The field marshal and the ghost rockets

Field Marshal Jan Smuts, prime minister of South Africa, broadcast a speech on the BBC on 29 September 1946. He talked about the prospects for peace in the post-war world, a subject on which he could claim some authority, since he had helped unify Anglophones and Afrikaners after the Boer War, and was involved in the Paris peace conferences after both world wars. The speech was mainly about the United Nations (or as he quaintly called it, 'Uno') and the growing signs of friction between the former Allies on the Security Council. And we all know how that turned out. (Churchill had given his 'Iron Curtain' speech in March.) But one section is somewhat confusing for modern readers:

The United States may not long continue to enjoy the sole secret of the atom bomb, and this and other no less deadly weapons will at no distant date be in the possession of other nations also. The flying bombs, now seen nightly in the west, are indications of what is going on behind the curtain. It is highly doubtful whether any new weapons, or indeed any mechanical inventions, could ever be relied on to remove the danger of war. A peaceful world order could only be safely based on a new spirit and outlook widely spread and actively practised among the nations.1

Flying bombs seen nightly in the west? What flying bombs?

Smuts was referring to reports which had been coming out of Sweden since May, and more recently from Denmark and Greece. Fast moving objects, sometimes with wings, sometimes without, were seen flashing across the sky. Some had flames shooting out the rear; others appeared to manoeuvre. Some of them crashed; residents of Malmö reported that windows were broken when a rocket 'exploded' over their town.2 They were sometimes even tracked on radar. A photo was even taken of one. They were seen by military personnel as well as by ordinary people. An example:

One of the mysterious bombs which in recent weeks have been passing across Sweden was seen last night by an officer of the Air Defence Department of the Defence Staff. He reports that the bomb looked like a fireball with a clear yellow flame passing at an estimated height of between 1,500 and 3,000 feet and at a considerable but quite measurable speed.3

The term now given to these objects is ghost rockets.

Suspicions immediately fell on the Russians, who had taken possession of the German missile research station at Peenemünde, along with many of its scientists and equipment. This was where V-1 and V-2 development had taken place during the war. As the Manchester Guardian editorialised:

No one has said who starts them [the ghost rockets] on their journey, but it does not need much imagination to see Russian engineers, no doubt assisted by obedient German scientists, operating from a research station on the Baltic coast. Russia, of course, could have found a more secret practice range, but she probably enjoys revealing a little of her plaything, just as America carefully lets us know at least enough about her bomb to hold it in respect.4

There was even a precedent: the Germans had test-fired many V-1s and V-2s over the Baltic, and one of the latter landed on Swedish territory. The resultant wreckage was of some use to Allied scientific intelligence in working out just how much of a threat the new rocket weapon would be. But as R. V. Jones, who was involved in both the wartime and (more peripherally) the ghost rocket investigations, pointed out, with hundreds of sightings being reported from Sweden, some proportion of the supposed rockets would have crashed and the wreckage discovered. The Swedish military did look, even searching the bottom of a lake which a winged missile had crashed into. Nothing was found (although in Most Secret War, Jones relates an amusing episode about one fragment which initially denied analysis, but which turned out to be a lump of coke).5

As with the phantom airship scares a generation earlier, parallels can be found nearby in time and/or space. As I noted above, ghost rockets were also reported from Denmark and Greece. Both of these countries were fairly close to the new Iron Curtain, so it wasn't too implausible to think that they too might be playing unwitting hosts to Soviet weapon tests. But then ghost rockets were also seen in Portugal, Belgium and Italy -- except for the last, much farther away from the Soviet sphere. Some of the ghost rockets were undoubtedly meteors (the Perseid meteor shower coincided with the August peak of sightings; the photo mentioned above looks a lot like a meteor to me), others may have been new and unfamiliar jet aeroplanes (Sweden received its first Vampires in June). The British Consul at Salonika thought what he saw was nothing more than a Very light.6 But, as usual, not everything can be explained this way.

Going backwards in time, to the early 1930s, so-called 'ghost flyers' were seen, often in snowstorms, in the northern parts of Sweden, Norway and Finland. These aircraft were seen (and heard) mainly at night, sometimes flying at low-level. But they carried no markings, and military searches found neither the ghost fliers nor the aerodrome they presumably operated from. Explanations at the time included Soviet or Japanese (!) spies, alcohol smugglers or misperception and mass delusion. Soviet or even combined Soviet-German exercises are perhaps the most likely explanation, though no archival smoking gun has been found.

And going forward a few decades, and into a different medium altogether, in the 1980s and early 1990s Swedish coastal waters were plagued by incursions from mystery submarines. This time the witnesses were Swedish naval personnel, and the submarines were detected with sonar. Again, the chief suspect was the Soviet Union (though NATO has been blamed more recently), and after the 'Whiskey on the rocks' incident of 1981, when a Soviet diesel sub ran aground near a major Swedish naval base, that's understandable. But even trained sonar operators make mistakes: one prominent incident in 1982 was, it seems, caused by a charter boat.

So, to generalise wildly about a country I know not a lot about, the Swedish ghost rockets, ghost flyers and mystery submarines sound like the paranoia of a small country stuck in between hostile blocs and trying to stay neutral. Technology made it easier for foreign powers to sneak in and spy on Swedes. Although the geopolitical context was different, this sounds a lot like the situation in Britain in 1909 and 1913. The enemy outside became the enemy within.

Back to Smuts. He didn't place much emphasis on the ghost rockets; they were just further evidence of what everyone already knew, that new weapons were changing the world (yet again), and that the world needed to change its ways in consequence. He didn't have any very compelling answers to this problem -- maybe a world government proper, one day; for the moment, he wanted the great powers to have full and frank discussions about what they really wanted from each other, rather than issuing spurious vetoes -- but that he felt he had to try was just as much a sign of the times as the ghost rockets themselves.

  1. The Times, 30 September 1946, 5. Emphasis added. 

  2. Manchester Guardian, 17 August 1946, 6. 

  3. Ibid., 8 August 1946, 6. 

  4. Ibid., 13 August 1946, 4. 

  5. R. V. Jones, Most Secret War (London: Penguin, 2009 [1978]), 511-2. 

  6. Manchester Guardian, 7 September 1946, 6. 

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12 thoughts on “The field marshal and the ghost rockets

  1. Erik Lund

    No, the lump of coke clearly points us in the direction of cocaine smugglers, who obviously would need flying bombs for Miami drug wars. “Say hello to my little friend…”
    And what about the Foo Fighters?

  2. Urban Garlic

    Interestingly, one of the countries which did acquire nuclear weapons was Smuts’ own South Africa. It remains one of very few countries to have obtained and then given up nuclear weapons.

    Also, mysterious nordic lights still happen. This one was apparently not (only) paranoia.

  3. Post author


    Foo fighters may or may not be related physical phenomena, but they weren’t similar media phenomena as they were pretty much secret at the time. So the dynamics would have been somewhat different, spread by rumours passed among aircrew rather than by the press.

    Urban Garlic:

    Oh yes, I forgot to mention that! And it was caused by Russians testing out a new missile, too.

  4. Post author

    Oh sure, in the US press — as we know they printed pretty much anything if it looked like shiny new tech :)

    No, you’re right. There were press reports from late 1944 and 1945 on, but the form of the foo fighters was already established by then. But perhaps they became more frequent? I don’t know.

  5. Post author

    I can’t find any good secondary sources, mostly Portugal is mentioned as I did — in a list of countries to show the geographical extent of the sightings. (For example.) But I did find a couple of sightings. From Project 1947:

    16 Dec 46 – La Vanguardia, p.8 Tuesday December 17th 1946 ROCKET PROJECTILE OVER LISBON Lisbon 15. – A rocket projectile crossed the airspace of the Portuguese capital at around half past six in the afternoon. The artefact was seen in el Barrio de Campo on May 29th and observed by many people who at first thought it was a comet. EFE translation (c) Chris Aubeck, March 2003

    And from Jerome Clark, The UFO Encyclopedia: The Phenomenon from the Beginning (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1998) 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 440:

    Castenheira, Portugal, September 18 [1946]. Two greenish globes, one following close behind the other, flew over the city.

    No source given for that one, unless it’s the Portland Oregonian, 1 October 1946.

    It may be that there just weren’t very many ghost rockets seen in Portugal, or that not as many made it to the international press (La Vanguardia is a Spanish newspaper, I think).

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  7. marieke

    Yesterday, august 15th 2012 we’ ve seen and photographt a thing looking like a rocket/ missile. Can upload photos when we’re home. We where at the island kefalonia greece when we saw it in the sky at 20:45.

  8. Post author

    Unfortunately as a historian I’m not much use for current events! But from this link I notice that 15 August was the date of both Greek and Kefalonian holidays/festivals, the Dormition of the Theotokos and the Fidakia tis Panagias (snake festival). Might it have been something connected with these, for example a sky lantern? Just an idea, I don’t even know how the festivals are celebrated.

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