The Rendlesham Forest Incident is the name given to a series of reported sightings of unexplained lights and the alleged landing of a craft or multiple craft of unknown origin in Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk, England, in late December 1980, just outside RAF Woodbridge, used at the time by the U.S. Air Force. Dozens of USAF personnel were eyewitnesses to various events over a two- or three-day period. Some ufologists believe it is perhaps the most famous UFO event to have happened in Britain, ranking amongst the best-known UFO events worldwide. Along with the Berwyn Mountain UFO incident, it has been compared to the Roswell UFO incident in the United States, and is sometimes referred to as “Britain’s Roswell”.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) denied that the event posed any threat to national security, and stated that it was therefore never investigated as a security matter. Later evidence indicated that there was a substantial MoD file on the subject, which led to claims of a cover-up; some interpreted this as part of a larger pattern of information suppression concerning the true nature of unidentified flying objects, by both the United States and British governments (see the UFO conspiracy theory). One person to take this view was eyewitness and Deputy Base Commander Colonel Charles Halt (see below). When the file was released in 2001 it turned out to consist mostly of internal correspondence and responses to inquiries from the public. The lack of any in-depth investigation in the publicly released documents is consistent with the MoD’s earlier statement that they never took the case seriously. Included in the released files is an explanation given by defence minister Lord Trefgarne as to why the MoD did not investigate further. Sceptics regard the sightings as misinterpretation of a series of nocturnal lights – a fireball, the Orford Ness lighthouse and bright stars.
Retired Sgt. John Burroughs (LE) states that the events took place over three successive nights (pm into am); 24–25, 25–26 and 26–27 December 1980. One of the key pieces of primary evidence (the “Halt memo”, described below) suggests that the first sightings were on the 26th, rather than 25th. The memo was written almost two weeks after the event and its author later agreed that he had probably made a mistake in his recollection of the dates. This discrepancy in dates has not only confused subsequent researchers but also led to confusion at the time, for example in the MoD’s investigation and analysis of contemporaneous radar records.
Rendlesham Forest is owned by the Forestry Commission and consists of about 5.8 square miles (15 km2) of coniferous plantations, interspersed with broadleaved belts, heathland and wetland areas. It is located in the county of Suffolk, about 8 miles (13 km) east of the town of Ipswich.
Still from Rendlesham Forest UFO video
The incident occurred in the vicinity of two former military bases – RAF Bentwaters, which is just to the north of the forest, and RAF Woodbridge which extends into the forest from the west and is bounded by the forest on its northern and eastern edges. At the time, both were being used by the United States Air Force and were under the command of wing commander Colonel Gordon E. Williams. The base commander was Colonel Ted Conrad, and his deputy was Lieutenant Colonel Charles I. Halt. Halt’s memo to the Ministry of Defence on the incident, and his personal involvement in the second night of the sightings, has given the case credibility.
The main events of the incident, including the supposed landing or landings, took place in the forest, which starts at the east end of the base runway or about 0.3 miles (0.5 km) to the east of the East Gate of RAF Woodbridge, where guards first noticed mysterious lights appearing to descend into the forest. The forest extends east about 1.0 mile (1.6 km) beyond East Gate, ending at a farmer’s field, where additional events allegedly took place.
Orford Ness lighthouse, which sceptics identify as the flashing light seen off to the coast by the airmen, is along the same line of sight but 5 miles (8.0 km) further east of the forest edge.
All these locations are shown on the adjacent map. Commentators have published more detailed maps of the location and a modern aerial view of the region can be found on Google Maps
Around 3 a.m. on 26 December 1980 strange lights were reported by a security patrol near the East Gate of RAF Woodbridge apparently descending into nearby Rendlesham Forest. Servicemen initially thought it was a downed aircraft but, upon entering the forest to investigate, they saw strange lights moving through the trees, as well as a bright light from an unidentified object. One of the servicemen, Sgt. Jim Penniston, later claimed to have encountered a “craft of unknown origin” and to have made detailed notes of its features, touched its “warm” surface, and copied the numerous symbols on its body. The object allegedly flew away after their brief encounter. Penniston also claimed to have seen triangular landing gear on the object, leaving three impressions in the ground that were visible the next day. While undergoing regression hypnosis in 1994 Penniston subsequently claimed that the “craft” he encountered had come from our future, and was occupied by time travellers, not extraterrestrials. Sgt. Penniston’s report made shortly after the incident contains no mention of physically encountering an unknown craft, nor of interacting with it. This report and associated sketches are neither signed nor dated, nor are they representative of AF Form 1169, Statement of Witness.
Shortly after 4 a.m. local police were called to the scene but reported that the only lights they could see were those from the Orford Ness lighthouse, some miles away on the coast. Some reports claim that local farmyard animals had been behaving in a state of fear and panic.
After daybreak on the morning of 26 December, servicemen returned to a small clearing near the eastern edge of the forest and found three small impressions in a triangular pattern, as well as burn marks and broken branches on nearby trees. Plaster casts of the imprints were taken and have been shown in television documentaries. At 10.30 a.m. the local police were called out again, this time to see the impressions on the ground, which they thought could have been made by an animal.
The servicemen returned to the site again in the early hours of 28 December 1980 with radiation detectors, although the significance of the readings they obtained is disputed. The deputy base commander Lt Col Charles I. Halt investigated this sighting personally and recorded the events on a micro-cassette recorder (see “The Halt Tape”, below). The site investigated by Halt was near the eastern edge of the forest
It was during this investigation that a flashing light was seen across the field to the east, almost in line with a farmhouse. The Orford Ness lighthouse is visible further to the east in the same line of sight.
Later, starlike lights were seen in the sky to the north and south, the brightest of which seemed to beam down a stream of light from time to time.
There are claims that the incident was videoed by the USAF; but, if so, the resulting tape has not been made public.
Primary and secondary sources
The first public report of the incident was published in the tabloid newspaper News of the World, on 2 October 1983, beneath the sensational headline UFO lands in Suffolk – and that’s official. The story was based on an account by a former US airman, using the pseudonym Art Wallace (supposedly to protect himself against retribution from the USAF), although his real name was Larry Warren.
The Halt Tape
The Halt memo
DEPARTMENT OF THE AIR FORCE HEADQUARTERS 81ST COMBAT SUPPORT [USAFE] APO NEW YORK 09755 REPLTY TO ATTN OF: CD 13 Jan 81 SUBJECT: Unexplained Lights TO: RAF/CC 1. Early in the morning of 27 Dec 80 (approximately 0300L), two USAF security police patrolmen saw unusual lights outside the back gate at RAF Woodbridge. Thinking an aircraft might have crashed or been forced down, they called for permission to go outside the gate to investigate. The on-duty flight chief responded and allowed to patrolmen to pro- ceed on foot. The individuals reported seeing a strange glowing object in the forest. The object was described as being metalic in appearance and triangular in shape, approximately two to three meters across the base and approximately two meters high. It illuminated the entire forest with a white light. The object itself had pulsing red light on top and a bank(s) of blue lights underneath. The object was hovering or on legs. As the patrolmen approached the object, it maneuvered through the trees and disappeared. At this time the animals on a nearby farm went into a frenzy. The object was briefly sighted approximately an hour later near the back gate. 2. The next day, three depressions 1 1/2" deep and 7" in diameter were found where the object had been sighted on the ground. The following night (29 Dec 80) the area was checked for radiation. Beta/gamma readings of 0.1 milliroentgens were recorded with peak readings in the three de- pressions and near the center of the triangle formed by the depressions. A nearby tree had moderate (.05-.07) readings on the side of the tree toward the depressions. 3. Later in the night a red sun-like light was seen through the trees. It moved about and pulsed. At one point it appeared to throw off glowing particles and then broke into five separate white objects and then dis- appeared. Immediately thereafter, three star-like objects were noticed in the sky, two objects to the north and one to the south. all of which were about 10° off the horizon. The objects moved rapidly in sharp angular movements and displayed red, green and blue lights. The objects to the north appeared to be elliptical through an 8-12 power lens. They then turned to full circles. The objects to the north remained in the sky for an hour or more. The object to the south was visible for two or three hours and beamed down a stream of light from time to time. Numerous indivi- duals, including the undersigned, witnessed the activities in paragraphs 2 and 3. (signature) CHARLES I. HALT, Lt Col, USAF Deputy Base Commander
The Halt Affidavit
In June 2010, retired Colonel Charles Halt signed a notarized affidavit, in which he again summarized what had happened, then stated he believed the event to be extraterrestrial and it had been covered up by both the US and UK:
“I believe the objects that I saw at close quarter were extraterrestrial in origin and that the security services of both the United States and the United Kingdom have attempted—both then and now—to subvert the significance of what occurred at Rendlesham Forest and RAF Bentwaters by the use of well-practiced methods of disinformation.”
Halt also dismissed claims that he and his men had confused a UFO with a lighthouse beam:
“While in Rendlesham Forest, our security team observed a light that looked like a large eye, red in color, moving through the trees. After a few minutes this object began dripping something that looked like molten metal. A short while later it broke into several smaller, white-colored objects which flew away in all directions. Claims by skeptics that this was merely a sweeping beam from a distant lighthouse are unfounded; we could see the unknown light and the lighthouse simultaneously. The latter was 35 to 40-degrees off where all of this was happening.”
Contradictions between this affidavit and the facts as recorded at the time in Halt’s memo and tape recording have been pointed out.
In 2010 base commander Colonel Ted Conrad provided a statement about the incident to Dr David Clarke of Sheffield Hallam University, UFO adviser to the UK National Archives. Conrad stated that “We saw nothing that resembled Lieutenant Colonel Halt’s descriptions either in the sky or on the ground.” and that “We had people in position to validate Halt’s narrative, but none of them could.” In an interview, Conrad, criticized Halt for the claims in his affidavit, saying “he should be ashamed and embarrassed by his allegation that his country and England both conspired to deceive their citizens over this issue. He knows better.” Conrad also disputed the testimony of Sergeant Jim Penniston, who claimed to have touched an alien spacecraft; he said that he interviewed Penniston at the time and he had not mentioned any such occurrence. Conrad also suggested that the entire incident might have been a hoax.
Suffolk Police log
Suffolk Constabulary have a record, dated 26 December 1980, of a report from the law Enforcement Desk of RAF Woodbridge, stating that “We have a sighting of some unusual lights in the sky, we have sent some unarmed troops to investigate, we are terming it as a U.F.O. at present”. The police investigated this report and the result is recorded as follows: “Air Traffic Control West Drayton checked. No knowledge of aircraft. Reports received of aerial phenomena over southern England during the night. Only lights visible this area was from Orford light house. Search made of area – negative.” Skeptic Ian Ridpath has speculated the reported “aerial phenomena” refers to the re-entry of the Soviet Cosmos 749 satellite’s final stage rocket, which was widely seen over southern England shortly after 9 p.m. on the evening of 25 December. A letter in the police file notes that one of the PCs returned to the site in daylight in case he had missed something. “There was nothing to be seen and he remains unconvinced that the occurrence was genuine. The immediate area was swept by powerful light beams from a landing beacon at RAF Bentwaters and the Orfordness lighthouse. I know from personal experience that at night, in certain weather and cloud conditions, these beams were very pronounced and certainly caused strange visual effects.” A scan of the report is available at Suffolk Constabulary’s website
Military witnesses discuss reality of UFOs
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