Rendlesham

Jenny Randles, Brenda Butler, Dot Street. Sky Crash; A Cosmic Conspiracy. Harper Collins, 1986.

The question of what may really have been seen at Rendlesham in December 1980 is dealt with elsewhere by Ian Ridpath. However there are several other aspects of the book Sky Crash that are important to comment on. First of all, as the title implies, the idea of conspiracy is central to the book, which attempts to document the claim that a highly significant event was deliberately covered up by the British and American governments. The authors are certainly assiduous in finding evidence for the cover up:

Have officers from the base been promoted since 1980? - their silence is being rewarded.

Do people the authors wish to interview prove, like most of us, not to have unlimited reserves of time or courtesy, especially when dealing with complete strangers? - they have been ordered to stay silent.

A kind of Occam's Razor in reverse seems to operate, whereby a sinister explanation is always prepared to a mundane one. Thus when one supposed witness, a local councillor, refuses to co-operate, he is said to be frightened. The possibility that he merely did not feel that his reputation in the community would be enhanced by being featured in the type of newspaper that commonly features UFO stories is not considered.

Similarly, Colonel Halt, the US Base Commander is throughout depicted as engaged in a cover-up, even when his 'suspect' behaviour merely takes the form of refusing to be buttonholed by the authors in his house at 11 o'clock at night. (Colonel Halt, constantly on the receiving end of the authors' importunities, seems most of the time to be acting in a harrased manner, reminiscent of his near-namesake in TV's Sergent Bilko.)

All this is not to say that the authors' descriptions of harrassment, obstruction and surveillance by the authorities are simply imaginary; just that any they ran into was not necessarily UFO related. The book does, indeed, have a chapter speculating that the events at Rendlesham may have been in some ways connected not with UFOs but to some other secret operation - possibly something to do with the disintegration of the Soviet satellite Cosmos 79 over Europe at the same time.

The willingness of the authors to entertain such a hypothesis is curious, given the categorical statement in the introduction to the book that the Rendlesham events were "the world's first officially observed and officially recorded landing and contact".

If the Cosmos story were true, it would certainly explain official attitudes, but such a theory does not seem to be really necessary. If the base personnel had been guilty of the misidentification Ian Ridpath describes one can well understand that the military authorities would not want such a fact to be made public, since it would be taken to cast doubt on the reliability of such personnel, and perhaps even revive fears of accidental nuclear war. This would be especially relevant if alcohol or drugs (which may well have been circulating in the post-Christmas atmosphere) were a factor influencing the behaviour or perceptions of any of those involved.

In discussion of all this it must be remembered that the period of the authors' investigations coincided with the height of the public controversy over the siting of Cruise missiles in Britain. Bearing in mind that one result of this has been demonstrations at, and invasions of, US bases, it is hardly surprising when the authors describe how an attempt to ask questions on the base married-quarters ends with them being seized and interrogated by US security police. (Indeed, many would see this as part of an encroachment on civil liberties in the name of security that provides an excellent argument against the presence of such missiles.)

However, when one looks at the evidence put forward by the authors it is scarcely surprising that they are driven to postulate dark conspiracies. Without invoking the activities of sinister silencers it would be embarassing to admit that the civilian residents of the forest seers, in the majority of cases, to have witnessed nothing untoward on the night in question.

The witnesses who are produced to back up the story include some decidedly dubious ones. The authors describe an interview in which the landing of an alien craft is confirmed by Colonel Halt's son Chuck. But it is painfully clear that Chuck Halt is a lonely teenager (his parents' marriage had recently broken up) who was no doubt pleased to find new people to talk to, and was telling them what they want to hear (as well as, on his own admission, hoping his story might be sold to the media enabling him to return to the USA).

Also described in detail are the claims of 'Art Wallace', a pseudonym for an American civilian who claims to have been in the USAF at Rendlesham on the night in question, and to have been sworn to silence after having witnessed a contact between aliens and high ranking US officers.

Wallace seems to talk in dialogue straight from ancient B-movies: "I'm a dead man... Bullets come cheap..." There is no real evidence that he was even in the US Air Force. The authors are fair minded enough to draw attention to some other reasons to distrust Wallace, but inexplicably still seem to regard his story as something other than the product of a fantasizing paranoid.

Paranoia may be infectious, to judge by the authors' attitudes to the media. In 1983 the News of the World took a brief break from its usual in-depth reporting of the doings of Joan Collins, Prince Andrew and sex-change vicars to headline the 'Art Wallace' claims. As a result sceptical items appeared on the BBC and in the Times and Daily Telegraph, a fact which leads the authors to suggest darkly: "these three sources are close to Government thinking within major media outlets."

This is a somewhat curious phrase which, in so far as it means anything at all, is presumably a suggestion of an official cover-up. It is of course true that the Times and Telegraph generally support the present government, but so does most of Fleet Street, with the News of the World being one of the most vocal, so it is hard to see what point is being made. Also, if the Times is involved in, a cover-up, it is strange that these machinations do not extend to the News of the World, which has the same proprietor!

The authors' take the sceptical sector of the press to task for shoddy and inaccurate investigations and statements, but their own record in this respect is hardly above criticism. Much is made of some allegedly curious radiation readings at the site, but we are given no data which allows us to assess their significance

At another point we are solemnly assured, in connection with some alleged animal reactions, that "animals do not suffer hallucinations and if they do respond to something strange it is safe to assume that something strange really is happening." The only answer needed is to refer the authors to Allan Hendry's UFO Handbook, particularly the section where he details cases involving animal reactions that turned out to have, purely mundane explanations.

At another point there is a description of an object seen in the sky by one of the authors during the course of the investigation. It is described as being "as big as a football". Tedious as it is to go into such basic matters yet again, such a description is quite meaningless, since the apparent size of objects varies, according to how far they are from the observer.

As a result most investigators who use similar comparisons to gauge the size of aerial object ask witnesses to compare size with an object held at arms length. However, most people have a tendency to over estimate the apparent size of such objects. If the author concerned did really see a UFO the size of a football at arm's length, this must clearly have been a most spectacular sight, and the object responsible must have either been huge, or very near. The reader can verify this simply by holding a football at arm's length and seeing how much of the sky it covers.

Carelessness like this extends to several other areas. They describe how Derek Jameson, the editor of the News of the World at the time of its Rendlesham story wrote a letter to the Telegraph to complain about a sceptical piece on Rendlesham written by the latter paper's science editor, Adrian Berry. We are told that the Daily Telegraph printed this letter "without comment" when, in fact, a rebuttal appeared a few days later.

Dealing with the involvement of the American CSICOP group in UFO matters, the authors denigrate this committee by claiming that James Randi, one of its leading members, has in the past deliberately falsified evidence. This is a very serious charge, which they should either document in detail or withdraw.

A recent expose of Fleet Street journalism (Lies, Damn Lies and Some Exclusives, by Henry Porter) devotes some space to the News of the World coverage of Rendlesham as an example of shoddy sensationalism. Nothing in Sky Crash seems to suggest that this was a false estimation. (it has since been hinted that Porter's book is to be the subject of a libel action by some of the people involved in the reporting of Rendlesham. We await the case with interest.) -- Reviewed by Rogers Sandell, from Magonia 18, January 1985.
 
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