Tony Rennell Daily Mail, UK
* MoD expert has worked with the two closest witnesses – both servicemen – of the unexplained phenomenon in 1980
* One recalls seeing a metal craft that could travel at ‘impossible’ speed
* Radiation levels in the area were measured at well above the norm
* The two witnesses wrote logs about the incident which they claim were later disappeared as part of a cover-up
* Staff Sergeant Jim Penniston touched the craft and claims to have ‘downloaded’ a message from the future in binary code
* The ‘ship’ was seen on three consecutive nights, including by the officer who was second-in-command of the base
Something eerie stirred in the Suffolk forest. Bright lights were flashing red, blue, white and yellow, piercing the darkness just beyond the perimeter of the U.S. Air Force base. Airman John Burroughs, on patrol in the early hours, went to investigate, the hairs on his arms standing on end with the static electricity that suddenly filled the air, his radio mysteriously malfunctioning.
Ahead, a small clearing among the trees shone as bright as day . . .
And so began a mystery that has lasted a third of a century, the truth of what took place remaining as elusive now as it was on that Boxing Day in 1980. Did an alien space ship land, as the world’s UFO-hunters, ET-watchers and X-Files fans have always been desperate to believe?
Or, this being a strategic base for American front-line fighter planes, was there an accident involving some clandestine Cold War super-weapon, ruthlessly covered up by the military? Or was that strange glow just a trick of light and atmospherics from the beam of a lighthouse on the East Coast a few miles away? Or a case of mass hysteria, perhaps? Or just a Christmas hoax by bored American servicemen a long way from home?
Flights of fancy run wild in any direction you want when it comes to what history has dubbed the Rendlesham Forest Incident – and has done since 1983 when the News Of The World revealed the mysterious happenings in a front-page story headlined ‘UFO lands in Suffolk – and it’s official’ and quoted a top-secret report from one of the base commanders as its source.
Official denials and obfuscation followed. ‘Fabrication,’ screamed the Ministry of Defence. ‘Nothing of defence interest in the alleged sightings. No question of any contact with “alien beings”.’
A local forester put forward the lighthouse theory, which was latched onto by other newspapers eager to rubbish a rival’s scoop.
And so the whole affair descended into a chaos of claim and counter-claim – Close Encounter fanatics on one side, sceptics on the other, and the twain never likely to meet.
But now a new book tries to make a sober, sensation-free assessment of the evidence and trace a path through the undergrowth of intrigue, speculation and downright lies that bedevil this touchiest of subjects.
Author, Nick Pope, has credentials – he was for three years in the Nineties the civil servant in charge of a Ministry of Defence unit investigating ‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomena’, its preferred term for UFOs. He learned to respect the unexplained and not dismiss it out of hand.
He collaborated with two of the closest witnesses to what happened at Rendlesham – Airman Burroughs and his immediate superior in 1980, Staff Sergeant Jim Penniston. Both are retired from the military but still troubled by what they experienced.
Their memories of the scene in the forest are different. In that clearing suddenly bursting with a strange light, Burroughs was engulfed in a beam and stood motionless. Afterwards, he could remember nothing.
But Penniston says he made out a small triangular metallic craft 10ft high, either hovering above the ground or resting on tripod-like legs.
It had a bank of blue lights on one side and a bright white light on top. He took photographs (which were fogged when developed) and sketched the craft in his notebook before stepping into what he calls ‘the bubble field’ – an area of stillness and silence immediately around it where time seemed to stop.
His heart was pounding with fear, he says, but he stretched his hand forward to touch its smooth surface. His fingers skimmed across several rows of strange symbols and hieroglyphics etched in the metal – ‘like nothing I have ever seen before, no aircraft marking, or no writing that I can identify’. He was transfixed.
After a while, he claims, he pulled his hand away, stood back and watched in amazement as the craft slowly lifted off the ground, manoeuvred slowly up through the trees and then accelerated away in an instant into the night sky. In his notebook, he recorded the speed as simply ‘impossible’.
Meanwhile, on the ground he and Burroughs – now brought to his senses – found a triangle of indentations where the craft had stood. Around them, branches were snapped off trees it had passed when landing and taking off. Later, men with Geiger counters picked up radioactive readings way above the norm.
Back at base, the two men wrote out logs of what had happened, using, on advice from superiors, the phrase ‘unexplained lights’ rather than UFO. Those logs later disappeared – removed, the men believe, as part of an operation to bury all evidence of these strange occurrences.
But Penniston, it transpires, kept to himself one staggering aspect of his encounter. When he touched the craft and his hand strayed to one particular symbol – a circle with a triangle inside – sequences of ones and zeroes mysteriously flashed into his brain in what he describes as a ‘telepathic download’. When de-briefed, he said nothing about this, fearing that, if he did, he would be declared unfit for duty. But, in bed at home, he could not sleep for all the buzzing of zeroes and ones in his head: ‘Imprinted in my mind like a hot branding iron.’
He found he could stop whatever activity had taken over his mind only by writing down the sequences in his notebook, scribbling out for three-quarters of an hour pages of figures that made no sense.
And once finished, they vanished from his mind – for 14 years. It was in 1994, after retiring, that he had sleep problems and sought help from a hypnotherapist. Under hypnosis, the events returned, along with the numbers, and now he reckoned he knew their significance.
They were a message, in binary code, for mankind from somewhere. He sought help from code-breakers and passed over to them those lists of ones and zeroes he had compiled back in 1980. After intensive study, they suggested it represented a message, part of which read in English: ‘Exploration of humanity. Continuous for planetary advance.’
Under hypnosis, Penniston had said something inexplicable: ‘They are time travellers – they are us.’
An extraordinary possibility seized his mind: what had been downloaded into his head from the craft in the forest was a message, but one from, of all places, the future. The mysterious Rendlesham UFO was not from another planet but from another time.
Such an idea stretches credibility. Pope himself is uncertain how to evaluate it.
Were the numbers in Penniston’s head real or imagined? And what of the ‘message’ itself, simultaneously profound and banal and reeking of New Age nonsense.
‘Is all this just wishful thinking?’ Pope asks. ‘Or is there a more complex message hidden deeper within the obvious one?’ He admits defeat. ‘I have no answers here.’
On other areas of the Rendlesham story he feels able to come to confident conclusions. That this was not a hoax, not a lighthouse beam, not a Soviet spy plane, but a true visitation, he does not doubt.
The weight of evidence, he insists, is too compelling. The UFO was seen on three consecutive nights by dozens of highly trained military personnel, none of whom had any history of hysteria or penchant for UFO-chasing. On the second occasion those who ventured into the forest included the second-in-command at the base, Lt Col Charles Halt.
It was his official report that fell into the hands of the News Of The World and formed part of its sensational scoop in 1983.
Halt never deviated from what he first said he saw that night when he was told ‘the UFO’s back’ and went to confront it. From his Jeep he witnessed: ‘A light that looked like a large eye, red in colour, moving through the trees.
‘This object began dripping something that looked like molten metal. A short while later it broke into several smaller, white objects which flew away in all directions.
‘A similar object was seen in the southern sky. It was round and, at one point, it came toward us at a very high speed. It stopped overhead and sent down a small pencil-like beam, like a laser beam.
That illuminated the ground about ten feet from us and we just stood there in awe.
‘This object then moved back towards [the base] and continued to send down beams of light, at one point near the Weapons Storage Area. I have no idea what it was we saw. But I do know that it was under intelligent control.’
Years later, as the controversy refused to die down despite official denials from Whitehall and Washington and his own account being called into question, Halt signed a defiantly clear-cut affidavit.
‘I believe the objects I saw at close quarter were extraterrestrial in origin and that the security services of both the U.S. and the UK have attempted – then and now – to subvert the significance of what occurred at Rendlesham Forest by the use of disinformation.’
To the analyst Pope, eye-witness evidence from a man of such seniority has to be taken at face value.
Over 100,000 words, Pope puts together a rationally argued case that the world’s most compelling UFO encounter should be taken seriously and not dismissed as fantasy fodder for the loony fringe.
He lists what he believes has been established beyond doubt: ‘We know a UFO landed next to one of the most sensitive military installations in the Nato alliance. We know the UFO was seen on three consecutive nights by dozens of highly trained military personnel, including the Deputy Base Commander.
‘We know light beams from the UFO struck the ground just feet in front of the Deputy Base Commander and a party of men, and that later, the UFO was seen firing light beams onto the base, particularly, the Weapons Storage Area.
‘We know the UFO was tracked on radar. We know there was physical trace evidence at the landing site, including damage and scorch marks on the trees and higher-than-usual radiation levels.
‘We know that, though the U.S. government will not acknowledge the incident occurred and maintains UFO sightings have not been investigated since 1969, the Rendlesham incident was not only investigated, but that a senior USAF general flew in to be briefed, and removed evidence, without telling the UK government.
‘We know some of the key files and documents that might have provided answers about what happened have apparently been destroyed or lost in mysterious circumstances. We know that while the U.S. and UK governments have consistently sought to downplay or ridicule the UFO phenomenon, behind the scenes, the subject is taken extremely seriously.’
The crunch is this: why can’t the public be told the truth about the Rendlesham Forest Incident? Why can’t witnesses such as Burroughs and Penniston – whose lives were never the same afterwards – be debriefed on what happened to them all those years ago?
One of the scandals of the mystery is that the two former servicemen are now at an age when they need access to their military medical records – and they can’t get them. Official requests are turned down on the grounds the files are classified. Not even the threat of legal action has succeeded in getting them released.
Pope is left to speculate whether there is a sinister military element operating behind all this obsessive secrecy. Do UFOs perhaps hold the key to some unknown technology that could result in weapons of incalculable power?
Have the shutters come down on the Rendlesham Incident to prevent some revelation so earth-shattering that the powers-that-be would go to almost any length to prevent disclosure?
The personal accounts by Burroughs and Penniston and Pope’s informed analysis throw up more questions than answers, but it is hard to argue with their conclusion that someone knows more about this than they are saying.
And until they open up – if they ever do – the rest of us must remain in the dark about the true origin and meaning of those bright flashing lights in a Suffolk forest.
Extracted from Encounter In Rendlesham Forest by Nick Pope with John Burroughs and Jim Penniston, published by Thistle Books on April 27. Available from Amazon.co.uk at £9.99 paperback and £3.99 e-book. © 2014 Nick Pope with John Burroughs and Jim Penniston.