people's religious faith. He ordered that the details should be classified.
Sceptics point out that the Churchill story is hearsay and sadly, most MoD UFO files dating prior to the Sixties were shredded many years ago, so we may never learn the truth. But there are some intriguing clues. We know from a previously-released document that Churchill was intrigued and concerned about UFOs. In a 1952 letter to the Secretary of State for Air, Churchill wrote "What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth?". Another document from this latest batch of files relates to a Joint Intelligence Committee meeting in 1957, where the subject of UFOs was discussed, with particular reference to some objects tracked on military radar. The events were unexplained and a report was delivered by the RAF's Head of Intelligence. So while we can't verify the story that Churchill ordered a UFO cover-up, we know that he and senior figures in the military and the intelligence community were actively discussing the mystery.
Churchill wasn't the only senior Establishment figure to be interested in UFOs. Many of the great figures of Churchill's generation were fascinated by the subject. The MoD's UFO project dates back to a study group (the marvellously named Flying Saucer Working Party) set up in 1951 by the great radar scientist Sir Henry Tizard. R V Jones, Director of Intelligence, wrote a book called Most Secret War, which devoted a chapter to UFOs. Earl Mountbatten of Burma believed UFOs were extraterrestrial, as did Lord Dowding, the wartime boss of Fighter Command. Air Marshal Sir Peter Horsley, former Deputy Commander-in-Chief at HQ Strike Command, undertook a low-key study into UFOs while working as a Royal equerry.
More recently, former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Hill-Norton was a passionate believer in UFOs. MPs such as Martin Redmond and Norman Baker - now a minister in the new Coalition government - have raised the subject in Parliament. And rumours persist that Prince Philip is interested in the subject and once subscribed - secretly - to a UFO magazine called Flying Saucer Review.
This latest file release is the sixth in an ongoing process of disclosure. Each time UFO files are released, there's massive media and public interest. When the first batch of UFO files was released in May 2008, two million people had accessed the material on the National Archives website within a couple of weeks. When the French government released their UFO files in 2007, the dedicated website they'd created crashed as a result of so many people trying to read the documents. Other countries such as Canada, Brazil, Italy, Spain and New Zealand are releasing their UFO files too. All these countries studied the phenomenon not because they necessarily believed in extraterrestrial visitation - though the possibility could not be ruled out - but because anything unknown flying in your airspace is potentially of defence interest.
Public interest in this subject is huge. Indeed, the main reason why the MoD decided to release these files was that the Department received more Freedom of Information Act requests about UFOs than on any other subject. Why should this be? Why the enduring fascination? I think it's because the UFO mystery relates to one of the biggest questions we can ask - are we alone in the Universe?
While public interest in UFOs is high and while MoD statistics show that UFO sightings have risen dramatically in recent years, the MoD axed their UFO project at the end of 2009, as part of a wider programme of cuts. So while the truth may indeed be out there, we're now slightly less likely to find it. Unless, as with the allegation about Churchill, MoD has decided that people can't handle the truth.
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