This post should probably be called 'Smugglers?' but like many people I owe an intellectual debt to Enid Blyton.

I've seen mentions of mystery aircraft in Britain in the 1930s but until now never a primary source reference. Thomas Bullard's most interesting The Myth and Mystery of UFOs notes that 'Mystery airplanes also appeared at this time over English locations, first to suspicions of criminal activity, then to worries over Nazi espionage', and provides two references.1 One of them is inaccessible to me (Daily Telegraph, 16 July 1937, 7) but the other is from The Times (16 April 1936, 9) which I can get online. And here it is:


Our Folkestone Correspondent telegraphs:--

A mysterious aeroplane has caused the authorities to keep a watch at Capel le Ferne during the past fortnight. It was reported that a machine had flown low over the village, which is between Folkestone and Dover, on two successive Thursday evenings. On the second occasion it appeared to land at a remote spot, but within a minute or so it was seen making its way across the Channel again. A large grey motor-car was seen to come from the place on the second occasion, and to go towards London. Since then the aeroplane, which is said to be of foreign origin, has not been seen.

Well, that's a bit underwhelming, it must be said. There's nothing in the report itself to suggest that it wasn't, in fact, an actual aeroplane, though that may be because of its brevity (perhaps a local newspaper would have more). Aircraft were reasonably common by the mid-1930s. Smaller ones could still land on improvised airstrips; and with a bit of ground assistance they could probably do so at night. The question is, though, why would anyone want to? The only sensible answer would seem to be to smuggle something into the country, whether it be contraband or people. And it's certainly noteworthy that Capel le Ferne is about the closest point on the English coast to the Continent (the Channel Tunnel passes underneath it; next door is the site of Hawkinge, one of Fighter Command's forward bases during the Battle of Britain). So in theory it would be a good spot to duck across the Channel, land, and take off again before anyone on either side noticed.

And such things did happen. Here's a prosecution for smuggling of cigars and brandy, reported in The Times (18 December 1936, 3) -- as the crimes took place only seven months later than and about five miles north from the Capel le Ferne incident, it could even be the same gang at work:

Mr. Stephenson said that it was a breach of regulations to unload any goods from an aeroplane unless at a proper Customs aerodrome [...] In this case [defendant Frederick] Hayter landed not at a Customs aerodrome but a place called Wickham Bushes, near Dover. He committed a breach of regulations by not reporting either to a police or excise officer that he had landed.

The pilot, Hayter, made a statement to Customs describing 'how he landed from Le Touquet in a field near Dover and hid a suitcase containing 12 bottles of old brandy under a haystack'. One of the accused was a local farmer and presumably the alleged haystack was in one of his fields.

So probably not a visiting spacecraft or even a projection of fears of aerial incursion, but: smugglers!

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  1. Thomas E. Bullard, The Myth and Mystery of UFOs (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas), 115. []

11 thoughts on “Smugglers!

  1. I well remember helping my immigration officer dad in the early 1990s search through Lockyear's Flight Guide for farm strips and other unofficial airfields that might be likely places for smugglers to land in secret.I think the idea was to identify people near the most insecure ones who would keep an eye out.

  2. Actually a lot more Biggles the Air Detective than Blyton, although you really couldn't leave her out.

    Biggles investigated multiple mystery aircraft coming and going illicitly from Britain, mostly postwar in the the Air Police, but a couple pre-war, most significantly in Biggles and the Black Peril.

    Biggles investigated dubious behaviour by lightplanes, spyplanes, floatplanes, helicopters, biplanes, airliners, bombers (stolen by a madman) homebuilts and flying boats - and in one case (one of my favourite short stories) ghosts, in The case of the lost souls from Biggles of the Special Air Police which turned out to be - well, I won't spoil it. It's a fantastical, but actually possible story, with some neat aviating of an unlikely kind - the best sort.

    Jewels, plans, information, criminals, a plastic-surgeon, and even old masters were some of the items (from memory!) being smuggled.

    I'm not aware if any of these equated to real-life events (beyond the example Brett's quoted) but probably not.

  3. Post author


    Interesting. Do many farms have airstrips in the UK?


    Oh but Biggles is too obvious. Besides which I read Blyton well before before I read Johns!

  4. "Do many farms have airstrips in the UK?"
    I never got the promised ride, but the partner of a colleague when I worked in Oxfordshire had an Auster based locally on their farm. Rare, but not unknown. Old Warden Aerodrome started out as a farm strip - for his lordship, Richard Shuttleworth. There are several vintage aircraft operations around the UK that still operate out of airstrips or dedicated fields.

    Back in the 1930s of course almost all airfields were just that - fields. Both military and civilian pilots were expected to both plan for and practice emergency landings in suitable 'ordinary' fields. Full 'practice' landings occurred pretty regularly, a remarkable number local to the pilot's popsie's house (I'm not sure women pilots practised the reverse - not that I've come across, anyway). Prior ground level surveys would be a good idea, but not always done. Real forced landings weren't that unusual, either.

    Even today it's not that hard to get a general aviation taildragger into an ordinary fallow field. The current prevalence of nosewheel instrument boxes regulated to using runways has cause a distortion of what people think aviation used to look like before the big war.

  5. Chinapilot

    'Farm Strip' is a particularly English expression for any airfield that is not 'mainstream'...and of course most of them being on farms make the title obvious.
    They can range from very exclusive to ones with many aircraft based there.
    Many are very low key due to a public that don't have the same relationship with aviation that was prevalent in the '30s,or even up to the '70s for that matter.
    The first poster alluded to an interest in them by the authorities which exists today but fortunately there aren't many 'air pirates' around... :-)
    'Off -piste' landings are reasonably common still for adventurous pilots as, almost uniquely, in the UK you only need the landowners permission to land on a suitable field.

  6. Black Dog.

    Farm Strip flying is very much alive and well in the UK, just low-profile. Lockyears is handy, but my copy here probably lists perhaps less than half of the actual strips, so it’s far from rare. Similarly the CAA's charts fall well short. There are many reasons for this lack of promulgation, but the prime ones are privacy and planning. Licensed strips normally charge a fixed landing fee, many unlicensed (Farm.) strips, even if they expect a donation might just have a 'charity box'. There is thus every incentive for people to gravitate towards them if they and their machine are suitable. However, many strips also operate on the ‘Thirty Day’ planning rule. This states that any landowner may use his land for any (Lawful) purpose he chooses for thirty days per annum. It’s the same loophole that has allowed the proliferation of car-boot sales etc. It doesn’t specifically limit landings or take-offs, so in theory, one could land and take-off all day on any of those chosen days. It does mean however, that strip owners often jealously guard their allotted days…!
    Although some strips house microlights and a few rather dog-eared PFA/LAA types, there are also some very delectable machines, from home built and classics, right up to and including real ‘warbirds’. It's a parallel experience to normal GA. It’s free from much of the hassle and bureaucracy and the anoraks that sometimes hang around GA airfields. It does however mean there is a lot of grass-cutting, and, if you screw-up, there’s no one there to drag your sorry ass out. It does though, allow one to fly, if one wishes, very old aeroplanes, non radio and imagine how it might have been when the world was young. Living history in a way, without having to dress-up like a berk. A veritable time-warp.
    Whilst before the last war it was indeed common, and even necessary to set aside a whole field - owing to the poor crosswind characteristics of many a/c then current, this is almost unheard of now, as there is a lot of pressure on land. To mow it would be a nightmare - and who wants to land in a flock of sheep..? Being constrained to a set runway can make some types a little tricky to operate at times.
    In 1995 there was a significant move by Customs and Excise, whereby rather than being able to only arrive and depart to and from another nations airspace via a few specially designated airfields, one became, in theory, legally able to depart direct from and fly directly into a private strip when crossing the FIR boundary to and from another airspace. This came about owing to the E.U’s Schengen Agreement which came into effect in 1995. This allows, again, in theory, free travel between Member States. Once informed C&E (..and the UKBA.) has the option to turn out. The same applies to the Police, as Special Branch also always needs to be informed (Even for flights to Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the IOM). Personally, I’ve never had any problems, but I know of some who have, - mainly rotary operators.
    Locals of course, never normally know where flights are going to - or arriving from, and in my long experience, don’t usually give a toss, as long as one keeps any noise-nuisance to a practical minimum.
    There have been a few light-aviation news-stories over the years, such as escaped prisoners trying to steal a/c (IOW.), or be rescued by stolen helis etc, but none that I can recall specifically involving strips and illicit activities, but they may have easily passed me by. I do recall someone getting knobbled for dropping bags of drugs somewhere down by the south coast whilst en-route from France, so some smuggling still occurs, but in the main, it is probably fair to say that most of this material is transported in large shipping-containers, where the risks of getting caught are much less.
    During the wars, the authorities seemed to have rather turned a blind-eye to forces smuggling, which was certainly the case in my family. My grandfather ran into an old chum from the Navy in the 1930’s who was flying some sort of shuttle from Portsmouth or Southampton. Given their blatant smuggling during the Great War and the Russian episode, it takes very little imagination to see such activities taking place at a time when everything was infinitely less regulated than it is now. No radar, no transponders and effectively no radio.
    Reports of strange aerial phenomena also certainly still occur, though not as far as I’m aware, attributable to any earthbound enemies....!

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