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UFOs in History: 1916 Incident

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BerichtGeplaatst: 30 Jan 2011 17:03    Onderwerp: UFOs in History: 1916 Incident Reageer met quote

Dr David Clarke (2004)

Reports of unidentified flying objects by the crews of military aircraft form some of the most challenging evidence for the existence of ‘exotic’ aerial phenomena. Strange flying objects have been frequently reported by pilots since the time of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting which ushered in the ‘flying saucer’ craze of 1947. A lesser known fact is that long before Arnold's sighting made world headlines, British naval and air force pilots were reporting ‘close encounters’ with strange flying objects to intelligence officers at flight de-briefings.

Reports by bomber crews of strange lights and rockets over the European and Pacific during the 1939-45 conflict, dubbed ‘Foo-fighters’ by the Americans, formed part of the testimony considered by the early US and British inquiries into saucer phenomena. The Foo-fighter mystery of WW2 is usually the starting point for discussions of UFO reports from military sources. However, it is a little known fact that similar reports of aerial phenomena, which today would be called ‘unidentified flying objects,’ were also made by pioneer fighter pilots of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) during the First World War. One of these appears to be the very first encounter reported by a military pilot with an unidentified flying object.

From the commencement of hostilities in 1914 the British War Office and the newly-formed Home division of the Secret Service Bureau - which became known as MI5 in 1916 - began to receive many reports of enemy aircraft and moving lights above the British coastline. The possibility that German spies were using sophisticated signal lights to communicate with the crews of Zeppelin airships was a very real possibility at this period of great tension and fear. As a result, when real air-raids against Britain led by squadrons of German airships began in 1915 the British Government decided to crack down upon what it called the “false reports” of phantom airships and signallers.

One year later, GHQ issued a secret Intelligence Circular which concluded there was “no evidence on which to base a suspicion that this class of enemy activity ever existed.” It said an investigation by Intelligence officers had satisfactorily explained 89 percent of the reports received and the authors attacked “the groundless rumours regarding the presence of hostile airships over Great Britain which of late have become very frequent.” In addition, the Military Authorities decided to impose severe penalties upon what it called “irresponsible persons” who were originating and circulating such stories. They would be dealt with, it threatened, “under the Defence of the Realm regulations” which included imprisonment.

Within months of the secret report's completion, ‘phantom’ aircraft were reported by the Britain’s own pioneer fighter pilots who were attempting to defend a vulnerable London from night-time raids by the dreaded Zeppelins. Early in 1916 a mysterious light in the sky was spotted and chased by a pilot of the Royal Flying Corps on patrol above the capital. On the night of January 31 the crews of nine Zeppelins of the German Navy left their sheds on the Continent with orders from their commanding officer, Peter Strasser, to “attack England middle and south.”

With their giant hydrogen-filled envelopes weighted down with explosives and incendiary bombs, the squadron of aerial monsters crossed the North Sea with plans to attack industrial targets in England. These included the important steelworks in Sheffield and Liverpool docks. However, the plan was thrown into chaos by atrocious weather conditions of freezing rain, snow and thick ground mist which shielded much of the countryside from the air and made accurate navigation impossible. Amidst much confusion secondary targets in the North and the Midlands were bombed including Birmingham, Burton-on-Trent and Scunthorpe, leaving 71 people dead and 113 injured.

Despite the confusion, the War Office was able to plot the precise course of all nine raiding airships and it has been established that none of the enemy ventured further south than the Norfolk Broads. Because intially at least one of the raiding Zeppelins turned south after crossing the East Anglian coastline, the War Office calculated that if the course was held they would be over London at 8.10 p.m. Orders to this effect were sent to the fighter aerodromes defending the capital, one of these being Hainault Farm, four miles north of Romford in Essex.

At 7.40pm Lieutenant R.S. Maxwell arose from Hainault Farm aerodrome in his BE2C fighter but saw nothing unusual until 8.25 when according to his report:

“.my engine was missing irregularly and it was only by keeping the speed of the machine down to 50 mph that I was able to stay at 10,000 feet. It was at this time when I distinctly saw an artificial light to the north of me, and at about the same height. I followed this light northeast for nearly 20 minutes, but it seemed to go slightly higher and just as quickly as myself, and eventually I lost it completely in the clouds.”

At around the same time Claude Ridley, the pilot of a second BE fighter, reported seeing what he called “a moving light” in the sky over London which he followed and lost in dense cloud. It is a possibility that both Maxwell and Ridley had caught a fleeting glimpse of each other’s biplanes, but it was impossible for them to confirm visual contact without radio sets. During the air-raid 16 British pilots took off in a desperate bid to engage the high-flying Zeppelins, but according to the surviving records not one succeeded in engaging the enemy. At this stage in the air war, few people outside the embryonic army and navy flying corps - which merged to create the RAF in 1918 - had any real idea of the problems involved in night-time interceptions, with take offs and landings being particularly hazardous procedures. Two of the RFC’s most experienced pilots lost their lives during the course of the night, when the flimsy aircraft collided with fog-shrouded trees during their attempts to become airborne.

Confusion, inexperience and bad weather may well account for Maxwell’s sighting. But what happened next, just 20 minutes later, makes an altogether different - and far stranger - interpretation of that night’s events a distinct possibility.

Some 20 miles east of Hainault Farm was another of London’s fighter aerodromes at Rochford in Essex. It was from here at 8.45pm that Flight Sub-Lieutenant J.E. Morgan arose for an anti-Zeppelin patrol in his BE2C fighter. Morgan, in an official report to the Admiralty, said that when he reached 5,000 feet he saw a little above his own altitude and slightly ahead to his right, about 100 feet away from his plane,“a row of what appeared to be lighted windows which looked something like a railway carriage with the blinds drawn.”

Believing that he had flown directly into the path of a hostile Zeppelin preparing an attack upon Central London, Morgan drew his Webley Scott service pistol, aimed and fired several times in the direction of the “railway carriage.” Immediately, “the lights alongside rose rapidly” and disappeared into the inky blackness, so rapidly in fact that Morgan believed his own aircraft had gone into a dive. By now Morgan had completely lost his bearings, and after a lengthy battle to bring his aircraft under control he was forced to make a crash landing on the Thameshaven Marshes.

A full account of Morgan's sighting, dubbed “an encounter with a phantom airship” appears in Captain Joseph Morris’s official history of the German air raids, The War in the Air, published in 1925. The book was compiled from then classified records, and Morris refers directly to the airman’s report filed with the War Office. Extensive searches of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service records at the Public Record Office have failed to locate Morgan's original report. The station log from Rochford aerodrome does give brief details of Morgan’s flight with the addition of the word “Zepp” which shows the pilot and his station commander believed he had had an encounter with something he took to be an enemy airship.

Morgan’s report is not included in the official account of the 31 January, 1916 raid published by the War Office which charts the movements of the Zeppelins and the attempts by British fliers to intercept them in great detail. Historians have been left with the impression that the authorities gave no credence to his report. Here we have the first evidence of what has become a long tradition on the part of the War Office, and its successors the Air Ministry and today’s Ministry of Defence, of 'down-playing’ reports by military pilots of unidentified flying objects.

There was, in fact, additional support for the claim that an airborne object of some kind was present over London during the air raid. A fourth RFC pilot, McClelland, reported seeing what he described as “a Zeppelin” caught briefly in the glare of searchlights above London at 9 pm, 15 minutes after Morgan’s encounter.

McClelland’s report was in fact the subject of a comment by the Third Sea Lord, Rear-Admiral F.C.T Tudor, who dismissed it in one single paragraph which reads:

“night flying must be difficult and dangerous, and require considerable nerve and pluck, but this airman seems to have been gifted with a more than usually vivid imagination.”

Historians of the Great War have used the phrase 'phantom airship’ to describe inexplicable aerial phenomena. In later years broadly similar sightings were categorised by the largely baffled Air Ministry as ‘ghost planes’ and ‘flying saucers.’ Almost a century later we are no closer to explaining what was independently reported by four experienced pilots long before the phrase “UFO” was invented.

David Clarke and Andy Roberts, Out of the Shadows: UFOs, the Establishment and the Official Cover-up, London: Piatkus, 2002: see chapter 3, pp 40-44 for details of ‘Operation Charlie.’
H.A. Jones, The War in the Air, Volume 3, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1931.
C. Cole and E.F. Cheeseman, The Air Defence of Britain 1914-1918, Bodley Head, London, 1984.
PRO Air 1/611 16/15/286. Report from Officer in Command, Royal Flying Corps, Hainault Farm, 2 February 1916.
PRO Air 1/438 15/300/1. Rochford Station (Naval): report on night landing ground, 1916.
PRO Air 1/720 36/1/6 GHQ Home Forces Intelligence Circular No 6, May 1916.

“I hope you live a life you are proud of. If you find that you are not, l hope you have the strength to start all over again.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
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