Summary: Scientists and generals drew up a top secret report on Unidentified Flying Objects and then decided to cover up a wave of rumours and sightings that swept Britain in the 1950s, The Observer can reveal. The existence of the UFO report, written in 1951 and later used to brief Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was denied by the Ministry of Defence for almost 50 years.
By Paul Harris
Scientists and generals drew up a top secret report on Unidentified Flying Objects and then decided to cover up a wave of rumours and sightings that swept Britain in the 1950s, The Observer can reveal.
The existence of the UFO report, written in 1951 and later used to brief Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was denied by the Ministry of Defence for almost 50 years. But the six-page document has recently been unearthed by UFO historians Andy Roberts and David Clarke as they researched a book on UFOs and the Cold War. The report has been a 'holy grail' of British 'ufology' and details the conclusions of a shadowy panel called the Working Party on Flying Saucers. This group was the idea of Sir Henry Tizard, one of Churchill's most trusted scientific advisers during World War II and a key figure behind the development of radar.
But anyone looking for an elusive 'X-file' that confirms the existence of aliens will be disappointed. The report concludes that all sightings were explainable by natural events, such as the weather or meteors, or were of normal aircraft.
But it does speak volumes about the scale of paranoia in Britain at the start of the Cold War. From 1950 onwards, hundreds of UFO sightings were reported across Britain and were regular front page news. Leading public figures, including Lord Louis Mountbatten, came out with their belief that Earth was being visited by aliens.
The phenomenon terrified the top brass on both sides of the Atlantic. Generals were worried that reports of flying saucers could be used by the Soviet Union to disguise an earthly attack or that the sightings were giving the Russians a clue that Britain's radar network was faulty and easy to penetrate - which was actually true but unknown within the Soviet bloc.
'This was a time of great paranoia and fear. The Government took a decision to throw a blanket over the UFO scare and say as little as possible about it,' said Clarke.
'There certainly was a cover-up, but what was being covered up was Cold War paranoia and our fears over our radar system. It was nothing to do with aliens.'
Despite the official silence, the UFO scares did not die down. In 1952 Churchill fired off a memo to his advisers in the wake of fresh UFO sightings in the United States. 'What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth?' Churchill wrote.
Tizard's report was then used to brief the Prime Minis ter on the perceived lack of real threat from UFOs in August of that year. A few months later an order went out expressly banning all RAF personnel from discussing sightings with anyone not from the military.
In trying to underplay the sightings, Britain was following the lead of the United States, which had conducted several studies into its own UFO sightings and also adopted a policy of official secrecy. When the British report was presented, a top CIA scientist travelled over to the meeting to make sure the conclusions of America's closest ally fitted in.
Even today, the report is unlikely to dispel the convictions of thousands of British UFO-believers, despite a collapse in the number of sightings and the closure ear lier this year of the British Flying Saucer Bureau. 'Believers will say that this report is fake or a decoy and that the Government is still hiding something. You cannot win,' said Roberts.
The explanation Roberts and Clarke offer for UFOs is more prosaic than the conspiracy theories of secret alien contact. It lies in mass hysteria. They believe the true importance of the UFO phenomenon lies in the fact that it was an urban myth that gained enough public power to panic the highest echelons of British government - all the way to Winston Churchill.