Churchill and that UFO story

There have been a lot of stories in the press recently with titles like 'Churchill ordered UFO cover-up, National Archives show'. Actually, the TNA files -- part of an ongoing series of releases of UFO-related files -- don't show this at all, as is clear if you read the article more closely.

The cover-up is supposed to have taken place in the Second World War.

Nick Pope, who used to investigate UFO sightings for the MoD, said: "The interesting thing is that most of the UFO files from that period have been destroyed.

"But what happened is that a scientist whose grandfather was one of his [Churchill's] bodyguards, said look, Churchill and Eisenhower got together to cover up this phenomenal UFO sighting, that was witnessed by an RAF crew on their way back from a bombing raid.

"The reason apparently was because Churchill believed it would cause mass panic and it would shatter people's religious views."

The scientist 'said' this in 1999, nearly half a century after the incident is supposed to have taken place and a quarter century after his grandfather died. So it's only hearsay: there is no evidence from the war itself or from any witnesses that this cover-up actually took place.

Let's take a closer look at the claim itself. The scientist -- whose name has understandably been redacted from the documents (DEFE 24/2013, pages 205-9 and 273-7) -- was an astrophysicist working on software for 'spacecraft thermal engineering', writing from Leicester. According to his account, his grandfather, who died in 1973, was in the RAF during the war and 'was part of the personal bodyguard of Winston Churchill during the times when the Bunkers were in use for protection'. The Ministry of Defence files don't comment on whether this was the case, but as it could be checked easily enough it doesn't seem likely that the scientist would have made this up. (I don't think the MoD was particularly interested, one way or the other.) Though bound by the Official Secrets Act, the bodyguard did tell one person about this incident: his then-nine-year old daughter (which makes the story that much harder to rely upon). Initially, the scientist said that

My grandfather witnessed the discussion of the event both by Mr. Churchill and Mr. Eisenhower in the United States, and the great concern it caused in both countries.

Taken literally, this would seem to suggest the discussion took place between Churchill and Eisenhower in the US, which would mean it took place in or around one of the Allied conferences in Washington or Quebec in 1942, 1943 or 1944. But as far as I can see Eisenhower didn't attend these, and anyway the reference to 'Bunkers' suggests Britain, where he was much more likely to bump into Churchill. So I think we should probably read the above as Eisenhower of the United States.

Here's the meat of the story.

A report from an RAF aircrew approaching the east coast of England sometime in the early 1940's was discussed by leaders in the UK and the US.

The aircraft was intercepted by an object of unknown origin, which matched course and speed with the aircraft for a time and then underwent an extremely rapid acceleration away from the aircraft probably with non-ballistic or non-aerodynamic flight characteristics. Photographs and/or film was obtained by this aircrew showing a metallic arrow-shaped body [but see below]. This even was discussed by Mr Churchill and General Eisenhower, neither of whom knew what had been observed. There was a general inability for either side to match a plausible account to these observations, and this caused a high degree of concern.

After talking again to his mother, the scientist added some further details in a later letter:

1. The RAF aircraft was a reconnaissance plane returning to England to either France or Germany during the latter part of the War.
2. The encounter with the unknown object occurred close to or over the English coastline.
3. The observed object was undetected until it was close to the aircraft. It was suddenly observed by the aircrew appearing at the side of the aircraft at a very high speed; then it very rapidly matched its speed with that of the aircraft.
4. It appeared to "hover" noiselessly relative to the aircraft for a time. One of the photographic airmen began to take photographs of it. It appeared metallic but its shape was not described. (Please disregard my earlier comment about an "arrow-shaped" body, this appears to have been an error on my part).
5. The object very suddenly disappeared, leaving no trace of its earlier presence.
6. During the discussion with Mr. Churchill, a consultant (who worked in the Cumbria area during the War) dismissed any possibility that the object had been a missile, since a missile could not suddenly match its speed with a slower aircraft and then accelerate again. He declared that the event was totally beyond any imagined capabilities of the time. Another person at the meeting raised the possibility of an unidentified flying object, at which point Mr. Churchill declared that the incident should be immediately classified for at least 50 years and its status reviewed by a future Prime Minister.

Finally, the scientist summarised his claim as follows, adding some information about the motivation behind the cover-up not repeated elsewhere:

It is claimed that my grandfather, [redacted] was present during a debate between Winston Churchill and Mr. Eisenhower during World War II involving making a decision about an unexpected incident experienced by a RAF bomber aircrew returning to the UK after a mission into Germany. Mr Churchill is reported to have made a declaration to the effect of the following:

"This event should be immediately classified since it would create mass panic amongst the general population and destroy one's belief in the Church."

Let's start there. I don't see why there would have been any need for a decision regarding the classification of this incident: it was wartime, and information concerning all military operations was classified unless and until cleared for public release. Of course, the exact level of classification could have been up for debate, but there was surely no great danger that the public was about to learn of an RAF aircraft being intercepted by an ultra-high-tech vehicle of unknown origin.

The bit about it destroying 'belief in the Church' is a bit odd. This is presumably a reference to a belief that this high-tech vehicle had to be of extraterrestrial origin, an idea which is nowhere explicitly addressed in the story above (unless it is the reference to the object as an 'unidentified flying object', a term definitely not in use during the war but which in common usage is often taken to mean an extraterrestrial spacecraft). Some theologians (and Tom Paine) have argued that the plurality of worlds question is problematic for Christianity (e.g. did the crucifixion save all sentient beings everywhere in the universe or did every single inhabited planet have its own salvation event?) But it seems unlikely that this was the first concern that would have popped into Churchill's head. I'm sure he would have read The War of the Worlds at some point; was he not worried about the intentions of this highly advanced alien race? For Churchill to worry about the effect of such revelations on the morale of a war-weary British populace, on the other hand, does sound about right, though people might have found them cause for hope rather than fear.

The weirdly cryptic reference to the consultant who worked in the Cumbrian area (is this really a description you'd pass on to your nine year old daughter?) also leads to the extraterrestrial inference. But I don't see how he could categorically claim that it was impossible for the object to be a missile, because a missile couldn't slow down to match an aircraft's speed and then accelerate again. It certainly implies a high degree of control for a (presumably) unmanned vehicle, but that could have been supplied from a nearby mothership (an aeroplane, not a spaceship!) Still, I can see someone like R. V. Jones making persuasive technical arguments as to why such a vehicle was beyond current technology. (Jones himself would be an obvious choice for the 'consultant', especially given his later interest in ghost rockets and flying saucers, but he worked in London during the war.)

Turning to the purported incident itself, the details are a bit suspect. An RAF photo reconnaissance mission over 'France or Germany during the latter part of the War' would most likely have been carried out by a Spitfire or a Mosquito. There's a suggestion that the aircraft involved had more than one aircrew, in which case it would have to be a Mosquito. But somewhere along the process of retelling the story the idea seems to have crept in that photo reconnaissance work involved pointing a camera out the cockpit window ('One of the photographic airmen began to take photographs of it') which of course was not the case: the cameras were fitted inside special bays and could not have been used in this ad hoc fashion. (Not to mention that all the film probably would have been exposed over enemy territory.) Perhaps this part has just been garbled.

Another detail which doesn't make sense is that the object 'appeared to "hover" noiselessly relative to the aircraft for a time'. I'm not sure how you could tell from inside a multi-engined aircraft whether something outside wasn't making a sound. This is a description common to many (post-war) UFO accounts and I'd suggest that in this part of the story contamination has set in: this is what UFOs sound like (or rather don't sound like), so even if it's not plausible the detail is added, quite probably subconsciously. Much like the whole phantom airship thing, in fact.

Which brings me to my last point. Previously, Churchill's known involvement in the history of the UFO phenomenon essentially consisted of two episodes. The first was the Sheerness incident in 1912, when as First Lord of the Admiralty he oversaw an investigation into the possible overflight of a naval base by a German Zeppelin. This was something he was inclined to believe in, at least if his comments to the Committee of Imperial Defence are to be believed. So I tend to think that thirty years later his tendency would similarly have been to suspect perverted Nazi (but still human) scientists rather than extraterrestrials. Of course, there was the Cumbrian consultant to convince Churchill that nobody on this planet could have been responsible for what the RAF PR crew saw. But if he was so convinced, and on the evidence of the scientist's mother's father's story he was, then why -- in Churchill's other known UFO connection -- did he fire off a memo in 1952, during his second premiership, asking 'What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth?' Didn't he already know that the truth was disturbing enough to shake the foundations of religious belief?

No, as it stands this story fails a few basic sanity checks and no confidence can be placed in it. The scientist who told it to the MoD seems to have been sincere enough, but I have the feeling that somewhere down the line a leg was being pulled.

Having said all that, the question of wartime UFO sightings by Allied aircrew ('foo fighters') is a very interesting one, which I must one day look into ...

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10 thoughts on “Churchill and that UFO story

  1. The actual incident sounds very like the description of a reflection or mirage's or optically created 'object' movement. I've always been sceptical of the need for aliens to do the intergalactic equivalent of burn-offs at the lights alongside terrestrial craft; if they could do that kind of thing, I suspect there'd be other more solid contact or events as well.

    But I don't 'do' UFO stuff as a rule, so...

    On the question of the photo recon aircraft, pretty much all the camera were fixed and on long focal lengths, so useless for photographing nearby mystery vehicles. Tac Recon and low level had oblique camera fitted (on the Spitfire in the radio bay area halfway up and halfway back on the fuselage) and pilots did occasionally take images of each other while flying in formation - usually training. Private cameras were a no-no, so they did sometimes appear, but air to air is rare, and rarer still admitted to by crew for official use.

    The only other alternative doesn't fit either which is hand held cameras occasionally used by AOP (Air Observation Post) aircraft like Austers for army co-operation - so not Bomber Command. Early war had Lysanders and observers with hand-held cameras, but not 'late war'.

    Pre June '44 or post is the critical date question, given a presence or lack of allies on the Continent.

    Not sure if film was always 'used up'; sometimes certainly several passes were made, implying spare film when the target was 'got' on the first pass.

    You can't hear any other aircraft over a Merlin engine. I can add from firsthand that you can't hear a Merlin (which is shatteringly noisy close to) over a modern American light twin's engines, from my limited air to air photography experience.

    I don't think Churchill was also ever that bothered by 'the church' in any meaningful way, either. He'd be more worried by a loss of belief in Church(ill).

  2. Christopher

    My recollection is that Churchill despite being a Victorian statesman was an atheist. He was not concerned about the church beyond the necessary duties he had to perform in the role of Prime Minister. I would not necessarily even go with the mirage suggestion put forward by JDK as I don't really feel the incident needs any explanation. It's provenance has not been established and as such we can file it under the label 'mildly interesting and entertaining'.

  3. Oh, I don't think it matters much, and I agree we don't have enough good enough data to make any call. But I'd suggest the relative speed description needs to be pegged to that classic optical illusion scenario before going further.

  4. From the Access to Public Records manual:

    "Virtually all the law relating to public records is found in the Public Records Acts 1958 and 1967. The 1958 Act transferred responsibility for public records from the Master of the Rolls to the Lord Chancellor
    and established the post of Keeper of Public Records in its current form. The Act provided that the public records selected for permanent preservation were to be transferred to The National Archives or to a
    place of deposit, not later than thirty years after their creation. When they had been in existence for fifty years they were to be available for public inspection, unless action was taken to withhold them for longer. Before this Act was passed, many departmental records stayed in their departments much longer and arrangements for public access were variable across government."

    Therefore the thirty year rule is anachronistic for the 1940s, and keeping something closed for 50 years or more was probably nothing special at that time.

  5. Post author

    Thanks for the comments. I agree there's no real point in analysing this story too much; even if the events did actually happen we have nothing like a contemporary record to on, at minimum a chain of three re-tellings over four decades, and that's just for the Churchill-Eisenhower meeting, not the UFO itself.


    Well, why should Cook have all the fun?

  6. Erik Lund

    Also, it's funny to come to this from reading Daniel Szechi on the 1715. Two-and-a-half centuries, and Tories are still talking about "the Church in danger."
    I wonder if the Pretender ever rode in a flying saucer?

  7. john welch

    I've just found this article so i'm a bit late! When i was a lad in the 50's my dad and i were discussing the "flying saucer" stories and i asked him if he thought they were true. He replied he didn't know but that he had witnessed something similar many years previously. He said he was a young man, so it was around ww1 time and high in the sky over Birmingham he along with others had watched "a bright green light shaped like a spinning top, point at the bottom, moving north at quite a rate" His brother was in the RFC and he had watched the planes, as he put it "hanging in the sky" whereas this light was moving fast. He said that the following night there was a report in the local Birmingham paper about it, which added that it was also seen in other places including Scotland. The time given for it's journey to Scotland was 30 mins. 600mph in 1918? Does anyone know how to research the local papers, i would be interested to find the write up.

  8. Post author

    Fascinating, John! Thanks for that, I've not heard of this before. You've come to the right place, though. I'm interested in historical mystery aircraft, particularly British ones and particularly during wartime (though here it is not clear if it was thought of as an aircraft of any type, and the timeframe might not be definite?) And, as it happens, I also maintain a (slightly out of date, now) list of early 20th century British newspapers online (some are free, most are not). You could use that as a starting point; the British Newspaper Archive is particularly good for local newspapers. Unfortunately, though, I'm not aware of any available Birmingham newspapers from the period, even though Manchester and Liverpool, for example, are fairly well-served. But if this object was seen in Scotland and elsewhere, then you might be able to find it discussed in their newspapers. I'll try to have a look myself.

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