UFOs in History: 1916 Incident> [1 ¦ 2 ¦ next]



Dr David Clarke

Reports of unidentified flying objects by the crews of military aircraft form some of the most challenging evidence for the existence of ‘exotic’ aerial phenomena. Strange flying objects have been frequently reported by pilots since the time of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting which ushered in the ‘flying saucer’ craze of 1947. A lesser known fact is that long before Arnold's sighting made world headlines, British naval and air force pilots were reporting ‘close encounters’ with strange flying objects to intelligence officers at flight de-briefings.

Reports by bomber crews of strange lights and rockets over the European and Pacific during the 1939-45 conflict, dubbed ‘Foo-fighters’ by the Americans, formed part of the testimony considered by the early US and British inquiries into saucer phenomena. The Foo-fighter mystery of WW2 is usually the starting point for discussions of UFO reports from military sources. However, it is a little known fact that similar reports of aerial phenomena, which today would be called ‘unidentified flying objects,’ were also made by pioneer fighter pilots of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) during the First World War. One of these appears to be the very first encounter reported by a military pilot with an unidentified flying object.

From the commencement of hostilities in 1914 the British War Office and the newly-formed Home division of the Secret Service Bureau - which became known as MI5 in 1916 - began to receive many reports of enemy aircraft and moving lights above the British coastline. The possibility that German spies were using sophisticated signal lights to communicate with the crews of Zeppelin airships was a very real possibility at this period of great tension and fear. As a result, when real air-raids against Britain led by squadrons of German airships began in 1915 the British Government decided to crack down upon what it called the “false reports” of phantom airships and signallers.

One year later, GHQ issued a secret Intelligence Circular which concluded there was “no evidence on which to base a suspicion that this class of enemy activity ever existed.” It said an investigation by Intelligence officers had satisfactorily explained 89 percent of the reports received and the authors attacked “the groundless rumours regarding the presence of hostile airships over Great Britain which of late have become very frequent.” In addition, the Military Authorities decided to impose severe penalties upon what it called “irresponsible persons” who were originating and circulating such stories. They would be dealt with, it threatened, “under the Defence of the Realm regulations” which included imprisonment.

Within months of the secret report's completion, ‘phantom’ aircraft were reported by the Britain’s own pioneer fighter pilots who were attempting to defend a vulnerable London from night-time raids by the dreaded Zeppelins. Early in 1916 a mysterious light in the sky was spotted and chased by a pilot of the Royal Flying Corps on patrol above the capital. On the night of January 31 the crews of nine Zeppelins of the German Navy left their sheds on the Continent with orders from their commanding officer, Peter Strasser, to attack England middle and south.

With their giant hydrogen-filled envelopes weighted down with explosives and incendiary bombs, the squadron of aerial monsters crossed the North Sea with plans to attack industrial targets in England. These included the important steelworks in Sheffield and Liverpool docks. However, the plan was thrown into chaos by atrocious weather conditions of freezing rain, snow and thick ground mist which shielded much of the countryside from the air and made accurate navigation impossible. Amidst much confusion secondary targets in the North and the Midlands were bombed including Birmingham, Burton-on-Trent and Scunthorpe, leaving 71 people dead and 113 injured.

Despite the confusion, the War Office was able to plot the precise course of all nine raiding airships and it has been established that none of the enemy ventured further south than the Norfolk Broads. Because intially at least one of the raiding Zeppelins turned south after crossing the East Anglian coastline, the War Office calculated that if the course was held they would be over London at 8.10 p.m. Orders to this effect were sent to the fighter aerodromes defending the capital, one of these being Hainault Farm, four miles north of Romford in Essex.

At 7.40pm Lieutenant R.S. Maxwell arose from Hainault Farm aerodrome in his BE2C fighter but saw nothing unusual until 8.25 when according to his report:

.my engine was missing irregularly and it was only by keeping the speed of the machine down to 50 mph that I was able to stay at 10,000 feet. It was at this time when I distinctly saw an artificial light to the north of me, and at about the same height. I followed this light northeast for nearly 20 minutes, but it seemed to go slightly higher and just as quickly as myself, and eventually I lost it completely in the clouds.”

At around the same time Claude Ridley, the pilot of a second BE fighter, reported seeing what he called a moving light” in the sky over London which he followed and lost in dense cloud. It is a possibility that both Maxwell and Ridley had caught a fleeting glimpse of each other’s biplanes, but it was impossible for them to confirm visual contact without radio sets. During the air-raid 16 British pilots took off in a desperate bid to engage the high-flying Zeppelins, but according to the surviving records not one succeeded in engaging the enemy. At this stage in the air war, few people outside the embryonic army and navy flying corps - which merged to create the RAF in 1918 - had any real idea of the problems involved in night-time interceptions, with take offs and landings being particularly hazardous procedures. Two of the RFC’s most experienced pilots lost their lives during the course of the night, when the flimsy aircraft collided with fog-shrouded trees during their attempts to become airborne.

Confusion, inexperience and bad weather may well account for Maxwell’s sighting. But what happened next, just 20 minutes later, makes an altogether different - and far stranger - interpretation of that night’s events a distinct possibility. »

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