The Bentwaters UFO Incident
By Nick Pope
December 2010 marked the 30th anniversary of Britain’s best known and most compelling UFO case, known in the UK as the Rendlesham Forest incident, though often referred to by Americans as the Bentwaters incident. In this article I intend to give an overview of the case, focus on the official Ministry of Defence (MoD) and United States Air Force (USAF) investigations, and then assess some of the theories that have been put forward to explain what happened.
The First Night
In the early hours of 26 December 1980, military personnel at the twin bases of RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge (UK bases operated by the USAF) in Suffolk saw a strange light in Rendlesham Forest, which lies between the two bases. Acting on the possibility that an aircraft might have crashed, three men were sent out to investigate. Two of them approached the light and encountered a small, triangular-shaped craft that had landed in a clearing. Nearby farm animals were going into a frenzy. One of the security police officers, Jim Penniston, got close enough to touch the side of the object. He and another of the airmen present, John Burroughs, attached sketches of the craft to the witness statements they subsequently made. Penniston’s sketch includes strange symbols that he saw on the craft’s hull, which he likened to Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The Second Night
Two nights later, the UFO returned. The Deputy Base Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Halt, was informed, and together with a small group of men went out into the forest to investigate. As they progressed, radio communications were subjected to interference and powerful mobile generators (called light-alls) that Halt had brought to illuminate the forest began to cut out. Despite his initial plan to “debunk” the UFO sighting, Halt and his team then encountered the UFO, which at one point fired beams of light down at his party and – later on – at the Woodbridge facility. "Here I am, a senior official who routinely denies this sort of thing and diligently works to debunk them, and I'm involved in the middle of something I can't explain", he subsequently commented.
Halt had taken a hand-held tape recorder into the forest
with him to document his investigation. This tape is now in the public domain
and one can hear the rising tension in his voice and the voices of his men, as
the UFO approaches:
"I see it too ... it's back again ... it's coming this way ... there's no doubt about it ... this is weird ... it looks like an eye winking at you ... it almost burns your eyes ... he's coming toward us now ... now we're observing what appears to be a beam coming down to the ground ... one object still hovering over Woodbridge base ... beaming down".
The MoD Investigation
Charles Halt reported the various incidents to the MoD in a
memorandum dated 13th January 1981. Despite the innocuous title “Unexplained
Lights”, the document described the UFO as being “metallic in appearance and
triangular in shape ... hovering or on legs”. In what may have been either a
typographical error or a slip of the memory, Halt gave incorrect dates for both
sightings, recording each as having taken place a day later than was, in fact,
The MoD’s investigation included an inconclusive search for radar evidence that might have corroborated what was seen, but the error in the dates meant the wrong tapes were checked. Of far more interest was an assessment of radiation readings that had been taken from the landing site with a Geiger counter. The readings had peaked in three holes in the ground which formed the shape of an equilateral triangle, which had been found at the spot where the craft landed. The Defence Intelligence Staff stated that the readings seemed “significantly higher than the average background”. Their report suggested that the radiation was between seven and eight times what would have been expected for the area concerned. This official assessment is now in the public domain, as the MoD’s case file on the event was released to author Georgina Bruni and to other UFO researchers in 2001.
The USAF Investigation
In parallel to the MoD investigation, Charles Halt undertook his own inquiry, interviewing Penniston and Burroughs and taking formal statements from them and three other airmen who had been involved in the first night’s activity. However, some of the USAF witnesses have claimed that other senior officers, including Base Commander Colonel Ted Conrad and Chief of Security Police Major Malcolm Zickler, were undertaking separate investigations. It is also alleged that the Air Force Office of Special Investigations was involved, along with other unidentified agencies.
Shortly after the event, General Gabriel, Commander in Chief, United States Air Forces in Europe, visited the bases and took possession of Charles Halt’s tape recording. This is confirmed in a document in MoD’s case file, but it is not known if other material relating to the incident was involved or what further action was taken.
Cold Case Review
In 1994 I undertook what police would call a ‘cold case review’ of the Rendlesham Forest incident. What I found shocked me. It was soon clear that the original investigation had been fundamentally flawed by procedural errors, delay and poor information-sharing. The USAF had not cordoned off the landing site, taken soil samples or used a metal detector to search the area. The incident was not reported to the MoD until nearly three weeks after the events and when it was, the dates in the official USAF report were incorrect. The USAF didn’t pass the witness statements (including Jim Penniston’s sketch, which would have made it abundantly clear to everyone that a structured craft was involved) to the MoD, nor did they tell MoD until some time later that General Gabriel had been given evidence relating to the case, which had not been passed to MoD.
MoD too had committed errors. The Defence Intelligence Staff assessment of the radiation levels at the landing site had not been passed to the USAF. Critically, no follow-up interviews were conducted with Halt or any of the witnesses. The fact that the USAF had been so slow to report to the MoD may have been a factor here, as the clear implication was that the events were not judged to be of any concern. In fact, the delay was a consequence of Halt’s uncertainty about how to proceed, given the unprecedented nature of the events. The person who he needed to ask – the RAF Liaison Officer, Squadron Leader Donald Moreland – was on leave.
Most of these failings resulted from confusion about jurisdiction, though my assessment was that both the US and the UK had jurisdiction (jurisdiction can be concurrent – i.e. shared) but that the UK had primacy – i.e. should have led the investigation.
In fact, each party thought the other should take (and was taking) the lead. The MoD view seemed to be that the USAF had matters in hand. But when the senior USAF officer in the UK, General Robert Bazley, was briefed on the incident by the officer in overall command of the twin bases, Colonel Gordon Williams, he stated “It’s a Brit affair”, on the basis that the incident had occurred off base.
It’s well-documented that policy – both in MoD and in the USAF – was to ‘play down’ the UFO phenomenon and the extent of official involvement with the subject. Therefore, it suited each party to drop the matter, on the assumption that the other had lead responsibility.
A number of exotic theories have been suggested in an attempt to explain the Rendlesham Forest incident. These include extraterrestrial visitation, inter-dimensional activity and even the involvement of time travellers from the future. Intriguingly, this latter theory has found favour with two of the key witnesses, Jim Penniston and John Burroughs. Even the ever-cautious Charles Halt, while choosing his words carefully, states “I still have no idea what we saw that night. It must have been beyond our technology ... I do know one thing, without a doubt: these objects were under intelligent control”.
Exotic theories are put forward on the basis that no conventional explanation seems to satisfactorily explain what occurred. However, as I know from my own official UFO investigations, when a sighting cannot be explained in conventional terms, it can only ever be legitimately categorised as “unknown”. Anything else is only a guess.
A number of theories have been put forward by sceptics, in an attempt to provide a conventional explanation for what happened. The most serious allegation is that alcohol and/or hallucinogenic drugs had played a part in this. It would be foolish to suggest that excessive drinking and illegal drug-taking never occurred at Bentwaters and Woodbridge. However, there is no evidence to suggest any of the witnesses were drunk or had taken illegal drugs. Moreover, security police and law enforcement personnel are routinely checked for any indications of drink or drugs before going on duty.
Two other suggestions are that the incident was caused by a prank involving a police car with its flashing lights being used to spook personnel on guard duty, or a stolen truck of manure that was set on fire in Rendlesham Forest. In evidential terms, both theories hang on unsubstantiated claims from a single individual. There is no evidence that such a prank or a crime ever occurred, let alone evidence that such events – even if they did take place, as claimed – had anything to do with the Rendlesham Forest incident.
Astronomical events such as meteors, fireballs and rocket re-entries have also been proposed, but such events are short-lived and it is very difficult to see how any such events would be compatible with what the witnesses saw and the time period over which their experiences occurred.
The best-known sceptical theory is that the witnesses misidentified the Orford Ness lighthouse (or possibly the nearby Shipwash lightship). This idea was first proposed by local forester Vince Thurkettle, but seems unlikely. The lighthouse was a well-known local feature and not one likely to confuse the witnesses. Furthermore, it isn’t visible from most of the locations where the witnesses actually were. The lighthouse cannot possibly explain Charles Halt’s sighting of a UFO firing beams down at them from above (“lighthouses don’t fly” was his terse response to the suggestion) or hovering over the base at Woodbridge. Indeed, at one point Halt stated he saw the lighthouse to one side of the UFO – proving that they were not one and the same. On a personal note, I have filmed in Rendlesham Forest several times for various TV documentaries and news features. Where the lighthouse is visible from the forest at all, it appears in the distance, as a tiny pinprick of light.
Possible Military Explanations
Two suggestions have been made involving unusual military activity that might explain events. The first is that the craft was a secret, prototype aircraft or drone, probably American, but perhaps even Soviet – might the symbols that Jim Penniston saw have been Cyrillic script? The second theory is that the events were caused by some sort of psyop (psychological operation) where the witnesses were used as ‘guinea pigs’, to see how they would respond to an unusual experience, perhaps involving apparently solid objects being generated by holographic technology – a so-called ‘ghost gun’.
The problem with these theories is that there’s no evidence to support them, either in terms of personal testimony or documentation. Moreover, if a psyop or a secret US aircraft or drone was responsible, it’s most unlikely that a UFO report would have been sent to the MoD, which might have set all sorts of hares running. If rumours of a psyop or a secret aircraft/drone were circulating among USAF personnel or among the local population, it might arguably make sense to launch a counter-intelligence operation and ‘rebrand’ the event as a UFO sighting, but there’s no evidence that any such rumours had started.
A Soviet aircraft/drone is a slightly more plausible theory. This was a time of high international tension and the Bentwaters/Woodbridge bases were two of the most important military facilities in the UK. Critically, all governments involved would have had good reason for saying nothing, or even developing a cover story. The Soviets would not admit to having been conducting espionage activity of this sort, while the US and the UK would have been horrified that the UK’s Air Defence Region had been penetrated with such ease and would not wish any knowledge of such a security breach to circulate among junior military personnel (for morale reasons) or to become public knowledge. But I should stress that this is speculation. As I say, I am aware of no documentary evidence or personal testimony that would support this interpretation of events.
Rendlesham + 30
On the thirtieth anniversary of these events, some of the witnesses are not coping well. Some are angry. Others still show signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. People such as Jim Penniston, John Burroughs and Larry Warren all claim they were let down by the chain of command, which failed to provide proper support after the events. There are more serious accusations that some witnesses were subjected to interrogations in which threats and drugs were used, perhaps to uncover the truth about what they saw, or perhaps to obscure it.
The Rendlesham Forest incident remains unexplained. This is one of the few things one can say with any degree of certainty about these events. Theories – whether they are about extraterrestrials, lighthouses, time travellers from the future, burning trucks of manure, psyops, practical jokes or secret prototype drones – are just that: theories; nothing more.
Georgina Bruni once called Rendlesham “Britain’s Roswell”. She was right, but not just in the sense that she meant it, i.e. in terms of the case being significant and well-known. Other parallels can be drawn. New witnesses will emerge, some genuine and some not. Additional documents may come to light. New theories will be put forward. In time, the fortieth anniversary will come; then the fiftieth. Witnesses will pass on, until eventually, nobody directly involved will remain. Ultimately, like Roswell, the events will pass from history into legend.