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The British Roswell

Uh oh.

England is an exotic land of mystery. The English eat parts of animals I’d never consider putting in my mouth, some of their groceries are named specifically after genitalia, and their secret agents are continually impregnating the women of the world. Americans prefer broken beer bottles at the bar; they prefer top hats and pistols at dawn. Yet, our two countries have so much in common: UFO enthusiasts seize on the flimsiest evidence and hold it up as proof that the earth is being visited by space monsters from beyond the moon.

Take, for instance, the “British Roswell,” wherein a handful of military policemen spotted lights coming from a forest outside an airbase. It is, apparently, one of the “premier cases” of the UFO field, and it’s got some enormous holes in it.

It all began 26 December, 1980. Early in the morning, five men guarding the Royal Air Force base at Woodbrige, bordering the Rendlesham forest spotted lights that they originally thought belonged to a downed aircraft and went out to investigate.

There were a number of lights: red, blue, and white, and they seemed to be flashing on and off. The five men went into the woods with radio equipment with which to stay in contact with headquarters; however, they began having problems (which the UFO enthusiast will quickly attribute to radiation from a flying saucer) so they set up a rely with one man staying at their vehicle.

So the men wander into the forest looking for a crashed light aircraft. The air was full of strange things: they could hear a sound like a woman screaming, noise from nervous farm animals, and they got the impression that all the wildlife in the area was going crazy. They never got close enough to all get a clear look at what it was, but one of the men, Penniston, claimed that he could see a triangular landing gear in the air above him as the object moved away. Over at the airbase, the ranking officer, Col. Halt, spotted three lights on the horizon that moved around and changed colors, as well as one that just blinked. The men were unable to determine what the object in the forest was, and the good colonel was unable to get a radar fix on the objects in the distance, so both groups chose the same course of action: they gave up and went home.

The next day, returning to the site of the supposed landing, men found triangular impressions in the earth and “burn marks” on the trees. Therefore, the UFO community came to one conclusion: a mechanical spaceship had been out and about in the forest that night, wreaking all sorts of havoc.

Allow me to understate the issue when I say that there are some problems with this conclusion. These problems include: what the men in the woods saw, what Col. Hart saw, the ‘physical evidence’ that was seen the next day, the actions of Penniston, and some evidence that has cropped up since the case was first popularized.

First, the men in the woods, who were out looking for lights. They had two things going against them: they were at an airbase near the North Sea. As the men moved through the trees looking for lights, they were surprised to come right on top of a marker beacon, a flashing light used for approaching aircraft. When asked if this could be the source of the lights, Penniston petulantly replied that no, he could tell the difference between this beacon and the mystery lights.

On the original transcript of Penniston’s conversations with headquarters, he says “There it is again… there it is… there it is.” At even intervals. The light was blinking with an even frequency: and it’s the same frequency with which the lighthouse six miles away rotated. The UFO enthusiast would have you believe that the lighthouse is impossible to see from the area in Rendlesham woods; however, the lighthouse is clearly visible even during daylight hours. They claim that the forest and other terrain obscures the view of the ligthouse, but photographs taken by locals totally refute this: Oxford Ness lighthouse is there clear as a bell, especially in December, when the trees have lost all their leaves. This was also visible from Col. Hart’s area, and explains the blinking light he saw. So there were at least two light sources visible from the woods that could have confused the men: a lighthouse and a landing beacon.
But what about the three star-like objects that Col. Hart saw? Well, that’s easy: they were stars. Vega, Deneb, and Sirius, the three brightest stars in the sky. When stars are close to the horizon, they can seem to change colors as their light refracts through the atmosphere, and they can seem to move either as the intensity of that light changes due to the same refractory effect, or due to an optical illusion called the autokinetic effect. A call to the folks at air defense revealed nothing on the radar, so after a while he just went inside and left the things out there. Pretty anticlimactic, considering he was up against an invasion force of monsters from beyond the moon.

The Orford Ness lighthouse. Even the men involved admitted at one point they were probably chasing it, and not a UFO.

The third problem is the supposed physical evidence found at the scene: the triangular landing gear marks and the burn marks on the trees in the areas. For this one, investigators didn’t have to go much further than the locals: the marks made by alien landing gears were actually rabbit holes, perfectly normal and plentiful in the forest. The ‘burn marks’ on the nearby trees were marks made by local woodsmen to denote which trees ought to be cut down. And that’s not skeptical speculation: they actually found a local fellow who said “yeah, that was me. I did that.” I like to imagine that these locals laugh a little to themselves at the city-slicker UFO enthusiasts mistaking rabbit holes for landing pad impressions as they wait in line for their monthly allowance of eel pies and plaid wool trousers.

In terms of physical evidence, I should mention the issue of the radar sightings of the object. The UFO enthusiast claims that the radar operators tracked the object for some minutes, but that the evil government forces destroyed the records. This is nothing short of mythology: nowhere in any of the original reports, in any of the conversations between the men and HQ, or between Col. Hart and HQ mentions radar. There is no evidence that these radar contacts existed, simply because they never did. In fact, the total lack of any corroborating radar evidence is why the government never really took the reports seriously.
While we’re on the subject of garbage made up after the fact, I should mention that the UFO enthusiasts claim that the men were made to swear oaths that they saw nothing, and that they were told to shut up or they and their families would be killed. “Bullets,” they were supposedly told, “are cheap.” Considering that the authorities have hemorrhaged information about this case, and that the principal characters continue to talk about it with impunity, does this really make sense? Or is it likely that these details, for which there is no evidence, were just added on later by UFO enthusiasts to build up the story? You don’t need to consult Occam for this one.

So 100% of the physical evidence has been easily and clearly explained. What about the men that saw the object? Well, only one of them, Penniston, claimed to actually see the object. I mean no disrespect when I say this, but that guy acted a bit weird afterwards. In television interviews, he’s shown off a little notebook in which he claims he made notes as the whole event was unfolding. Oddly, none of the other men saw his notebook at the time, and it’s not mentioned in any of the early debriefing reports. The notebook also has the wrong date (27 December) and the wrong time (12:20, by which he probably means 0020, instead of the well and thoroughly established 0300.)

While his original reports describe the area where the five men saw the lights, the “traditional” site for the landing, Penniston later claimed that there was a second landing site some few hundred meters from the east gate of the airbase, where he alone spotted the craft. None of the other witnesses mention this secondary site, and none of his original notes and sketches mention it. What are we to make of Penniston’s strange actions? At the very least, it should be clear that his erratic behavior and apparent making things up after the fact should cast his original information into doubt.

So what are we left with? No physical evidence, no radar contact, and the only person who actually saw a spaceship is doubtful at best. It doesn’t look good for Britain’s most famous case.

This is where the case takes an unwitting turn into absolute, stuttering hilarity.

In 2003 an ex-USAF military policeman named Kevin Conde, came forward with a startling tale. It seems that there was a guy manning the back gate who was always seeing things, always calling in reports of UFOs and generally making a doofus out of himself. So what did Conde do? Well, it seems that MPs have a bit more time on their hands than they ought to: he got into his police car, turned on the PA system, and held red and green filters in front of the spotlight. In his immortal words:

“It wasn’t a UFO, it was a 1979 Plymouth Volare.”

Of course, Conde can’t remember the exact date that he pulled his prank, but things it would have been well before the holidays. On the other hand, he claims that MPs are fond of practical jokes, and the good ones are sometimes pulled over and over and over again.

Now, I’d love to tag this whole thing as due to Conde, but he says he didn’t do it. What possible reason could he have for not owning up if it were, in fact, his prank that started this whole craze? I mean, aside from the fact that it cost the government a gazillion dollars, made them look like a bunch of fools, and started a huge debate about spacemen visiting our planet? To say nothing of the fact that if it were in fact his prank gone wrong, the government would screw him straight through his clothes? His explanation, though not totally satisfactory, covers all of the bases: the lights that weren’t the landing beacon or the lighthouse, and the strange sounds (from the PA system.)

So there’s no direct physical evidence, no indirect physical evidence such as radar tracking, the only witness that actually saw a spacecraft has since made insane and unreliable claims, all the other witnesses saw only lights that can be easily explained as perfectly natural things, and someone pulled a prank at about the same time that would have duplicated what was seen perfectly? Good gravy, England, this is your “best UFO case ever” and “the British Roswell”? I’m not impressed. Bad form, old beans.

Be seeing you.

Further Reading:

Ian Ridpath's thorough deconstruction of the Rendlesham sham:

Late December, 2010 - Update!

So there I am, doing my normal every day thing, you know, whiskey bottles and supermodels, when the following appears in my inbox:

Mr. Sakulich:

I found and read your article on the Rendlesham Forrest, and it's actually one of the better ones. There were a couple of items though.

Conde didn't own up to being the actual UFO, because I can't be sure I was.

Yup, I'm Conde. For a lot of reasons that would take pages to detail I can, and will, swear that I pulled the practical joke, but I can't verify that I'm the one that led Halt to go walk-about in a foreign country. The folks doing the walkabout were Security Specialists, and I was Law Enforcement - Same squadron, mostly different operations, and radio nets.As for whether or not I'd have gotten in trouble over the joke. It's possible, but then again, everyone plays practical jokes and usually folks just laugh about them unless someone ends up dead or something is broken. What I did was not all that out of line. I personally think it was one of my better ones, right up there with the night scope on the control tower, which is another long war story.If I was the one that sent Halt off on his nature walk, and had been aware of it I was a good enough NCO, with the performance track record, that I'd have stopped the jaunt and taken the heat.

The one thing that I can tell you is that we did not consider all the BS about UFO's as anything more than a joke at the time. Frankly we laughed our asses off. I did not even find out how big it had gotten until 2005. I only told my story because I assumed folks would want to hear it. Apparently the Penniston, Warren, Burroughs, Halt et al crowd have been milking it for years.

Also keep in mind that I'm doing the best on the details, but it was 30 years ago, and not a significant event at the time. I've since learned that getting between a believer and his belief is an invitation to learn the true meaning of the term vitriol.This Quote from your web sites is about the most concise and to the point explanation of how I feel about the subject I've ever read. I wish I had your ability to express myself:

"No, really, why are you doing this?There was an episode of South Park dealing with ‘psychic’ John Edwards where one of the characters says it best: It was something along the lines of “the world is full of important questions: who we are, why we’re here, where we’re going. And we’ll never get answers to these questions when people buy into this silly crap.” If you want to believe in UFOs, fine, but my goal is to ensure that you don’t believe without questioning. Sales of merchandise on the paranormal and UFOs is skyrocketing nationwide; if people put their money, time, and energy into something useful, we’d have a cure for cancer by now."

I have never ceased to be fascinated about how people always want to select the most outlandish story to explain otherwise simple events. This weird drive I have to understand this freakish twist in the human psyche is why I can't leave this alone even though all I get for my efforts is abuse. Can you spell Occam’s razor?

Several of the non-believers are trying to inject some rationality into the debate, but I kinda think it is a lost cause.What has brought it up again is the believers are having a 30th reunion at Woodbridge, and they have started a campaign for reparations from the government for the horror they've gone through.Let me know if you are interested in any more details.


Kevin Conde

Yuba City, CA

Author's Response: Holy shit! THE Kevin Conde sent me an email! Dude, that's awesome. Also, I apologize for Conde's quite right criticism - sometimes, for purposes of comedy or just general timing, I get more the 'gist' of things correct than things 100% dead on the money. So, please pardon my sometimes sloppy speaking. Also, the idea that it was just a practical joke back in the day, and then in 2005 he found out how much it had blown up is fascinating to me. Right now, is something I've done a big deal someplace and I don't know about it? That sort of thing keeps me up at night.