The UFO wave of 1947 begins in January of that year with a series of UFO incursions over England. RAF pilots attempted to intercept the intruders, and the mysterious craft were tracked on radar.
On the evening of January 16, 1947, Flight Lieutenant David Richards took his post as a senior controller and second in command of the Filter Room at Bentley Priory. Discretely tucked away in the midst of fifty acres of beautiful wooded commons in the London suburb of Stanmore, the magnificent Victorian mansion of Bentley Priory seems an unlikely place for a Royal Air Force command center. The enormous hall looks more like the palatial home featured in the BBC’s popular Downton Abbey than it looks like an air force base, but it served the RAF in that capacity from 1936 to 2008. From its headquarters behind those walls, RAF Fighter Command conducted strategic operations, planned and coordinated the great Battle of Britain, and formed the plans for the invasion of Normandy.
England had a series of radar stations along the coastline called the Chain Home (CH). The radar stations in the Chain Home operated independently. When the operators of one of the stations detected a radar return, they reported it by telephone to the Filter Room. Plotters in the Filter Rooms collated the data from adjacent radar stations and laid it out on a gridded map table to trace the aircraft, plotting course, speed, and altitude. Filterers verified the data before passing it on to controllers who could order fighters to attempt interception. Controllers were stationed on a balcony above the filterers which allowed them to see the map grid. When radars reported an unidentified return, the controllers had to quickly determine if the target was friend or foe and decide whether or not to order an interception.
That night, as Lt. Richards looked down on the map grid, an RAF Bullseye exercise was already underway. A fleet of Lancaster bombers lumbered through the skies to simulate an air raid. Mosquito fighter planes stood ready to intercept. The radar stations of the Chain Home swept the skies, tracking the incoming bombers. The phone rang, and the plotters began to trace out an unanticipated and unusual radar return. Richards said, “It was either stationary at a great height or moving erratically at a great speed and then stopping again. If this was a conventional aircraft it would have traveled in a straight line, but it did not do that. This was not an aircraft, it was something very odd.” The operators computed the speed necessary to move between the intermittent appearances on the radar scopes and determined that the unknown object must be moving at a speed of 1000 miles an hour—a speed not possible for aircraft of that era. Later that same year, in October 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first pilot to break the sound barrier (760 mph) in a Bell X-1 rocket plane.
The unknown object must be moving at a speed of 1000 miles an hour—a speed not possible for aircraft of that era.
The radars first detected the intruder somewhere above the Dutch Islands. Flight Lieutenant Easterling, who was also present at headquarters, explained, “It came across towards us during the course of an hour or so, stopping and starting, towards Norfolk where it crossed the coastline towards Lincolnshire. Mossies were the only aircraft we had that could reach that height with oxygen.”
Richards said that the target “did not appear to move in a straight course, but faded and reappeared and sometimes stood still, before fading again.” Richards conferred with controllers at Uxbridge, eliminating the possibility that the radar plot might be some type of false return or weather balloon before they agreed to send a Mosquito fighter to intercept and investigate the mysterious intruder.
In the RAF log books, uncorrelated radar tracks were notated with an X. Their incursions into British airspace were referred to as “X Raids.” In 1945 and 1946, the Chain Home radars had tracked several high-altitude radar returns, flying very fast above 35,000 feet. Suspicion rested on the Soviets. Flight command took the X Raids seriously.
The officers responsible for tracking and intercepting the X Raider in January of 1947 nicknamed the unidentified intruder “Charlie.” The Charlie first appeared on the radar scopes at 38,000 feet, but subsequent radar contacts showed the craft dropping to lower altitudes and matching the same level as the Lancaster bombers involved in the exercise.
Ground control guided a Mosquito fighter on an intercept course which led to a high speed, 42-minute pursuit. The fighter was able to find the Charlie with his air born radar, but he could not overtake the target. The Mosquito never came close enough to make visual contact, but during the course of the pursuit, the Charlie engaged in what appeared to be deliberate evasive maneuvering. The pursuit began at 17,000 feet over the North Sea and, by the time the Charlie finally shook its pursuer, the chase had dropped to an altitude of 6,000 feet inland over Norfolk.
The Charlie did not appear again that night, but its disappearance over Norfolk correlated with a similar incursion several hours earlier. Flight Lieutenant Richards discovered that the radar operators had tracked a similar X Raid shortly after noon that same day when an unidentified target was tracked at 30,000 feet over Norfolk. Aircraft had been diverted to intercept that target too, but by the time they arrived, the mysterious Charlie had vanished.
The event has always stuck in my memory as my only ‘encounter of the third kind’ and although the term ‘UFO’ was not in use then.
The X Raids of January 16 generated significant concern with the Air Ministry, and they ordered Richards to write a confidential report on the incident and submit it to Head Quarters for Fighter Command. Richards recalled, “The event has always stuck in my memory as my only ‘encounter of the third kind’ and although the term ‘UFO’ was not in use then, we wondered if the wily Russians had produced some secret aircraft from a rapid development of German technology which we in the RAF were beginning to realize was so far ahead of our own.”
The British Air Ministry initiated a program code-named “Operation Charlie” with the intention of trapping and capturing the X Raider. They did not need to wait long for Charlie’s return.
Later the same year, when mysterious saucers began to appear over American airspace, the United States military establishment posited the same theory as the Air Ministry. Air Force officials assumed that the Soviets were employing secret, highly advanced aircraft to intrude on US airspace. After all, the Soviets had captured most of Hitler’s research-and-development scientists, including those responsible for the creation of Germany’s V2 rocket program. American officials supposed that the Soviets might have also obtained secret and highly advanced aircraft technology. We now know that neither secret German technology nor the most advanced Soviet technology of 1947 could match the speed, performance, or maneuverability of the X Raiders that buzzed the skies above England or the saucers sighted over North America.
The mistaken assumptions about secret Soviet aircraft are similar to the assumptions that officials made during World War II when Allied pilots encountered unknown phenomena. During the latter years of World War II, Allied pilots over Europe reported being followed and harassed by balls of pulsating light.
“There are three kinds of these lights we call ‘foo-fighters,’” said Lt. Donald Meiers, of Chicago., Ill. “One is red balls of fire which appear off our wing tips and fly along with us, the second is a vertical row of three balls of fire which fly in front of us and the third is a group of about 15 lights which appear off in the distance – like a Christmas tree up in the air – and flicker on and off.”
During the war, no one associated the Foo Fighters with alien visitors or interplanetary craft. Instead, Allied intelligence assumed that the unusual craft must be secret Nazi weapons.
Allied pilots referred to the lights as “Foo Fighters,” a term borrowed from the popular comic strip Smokey Stover. Declassified documents from the RAF contain reports and speculations regarding the unknown phenomenon. In some cases, pilots reported seeing actual craft. One crew reported sighting an “aircraft” two to three hundred feet in length and forty feet wide moving at an estimated speed of 500 miles per hour and sporting four pairs of red lights, spaced at equal distances along its body.
All of these encounters predated the public UFO fascination. During the war, no one associated the Foo Fighters with alien visitors or interplanetary craft. Instead, Allied intelligence assumed that the unusual craft must be secret Nazi weapons.
The RAF collected reports of strange phenomena sighted by its aircrews from 1942 to the end of the war. The Air Ministry shared those reports with US authorities on the assumption that they were encountering German secret weapons. When the war finally ended, Allied occupation forces found no advanced German aircraft or secret weapons that might have explained the strange phenomena. Instead, Allied intelligence officers learned that German pilots had also observed similar aerial phenomena which they assumed to be secret British or American weapons.
Strange aerial phenomenon continued after the war. The United States Government paid special attention to the “Ghost Rocket” phenomenon which plagued Sweden and other Scandinavian countries in the summer and early fall of 1946. The stories of the Scandinavian Ghost Rockets have become iconic in UFO literature as a precursor to the saucer wave of 1947. Reports of objects streaking across the skies of Sweden and her neighboring countries excited fears of Soviet missile tests. Some 2,000 sightings occurred, and many sightings seemed to find corroboration in radar returns. Ultimately, investigators abandoned the Soviet missile theory. No fragments of rockets were ever found, and we now know that the Soviets were not launching missiles over Scandinavian skies in 1946. Declassified documents from the era indicate the United States government followed the investigations into the incidents closely. Ultimately, no explanation for the phenomenon was found, but a declassified US Airforce Europe document dated Nov 4, 1948 states that the “some reliable and fully technically qualified people” at the Swedish Air Intelligence Service had determined that “these phenomena are obviously the result of a high technical skill which cannot be credited to any presently known culture on earth.” The document infers, “They are therefore assuming that these objects originate from some previously unknown or unidentified technology, possibly outside the earth.”
Less than twenty-four hours after the high-speed pursuit of January 16, 1947, the Chain Home radar stations picked up another uncorrelated target at 10,000 feet above the North Sea. Meteor jets prepared to intercept but, before they could scramble, the target faded from their radar scopes. Tensions were running high. The RAF placed several Mosquitoes on stand by for intercept if Charlie should return. Among the pilots prepared to scramble was a Sheffield-born World War II night-fighter veteran, Flight Lieutenant William Kent.
At 7:45 PM, another Charlie appeared on radar over the North Sea, flying at 10,000 feet and moving about 200 mph. The RAF radars continuously tracked the target as it meandered to the west over the sea and then changed direction, turning south toward the Norfolk coast. They followed the radar track for hours before ordering the intercept. Half an hour before midnight, Kent received the order to scramble his Mosquito.
Kent recalled, “I, being one of the very few pilots with any wartime experience and therefore having some understanding of the request, yelled for my navigator and the duty ground crew and leapt off the ground in under four minutes. On a ‘scramble’ we never listen to any briefings on the ops phone—speed in the air is paramount—and so I had no idea what was brewing until, climbing to height and taken over by the close controller, I was given a brisk brief on the R/T [radio telegraph].”
The target was at 18,000 feet as Kent climbed and prepared to close on it. In the darkness, he could not make visual contact, and the target apparently emitted no light. Kent recalled, “At no time at any height despite sporadic radar contacts did I sight anything visually, but on a dark night closing on a target at a speed of 10-20 knots, extreme care is needed to avoid colliding and then only by steering a few degrees off centre does one’s night vision show a darker silhouette—often frighteningly close!”
The pilot “was unable to hold it as the target was jerking violently.” Another report says, “No interception was made on the target which took violent evasive action.”
The Charlie engaged in evasive maneuvers to shake its pursuer. Kent continued his pursuit of the Charlie over East Anglia for twenty minutes. Ground controllers provided him with instructions and coordinates, and his navigator struggled to capture the object on the Mosquito’s radar. RAF log books record that the observer “was unable to hold it as the target was jerking violently.” Another report says, “No interception was made on the target which took violent evasive action.”
As Kent closed to within a mile, the Charlie began to descend rapidly, making it difficult to lock on with the airborne radar. Kent said, “It lost height as stated and the airborne radar contact was far more difficult to establish and hold with the aircraft in descent pointing towards the ground. The navigator’s screen became swamped with ground returns and the blip was in amongst the cluttered screen, somewhere.” As Kent and the target dropped beneath 2,000 feet, they both dropped beneath radar coverage shortly after midnight. Ground controllers could no longer provide information to help Kent track his quarry. After losing the blip from his scopes, Kent’s Mosquito patrolled the area for half an hour, searching for the mysterious craft before returning to base.
That was not to be the last time Kent went up to chase unidentified radar returns, but it was the closest he came to making an actual intercept. The following day the Neatishead fighter controller debriefed Kent and asked him to file a report on the incident.
Charlie appeared again that month, on the night of January 23. Three senior officers from the Central Fighter Establishment were in the command and control at RAF Neatishead when the exercise they were conducting had to be cancelled because of a Charlie at 28,0000 feet. Interceptors were scrambled but before they could reach Norfolk, the Charlie faded from the radar screen.
Officials began to take the situation more seriously. British airspace had been violated three times, and all attempts to intercept the intruder had failed. Each time, the X Raid came from over the North Sea towards Norfolk before rapidly descending and vanishing beneath the range of ground radar. The RAF appointed an officer to investigate the mysterious incursions, but his investigation could only offer the hypothesis that the unidentified radar tracks were caused by weather balloons.
Weather balloons do not travel at speeds between 200 and 1000 mph, nor do they engage in violent evasive maneuvers.
Kent and his crew was told that the target must have been a leaking weather balloon caught in high winds and blown off course. That explanation satisfied Kent and his crew, but it does not stand up to serious scrutiny. Martin Slough of NARCAP (National Aviation Reporting Centre on Anomalous Phenomena) consulted records of weather balloon releases and failed to find any correlation between the balloons and the X Raid incidents. He also consulted records of weather reports which included information on prevailing winds, wind speed, and air temperatures for January 1947. His research eliminates the possibility that any of the X Raids could have been misidentified weather balloons or false radar returns created by temperature inversions. Moreover, weather balloons do not travel at speeds between 200 and 1000 mph, nor do they engage in violent evasive maneuvers.
Neither did the weather balloon explanation completely satisfy the RAF. In July of 1947, when unidentified objects began to streak across American skies, US officials turned to the British for any help they might offer in identifying the intruders. The RAF turned over reports about the X Raids to the United States, and those reports listed the North Sea incident as unexplained. They made no reference to the balloon hypothesis.
News of the X Raids eventually reached the media. RAF officials denied all knowledge of the raids, but the April 4, 1947 edition of London’s Evening Standard ran a story titled “Radar ‘Ghost May be a V-1, Radio-Controlled.” The article speculated that they mysterious “ghost airplane” might be a new type of radio-controlled flying bomb. Despite the prescient speculation, the world was still a long way from developing guided missiles. Whoever or whatever Charlie was, it was not a conventional 1947 aircraft, nor was it a weather balloon, nor was it an early version of a guided missile.
The Evening Standard’s information on the X Raids might have come from an anonymous source in the RAF. The article describes the Charlie as “a peculiarly behaved machine” exhibiting most unusual flight characteristics:
There were sudden erratic speed changes, I was told at the Air Ministry. The “ghost” would travel at 425 mph, suddenly drop back to 120 mph. Big variations in its height, too, were noticed, and it also had a rapid rate of climb.
The London Daily Mail picked up the story in its April 29 edition in an article titled “Ghost Plane Over Coast, RAF spot it – can’t catch it.” The article speculated over the possibility of smugglers entering British airspace as it described the incursions over East Anglia coast near Norwich and the failed attempts at interception:
Crack night-fighter pilots have been sent up in Fighter Command’s latest Mosquitoes, but the mystery aircraft has got away every time. It always crosses the coast at roughly the same spot, and it has used such effective evasive tactics that it is thought to be equipped with radar to give warning of the approach of intercepting aircraft. Time and again Fighter Command radar operators, plotting the ghost plane’s course over East Anglia, have watched the “blip” go right across their screen and disappear as the plane penetrated deep inland. They have watched vainly for the “trace” to reappear, moving in the opposite direction, as the plane flew back out to sea.
Of course, there is no evidence that the objects tracked on RAF radar in January of 1947 have any connection to the ensuing wave of UFOs that appeared over North America, but the government believed that such a connection was plausible. After Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of nine flying objects in June of 1947, similar objects began to be reported all over United States and all over the world. On July 29, 1947, United States military officials made a formal request to their wartime allies, asking for any help they might offer in solving the riddle. On August 9, the Joint Communications Office received a reply in the form of a secret, cyphered message from the Air Ministry in London:
During normal night flying practice at 2230 hours on 16th January 1947, one of our Mosquitos was vectored on to an unidentified aircraft at 22,000 feet. A long chase ensued commencing over the North Sea about 50 miles from the Dutch Coast and ending at 2300 hours over Norfolk. Two brief AI contacts were made but faded quickly. The unidentified aircraft appeared to take efficient controlled evasive action. 2. No explanation of this incident has been forthcoming nor has it been repeated.
The United States Air Force assigned a team under the codename Project Sign to assess and explain the unidentified objects flying over America. In 1948, Project Sign made their first “Estimate of the Situation,” an intelligence briefing listing several notable reports and making inferences from the available evidence. According to Edward Ruppelt (the onetime head of the Air Force’s Project Blue Book) the Estimate contained a number of unexplained 1947 and 1948 sightings from reliable witnesses and concluded that the most probable explanation was that the phenomena was interplanetary craft visiting the earth. The document pointed out that the reports of such encounters predated Kenneth Arnold’s June 1947 sighting, and it included the story of the X Raids and Operation Charlie as evidence: “The English ‘ghost airplanes’ that had been picked up on radar early in 1947 proved this point. Although reports on them were not received until after the Arnold sighting, these incidents all had taken place earlier.”
Like Scandinavian Ghost Rocket phenomenon, the X Raids and Operation Charlie could not be so easily dismissed.
The authors of the Estimate considered this point important because, after Kenneth Arnold’s widely publicized June 1947 sighting in Washington state, skeptics dismissed the entire phenomena as mass hysteria inspired by media coverage. Like Scandinavian Ghost Rocket phenomenon, the X Raids and Operation Charlie could not be so easily dismissed. The incursions over British airspace came with the evidence of solid radar tracking and multiple incidents six months before the Kenneth Arnold saucer-hysteria hit. The authors of the Estimate considered the X Raids over Norfolk to be a harbinger of the startling wave of unexplained sightings that washed across North America later that summer.
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