Rendlesham Forest UFO Crash (1980)
The Rendlesham Forest “UFO Crash” is perhaps the best known “UFO case” in Britain. It has all the ingredients of an intriguing mystery story: determined investigators facing incredible difficulties, military officers “covering the truth”, shady characters making their appearance and the promise of a final revelation that would shake the Pillars of Heaven. But what really happened in East Anglia?
Brenda Butler is an independent investigator of strange phenomena from Leiston, Suffolk. In the late 1970s she befriended a US airman belonging to Military Police called ‘Steve Roberts’ (all names in vowels are pseudonymous, a common and annoying feature of UFOlogy) serving at RAF Bentwaters, a large base in East Anglia leased to the US Air Force (USAF) together with her nearby satellite base, RAF Woodbridge. In January 1981 this same airman contacted Brenda and, since he knew very well her interest into all sorts of strange occurrences, told her an incredible story.
On the 27th of December 1980 a UFO had landed in Rendlesham Forest because of a malfunction, half a mile from RAF Woodbridge. High ranking officers from the base had met the stranded aliens and offered them help. The little grey men managed to fix their contraption and then flew off. Steve Roberts knew about this because he had been on duty that night, was sent to help secure the site, and saw the meeting himself.
Brenda at first thought that her friend was pulling her leg. She had heard many stories about military personnel meeting aliens from outer space, or UFOs landing on Ministry of Defence (MoD) land, and each one of them had turned out to be unsubstantiated at the very least. However, even given her doubts, she decided to see if there was more to it.
It’s not my intention to fully chronicle Brenda Butler’s work and how she was assisted in her investigations by Dot Street: an accredited regional investigator for BUFORA from Oulton Broad, Suffolk, and the well-known BUFORA Director of Investigations: Jenny Randles. My intention is just to outline the main pieces of the puzzle and perhaps offer some interpretation of this intriguing story.
At first the three women’s hard work seemed to be getting them nowhere. Squadron Leader Donald Moreland, the RAF base commander at Bentwaters, was very friendly but offered no practical help. The Americans either simply refused to help, or just seemed bent on spreading the most fantastic stories about chasing UFOs in the woods or meeting little grey men.
A lot of disinformation was probably spread at this point, including an OMNI (a popular science magazine) article featuring an interview with USAF Colonel (soon to be promoted to Brigadier General) Ted Conrad. Conrad confirmed that airport security had met a UFO in the woods near RAF Woodbridge. He denied any aliens were seen: the men had chased it on foot amongst the trees before it disappeared “taking off at phenomenal speed”. Conrad also said that he mounted an official investigation: a triangular set of tracks were found in the woods and the men’s accounts were consistent with each other so he concluded they were not lying.
Little help came from the farmers living near RAF Woodbridge: nobody saw anything except for a couple of elderly brothers, Rolly and Jim Clark, who clearly talked about electrical interference and heavy military activity on the 27th December. However they saw no UFOs.
Luckily help came from other sources. The Forestry Commission, to which Rendlesham Forest belongs, proved to be very helpful. Their men confirmed that some trees in the forest were damaged on the top and had to be felled. They also confirmed that wildlife in the area had been disturbed and brushed aside rumours about the UFO story being used to cover a “wild party” thrown by US servicemen in the woods. According to the Commission every time the Americans had a party in the woods they left behind huge piles of garbage, and this had not been the case. They felt the whole UFO story was being used to cover up an aircraft mishap of some kind.
‘David Potts’, a civilian radar operator at RAF Watton told that in the early hours of 27 December 1980 he had tracked an unknown signal over the sea. He wasn’t particularly impressed because it was a common occurrence and he put it down to a false signal. Next day plain clothes men with an American accent came asking for copy of the radar tapes: Potts thought they belonged to OSI (USAF’s own intelligence agency) or to the National Security Agency since they had the necessary security clearances so he was quite surprised when these usually tight-lipped men freely offered a fantastic story: the signal he had tracked was not caused by equipment malfunction but by a metallic UFO which had been sighted near a large airbase in East Anglia!
Steve Roberts later met with Brenda Butler again and added some details to his story. He now told that the NCO leading his patrol, one Adrian Bustinza, upon seeing the UFO said “Not this **** again!”. Apparently Bustinza had a very similar experience a few years before at Elmdorf AFB in Alaska (USA) but didn’t like to talk about it. Later investigators on both sides of the Atlantic tried to find this man but it was as if he “disappeared from the face of earth”. Perhaps he never existed in the first place?
All inquiries at the MoD, including a visit by Brenda Butler, Jenny Randles and Dot Street at Whitehall proved fruitless: not only did they deny any knowledge of this particular incident, they even went as far as denying possession of any UFO report!
Breakthrough or Deception?
But help was forthcoming from across the Atlantic for CAUS, a US investigation group, had obtained a most remarkable document through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1983. Bob Todd, one of CAUS leaders, excitedly called this “One of the best and most interesting UFO documents I’ve ever read”. It was the so called “Halt’s memo”, a report written by USAF Lieutenant Colonel Charles Halt for the MoD describing the events. Todd and CAUS forwarded copies to a number of British UFO investigators and groups as soon as possible. Later Squadron Leader Moreland confirmed to the British investigators that he received the report from Halt himself and forwarded it to Whitehall.
I’ll summarize the contents of this report: in the early hours (3 am) of the 27 December 1980 patrolmen saw unusual lights in the woods just outside RAF Woodbridge. They were given permission to go outside the base perimeter on foot. The men reported seeing a strange glowing object in the woods: it was metallic looking with a red light on top, a bank of blue lights underneath and rested on legs. The men tried to get close but the object manoeuvred through the trees and disappeared. The object was sighted again near the back gate around 4 am. The next day three depressions were found where the object had been sighted on the ground. Radiation (gamma rays) readings of about 0.1 milliroentgens were obtained for these depressions (a common feature of many alleged UFO landings). A nearby tree also returned moderate radiation readings (0.05 milliroentgens). Later that same night (the 28th) there was another UFO sighting: there were many witnesses including Lt.Col. Halt himself.
The most curious and underlooked fact about this report is that, according the Pentagon itself, it didn’t originate in the USA. The Americans obtained it from the British MoD and then passed it on to one of their own investigators. British investigators were of course puzzled by their own government’s attitude, denying any knowledge of the incident and then passing official (and probably secret) documentation on to a foreign country to be released to the public.
The release of this report seemed to open the floodgates. Many witnesses were identified or came forward at this point telling their own story: the most talkative was ‘Art Wallace’ (later identified as Larry Warren), a young airman belonging to airport security that had been discharged from the USAF shortly after the incident on medical reasons. He said that early on the 27th he was ordered to bring some lightning equipment into the woods. He wasn’t told why. After downloading his truck at a staging point (he estimated about forty persons were present, some with sophisticated equipment) he was ordered to leave his sidearm and walk to a precise spot. Here he observed a “luminous fog”.
Shortly afterwards a red light came from the sea and a “silent explosion” took place. The UFO was now visible: it matched the description in Halt’s memo perfectly. Warren remembers feeling very tired after the experience and being allowed to go straight to bed. He fell asleep in his uniform. Next day he was debriefed by OSI officers.
Warren’s version of the facts was one of the most colourful and detailed: many reports conflicted with each other and most seemed to create even more confusion on the whole incident.
Brenda Butler, Jenny Randles and Dot Street decided to get to the bottom of the question and managed to talk a few times with the reserved Lt.Col. Halt. He confirmed everything he wrote in his report but added little more. His only concession was brushing aside any rumour of “alien contact” and calling Warren’s story “a gross exaggeration”.
A little after Halt’s memo was released investigations seemed to hit a rubber wall. The MoD was forced to confirm it kept UFO records “for statistical purposes” starting from 1962 (officials claim that previous records were destroyed): the sheer volume of this data, including reports from the police, civilian pilots, military officers etc is simply staggering. According to Whitehall these reports were simply filed away, there was no follow up of any kind. This particular episode prompted them to slowly release part of this material to the public over the following twenty years: according to Jenny Randles the slowness of the operation is dictated more by MoD’s own Byzantine bureaucratic procedures than by secrecy.
In the meantime Wallace, once regarded as a key witness, was quickly losing credibility as his stories got wilder with each retelling. As soon as he underwent regressive hypnosis (yet another plague of contemporary UFOlogy) his stories became so bizarre as to raise doubts even among his staunchest supporters. He went as far as claiming that he met an actual alien in an underground facility in Britain!
I must add here a personal note: while I much admire the three investigators’ determination I have always had problems with how they dealt with Lt.Col. Halt and his young son, Chuck.
Halt had made abundantly clear that he either didn’t know anything else or simply couldn’t tell more. This should have meant that his usefulness as a source of information was over. Yet the investigators kept on pestering him, sometimes using tactics dangerously bordering on stalking.
Chuck willingly helped the British investigators: he showed them the exact spot in the woods were the landing was supposed to have taken place and added many other details. He obviously welcomed the excitement being a lonely teenager living in a military base on foreign land. At first Lt.Col.Halt seemed to have no problems with this but as soon as the investigators became too persistent he warned them to stay away from his house and leave his son alone.
Sadly the investigators didn’t seem to get his message and one evening Dot Street was detained by military security following a particularly embarrassing incident. A friendly English policeman managed to have the Americans drop any charge but advised her and her fellow investigators to stop harassing Halt and his son and begged them to stay away from the base for the time being “for your own good”.
I am writing this as a cautionary note: know when and where to stop and understand when you have overstayed your welcome.
Here we are, almost thirty eight years later, and little new evidence has surfaced. So what can we say? We have an official document describing an incredible event. It has all the chrisms of officialdom: it came from Whitehall’s archives (via USAF) and was released to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. Nobody, not even hardcore sceptics, ever came forward claiming it’s a fake or a forgery. Halt confirmed writing it in person more than once and Moreland confirmed receiving the report and forwarding it to the MoD. Both men confirmed the facts given but added little more.
We now know that a farmer living near RAF Woodbridge named Higgins received money from the USAF following “problems with his cattle”, problems related to the December 1980 incident(s). It must have been a sizeable sum since he was able to move to a larger farm in Devon just after cashing the cheque in.
We know Art Wallace’s real identity though since then he lost pretty much all of his credibility by claiming meeting with aliens, having been “chosen” for first contact and so on. And that’s pretty much it.
I put much thought and rewrote several parts of this essay more than once because they didn’t seem to make much sense. Then I realized that’s precisely what I can say about this whole case: it doesn’t make one tiny bit of sense. We have an official report of a UFO landing mixed with wild rumours about the whole incident being used as a cover-up for an aircraft accident of some kind and even wilder rumours about little grey man repairing their flying saucer with the help of military officers!
The usual reaction of the military to any allegation of a UFO episode is either to deny everything or to offer some “rational” explanation, the crazier the better. In this case they offered the ultimate explanation: it was UFO, our men saw it and it left physical traces. What more do you want from us? And that’s precisely where everything stops making sense.
Butler, Brenda; Randles, Jenny; Street, Dot Sky Crash: a Cosmic Conspiracy Neville Spearman, Sudbury, 1984
Vallee, Jacques Revelations Anomalist Books, San Antonio, 2008